Clayton Donaldson and Bradford City: head vs heart

To the unobserved, the battle to secure League Two hotshot Clayton Donaldson’s signature would place Bradford City as rank outsiders. Championship outfit Coventry City, newly-promoted to League One Chesterfield and moneybags league newcomers Crawley Town are among a host of clubs said to be chasing the 29-goal striker; and so the appeal of a failing League Two side which has recently struggled to pay their players would seem limited.

Yet the Bantams have an emotional attraction to Donaldson that no other interested party can match, and newly confirmed manager Peter Jackson is hoping romanticism can override career progression or opulence in swaying Donaldson to head to Valley Parade. Born in Manningham and having grown up in the youth set-up until being shown the door at 15, Bradford City has one distinct advantage over all the other clubs trying to secure his signature – he has actually dreamed of playing for them.

But will that be enough? The psyche of a footballer is one we supporters regularly struggle to understand. While we will all have shared childhood afflictions of wanting to play for our football club, somewhere along the line that passion for one team seems to disappear in professional footballers and an outlook that a club is an employer, rather than an institution, takes over.

Sure we supporters, in our own careers, can sometimes hold a special affection for our employers and be loyal enough not to move on, but a job is a job and ultimately it’s up to our employer to keep us happy or we’ll get itchy feet. Many footballers seemingly view clubs in a similar way.

Yes, it’s a privileged career and most decent footballers know and appreciate that, but one can imagine the sort of frustrations we have with our own jobs and employers being replicated by players: “The wages are rubbish compared to what we could be earning elsewhere”, “I hate the boss”, “I’m sick of how we’re treated.” However special it is to play football, it is, at the end of the day, their job.

So footballers who have gone onto truly live those childhood ambitions of becoming heroes for their club are few and far between. Wayne Rooney still talks of being an Everton supporter, but didn’t stick around at Goodison Park for very long. It’s difficult to argue with his reasoning either, as he prepares to take part in his third Champions League final for Manchester United this evening. But as he hopes to score the winning goal against Barcelona, who’s to say he didn’t harbour childhood dreams of playing in the European Cup final for Everton?

Meanwhile Steven Gerrard, Liverpool born and bred, continues to play for his underachieving team. He’s had some tempting offers to move on in the past and came close to doing so, but he’s forgone career progression and trophies to continue flying the flag for Liverpool – at times truly appearing as though he is walking alone with a bunch of average team mates. His had a great career for sure, but somehow the fact he’s arguably the finest English midfielder of the past decade isn’t widely recognised because he’s not at the summit of his sport. These days he doesn’t even get to play in the Champions League.

Does Gerrard care? Probably, but playing for his beloved team is more important to him.

But it’s not just about who you grew up supporting. Stuart McCall didn’t support City as a kid, but no one would dispute that his feelings for the club are as strong as any of us supporters. Michael Flynn will have even less reason to care, but despite failing to hit the heights last season the way he conducts himself on and off the pitch demonstrates 100% commitment to our cause. Jackson has recently stated he wants to find players who truly want to play for City, and although he wanted to release Flynn he probably has the ideal man to build this vision of a team around.

Disappointingly in recent years, it’s rarely been the case that City players have been bothered enough about playing for the Bantams over another club. Two years ago I personally felt hugely sad that Dean Furman and Nicky Law opted not to sign permanently for City, after successful loan spells. Furman in particular was very popular with supporters, and his reasoning not to stay on at Valley Parade – because he wanted to play at the highest level possible – seemed unfulfilling when he rocked up at Oldham.

Sure it was a division higher, but with crowds at Boundary Park half the size of City it hardly looked a glamorous step up. Instead he could have remained at City, built on his reputation and became a true cult hero at a football club who would be talked about for decades after.

Similarly Law – who was said to have been put off from signing for City by the reduced likelihood of a promotion push that next season (2009/10) – chose Rotherham for the Millers’ greater potential and more lucrative salary. Two years on Law remains in the same division as City – though in fairness he might have been part of Blackpool’s Premier League adventure after Rotherham turned down a bid from the Seasiders 18 months ago – and his career has only minimally progressed.

So what of Donaldson? If you were in his shoes, would you want to re-sign for a club who once rejected you and who seem unlikely to rise up the leagues in the near future, just because it’s your hometown? Would you not want to play in the sizable Ricoh Arena for Coventry against clubs like Birmingham and Cardiff, two divisions higher? Would the no doubt lure of higher wages at Crawley persuade you to move South, talking up how impressed you are by the club’s “ambition”?

There are a number of similarities to City’s chase for Donaldson and the hunt for Michael Boulding three years ago. Boulding had scored 25 goals for a relegated League Two side, and a host of clubs made advances. City, in a much stronger financial position and publically talking up achieving back-to-back promotions, were a leading club in the chase. Boulding signed, but it didn’t work out for a number of reasons. While Boulding argues otherwise, you wonder whether he cared enough about City when the chips were down. Certainly he was too often anonymous in games for my liking.

This time around City, with Donaldson, are somewhere near the back of the queue to sign him. If the decision is taken by the head overruling the heart, the Bantams have no chance. But if the desire to be a hero at the club he grew up supporting – in front of his family and friends – is more important, Donaldson will be coming home.

And for Jackson the pursuit of Donaldson is a no-brainer. Because, if he gets his man, he can be confident Donaldson will be signing for reasons he wants all of his team to personify next season.

Who’s better

I want Bradford City to be better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah answers a big question

Is there going to be a Bradford City next season? Ross Hannah thinks so.

The questions over the future of The Bantams have lingered ever since talk of moving to Odsal and administration began to be talked about towards the middle of last season but as Peter Jackson announced that the Bantams had secured Matlock Town’s 51 goals in a season striker Hannah it seemed that those thoughts had finally been consigned to history.

For sure the Bantams have pressing problems, but planning is in place for last season and in our previous two administrations no player who had agreed to sign: Michael Boulding, Thomas Hitzelberger, Paul Evans et al; ever got paraded around in a City shirt.

Paraded around too in a shirt that Hannah will never wear – the amber pinstripes are a thing of the past – but there is clearly an urgency at Valley Parade to provide a little good news and the appearance of some business as usual. Hannah’s signing – a modest one despite the club’s website declaring him a “striking ace” – says to all who are listening that Bradford City will be around next season, in this division, and with the contracts that were signed this year.

Which seems to answer a big question. In administration Hannah becomes a creditor of the club and it would seem highly curious if one were to (ill advised, in my opinion) attempt a strategic administration to add to the list of (football) creditor without would need paying off. What likelihood then of the Bantams using administration as a route?

All of which suggests much, but proves nothing save the fact that City have signed a striker who has a goal record at the lower levels which looks impressive and seems ready to step up. One looks forward to seeing him play.

Aged 25 this weekend Ross Hannah joins from Matlock Town on a free transfer with a one year deal that gives the club an option to extend for another year.

Differing career directions

There’s a saying about being kind to people on your way up as you’ll meet them on the way down – rarely in football is that greater emphasised than a reserve team fixture.

As up-coming youngsters strive to impress enough to earn a professional contract and the chance of a spot on the first team bench, senior players skulk about trying to maintain fitness and wondering what the future might hold. A wide spectrum of emotions and experience; and, as much as many ultimately don’t want to be here tonight, for everyone it’s the best passage to getting into the team on a Saturday.

It was in the number 9s of Bradford City and Derby County reserves sides tonight where the contrast was at its greatest. For Derby there was 35-year-old Michael Boulding – a familiar face at Valley Parade – coming to the end of a long career, while for the Bantams 18-year-old youth team striker Darren Stephenson is on the cusp of earning the opportunity to at least begin one.

The return of Boulding was a curious one. It’s just over a year since we last saw him on the Valley Parade turf after a 28-minute run out from the bench in a 1-0 home win over Darlington. His performance that afternoon almost encapsulated his time at City – he missed two reasonable chances and the team’s tactics failed to play to his strengths. A few weeks later new manager Peter Taylor released him, and he soon declared that he had lots of League One offers in the pipeline.

Then Boulding rocked up at Championship Barnsley pre-season, on trial while forgoing pay but failing to win a contract. Now he’s at another Championship club in Derby, but his actual first team prospects appear zero. Boulding’s final game for City was an eight-minute cameo at Port Vale on March 9 2010 – he’s not played a senior match for anyone since.

One wonders why he’s chasing rare first team opportunities at clubs so high up the football ladder, rather than seeing out his career playing week in week out for a League Two or Conference club. Certainly you’d imagine his first return to Valley Parade hasn’t quite gone as he dreamt it might.

Tonight Boulding looks pretty much the same player he did for 18 months at City. He was starved of service, balls were played to his head rather than his feet and in truth he rarely touched the ball. Undoubtedly he is a player of some finishing ability – he showed it in glimpses wearing City colours – but unless the team is built around his needs he doesn’t seem a player who will ever flourish.

But one number 9 who was flourishing was Stephenson. Having impressed at youth level, the teenage forward has been offered reserve team opportunities this season and made it two goals from six starts with a well-taken penalty to fire City in front after 13 minutes, following a foul on Scott Dobie.

That capped off a performance of huge potential. Sure there was a rawness at times – and the beauty of a reserve game is mistakes from promising youngsters aren’t greeted by loud groans but positive encouragement from the scattering of spectators – but the runs he made, his willingness to mix it and a good awareness of team mates saw him lead the line commendably. Arguably his best moment was a beautiful back heel to right back Adam Robinson – who also impressed – which no one, least of all more experienced Derby opponents had expected. A long way to go still yet you feel, but Stephenson’s potential is one to feel excited about and could even lead to a first team chance before the season is over.

More in the frame for an immediate game are Lee Bullock and Louis Horne, who both played as centre backs with watching interim manager Peter Jackson said to be considering one at least to start at the back on Saturday. It’s been a funny season for Bullock – like Boulding, his career winding down you feel – but he took to the centre back role expertly and made a series of well-timed tackles and headed clearances. Playing him – or Horne, who also impressed – at the back against Shrewsbury on Saturday represents a huge risk, but on tonight’s evidence it could work.

All of which would enable Lewis Hunt to stay as right back and David Syers to start in the central midfield in place of the suspended Jon Worthington. And given how poor Tom Adeyemi was in his 45-minute first half run out this evening, Jackson may favour this option. The on-loan Norwich midfielder gave the ball away far too often and one particular charge forward, which ended with him tackled after he should have passed long before, left reserve manager Peter Horne with his head in his hands. Adeyemi can be a good player, but continues to display erratic form which is difficult to trust.

If Adeyemi is the clear loser of Taylor’s departure and Jackson’s arrival, Leon Osborne isn’t far behind. Tonight Osborne wasn’t shy at vocally complaining about his team mates – at one stage Horne ordered him to shut up – but failed to demonstrate to Jackson that he should be earning a first team recall. After such a promising end to last season, Osborne’s stop-start City career has stalled again and one fears the leap to first-team regular is going to prove beyond him. Already on his fourth different City manager, more is expected at this stage.

Derby – with Nigel Clough watching on – equalised Stephenson’s penalty within a minute through a stunning Ben Davies free kick (another lower league player whose career has stalled by moving upwards), and on the half hour Chris Porter (there’s another!) fired home want proved to be the winner following hesitant defending.

Throughout the final hour, however, there was much to encourage Horne and Jackson. The on-trial Jonathan Brown impressed on the right wing, while in the centre of midfield Joe Mitchell and – after coming on at half time – Oliver Forsyth showed some good touches and produced the occasional eye-catching pass. In goal Lloyd Saxton commanded his area well and made a couple of decent saves. During his 45-minute run-out, Dobie showed greater levels of application and effort then he’d shown when playing for the first team of late.

Ultimately you feel these sort of evenings are quickly forgettable to experienced pros like Dobie, while for Stephenson and co they could prove a memorable stepping stone to greater things. Just remember to be nice now.

The hypocrisy of loyalty in football

If you had a desire to you could have carpeted from one side of Manchester to the other with the column inches of talk about Wayne Rooney that accused the player of lacking loyalty to Manchester United before he his signed the five year deal this week.

It was not that the likes of Mark Lawrenson when taking a side swipe Rooney failed to see the irony in suggesting that a player who was signed from Everton in a transfer that gazumpt another club’s bid should be subject to loyalty it is that the notion of loyalty in football is evoked at all.

There is a harking back to some bygone age where it is supposed this loyalty in which players would remain with clubs for reasons of gratitude existed – it did not but pre-Bosman players had fewer mechanisms for exiting contracts – but even if that were the case it would be at most half of the story.

The loyalty demanded of players to clubs is seldom returned. At every level of a football club loyalty is demanded but not given. Chairmen, managers, fans. They all want a player to be loyal to them but rarely give that loyalty back.

Not given to the ageing pro who wants a contract to take him to 36 but is offered two years left. Not offered to the player who breaks a leg and comes back gingerly judged to have “lost it” and moved on. Not offered to the player going through poor form or poor performances on the field. The bellowing of “get rid of him” is heard up and down the land and has little to do with the loyalty which is demanded if Rooney now.

The brother’s Boulding

Take, if you will, the Brothers Boulding who left Valley Parade after a change of manager. Michael Boulding had taken a pay cut to remain with City at one point yet as the two faced up to a new face in the dressing room they were soon shown the door.

Whatever one thinks of the players as players would could not argue that that was a football club showing loyalty. Not the sort of loyalty which is wistfully discussed when talking about Rooney. That one side should ignore the financial implications and the transient nature of the player joining a club and carry on.

How does football reward loyalty anyway? The games does not even have the equivalent of a carriage clock that the player being put out to pasture could tell his former employers to take and shove it.

Off the field a reading of statistics makes a lie of the idea of loyal supporters who come season in season out. Statistician Simon Kuper illustrates that each season at a typical ground half the supporters will not have been at the equivalent game the season before.

Indeed when one looks at the millions of pounds that are put into Old Trafford by supporters and taken out by the Glazier family one could make an argument that Rooney done United fans a favour. Reports have it that Rooney talked to Joel Glazier before his Roo-Turn and got promises about how much money would go into the team and how much would flow into his chairman’s pocket. Manchester United – remember – have not stopped making money they have just started to give it to the family of American who own them rather than spend it on the squad.

At all clubs – and certainly at Bradford City – there are moments when one wishes a player or manager would have stood up to those who owned the club in this way. The £8m paid out in dividends at the start of the Premiership first season to the Rhodes and Richmond families has always been controversial at City. If manager Paul Jewell or captain Stuart McCall had told Richmond that they money goes back into the club or they walk would they have been doing supporters a disservice? Would that have been loyalty?

The myth of loyalty

Football loves the myth of loyalty, but it is a myth and it is so not because of the players but to suit the needs of clubs which are at the behest of the whims of supporters who demand action for improvement.

Changing players, or managers, gives the appearance of action but is seldom it. Where is the loyalty to Jon Bateson who puts in a good first season and then is cast aside in favour of a player the (new) manager has worked with before?

Few would say Lewis Hunt represents an improvement on Bateson so for the disregarding of loyalty – such as it is – what improvement is there? Is it change or the appearance of change?

Football has no loyalty and clubs want it that way. The ability to sack a manager or bring in new faces are – and always have been – a slight of hand that clubs employ to distract from the lack if a broader improvement.

Occasionally a Rooney is the focus, showing a disregard for what we would like to see as loyalty, but most often the players are cast away by clubs who consider that loyalty a disadvantage.

Nicky Law Jnr heads to Wembley and some familiar friends

Two-time Bradford City loanee Nicky Law is this evening celebrating after Rotherham overcame Aldershot to book a place in the League Two play off final. It represents a much happier end to the season than the last for the attacking midfielder, who was a prominent figure in the Bantams side which lost its way at the final furlong. And, if the Millers are successful at Wembley the weekend after next, Law will be up against some familiar faces next season.

For City, last summer was all about the future of seven players; four high earners, who to varying degrees hadn’t lived up to expectations – Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee, Chris Brandon and Michael Boulding – and three loanees, who’d generally impressed and who manager Stuart McCall wanted to sign permanently – Dean Furman, Steve Jones and Law. First he had to do something about moving on the high earners, before he could hope to persuade the three loanees, who’d be in high demand, they should stay at Valley Parade.

It didn’t work out as hoped, with Furman always likely to try his hand at a higher level and moving to Oldham, and Law accepting what appeared to be a more lucrative offer from Rotherham. McCall later revealed Jones might have signed, but with McLaren’s departure not yet finalised the ginger winger opted for Chris Hutchings’ Walsall. Lee joined McLaren in moving on, and all those who began the season elsewhere can end it arguing leaving City was the right move.

Jones certainly didn’t look back, netting ten goals and winning one fans’ website’s player of the season award as Walsall enjoyed their highest league finish for six years. Furman wasn’t quite as successful at Oldham, eventually losing his place in the team as the Latics suffered a disappointing season, finishing just two points above the relegation zone. Still at least Furman was a greater success than Joe Colbeck.

McLaren might have hoped to be battling for promotion on his return to Tranmere, but under John Barnes’ disastrous management the Prenton Park outfit went from narrowly missing the play offs, the season before, to relegation certainties. Physio Les Parry turned it around after been appointed caretaker manager, and McLaren remained a key figure before injury ended his season early.

While Lee began life after City still in League Two, he played a significant role in Notts County’s topsy-turvy campaign that ended in triumph. He at least should face McLaren, Furman, Colbeck and Jones next season. Law, who largely had an excellent season for Rotherham which included earning a spot in the PFA League Two team of the year and a £150k from Premier League hopefuls Blackpool, will hope to join him.

Meanwhile the two other high earners, who chose to stay at Valley Parade last summer, are facing very different futures. It didn’t work out for Brandon or Boulding and both were booted out early. Although Brandon may follow former City striker Danny Cadamarteri in playing in Scotland, non-league is Boulding’s likely next destination.

And as City fell short again this season, the question is whether it was more due to losing those players who have proved key players in better sides, or because failing to remove the final two high earners left McCall short of budget to capture the missing ingredients.

The Boulding brothers leave Bradford City

Michael and Rory Boulding have both left Bradford City by mutual consent after nearly two years with the club.

Michael Boulding’s was signed despite competition from Cheltenham for his signature and scored sixteen in fifty nine games for the Bantams. Boulding’s talent was obvious to all when spinning to finish off chances but his limitations were also all too apparent with the former Mansfield Town striker a great player on the counter attack for a team that seldom got the chance to play in such a manner.

Towards the end of last season The Bantams bested Gillingham 2-0 at Preistfield with Boulding instrumental in the victory that had seen the home side play the kind of high line the striker had face week in week out when a Mansfield player at a team who were sinking out of the league.

Few clubs would come to Valley Parade – or face City at their own grounds – which such a ploy and so Boulding – a player who likes to have pitch to run into – often ended up struggling to retain and maintain possession between two lines of four.

His heading goal against Exeter in a 4-1 win last term and his single in the 2-1 reversal at Lincoln City both proved his ability to get into positions and finish, but such play was not best suited to his game.

Nevertheless Boulding agreed – with other players – to take a wage cut when asked by the Bantams in the previous close season and as a willing worker for the squad.

Peter Taylor’s team does not feature a player in Boulding’s best role and the City gaffer is keen to have big strikers rather than skilful ones. When Michael Flynn is playing up front rather than you then it is – no doubt – time to move on which Michael Boulding does.

Peter Taylor allowing Rory Boulding to leave is a surprise though and one can only imagine the torrent of supporters piling anger and ire onto the manager for ignoring a player of such obvious talent that Taylor’s predecessor ruthlessly refused to give a game to.

More seriously Rory Boulding leaves with a whimper having never done enough to suggest he was capable of stepping up to the first team. He played twice with little effect but – not four months ago – a refusal to play Rory Boulding was a damning indictment of a manager’s ability.

Peter Taylor obviously agrees with Stuart McCall’s assessment of the player who – should he want to continue his career as a professional footballer – needs to apply himself so much more.

Peter Taylor and the Bradford Bug

City earned a hard fought victory against playoff contenders Aldershot, as Peter Taylor’s influence on the club continues to yield positive results.

The manner of the defeat to Port Vale in midweek was disappointing given recent progress – and Taylor was quick to admit the City players had not lived up to the standards that he expected in the Vale game.

But it was the reaction to that defeat that was the question this afternoon – and City didn’t disappoint despite a bumpy start.

Matt Glennon disappointingly split a long range shot – only able to palm the ball into harms way – which allowed Anthony Straker the chance to nip in and slot home the opener as Aldershot took the lead.

But City did not let the goal affect their confidence. Within five minutes, they had drawn level and produced a goal of real quality.

Michael Flynn, again playing in a more advanced role compared to his usual central midfield position, chased a long ball on the right and shielded the ball away from the Aldershot left back Charles. He then turned and produced a perfectly flighted cross with his left foot from the right wing, which top scorer James Hanson brilliantly headed home to level things up.

Hanson has had a dream first season at City – his first in League football. Combining hard work up front with some quite superb finishes – he has proved he can finish in the air (as you would expect), but he also has got some great finishes up his sleeve with his feet (remember that bicycle kick against Crewe at home?!).

And in this game, he was everywhere. Defensively clearing crosses from corners, and tracking back to defend like I have seen no City centre forward do in many, many years. It all seems to be part of Taylor’s ethos of “not letting any player neglect their defensive duties” and not allowing any player to cruise through games, regardless of their position, which Omar Daley confirmed in his post match interview.

After the equaliser, City had their tails up and produced another fine goal, which proved to be decisive. A very good run and cross from Luke O’Brien on the left ended with Omar Daley taking possession. After feigning to shoot once, he then turned and produced a rocket of a strike with his left foot that sent the Kop wild.

City then engaged in a tight contest for the remainder of the game, with the emphasis being on defending and trying to stop the opposition from scoring rather than adding to the lead.

Glennon redeemed himself for his earlier error with an excellent save from a first half Aldershot effort, and the City keeper commanded his area brilliantly and caught every cross in the second half.

City had a real let off with 15 minutes to go when substitute “Marvellous” Marvin Morgan took on debutant City defender Luke Oliver, beat him, and whipped in a perfect cross onto the head of Marlon Jackson, who astonishingly missed his header from 5 yards when it looked harder to miss than score.

But the Aldershot defence were certainly not immune to mistakes, – in particular second choice keeper Venezuelan Mikhael Jaimez-Ruiz, and the concession of a third goal could easily have happened. In particular with two very strong penalty shouts. Omar Daley went one on one with a defender, and with Daley leaving the defender in his wake, he was clean through before he appeared to be impeded before trying to finish off the move with a goal. But the post match interview with Aldershot manager Kevin Dillon told a different story – with Dillon angrily suggesting that he thought that Daley took a blatant dive that would apparently be shown on “Soccer AM” next week. Surely they are not that short of material? I suppose only a replay will settle that score.

The strong shout for a penalty for City late in the second half. Debutant Gavin Grant, only for Omar Daley with 25 minutes to go, produced a strong run and seemed to be felled in the area when surrounded by two Aldershot defenders. The penalty shouts were waived away by the referee but City hung on to clinch all three points.

There is a definite improvement in this City side with Taylor in the managerial hotseat, and his record now reads four wins from seven games, including highly impressive away victories at top three sides Rochdale and Rotherham.

Admittedly, he has brought in players on short term deals until the end of the season, but there is no reason why any of the players he has brought in (expect for Robbie Threlfall, who might go a League or two above) could be playing for Bradford City next season. Adam Bolder in particular has impressed, and did again today, breaking up play, playing simple balls well and having an influence on the game.

For me, Peter Taylor needs to be handed a new deal as soon as possible. His positive vibes around the club, about how he is enjoying it and has caught the “Bradford Bug” is very pleasing to read. He is and was an outstanding appointment, and if he is enjoying it that much, then lets hold up our end of the deal and give Taylor this chance to finally get Bradford City out of this awful league next season.

But to leave the much discussed managerial debate behind, wont it be interesting to see which of the current crop of players will be with us next season? For me, I’m afraid Peter Thorne’s time at the club looks to be over. Thorne has been brilliant and prolific for City in previous seasons, but I don’t think he fits into Taylors ethos of “a striker that is willing to put in the work defensively”.

Equally, the expensive and underperforming Chris Brandon looks to have been given the boot by Taylor. And James O’Brien, Michael Boulding, Zesh Rehman and Scott Neilson look to be players that Taylor doesn’t seem to rate as the “right” kind of players to get us promoted from League Two. I trust his judgement and that seems to point towards us having an almost completely new squad once again next season. How many times will we need to rebuild the squad before we get it right?

53 weeks ago – City were on top of the world

It was 53 short weeks ago that Bradford City crushed Aldershot Town on their last visit to Valley Parade. Two goals from the returning-to-form Peter Thorne, a beauty of an effort from the edge of the box by Dean Furman, a tap in for Barry Conlon and a comical own-goal set up by Joe Colbeck. 5-0, City fourth in the league with 11 games to go. The excitement was growing at the prospect of ending the season with the glory of promotion.

As we all know, it ended miserably with the platform that victory had laid on for City proving something of a peak to the second half of the season at least. The next nine of those remaining 11 were winless as the Bantams fell out of the promotion picture, the ending of the season with back-to-back victories thus meaningless. The backwards steps have continued into this season.

City now have a long way to go just to get to where they were after that Spring demolition of the Shots. The up and down nature of results since Peter Taylor took over the reins has at times given hope of a late play off push this time around, but the slip ups and barely decreasing distance from the top seven has all but extinguished such faint chances. After Saturday’s clash with Aldershot is over, there will again be 11 games to go – even a complete reversal of results compared to those nine games at the end of last season probably wouldn’t be enough.

If we could turn the clocks back to the final whistle a year ago and apply hindsight, what warnings would we now offer and to whom? Perhaps the most obvious would seem to be changing Stuart McCall’s u-turn over his threat to quit. As Taylor impresses for the composure and organisation he has brought to the team, the growing temptation is to look back over McCall’s final season and dismiss it a waste of time. If only Taylor had taken over sooner, it can be argued, the club might still be approaching the final section of the season with promotion hopes.

The ‘SOS’ demonstration at the end of the last season might be something we’d go back and urge the organisers to cancel. The holding up of banners in support of McCall has caused widespread debate even during this season, with the number of supporters willing to admit they displayed a sign surprisingly few.

Where I sit in the Midland Road Stand, a previously quiet and pleasant woman suddenly can’t stop ranting, during the last few months, about how poor a manager McCall is/was, and inadvertently slamming those who backed him. Prior to the start of recent homes games she’s repeatedly uttered, “Do you know who I blame for this season? All those supporters who held up signs supporting him at the last home game” out loud to everyone around her, the majority of whom did hold up signs. Sorry lady, it’s all my fault.

But perhaps we’d take a different approach if we could go back, considering where City might be today but for that late season collapse. If City have gone onto earn promotion during those final 11 games a year ago, there would have been no need to reduce the transfer and wage budgets by a third for this campaign – an action which has undoubtedly undermined efforts.

Instead we might warn McCall where it would all go wrong –  to be mindful of defending set pieces at Spotland a few days later, to make sure Barry Conlon and Matt Clarke are behaving while staying in Devon prior to the Exeter game, how tinkering with the team too much leads to the inconsistent form, how a linesman will rob the team at Morecambe, not to sign Paul chuffin Mullin, that certain players cannot be counted on when the chips are down, and why it’s so important he doesn’t let it all get him down too much.

Perhaps most of all we’d warn him not to publicly threaten to quit in the manner he did after losing to Bournemouth, because it seemed to only breed instability and nervousness in the team rather than help it. The decline was already starting and he needed to be more positive in addressing it. The Bournemouth defeat was the third in a row; worrying form – but it needn’t have turned into the disastrous form that would continue another six games.

Mistakes were made, as McCall himself readily admits, and they soon added up to something far bigger. Ultimately City’s failure this season is due to the failure of the one before, and the immediate challenge remains reversing those backward steps. 53 weeks after thrashing Aldershot 5-0, it is now the visitors who harbour the promotion hopes. They, and so many other clubs, have been able to catch up and overtake City over the last 12 months, it’s already going to be a long road back.

But like in any aspect of life – it’s not how many mistakes are made, but how quickly they are learned from. Sometimes it’s a torturous and miserable path, but if the resultant lessons can be applied positively it will be a journey worth taking. If we had not put up our SOS posters and if McCall had departed during the summer, it’s highly unlikely City would be currently employing Taylor. Someone else would have come in and, with the same budget constraints, may have done no better.

The lessons McCall learned from his first two seasons would not have been applied, the new guy may have repeated the City legend’s mistakes of hiring players not up to this level or lacking in desire. However well it can be judged McCall performed this season, there’s little doubt Taylor has inherited a squad to build on rather than start all over again – due to McCall targeting the right kind of players within the budget constraints.

And if the short-term deal works out and Taylor can replicate the kind of success he enjoyed at Hull, the misery of the last 12 months and the refusal of McCall to quit last summer will ultimately have been worth it. Life doesn’t allow you to turn back the clock, mistakes cannot be undone.  City have had 53 weeks of regrets and now more than ever is the time to apply those lessons. Taylor is impressing in both victory and defeat. We know he has the experience, he’s proving he has the knowledge, the main question mark is that of his own appetite – and that of the Chairmen – to make it work.

53 weeks on Taylor has so far used only seven players from the sixteen involved against the Shots last season  – only three of which have started the last four games. Luke O’Brien, Lee Bullock and Matt Clarke have themselves been the subject of healthy debates for much of this season, but all appear to be impressing Taylor. Meanwhile the futures of the other four – Thorne, Michael Boulding, Zesh Rehman and Chris Brandon – look decidedly shaky.  Taylor vowed to give everyone a go and would seem to already be making his mind up over who he would offer a City future too and who he’d move on.

Two of his own short-term recruits have yet to really feature but, after a disappointing performance in losing to Port Vale, may now get their chance. Little is known of Luke Oliver, other than his height, but he could make his debut alongside Clarke in the centre of defence. Gavin Grant has arrived on a pay-as-you-play basis and in need of building fitness. With Gareth Evans having a poor game at Vale Park, that fitness might be tested from the start tomorrow. Omar Daley too will be vying for only a fourth start in a year.

Daley is one of the few players not out of contract this summer and Taylor’s ability to judge the Jamaican is hampered by his understandable lack of fitness. So far Taylor has gone for the workrate of Evans and O’Brien on the flanks to start and, if Daley watched AC Milan’s pathetic surrender at Old Trafford this week largely due to widemen not bothering to track back and Manchester United murdering the Italians down the flanks, he will have some idea of what he needs to do to fit in with the new-look City.

Elsewhere Mark McCammon will have arrived for a month at City with greater ambition than swapping one sub bench for another, and Taylor may consider him to start ahead of James Hanson or Michael Flynn, the latter moving back to midfield. The arrival of Adam Bolder sees greater competition in the centre of midfield, with Steve O’Leary still on the fringes, but Taylor would surely be reluctant to leave out either Bolder or the in-form Bullock.

Matt Glennon keeps goal, having been faintly criticised in public by Taylor for not stopping Vale’s winning goal on Tuesday. Glennon’s spell at City has been curious for its lack of incident. He has made some good saves, but nothing too noteworthy. He has also conceded a few goals he might have been expected to save. He has impressed in the command of his penalty area, but the long-term custodian he may not be. Having played only seven games for Bristol Rovers, a third return of Rhys Evans this summer would be widely cheered by fans.

Simon Ramsden and Robbie Threlfall retain the full back slots; Steve Williams may face the axe for Oliver; Jon Bateson, Michael Boulding and Thorne wait impatiently for rare opportunities.

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.

Jacobs can’t shake off the staleness as City draw with struggling Grimsby

A  banner was unfurled over the edge of the Main Stand top tier as the players came out for kick off which seemed to be in support of Stuart McCall; but before we’d had chance to read what it said, it had been removed.

This didn’t appear to be an act of boardroom concealing, more concern from stewards that the banner was covering up advertising hoardings. Though it was a shame the supporter’s home-made effort wasn’t allowed to be draped over some of the thousands of empty seats.

It was not meant to be, and perhaps the same can be said of Wayne Jacobs as Bradford City manager. Having requested to Mark Lawn that he is interviewed for the vacant position during the week, this disappointing draw with second-bottom Grimsby was hardly the commendation he needed ahead of Monday’s meeting.  Already an outsider for the position, his chances seemingly reduced with each passing minute of goalless action.

Apart from Jacobs patrolling the dugout in suit rather tracksuit, it was difficult to recognise much different. For 90 minutes City huffed and puffed, but the well-organised visitors defended in numbers and carried a threat on the break. Oliver Lancashire and Joe Widdowson were outstanding at the back and, although the Bantams spent long spells camped out in the opposition half, clear cut chances were at a premium.

Robbed of injury to Omar Daley, Jacobs’ team selection could easily have been that of McCall’s. Though Gareth Evans was moved to the left instead of part of a front three, bringing more balance to the side than for last week’s defeat to Bury. Scott Neilson was recalled on the right and improved on a tentative start to produce an impressive second half display which was aided by Jacobs’ switching Simon Ramsden back to right back at half time, as City’s captain was more supportive going forward than Zesh Rehman in the first half.

But elsewhere confidence was obviously lacking. For much of this season City have been too desperate to get the ball forwards quickly instead of showing composure; and though midfield pair Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn impressed in patches, the middlemen were often cut out in favour of a long ball from the back towards James Hanson.

With Grimsby playing a higher backline in the first half, passes in behind the strikers from midfield was an effective option, but when Town dropped deeper it was back to route one. Initial panic was often caused from Hanson’s flick ons, but Town always seemed to have more numbers back to snuff out the danger.

Evans had the best chance of the first half when a good pass had set Hanson clear before he pulled the ball back to City’s number nine. But Evans’ confidence seems to have been unaffected by his double at Torquay two weeks ago and he fired over. It’s now three months since he scored at Valley Parade.

And it’s nine months since Peter Thorne – making his first start since going off injured against Rochdale in the JPT last September – scored anywhere. The top scorer of the past two seasons was effective in holding up the ball, but inside the area the sort of half chances he sniffs out seemed to allude him. Michael Boulding was introduced on 65 minutes and wasted a decent opportunity when shooting straight at Nick Colgan. Hanson and Neilson also fired over from promising positions, but the 0-0 looked inevitable long before the assistant referee signalled four minutes of injury time.

Matt Glennon was a virtual spectator, other than an important save from a well-worked Grimsby corner just after the break. Despite the visitors’ relegation worries, they seemed content with a point and made few efforts to push forwards in numbers during the final 20 minutes. It was an afternoon to forget.

Which quickly pushes the focus back onto the managerial situation and, with Martin Allen and Russell Slade watching from the stands, they and others would seem to be in a better position than Jacobs after he oversaw this mediocre display. Jacobs’ best hope of earning the job would surely have lied in truly differentiating himself from his former manager, given Lawn’s rather tactless hint McCall would have been pushed had he not jumped.

In time, Jacobs would surely stamp his own mark on the club. But his chance always lied in the short term and this City display was much of the same and therefore makes it more difficult for him to convince Lawn and Julian Rhodes he could do a better job than McCall.

But whoever does come in has a job to do in quickly building up confidence and belief in a team which has become too used to feeling hard done by. Not losing today means the spectre of falling into a relegation battle remains distant, but with two tricky trips to Lancashire to come before a visit from a Darlington side showing faint signs of improvement – however futile – the urgency for improved results is increasing.

Like this drab draw which was seemingly decided long before the end, City’s season seems to be drifting to an inevitable mundane mid-table conclusion. That Jacobs was unable to make an impact means it will surely now be an outsider entrusted with shaking things up.

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.

Out of a clear blue sky

As the sun shone into the breakfast room, all you could see outside was the sort of transparent and uniformly bright blue sky that you never spot on an away trip to Morecambe. It was only at the other side of the building, where the light dusting of snow was still frozen to the parked cars, that there was a clue as to just how cold it had been overnight, even in Torquay.

A walk down to the marina showed that the temperature was rising, without quite reaching Riviera standards. It had been much warmer in Bournemouth last March and we know how that game went. City were woeful and, as those of us at the game learnt much later, Stuart McCall’s post-match interview had included a promise to resign if City did not finish in the top seven.

But Torquay in January was different – and it wasn’t just the physical temperature that was lower. Everything was lower, not least City’s league position and all the reputations that hang on such matters. This time round, the question of how much longer the City manager might remain the City manager looked increasingly out of his control.

One of the great beauties of going to these ‘smaller’ grounds is that the stewards will generally talk with you, rather than at you. You get bits of information, tips about who to watch out for and even a tale that, when last Saturday’s game went from a 2-0 home lead to a 3-2 away win, the stewards had to prepare themselves for a possible pitch invasion as a protest against the manager. Hm. Sounded a bit like two of them on a knife edge, then.

The man to look out for, according to the friendly steward, was the midfielder who could be mistaken for the mascot – his words, not mine. Danny Stevens is 5’ 10”, according to the club website. Club websites, unlike BfB, are not to be relied upon. He must be nearer to 4’ 10”. And he is so fresh faced that I bet he isn’t allowed to play in night games. But he certainly played in the bright spells of this game.

City started with the eleven that finished at Lincoln. Bateson, Rehman and Evans all started on the bench, alongside the returning Thorne and O’Leary. The second half display at Sincil Bank had clearly convinced the manager that this was his best ‘formation’. By half time he was equally clearly unconvinced.

I would dearly love to tell those who were not among the 300 or so travelling fans just what the ‘formation’ at kick-off was, but I am struggling. There was an obvious back four, with captain Ramsden returned to right back. Michael Boulding was naturally playing up front, but for much of the first half he might have fallen out with the rest of the team, so rarely did a claret shirt get anywhere near him. Daley and Neilson stayed wide, which brought them near to my seat and thus into my focus. Otherwise the midfield was largely anonymous.

One of the main reasons for that anonymity was the persistent long high ball up the middle to, yes, Michael Boulding. Once again the opposition centre backs must have thought it was their birthdays. Torquay, on the other hand, who must be used to playing on a narrow, but otherwise splendid, surface, kept the ball on that surface much more often, not least when feeding it to the aforementioned Stevens.

If I was a proper sports journalist, I would be able get away with phrases like ‘tormented the City defence’ and ‘ran them ragged’. Instead, I shall just settle for saying that almost every note I made of a Torquay attack in that first half – and there were plenty – featured the number 19. After 15 minutes it was his run and shot that forced Matt Glennon into probably his best save of the game, as he tipped it round his left hand post. Sadly, Glennon was unrewarded. The resulting corner was not dealt with and one huge centre back really did think his birthday had come, when his shot from around the penalty spot went through the crowd of players and low into the net.

One the rare occasions City did keep the ball on the floor, Michael Boulding had a shot that went narrowly over and Chris Brandon also put his one effort some way off target. At half time the sun was beginning to set over Plainmoor.

The City manager, having changed the team at half time at Sincil Bank, went two thirds of the way toward changing it back again at half time at Plainmoor. Off went Williams, on a yellow card and looking like a sending off waiting to happen, and on came the second of City’s captains, Zesh Rehman. Ramsden kept the armband. And Gareth Evans started in place of – oh, yes, that would be Brandon. This time I really can report a 4-4-2. Better still, I can report energy, enthusiasm and, for the first time in this game, a team that looked capable of troubling the home goalkeeper.

A shot from Evans was pushed away by the keeper, before the Torquay leading scorer, Scott Rendell, who had already risen from the dead (or a collision with Matt Clarke) once, had to leave the game with a broken arm. Not that this stopped the home team continuing to pressurise and force City into last second blocks and conceding corners.

And then, with the sun having set over his left shoulder, out of the old wooden stand came the old wooden gunslinger. No, that’s not fair, is it? Far from it. But up stepped captain number three (Ramsden still retaining the armband) Peter Thorne, last seen in a JPT game two centuries ago. And maybe my pre-match chat with the stewards had got back to the Torquay team. ‘If he gets on, he’ll be our best bet for a goal’, I’d said. OK, so you won’t find his name on the score sheet. But you ask their defenders about him. And ask the keeper who had to make two stops from close range within the first few minutes of the poacher’s arrival.

The second of those saves, following an Omar Daley run, brought the corner that was to replicate Torquay’s first half goal. This time it was Gareth Evans who poked it home (sorry, keeper – terrible pun!) through the melee that hadn’t cleared it. Under ten minutes left, but for the first time in years City were back level in the late stages of a game and still had eleven men on the pitch.

Sustained City pressure actually made it look, incredible as it seemed at that moment, as though we could win this one. The home keeper was being reminded by the ref that another exercise in time-wasting would not be tolerated. And then up popped the fourth official’s board with a bright red 4 on it. And then up popped Captain Ramsden, now corner taker extraordinaire. This time it was a curling free kick on to Rehman’s head, down into the same melee and, via Evans’ toe poke (sorry, keeper, done it again!), into the net in front to the ecstatic visiting fans.

Could City hang on for the remaining three minutes of stoppage time? Of course they could! Only some petty argument between Matt Clarke and Elliot Benyon, which brought a pair of yellow cards, would interrupt the oh so smooth progress to three away points.

Over the last umpteen weeks, we have bemoaned our luck. We have pointed to refereeing decisions that have changed the course of the game. We have examined statistics that showed every week how we had more shots at goal, more shots on target, more corners – and fewer goals than the opposition. All of that changed yesterday. City have not come away with a more blatant theft of three points since a Dean Windass belter of a free kick at Yeovil, where even Mr Singh didn’t manage to ruin our day.

Maybe the tide has turned. Maybe Gareth Evans’ confidence will now return. Maybe Peter Thorne’s battered body will hold up for another three months. On such fragile building blocks will the remainder of City’s season rest. Until Thorney’s arrival, it looked remarkably like the sun had set forever. Now the future is that touch brighter. But how dark might it be at Valley Parade next time out?

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?

The perspective of Bradford City’s winter of misery as Notts County come to Valley Parade

The snowy weather continues to make life stop-start. It has caused disruption to Bradford City’s season, it has caused misery around the country.

Hours of media attention has contributed to making snow the number one topic of conversation. A Channel 4 News reporter spent a great deal of time interviewing a weather expert in the middle of a wintry Manchester last week. When asked how recent conditions contrasted to the famous big freezes of decades ago, the expert began replying that it’s nothing in comparison to how bad it was then. The interviewer hurriedly cut him off by asking a different question, thereby unintentionally revealing personal aspirations that what he was reporting on was something more historically significant than merely a spot of bad weather.

The here and now is dreadful, who needs the perspective that others had it worse than us in the past? Certainly not the Channel 4 viewers, watching at home on widescreen TVs and keeping warm through central heating.

Perspective is not always welcomed and, as City’s season looks set to unpause again with the visit of Notts County, the opportunity arises to move away from the depressing mood which has engulfed the club since Rochdale waltzed around Valley Parade at the beginning of December. There has only been five games since, despite the seven weeks which have passed. With even the only win of that period widely derided rather than celebrated, a miserable outlook concerning the state of the Bantams has been as difficult to shift as any deep snow.

Has it ever been worse for City then it is now? Perspective might be found from recalling the scary moments when the club almost imploded through administration, from the misery of relegations even from a higher league, or from the fact that City’s history is not without its basement league periods. But the present occupation of League Two midtable below the likes of Morecambe, Accrington and Aldershot is an unhappy one. Many are sharing the outlook of that Channel 4 news reporter – we’ve never had it so bad.

Which, looking from an even wider perspective, offers an interesting clattering of outlooks with Notts County. With this being City’s fourth occasion locking horns with the Magpies this season, the wide range of emotions which has fuelled their season has largely glimpsed through Bantams’ eyes.

The halcyon-dreams of domination prompted by the 5-0 opening day massacre at Meadow Lane. The losing faith in Ian McParland which saw the under-pressure manager dance down the Valley Parade touchline when it looked as though his team had won the JPT tie late on in October, only for a late City equaliser to contribute to his sacking five days later. There was the short-lived reign of McParland’s replacement, Hans Backe, who enjoyed his first win in charge by defeating City in the FA Cup during November.

Backe has gone, incredibly the mysterious richer backers Munto Group have already gone. Suddenly a club with seemingly realistic dreams of climbing all the way to the top is saddled with a level of expenditure and wage bill an average Championship club would struggle to cope with. Reports suggest that, if Executive Chairman Peter Trembling can’t find replacement backers with rich pockets, the club will fold in two months. From the bright days of August, the dark throes of winter see County crawl into Valley Parade with its very future in doubt.

Of course the here and now for County is a respectable fifth-place position and seven point-lead over the Bantams. But as many green-filled eyes from BD8 looked on at Meadow Lane this summer and wondered out loud why it wasn’t us been taken over by rich backers, the uncertainty at County offers plenty of reasons to breath sighs of relief that mysterious folk with questionable motives targeted someone else.

Just like driving cautiously in the snow and passing a BMW driver who’s veered off the road, on Saturday should we look over at the away fans and feel smug or sorry about their misfortune?

So City’s season starts up again with the gap to a play off spot a-still-bridgeable six points away. For how poor recent form has been, the distance has only grown by two points since City drew 2-2 at Northampton at the beginning of October. The most pressing concern is to reverse the shocking home form which threatens to undermine efforts on the road to reduce that gap.

The statistic of a paltry three wins from 11 Valley Parade has been oft-quoted over the past fortnight. Perhaps the clearest indication of the damage can be found in the fact that, since the last home win against Hereford in October, six of City’s nine league games have been at Valley Parade. Seven points have been taken from those three away games, with just three acquired on home soil. The pressure for a maximum home haul is mounting.

Matt Glennon has been signed up to provide greater reassurance to an oft-nervous backline. Ultimately replacing his former team-mate Simon Eastwood, City’s as yet squad number-less first choice stopper arrives with plenty of experience but question marks over rustiness following a lack of senior football. I saw him earlier this season play for Huddersfield reserves at Valley Parade, and what stood out was the volume and regularity of his booming voice ordering around his young back four. While Eastwood improved over time, his rawness still caused him to concede soft goals. The number one quality sought in Glennon is reliability.

The other big player news of the week concerned Michael Flynn’s public rejecting of transfer speculation of a switch to League One. Flynn’s commitment to the cause, even when not playing at his best, is one to build a team around, especially as the 29-year-old has many years of good service in him. He’s also rejected more vicious suggestions of unhappiness at not being captain. The perpetrators of this rumour seem to have a dubious agenda against the awarding of the armband to Zesh Rehman, for what they consider questionable grounds. Let’s just say they probably read the Daily Mail.

Zesh will continue to lead out the team and partners the returning Matt Clarke at the back with Steve Williams taking a turn for suspension. The ever-reliable Simon Ramsden will take up right back with Luke O’Brien on the left side. It remains a personal frustration towards some supporters this season that many are out to deride O’Brien and continually label him not good enough. Last season, Luke seemingly couldn’t put a foot wrong in many fans’ eyes despite obvious rough edges, now he’s playing better and taking on more responsibility and people are seemingly out to slate him.

A few fans have called for his dropping to be replaced by the “hungry young Louis Horne”. At what point did Luke lose his hunger? Perhaps OB can take consolation from the fact the last OB was widely derided by some during the early part of his career – and he’s not done bad since.

In midfield alongside Flynn will be regular partner Lee Bullock and then the still unanswered dilemma of whether to play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. In the last home game Chris Brandon spearheaded a diamond formation and was subsequently keen to point out a lack of chances so far this season. This formation seems to suit him best, but arguably doesn’t suit City.

James O’Brien – goalscorer last time out – is also in contention alongside Scott Neilson and Omar Daley. Recently watching last season’s goals of the season DVD – with the delights of the always-brilliant Keith Coates commentating – I was pleasantly surprised to recall just how well Daley played up until his injury against Darlington. He scored a number of fantastic goals, created plenty of others too. At full pace and with only the resistance of an opposition full back, he made things happen and his improving fitness offers expectation he can make things happen for City this season.

Up front, Michael Boulding should be fit and may take the place of Gareth Evans, who’s confidence has been dented in recent weeks, partnering top-scorer and rumoured-Huddersfield target James Hanson. City’s chance-to-conversion-ratio is poor and the return of Peter Thorne is anxiously awaited.

Notts County’s last VP visit saw a slightly weakened team and tomorrow we should have the dubious pleasure of watching then-rested Lee Hughes partner Ade Akinbiyi or Luke Rodgers in attack. Graeme Lee will hope for a happier return than his sending off for persistent kicking of Boulding in October. Kasper Schmeichel should be kept away from the corner flags.

Dave Kevan is the caretaker in the dugout. Sven may watch on from the directors box – though it’s rumoured patience has reached its limited and this might be his final game.

Sven probably really has never had it so bad.

 

A tale of two shopping centres

Five months of working in Sheffield does things to a man, brings revelations if you will, brings considerations.

Rotherham has become a suburb of a bigger City – or so it is commonly held down Sheffield way – but the people of the Steel City do not consider themselves to have swallowed up their neighbour but rather that it has been swallowed. “Rotherham: Suburb of Meadowhall.”

The middle of Rotherham is empty, the civic pride drained and the area that once was to be proud, all far too familiar.

The Millers address that pride in some ways – under Mark Robins at the start of this season and continuing under perennial Bradford City ire target Ronnie Moore – the battle for promotion from League Two. How much this pride can be felt by people in the Town who lost money in the administrations the club have twice suffered is debatable. People who lost out when the Bantams twice sailed the to the edge of bankruptcy have not had to watch the club celebrate big money signings the season after having a begging bowl pushed under their noses and being told that debts must be written off.

Adam Le Fondre – formerly of Rochdale – cost a record fee for the Millers while both Nicky Law Jnr this season and Eugene Bopp and Paul Shaw last were taken out of the clutches of the Bantams after we offered all we could and Rotherham trumped that offer. The increasingly iconic Woman with a B&B in Darlington would find such a sudden surge in cash hard to swallow and considering Moore previous position on clubs in administration but perhaps we underestimate the Millers boss who may flog Le Fondre in the transfer window and go around the area repaying those people who lost money. Probably not.

If Rotherham are defined by Meadowhall then they are certainly not to be viewed as a shop struggling in the credit crunch but are more like those chains that live in constant closing down sales presenting the financial face they feel most beneficial. They are able to flash the cash to land Le Fondre and Law but when the Football League ask about their plans to move back to the location they take the name from they talk about financial pressures that forced them out of Millmoor. The Football League have asked for answers from the Millers and given them a deadline for moving back to Rotherham but at present talks are ongoing about such a move and work is not due to begin until “2010/2011” and a site has yet to be found for such a development.

In the meantime the club play at The Don Valley Stadium, a stone’s throw from Meadowhall.

None of which is presented as schadenfreude nor indeed is hard to sympathise with. If Rotherham’s decline is the story of one shopping centre then Bradford’s is another – the much trumpeted Westfield development which sits as a large hole in the middle of the City Centre that begs for regeneration.

Despite much talk from City Hall and various development agencies the regeneration of Bradford City Centre remains a series of big promises with little or no delivery and the Westfield hole being a cautionary tale told by the people who want to save the Odeon building: “Let them rip this down will you? And replace it with more hollow promises that come to nothing!” would sum up their position.

Off the cuff it has been remarked that the hole should be filled with the very sort of joint community stadium which Rotherham limply seek but such thoughts are never turned to football at City Hall, a curious point because one might suspect that those regenerationists might find some like minds at Valley Parade.

At Valley Parade we have our own section who make vague and hollow promises about things improving in the future if only they can knock something down. The debate on sacking Stuart McCall is active and rich but in reading it one is reminded about the promises of the developers who knocked down Forster Square and before that The Swan Arcade which turned out to be utterly hollow.

In this metaphor Stuart McCall is the Odeon Building and his critics promise that regeneration will start following removal, Colin Todd is the Forster Square site and the big hole in the middle of Bradford is where those fans who promised that getting rid of Todd/Square would benefit us in the long run have left us.

Personally I’m not inclined to believe the promises of those who talk about sacking Stuart McCall and would put the promise they intrinsically make that the next manager will get the club rising up the leagues again alongside those of the people who brought us the hole in the middle of Bradford. They are hollow promises, and following them has led both the City and t’ City to this point.

When these clubs go shopping they test the resources that have previously taken one into the Premiership and the other half way up the league below. City’s marshalling of resources is done with a prudence – what was spent is within what can be afforded – while Rotherham seem either unbridled by such a need to trim that spending or do not believe it will be a problem for them in the future.

Assuming that Rotherham are not robbing both Peter and Paul to pay Adam then their ability to exit Millmoor is perhaps another difference between the clubs. While Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes keep within a budget that includes the price of paying former chairman Gordon Gibb to stay at Valley Parade The Millers fair thumb their noses at the former chairman turned landlord and have opted out of their home City precisely because of the cost of staying.

Imagine City leaving Valley Parade to go play at Farsley Celtic to get around paying expensive Gibb’s rent, or, if you want, imagine Wimbledon deciding they do no want the costs and effects of staying in London and so relocating to Milton Keynes. Trying to think of an FL/FA rule that allows one and not the other is a brain pickler.

Ultimately comparisons between City and Rotherham are enough to pickle the mind too. City fans consider us a far bigger team but men over fifty not connected to either club would probably say both of us are perennial lower leaguers. Rotherham have either survived two administrations and losing their ground in much ruder health than City. They did – of course – exit without a CVA the second time which in 2004 when the Bantams were preparing a second escape was penalised not by a 17 point penalty but by being thrown out of the Football League and being forced to start at the foot of the football pyramid. No two administrations are alike.

The Miller’s start to the season attracted the attentions of Barnsley to manager Mark Robins and so the investment in the likes of Le Fondre and Nicky Law Jnr paid off for him. Stuart McCall spent the summer moving players on missing out on the likes of Steve Jones because of an unwillingness to extend the wage bill without an assurance it would covered by a player exit.

Robins looked impressive to Barnsley and Moore may end up taking his team up. All at City talk about an unwillingness to risk the future of the club. In spending money to out bid us on players while under a Football League Sword of Damocles concerning moving back to their home town which they could do but do not what to it seems fair to say that the same is not true for them.

So Stuart McCall – two wins in three – faces Ronnie Moore – two administrations and a clutch of expensive players the year after – and City face Rotherham United at Valley Parade with the Bantams chasing points and the Millers promotion. Moore’s arrival replacing Mark Robbins saw the Millers stutter but since they have regained footing and sit third having drawn 2-2 with Burton last week after losing to Shrewsbury the game before. Nursing a 3-0 FA Cup drubbing (3-0 defeats now officially being considered drubbings) by Luton Town lats game one must go back to the 24th of November and a 2-0 win over model of managerial change Lincoln City for the visitor’s last win, that game seeing Adam Le Fondre score twice has he has a habit of doing. An intelligent player Le Fondre – like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before – is a reader of the game finding and exploiting weaknesses in defences.

City’s defence go into the game on the back of a clean sheet earnt with Matthew Clarke in the side filling in for the injured Zesh Rehman. Rehman is expected back and Clarke’s reward for his performance at Darlington will probably be the bench – few tears drop at Valley Parade because Clarke does not play – with Steve Williams partnering the returning City skipper. Simon Ramsden and Luke O’Brien take full back roles. Criticism of Luke O’Brien this year baffles me, I think he is performing better now than when he was player of the season and as pointed out he is doing so in the difficult environs of a 433. Simon Eastwood – who looks like he will not be given the goalkeeper gloves at Huddersfield after Christmas with Alex Smithes seemingly set to sign for fun loving Stoke then be loaned back to Legoland – will keep goal.

The 442 deployed at Darlington weighed up against the 433 Stuart McCall normally plays shows the problems City have this year. Not scoring enough goals in a 422 forces the more attacking formation of 433 which ships concessions at the back forcing us to the 442. It loops around and is only broken by players practicing, getting patterns and the continued building a team ethos which was sadly lacking last season. The 433 – which Rochdale dispensed with – will no doubt get a run out against Rotherham and perhaps the decision between which approach to take could win or lose the game in the dressing room.

Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock take two of the places and in the event of a four Scott Neilson and Simon Whaley will take the flanks. In a three James O’Brien could come back in. Stephen O’Leary and Omar Daley are some way off match fitness it is said. Stuart McCall talked up visiting midfielder Nicky Law Jnr who played for the Bantams last term. I do hope that Law shows the same commitment to getting behind the ball as he did at Valley Parade because should he then the Bantams could enjoy an afternoon of midfield freedom.

The three/four in midfield denotes a two/three up front with James Hanson a regular and Michael Boulding failing to impress since his return to the fold culminating in his storm down the tunnel on Saturday. A note here about Dave Pendleton’s excellent article in the current and always grand City Gent about Boulding and the thunderous criticism of him. Excellent points are made about both players and fans.

Gareth Evans is in line for a recall alongside Hanson in either line up. Neilson or Whaley would join in a three.

A muted victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Christmas gets underway as City welcome Rochdale at the start of a big week

This could be a pivotal week in Bradford City’s season.

A win against Rochdale this evening would place the Bantams on the cusp of the play offs, follow that up with a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of automatic. A defeat against Rochdale this evening would keep City wedged amongst the midtable traffic, follow that up with anything less than a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of manager Stuart McCall’s future.

A couple of weeks ago Joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn likened City’s campaign to a pot of stew – “all the ingredients are in and we are simmering away. But now is the time we have to look to turn up the gas and bring it to the boil.” The temperature began to increase with the 3-0 success at Grimsby a week ago, a further two victories this week would see the vapour begin to rise. After Darlington, City have a week without a game before a busy Christmas period featuring six matches in three weeks. Often a critical phase of a campaign, this week’s target is to go into it in a strong position.

For now though the focus is firmly on Rochdale, who arrive at Valley Parade second in the league and with a string of impressive recent results. Keith Hill’s side has won 4-0 at leaders Bournemouth and triumphed 2-1 at fourth-placed Dagenham, who previously were unbeaten at home. They have defeated current play off occupants Bury and, last time out, Notts County at Spotland. They could go top with a victory tonight and, after two successive play off failures, look a strong bet to make it third time lucky and seal a first promotion since 1969.

As the likes of Accrington, Cheltenham, Burton and in the fact the Bantams can testify, the Dale are from invincible. But the impressive side built by Hill is well respected among City supporters for the attractive style of high tempo football and ability to mix it up with crafty counter attacking when required. Chris Dagnall already has 10 goals, Tom Kennedy is a classy attack-minded full back, Will Buckley a determined winger who tore Paul Arnison to pieces so badly last season the now-Darlington right back’s summer departure became inevitable.

Rochdale’s promise and fact it has wrecked City’s own promotion chances for two seasons in a row – plus the fact Dale’s manager, chairman and supporters appear to dislike the Bantams –  give this encounter the level of anticipation no other League Two club coming to Valley Parade can generate. How good is this Bradford City side? Tonight arguably offers the biggest indicator of the season’s prospects so far.

The line up to undertake the challenge is likely to unchanged side from the one which largely impressed at Blundell Park a week ago. Simon Eastwood’s rehabilitation continues in goal in front of a back four that will feature ex-Rochdale full back Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien. Consistency of selection in defence has been a characteristic of Stuart’s managerial reign, for better or worse, and the fact the present incumbents collectively improved enough to keep a clean sheet at Grimsby will ensure Matt Clarke and Jon Bateson remain on the sidelines for now.

The midfield three will be Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and James O’Brien. The latter’s return at Grimsby made a clear difference and his corner deliveries have improved throughout the season, with the Irishman setting up a number of goals in recent weeks. Chris Brandon and Scott Nielson will be back up, but how we long for the sight of Omar Daley taking a place on the bench. The Jamaican was due to play in the reserves last week before the game was called off, the next second string fixture is later this week. Stuart will be grateful the number of other injuries has reduced, thereby lessening the urgency of Daley’s long-awaited return.

The front three will probably be James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Simon Whaley. Michael Boulding is pushing hard for a start and the close-to-returning Peter Thorne still has a significant part to play, making the competition for striker positions fiercely competitive. Hanson’s strike record of seven goals from 18 starts is highly impressive. Evans is not far behind on five goals from 17, and will hope to rediscover his scoring touch after some recent bad misses. Whaley struck a memorable goal on his debut and, up against a side he was playing for just 17 days ago, has plenty of incentive to build on an impressive start.

As will a certain Rochdale forward. For the third game in a row City are lining up against a former striker and for the third game in a row that former striker has a point to prove. Chris O’Grady’s brief loan spell at Valley Parade last January was a curious one given many City supporters were so quick to turn on him and criticise Stuart for signing him. Many of those same supporters were, around the same time, demanding Stuart bring in a fourth striker to compete with Thorne, Boulding and Barry Conlon.

O’Grady’s scoring record before was impressive, and while he undoubtedly struggled to make an impact in the two sub appearances he made (he was recovering from an injury), I’ve never seen a player given so little time before being universally slagged off. Should O’Grady start and complete the game tonight, he will have more than doubled the time he spent on Valley Parade pitch than when he wore Claret and Amber – a whopping 39 minutes.

No doubt O’Grady will be booed by some, but such is the regularity of former players lining up against the Bantams this season the fear is not so much the law of the ex, but the law of averages which dictates whether he will have the level of influence on the outcome Steve Schumacher and Michael Symes have previously enjoyed, or what Barry Conlon and Graeme Lee endured.

But as Stuart will be telling his players in the dressing room prior to kick off, it’s what City do which counts. Tonight is a tremendous chance to take a step forward from constrained to capable, this week is a tremendous chance to upgrade the season’s hopes from reasonable to realistic.

In other words, it’s time for Stuart to serve up his stew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money changes everything as AFC Bournemouth come to Valley Parade riding high

Often unable to field a squad of eighteen, crippled by financial problems and with a manager just out of his twenties it is something amazing that AFC Bournemouth are top of the league.

Eddie Howe’s side sit ahead of the likes of Rotherham United and Notts County and while they were panned 4-0 by Rochdale last league game out they lead League Two with supporters and an increasingly excited media looking at Dean Court with admiration talking about the spirit the young manager has built.

The Cherries recorded an impressive win at Valley Parade last season when the Bantams were confident that they expensively assembled squad would roll over the visitors and perhaps it is that spirit carried on that drives Bournemouth.

Perhaps it is the mentality that saw the club escape from a seventeen point deduction gives them the self-belief that puts them top. The theory has it that football matches are won – on the whole – by the team that needs to win most and AFC Bournemouth want to win when they roll up to Northampton, Crewe of Hereford because they are used to needing to win.

Rotherham United and especially Notts County need to win for different reasons. These big money clubs in League Two are a new phenomenon but one which is increasingly reoccurant. Peterborough United where one a couple of seasons ago and Shrewsbury and City were – one supposes – last year. City’s experience was that when the winning mentality slipped away and the change that an injection of cash had made was negligible. Money changed everything, but it changed back.

City face AFC Bournemouth in middling form following a 2-2 penalties win on Tuesday night and a 2-1 reversal at Notts County the match before with a wasted two points in a 2-2 at Macclesfield being the last league game out and a 1-0 win over Hereford being the last league match at VP and the last clean sheet. City’s habit of conceding two a game is making winning hard.

So the news that Simon Ramsden is returning to fitness is heartening. The abilities of Jonathan Bateson were well showcased in the week when he slotted in nicely at right back compared to fellow youngster the unfortunate Luke Sharry who meandered the field for forty five minutes before exiting. Bateson will step down when Ramsden returns but having only been in training for a day the impressive signing from Rochdale is expected to be on the bench.

Similarly Gareth Evans is expected to make a place on the bench following his heel injury last week with Michael Boulding – also pulled off a half time (“Blimey, at Mansfield we only used to a half an orange.”) after a poor forty five minutes. To see why Boulding blows so hot and cold one need think back to Mansfield’s 2-1 win at Valley Parade two years ago in which Boulding stormed from forty yards with pace to get behind David Wetherall and Mark Bower who – as always – defended high up the field.

Watching Boulding struggle against a Port Vale side that played two lines of four and compressed the defensive areas Boulding could not use his pace to get in behind the back four because there was no space behind the back four. Boulding always stuggles in these situations but when one looks at his best displays for City – the two at Gillingham last year – he has room to run into.

AFC Bournemouth – riding high and confident – might be more liable to leave that room than Port Vale were and perhaps forty five minutes for Boulding before Evans’s return is a wise idea.

Elsewhere Lee Bullock returns from suspension and will return to the midfield alongside Michael Flynn and James O’Brien who put in a superb display for his forty five on Tuesday night with his two deliveries from set plays getting the Bantams back into the game. O’Brien’s display on Tuesday seems to have cemented his place in the City side alongside Bullock and Flynn. The emergence of a solid and trustable midfielder set up is something manager Stuart McCall was not able to do last season.

Scott Neilson links up between midfield and the attack of Boulding and James Hanson who scored his sixth goal for the Bantams this week and is the leading scorer.

At the back Ramsden or Bateson feature alongside Zesh Rehman – back in the back four after midfield duties – and Steve Williams with Luke O’Brien at left back.

In goal Simon Eastwood who is back to heroic status after his three penalty saves on Tuesday night. Eastwood had high tribute paid to him by Williams in the week who called him “shot stopper number one”. Williams is a right of course and perhaps the confidence of the visitors will see them punting shots at the reflexes of Simon all afternoon and forego the cross which causes the problems.

We should be so lucky.

Finding out what you are good at

Rather unexpectedly, Bradford City become involved in a cup run.

The 2-2 draw with Port Vale saw the Bantams win on penalties and ended up as one of eight in a competition since 1989’s League Cup all of which seemed unlikely after a first half in which the Bantams seemed to have forgotten any or all of the elements which have made the club enjoyable to watch this season.

After an initial ten minutes against a Vale side who predictably defended deep in which the Bantams showed some fluidity but soon the attempted midfield of Zesh Rehman sitting behind Michael Flynn and Luke Sharry. If the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is for anything it is for blooding young players and it is admirable that Sharry was given a chance but the midfielder did not take the chance with two hands and and with Rehman sitting naturally atop Steve Williams and the recalled Matthew Clarke the midfield triangle became more of a string.

As a result the ball was punted long – punted as opposed to passed – with the ball often going to an out muscled Michael Boulding or Scott Neilson rather than the powerful James Hanson. It was from this that John McCombe gave the visitors the lead with a corner being cleared to Boulding who’s attempt to hold the ball up was lacklustre and so as the Bantams came out the ball pinged back in to the flank and then the centre with McCombe converting.

Micky Adams has Port Vale playing at what they are good at. They sit deep and attack with pace and as City had failed at their endeavours in the first half and Vale had not they deserved the lead. Moreover though Stuart McCall took his team into the dressing room knowing that there was a problem which he set about addressing.

Sharry may not get another 45 minutes to press his case for a contract so it is a shame that he did not grasp this game but his replacement – James O’Brien – floated a corner into the middle which good running by Rehman and a ducked header by Flynn which levelled the game.

Flynn had moved to the forward line to replace Michael Boulding – brought off for Chris Brandon – to give the attack more sticking power against a Vale side who looked to up their muscle with West Yorkshireman Anthony Griffith coming on.

Griffith seems to be a player born without any footballing talent. He can – however – tackle and battle which he does to various degrees giving away a free kick for a foul on James Hanson. Luke O’Brien middled the free kick for Hanson who rose to head in.

Football is sometimes very complex but most other times it is utterly simple. Good delivery to players who are good at heading it. Two goals and that seemed to be that until Robert Taylor his a choice shot across Simon Eastwood and into the the far post to set up another round of penalties after ninety minutes.

Penalties – taken at the Kop end to the eternal credit of someone – started with Marc Richards and Michael Flynn scoring Simon Eastwood saved Louis Dodds, Vale keeper Chris Martin saved from James O’Brien. Eastwood’s on line bouncing gave him the edge over Kris Taylor but Chris Brandon became the only player of sixteen to miss the target.

Lewis Haldane, James Hanson, Tommy Fraser, Luke O’Brien, Robert Taylor and Zesh Rehman scored. Eastwood saved from Adam Yates and Steve Williams won the game.

The credit, the songs, the mobbing of his team mates went to Simon Eastwood who had saved three of eight stop kicks and once again had put the Bantams a step closer to Wembley. Eastwood is the new Barry Conlon. Some get on his back but on nights like tonight – just as Barry would get match winners – he was the difference.

At least we have found something he is good at: saving penalties.

How to get a head

Football matches are won and lost in the players heads. Not James Hanson’s external cranium and the way he batters it against pretty much every ball that comes his way but the insides of the noddle. The brain.

Notts County have won more than the odd game before kick off. They roll up to some backwater and have names that the other side have heard of in the team, “Oh look it is Lee Hughes”, and the hapless sort go onto the team to play County already beaten.

So it doesn’t matter if County have the best players in the league which they probably do because they could turn up with five guys with one leg wearing slippers and they would still win the match.

That is what happened to City on the first day of the season and what didn’t happen in this FA Cup first round exit. We had enough belief to have a battle and that battle was lost to a couple of goals in the minutes around half time but the fact that City ended the game with a shout of a match levelling penalty probably says a lot about how Bradford City have levelled a game with County in the Johnny Paint’s Cup and how we look at them not as the invincible just as a good team.

They are a good team but so are we. We are a more direct team than we have been for sometime and that causes problems for other sides. I think that when Omar Daley is back into the team instead of Scott Neilson who is a great player with a great future (but Omar is a match winner) then we will float up the league and settle somewhere around the third of fourth place.

We hear a lot about the effort that City put in. Graeme Lee wasn’t playing but he could learn a lot from Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman in terms of being at least as bothered about your teammate’s performance as your own. He could however teach that pair a thing or two about defending. City defend as a team but don’t defend brilliantly and are often found chasing a shadow rather than a man with the ball.

Lets not get too upset about this. Rather that than no chasing at all which is where we get back to County and the brain game they play. At the moment they seem scary and they have good players but Lee’s time at City would say that that is not enough and if they can keep the side playing to win and not slip into the mire that the Bantams ended last season in then they will have done well.

Not that I’d miss coming here or the supporters of County who sang without irony “2-0 in your cup final” in a cup competition, when the biggest crowd they will play against this season will probably be at out ground. I don’t know who the most intelligent fans in football are but it sure as Hell is not these people who get all angry because someone wants to know where the money for these players comes from.

In reverse order City should have had a penalty at the end when Michael Boulding was brought down but as Stuart McCall said the referee was behind play by fifty yards and could not give it because of that. Answers on a post card as to why that is not the same as Sir Fergs saying a Ref is unfit.

Simon Eastwood made some great saves but so did Russell Hoult and they had a half dozen players out showing the mental belief which they show in spades is deep running in the squad.

Boulding equalised at close range and City had a 45:55 share of the game. The two goals around half time knocked the Bantams out of the FA Cup at first time of asking but heads back be held high because we lost the game on the pitch, not in the dressing room, and even with the millions and billions of pounds we still have Wembley ’96.

That day City were romping through the division, Kammy’s side seeming fated to get promotion. They had belief. They won that game at Wembley walking out of the tunnel to see 40,000 of us an 10,000 of them. Won it before kick off really.

All in the head you see.

The chase continues as City welcome Hereford to Valley Parade

As was learned two years ago, the chase is rarely fun in football.

Bradford City’s first season in League Two was defined by a poor start which left too much ground to make up during the campaign’s final two thirds. Good runs of form had led to hopes of a late play off push, but each defeat felt that more significant as the chasing pack remained out in front. A contrast to the emotions of last season where a strong start kept City in the top seven for virtually the entire first three quarters of the campaign, meaning defeats felt more careless then terminal.

The slow start to this season has left City with catching up to do again. Although the eight-game unbeaten run in the league saw the gap close, the last two defeats have seen it widen again. Stronger conclusions can be drawn from the league standings with each passing week, and the 13th position the Bantams currently occupy – albeit only four points off the play offs – make less than enthralling viewing. Saturday’s visit of Hereford offers the chance to kick start the chase.

The two defeats have prompted a slight puncturing to the growing mood of optimism, exposing the fickle nature of some City supporters with a small number re-commencing with questioning the ability of manager Stuart McCall and prematurely writing off the season as another destined to end mid table. It’s easy to have faith when things are going well; the most encouraging outcome of the recent setbacks is that only a minority of supporters have lost theirs.

Nevertheless Stuart will know as well as anyone the grumbles will increase if another weekend goes by without a win and, with no reported new injury concerns, will have spent much of this week contemplating a few dilemmas ahead of picking a team to bounce back. The biggest question raised by supporters’ concerns goalkeeper Simon Eastwood and the slim balance he offers between stunning saves and stunning cock ups. Both goals at Dagenham could be blamed on the Huddersfield loanee, further testing Stuart’s patience.

As is often the case in these situations, the level of criticism has gone somewhere past sensible. While few supporters would be willing to argue Eastwood’s case, he has not been as bad as some are making out. The cries for Jon McLaughlin to take over ignore the reality that barely 1,000 supporters have seen him in competitive action, or that he began this season with the same level of senior professional experience as his young rival and has shipped in more than a few goals for the reserves. He may be a better keeper, but no one can know for sure and his name might as well be Jon McAnyone-else. It’s an all too familiar type of argument in recent years, you could almost rehash some of last year’s debate about Matt Clarke and Mark Bower, replacing their names with Eastwood and McLaughlin where applicable.

The back four too is prompting unease, with Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman impressing at times but struggling to retain their command through a full 90 minutes. The smart money is on Simon Ramsden eventually moving over to centre back for one of the pair as the season progresses, with the promising Jonathan Bateson brought in at right back. Luke O’Brien continues to hold his own at left back.

In midfield Stuart must decide whether to continue employing the three across which works well on the road but less so when City are the home side, or go back to a more traditional 4-4-2. Lee Bullock’s superb performance against Crewe didn’t prompt the level of praise it deserved while Michael Flynn is matching him in the consistency stakes. James O’Brien is a bit more hot and cold, but is surely worthy of a longer deal when his temporary one expires at the end of this month. Chris Brandon may be brought in to make a four man midfield, although has plenty of convincing to do after a woeful showing against Crewe.

Up front Michael Boulding is expected to have shaken off the bug which ruled him out of playing at Dagenham and be back in contention. Conspiracy theory fans were happy to speculate that his late withdrawal from the matchday squad at Victoria Road was due to him being upset at Stuart for relegating him to the bench following three goals in three games, though if even the tiniest grain of truth was found in this rumour it would look worse on Boulding than it would be considered a harsh managerial decision. The fact Stuart stated after the match Boulding would have started if fit also blasts more than a few holes into the unfounded speculation.

Which may mean an instant starting eleven recall for Boulding, but more likely he will be on the bench with James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Scott Neilson up front. After a bright start Neilson has struggled for form of late, though the difference he made when coming on against Crewe and lack of alternatives makes it unlikely he will be benched for now. It’s worth noting Stuart began the season with Joe Colbeck while still waiting for Omar Daley to recover from injury, with Neilson signed up on Joe’s departure but probably expected to be back up when the Jamaican returns. Neilson has another month at least to prove his worth on a more consistent basis.

Visitors Hereford were last here during Christmas 2007 and the questionable refereeing decisions which paved the way for a 3-1 away success that day left City languishing in 16th place with 24 games to play and prompted Stuart to effectively rule out City’s promotion chances. Promoted to League One that season before coming straight back down, Hereford are improving after a slow start but are yet to register an away win.

For both, the league table reveals there is much work to do in climbing among the promotion runners and then staying with them. Defeat may not be a disaster tomorrow, but the chase would seem that little bit tougher.

The excess approaches as City look to start again at Dagenham & Redbridge

I was asked by the wife “Who are City playing next week?”

“Dagenham and Redbridge.”

“That is not fair,” she said “having to play two teams at once. Do they have 22 men on their team.”

Mrs Wood’s cheekiness aside Stuart McCall may soon start to wish he could field two teams on the field as after he saw his side’s ten game unbeaten run come to an end last week against Crewe and was left in the rare position of wanting to reward – rather than make corrective changes to – the side.

None of the City players left the 3-2 defeat with anything other than gold stars leaving the City skipper looking at excesses of talent in all areas of the field.

Up front – for example – Gareth Evans has returned from a highly unjust sending off at Morecambe which interrupted him in excellent form but in his absence Michael Boulding has three goals in three games and the principal of motivation by visibly rewarding achievements says he can not be dropped despite the odd dereliction of duty in the endless chasing role against the Railwaymen.

James Hanson’s ball winning abilities are endlessly useful and he scored a superb goal last week making him hardly droppable and Peter Thorne – well Peter Thorne has the luxury of being able to be benched at the moment which considering the club practically put his left arm up his back until he signed for another season with his right I’m sure he appreciates.

Three players and – should the City manager keep the formation that sees a tight three in midfield with one lose on the wing that worked so well, or should he retain the diamond that looked great going forward in the opening half hour against Crewe but let in two goals – then he has two slots in which to place them or the option to start fudging players out of the positions which seem to suit them such as dropping Boulding into the advanced midfield role where Scott Neilson has sat and where Chris Brandon played last time out for the latter two thirds of the game.

The solution is to play three forwards.

McCall gave Neilson great credit for his performances since he arrived at the club from Cambridge City despite giving the toothpaste smiler a bench place only on Saturday which allowed Brandon’s return. Brandon had performed well – a late goal against Notts County included – and won his place in the side despite a nagging feeling that as a player he does not put in enough “work”, “work” being defined as running around chasing the ball and tackling people which while simplistic has been an important addition to City’s arsenal this year that was lacking last.

Of course the figure of Omar Daley – looking at a return at the end of October in a Tuesday afternoon reserve game against Leeds United – looms large over the pair. Opinion on Daley was divided but his injury and the decline and fall of the promotion campaign are linked post hoc, ergo propter hoc and my breath is baited at the thought of this side which needs a tiny bit more to win games having a player who does that tiny bit more that wins games in it.

For the moment though the solution is to play two wide midfielders.

In the middle Michael Flynn – who put his hand to scribbling this week revealing that he used to be a postman and Peter Thorne enjoys surfing (the sea probably, not in the way that Bobby Petta used to enjoy surfing – is the definition of an undropable player impressing more and more with every game and spending the time out to applaud the supporters at the conclusion of ninety minutes. Lee Bullock has also made himself undroppable having switched from a passable if somewhat frustrating attacking midfielder into a defensive lynchpin. Bullock allows the play around him, moves the ball on, makes himself available. Any success the team has at the moment is in no small part down to him and the management’s belief that he could be switched to that more rearguard position.

Stephen O’Leary made a cameo and impressed before losing his place through injury – he is back soon – but James O’Brien is in good form keeping up the running, harrying and work rate of the squad. Should O’Leary’s come back prove as impressive as his first game then one might expect to see him in the side again soo but as it is the solution at the moment is to play Flynn, Bullock and James O’Brien. Three in the midfield.

The back four is settled although Jonathan Bateson knocked firmly on the door with Simon Ramsden currently an immensely impressive right back and cover for the central defensive roles filled by Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman. Williams continues to wobble in a single minute of a game while looking like a player with ability above and beyond for the other 89 making him the Rio Ferdinand of Bradford City. Luke O’Brien is proving that the season after being player of the season need not be a problem.

Four at the back. Simon Eastwood in goal. No problem then. City need only play thirteen players and considering the opposition have twenty two that will not be a problem.

More seriously though as Stuart McCall challenges his team to put together another ten game run the difficulties of his position having more than a team of players who deserve a team place. The likes of Boulding need to be rewarded for coming onto the team and doing what is asked of them in the same way Barry Conlon did last season but doing so would require other important players to be left out.

The balance, and how to cope with and maintain excess, is the challenge now.

A defeat to be proud of?

I have never walked away from Valley Parade, having just witnessed a home defeat, with such pride and optimism for the future.

Crewe and City came into this game with starkly contrasting form. City unbeaten in ten games, league and cup, and Crewe having lost five games on the bounce. Nonetheless, the reinstatement of wiley old Dario Gradi ensured that a very different Crewe side would show up to Valley Parade compared with the team that had heavily unperformed so far this season following their relegation from League One.

The game began well for City – forcing a number of early corners. But it was Crewe who stuck first in devastating fashion. From an acute angle from a throw in, the live wire Calvin Zola produced an unbelievable strike that even some of the home fans applauded. It was the best goal produced at Valley Parade for some years – and was reminiscent of Luke Medley’s strike for City against Wrexham in 2007.

Zola, a real handful and danger every time he touched the ball, performed at a very high level in this game. There is no doubt in my mind that he was the best striker that has been on display at Valley Parade for many, many years. I guess that’s what £200,000 buys you at this level.

City fought back from the early set back with some more pressure, but were then let down by some naïve defending. Joel Grant almost doubled the Alex lead as he charged at Zesh Rehman with pace, who backed off and backed off even into his own penalty area without putting a challenge in, where Grant produced a couple of step overs, leaving Rehman on the seat of his pants. Grant drilled a low shot that cannoned off the left hand post. The warning signs of a 2nd Crewe goal were there for all to see.

And the Railwaymen did double their lead courtesy of Zola again. An uncharacteristic mistake by Steve Williams in possession at the back , left the loose ball to Zola, who quickly reacted and hit a fierce shot that stuck the post and curled into the back of the net. 2-0 inside 23 minutes. It was clear that City’s spirit was really going to be tested.

But they never gave up, and didn’t let the scoreline affect their performance. More City pressure ensued , and Micheal Boulding from six yards out was presented with a chance that was harder to miss that score. But he struck the bar, to the despair of the home fans. Boulding was being given some stick in the Midland Road stand right from the word ‘go’ from one fan in particular (“Thunder” as he was known in the days that we were in the Premiership, the predominant Voice of Midland Road) who slated Boulding for not chasing down a heavily mishit long ball from Rehman. Unbelievable.

And it came as a great relief to City and Boulding when a quality piece of attacking play reduced the scoreline to 2-1. Flynn sprayed the ball down the right for James O Brien ( who had an off day ) who produced a first time cross that Boulding headed into the back of the net on the stroke of half time. Game on.

City again pressed early in the 2nd half, but were dealt a killer blow as ex City Midfielder Steve Schumacher’s long range shot bounced awkwardly in from of Simon Eastwood and flew into the back of the net for 3-1. Previous City teams, even last year’s team, would have given up on this one.

But not this season. Scott Neilson was introduced for Chris Brandon and City reverted to a 4-3-3 which again seemed to work so much better than a standard 4-4-2. The absolute domination of periods of the 2nd half in this formation should surely convince McCall that 4-3-3 is the formation to start with home and away. And Micheal Boulding contributed to another City goal as he produced a quality cross that James Hanson volleyed in quite superbly. City continued to dominate, had shots that were cleared off the line, whistled wide, and a very strong penalty shout which was turned down in favour for a free kick just outside the box which was subsequently wasted.

But time ran out for City. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. And the home crowd showed their appreciation for City as the final whistle drew the game to a close.

McCall has assembled a squad that deliver the minimum requirements that the Valley Parade crowd demand. Effort, passion and determination. And we can even forgive the team for losing a game as long as every player has worked their socks off. It was very evident in this game that every player did. Simon Ramsden in particular had a solid game, but what really stood out was his appetite and commitment to get City back into the game even when they were facing adversity and 2 goals down. He had urgency in his play and even the simple things like making sure the ball was put back into play really quickly when it landed into the crowd was so good to watch.

Chris Brandon didn’t have his best game – but his work ethic and commitment could not be questioned. And McCall has got this from his players all over the pitch. There are no passengers or players not willing to put the work in, and that makes me as a City fan really proud. McCall’s ability to combine good seasoned Pro’s like Ramsden, Boulding and Flynn with non League talent like Williams, Neilson and Hanson who never stop working hard and are getting better by the game, has been the key to the recent unbeaten run and reason for optimism this season.

The key thing though, and only worry, is that we need to get into the playoff’s this year as a minimum as that is the only real sign of progression under McCall in this results driven business. Our home form this season has been too mixed – 2 wins, 2 draws, 2 defeats – and we really need to improve that sequence if we want to turn a fully committed team into a successful one.

The stats of the Crewe game (26 shots on goal, 15 on target, 16 corners) show that the players are giving their all to the cause. Whether they can match their effort with points on the board in League Two remains to be seen – and will be the key question come May.

But as far this team being a team who are enjoyable to watch and give their all to the cause, there is no question in my mind that it’s the best City side I have seen this decade. I just hope that success follows them as it is nothing less than they deserve.

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.

Continuity the key as City beat Notts County in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy

The summer that seems so long ago on rain soaked Tuesday night which are made for warming the soul through football was marked by a discussion on Bradford City manager Stuart McCall and the ethos of “Continuity” which his remaining manager represented.

The reasons for that continuity – and for McCall carrying on for a third season and on – was grandly illustrated as The Bantams gained a modicum of payback for the opening day defeat by big spending Notts County.

County fielded a team with a few changes from what would be considered their full strength side as did the Bantams and it was in those changes that the strength of what McCall has built at City was in evidence.

Matthew Clarke stepped in, Leon Osbourne stepped in, Michael Boulding remained in and scored and Simon Ramsden stepped into another position moving from holding midfield to central defence and despite all these stepping City retained a shape, a pattern and a way of playing. That is the continuity City have been crying out for for years.

Not that this progression to the third game of the Northern section of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was any way easier than the scoreline – 2-2 and a victory on penalties – suggests with County’s less than full strength side showing more than enough to suggest the could have won the game clattering the crossbar in the final minute of the game with a pile driver that could have given them a 3-2 success.

That County were not victorious can be attributed to a never say die spirit in City – Chris Brandon stooped in at the start of second half injury time to head an equaliser which the pattern of the previous half hour had scant deserved – but the visitors will be upset that a corner was allowed to travel so far in their box with Kasper Schmeichel getting booked for complaining to anyone who would listen about the last minute aberration that saw the game go straight to penalties.

Five minutes before Delroy Facey had barrelled in front of Clarke to give the Magpies a lead which looked to be conclusive finishing off good work by bar pinger Ricky Ravenhill. County had controlled the game for the twenty minutes following the not at all undeserved sending off of former City skipper Graeme Lee.

Lee’s red card came after perhaps two of the most illustrative tackles Valley Parade had ever seen. Whatever Michael Boulding had done to Lee last season Lee decided to extract his revenge with two blond side hacks at the City forward the first – which came midway through the opening half – could have been excused as clumsy on the slippy pitch but the second just saw Lee hoof Boulding high in the air.

God knows what Lee’s antics tonight say about the dressing room at the end of last season – or about Lee’s professionalism – for there was no turn back, no apology, no remorse from Lee and Sven Goran Eriksson sitting a few rows behind BfB’s Jason Mckeown wore a face of thunder as a result.

Not that Sven had cause to be upset. The shift to ten men and keep ball for County and the Bantams misfiring attempts to make the extra man pay by both Brandon and Osbourne trying to be the one over tore a hole in those pattens that City had built this run of nine games without defeat on and rather than eleven vs ten the game switched to ten vs nine and two wandering about.

The swing to County was as marked as City resurgence that saw Boulding slip onto a finely weighted ball from Michael Flynn over the County central defenders on the twenty minute mark to slip though the visiting keeper’s legs and could have been marked with more as Osbourne – perhaps enjoying his best game for City – and Scott Neilson went close for City while Luke O’Brien continues to look the part on the left hand side. That the Bantams were behind was down to a mistake by Simon Ramsden allowing a ball to run to Simon Eastwood and failing to take into account the decelerating effect of the puddles of rain on the ball.

Eastwood could only grasp at the ball which Craig Westcarr put past him.

Two hours later and Eastwood dove headlong to his right getting two fists onto a Delroy Facey penalty giving City parity in the shoot out that had seen Michael Boulding have his shot saved by Schmeichel and County take a 2-0 lead before sub Peter Thorne slipped a low shot just under the keeper.

Simon Ramsden strode confidently to level the scores at 2-2 with three each taken. Neil Bishop blasted wide, James O’Brien netted, Eastwood went low from keeper Schmeichel’s final kick and a minute later he was mobbed by team mates, then by supporters.

Bradford City fans celebrate Simon Eastwood's penalty save

Happiness will be revenge as Notts County face City again

The long hard slog against relegation” predicted after the 5-0 defeat at Notts County at the start of the season does not seem to be happening as City continue merrily along a middling path in League Two eight games without defeat performing but three points worse than the big spending visitors.

Not that would have been surprising after twenty five minutes of the first day of the season when the Bantams and County traded blows – an hour later the idea that ten games on and the difference between the sides would have been that opening day win would have been more surprising but League Two football is full of contradictions such as the fact that a former barber from Bamber Bridge makes a better signing than Sol Campbell.

City’s unbeaten run goes back eight games and includes the opening match in this the oft renamed Associate Members Trophy against Rochdale and will continue regardless of the result at Valley Parade where a defeat would simply see that game at Spotland expunged from what would be a seven game winning league stint. That is the context the game is set in.

So as Ian McPartland reads in the national papers that David Platt is about to take his job – Platt is a friend of Sven but a former Forest boss and one wonders how well that would go down with the locals who seem to matter not one bit in the saga of football’s tedious rich – while Stuart McCall reads little about his position making a welcome change from the last eight months.

Not that one should suggest that McCall has proved his critics wrong – one doubts that will ever happen with every football manager from Sir Alex down having a steady stream of criticism as background noise – but that he has crafted a team which he seems to enjoy managing as much as the supporters seem to enjoy watching them.

The City manager has undergone something of a change over the last three months having ended last season a near broken man scampering around the touchline kicking every ball to his more passive approach now where he seems to trust his young, eager charges to kick some of the balls themselves. Win or lose, perhaps he thinks, at least I can enjoy watching them without the feeling that some of them want to be somewhere else.

As was said last week by Scott Neilson it takes only one bad apple to spoil the mood of the dressing room barrel and we look West and think how it is not going great at Tranmere Rovers at the moment.

City go into the game carry suspensions and nursing illness and injury that robs the team of strikers and midfielders who pretend to be strikers. Lee Bullock will rest a bad toe following his hard working turn as target man replacing the suspended Gareth Evans and the poorly James Hanson who could return but with the rest of Bradford sniffing and sneezing for a week each one suspects he might be on his sick bed a while longer.

Michael Boulding – who scored on Saturday – is perhaps at his most useful in a game against a team like County who are expected to attack and will not sit deep allowing the striker’s pace to count. Boulding reunites with Peter Thorne – back from injury – for the first time since the opening day.

The midfield will see Scott Neilson out wide with Michael Flynn, James O’Brien and Simon Ramsden continuing although the competition being what it is – and his last appearance at Valley Parade being promising – Luke Sharry might get a call to play. Likewise at the back Lewis Horne is knocking on the door of place in the side and keeping Luke O’Brien’s form up. Only two of the back four of the opening day of the season remain in place with Steve Williams having replaced Matthew Clarke alongside Zesh Rehman and Jonathan Bateson being in the right back slot. Simon Eastwood continues in goal although of course changes could be made.

For County one wonders which team they will field. They have a plethora of players of high ability and low morals. One can read this article and compare and contrast with the revolting Lee Hughes but also spare a different type of disdain for Luke Rodgers who seems to want to carve out a niche as League Two’s Didier Drogba combining ability with an utter disregard for the rules and a willingness to dive at any opportunity. One wonders why if County are as good as they can be – and make no mistake they can play with Ricky Ravenhill and Ben Davies a fine midfield – then why do they have to cheat so much? Even the opening day of the season saw Rodgers throw himself to the ground to “win” a penalty.

The Bantams go into the game looking for a kind of revenge for the opening day defeat but in the eight games in which County fans have seen Sol Campbell’s arrival and departure and results which do not match up to the thirteen men of AFC Bournemouth despite the one week of Sol costing more than the entire Cherries team. As City fans saw last year such a team can do as expected, they can be efficient, they can bring satisfaction but enjoyment is harder to muster.

Since that week in Nottingham the Bantams have been – well – fun to watch with men honest and true putting in hard work. I for one will take happiness over revenge any day.

Stalling

At 2-0 ahead and with only 15 minutes to see out, Bradford City’s players might have been forgiven for considering the hard work to be complete and that their smooth climbing up of the gears to control the game boded well for the season’s journey ahead. But if the cruise control option was slipped into, a late Northampton bump punctured any daydreaming and saw three points demoted to one.

A point which at least stretches City’s unbeaten run to nine – the last time such a feat was achieved came when Lee Mills and Robbie Blake shared 15 goals during the December and January spell of 1998/99 promotion season – but the missed opportunity leaves an increasingly-meaningful early season League Table still displaying City behind the early-season pace setters. Those nine games now include four draws – three of which saw City advantages succumbed after the clock passed the 70-minute mark. But for dropping those six points, the Bantams would be sitting joint second. The conundrum of having enough in the tank to last the distance during matches needs solving, so early season form can advance into promotion-challenging.

It should have been a heartening afternoon’s work for City. Robbed of the services of Gareth Evans, James Hanson and Peter Thorne, manager Stuart McCall was left pushing square pegs into round holes in order to keep faith with the 4-3-3/4-5-1 system which is serving his side well on its travels.  Lee Bullock was moved into the unfamiliar role of target man, with right back Simon Ramsden taking his holding midfield slot.  The opening 15 minutes offered largely negative indications to the yet unanswered question over the squad’s strength in depth, with Northampton forcing pressure and only failing to open the scoring due to lack of composure. But gradually City’s players found their feet and took more of a command as a dull first half came to its conclusion.

Bullock in particular came out with plenty of credit for the level of competence he displayed in holding up the ball and winning knock downs. Of course it wasn’t the same as having Hanson’s extra running all over the final third and greater willingness to track back, but the discipline of holding position in a crucial area, which Bullock does so well in maintaining when undertaking his regular deep midfield role, was something other players could utilise, firing balls towards the part of the pitch they had confidence he would be in. Either side of him were Michael Boulding and Scott Neilsen who both worked hard tracking back and making darting runs down the  flanks. Boulding has arguably not contributed such a level of effort for the team during his previous 40 Bantams career starts.

Ramsden too looked solid protecting the back four and marked his return from injury by opening the scoring five minutes after the interval when his shot from the edge of the area was deflected over Cobbler’s keeper Chris Dunn’s outstretched hand.  The goal was part of a more purposeful start to the half by the visitors, which continued four minutes later after a free kick was aimed at Bullock to knock down into the path of Boulding, who brilliantly volleyed home. The subsequent celebrations seemed to involve every outfield City player and the obvious happiness they possessed towards Boulding for netting his first goal of the season suggests the strong team spirit on evidence in recent weeks stretches beyond the regular starting eleven. Boulding continued to play in a manner which makes it impossible for Stuart to drop him when others return – now he needs to maintain it.

Further goals might have followed for City, most notably when Boulding was denied a second by a superb low save from Dunn, after his view of the shot from a fair distance had been obscured until the last second. Northampton continued to show spirit, almost getting a goal back after the referee David Phillips bizarrely ruled a sliced clearance by Jonathan Bateson caught by Simon Eastwood was a handled backpass. Awarding Northampton an indirect on the six-yard box line, the 11-man City wall was able to scramble it away. Eastwood also made two brilliant saves to add to his growing collection of notable stops, but continues to look weak when dealing with crosses. Despite some questionable decisions by Phillips, the game was petering out.

Which is when cruise control may have been adopted and when Northampton unexpectedly came back, netting first through substitute Alex Dyer when his effort from the edge of the area flew past Eastwood; then equalising with a minute to play after a hotly disputed free kick was crossed into the box for the oddly-named John Johnson to fire home. As City’s players came over to applaud supporters at the final whistle, the looks of dejection were clear.

A lesson of sorts had been issued to the players. The incredible level of hard work and dedication they exhibit is something which must be maintained throughout because, as Northampton proved, there are other teams who can muster similar levels of determination to challenge them back. And though Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams, Luke O’Brien and Bateson all enjoyed outstanding games at the back and Michael Flynn was as inspirational as ever, the spine of City’s team still needs to get stronger in order for these nine unbeaten games to prove the start, rather than the peak, of something.

Achieve that and City really can put the foot down and accelerate into the distance.

Weekend preview part two – I believe that Northampton vs Southampton is a local derby

Belief is a funny thing.

When I was a kid it was my belief that Northampton and Southampton was a local derby in the same way that Manchester City vs Chester City or West Ham vs West Brom was.

One former footballer – for example – believes that The Queen is secretly a lizard.

It is a curious view point but looking at how this ethereal thing that is belief rules footballers lives it is probably not hard how one could convince himself that what he decides is, is. The Bradford City team that lost 5-0 to Notts County trudged off the pitch believing they were going to struggle – one suspects they did – but that was the last home league reversal because the belief that courses through the veins has come from seven games without defeat.

The belief is now that Bradford City can go to somewhere like Northampton – as we do on Saturday – and win the match. Belief that is distinct from expectation levels. The players believe they are a good team, a team who deserved to win in the week against Morecambe in the week, thus they are a good team.

That is belief in football.

Disbelief in football was Tuesday night’s sending off of Gareth Evans which goes down as one of the poorest decisions in a Bradford City game ever. There are so many reasons why Stuart Attwell got the decisions wrong that to enumerate them is almost cruel – like pointing out the poor quality of a child’s painting compared to Mona Lisa – but while Attwell continues to foul up football matches his misunderstandings rather than his mistakes should be highlighted.

It is not that Attwell just saw the wrong thing – we could argue about what did or did not happen for eon – but it what he choice to do with the offence he perceived. Evans and Morecambe goalkeeper Barry Roche both contested a ball outside the penalty area. When dealing with goalkeepers the rules of football are based around exceptions so they do not state “A goalkeeper can handle the ball in the box” but rather “no player can handle the ball aside from the goalkeeper in the box”.

They are written this way to ensure that the goalkeeper – once he leaves his box – is not treated any differently from any other player. Watch the Evans/Roche again and imagine the Morecambe player is not a goalkeeper and try picture a situation where it would be a red card.

Evans goes in to the challenge from the front and with a single foot sliding along the floor. It is not violent conduct for sure – that covers punching and headbutting – and it is almost impossible to interpret it as serious foul play which covers things such as two footed tackles. Once again imagine the tackle between outfield players.

So either Stuart Attwell thinks that Evans’s slide was some serious foul play – and if he did then he missed many similar red cards in the game – or he saw that a goalkeeper was involved and decided to ignore the rules of football he is there to apply. Or he did it for some other reason tied into the fact that he is the sort of Referee that gives goals when the ball does not go in the net but he has a belief it did.

The Attwell’s rubbish – which is what the red card incident should be known as – means that Gareth Evans will not be eligible to play against Northampton, Notts County in the Cup or Crewe at home on the following Saturday and frankly the only reason I can see what the club is not screaming to the rafters to have the decision overturned is out of a fear of a Red Riding style corruption that haunts Refereeing.

Jim Gannon said that because his Stockport County side showed up a Referee they were victimised and City’s dealings with Joe Ross seemed to start a good few years of frankly bizarre Refereeing that included a five match ban for Dean Windass for being cheeky. Indeed The Owl and The Badger of the corrupt West Yorkshire Police of Peace’s novels would find it hard to justify that incident where accused was not allowed to speak in his defence and the only witness was the case for the prosecution.

I digress. Maybe appealing is City not making waves and maybe in the long run that is the right thing to do. Certainly I would not trust the FA, the Referees or the appeal process. That is my belief.

I have another belief though which may not be given much regard by most but as Evans sits out and Michael Boulding returns to the side I utter my belief that Boulding is – well – not that useful.

We are told he works tirelessly but Evans and Hanson’s graft put the signing from Mansfield Town to shame. We are told he is a goalscorer but the evidence of last season suggests that Boulding’s big goal tally for Mansfield came from attacking on the break which City seldom get to do with deep sitting defences. If the Bantams play a certain way Boulding will bang them in – or so I’m told – but players who force a single way of playing from the ten men around them always make me think of Ashley Ward and that is never a good thing.

None of which to say that Boulding is not a good player just that he is not as useful as Evans is and as he is paired with James Hanson in the forward line City lose the strength and effort they would have had and gain a forward who occasionally does something superb but often, well, does not. The current Bantams squad is made of consistent performers of which Evans is a leading light.

Also leading is Michael Flynn who with Lee Bullock and James O’Brien form a midfield that protects the defensive line which has not conceded in 180 minutes and as Scott Neilson beds into the side there is a bursting power out of the middle.

The backline sees Jonathan Bateson continue to deputise for Simon Ramsden – no goal past the defence in the 180 minutes Bateson has started says much about the unit Stuart McCall has assembled – while Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien seem to be shaping into the best Bantams defence in ten years.

Goalkeeper Simon Eastwood is improving too. That is belief again.

Weekend preview part one – Team Bradford

Compare the mood prior to Saturday’s trip to Northampton with that ahead of the visit to nearby Gloucestershire, seven short weeks ago.

Bradford City headed to Cheltenham Town with a record of three defeats, one draw and zero goals scored. Numerous rumours were flying around that a defeat would see manager Stuart McCall dismissed, with the feeling the squad he had assembled was wholly inadequate to meet the season’s expectations. One 5-4 victory and a subsequent seven further unbeaten games later, the contrast could not be greater.

As distant as it now feels, it’s worth reflecting back on the atmosphere during those opening three weeks of the season. Stuart was on the receiving end of bucket loads of criticism from supporters, not helped by the unhealed scars from the previous campaign’s late collapse. Yet despite admitting the pressure was on, Stuart kept a clear head and a stronger sense of perspective compared to how he’d often reacted to set backs during his first two years in charge.

After the opening day hiding at Notts County, Stuart spoke as a manager who was in it with his team, holding back from slamming the players whose confidence he now had to repair. “It’s how we react in the short term to this defeat. Individually and collectively we’ve got to show some courage and determination to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” he stated. The use of the word “we” may seem minor, but is significant.

For Stuart and Wayne Jacobs kept faith in their players and began to slowly rebuild shattered confidence. Whatever was said in the dressing room and on the training pitch remained private. Matt Clarke had been hauled off on the hour mark and has yet to play again this season, but Stuart has deliberately held back from publicly slating the centre back.

A couple of weeks later Lincoln were enjoying a fortuitous win at Valley Parade and the criticisms from fans turned to the fact Stuart was apparently too close to his players, too desperate to remain one of the lads. The Official Message Board ran a poll questioning whether he should stop wearing his regular tracksuit top and shorts in the dugout, and turn out in a suit. But as the players struggled to overturn Lincoln’s lead and the abuse reigned down on them, Stuart’s bare legs could be symbolically viewed as him showing his team that he was with them, one team, Team Bradford.

And the eventual rewards is a strong team spirit and astonishing level of work rate which puts numerous recent City players – many with unquestioned higher ability – to shame. After the draw with Morecambe Stuart spoke of the joy he felt watching his team play the football they do – and he was speaking for us supporters too. That spirit is not something that can be easily manufactured, as we’ve seen in past seasons, but it’s worth wondering how big a factor going through such a difficult start to the season was on how well Team Bradford are now doing.

Compare and contrast with another City, Hull. This time last year, manager Phil Brown was considered the best thing since sliced bread. Hull were beating the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham in their own backyard, taking a place in the top four of the Premier League. Brown was rightly receiving the plaudits, but while most managers would keep their feet on the ground he appeared to let it all go to his head. Article after article praising Hull appeared in the media, almost always including a quote from the Geordie. Going a little too far, he even decided to publicly reveal he had once been turned down for the Bournemouth job. Given the Cherries were, at the time, struggling near the foot of League Two, it seemed unnecessary to kick a club heading down. It also seemed to escape Brown’s attention that Bournemouth’s plight was down to disastrous finances rather than some apparent foolishness in rejecting his application. Brown had done brilliantly to get Hull to the top flight, but he’d had the luxury of sizeable transfer funds along the way, too.

And when things began to go wrong, Brown apparently was more pre-occupied with making sure he passed on the blame than keeping the spirit high amongst his players. The now infamous half time telling off of his players on the Man City pitch was at the time widely viewed as a managerial masterstroke, showing he won’t tolerate the poor standards that had seen the Tigers 4-0 down. Yet at the time it was only their second defeat in seven games, and the public dressing down is now widely looked on as Brown making sure his players copped the blame, removing himself of responsibility to the Hull supporters and watching world.

The poor form got worse and Hull only survived relegation by the default of the season running out just in time, but even then he couldn’t resist stealing the limelight by getting on the KC stadium microphone to serenade the Hull fans. The message was clear, “Look at me, I’m the man who kept us up.”

Hull’s form has continued into this season, but it’s in Brown’s post match comments that suggest he’s only making the damaged team spirit worse among his players. Unlike Stuart in the same situation, it’s not a case of “we defended poorly today”, but “I was disgusted with some of the defending, individually and collectively. For me it was demoralising and I hope it was for the players as well.” Every week he seems to be lambasting his players via the media, and every week they seem to lose.

Which may have nothing to do with Stuart, but does  demonstrate two different styles of management which, for the time being, are delivering different results. City head to Northampton with plenty of confidence and with only one enforced change needed after the encouraging draw at Morecambe. Gareth Evans’ red card has not been appealed – a curious decision from City which it’s strongly hinted is down to the cost of appealing and lack of faith the TV pictures and opposition of an arrogant referee would clear the former Macclesfield striker. An unsuccessful appeal risks an extension to the three-match ban, which suggests the FA’s system is flawed and unfair on lower league clubs who don’t enjoy the benefit of their matches being covered by 50+ TV cameras. If a club appeals a sending off that was clearly a sending off, they deserve to pay the costs and have an extra game ban be slapped on. If it’s more borderline, and at worst City’s appeal would be considered that, there should not be such ramifications.

Evans’ absence affords Michael Boulding three games to stake a regular claim for his place. There remains a nagging doubt City’s squad will not prove sufficiently strong enough for the demands of a full season, but there is currently plenty of quality on the sidelines at the moment. Having taken a pay cut during the summer, Boulding can only be considered as positively contributing to the team spirit, though his work rate will need to increase from some laboured early season outings. His ability is not in doubt, but his desire to match the effort of Evans is. Boulding will only have himself to blame if his spell in the starting eleven is short lived.

James Hanson will take the central striker role next to Boulding with Peter Thorne – back in action for the reserves midweek – likely to take a place on the bench. This time last year Boulding and Thorne had netted 11 goals between them – four fewer than City’s total goals this season – and still have much to offer. Scott Neilsen seems to be getting better each game and will continue in the other wide striker role in Stuart’s 4-3-3 formation of choice.

In midfield, James O’Brien quietly impresses while the influence Michael Flynn is having on performances has not been seen from a City Number 4 since his manager. Lee Bullock plays the holding midfield role with increasing assurance. Simon Ramsden is hoping to be fit enough to take Jonathan Bateson’s slot at right back with Steve Williams, Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien completing the back four in front of Simon Eastwood.

Whether a ninth unbeaten game can be achieved against opposition which has just tasted its first victory in six and have a caretaker manager in Ian Simpson taking his last chance to stake a claim the permanent position remains to be see. Whatever the outcome, the journey back North will be undertaken by the same Team Bradford which set off to Cheltenham winless but still together seven weeks previous.

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.

Denmark, Barnet vs Bradford City

Take apart the falling apart at the end of last season and one can find a plethora of points when in retrospect it is obvious that the writing – such as it was – was on the wall.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark it did not say although it might have done had the effect not been ruined by replacing the Kingdom with the London region of Barnet.

Rotten is was though and the 4-1 reversal that saw 100 year old striker Paul Furlong become a sprightly tormentor and Albert Adomah tear a hole in the curtain of City’s defence.

That was then, this is now and much change has been made since. The general consensus on the Bantams this term to even the brightest days of last is that they are more enjoyable to watch by virtue of the level of effort put in by the players being higher. It is rare to go through a City game at the moment without the words “He puts it in cause he knows what it is like to work at the Co-op/as a plumber/cutting hair and he does not want to go back.” Certainly watching the energy of the over forty Furlong playing every game as if it were his last last season showed that it is not only former non-league players who can have that desire.

Nevertheless it is a given that City did not have it then but do now, and this is to be celebrated rightfully although there was talk in the week as to who came up with the idea of bringing the likes of Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding in the first place.

Considering the money came from joint chairman Mark Lawn’s loan to the club which suggests a logical train of thought that when he brought this pile of cash to the club it was with the express idea of bringing in bigger names which Stuart McCall duly – and gleefully – did. Cash is tight no so who had the idea to find cheaper replacements? File under “Specialist subject: The bleeding obvious“.

So the band of hearty, if cheaper replacements are more enjoyable to watch and if Gareth Evans cost the same as Willy Topp – and we are lead to believe that he did – it is not so much the strategy of recruitment that has brought benefits but the quality.

Quality not having previously been associated with Simon Eastwood until the faffing keeper seemed to be reborn at Shrewsbury with a sterling performance that he took into the game with Burton Albion making two fine one-on-one saves that put supporters of a certain age in mind of the legend of Paul Tomlinson. Tomlinson – who played more between the sticks than any keeper in City history – seemed so good when faces one-on-one with a striker that one felt a little disappointed if a goal resulted from such an attack.

Blame that has been heaped onto Eastwood has roved to Zesh Rehman somewhat unfairly. Odd how often City and Geo-Political machinations align – read Peanut Farmer Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that Obama’s critics are racist – and certainly similar has been said around Zesh at the moment.

For my money Zesh could improve but he is taking on responsibilities for leading the defence and I would rather a player be seen to err in what he does rather than not make a mistake because he does not involve himself in play.

Steve Williams – who will partner Rehman at Barnet – has played hardly a dozen games as a professional footballer and looks accomplished in a way that one could have only hoped for. Simon Ramsden – another recruit – also looks a cut above last season’s new faces despite being “a cost cutting replacement”. Ramsden and Luke O’Brien are the full backs as City settle into a solid and predictable back five.

Predictability is not something one could accuse Chris Brandon’s play of and the lively midfielder still lurches between seemingly like an essential name on the teamsheet and provoking a desire to cast him far from Valley Parade. Ostensibly he is City’s playmaker but sometimes the phrase luxury player seems to fit him more. Without him slotting onto the left City are less inventive with the ball, with him we are less robust in winning it back which is a role that Lee Bullock has warmed to very well. Bullock’s trio with Michael Flynn and Stephen O’Leary was broken up by the latter’s injury – a shame – and Brandon is not able to fill the slot next to the fiery number four so Stuart McCall deploys him opposite Scott Neilson on the flank or brings in James O’Brien.

Last week’s experience in the 1-1 draw with Burton Albion saw City fail to have a strangle hold on the midfield which a trio in the middle rather than two flank players could have given us and one could assume that away from home ball winning would be more important – leading to a suggestion that Brandon should be benched – but with the onus on the home side to attack more a more inventive player could make the most of possession when it comes.

Gosh managing a football club is hard.

Much easier is the forward line which has Peter Thorne out injured and Michael Boulding waiting for the right alignment of planets that would create suitable conditions when he might play well leaving Gareth Evans and James Hanson to lead the line with the possibility of Hanson dropping into the left hand side to allow Brandon to tuck in and perhaps curing both problems creating a robust midfield, having the inventive playmaker in and keeping the hearty players in.

Perhaps that football management is not that tough after all. Then again perhaps one day I’ll be made King of a Scandinavian country.

The sound of silence as City face Rochdale

The first home win of the season came in a strange silence as City fans walked away from Valley Parade.

The performance was not great but the result was and perhaps because of that there was little to talk about. Two goals in both stoppage times saw City taking three points so there was nothing to complain about which perhaps accounts for the silence. As my Nan never said “If you can’t say something nasty about something, then don’t say anything at all.”

The win was City’s second in a week and start to turn around the season which has Chris Brandon sums up as “The first game obviously left a horrible feeling but, apart from that, we hadn’t played that badly.”

Zesh Rehman has his ideas on what – or who – has kept heads high at City paying tribute to former non-league pair James Hanson and Steve Williams saying “They are both new to professional football and they have been brilliant, their attitude is outstanding, spot on.”

The man with the City armband continues “We’ve said to them, ‘What would you have been doing on a match day?’ One of them would have been cutting hair and the other was working in a Co-op. It reminds you of how lucky you are to be involved in professional football and being able to play in front of big crowds.

All of which contrasts with last season’s side which declined so sharply and markedly with games like the 3-0 defeat at Rochdale in the league.

Tonight City return to Rochdale in the Johnson’s Paint Trophy hinting at fielding a weaker side which – ironically – drops the bloke from the Co-op in favour of Michael Boulding. Boulding and Peter Thorne are expected to partner up front and one looks at the depth of the City side and tries to form an eleven of similar one for one replacement.

Jon McLaughlin might get the gloves in the place of Simon Eastwood – The T&A put Eastwood’s drop on Saturday down to a foul the Referee was about to blow for – while Matthew Clarke might get a chance to return at the back.

Clarke is officially injured and out of the side but it is hard to see him claiming Steve Williams’s spot in the team. Louis Horne and Jon Bateson could come in at full backs but former Rochdale man Simon Ramsden is the only option to switch into the other central defensive position.

Scott Neilson’s debut on Saturday impressed in that he continued to do as Joe Colbeck does – trouble full backs – and he will no doubt start. Chris Brandon can come into the middle with Stephen O’Leary – assuming O’Leary’s toe injury does not break down once more as it did in the warm up on Saturday – or Luke Sharry could press his case for a longer contract. Rory Boulding or Leon Osborne could slot in on the left.

Ultimately though City never come close to troubling the later stages of this Associate Members Trophy and the number of those players mentioned above will reveal how seriously the competition is being taken at Valley Parade – normally it is “not very” – and perhaps Rochdale will be the same with the result being a game where at least one side plays a weakened side and thus probably not worth breaking the silence about.

Torquay comes to Valley Parade for the minor debut of Scott Neilson

Scott Neilson will hardly get a mention in the news of League Two signings this week.

The right winger has joined The Bantams from Cambridge City and is expected to start on the bench and make his debut against Torquay United as Stuart McCall’s team looks to build on the first win of the season last week at Cheltenham but one doubts that the coverage of our division will concern itself with that.

Rather eyes will be set for Barnet and Sol Campbell’s debut for Notts County as football looks to see what a player who gets £40,000 a week in League Two looks like.

The contrast could not be more sharp. City spent a week haggling with the Lillywhites over the price of Neilson coming up with a fee thought to be around £7,500, a friendly and some more cash should City make the play offs. Campbell agreed a deal worth over £10m and one is left to wonder why such a deal was necessary. The Magpies already seemed to be able to win handsomely most weeks and concede only penalties. Campbell will perhaps plug that tiny hole and is expected to come into the side to replace injured former City skipper Graeme Lee.

So two debuts in the same division but as far apart as – well – as City are from Torquay geographically perhaps as the Devon side visit a Valley Parade which is flush with comparative optimism following the characterful 5-4 win last week.

Having had more than his fair share of criticism this season Stuart McCall took credit for the victory with all five of the goals the Bantams scored (Simon Ramsden having a deflected shot) chalked up by a player he has brought in this summer as he looked to rebuild the side without the sort of big money, low character players which one assumes County will have to avoid.

James Hanson claimed a first goal for City leading the line in a 451 formation with Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding pushed down to the bench. Hanson’s play this season has been honest and impressive and he is expected to reprise his role up front although McCall must decide if he is to keep the same side and deploy Gareth Evans and Joe Colbeck as wide men or play a more traditional 442 pushing Evans alongside Hanson. Evans celebrated his first goal for the Bantams while Colbeck was recognised for his performance with a place in the League Two team of the week.

It is rare for McCall to opt for anything that could resemble defensiveness at Valley Parade and so one might suspect he will push both wide men into a three man forward line perhaps leaving Colbeck out for Boulding or Thorne.

The midfield three of Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and James O’Brien are a curious set with O’Brien especially prompting much attacking play last week but fairly obviously failing to control and close down the game when City took the lead. Midfields need time and games to blend together and this is best done by picking a set and sticking with it which proves difficult at the moment and that area is very much a work in progress.

The back line of Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien with Simon Eastwood behind is causing sleepless nights. Eastwood struggles to get any control over his back four not talking enough and – when he does – talking to the wrong people while Zesh Rehman has yet to grasp the organisational part of his role as senior central defender.

Williams is learning the game and coming along as is Luke O’Brien. Both are bright but eclipsed by Simon Ramsden who is that rarest of things – a popular Bradford City right back. Of the defenders few would suggest Matthew Clarke should be put in as a solution to any problems but Eastwood will know that he needs to get better quickly and build a rapport with his back line.

Torquay come to City with two wins and two defeats since returning to the League in August losing last week to Barnet. No one was really interested in Torquay vs Barnet game last week but a debut should change that this.

Probably won’t be Scott Neilson’s.

Next: Cheltenham

The disorder of the day is a question of Peter Thorne.

Thorne took a pay cut to sign an extension to his City contract and was lauded for it. He has a fantastic scoring record for the Bantams which – Dean Windass aside – is probably not matched since Lee Mills ten years ago but that was four games ago and the whispers against the City captain have started.

“Why don’t you do us all a favour and hang up your boots Thorne!” said someone on the kop – how dare he assume to speak for me I angered – and sure enough the short termness of football thinking is brought to bear on our centre forward who slogged though a tired game on Tuesday night ineffectually.

Thorne will score again. You know it. I know it. Peter Thorne knows it. Stuart McCall knows it.

Nevertheless much of the criticism of Thorne comes from the fact that not only has he yet to score – no one else in six hours of football has either – but from the fact that he is the captain.

I’ve never approved of a striker as skipper – or a full back, keeper or winger for that matter – preferring a player who is more in the heart of the side in central midfield or defence just as McCall the player was for the Bantams. Alan Shearer skippered Newcastle United from the front line as did Kevin Keegan but for every example of a half decent non-middle man skipper in the for column Bobby Moore, Alan Hansen and John McGovern are on the other side. Strikers don’t often make good skippers.

However when recalling the teams of Moore, Hansen and McGovern casting eyes around the field would have shown four or five other able men who could have taken the armband while looking around the City team one sees Zesh Rehman and… erm… that is about it.

Rehman, Chris Brandon, Michael Flynn are all names banded about but as Lincoln put in their second goal on Tuesday night no City player was suggesting great leadership. David Wetherall was an obvious choice to replace Stuart McCall who was himself an obvious choice to replace Peter Jackson when he headed to Newcastle in 1987.

No player is suggesting that they would be a better captain than Thorne no matter how well or badly the striker is managing to do the job and frankly if there is a player in the City side watching his team mate’s long faces and thinking that if he tried gee anyone up then he would face some kind of PFA demarcation dispute then he is not that man to captain my club.

Seriously. If someone in the current City side is a great captain just waiting for the armband then they are hiding it bloody well.

Zesh Rehman though is likely to have the armband as Thorne feels the effects of four games and is rested. Rehman’s partner Steve Williams is likely to keep his place despite his tumble on Tuesday even with Matthew Clarke fit again. Simon Ramsden looks good at right back and Luke O’Brien is in at left back.

Simon Eastwood is going to spend four months being criticised at City and may as well get used to it now. Five, two, three, none it matters not. When he plays badly he gets it in the neck, when he plays well he gets it in the neck.

Stephen O’Leary took part in Tuesday night’s warm up but not the game leaving Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn to pass the ball around Lincoln until such a time when (according to Simon, a Lincoln fan in line with Ramsden’s tackle) that never a penalty happened. The pair are likely to continue although O’Leary and Flynn would seem more suited to battling away against a newly relegated side.

City’s forward line is likely to be where Stuart McCall makes changes. Michael Boulding turned down Cheltenham to join City and his pace may be used to do to the home side what Lincoln did to us. James Hanson and/or Gareth Evans might be employed as target men and McCall may opt to play with a lone striker with Joe Colbeck far right, Hanson on the left with Evans up front.

Or Thorne might play.

Bradford City prepare to face Lincoln City in a modern football match

Back in the day when newspapers were typeset by hand, Jimmy Hill’s chin presented Match of the Day and Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine had yet to be applied to the job of applying three points for one win and sorting such a collection of results into an ordered lists League tables after two games simply did not exist.

Not that it was impossible for the scholars of 1974 to work out that a 3-0 defeat on the opening day of the season put Cloughie’s Leeds bottom of the First Division or that a win, a couple of draw and a few defeat in said man’s first six games only gave his side four points but with the effort that had to go into totting up columns, creating news print and video overlays for Television to roughly project onto brightly coloured pictures there seemed very little point in bothering.

The table at that stage did not mean anything after all, and if it did you could be sure that Shankley’s Liverpool would be top of it. Tables tended to turn up in newspapers and magazines in September after about ten games and then they were accompanied by football managers of the day warning that said table could not be read until everyone has played everyone else at least once – except for Jimmy Sirrel who insisted it did not lie.

The modern football table – the sort that sits all summer with naught in every column – is more of a database waiting to happen and has given rise to an obsession with starting counting league position by the minute of each game. In fact ten years ago City were forth in the Premiership for the 22 hours until Manchester United won moving us and everyone else down a place.

Match of the Day made a return this weekend and had the top four places of the top division coloured golden to indicate Champions League slots – somewhere Platini fumes – with the aforementioned United excluded, lagging down in eighth position with zero points in zero games.

Back in my day in March a half blind man would draw a dotted line somewhere approximating the promotions places – and he were always wrong – if you were lucky.

All of which is preamble to saying that aside from the fact that Notts County are top and everyone else isn’t the League Two table means – frankly – “nowt” which is just as well because if it were to mean something City would be third bottom.

The opening point of the season came with the weekend 0-0 draw with Port Vale which presented a Bantams side that – rather surprisingly considering the previous week – had very little wrong with it.

The back four did not put a foot wrong with Steve Williams starting to impress in that way that suggests he is taking to professional football better than Matthew Clarke – who he replaces in the side again tonight – would take to cutting hair in Bamber Bridge. He is partnered by Zesh Rehman and is in front of Simon Eastwood who are both a clean sheet further away from Notts County.

City’s full backs against Vale probably had more pitch to play in than they will in most games this season with the Valiants anything but. Simon Ramsden – it would be amiss of me not to point out after a number of discussions with “our Rovert” on the subject – could have done with more support in front of him when he came forward with the ball while Luke O’Brien could do with putting a bit more air into his crosses with the hope of beating the first man. If not air then variety as the promising young left back’s play became a little easy to read on Saturday.

Promising young left backs though are not in short supply at Valley Parade with Louis Horne ready to replace O’Brien who was sliced in half by Anthony Griffith at the weekend and may not play. Horne – for the uninitiated – is the son of Peter Horne the man in charge of youth development at VP but those who have seen him put in a few games ensue suggestions of nepotism with phrases like “he looks a bit good.”

Horne is a bit good although which bit is not yet clear. He can use the ball, tackle, and has a good head on him and while that is deployed at left back often he does take the left wing and – in the humble opinion of this writer – might want to try his hand in the centre of midfield.

Not that City need any more number fours with Michael Flynn and Stephen O’Leary finding a way of keeping the back door closed and O’Leary especially useful in taking the ball from the central defenders and moving it on with minimum fuss. The pair look set to anchor behind the roving Chris Brandon – who will face up against his former Town boss Lincoln manager Peter Jackson – who comes inside and left flank man James Hanson who loses nothing in the air and comes in from the flanks to add to the attack.

All of which leaves City a little thin out wide but we should not mind the width if we can feel the quality and the quality of City’s approach play impressed on Saturday.

Approach play good and the strikers were not able to profit with Boulding seeing the best of the chances saved. Peter Thorne struggles with four games in eleven days and so may sit out to allow Gareth Evans to lead the line. Michael Boulding is expected to partner.

A decision is made, a result is reached, and City move on

If the season started here in the third match following the week in Nottingham then it started slowly with a 0-0 draw with Port Vale which saw the visitors get the point they came to West Yorkshire for and City stop conceding after eight goals had been lifted out of Simon Eastwood’s net since the season started.

Indeed so clear was Stuart McCall’s desire to ensure that the Bantams would not be looking at a hefty concession rate that the changes had been rung and the solution was found in a full midfield that saw two number fours – Michael Flynn and Stephen O’Leary – hold and Chris Brandon nominally given the right hand side but spread himself over the middle of the pitch in the kind of performance that his status called for.

The industry of the Flynn and O’Leary pairing allowed Brandon to enjoy his roving role – James Hanson was also nominally left flank but spent more time at the far post assisting the strike pair of Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne – and linked the midfield to the forward two effectually or as effectively as the Valiants would allow with their deep sat five and midfield on top.

As such the pattern of the game was set. Vale’s ambition was limited and City’s measured with the Bantams controlling play in the first half to such an extent that at one point a twenty pass move probed either side of the visitors backline without finding a way through. City’s best chance came when Hanson – powerful in the air – won the ball for Brandon to take into the box and Michael Boulding to try finish only to find Chris Martin standing tall to make a save. I tried so hard to come up with a joke about Coldplay’s lead singer but as with City just lacked that touch of inspiration.

Vale on the otherhand failed to convert a few crosses that flashed past the City box for the want of men in the box and some good defending from – especially – Simon Williams who made his home debut with a performance of genuine quality calmly showing a class to slot alongside Zesh Rehman and a physicality to cope with the ageing late sub Geoff Horsfield.

Williams and Rehman kept Marc Richards in pockets save an stinking shot from an actuate that Eastwood took confidently. Second half and City had James Hanson go close cutting in with a shot and could have won the game late on when a cross from Simon Ramsden – who did a grand job down the right with an acre in front of him and little support with Brandon playing more inside – hung deliciously but Hanson rising at the wrong time.

Hanson impressed too although seemed to fade in the last quarter of the match. Gareth Evans came off the bench and hit a dipping shot over the bar. Michael Flynn tested the keeper from range, Luke O’Brien did the same.

Flynn and O’Leary responded to some aggressive play by Vale with a series of lively challenges as the Bantams seemed to find a pairing that looked interested in joining a League Two battle. Vale’s four Anthony Griffith was lucky not to see a red card after a string of feet off the floor tackles ended in Luke O’Brien getting spun and limping through the rest of the match. Born in Huddersfield perhaps he was an excitable Town fan. Regardless he was lucky to stay on the field long enough to be substituted.

Flynn showed a willingness to battle but O’Leary was something of a minor revelation making himself available in midfield for passes, getting stuck in and using the ball well it was a mighty promising display and one that might keep Lee Bullock cooling his heels on the bench. Late in the game Vale put on former City favourite Claus Jorgensen who was roundly and warmly applauded but in the last five minutes that despite some bluster both clubs were happy to see out goalless.

The men on the bench – the management that is – made the point today with a team that joined the battle for League Two. Tuesday night Lincoln City come to Valley Parade and City will look to build on this match but as with the team of Paul Jewell’s eleven years ago – who drew early on with Sheffield United and Bolton Wanderers making the two points from seven games – the shakedown of the start of the season was brought into context later in the season.

Today City did not let anything past – or look like letting anything past – and anything that comes later comes from that.

Will things go as expected? City play Port Vale looking to put the week behind them

When it comes to first weeks of the season they have never come any worse than this one for City.

Ten years ago we were sitting fourth in the embryonic Premiership table after a win against Middlesbrough. A decade on and we are at the foot of an equally new League Two table smarting from a 5-0 defeat and out of the League Cup. That was the week that wasn’t.

Wasn’t very enjoyable that is – unless you like the City of Nottingham – but probably not unexpected. When Championship side (and lest we forget, twice European Cup winners) Nottingham Forest came out of the hat for the first round of the League Cup – away to boot – not a single City fan would have said that the Bantams were anything other than rank outsiders.

Likewise when Notts County started spending money in the summer culminating in recruiting Sven Goran Errikson the majority of Bantams fans would have thought it a surprise if the Bantams had come back from the Lower League all-stars who are assembling at Meadow Lane with a point.

That both things came to pass is the way they did – scoreless and remorseless – has distorted those original assumptions that when City kicked off against Port Vale in the first home game at Valley Parade they would probably have no points and be looking at a few midweeks off after a cruel draw.

Stuart McCall has had little but food for thought in the last five days having played perhaps five different formations during the two matches and used sixteen players one of whom – Jonathan Bateson started his City career in the worst possible way with a red card for slicing Nathan Tyson in half for what seemed like little or no reason. Bateson could not have impressed less.

Steve Williams could have impressed more – it was not a week of full throttle – but he has most probably done enough to secure a debut alongside Zesh Rehman and in favour of Matthew Clarke who seems to be fall guy for the five goals that Notts County put past City despite – whisper it – having a better game than Rehman that afternoon.

Simon Ramsden has started his City career well and slots back to right back after a sojourn at centre back and Luke O’Brien is left back.

The midfield should revert to the four in the middle with Joe Colbeck, Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon although James O’Brien played on Wednesday night with Brandon cooling his heels. As a boyhood City fan robbed of his first year as a Bantam Brandon should be bursting to impress and one hopes he puts in a performance that suggests the desire than comes from playing for your own club. So far such as been lacking from the left midfielder but tomorrow can be his Alpha, should O’Brien not get the nod over him.

In the forward line Gareth Evans impressed on Wednesday but is expected to step down to allow Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding back into the line.

Having draw with Rochdale on the opening day Port Vale got arguably a more testing League Cup trip than City – to Sheffield United – and won it although that was more down to comedic goalkeepering which one hopes Simon Eastwood – the City stopper who makes his home debut – will not follow.

The season is young – baby young – and already City are thrashing around but in football everything becomes right with a win and at Valley Parade – under McCall at least following years of home defeats – wins have become expected and City are doing as expected thus far.

It’s Here

The League Two season is back with a bang on Saturday as Bradford travel to Meadow Lane in a reverse of the opening fixture of last campaign. And for Bradford faithful still reeling from last season’s disappointment, this is all that matters. Forget the long running saga at Newcastle United with an untold number of messiahs. Forget Leeds United’s third season in the third flight of English football. And please, forget last season.

Stuart McCall decided to stay with the club this summer despite suggesting otherwise last term. Managing at a young age is always a learning curve and there isn’t a manager out there that hasn’t made mistakes at some time in their career. But in my opinion, this club and it’s fans would rather have somebody with a loved for the club at the helm taking it one step at a time, than a manager with no passion who will come and go within two seasons at the most. The fans have cried out and it appears that stability is the way forward.

McCall has been busy this summer with his dealings in the transfer market, with no less than twelve players departing, not including Dean Furman, Steve Jones and Nicky Law, and nine coming in. Only goalkeeper Simon Eastwood has so far come in on loan as McCall plays the waiting game with the clubs in higher divisions to see who is available following pre-season. Eastwood’s arrival at the club shocked many, with an experienced keeper expected to come in alongside Jonathan McLaughlin. Only time will tell if this turns out to be a bad decision, but it is telling that Eastwood’s contract is only until January rather than a full season, with McCall preparing himself should the opportunity to bring in somebody different arise. Quite who will be playing between the sticks for City also remains a mystery with Eastwood not doing himself any favours with a nervous display in the final pre-season game against Carlisle.

Zesh Rehman has made his move to Bradford permanent and has been rewarded with the club captaincy. Much has been made of Rehman’s work in the community following his loan move last season and it appears that the club see Rehman as the ideal role model for youngsters in the local area. At a time when club finances are tight and extra revenue is a priority, it will be a challenge for Rehman, along with Omar Khan, to influence the Asian population to make Valley Parade their second home.

Jonathan Bateson, Simon Ramsden and Steve Williams join Rehman as new signings in Stuart McCall’s new look back line. Ramsden in particular looks like he could be the solid right back that has been missing at Bradford for a while now, though Paul Arnison will feel disheartened that his efforts last season resulted in his exit from the club. When Arnison played last season, City tended to fair better defensively. The facts don’t lie. However, it was apparent that McCall was unsure about him with Tom Moncur and Zesh Rehman preferred at times in what was evidently not their strongest position. Ramsden looks composed, strong in the tackle and fairly good in the air. Add to this that he can also play in the centre and has featured regularly for Rochdale in three successful seasons by their standards and you can understand why McCall has brought him to the club.

Gareth Evans and James Hanson, dubbed The Co-op Kid (I prefer The Idle Working Man – Ed), have bolstered McCall’s striking options. Both are young and play with a real desire which is a joy to see. McCall has high hopes for both and this is supported by the clubs willingness to pay a fee to Macclesfield for Evans services. Hanson looks like he can offer height in the attack, in the absence of Barry Conlon, and comes to the club with a decent scoring record in the last two seasons. Experienced duo Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne are still with the club and both agreed to cut their wage bills accordingly, with Thorne rewarded for his loyalty by becoming team captain. Up front, City look a lot stronger this season and it may be a weight off Peter Thorne’s shoulders. Michael Boulding openly admitted his disappointment at his goal tally last season and will be expected to do better this time around.

Following a fluster of activity in the days before the season opener, Stuart McCall has brought in three central midfielders, an area which he was keen to improve on. The signs are that Michael Flynn, City’s second signing from Huddersfield this summer, will slot in alongside Lee Bullock to form what looks like a solid pairing. Flynn ranks alongside Simon Ramsden as McCall’s best signing in my opinion and his ability to score and create goals from midfield will fill the void left by Nicky Law. Michael O’Leary and energetic James O’Brien have also signed, albeit on short term contracts. Luke Sharry missed the chance this pre-season to stake his claim for a place in the team and may now find himself the odd man out with many feeling Chris Brandon is also above him in the pecking order.

Omar Daley’s absence may be missed, with City only having the aforementioned Chris Brandon, Joe Colbeck and Leon Osbourne to turn to on the wings. Arguably Rory Boulding, Gareth Evans, Michael O’Leary and Luke Sharry can all play in this position too, but City do look thin in this department. Rumours of a loan move for a winger from an unnamed SPL club allay fears somewhat though undoubtedly Daley’s comeback will be in the back of everyone’s mind. Osbourne has looked impressive this pre-season and looks ready to make the step up to first team duties. Chris Brandon will be looking to make up for a torrid season last time round and will be a very important player for City should he stay free from injury.

When you thought things couldn’t get anymore unpredictable, Sven-Goran Eriksson appeared at Notts County and shook the football world to the core (or League Two at least). His arrival at Meadow Lane marks one of the most bizarre appointments in history and mounts the expectation on County to achieve things in the short term. Ian MacParland’s job will be under scrutiny with the media circus that unmistakably follows such a high profile appointment. In the last few days, Stuart McCall has claimed he is not envious of the position County find themselves in, words which as a fan I cannot help but agree with. Clubs in the situation Notts County now find themselves have the potential for success, but also dramatic failure. Should County fail to gain promotion this season, they will probably find themselves starting from scratch with a new manager and possibly a whole new team next term. It is once again easy to see why fans at this club, who have suffered the repercussions of bad decision making by the money men in the past, strive for stability and a realistic approach.

Last season’s skipper Graeme Lee will probably be coming toe to toe with former team mates and, unfortunately, may receive a hostile reception. The culture of booing ex-players and managers is one that I’ve never understood, though there are factors in some cases. It is understandable that a Crystal Palace fan would be annoyed at the sight of Iain Dowie, not for the obvious reason, but for the way in which he departed the club to become manager of Crystal Palace. Lee, however, put in some solid displays last season, though he did have a dip of form which coincided with the teams inability to win games and keep clean sheets. Nevertheless, any players that represents our club should have our support and his departure was not turbulent and instead was a financial decision. It must be hoped that his exit from the club will suit both parties, with Lee himself wishing the team luck in the coming season. I will leave the defence of Lee Hughes to somebody braver than myself.

How the tables have turned from this time last season when County came to Valley Parade and suffered at the hands of a superb solo performance from Peter Thorne. The City captain has a tendency to score against County, something Graeme Lee may be given the duty of preventing happening on Saturday. I would be happy with an opening day draw in all honesty, but the optimism of the travelling Bradford fans says otherwise. City are out to ruin the party celebrations for Sven’s men are will make themselves heard – win, lose or draw.

The new season is here.

The route to success for Notts County or Bradford City

When last we kicked a ball in anger there was anger after the Bantams promotion push had fizzled out and beating Chesterfield was an inglorious end to a year of promise.

Three months later and while it seems that much has changed the Bantams start the season with six players who would have featured in the team which kicked off last year with Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding leading the attack a good example of how Stuart McCall has been able to cut costs while retaining the integrity of the squad.

The five forwards this year swap James Hanson and Gareth Evans for Barry Conlon and Willy Topp which is easily argued to be no worse and perhaps better with Barry’s rambunctions being matched by Hanson’s vigour, at least in theory.

If such claims of parity could be made for the strikers then they would not be applied to the two keepers who combined are not as old as Neville Southall was when he kept goal for City and the worries over that inexperience are rumbling.

Simon Eastwood seems favourite to start as he battles Jon McLaughin for the gloves and I am forced to say that I have never seen competition for the number one shirt bring about anything but uncertainty in the past.

One can only hope that one of the two claims the spot which Rhys Evans grew to suit. Evans exit remains a mystery with the obvious hole left behind by his exit but last season’s failure has been attributed to poor morale and one can assume that some of those who exit do so because of what might be known as “off the field reasons”.

Paul Arnison’s exit was down to such and Simon Ramsden is considered a more than adequate replacement playing right back more like a central defender than a winger. Again McCall has cut while not losing quality, although the people at Rochdale take issue with the statements that Ramsden has joined the Bantams on comparable terms to those he was on at Spotland.

Zesh Rehman has joined the club full time and replaces Graeme Lee – who may very well take the field for Notts County after his summer move – and it is hard to see that exchange as worse for City. Rehman has played at a higher level than Lee and on the evidence of last season is no worse a player and much more of a talker. Good player Graeme Lee but not the lynchpin we hoped for. Rehman could be.

Matthew Clarke is still Matthew Clarke although this year faces competition for his place from Steve Williams who impressed more than any in pre-season. Expect Williams to grow in ability over the opening months at City has he gets used to the ways of professional football. He promises a mix of Clarke’s physical play and the mobility of a Dean Richards or Andrew O’Brien.

At left back Luke O’Brien has a one deal and little immediate competition for the role however cover is provided by Louis Horne who is making similar progress to last season’s player of the season.

The midfield has been talked about at length over the summer. Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock are the two senior men with James O’Brien, Stephen O’Leary and Luke Sharry offering a much shallower depth of quality that last season’s midfield which of course assumes that one believes that last season’s midfield had quality.

Objectively the choice of Nicky Law, Dean Furman, Paul McLaren and Bullock is incredibility strong however wise man say that team with a strong midfield get promoted and obviously we did not. Stuart McCall has to make changes to move the team on from that and so he has.

On the flanks Omar Daley will be missed – he is “out until Christmas” but rumoured to be on course to join the squad before that – but Chris Brandon comes into the season fit and looking useful. Joe Colbeck is on week to week contracts but as long as he plays well this week, and then next week, few will have a problem with him. Cover on the flanks is thin on the ground although Rory Boulding and Leon Osborne are available.

City’s summer of cost cutting has been far from mirror at Notts County. Sven – of course – has arrived but it is said has spent much of the week talking to lawyers about a story that concerns a blonde which reminded me of another story about when Eriksson left England but I’m far too in fear of legal action to even mention that…

So we shall move past him onto a squad that has been bolstered by the signing of Lee midfielder Ben Davies from Shrewsbury and – more notably – forward pair Lee Hughes and Karl Hawley following a significant investment from a consortium of mystery which could not be held in more suspicion in the football world outside of Meadow Lane if they were gruff looking sortd who owned disused Theme Parks in episodes of Scooby Doo.

It is said that at some point they will be signing Dietmar Hamann and Sol Campbell. Let us hope that is after the weekend.

What will be at Notts County will be and there is very little that football fans can do to stand against the cavalier attitudes taken to ownership in the modern game.

City tried spending to get out of the division and failed. Notts County’s owners are unlikely to balance risk and prudence as Mark Lawn says City have which may see The Magpies to achieve what City could not last season.

The long term effects on County will be seen in time – the other Magpies though that they were going places when they got big investment – but City start out the season with a mix of players: some young lads, some old heads, some local lads made good; and if that is not the recipe for success then success is not worth having.

Now though football starts again. Great.

Through the looking glass

Through the looking glass

It’s almost upon us, as always in a summer bereft of international action, the gap between end and start of season stretches out like a shimmering hot desert, the oasis of that first game still a mirage on the horizon. The Ashes wets the whistle but nothing quenches that thirst like the first roar of the home crowd, the first sight of a new team lining up, full of optimism, the first goal of the season from a man in a claret and amber (or now mainly claret) shirt.

This summer has been all about money, Manchester City offering the England Captain £250,000 to join the Eastlands revolution, Real Madrid buying up just about every sought after footballer on the planet and bizarrely, Sven-Goran Eriksson being installed as director of football (though some think he might be manager in all but name) at the newly oil-rich Notts County.

Of course for those of us not owned by rich consortia from the middle east, the opposite has been true, purse strings have been tightened, wages have been slashed and optimism is a word whispered quietly, especially around the streets of Bradford. You see, we bantams have had our fingers burned. Cast your mind back to last season, full of bluster and bravado after the signings of players with proven calibre in a level above, we played Notts County in a mirror image of this seasons first game and, it must be said, came away fairly happy with a 2-1 win. However, the tale was a cautionary one, we flew too high too fast and came down with a bump, now it is Notts County with the millstone of money around their necks and I for one, think this will aid us.

This league asks for passion and desire, with an ability to deal with the physical side of things, something maybe players such as Paul McLaren didn’t have the stomach for, in this respect I believe the signings we have made, whether they be forced upon us by circumstance or not, will be ideal for the league. Steve Williams and James Hanson have served their apprenticeships in non-league, they know the game is kick and be kicked. Non-league is no longer a footballing wasteground, the level of football has long been improving and there is no doubt that players coming from that background can step up, you only have to look at Stockport and Peterborough in recent years for examples of how buying players with a point to prove from lower levels can work.

Gareth Evans and Simon Ramsden know this league well, Evans should hopefully develop and blossom alongside the experienced finishers we have in Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne and Simon Ramsden seems to be the kind of solid, no nonsense full back Stuart has been looking to fill that gap for some time.

So come the first day of the long awaited season, when Sven looks out onto the Meadow Lane pitch and wonders what the hell he’s got himself in for, City fans, with our hearts full of pre-season optimism, should relish being the poor relation as it might just have forced our hand into getting what we wanted all along, a ticket out of this league.

The 47th game

In seven days time City will have faced Notts County in what is game one of the new season but in a rain soaked Valley Parade the Bantams seemed to have started the season early in a 3-3 draw with Carlisle United.

To suggest that the friendly between Stuart McCall’s City and a Carlisle side managed by his former midfield partner Greg Abbott was “competitive” would understate the content that saw the visitors copy their manager’s combative style and at one point boiled over into typical Abbo violence.

Richard Keogh swung for Joe Colbeck and in a proper game would have been sent off no questions asked leaving his team to play with ten men for seventy odd minutes. Keogh missed Colbeck’s square jaw just as Brandon missed with a kick at Michael Evans in the dying minutes which would also have resulted in red and followed on from the sort of tackle by Evans that littered the game. Too physical, too much, and never allowed in the season for real.

So in that way the work out for City was perfect – bad refereeing of the league season being substituted by soft pre-season officialdom and City responded to that work out well.

Another number four got a run out for the Bantams with former Luton and Hereford midfielder Stephen O’Leary wasting no time in pressing his case for a contract by finishing tidily a headed cut back by Michael Boulding who got on the end of a superb Joe Colbeck cross deep on the right.

Carlisle reacted poorly with Keogh swinging at Colbeck who spent the first half tormenting former Leeds man Ian Harte and looked distinctly second best. City’s second goal came from another Colbeck cross – a corner – which headbanded Matthew Clarke jumped for and may have connected with but landed at the feet of Peter Thorne who finished easily from close range. It was – at that stage – comprehensive.

Nevertheless twenty minutes later City were losing. Firstly Graham Kavanagh was allowed to turn on the edge of the box dropped away from the central defenders and not being picked up by the midfield – one of Stephen O’Leary and Lee Bullock should have been there – and was allowed time and space to fire in impressively from thirty yards.

Secondly the rain became torrential taking away Zesh Rehman’s legs as Joe Anyinsah played the ball to Matty Robson and was shown enough of the goal by Clarke to be tempted to shoot and duly did giving a second goal in two minutes. It was unimpressive defending and seemed to snap City right back into last season’s lower moments.

The spine of the team was found wanting, and the heart. Things went against the Bantams and the Bantams responded by sulking. It was Morecambe at Easter or Barnet away all over again and City visibly wilted.

The third goal came eight minutes later when a corner headed in by Joe Anyinsah with Simon Eastwood left flapping at the ball.

Eastwood has yet to impress and will need to communicate more with his backline to become a better keeper while his judgement at coming out to try collect this corner was curious to say the least. At the moment all he offers over Jon McLaughlin is that he is someone else.

So the black shirted Bantams trudged in at half time having been the best for thirty minutes but mostly through errors ended up losing. So far, so last season.

Nevertheless something that Stuart McCall said at half time reminded the team that they had been comfortable in the game for a long time because what one would hope is normal service was resumed with Bullock and O’Leary combining well with the attacking pair of Thorne and Boulding and Colbeck and Brandon coming inside and working the ball forward well with sudden, tight controlled football. Eastwood’s first half display may have been duplicated in the second had Carlisle mustered a shot worthy of the name in the second half but aside from a shot that flashed across the goal they threatened rarely.

City on the other hand revealed an alternative to the 442 which McCall favours with a 4231 that saw two holding midfielders in Bullock and O’Leary, Gareth Evans lead the line ahead of Colbeck, Brandon and James Hanson who lot a header today – a thing that is notable only for its infrequency such is the impressive abilities of the Idle Working Man.

Before the change in formation Michael Boulding had flashed a Peter Thorne chest down wide and Colbeck did similar following an impressive nutmegging of the referee but it was a breakaway from Evans which won a corner that when slung in the former Macclesfield man tucked away from close range despite a heavy first touch in a crowded penalty area.

Three all it finished and while Keogh would never have finished a league game and some of the tackling used the weakness of pre-season refereeing to avoid bookings and neutering giving both teams a good work out but causing worry for City.

Abbott’s side too easily bullied City – especially in that fifteen minute spell before half time – and the Bantams were not able to counter that physical play or that sudden burst of (for want of a better phrase) “wanting it” which undermined a performance that was worthy of a win.

O’Leary looked no better or no worse than other number fours we have tried but one of he or James O’Brien would seem to be about to be offered a contract this week and making a debut next but the Bantams need someone to sit in the midfield and someone to prompt and inspire in the way that McCall did when he rejoined City in ’98 galvanising a team that had lead the league in ’97 but faded into a genuine promotion side.

One would hope that City could find this type of leader from within the club – Peter Thorne seems to be captain apparent – and Zesh Rehman and Lee Bullock also hinting that they could emerge as characters but leadership is lacking and when City trudged back to the centre circle after the second and third goals there was no geeing up, no encouraging, no leadership pulling up everyone else’s game as McCall The Player did.

Brandon’s ill tempter kick certainly was not it and he needs to wear his status as City’s senior player with more conscientiousness and sobriety.

Ultimately though football is a game of balance in flux. In a match which was competitive this game was the 1st of 47th in a season that starts next week and may be no different to last with the collapse before half time so reminiscent of last year but perhaps it will be the 47th of 2008/2009 and in a week when the season kicks off City will be a team a year older, more experienced and able to drag a draw out of a game in which a lead was surrendered in contrast to last season.

One can but hope. Either way the phoney war is over and the season – nine months of elation and agony, anguish and exhilaration – starts now.

Where we will feel the pain as the cost cut squad is shaped

Seventy minutes into the friendly with Barnsley looking over the City side the shape of the squad for next season post £700,000 cost cut emerged and with it the nature of the squad and season.

Around the field City had replaced first teamers with younger players and Luke Sharry was making a case for being considered a central midfielder rather than a wide man to be back up to Lee Bullock when the thinness of the squad to come became apparent.

Not that you would see this from looking at the front players. Massive kudos to Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne who have both taken pay cuts to stay and form part of a four man team up front with Gareth Evans and James Hanson.

I confess I miss Barry Conlon’s robust style and the idea that Willy Topp might have been good but individually James Hanson and Gareth Evans offer no less than Topp and Conlon – well – is Hanson puts in the energy that Conlon did as his pre-season performances suggest he might then their is no reason why he can not be equally well thought of (assuming one thought well of Conlon that is).

Likewise out wide Joe Colbeck this season is no worse than Joe Colbeck last when he came into the year as a well thought of player of the season aside from the fact that the wide man is on week to week contracts and has had a half year of “atmosphere” at Valley Parade. Colbeck, like Chris Brandon, is an able footballer and Omar Daley (unloved, again, but his importance was shown in his absence) create a threesome of players who should be at the top of the division but starting with one injured City are already down to bare bones and hoping for the impressiveness of young players.

Luke Sharry – as mentioned – could be great back up for Lee Bullock and could be the player he hints at being in reserve games but hoping that Sharry can perform is not the same as dropping in Nicky Law Jnr to cover an injury. At one point last season we had six midfielders out (Colbeck, Daley, Bullock, Furman, McLaren and Brandon) and put together a team that beat MK Dons whereas this season it would be hard to see us being able to withstand such losses.

The hit of cutting costs is felt not as much in the quality of the squad but the strength of it. Good players but one worries if we got injuries and – two seasons in League Two tell us we will get injuries.

Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Matthew Clarke are covered by Simon Ramsden who is covered at right back by Jonathan Bateson. Luke O’Brien faces competition at left back from Louis Horne but both are young players and we are hoping both will transfer potential – to greater and lesser extents – into performances. Good players, little back up.

The signing of Simon Eastwood came with confirmation that he and Jon McLaughlin will be given the chance to fight over the gloves at Notts County and for the first half of the season.

Two inexperienced keepers is worrying – I have seen few good teams without a settled goalkeeper – as is the gap at number four.

City are closer to finding someone to fill the hole only in seeming to have decided that Grant Smith, Joe Keehan and a few others are not “the man”. Last season Dean Furman only signed at the end of August and perhaps in a month we might all be marvelling at John Fleck running riot in midfield.

Perhaps not though. This morning comes news of a bidding war for Leeds United’s Fabian Delph between Spurs and Aston Villa which City would take 12.5% of and as last season’s other big money side Shrewsbury Town sell Grant Holt at a £100,000 loss while Joe Hart – who they get £500,000 for should he play a full England game – so City are in a position of trimming the cloth today but perhaps being affluent tomorrow. Sign up a rookie keeper now and it we are in the top half at Christmas and find ourselves well off go get someone else perhaps.

Last season was budgeted as promotion or Delph leaving – this season it is assumed (sensibly) that neither will occur and the cloth is cut accordingly. Delph may stay until Christmas, until next summer, until he retires and City do well to not push out boats on the strength of his transfer status.

Nevertheless it is probable that at some point City will have over half a million coming in to the club and perhaps the season is shaped by staying in and around contention for as long as possible until that occurs. Should Delph leave at Christmas then the Bantams could move through the league in the last four months just as we did last year – only in the other direction. Similarly is we get that windfall on the last day of the Summer transfer window we are left with a squad and money hanging over us Notts County style for months.

There is a school of thought – which I subscribe to – that money in League Two is largely wasted and the teams rise and fall through spirit and morale.

That and keeping fingers crossed than injuries do not hit as hard this year as last.

Back to football as City take on Barnsley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bantams weigh up the options as they head to York and beyond

As with anyone forced to confront big spending in these tough times the Bantams return to the possibilities of having a positive income refreshed after a rumage through the bargain bins.

Paul McLaren joined Graeme Lee in leaving the club, Michael Boulding started talking reduced terms and suddenly the likes of Andy Holdsworth – one of the best hundred players to take the field for Huddersfield apparently and player of the season the year before last – turns up for a game just as people start talking about Lee Hughes.

Such shopping is far from Harrods but it is not Lidl either which seemed as if it was going to be the shape of the City squad to come.

That bargain basement rumage seems to have turned up two players for now with the possibility of more to follow.

Steve Williams and James Hansom both suggest themselves immediately while a clutch of midfielders race to be most impressive with Joe Keehan adding himself to the list of James O’Brien and Jordan Hadfield.

It is sometime since City so clearly trawled the non-league market to pull in Williams, Hanson and Keehan and one wonders if the qualities that make someone a very good part-time player can be transferred to League Two level.

While the step from League Two to the Championship is one of class then that from non-league to League Two is of lifestyle.

As League Two players the new signings will be on around £25,000 a year which is not just a long way from the money being offered to John Terry but is comparable with the full-time jobs non-league players hold down now.

I’m no expert in how much a hairdresser in Bamber Bridge takes home but anything over £25,000 gives someone like Steve Williams a genuine decision to make.

League Two’s rank and file players are professionals earning in some cases less than non-league counterparts may get from the day job.

Such roughness of figures aside the point emerges that the non-league amateur or semi-pro might not be in professional football for financial rather than playing reasons and the step up to League Two level is less one of fitness and training rather than pure ability.

If the ranks of the non-professionals do offer fruit for the picking then City are in prime position to offer attractive terms being still one of the top half of spenders in League Two but having holes in the squad to fill.

The likes of Williams, Hanson or Keehan look to claim those rich pickings. Keehan’s half on Wednesday night showed a combative midfielder built like a tank and coloured like a tomato but the role he auditions for alongside Lee Bullock is of paramount importance to the Bantams side and one wonders if it could be handed to a rookie.

With financial pressures eased Stuart McCall may look to bring in a name such as Andy Holdsworth to replay and hopefully improve on McLaren last term. Certainly there is no position on the field worthy of more attention.

Nevertheless Alan Mannus has yet to be tested in goal but was worryingly quiet and punchy at Park Avenue.

The defence for Notts County is more or less picked with Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Matthew Clarke who will miss the York game through injury and Luke O’Brien lining up. Likewise Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding will open the season with the likes of Brother Rory, Gareth Evans and Hanson looking to be in the seven subs City will keep on the bench next season.

Joe Colbeck seems pencilled in for that first game but with the player on week to week deals and Oldham reportedly interested one wonders for how long he will be at the club. Replacement Luke Sharry looks more of a central player when replacing Colbeck but shows talent. Leon Osbourn seems to have much work to do before he is able to stand up in League Two but is warmly backed by supporters in a way that Colbeck or Omar Daley could only dream of.

The middle of the midfield is a mix at the moment with many players looking for a place next to Bullock.

McCall must be heartened by the names that have suggested themselves so far in pre-season but as he watches City take in York he will note that the team has requirements for the goalkeeper, the holding midfielder, one if not both wingers, and after plugging holes continue to build for the season ahead.

Names suggest themselves as pre-season continues with City win over Park Avenue

Having already established that beating teams way above you is meaningless one wonders how defeating the local non-league side should be viewed following Bradford City’s 2-0 win over Park Avenue.

The Bantams bested their City rivals with two second half goals and a clean sheet that made strong cases for two of the trialists who are looking to make the step up from the Avenue level to League Two.

The first half saw the Barber from Bamber Bridge Steve Williams look impressive at the heart of a defence alongside Grant Smith in a side led up front and as captain by Peter Thorne. Thorne’s partnership with Gareth Evans looked promising with the new young striker linking up well with the senior man climaxing late on in the half when a move that featured the thrusting play of Joe Colbeck – Colbeck is coming back to form – and a strong header that from the skipper which keeper Steve Dickinson did well to save.

Nevertheless more of the play seemed to be given to the back and to Williams who looked strong. That Williams and his defensive partners were involved so much – and that City broke down the right often and the centre and left less so – was down to a performance from the central two midfielders Jordan Hadfield and Lee Bullock which did not control the game well enough.

Which is not to say that City were overrun but that to win games at League Two and above is to win midfield battles and for the opening three quarters of the first half the Bantams middle two did not.

Half time parity was deserved but on the balance of the second half the Bantams were deserved winners – although of course that does not mean anything – following the entry of James Hanson who has gone a long way to securing himself a move from Guiseley to Bradford City.

Within a minute of the re-start Hanson had risen to head long pass into the path of Michael Boulding who took the ball and slotted home with confidence. Five minutes later a free kick was centred and Hanson – who scored two against Avenue on New Years Day last season – headed home firmly.

Boulding and Hanson could have both had more and Dickinson kept the score down as the Bantams middle two of former Huddersfield Town man Andy Holdsworth and Lewes young – and tanned – midfielder Joe Keehan grabbed the game.

The Bantams kept the game on the whole in the Avenue half although some late flurries forward saw keeper Alan Mannus – a keeper who had an unsettling tendency to punch – called into make a single save and watch a few go wide. Former City man Harpel Singh was ineffectual as ever on the left flank. Simon Ainge – who snuck out of City in recent months – was on the bench.

Hanson won aerial battles for the evening and Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke looked solid with a special note for Louis Horne who continues to look able at left back. Keehan was especially impressive but joins a list of midfielders trying out for the number four shirt. Keehan, Holdsworth, Hadfield, James O’Brien. Pre-season is for sorting such things out.

In Williams and Hanson it would seem that two names are suggesting themselves already.

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.

Evolution meets revolution when Burnley arrive at Valley Parade

Before the start of last season when a should have been ten men Burnley squeezed a last minute pre-season win once City has brought the kids on few would have predicted that in twelve months time the length of professional football would separate the clubs.

Nevertheless Burnley took that scrapping spirit, one supposes, into all their games last year and ended up winning the play off final. One would rather they were in the top flight over Reading so more power to their elbow. There Premier League is a maelstrom and change becomes revolution fast. Two years in the top flight changed Bradford City forever and tomorrow marks the end of that old Burnley.

In contrast City rumble onward after last season’s late collapse put pay to all that justified early season promise and arriving into this season are blessed with the stability of not having replaced manager Stuart McCall at the end of last.

McCall has enjoyed the near unheard-of luxury for a City boss of being able to continue crafting his squad as a work in evolution rather than the club throwing all away and starting again and as such will only be in a stronger position this year than last, and than a manager who would have replaced McCall would have been in.

Such is the virtue of stability – not to be confused with indolence – which allows for the exit of Graeme Lee for financial reasons and his replacement by an already bedded in Zesh Rehman. Rehman plays his first game full time for City and his reaction to the element of the Burnley support who shamed their club last year may give an indication for his readiness for the available captain’s arm band.

Lee was joined in exit by Paul McLaren although Michael Boulding talks of reducing his wage to allow him to stay and Chris Brandon, the last of the expensives, is training for his first season proper for the club he supports so should need no encouragement to provide good value, value being the lesson learnt from last season. Value and the need for harmony.

A lack of harmony seems to have cost Paul Arnison his his career at Valley Parade and Simon Ramsden and Jon Bateman both joined the club in the summer and can play right back. Luke O’Brien was the left back slot to himself while Rehman and Mathew Clarke seem to be the choice for the middle two but with only Simon Ainge at senior level as back up another body is needed.

A body is needed beween the posts too. Rhys Evans was moved on quickly at the end of last term and Jon McLaughlan is off saving penalties for Great Britain. It will be interesting to see who pulls on the gloves tomorrow.

Up front Peter Thorne returns but may not play, none of us are getting any younger, however M. Boulding and new boy Gareth Evans along with Rory Boulding will show their faces expect “that lad from the reserves” to play, scuff in a goal and not be shut up about for months.

Last season that oar was Luke Sharry who looked like an able midfielder and is, in my mind at least, worth putting in the squad as back up to Lee Bullock following the fruitless and pointless chase for Nicky Law Jnr.

The chase for Dean Furman was equally fruitless but much more required. Oldham signed him leaving City looking Jordan Hadfield, who looked up for a scrap when he played at Valley Parade, to try fill empty boots. We can but hope. Three of last season’s five central midfielders have gone and with one of them, Brandon, half out the door and needed to replace the still injured Omar Daley on the left it is not hard to see where City need to strengthen.

Joe Colbeck looks for a better season on the right with Daley injured and Steve Jones, last season’s sometimes effective winger back At Burnley after his loan giving him a free run at the side.

Expect that, a few kids, a pile of people you don’t know on trial and a lot of huffing and puffing that tries to extrapolate the most random ninety minutes over the next ten months.

Boulding stays and will hope for a more competitive League Two

Touch wood, everyone will be starting the new campaign equal. Last season’s League Two saw a whopping 74 points collectively deducted from four teams, with the result a less competitive and more conservative division. With Luton beginning on minus 30 and Bournemouth and Rotherham minus 17, you had to be really bad to become embroiled in the relegation battle. Two clubs – Grimsby and Chester – were, thanks largely to some wretched winless runs. The latter getting relegated with Luton, who never really stood a chance.

But what of the rest? There were around 10 League Two clubs with little to play for last season. No where near good enough for promotion, but no where near bad enough to throw away such a sizeable headstart that relegation worries were anything stronger than faint. It was a campaign for going through the motions.

The downside, on Valley Parade evidence, was how good a result an away draw was thus considered and we had to become used to visiting team after visiting team playing either five at the back or five in midfield. Compare Macclesfield Town’s – the perfect example of a club able to coast through a nothing season – approach at Valley Parade last March to that of relegation-threatened Mansfield and Dagenham the March before. City’s home record may have been better last season, but few opposition teams turned up to BD8 with ambitions of testing it.

No player seemed to suffer more from this than Michael Boulding, who’s first season in Claret and Amber can be politely described as disappointing. It became quickly obvious that Boulding was a player who likes to run the channels and receive the ball at his feet, but the deep defensive tactics of opposing teams meant the space to do so was minimal. In too many home games Boulding was anonymous, rarely touching the ball never mind threatening to score. Away from home he wasn’t always on his game, but the increased space afforded by home teams more prepared to take the game to City meant he was a more notable threat. He ended the season with 13 goals – but hasn’t scored at Valley Parade since December 2008.

The affect of these opposition defensive strategies meant the kind of football the majority of City fans like to see wasn’t always possible, and over time the myth has grown that manager Stuart McCall likes his teams to play ‘hoof ball’. It’s true to a point that City have become more direct under Stuart compared to the style that predecessors Colin Todd and Nicky Law, for example, liked to play, but the chances of City getting through a sea of opposition players parked resolutely in front of their keeper makes the success of short patient passes manifesting into goalscoring chances limited. Get it into the opposition’s final third, even if it’s not by the prettiest of means, and the opportunities to get closer to goal increase.

During a season where there was endless debates about no Plan B, it would be wrong to say this was all City tried. It appeared they went for a mixed style with the ball passed around some times, then targeted down the wing at others, with direct attacks another weapon. Play the same way all the time and, against defensive-minded opposition, it becomes too predictable. Some of City’s better moments certainly came through quick-fire passing and, when in form, were an exciting team to watch.

‘Hoof ball’ really came to the fore during the poor run of form in March, which showed it was a sign of drained confidence. Players are less likely to try the patient approach when people in the stands are screaming “forward!” and ready to chant “you’re not fit to wear a shirt” at the first sign of problems, so our necks began to feel the strain from all those ‘hoof balls’ during the increasingly desperate run-in. Stuart needs players with certain qualities to take the club forward this season, the conviction to play to your strengths and take ownership of situations, even when low on confidence, being high up there. Easier said than done with League Two calibre players though.

Which brings us back to Boulding, who has today revealed he wants to stay and prove himself after last season’s disappointment. Whether opposition teams – more likely to go into matches targeting a win with a proper relegation and promotion battle – change their defensive approach this season remains to be seen. However for Boulding to succeed he’s going to have to show more in his game. Unlike at his former club Mansfield, where he was the star, this City team is not going to be built around him. He faces a battle just to make the starting eleven ahead of Peter Thorne and Gareth Evans. It’s not going to be enough for him to have long anonymous spells in games and to wait for the team to play him the right ball, he has to come looking for it and to be more determined to influence games.

There’s no doubting Boulding is a good player and City remain fortunate to have him. In a division that should be more adventurous and competitive this season, he needs to follow suit.

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.

It never Rehmans but it pours

The youthful small army that carried the “Zesh Rehman Fan Club” banner will return to Valley Parade to see their hero next term after that Pakistan captain signed a two year deal at Bradford City in a flurry of pen being put to paper.

Rehman joined Stuart McCall’s budget Bantams at the same time as Luke O’Brien, Joe Colbeck and Leon Osborne confirmed they would be staying and the shape of Stuart’s City team for next season emerged looking oddly familiar and increasingly like last season’s side.

Frank Fielding of Blackburn is said to be the number one choice for keeper. Fielding impressed as a loan player when at Wycombe but few would suggest that the problem with last term was Rhys Evans. Jon McLaughlin is on permanent stand by and now that first team squads include seven substitutes he can expect to be on the bench every game at least.

Likewise Simon Ramsden will line up at right back rather than Paul Arnison but the position was not leaky last year and left wingers did not constantly enjoy joy leaving one to wonder what will be different. Rehman and Matthew Clarke will make a good enough back two. I countenance little debate on Clarke’ abilities pointing instead to the fact that City’s back four are not longer bullied by big forwards as proof of that particular pudding.

McCall has a chance to make a difference with left back Luke O’Brien and right winger Joe Colbeck. He has one player doing nothing and another who is young player of the season and his aim must be to get O’Brien to have a better season than Colbeck did in his post-award year and to get Colbeck back onto the form that won him that gong.

It is man management and the City McCall and his management team get or lose for one they gain for the other. With Omar Daley out until Christmas – and it is the opinion of this parish that losing Daley that caused the nosedive last year – getting Joe Colbeck to terrorise defences becomes of paramount importance especially with Peter Thorne signed up for another season.

Thorne’s ability to play two games a week is questionable and so City chase Gareth Evans but at the moment their is a huge Barry Conlon shaped hole in the forward line. Michael Boulding has taken on the air of Ashley Ward with a mythical and specific way of playing that would suit him and probably few others getting the best out of the channel running forward. Boulding moved late in the summer last season, perhaps he will again.

Chris Brandon signed early but is not leaving in the same way. Interest in Brandon is low to none as befits a man who started only four games last season and while the left flank man is one of the expensive exiters do not be surprised to see him line up for the start and many game next year.

As with last season though the middle of the midfield is mutable. The attacking midfielder question of Lee Bullock or Nicky Law Jnr is answered with one signing and the other joining Rotherham United so once again the fundamental question about Stuart McCall’s team is who will be his Stuart McCall?

Since our number four left for Sheffield United anchoring, holding midfielders have come and gone from Valley Parade and few have settled in what is – in the humble opinion of this writer – the most important position on the football field.

Dean Furman is wanted by us and Oldham and Paul McLaren will do well to find another club. Nathan Doyle is no more likely to get games this year at Hull City than he was last and some would have him in on loan.

So we look at Bradford City 2009/2010 and see a gap up front next to Peter Thorne, a question mark over the midfield and a new keeper we are not sure about. Much to be confident about but still issues that need addressing.

So much of the same.

In the middle of things

BfB struggles. A server move hit us two weeks ago and nothing has been the same since.

Things that used to work no longer do, comments are broken, Jason could not log on, links that were added vanished, errors littered the front page, the guy in charge of shouting at the people who hosted the server (me, in other words) lost his job and things dragged on without an update for ages.

Things dragged on at Valley Parade too. Simon Ramsden came into the club to play right back and a war of words started between Rochdale FC and City boss Stuart McCall with Keith Hill – manager at the Spotland club – accusing the City gaffer of lying about how much was offered to the right back who joined City and stating that the Bantams were telling the current squad that they could afford to pay x while offering y

If McCall wants to make anything of it then we have dealings with Rochdale’s solicitors. They were very zealous in the past. The date of Tuesday night on 23rd of February 2010 should be interesting.

If McCall has wrongly told some to sign up for less then they have believed him with Matthew Clarke, Lee Bullock and Peter Thorne putting pen to paper. There was much upset about Nicky Law Jnr going to Rotherham United but I would suspect that shouting loud enough to the players leaving Premiership and Championship clubs this summer on frees would find far too many players who are in the Law/Kyle Nix attacking midfielder role and what City need is to retain Dean Furman.

Furman seems to be interesting Oldham Athletic. I’m not surprised. Oldham are also said to be trying to get Benito Carbone but face competition from Walsall. The Saddlers are managed by Chris Hutchings – obviously Carbone’s time with the former City boss for four months in 2000 was not wasted.

Some have said that Carbone might come back. The stuff of dreams. Dreaming is good. Carbone seems to be constantly at the end of his career but City are – at the moment – in the middle of a close season of uncertainty. Oldham have sniffed around Graeme Lee but he – as with the other big earners Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren and Michael Boulding – shows no signs of going. One hopes if they do stay this unwillingness or inability is not held against them. As Jim Jefferies’s time following Hutchings at Valley Parade showed the only thing worse than having high earners on the wage bill you can not shift is having high earners on the wage bill you can not shift and you leave in the reserves.

If Lee, Boulding, McLaren, Brandon line up for City next year lets all make sure that we get good value out of the money we have to pay them even if we are in the middle of getting rid of them.

McCall is in the middle of trying to bring in Gareth Evans from Macclesfield Town but worries about the potential cost of the 21 year old striker. One wonders what Keith Hill would say about City’s abilities to afford Evans. How City’s pursuit of the young Evans or the 37 year old Carbone will end is not known but City seem to be in the middle of building another squad which the bookies think will challenge for promotion next season.

The Bantams though are talking down chances. A League Cup first round tie at Nottingham Forest is viewed on as unwinnable and the opening game at Notts County is “tough”. A look at the City squad with the addition of names linked reveals little when viewed through the prism of last season’s “World Beaters” and how the wheels fell off the wagon with weeks left on the season. Put simply any eleven players pulled together for a League Two campaign could be the next Brentford and the fact that the Bantams join Lincoln and Shrewsbury in the fixtures shows that spending money is no guarantee.

So in the middle of the mid-year break it is hard to say which way the Bantams will go next term. Things at BfB still do not work properly but they will be fixed in time. Such is the problem with writing in the middle of things. It is not knowing how things will end it is the shape of them when they do.

City pensive in a worrying limbo

John Hendrie is telling Bradford City’s players that were offered contracts by the club that they should sign now knowing that the offers on the table at Valley Parade will not get any better and better offers will not be found on anyone else’s tables either.

So the likes of Lee Bullock and Matthew Clarke are told to sign and while the offers for them will not get better so – one assumes – the offers elsewhere for Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee, Michael Boulding and Chris Brandon are not going to improve. City might want to get these four off the wage bill but it is almost impossible to see all four of them exiting.

Rochdale – always keen to press for good governance in football – have decided they need to trim ten from the squad and like City ask three players to find new clubs. The Spotland club have fallen in the play-offs first legs and have decided that next season they need to be more frugal. They are not alone.

All over Leagues one and two players who are out of contract are not being offered new ones and set about trying to find comparable wages elsewhere. At the back end of July one can expect the League Two footballer with a family who picked up £60,000 last year to be ready to take £40,000 and pay the mortgage but for a few months at least they will try get at least comparable terms. Who wouldn’t?

The likes of Rhys Evans – released by City last term after an impressive season – is primed to be picked up by someone in the bottom two divisions but considering twelve months ago he was free to sign for City it is hard to see a queue of people forming at his door to pay through the nose for a player they passed up on previously. Wage offers are lower all around football and Evans – like many players who performed well last season – will be lucky to get an improvement in terms.

How long Evans, Paul Heckingbottom and similar waits to accept comparable or worse are personal concerns and could provide an interesting type of out of window transfer option for clubs next season. Should an Evans opt not to take a reduced deal in the summer after getting no interest then once the transfer window closes he – being out of contract and free to be recruited at any point in the season – becomes a limited and thus more valued commodity.

Evans would be in a better position to dictate terms to a team looking for a keeper after a poor September then he is in the summer presenting the option of paying that bit extra for a good player now rather than spending months until Christmas without.

Such a risk though has two significant downsides for a player. Firstly they spend the first Saturday in August watching football rather than playing it and – in essence – have become ex-players, retired footballers, people who used to be pros and while one does not want to damn all those who kick balls in anger they do not easily move into other professions. If the football season kicks off and you are sitting at home how long is it before you start to look for a brickies job? After all Ian Wright and Dean Windass both had to work brick after becoming ex-footballers in their twenties.

Secondly there will be a feeling that while the slump in the wider economy drags football down it is impossible to predict either where the end of the recession is or what state football will be when it returns to ruder health. Darlington FC are struggling to kick off next season, Fisher Athletic will not do having gone bankrupt this morning. Less money in football over a longer period could mean that the contracts offered today may be higher than those offered in six, twelve or eighteen months.

All of which could create curious quirks in football. Shrewsbury Town are – we are told – profitable and to collect the £500,000 from Manchester City should Joe Hart play a competitive England game. When that deal was signed £500,000 was a significant sum now it would be a King’s ransom – enough to collect the likes of McLaren, Lee and Boulding to your club.

In such a situation a team that swam against the downturn could expect to have the levels of dominance in League Two that Peterborough United and MK Dons had two years ago. Money does not maketh the team – we know that from last year and years before – but not having it certainly does not help either. It is not so much that you are able to take huge steps forward just that everyone else takes a step back.

So City are in limbo waiting for the four players to leave – which they probably won’t – or the offered players to sign which they probably will or both. One hopes that Stuart McCall does not feel the need to ape Jim Jefferies failed attempts to rid the club of high earners shown when he dropped Benito Carbone and Stan Collymore to the reserves for three months and that if the quartet of high earners at here in August they are in the team.

With that in mind it seems entirely possible that the Bantams could kick off next season with seven or eight of the regulars from last term. A team of McLaughlin | Arnison, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien | Colbeck McLaren Bullock Brandon | Boulding and Boulding would be possible and while we might not have bee massively impressed with those lads last year if the rest of the division is weaker then it would seem harder to not get promoted than to go up.

These are famous last words. City cannot afford such a situation with the current cash flow situation and without a cash boost. If the likes of Peter Thorne were not kept then the £600,000 lost last term would be lessened but where would City find £400,000 – £500,000?

Martin O’Neill is rumoured to be joining 36,999 other people at Elland Road to watch what Fabian Delph can do to help get Leeds United promoted tonight and to prepare a bid of £6.5m for the former City youngster and depending on who you believe the Bantams could pocket 10% of that.

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…

BfB’s Top Five Review of 2008/2009

BfB Player of the Season 2008/2009
  1. Dean Furman
    It is said that a manager knows his own position best and in – eventually – picking the Rangers kid Furman to be in the position – if not the shirt – of Bradford City’s number four Stuart McCall found an heir apparent. After breaking into the starting eleven later in the season Furman started to regularly feature in everyone’s “my midfield would be” harrying, unsettling and getting at opposition players when the senior players he displaced seemed unwilling to. Add to that his use of the ball which was superb then one can see a bright future for the young South African at Ranger – where he is expected to feature in the first team squad next year – and beyond.
  2. Omar Daley
    Where did it all go wrong? Tuesday night against a Darlington team all too ready to kick who had six nibbles at Omar before taking him out until 2010 with a rustic tackle that ended City as an attacking force for the season. It seems a million years ago that there was even a debate on Daley – who had turned in his fair share of gutless displays in previous years – who constantly and effectively providing an attacking option for the Bantams all season. The true measure of Omar – and the thing that finally silenced his critics – was just how much he was missed when he was gone.
  3. Luke O’Brien
    Emerging from the shadows with little more than the half remembrance of Gareth Grant skinning him in pre-season Luke O’Brien is one of those young players who’s progress is measured by how quickly one gets used to him. He had filled in at left back to a point where no hole was remembered – Paul Heckingbottom is hardly even talked off – and even raised to the hallowed level for a Valley Parade young player where the shrink wrap is taken off and he is as open to criticism as the rest of the squad. What joy. A fine first season.
  4. Rhys Evans
    The one time Chelsea and England u21 goalkeeper arrived at Valley Parade as something of a second choice after the club’s pursuit of Rob Burch but went on to make the gloves his own with intelligent goalkeeping based on smart positioning in the Gary Walsh stylee.
  5. Peter Thorne
    Another season in Peter? One hopes so. Thorne is the finisher that every clubs needs to gobble up chances when created. If we do offer the 35 year old another year then let us make sure that we provide him the ammo he needs.
Five best loan signings
  1. Dean Furman
  2. Nicky Law Jnr
  3. Zesh Rehman
  4. Steve Jones
  5. Paul Mullin
Five “get in” moments – The times we lost our heads in wild celebrations
  1. Accrington 2 City 3
    An awful performance and an awful result on the cards. Then with two minutes to go Barry Conlon heads home an equaliser to bring some relief and then 30 seconds later Joe Colbeck plays Peter Thorne through to improbably win the game. Don’t ask us what happened in the next 30 seconds, we rather lost the plot celebrating.
  2. Luton 3 City 3
    A game that had everything including a superb second half City display, coming from 2-0 down to 2-2. After the Bantams miss so many chances to win it, Luton scored in injury time, but then the referee blows for a penalty and Conlon scores the coolest spot kick you’ll ever see to send us wild.
  3. City 3 Chesterfield 2
    Another tense moment, another Conlon penalty to spark scenes of jubilation. City looked dead and buried after 20 minutes but came from 2-0 behind to win what felt like a crucial game.
  4. Rotherham 0 City 2
    How cold was the Don Valley stadium in November? We shivered our way through 70 minutes of tediously dull football, then Luke O’Brien charged forward from his own half and fired the ball into the net, enabling some of us to warm up by dancing on the running track.
  5. City 1 Macclesfield 0
    A must-win game and Macclesfield are time wasting and keeping every player behind the ball. Then Dean Furman wipes away an hour of frustration by firing the ball into the bottom corner. Promotion dream back on?
Five “oh dear” moments – The times we buried our heads in despair
  1. Huddersfield 4 City 0
    The fourth goal of an utterly humiliating evening, made worse for one of the BfB crew by his efforts to leave early being foiled by getting a flat tyre in his car, yards after starting to drive home, and getting stuck in the heavy rain, in Huddersfield, until almost midnight due to his spare tyre not working. Pre-season optimism disappeared that night.
  2. The Entire City 1 Dagenham 1
    We’re getting absolutely battered at home by a team playing the crudest form of long ball football imaginable. Just blow for full time referee and let’s never speak of this afternoon again.
  3. Stuart McCall at Dagenham
    The season is basically over and an-almost tearful Stuart runs over to deliver what feels like his resignation speech. How did it come to this?
  4. Omar Daley stretched off at home to Darlington
    We thought it looked bad, though no one could have realised just how bad…
  5. City 0 Port Vale 1 – Richards booting the ball away
    Yet another visiting team playing all out defence and getting away with non-stop time wasting. While the referee isn’t looking, Richards runs up and stops Rhys Evans taking a goal kick by booting the ball away. You’d laugh if it wasn’t so serious.
FiveSix biggest player disappointments
  1. Omar getting injured: I loved watching him run at people
  2. Barry leaving: I know the booze and all but even so.
  3. Michael Boulding: Top scorer from last season ran channels brilliantly and… well… not much else.
  4. Paul McLaren’s ways: Which are great for corners but get involved man!
  5. Chris Brandon: Cause everything will be alright when he is fit
  6. Willy Topp: I mean! What the Hell!
Five things seen through rose tinted spectacles
  1. Two defeats from 23 means teams won’t relish coming here next season.
  2. Another Bradford youngster makes a first team spot his own. Well played Luke O’Brien.
  3. Until we lost Daley and referees took a dislike to us, we competed with the best in this league.
  4. We’ve seen some great games and performances: Exeter (H), Accrington (A), Grimsby (A), Chesterfield (H), Morecambe (H), Luton (A), Gillingham (A), Aldershot (H), Rotherham (H).
  5. It looks like Stuart is staying to give it another crack.
Five things seen by the grumpy old sod…
  1. Winning less than half of our home games isn’t that impressive…and don’t get me started on the away form.
  2. We only had one home grown youngster playing regularly and most of the rest of the players are old and lazy.
  3. Daley was inconsistent and we were only near the top because no other team actually seemed to want to go up.
  4. We’ve seen some bad games and performances: Huddersfield (A), Bournemouth (H), Shrewsbury (A), Chester (H), Bury (A), Barnet (A), Notts County (A), Rochdale (A), Exeter (A), Bournemouth (A), Chester (A) Dagenham (A)
  5. It looks like Stuart is staying to give it another crack.
League Two team of the season – The players who have impressed against us
  • In goal: Andy Warrington of Rotherham United
    Produced a series of breathtaking saves to stop City running riot during the last home game of the season. Warrington just edges out impressive goalkeeping performances from Chester’s Jon Danby and Grimsby’s Phil Barnes at Valley Parade – especially as he didn’t resort to time wasting like the other two.
  • Right Back: Darren Moss of Shrewsbury Town
    The Shrews defender had a ding-dong of a battle with Omar Daley in January and just about ran out the winner. Strong, speedy and determined.
  • Left Back: Thomas Kennedy of Rochdale
    The Rochdale left back impressed in his sides 3-0 win over City at Spotland with his marauding bursts forward. Also made the League Two team of the season.
  • Centre Back: Steve Foster of Darlington
    Dave Penny’s Darlington lacked flair and finesse, their dogged approach best exemplified by the impressive Foster at the back.
  • Centre Back: Jim Bentley of Morecambe
    Okay he was a bit of an idiot in how he over-celebrated Morecambe’s 2-1 win over City on Good Friday, but Bentley was full of heart and gives everything to the Shrimpers cause. Courage that was not replicated by City on the day.
  • Right Wing: Dany N’Guessan of Lincoln City
    The French winger did his best to rip City apart on Boxing Day and looked impressive at Valley Parade too before Peter Jackson curiously took him off early. Destined to play at a higher level soon.
  • Left Wing: Miles Weston of Notts County
    Tore Paul Arnison apart on the opening day of the season, resulting in the City debutant having to be subbed. In the return game at Meadow Lane, tore Zesh Rehman apart.
  • Central Midfield: Darren Anderton of AFC Bournemouth
    One-time England winger played the holding midfield role in Bournemouth’s surprise win at Valley Parade in September, where he looked a class act whipping balls across the park. Anderton retired early allegedly due to then-manager Jimmy Quinn forcing him to train to intensively.
  • Central Midfield: Tommy Docherty of Wycombe Wanderers
    Another midfielder with an eye for a good pass, Docherty was hugely impressive when Wycombe came to Valley Parade and his manager Peter Taylor thinks he should be playing at a higher level. Looks like he will be next season.
  • Forward: Ben Strevens of Dagenham and Redbridge
    Strong, quick and clever with his feet – Strevens and his striker partner Benson were no match for City’s feeble defence at Victoria Road in April. Probably would cost a few quid, ruling City out of looking at him, but can’t see him at Dagenham much longer.
  • Forward: Chris Martin of Luton Town
    Poor guy, having a name like that; poor guy, playing for a club like that. Martin was a real handful when City played Luton at Kneilworth Road and should not be playing non-league football next season.

Give Youth A Chance

The news that the wage bill will be cut considerably at Bradford City next season doesn’t all spell doom and gloom. Stuart McCall met with the players on Wednesday to discuss futures and see just where he will be starting with his squad for next season.

Lengthy chats with Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding will surely have occurred as Mark Lawn makes sure a repeat of last season’s outgoings doesn’t repeat itself next time around.

So why all the negativity? Hopefully this will now signal the chance for Bradford’s youngsters to come through and prove they have what it takes to wear the Claret and Amber on a weekly basis. Luke O’Brien, recently crowned Player of the Season, made a real break through last season, with Joe Colbeck the only other notable player to come through and play on a consistent basis for the first team.

Now it’s time for Leon Osbourne, Sean Taylforth, Adrian Bellamy, Rory Boulding, Jonathan McLaughlin, Louis Horne, Rory Carson, Luke Dean and anyone else that is ready to give 100% to the cause and grow as a player to make the step forward. These players are on a small fraction compared to what some are earning on a weekly basis.

Other teams in the division have signed young players either released from higher clubs or making a name for themselves in lower divisions. This is the route Stuart McCall now needs to be taking as the realisation that Bradford are no different to any other team in the league finally sinks in with some.

Barnet for example have mixed experience with youth well and players like Albert Adomah and Jay Devera are capable of making the step up to the next level. Similarly, Dagenham & Redbridge and Exeter have shown what can be achieved with smaller playing budgets and a settled squad.

City fans were informed that 18 players are now out of contract at the club, leaving only a handful remaining. If stability is what fans want when it comes to the manager, the same must apply to the players.

Who do we as fans of the club have to associate with when players leave after one or two seasons. Next term we can only hope that there is less of the loan signings and more in the way of giving youth a chance.

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 Most Important Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Even the Big Issue man had a go at us!

The weekend had begun so well!

A good trip down with few motorway delays, we 4 checked in at the city centre hotel at 7 pm Friday. Just time for a quick shower and a bite to eat before going to sample a few of the Exeter centre hostelries. Then it was back for a quick nightcap before bed and a lovely night’s sleep.

Next morning a full English breakfast was followed by another look around, this time in daylight. The remains of the city wall and a visit to the castle were followed by a coffee in the square overlooking the cathedral. Then it was back to the hotel to meet the last of our 5 (who unlike us had travelled that morning) followed by a walk to the ground back through the city centre.

Just time for a quick pint at a pub in sight of the grounds away end for a bit of football chat with Exeter fans and a few other City fans.

it was when we got into the ground at 2-45 that the disquiet set in. the team selection didn’t meet with our approval! Comments ranged from “that’s not a team to win… it’s a team not to lose.” to “Stuart got the selection wrong at Rochdale… this is even more wrong.”

A couple of us chipped in with “why can’t he decide on his best 11 and let the opposition worry about us, that’s what we did in ’98/99, we all pretty much knew what the starting 11 would be week in week out.”
“Same in ’84/85” an older member of our group added.

After kick off, in the early part of the game our 5 across the middle didn’t particularly dominate the midfield and we persisted in hoofing the ball forward to our lone striker. Michael Boulding got no change against their big men at the back for Exeter.

Their goal was a fluke… simple as that; but, that apart Exeter were an eminently beatable side. City were toiling and the “not to win but not losing” strategy looked increasingly out of place. When the substitutions finally came, sadly there was precious little noticeable improvement. At the final whistle, as we made our way to the exit some City players ran across to the Bradford fans. As they did, from behind us we heard shouts of “F___ off” and “you’re a load of f___ing rubbish”.

I remember thinking “Stuart got a lot of unfair criticism on the message board when we were doing well. He’s gonna get slaughtered for this!”

As we walked back to the cars through the centre of Exeter, optimism was in short supply. After 2 defeats in a week against our nearest rivals, the dreaded play-offs looked to be looming. There was no talk of staying down south for the Bournemouth game.

The question was asked “Will winning our remaining home games be enough to secure a play-off place because, apart from at Chester I can’t see another away win this season if we play like that?”

Just then we reached a road junction between the city centre stores and a chap selling big issue looked at us with ill concealed amusement and said “Bradford? ha ha ha!”

Our misery was now complete!

In McCall I trust

Ever since the fixture list was released last summer, myself and some friends had been looking forward to our trip to St James’ Park, home of Exeter City. During the cold, dark autumn months of late 2008, five of us decided to make a weekend of it and stay over night in Exeter after the game. So with maps at the ready (no sign of a sat nav in my car) and our over night bags packed, four of us left West Yorkshire before 8am and headed south towards Exeter. Eddie commented that he hadn’t been up so early on a Saturday for years and what was worse, he and Stephen had not got to bed until the early hours of Saturday morning. However, with the thought of a good weekend ahead and a journey which was smooth with no hold ups or delays, we picked up our fifth team member, Paul, who’d caught a train from Reading to Exeter. We found our hotel, and after the helpful receptionist gave us directions to St James’ Park, we headed off to the ground in high spirits.

A couple of pints of real ale including the fine Tribute from the St Austell brewery were consumed in the friendly Green Tavern whilst watching Liverpool beat Manchester United 4-1 and then it was into the ground. As we walked into the away end, this is how I remembered some of my earlier away trips supporting City in the late 80’s and early 90’s; a terrace open to the elements! Andrew headed off for a Cornish pasty which prompted a stampede to the tiny snack bar located in the corner of the away end. Much of the pre-match talk centred around the fact that Thorne was only on the bench. Had McCall come for a point?

The game started fairly evenly with an outstretched Boulding just failing to connect with an O’Brien cross. Steve Jones, who had started on the right wing, due to Colbeck been relegated to the bench, tested Jones, the Exeter goalkeeper but his shot went straight at him. However, on 20 minutes disaster struck; an innocuous cross from Moxey on the Exeter left appeared to strike Arnison and looped over the stranded Evans and into the Bradford net. That was how the score stayed until half time.

The second half started with McLaren wearing a shirt which displayed no number on the back of his shirt. Is this against the rules? Answers to the editor please. City continued to toil away with the busy Boulding being supported by Law. However, with Furman, McLaren and Bullock all starting in our midfield, we were lacking width on the left hand side. The situation was crying out for the now fit Brandon to come on or even the recently signed Keith Gillespie. Neither came on but Thorne did appear in place of McLaren with about half an hour of play to go. Many supporters could be heard muttering, “why didn’t McCall start with two up front instead of going for a 4, 4, 1, 1 formation?” Unfortunately Thorne’s introduction to the game had little effect and Colbeck didn’t really have time to make an impact when he replaced the hard-working Furman with five minutes to go. Indeed, Exeter were the closest to scoring again, when Rehman bought down Stansfield and from the resulting free-kick, Evans finger-tipped Moxey’s fierce shot on to the cross bar. The final whistle blew following a Bradford corner and we had experienced our tenth away defeat of the season and more worryingly, our fourth consecutive away defeat.

As the 500 or so City faithful trudged away from the ground, you could now hear many supporters saying “if I was manager, I would have…” After any City defeat as I exit the ground, I always hear many supporters expressing their opinion (which they are entitled to do) which tends to suggest that they would make a better manager. Personally, I disagreed with McCall’s starting eleven. I would have gone for a 4, 4, 2 formation with Thorne starting upfront with Boulding and giving either Brandon or Gillespie their starting debut to provide some width on the left side of our midfield. However, I was delighted when McCall recently signed an extended contract as I believe that he is the right manager to take Bradford City forward. I’m sure that McCall wants promotion this season, just as much as we, the supporters, want it.

And so, the five of us headed into Exeter city centre for a few more pints of real ale including one in the greatly named Fat Pig followed by a excellent curry at Ganges. We were left to contemplate what might have been but it was interesting to hear more views on our performance on Sunday morning when we got chatting to some fellow City supporters, at our hotel, who’s also been to the game. Interestingly, we agreed that McCall should start with a 4, 4, 2 formation on Tuesday night at Bournemouth.

It is not plain which plan is being followed

Note: The following is Paul Firth’s report in the game with Exeter that was mailed on Saturday night but took some time to arrive leaving events to pass it with the news of the reason for Conlon and Clarke’s exclusion. The report makes interesting reading so is included.

Many words have been written on BfB earlier this season on the concept of ‘Plan B’ and, in particular, on whether Stuart McCall has one. At Exeter it was not plain which Plan or, indeed, if anything that might be dignified by the use of a term such as ‘plan’ had been put into action.

The obvious response to the Rochdale defeat was a reshuffling of the team. At kick off it wasn’t easy to work out what the team, as opposed to the eleven players, would be. Maybe this was the plan, to confuse the opponents. It certainly confused me for long enough. The Thorne/Boulding/Conlon debate took another twist with only the middle one of the three surviving. But what looked like a 4-5-1, with Boulding on his own, became a 4-4-1-1, with Nicky Law ‘in the hole’.

Zesh Rehman replaced Matt Clarke, who had been no worse than a few other defenders at Rochdale. But the midfield saw the biggest changes. Out went Joe Colbeck and back came both Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren. About the only description to be given to this section of the team was disjointed.

We all know how effective Law and Furman have been together and that there can be a problem if the opposition have a few more tall players. Disrupting that partnership can be justified, but not so easily. This was not so much a disruption as an earthquake. Furman looked lost. Not only was he without his partner, but he was no longer sure who his partner was. McLaren rarely crossed the half way line. Bullock’s function seemed to be to get on the end of any high ball from the back – and there were far too many of those again – and only Jones, in his spot on the right wing, seemed truly at home.

The bench contained no fewer than two more right wingers in Colbeck and the newly signed Gillespie, together with Brandon, Thorne and Ainge. The absence of a keeper should no longer be a surprise, perhaps, but do we really need two right wingers on the bench? Messrs Conlon and Clarke, sitting in the row behind me in the stand, looked in danger of tripping over their faces so long were they. I don’t think they liked not being in the sixteen.

The Cowshed roof at St James Park (the Exeter version) has an overhang that reminded me of the old Valley Parade stand. The football in 2009 also reminded me of the pre-1985 style. I lost sight of the ball for about a third of the game because either a stanchion obstructed my view or the ball was once more coming out of the sky above. The pitch appeared to be in very fine condition, but perhaps the groundsman had threatened both sides about wearing out his grass.

City without doubt are at their best when they pass the ball at pace along the ground and use the obvious skills of the front six. Instead they competed with the home team in a game of hoof-ball that was unedifying and rarely entertaining. It summed up the quality of the match that the only goal was a complete fluke. Dean Moxey advanced up the left wing, going past Arnison with some ease, despite the attempted hand-off. As Arnison returned for a second attempt Moxey crossed from near the corner. The ball was deflected up in the air over the head of the hapless (and capless) Evans and into the net. Whether the sun shining straight into his face made any difference only Evans will know. The Exeter keeper in the second half was not bare headed.

At half time there had been plenty of good work down City’s right, but the home keeper had had just the one shot to save, a half volley from outside the box hit well enough by Steve Jones, but requiring only a routine stop.

As the teams came out for the second half I couldn’t help thinking of the symbolism in McLaren’s change of shirt. His new top had neither number nor name. In every sense he would now be anonymous, any identity being revealed only when the number 4 came up on the fourth official’s board twenty minutes into the half. Enter Peter Thorne and another change of formation, with Law, Furman and Bullock vying with each other for the midfield area not covered by Jones.

As the second half progressed City had more and more possession in their opponents’ defensive third. Corners and free kicks were apparently endless, but the home keeper had very few saves to make, the best being with his feet following a Jones run and shot. In front of him Taylor and the wonderfully named Troy Archibald-Henville hardly put a foot wrong and dealt so comfortably with the string of high balls that they must have wondered if City’s defenders had been told that Barry Conlon was in the stand.

For a brief moment our saviour looked to be on hand. A long ball from Luke O’Brien found Peter Thorne between the central defenders and he was through into the area. Memories of that goal at Port Vale flashed through the mind, only to be wiped out in the next flash. Perhaps we should just say that there was a difference in pace, Thorne was put under pressure before being able to hit a shot and the move came to nothing.

Dean Furman’s confused day came to a slightly premature end when Joe Colbeck replaced him with five minutes remaining. There was still enough time for the entire team save for Luke O’Brien to go up for a corner and for Zesh Rehman to be yellow carded for an offence that might have brought a red – especially if it had really been an offence.

There had been much huffing and puffing, not to mention too large a portion of high balls. The effort was undeniable, but in truth neither team showed the skill level that would suggest they were capable of promotion. A disappointing result took City out of the play-off places n a day when a win would have done so much more. Messrs Conlon and Clarke were stony faced. Perhaps they shared my thought that, if we have to play so many high balls, it might be best to have someone their size to get under them.

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.

McCall will hope City can start the way they finish

In eleven days – and three away games – time the promotion hopes for Bradford City will be much clearer but as a signal of intent and a send off on that decisive Odyssey the Bantams could hardly have been more emphatic.

Indeed it seemed 75 second after kick off when Peter Thorne was wheeling away following the opening goal of the game that the seven days since the defeat at Notts County could have been a lifetime of a span.

Thorne reclaimed his scoring touch darting into a hole that Michael Boulding had made in the defence to get on the end of an excellent low cross from the left by the increasingly useful Steve Jones and pushing the ball past a hapless Nicky Bull who would not get near any of the five goals he picked out of his net this afternoon.

Following on from Thorne’s goal City never wobbled. A minor incident involving Rhys Evans coming out of his goal as City failed to follow stay up centre back Anthony Charles which resulted in a not that threatening snubbed out shot at goal.

This was as much of a chance as the visitors had to get back and within minutes Bull once again picked the ball out of his goal following Dean Furman’s deflected strike which was just return following a corner which saw Matthew Clarke shoved unceremoniously from under the ball in what was an obvious penalty denied.

That it was denied was no surprise with Referee Graham Salisbury in charge. Salisbury had once denied City a goal against Yeovil following a defender pass back and sent off Jermaine Johnson in the same game in what was the wingers last game for the Bantams. Salisbury makes a habit of sending off City players but today restricted himself to ignoring that penalty and allowing Marvin Morgan to get away with the kind of loose arm across the face on Clarke which is exactly the sort of thing that he sends City players off for.

Nevertheless – and to paraphrase Sean Connery – losers moan about the Referee and winner go home with the match ball. Or the prom queen. Dean Furman deserves both for another superb display controlling central midfield. Much of how City do in the forthcoming games at Rochdale, Bournemouth and Exeter will depend on how much Furman can break up play as he did so well at Valley Parade today.

With his club Rangers making people redundant and looking for ways to save a bob or two I would not be at all surprised to see Furman starting SPL games next season – nor do I think he would look out of place – but in the years since Stuart McCall the player left the club and Stuart McCall the manager returned we have (any club would) been crying out for a replacement and in Furman we have one.

My erstwhile colleague Jason sings the praises of Nicky Law Jnr who delivered the perfect corner for Peter Thorne to glide through the air to head in the Bantams third, again Charles – conspicuous with his Afro – stood still as his man reeled away in celebration.

Rochdale’s defeat to Bury at midday had seen the Shakers go third and Rochdale drop to fourth. A 5-0 win would put City fourth and at the start of the day the task was to keep fifth as the Bantams supremacy continued it looked feasible.

A note at this point to the school who had turned up with a banner in support of “Bradford City and Zesh Rehman” and a country flag in tribute to the defender who unfortunately for the kids spent ninety minutes on the bench watching another excellent display by Paul Arnison at right back.

Arnison has not enjoyed universal support from City fans but it seems that when he plays the Bantams have another dimension and the support that Arnison offers to right winger Joe Colbeck is important.

Colbeck is getting back into the swing of things and looked dangerous in the second half rampaging forward getting a reward with two minutes to go putting in another low cross that skimmed past Charles and to sub Barry Conlon who touched the ball past Nicky Bull from seven yards out (Edit: The cross was by Nicky Law Jnr). Target man Barry using his head to stay on side by coming onto a ball which seemed to elude Shots left back Anthony Straker who chewed the linesman out all second half and never was spoken to about it unlike JJ three years ago.

Spoken about but never seen was Chris Brandon who – some two thousand years after signing for City and getting injured – made his début coming on for Michael Boulding seconds after the hard working striker had been unlucky not to add the fourth that Conlon got and would have had the fifth with what would have been his first kick for his home club following Colbeck’s low cross but Rhys Day stuck out a leg and Aldershot’s afternoon was all over, as was the game.

The Bantams up to fourth and on to the road to far off places on the South Coast following a short trip to the team we jumped over in Rochdale. When City return to Valley Parade in two weeks time the reminder of the season will have been shaped.

Realists would say that to expect more than a point away from home is too high an expectation and should City get three from three or less then it would seem that scrapping for play off places is the order of the day.

If we can score at a rate near two points a game – two wins, a win and two draws, one of each even perhaps – then we would be looking at the ability to challenge for the automatic promotion places and the play offs would be fall back.

The criticisms of City’s manager – as with the defeats – seem a long time ago with proposed successor Peter Jackson spending the afternoon watching his Lincoln City get pounded by Grimsby. McCall has got City into a position where the finish to the season defines the season.

Last year the Bantams approached the last months looking to find form and a run, the last promotion side the Bantams had were looking to hold onto faltering form. McCall’s City are well placed and pick up points at a consistent rate on the whole. The season enters end game with the Bantams firmly in the position where should we perform well then we can manufacture our own destiny.

He will hope that the finish the season as we started this game and that the start of that finish is as complete as the finishing today. As a signal of intent this – the tenth home win of the season – is as telling as they come.

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.

McCall looks to show the guts as City face Macclesfield at Valley Parade

Today we discuss: How much are the clubs managed like the manager?

It is often felt that a manager maketh a team in his image from the attacking entertainment of Newcastle United and Kevin Keegan to the sturdy charges of Steve Bruce at Wigan Athletic the manager’s template becomes the team’s tactics. Certainly a glance down the table suggests that that theory is enjoying prominence save the odd exception – Arsene Wengers’s players are much better than he ever was – with the likes of David Moyes creating a stocky team and Martin O’Neill a determined and able one.

This has not always been the case. Bryan Robson’s meat and potatoes Middlesbrough – and his potatoes and nothing much else City sides – were a million miles away from the most exciting midfielder in the country he was when he skippered England while the playing on his own winger that was Paul Jewell begat a side built around playing for each other.

Stuart McCall’s Bradford City team have turned in – it is widely felt – two gutless performances totally at opposite to the way the midfield terrier himself used to race around the pitch trying to kick every ball. McCall showed more passion in the last minute of a 4-0 defeat at Coventry than some of his charges did at 0-0.

It must be galling for McCall to watch players who put in less effort although few would doubt the City manager had an engine near unparalleled in the game and how McCall reacts to the realisation that his finest quality is also one of the rarest defines his relationship with the players. Unerring passer Glenn Hoddle’s famed disgust at the lack of technical skills in the England dressing room that included David Beckham led to his exclusion of the pre-iconic winger from his 1998 World Cup side but – as one of those players put it – “We can’t all be Glenn Hoddle.” It seemed the England manager had not realised that.

So Stuart McCall looks for a response for his players who were criticised last week for not taking enough responsibility for the performance and have failed to redress that balance. McCall points out – to deaf ears perhaps – that as disappointing for all that the team’s 3-1 defeat at Notts County was it was not the overwhelming that the scoreline and resultant negativity suggests. “They have only had four shots and three of them have gone in” said the City boss.

The negativity is something that has grown since this fixture – Bradford City v Macclesfield Town – opened last season and is a fact of life for a football manager. There is an old adage repeated in Syd Fields book on screenwriting where nine of ten people stopped when walking down an L.A. street and asked “How is your script coming on?” replied “Brilliant, but how did you know I was writing one?”

Blindly as football fans of any colour or stripe if they are happy with their club’s manager then perhaps it would be all but one in ten who grumbled back to you. Most football supporters talk much about the need for stability at their club but alas it always seems that there is an element who believes that that stability starts with the next manager.

A wider point on management is that it works best when allowed to enact longer term planning, a specific one is that our management has started to manifest the first improvement in demonstrative results in ten years and an even more specific point is that ludicrousness of the thought to replacing our gaffer with someone who is fairing more poorly at a club in our division.

City start two home game – two more – that promise to be season defining but ultimately success and failure in both will not guarantee nor deny promotion with Macclesfield being followed by Aldershot Town on Saturday and do so with a squad that has questions over fitness as much as attitude.

It escapes no one that since he lunged for a ball against Darlington Rhys Evans has conceded seven goals where previously he was keeping clean sheets but the goalkeeper seems to be City’s only option between the sticks and is not held liable for the goals on the whole either. The defence that was solid is not anything but and there are calls for Paul Arnison to be restored and Matthew Clarke dropped for Zesh Rehman to be put into the heart of the defence. The experiences at Luton Town suggest that three – not two – big lads to head the ball away is no bad thing and while he has performed well for most of this season the fact that this debate on who should form the back four never includes Luke O’Brien is curious. The lad has done exceptionally well since he broke into the first team but accepting the three big fellas rule then it is he or Arnison and not both.

The midfield is a problem area. It is a scant month since Nicky Law Jnr had to be acquired at all costs and now it seems he is part of a team who are not fit to wear the shirt – or so supporters sang on Saturday – and the continued use of loan players in the middle and fear that some – well, only me perhaps – had that it would make a soft centred team are realised. Not that Dean Furman, Law and Steve Jones are to shoulder all the blame for the last two results. Perhaps those three players – with the detachment that being a transient singing gives you – look at the past 180s minutes and say “Teams lose away from home, that is football, you make up for it with a couple of wins at home.”

The loss of Omar Daley and perhaps use of Chris Brandon shapes the midfield as would – if they were true – the rumours of an absence for Paul McLaren. In the never that humble opinion of this writer McLaren and Furman would be City’s best engine room with Joe Colbeck on the right and Steve Jones the left which is tantamount to admitting that until Brandon is fit we are playing with ten men – or one man hobbled – but virtue of having to play Jones on what is very obviously an uncomfortable position.

Peter Thorne – having scored his first goal in four months – is expected to be joined by Barry Conlon up front with Michael Boulding doing little to engender good will in the first half on Saturday. There is something of a debate on the need for another striker at the club which perhaps encapsulates the entire problem with City not just this last two weeks but perhaps going back years.

Players- and for that matter managers – are never given the expectation that they can and should improve but rather are aimed at to be shunted away and replaced. I don’t think that City need a new striker, I think last season’s top scorer and a guy who once cost £3m should take responsibility for playing well.

That is what Stuart McCall would have done. That is how this club should be managed like the manager.

Significant? We’ll soon know

The impact of this dismal defeat on Bradford City’s season will ultimately be discovered during the next few weeks, although the immediate signs are far from good. The distance from the automatic promotion spots has increased furthermore and it would be optimistic to believe City can even make the play offs given the evidence presented at Meadow Lane. Hot on the heels of the Barnet debacle, a season of promise is suddenly falling apart.

This was supposed to be different. What happened at Barnet a one-off with manager Stuart McCall admirably stating he wouldn’t allow it to derail what the club is trying to do. By 3pm in Nottingham that had translated into giving all but Joe Colbeck – still struggling for fitness – the opportunity to redeem themselves. With strength in depth there should be no assumption on anyone’s part that their place in the team is secure. Sadly it appears too many aren’t paying attention to what’s over their shoulder and did nothing to repay their manager’s faith. Tuesday’s starting line up against Macclesfield will be very interesting.

City’s performance didn’t start off badly and for the opening 10 minutes there were plenty of indications the team was going to respond well to last week’s hammering. Matt Clarke headed a decent chance over and there was a crispness to the passing and movement with the recalled Lee Bullock adding some bite to midfield and Nicky Law, switched to the left-side, a threat.

Then on 11 minutes a City free kick was swung into the box, the ball was cleared to the edge of the area where Graeme Lee battled for it but lost out to a home player who then put Jamie Forrester through on the counter attack. Only Luke O’Brien seemed to be back for City and his tentative attempt to close down the former Leeds striker allowed the ball to be rolled into Jonathan Forte’s path to fire home. A worrying way to be caught out considering City were the away side.

The test was getting bigger for the Bantams, though the goal against the run of play was initially met with a resumption of attacking intent. Yet slowly the passes began to break down, the off the ball running featured less, County’s double-marking of the widemen tactic began to have a greater effect. Dean Furman flashed an effort narrowly wide and Peter Thorne might have done better after he cleverly worked some space but fired weakly past the post with Steve Jones in a better position. Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to conjure up something.

Something came at the other end instead with the impressive Forte striking again after some good close control – though the ball should have been cleared before it reached him and even then he was afforded too much time and space. A third followed just before half time through former City loanee Delroy Facey. He is best remembered for poor shooting skills and generally not caring when temporarily employed by City, a description which could be aptly applied to Jones here.

Although he certainly wasn’t the only one to display a disturbing lack of fight. Quite what has happened to the impressive defensive efforts which had seen just five goals conceded in 11 games is a deeper mystery than a niggling injury to Evans, who again did nothing wrong. Clarke and Lee were both shaky, particularly the latter who seemed to play in a trance as he often cheaply coughed-up possession and struggled to clear his line. Not a captain’s performance. O’Brien had a difficult first half and, though Zesh Rehman started his loan spell looking a class above most of his team-mates, he is worryingly sinking to their level.

In midfield Bullock and Furman are good players but did not make a cohesive partnership. A moment in the second half where they both went for the same ball summed up their disjointed influence. Thorne and Michael Boulding have forged a good partnership previously, but neither did much in possession other than lose it. Not surprisingly there was an angry reaction from the 1,200+ travelling fans with the dreaded “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” aired as the players trudged off at half time to face an equally upset Stuart.

The second half was slightly better with some players – O’Brien, Law, Furman and Thorne – restoring a degree of pride. Joe Colbeck was brought on for Boulding with Jones switched up front and there never appeared too much danger of County extending their lead. Perhaps most concerning for Stuart though was the lack of urgency and belief towards engineering an unlikely comeback. It was as though the game had been written-off and the second half was about preservation of a first team shirt for Tuesday. There were occasional good moments and Bullock and Furman did go close, but it was still largely poor.

Thorne did at least find the net with five minutes to go after good work from City’s best second half player, Colbeck. As consolations go it was pretty good too as it allowed last season’s top scorer to finally end a near four-month drought. A seventh goal in four games against the Magpies could prove significant if it leads to a return to the scoring form that his team so badly needs.

Not that Thorne, along with his team mates, could escape the angry abuse of many City fans at the final whistle with the atmosphere long-turned ugly. Passion is one thing but telling players to f*** off is a little strong no matter how deserving they were of receiving it. There was clearly a look of shock on many players’ faces as they attempted to applaud supporters. Reacting in the right manner now is going to be critical.

All season long there has been this feeling that City are going to gain promotion no matter how many soft goals they conceded and how many average performances they put in along the way. There was plenty of time to find top form and plenty of ability in the squad. Well there is no longer much time left and we cannot hope players will find their best form soon. It must happen now – and carry on.

City have not looked as less likely to gain promotion as they do right now and it has to be hoped this will be the moment the penny drops. No longer can the players think it will happen, they must make it happen. Six points from the next two home games will only be a start and they must then kick on in crucial away fixtures at Rochdale and Exeter. And then keep going.

Should that be achieved this defeat might be looked back on as significant because players would have learned some harsh lessons, got back into the promotion hunt and proved they were fit to wear the shirt. For now at least, few fans will be holding their breath.

Get you boots on John

John Hendrie uses his column in the T&A to say that he believes that Bradford City should sign another forward and that we are – pun coming up – a striker light.

Hendrie is right of course, but utterly wrong at the same time.

City could do with another body up front since the failure of Willy Topp at the club and Omar Daley was – in essence – that extra forward. Now he is injured leaving us with Barry Conlon, Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding we are Hendrie’s “striker light.” So far so bloody obvious.

Considering we play two up front and have one on the bench we would seem to have the required three bodies for the role. An extra one would be good for cover but the point of having cover is that it is deployed when you have injury. Barry Conlon is cover for Willy Topp not working out.

What Hendrie seems to want is for us to have cover for the cover. To follow the route of Darlington who signed a loan player because another loan player was injured.

Hendrie should look what has happened to Darlington, what happened at City in 2002 and 2004, and rather than suggesting the Bantams should be making signings “just in case” give the club some credit for not going after cover two deep for a position at the expense of the budget.

John Hendrie can go write for a Barnsley paper should City hit the skids for a third and final time because we take advice like that and spend more than we have or perhaps he could go write a column on one of his other former clubs like Middlesbrough, or Leeds United.

Unless that is that a forward who can score a hat full of goals, is in good form and can blend into a squad in the last two months can be found but who loans them out? Great strikers – and one assumes that Hendrie means that and not that City need to sign another Chris O’Grady to come keep a place on the bench warm – are rare. Great strikers who go on loan to League Two clubs are hen’s teeth.

Perhaps – and with some irony – going to the administrators at Darlington and easing their financial problems with an offer to loan a costly striker would bare fruit but of course their goals come from a player who does not belong to them and it is wasting funds like that that have got them in the state they are now.

Bradford City do not need another striker rather than to get the three strikers playing better and to ignore the advice of people like Hendrie who – when confronted with a problem – have the solution of throwing money around that clubs like City can ill afford.

I’d rather he offered to get his boots on again. Then at least he would feel the effects of his advice.

How fragile is this life as City prepare to face Notts County

If perspective were needed on last week’s 4-1 defeat by Barnet then City did not have long to wait for it with Darlington’s unexpected fall into administration on Wednesday.

As the Bantams navel gazed the Quakers stared into the abyss counting the cost of ambitious plans and living beyond their means.

The defining sight of more football financial madness – for me at least – was Liam Hatch the on loan striker who the club could ill afford coming off the bench to try score against an injured Rhys Evans.

Evans was not to blame for the goals at Barnet but in the context of another administration it is not hard to see why City decided not to have another senior professional keeper on the bench. If that decision costs City on the field then perhaps it – and thinking like it – saves the club off it and thus it should be applauded.

Notts County turn up in financial talk often. The club that once lent Juventus a kit saw investment plans fail this week and have a murky future but as Bantam fans take a seat at Meadow Lane it is worth remembering that the yearly rent as set by the council there would pay for City at Valley Parade for just four days.

Notts struggle this season but are probably not to be troubled by relegation and the resurge of AFC Bournemouth which makes the foot of the table interesting. Last week though proves that if you think the three points are there for the taking they are almost certainly lost.

Lost too for City is Omar Daley who will probably not play again until Christmas and is a huge miss especially away from home where his pace sprung many a counter attack.. Steve Jones fills his place in the squad and sympathy for the over aggressive Darlington declines.

Jones and Joe Colbeck will take the flanks although there is some suggestion Nicky Law may go on to the wing to allow Paul McLaren to return alongside Dean Furman with the South African being considered to have come out of last week’s game with head high.

The back four seems to pick itself but Paul Arnison will hope that a shakeup would see him back at right back. The full back will probably sit out again to allow Zesh Rehman’s power to be deployed opposite Luke O’Brien and alongside Bradford City’s tribute to the Huddersfield boss Graeme and Matthew. Rhys Evans is believed to be fit enough to keep goal and kick goal kicks but the City press officer – Mr. S. McCall – is perhaps understandably keeping quiet about that.

Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne – the scurge of County with a hat-trick at Valley Parade, one at Meadow Lane and two in the first game of the season – will be paired up front. Daley’s injury and reports from the reserves on Rory Boulding suggest that Barry Conlon’s usage as third striker aside City have little pressure on the front two with Steve Jones being perhaps the only option outside the three regulars.

Such is life though living life within one’s means. City – in this week – should be celebrated for this.

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.

City lack the steam to go the distance against Darlington

If there was a time for Bradford City to win the evening’s clash of promotion chasers at home to Darlington then it was in the opening twenty minutes when the visitors – who has not played since the end of January – looked in danger of being swamped by a bright Bantams side looking to carry on with the three game winning run.

At ninety minutes most City fans were happy with a point.

City’s early flourishes seemed to push through a rusty Quakers side with Peter Thorne looking mobile and enjoying some dominance over Steve Foster and Michael Boulding probing dangerously but the Bantams bluster never found a way through and was met with some aggressive challenges by the visits with Neil Austin and Jason Kennedy both pushing the boundaries of a lenient Referee in Staffordshire’s Tony Bates.

Bates allowed rustic lunges to go in checked and Darlington – either to their credit if you have come down from Durham or not if you like your football matches to contains as much, well, football as possible – played those rules the fullest.

The tackle that ended Omar Daley’s night – and with medial ligament damage perhaps season – was Austin going in my opinion past what should be considered fair but not in Bates’s. Certainly Daley’s being carried off on a stretcher seemed to signify a drop in the Bantams game and the shaking off of the rust of the visitors. A couple of minutes later when Rhys Evans reached to stop a ball going out for a corner and limped back to goal matters were worse.

Evans struggled for the remainder of the game and Luke O’Brien – putting in an uncharacteristicly sloppy if still solid performance – started taking his goal kicks. City went close to scoring when Peter Thorne saw a shot loop off a defender and bounce back off the bar and Michael Boulding seemed shot shy when trying to squeeze between the two big defenders of Durham in the Bantams other chance of note but dominance that had started the game had gone into a game shared.

Nicky Law Jnr and Dean Furman struggled to keep control in the midfield in the second half as the visitors got up to speed and then began to show the reserves of energy they had and while Furman performed manfully once more Law was out battled and shoved out to the left wing for Lee Bullock’s return in the middle.

Darlington’s shift up through the gears showed their freshness over a Bantams team playing another in the march of matches that is League Two but resulted only in a single chance of note – Pawel Abbott forcing a great save out of the hobbling Evans – and some approach play that was snaffled out by a masterful three of Zesh Rehman, Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke.

One can only imagine what Dave Penney – Darlington manager – made of his teams attitude to Evans’s injury which seemed to provoke a series of long range and rather weak shots. Either he told them to play that way or he will have been tearing his hair out at the wastefulness that saw them have 11 shots at goal but only one that could seriously be considered a chance. “Evans has a bad leg”, one could have summed it up, “But he has arms!”

Clarke has an odd time at City. He chunks the ball long to groans but would argue that he is no one’s David Beckham or Glenn Hoddle and that what he does do – superb chance saving tackles and providing strength at the back – he does very well. He was my man of the match tonight for sure and is part of a back four that has gone four games without conceding.

All of which looked unlikely at half time when Lee Bullock was practising saving shots from Barry Conlon and a shirt was being prepared for the number eight to make him number one. Back then very few City fans would not have settled for a point come nine thirty.

A point is what we got.

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.

Hardy people

Less then two hundred Bradford City fans saw us beat Gillingham 2-0 thanks to goals from Omar Daley and Michael Boulding but it was one less, I guess.

Stuart Hardy (Recently deceased fan for whom there was a minutes applause for last weekend at Valley Parade – Ed) was the sort of City fan who came to games like this. Long trips away to Kent were the reason why people like the Shipley Bantams existed or so it seemed to me and while I was hardly a regard on any supporters coach and I probably couldn’t have pointed to any of the regulars you see every other week at City away games and said “That’s him” I know the sort and I like the sort.

And knowing the sort and liking the sort I think that this win is dedicated to Stuart and the people like Stuart who trudge up and down this country watching the Bantams in bad times and, like today, the good ones.

City were really good today with Gillingham who were a place above us at the start of the game left chasing shadows at the end and lucky not to have been beaten by more.

Everything started pretty level with the Gills looking to play the ball about but City and Dean Furman seemed to have the make of the home team who were a couple of regulars down and easily broken down. As the exchanges continued and City frustrated the home side more and more one could see the dishearted mood of the team in blue grow and the belief begin to drain. City are a different team away from home. They can hit on the break and use the space behind teams which is not there when those teams are sitting deep at Valley Parade to set faster lads like Omar Daley, Steve Jones and Michael Boulding away.

It was speed that got City the first goal when Boulding ran and ran and used his strength to keep the defender who was chasing him away before tucking it to Omar Daley for a tap in. This is the stuff that the people who have a go at Daley don’t see. Away from home he scares the sheds out of any team who try come out of their own half. Boulding too and in the second half City’s second striker got the goal he deserved for a great afternoon’s work.

There were great afternoons all around. Dean Furman stands head and shoulders above the rest of midfielders in League Two. He breaks up play, he puts it forward, he is a class act and while we have no chance of making him a Bradford City player we should enjoy him while we can and we could get promotion out of him. The strength of the City midfield is why we have a shout of promotion. Joe Colbeck is back in City colours and set up Peter Thorne for what should have been the third in the last minute which would have made the scoreline reflect the pattern of the game better.

In the meantime City played nice stuff. The second half was pretty much the Bantams having the ball and not doing anything silly with it. Everytime it was lost and it wasn’t often then Furman and, well, everyone, worked hard to get it back and when we had it we had danger in the widemen. Simone Jackson stuck an offside goal in but on the Rhys Evans has not very much to do and the defence of Zesh Rehman, Graeme Lee, Matt Clarke and Paul Arnison who filled in for Luke O’Brien looked solid but they do that at home so that is less impressive.

Because City on the road are impressive and some people at Valley Parade should get themselves on the road to the odd away game to see this. You don’t know why Omar Daley is in the side? You probably have not seen him eat up the pitch with the ball at his feet and the home side in terror. Who is the best City midfielder? It is the guy who gets the ball to stop us being under the cosh away from home.

So much is talked by so many people about Stuart McCall and City’s tactics and all these things but 187 people were here today and 12,000 come to home games so a big chunk of people who talk about City do it without seeing the full picture.

Not like these Hardy people who went to Gillingham in hope and got a big reward and dedicated it to another Stuart.

How much is game in hand worth? Gillingham vs Bradford City Preview

Snow.

The world is full of it and if this country had proper snow ploughs then we would not have a question mark over this weekend’s game with Gillingham. No, we would have a question over whether a vehicle used once every twenty years would start on a cold day.

If the game with Gillingham goes ahead then City look at playing off with the Kent side for a play-off place with them in seventh and the Bantams a place below and the right set of results – or postponements – could leave either fourth on Saturday evening.

Postponements being the challenge of logic in football. Inevitably they occur – City already have an away game at AFC Bournemouth to attempt to replay as well as Monday night’s cancelled Darlington home game – and unrealistically they twist the table leading to the question “how much is game in hand worth?”

Shrewsbury are a place above Gillingham and two above City and a point ahead of the Bantams. Is it safe to assume that – that game played – we can adjust City above the men from Gay Meadow? Some – Bill Shankley for example – would say not and point to every point having to be earned. The grizzled Scot would say that you have nothing when you have nothing and dinne ye forget it.

Nevertheless with 45 point from 28 games City are picking up 1.7 points a game so extrapolating that average we could assume that we would get that point – and a bit more – at least. Taking an example Grimsby Town – 22nd on the league and a point and place below Barnet – score at 0.78 points per game and thus it is probably not safe to assume they will overhaul the club a place above them however the fact that they are one down in the played column – and no one in the league has the 30 games played that have been scheduled – gives them the optimism that they may collect all three points.

Indeed when City faced relegation from the First Division under Chris Kamara Grimsby Town looked at our game in hand against then high flying Charlton Athletic and could have worked out a similar logic with City as likely to collect three points at home on that Thursday night as they were at any other time during the season. We won that game and beat QPR to stay up with our game in hand counting for three points.

Countering that in 1988 West Ham United had five games in hand over Liverpool which – if they were all won – would have seen them snatch the league. They collected less than half of those points and one was left to reflect not that Frank McAvennie and co had blow a chance at the league just that it was a quirk of statistics that suggested they had one and had the games been played in their scheduled slots in the season they would have been the same unremarkable results and the Hammers would have ended up third in a less exciting way.

Games in hand create falseness. City pick up 1.87 points a home game and 1.31 from an away one but how one uses those stats to create an adjusted league table is no more an accurate reflection than assumption that every game not played will be won.

What we do know is that the Bantams beat Grimsby Town last weekend and Stuart McCall struggles with riches in the midfield – Joe Colbeck is expected to start the next City game be it this one or the game with Wycombe Wanderers on Valentines Day – and misfiring strikers up front.

The midfield of Colbeck, Dean Furman, Nicky Law Jnr and Omar Daley seems set to continue while Paul McLaren is injured – in my experience the people who suggest we do not need McLaren in the team also puzzle about our corners not beating the first man when he is not playing and I would yoke those two points together – but McCall has a liking for Steve Jones which could see him included somewhere. McCall had tried playing Jones as a forward having seen his own strikers notch but two in eight from free play.

Probable starter Michael Boulding believes both he and partner Peter Thorne can get to twenty by the season end and I am reminded of an old footballing adage about front men: How many goals does the front man of a winning team scored? Enough. City are a drawing team of late and the strikers need to improve, or at least have improvement visited on them with better service.

The defence at City is mean – almost as mean as its critics – and only seriously leaked when they lost the headed defensive clearances of Barry Conlon at Luton. Six foot plus Zesh Rahmen’s inclusion at right back was more to do with getting a third big man to mark at set plays than it was a reflection on Paul Arnison and Rahmen is expected to retain a place alongside Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke with Luke O’Brien at left back and Rhys Evans between the sticks.

Except, of course, they will all probably be at home, kicking their heels, talking about snow ploughs.

City on the way forward again

City bounced back from their Gigg Lane fiasco with a convincing, but nerve wrecking win over Grimsby Town in this crucial game at Valley Parade on Saturday.

Tuesday night’s heartless display in a promotion six pointer had seen the Bantams slip to 9th position – a couple of points outside the playoff places – which made a win in this home fixture absolutely essential to keep pace with the chasing pack, jostling for automatic promotion and playoff places.

Wholesale changes were made to the starting lineup, with top scorers Thorne and Boulding recalled up front, Law and Furman in centre midfield, with Jones reverting back to his right wing role, and O’Brien welcomed back from illness at left back with Rehman switching to right back.

And the players selected – very much in contrast with Tuesday night – did not disappoint with confidence, effort and excellent play in defence and attack all over the field.

City had numerous first half chances to break the deadlock. Zesh Rehman, on his home debut, was thwarted twice from set pieces by Grimsby keeper Barnes with two excellent saves from powerful headers.

After homing in on goal Omar Daley pulled back an excellent ball to Nicky Law who took a touch to bring him within 10 yards of the goal, and just as it looked like he was certain to score, Barnes excellently kept out his left foot strike. And Steve Jones once again was frustrated in front of goal when his strike hit the outside of the post, as another nail biting afternoon ensued.

A key moment happened on 20 when Thorne flicked on to send Boulding in the clear, but his run was abruptly ended by a rugby tackle from Grimsby defender Atkinson. The referee judged him to be the last defender and swiftly sent off the Mariner’s man.

There was then only one question on everyone’s minds. Would City be able to break the deadlock? and grab 3 points at home, ala Morecambe, or would they be massively frustrated by a side who clearly lacked the City team’s more skilful individual players, ala Chester and Acrrington Stanley.

The answer, thankfully, was that City did manage to get that crucial goal that set them up for three very important points. From the moment that Grimsby went down to 10 men, it was apparent that only one team were in the running to score goals. Town were toothless in attack, even with 11 men, but to give them credit they didn’t just park their team bus in front of their goal – they did try and get the ball down and play.

The second half was another tale of City struggling to break down a dogged defence. Omar Daley flashed a fierce shot just over, and Steve Jones was looking dangerous every time he picked up the ball, but once again his shooting and ability to deliver an end product let him down again. Nevertheless, he was a threat, and did not give up persisting and produced some exciting wing play. One moment saw Jones lay an excellent ball all the way across the line that just needed someone to tap in – but no City player was on hand to read the ball played.

City’s defence looked very secure with Matt Clarke particularly outstanding and Zesh Rehman produced a very promising display. He looks a very good acquisition.

The crucial goal arrived when Boulding layed the ball over to Nicky Law, who drove forward in trademark fashion towards goal, and released a shot that slipped under Barnes to send the Valley Parade crowd wild and put an enormous amount of relief in the air. Barnes had kept out trickier shots, but the power on the shot from the industrious Law beat him.

Funnily enough, despite having literally all the play in the second half, City’s goal triggered Grimsby to apply a small amount of pressure and force 3 corners which were all handled excellently by the defence.

15 shots on target for City told the story of this game, and as Grimsby again tried to sneak a point in the dying seconds, the ball was cleared and City were presented with a 3 on 1 chance.

Joe Colbeck, on as a late substitute, continued his recovery from injury by releasing Jones in the dying seconds who confidently rounded the keeper and tapped in with his left foot to wrap up the points in this important home game.

Too often this season have City been unable to win games at home that they should be winning. Having only lost one game at home all season is admirable, but as admitted afterwards by Stuart McCall, home draws (7) have been too common so far this season and have impeded our chances of pulling away from the teams around us.

And so to Darlington’s visit to Valley Parade on Monday (weather permitting). The Quakers won a big game away at Dagenham today, but that will no doubt have taken its toll physically, not to mention the long trip back from London up north. It would be a good time to play them with confidence high and the Sky cameras ready to take in the action. What better time to prove that we have what it takes to get promoted this season.

An interesting area of debate at this stage of the season is, would you settle for a guaranteed playoff place at this point, but not be allowed to go up automatically? I wouldn’t. I firmly believe we are one of the three best teams in this division if we play to our potential and we should not have to go through and take a chance in the lottery that is the playoffs. Looking at the remaining fixtures, Brentford and Wycombe both have to visit VP over the next few months, which will prove to be crucial games – but surely gaining maximum points against the likes of Macclesfield, Aldershot and Port Vale in games like today against Grimsby are what will determine whether we give ourselves a chance of finishing in the top three. Our away form doesn’t concern me too much at all as we have performed pretty well away from VP ( with the exception of Bury away), its all about the final eight home games for me. Win a high percentage of those instead of costly draws against defensive minded teams and promotion the easy way (automatic) should be assured.

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.

Flickering faith follows Bury defeat

I am not one of those fans who has pretty much been criticising Stuart McCall all season and becoming more and more vocal and outspoken in recent weeks.

Neither am I writing this because I’ve just seen City undone by yet another sucker goal which could and should have been avoided.

At Bury in the 1-0 defeat however, like a candle when someone opens a nearby door, my confidence flickered briefly. Involuntarily I asked questions of City’s management team! The questions tumbled over each other in my mind.

Apart from the enforced change, why had Stuart changed the starting eleven yet again?

Why, if he was determined to make changes, were Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding warming the bench? Particularly as Barry Conlon and Steve Jones have scored precious few goals from open play (a goal is a goal I know, but, like most supporters I just don’t rate penalties as highly as those from open play or other set pieces). When Thorne and Boulding were fronting the team we were scoring goals (21 between them) and winning matches. Since Peter returned from injury they haven’t play a full match together.

Why, with Conlon being particularly ineffective (as City continued to lump the ball forward into the middle I saw him beat the cental defender and get the ball only twice all match) wasn’t Thorne or Boulding brought on as a direct replacement?

Why, with Lee Bullock still returning to full match fitness and not being at his effective best, wasn’t Dean Furman brought on after the hour?

Why have we stopped playing football? Hoofing the ball into the middle in the hope of Barry getting his head on it is not only terrible to watch, it’s proving to be completely ineffective in matches.

Based on all the chopping and changing in recent matches I do get the distinct impression that Stuart doesn’t know what his best eleven is. Either that or he’s too nice trying to keep everyone happy by giving them all a game or part of one.

The manager has to have a ruthless streak! Deciding on his best starting line up and (injuries and suspensions permitting) sticking to it no matter who in the squad this might upset. Having differing opinions on the best starting line up is a luxury for fans, not for managers!

Stuart, I haven’t lost confidence but, much more baffling team tinkering and performances like last night and this might change. I definitely hope not because if not, that would mean we’d got back to a settled side playing football and winning matches again.

Where is it going wrong?

On an evening when there was much to trouble manager Stuart McCall, the immediate reaction of his players to going behind to Bury striker Andy Morrell’s 76th minute strike will surely have worried him the most.

Having allowed a game to drift from been in a position of relative control to one they were losing, the City players collectively appeared to lack the determination and drive to make the best use of the remaining 14 minutes and get back into the game. There were some golden chances created – and spurned – right at the end, but it was a case of too little too late. Like the game, City are now in danger of allowing their promotion hopes to drift away.

Through November and December City were guilty of been unable to use the advantage of a strong league position to drive forward from the chasing pack, but as that run of form now stretches to just one win in nine they are struggling to even keep up. The season-worst position of ninth now occupied was not in mind at the start of the season, where ambitions of going up as champions appeared realistic.

It would be premature to panic, but the negatives of the evening require urgent addressing. City came into this promotion six-pointer on the back of an excellent second half display at Luton and the elation of Barry Conlon’s late penalty equaliser, but any intentions to carry on where they left off were undermined by some questionable selections from Stuart which saw Dean Furman, excellent on his return Saturday, and Peter Thorne relegated to the bench. On Saturday Stuart had made his intentions of seeking to freshen the team clear, but even allowing for strong options these two players particularly need a run in the side.

Conlon was recalled ahead of Thorne and while memories of his excellent performance at Gigg Lane last season might have been in Stuart’s thoughts, the strike partnership with Steve Jones failed miserably. At times they were too isolated from each other and the Irishman badly needed Jones nearer to him to flick the ball towards. Launching long balls to Jones was especially futile and the on-loan Burnley forward was almost completely anonymous.

Lee Bullock was brought in to replace Furman and had a quietly effective game in the middle, with City at times passing the ball around neatly but without the pace and creativity we’d seen on Saturday. Once again too many direct balls were played forward from the back and one is left to wonder how a team who began the season playing some excellent football has lost its way in recent weeks. Resting Furman, who had provided energy and dominated the midfield alongside Paul McLaren at Kenilworth Road, clearly did not help matters and, while playing Law out-wide had been effective on Saturday justifying trying it again with Jones up front, Stuart’s failure to adequately address the fact it wasn’t replicated this evening leave concerns about his tactical acumen.

When City weren’t struggling to work out what to in possession they were been asked plenty of questions by a dangerous Bury forward line. Andy Bishop is well known and provided Matt Clarke with a tough night while Elliott Bennett and Mick Jones also caught the eye. Jones and Morrell both missed some good opportunities in the first half as City had to deal with plenty of dangerous balls into the box. Morrell in particular wasted one guilt-edged chance while Rhys Evans, easily City’s best performer on the night, made a couple of decent saves. The best City chances fell to Clarke and Conlon, but efforts flew wastefully wide. Omar Daley looked a threat on the right and was clearly singled out as the danger man by the home side. Zeshan Rehman enjoyed a decent debut in the left-back spot with Luke O’Brien ill, though no-one will want to see the impressive youngster lose his place to an on-loan defender no matter how good his pedigree.

Stuart must have had words at half time as the Bantams came out much stronger after the interval and had Bury begged back in their own half for the first 15 minutes. There were lots of throw-ins and a few corners, but crucially a lack of chances. The ball wasn’t whipped in with the same urgency as the home side and, with the strike partnership still struggling, the deadlock rarely looked like been broken. A couple of decent crosses should have been better attacked by Conlon, while slack marking from a free kick presented Bullock with the chance to prod the ball home, but it trickled tamely wide of the post.

But here was the time when managers need to be making a difference and those who believe Stuart isn’t able to make effective changes were given further ammunition tonight. Taking off Jones for Joe Colbeck was a good move though it was questionable whether Daley, who’d drifted out of the game, should have been moved up front in Jones’ place when there were two strikers who’ve shared 21 goals this season kicking their heels on the bench. It’s also curious as to why Conlon was kept on given how limited his influence on the game had been and the impression he was not giving 100%. Barry is of course loved for giving everything he has, which often make up for some of his failings – without that work-rate tonight he just looked a poor player.

By the time the first change was made Bury had reclaimed the ascendency but the major difference between their good spell and City’s was how often they came close to scoring. Evans made two brilliant saves and Morrell missed another sitter, but City’s luck did not hold out after a brilliant run from Bennett resulted in Morrell firing the ball into the net. Stuart quickly reacted by bringing on Furman and Boulding,but it took too long for decent pressure to be exerted on Bury’s goal.

As the clock ticked Boulding forced an excellent save from Mark Tyler and a scrambled effort from Law appeared to be blocked by a combination of a defender and Conlon on the line, who then had the opportunity to fire it home but turned and volleyed well wide. Evans came up from a corner and from it Colbeck had a chance on goal, but the rustiness of such a long injury lay-off may be partly to blame for the scuffed effort which rolled wide. On another day one of these chances would have been taken and a draw wouldn’t have been unfair, but over the 90 minutes City didn’t do enough and only had themselves to blame.

When City were picking up better results a few weeks ago they were doing so with half a team on the treatment table which won plenty of admiration, despite the fact performances weren’t convincing. Now Stuart has the majority of his injured players back and one of the most talented squads in the league to choose from, and with it the expectation levels are rising once more. Performances have been marginally better but getting the results to go with it are probably only going to happen if Stuart worries less about pleasing everyone and picks his best team as often as possible.

Because the season cannot be allowed to drift any further and, while it might not be fair to put too much pressure on the team, they have now fallen into a position which makes obtaining six points from the two home games this weekend essential. The tools are largely all there, now Stuart must show himself to be a good workman.

The points adding up as Rehman signs – Bury vs Bradford City – League Two Preview

The Barry Conlon penalty at Luton Town was scant reward for City’s second half endeavours when Stuart McCall unveiled what I’m sure his critics will be calling Plan B.

McCall – sent to the stands for complaining about a decision to award a free kick on an afternoon that saw many a bizarre refereeing decisions – enjoyed the best and worst of times facing criticism for abandoning his FourFourTwo principals for forty-five minutes and then seeing his side utterly dominant in the second half thanks in no small part to the ball winning of Dean Furman.

Furman’s display added to an impressive set of midfielders with Nicky Law spoken of as undroppable, Paul McLaren making significant contributions including the first goal on Saturday and Joe Colbeck returning for the last fifteen minutes adding to the already impressive Omar Daley. McCall struggles to make a best fit of those five names without the additions of Steve Jones, Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock. His selection for the middle is an embarrassment of riches of his own making and should he return to the four in the middle on Tuesday night for the trip go Gigg Lane then one can only guess who will be excluded. For my part Colbeck, Furman, McLaren and Daley would be my four but every City fan will twist that Rubik’s Cube in different ways.

A different sort of puzzle is the reason why the mean defence of City on Saturday suddenly started to leak goals – or a goal rather – a specific cross in and head in which the Bantams have not seemed so venerable to since Gary Shaw and his two and a half minute hat-trick.

What caused the Bantams to go from unit to untied is not known although the presence of Zesh Rehman – a central defender signed on loan from QPR on Monday – in the directors box might not have been the most settling sight for Matthew Clarke to see although in all likelihood the three goals from balls lumped into the box and the absence of Barry Conlon’s clearing head were not unconnected.

Coming out of contract at the end of the year Rehman looks to impress in his loan until the end of the season. The Birmingham born Rehman has played six times for the Pakistani International side and become captain in the 7-0 reversal by Egil Olsen’s Iraq side – if our path since we relegated his Wimbledon side has been winding imagine what road has led the Norwegian to be manager of a nation which in the time since we were in the Premiership tortured its players for poor results.

Rehman – who has played right back but favours the middle has his potential debut at Bury for Bradford City which is interesting in many ways much beyond football, and for that matter politics. Simon Schama would call it the future of the British Empire but – for the moment – we shall call it an interesting signing when one considers how stable the back two have been over the last month.

Mark Bower exits to Luton as Rehman arrives and BfB never favours playing loanees over our own players with one feeling sorry for City’s longest serving player. Rehman’s signing made sense if he plays and does well and makes sense if he adds to the right back berth uncovered since TJ Moncur’s return to Fulham but there is a nervousness that City’s second Asian player and first Pakistani is something of the Beckham of Bradford designed to get bums on seats from the locals of BD8 rather than cheat sheets.

Perhaps it might be nice to do both. Certainly it cannot do much harm and Rehman need only prove as useful as TJ Moncur or Steve Jones to be justified in the context of the season. If he proves to be in the bracket of Nicky Law and Dean Furman then he is available at the end of the season.

One might suspect that City needed not to strengthen at the back but bolstering up front with goals hard to come by over Christmas and January – until the second half on Saturday – but still Peter Thorne struggles to find the net and Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon were left cooling their heels. With chances created will follow goals and considering the options in midfield those chances should be created.

Bury for their part are in reasonable form sneaking to third in the table with the kind of mix of draws and the odd win that City get. The Shakers still possess the highly rated Andy Bishop whom Stuart McCall was impressed by and boss Alan Knill informs all that he has yet to have a firm bid for the player. They sit a point above the Bantams but have a poor record against promotion rivals – recent losses to Shrewsbury and Wycombe and a draw with Darlington – all of which points to an interesting game and a telling one.

Should the Bantams win then we will – at least – slip above Bury and could end the night second while a defeat could leave us tenth but with Rehman’s incoming and Bower departing being – seemingly – the last movement of the transfer window after McCall declared himself happy with striking resources then it would seem that they City manager has the squad in place that he wants – or at least can have at this point – leaving the players to get the results to back up such faith.

Watch the videos to see where Bradford City went right

I missed the Christmas games through illness and I was never likely to be able to make the Brentford trip. So at kick-off against Accrington I hadn’t seen City score a goal since Dagenham. I thought that was one of the best footballing goals we’d scored all season. And the Accrington goal was of similar quality.

I said after the Dagenham game that, despite all the possession and chances our opponents had, they could never have scored the goal that Michael Boulding finished off.

They were just not a good enough footballing side. Accrington were not as good as Dagenham, by a distance. I don’t think they would claim to be the best footballing side in this league. I hope I’m not doing them an injustice and, if they feel aggrieved, then I’m sorry.

But yet again City failed to win at home against a team that, whether you look at their style of play, their technical ability, their league record or any other reliable guide, ought to be beaten by serious promotion candidates. That Accrington joined the long list of teams who have come away from Valley Parade this season with a point (or three points in AFC Bournemouth’s case) was attributed after the game by our manager to too many players having an off day at the same time. I wondered if this collective ‘off day’ explained why I considered going home at half time, when I would have at least made it on time to meet my wife’s 5.35 arrival at Liverpool airport.

Within a few minutes of the restart I was glad I’d stayed, because this time it was Conlon’s turn to finish off another fine example of what City do better than virtually every team in this league. Another sweeping move, end to end, side to side, at pace, ball on the ground, with Nicky Law an essential component, brought the equaliser that should have given City every reason to say ‘That’s how you beat time-wasting, defensive-minded teams on your own pitch.’

Instead of repeating the medicine, City looked more and more like they’d found the cure and didn’t need to apply another dose. Possession was given away – and I do mean given – far too easily yet again. Any complaint about the wind making things difficult would most easily have been answered by looking at the goal we’d scored. The ball never got high enough for the wind to play any part in that brief glimpse of football worthy of a higher league.

Not for the first time this season, such excitement as there was came not from the players, but the referee and his assistants. I don’t go in for the ‘corruption’ theory of referees; I’m prepared to allow for the ‘bias’ theory, although most of the time I reckon it’s subconscious, at worst an unnecessary resolve not to be swayed by the unaccustomed size of the home crowd; as in many other areas of life, I prefer the cock-up theory to the conspiracy. That I can recall half a dozen quite dreadful decisions, going against both sides in fairly equal measure, supports my view that referees no longer understand the game. Sadly, that I can recall these crass mistakes rather than some moments of excitement from the team leaves me thinking about what is going wrong.

In the end I shot off as quickly as I could after the final whistle to make that airport pick-up. When Herself asked how the game had gone, she soon wished she hadn’t bothered. The depression that usually fades during the 75 mile trip back home hadn’t dimmed enough for me to create the façade of cheerfulness. Her account of a severely windswept landing couldn’t match the disappointment of wondering yet again what our promotion prospects really are if we don’t work hard against teams that are working hard; if we give away the ball and don’t fight hard enough to get it back; and if we don’t learn, not just from our mistakes, but from our achievements.

Yes, watch the videos to see where it went wrong. See how that wall disintegrated; see how often we pumped the ball up from back to front; see how little impact our wingers had; and see how many loose balls went to a hard-working opposition. But watch those goals against Dagenham and Accrington to see where it went right. See how, when we pass the ball along the ground, at pace and using the width of the pitch, we can outplay any team in this league and score quality goals. Remind ourselves what we achieved early in the season when our wide players frightened the opposition by running at them with the ball at their feet – and let’s hope that Joe Colbeck can return soon and reproduce the work rate and form he was in before his injury.

If we want to be convincing when we talk about a team worthy of promotion, let’s point to the best football we play and keep playing like that. No team plays like that for all ninety minutes, but, even when too many players are having an ‘off day’, the team will be forgiven if they display the one commodity that ought to be seen even in the fourth division – commitment. At our best, we are truly better than this league. When we’re not at our best, we need to work hard just to match most of our opponents. And no matter how good we may be at times, that work ethic should always be obvious, if only because a crowd loves a trier. A trier with ability is even more appreciated. Just ask Joe Colbeck. Equally, even the most able players will suffer the wrath of the crowd if they appear not to be working hard. No names, no pack drill, eh?

City stumble as fingers are pointed – Bradford City 1 Accrington Stanley 1 Match Report

City stumbled through their 7th home draw of the season against lowly Accrington Stanley.

It was the kind of game and result that we have seen too often this season at Valley Parade and we all know might well prove very costly when the promotion run winds up at the end of the season.

Stanley took an early lead on 5 minutes when a free kick was awarded dead centre, 20 yards from goal. The City wall seemed to move out of the way of the ball that Ryan stuck thumping straight through and beyond Rhys Evans to put visitors ahead.

Then the referee and his officiating team proceeded in trying to ruin the game. City had at least three decent penalty shouts in the first half, all strongly turned away by Mr David Webb. The one that holds most strongly in the memory was approaching half time when the ball was drifting towards Boulding and a blatant left hand was stuck out by a Stanley defender to stop the course of the ball – and with Mr Webb 10 yards away he failed to see what 12,000 others did and waived play on which resulted in Boulding being denied by a save from close range.

Just to prove further his inept decision making skills (demonstrated at home to Bournemouth earlier this season) – Stanley were also victims early in the second half. A strong run by Paul Mulin looked to have him racing clear one on one with Evans. Matt Clarke shot back and made a very heavy challenge on Mulin to deny him a shot. It was such a strong challenge it was a borderline penalty – but Clarke did get the ball – it was an excellent tackle. But this good piece of play was interrupted by Webb who proceeded to book Mulin, seemingly for diving or simulation. Utterly astonishing. I have never felt the need to write to the FA regarding the standards of officiating (and that really is saying something given the standard seen at Valley Parade over the last decade) but Mr Webb’s performance on Saturday was so incomprehensible that I will be spending Sunday night drawing up a letter of complaint that I am sure would be backed by 12,000 others.

City drew level early in the second half thanks to an exciting and very strong run by Nicky Law who crossed from the right to leave Barry Conlon with a tap in at the far post to restore parity.

The equaliser should have proved the catalyst to set up a City victory – but, in truth, Stanley keeper was not tested nearly enough as the game drew to a disappointing close.

Not many City players came out of this game with much credit. Conlon did well to convert his chance, but was too often beaten aerially and failed to have much of an impact. The defence held fairly firm and they passed the ball among each other pretty well.

The midfield was full of also rans, Nicky Law withstanding. Steve Jones is an experienced pro who has good pace but fails to deliver an end product, cross or shot. Omar Daley played ok in patches, but wasn’t always the inspiration that we needed him to be. Paul McLaren seemed to take quite a few steps back in terms of performance level – after a few good games recently. He just didn’t influence the game. And one of his main strengths – set pieces – seem to be left to Nicky Law which I really cannot understand. If McLaren is not going to take dead balls then why is he in the team?

The signing and player that annoys me most at the moment is Chris O’Grady. Was he a panic buy? I cannot see what Stuart sees in him. Admittedly, I have only seen him in action for 30 minutes in a City shirt. But I have watched him closely in the warm up’s twice and he just doesn’t seem like he has anything special or talented to offer whatsoever. McCall revealed afterwards that O’Grady didn’t train on Friday due to illness. Then why play him on Saturday? He came on to absolutely no affect with enough time on the pitch to make an impact. Is he capable of making an impact? I really don’t think so.

The idea of a loan signing is to improve on the squad that we currently have but I honestly would rather give young Rory Boulding or Leon Osbourne a run out instead of this mis-fit. And stories about him not wanting to take a wage deferral during his at Rotherham really leaves a sour taste in the mouth – give someone else a chance. I am not one to ever jump on Stuart’s back over any signing – I have liked the vast majority of players he has brought and has faith in – but O’Grady playing and being given a chance at Bradford City really doesn’t make sense to me.

A glance at the other results from League Two on the day show all have slipped up apart from Darlington. It would have been a perfect time to grab three points and move up into equal second place. The rest of the promotion contenders in this League are all stuttering – all failing to break from the pack (with the slight exception of Wycombe) , which has ensured that the top three is still a realistic target.

However, many more displays at home like this and we surely cannot expect to stay where we are.

Hopes now are pinned on the return of the influential Colbeck and the long anticipated debut of the possibly crucial Chris Brandon. What is for sure is that we do need something extra in this team to ensure promotion this season. The key to any successful promotion push is winning your home games, especially those against “lesser opposition” – something that this current City team is not delivering on.

Fingers of blame are pointed at McCall and his management team, which does morale no good, but the frustrations are understandable. Stuart will be and should only be judged in May but in the next few crucial months lets hope he can find within his team that little bit extra that make ambitious and talented teams successful in the long run at winning games and grinding out three points when they are needed most.

The midfield cup runneth over – Bradford City vs Accrington Stanley – League Two Preview

Stuart McCall must look back to the start of December and find it hard to recall how he struggled when Tom Clarke was recalled by Huddersfield Town to find midfielders for his Bradford City team that bobbed along in the promotion hunt – never falling below the play-off, never being able to cement a top three place – with injuries and suspensions robbing him of that favoured phrase of the commentary “six first team midfielders”.

With the return of Joe Colbeck to the training squad – if not to the team – and Lee Bullock to contention then McCall could field a six man middle should he wish. Certainly with great form from Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr the central two positions are covered and Bullock – along with Dean Furman – are sidelined. Steve Jones has not played since extending his loan deal at the club and is likely to start on the right hand side with Colbeck looking for a gap to return.

Omar Daley is set for the left side of midfield and behind him is Luke O’Brien who is not only becoming talked about as a player of the season candidate but is also developing a good relationship with Daley in front of him.

On the opposite side Paul Arnison will look forward to playing with the more thorough Colbeck than the attacking minded Jones while Graeme Lee, Matthew Clarke and Rhys Evans stand on a record of four consecutive clean sheets.

Looking to continue the last ten minutes at Accrington are the perm two from three of City’s strike force with Peter Thorne fit once more and Barry Conlon expected to step down. Michael Boulding will play alongside. Stuart McCall talked this week about the need to keep the number of strikers at the club down to a reasonable level and playing two up front leaves – in my estimation – five slots for players so as to avoid the demotivation of being too far from the first team. The main three City strikers are augmented by Chris O’Grady and Rory Boulding and it would seem that – unless he has an eye on a replacement for the loanee O’Grady – McCall has as many forwards as he wants.

He certainly has the firepower from those forwards should they be fed as evidenced by the last ten minutes at Accrington when Conlon, Thorne and M Boulding all added their names to the scoresheet to turn around the thought lost game. The onus is on the midfield – so full of options – to create chances.

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.

The finishing, finishing touch – Bradford City 0 Shrewsbury Town 0 – League Two Match Report

Having suggested that City were lucky to beat his side 4-0 Morecambe manager Sammy McIlroy would have come away from Valley Parade after the 0-0 draw with Shrewsbury with the impression that the Bantams are strangers to fortune.

From start to finish the Bantams bested the visitors from Shropshire all over the field coming within an inch of the post from Barry Conlon’s fierce volley from taking three richly deserved points.

Alas Conlon’s volley on the half hour pinged back and Michael Boulding’s tidy sweep over the shoulder of keeper Luke Daniels proved too close to the custodian and was saved as City looked to cut through the Shrews with tidy, fast paced and inventive play.

The midfield central duo of Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr were busy out of possession and commanding in it with Dean Furman benched and only able to watch a pair of middle men working together and working well. Omar Daley’s battle on the left wing with Darren Moss was the clash of the season thus far with Moss struggling to keep pace with Daley and Daley trying to burst past the right back. In the second half Moss and Daley clashed with the right back lucky not to be booked and Daley leaving an arm in on the defender which saw Stuart McCall fling him to the right hand side to cool down ended the fascinating clash.

Steve Jones on the alternative wing was less enthralling and looks something of a one trick pony. He is dangerous for sure but too often playing his own game leaving Paul Arnison with few options.

Arnison was a part of a flawless five man defence which has not conceded in the four games over Christmas. Graeme Lee was outstanding pocketing Grant Holt – who in typical Grant Holt tried to rip that pocket with kicks and studs – and making enough sturdy interceptions to remind one of David Wetherall at his best. Matt Clarke also get mentioned – the days of City being muscled out by big blokes is over – and Rhys Evans has engaged mouth and commands the back four superbly.

Luke O’Brien’s form has seen him inherit the title “Ohbee” from Andy and today should have been rewarded with a penalty for an enterprising surge past Omar Daley and into the box only to be shoved to the floor. Arnison – on the other side of the field – was left holding his face after an untidy jump saw him hit with a flailing arm. Conlon was lunged at after the ball, Boulding was upended. If these tackles has been in midfield they would have been free kicks. Referee Russel J Booth using the Wild West school of officialdom. Anything that keeps the game flowing is allowed and when Holt lunged through a defender then walked away waving a hand dismissively ignoring the Ref’s call over you had to wonder what happened to that whole “Respect” thing.

None of which is to take anything away from the Shrews who played a part in an exciting game but looked second best and but for a slice of that luck that Sammy McIlroy credits us with or the finish of a Peter Thorne – missing injured and seemingly replaceable – the Bantams would have won.

As it is City sit third again at the top of a pile of clubs who will be fighting out for the play offs and without putting too fine a point on it should the Bantams play as we did today and not go up then football is broken – play like this and we will go up – but the worry remains that despite possessing the leading striker in the division last season, one of the better ones this and Barry who never gives up City do not score enough goals – or rather we score them in gluts of fours and not odd ones and that the six home draws could have been wins with a deadlier finisher. Chris O’Grady held the ball after coming ensuring that the remaining fifteen minutes would be played in the Shrews half but is no one’s finisher.

Shrewsbury spent their lottery win on Holt and he was not able to nick the odd goal today. City look at events at Leeds with Delph and prepare a with and without shopping list looking for the thirty goal finisher who would thrive in a team that plays this well.

The finisher who would be the finishing touch.

What kind of year has it been?

Statistics please me not, dear reader, so I have no record for you of how Bradford City have done this calendar year that ends with the Bantams beating Morecambe 4-0 at Valley Parade with goals by Paul McLaren, Michael Boulding, Nicky Law Jnr and Barry Conlon.

I could not tell you how many games have been won or lost or how many goals have gone in one end or another – I’m all about the mood, people – but I can tell you that the spectre of the common home defeat has been banished in 2008. Last time on this turf City were incapable of breaking down a defensive Chester City side while today the Bantams got the breakthrough that is so often needed against negative sides and went on to win the match.

That crucial first goal came when Barry Conlon jostled in the air with former Town man Danny Adams and all were looking at the Referee save Paul McLaren who wandered nonchalantly – showing a head as cool as the air that Conlon’s hands were still in – into the area with ball to poke past advancing keeper Barry Roche.

McLaren’s role at the back of any attack that had Conlon on the floor was a result of Stuart McCall’s 433 formation which – in turn – was a result of the combination of return to fitness of Dean Furman and the fact that, well, it just suited the opposition so well.

Morecambe’s plan was not unique – the close down City’s defenders and sit deep themselves – but it was countered with confidence from McCall who placed faith in the back four to have the ball played short to draw out the opposition and make gaps where they were none for the last few years in the sides who come to Valley Parade with two lines of defenders. This is a difference between the start of 2008 and the end in that Stuart McCall has devised this plan but the fact that it sees the player accused of “pissing about” is slightly curious. McCall’s teams play some lovely football at times but none of it comes from Rhys Evans putting his laces through it and hoping Barry Conlon can be under it.

Much of that lovely stuff, any plans and the options that saw Stuart capable of playing a three man midfield comes from the midfield’s return to fitness with Furman quickly back into the fray and McLaren now fully up to speed. Combined with Nicky Law – who is certainly worth bringing in if Sheffield United will allow him to leave during the transfer window – the three did not enjoy dominance but created the chances that made this win.

The stats will tell you that City and Morecambe had similar shot counts but as I say I do not do stats because they do not tell the difference between Conlon striking the bar and a throw your cap on it dribbler. Morecambe might be worried about having lost 4-0 and they might curse their luck that they had one cleared off the line at the end of the first half but spawn many great chances they did not and the fact that City’s creation was finished off is another curio of 2008.

Michael Boulding’s run to meet up the end of Barry Conlon’s intelligent take down and through ball deserved the kind of quality finish which the striker provided cooly putting over Roche’s shoulder as if he had the freedom of Valley Parade rather than a couple of bruisers from the Bay breathing down his neck.

On exit of Dean Windass – chased off to the Premiership – City spent 2007 without a scorer worthy or the name. Peter Thorne’s return to fitness has seen him bag an Indian Summer’s worth of goals and Boulding’s first half a season has seen him get ten goals while Barry Conlon had a half dozen. 2008 seems to have been the year when City’s strikers started scoring.

What good is scoring goals though, if your defence is a shambles? City’s defence is a shambles though – it must be cause I read it on the Internet – but it is also three games since we conceded a goal and as a rule we do tend to concede fewer than we score. One thing that has not changed in 2008 is the level of expectation which have gone over the border of ludicrous.

A third goal came from Nicky Law Jnr who drove forward with the ball and lobbed Roche from range and sealed the victory for City. A fourth came when Steve Jones tried to finish off a ball to the back post by Omar Daley – a late sub – and Danny Adams got his hand between ball and goal to lead to a penalty.

One thing that changed in 2008 was the addition of the word “Deliberate” to the handball law (Law 12 – Direct Free Kick). If Adams handled the ball to have a penalty given against him then he did it deliberately – otherwise the Referee should not give an offence against him – so he has to send the player off for deliberately stopping a shot from going into the net with his hands.

Barry Conlon slammed in the penalty and still had time to set up further chances for Daley and Jones erasing what had been a quiet first half for the Irishman and all departed the field in the knowledge of a job well done and probably a year well spent.

Stuart McCall looks at his squad – we have a chance of keeping Nicky Law but little of signing Furman, Steve Jones is not the fourth goalscorer the Bantams are looking for, Luke O’Brien stands up in the first team – and perhaps tinkers in the days leading up to the Shrewsbury game when the transfer window opens but the return of players like Joe Colbeck to fitness will allow the manager more of a palette.

For it was options – options to shape a team on a game by game basis – that brought about a good win at the end of 2008 and a good 2008.

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.

Barry signs up and the boos go quieter

“More hoof ball to look forward to!”, “I’m amazed we kept him for his hold up play”, “Waste of money and results won’t improve due to his presence”, “My nose runs faster than he does”, “What sickens me too, is the fact that some of my hard earned money goes towards his wage bill”, “That’s all I hope for, an injury that would rule him out for the rest of the season.” Just some of the early comments posted by Bradford City fans on the Telegraph & Argus’ website after Barry Conlon revealed he was ready to sign the new contract offered to him for the rest of the season.

Barry is the type of player who will never be universally liked at this club. He can look ungainly, miss easy chances and launching balls up to him to win and hold up is never going to result in a 100% successful ratio. Yet it is to Conlon’s credit that the number of people who think he’s not good enough to play for this football club has drastically decreased; not just during the last few weeks when he has enjoyed his best run of form and goals in a City shirt, but since the day his signing was announced to underwhelmed supporters.

Barry was Stuart’s first signing as manager and as he and Peter Thorne drove up to the club they reflected on the more illustrious names of Carbone, Petrescu and Collymore who were signing Bradford City-headed contracts not so long ago. Conlon was known to some City fans, a preverbal lower league player with as many clubs as hot dinners; he’d played at Valley Parade for Barnsley in October 2004 and his goals could be seen on local news when York City were in the Football League. A quick glance at his career record hinted that another Non Scoring Forward (NSF) was on board to frustrate us all and, when he woefully missed a headed chance in a debut friendly appearance at Harrogate it was already enough for some to question Stuart’s judgement.

There was nothing in those first two months of competitive action to suggest anything different. He missed a penalty on his debut and, though he started the first few games, he looked slow and clumsy. Guylian Ndumbu-Nsungu was looking better alongside him and there was Thorne recovering from injury. A promotion challenge would not be achieved with the number 9 in the starting eleven it was felt.

Then he started at Morecambe during that dreadful autumn run of form and looked outstanding, holding the ball up effectively and bringing others into play. He carried that on in the next match against Darlington, though easy chances were spurned. He was less impressive at Grimsby the following week but still kept his place for the Brentford game. When he missed two easy chances in a matter of minutes, with City trailing 2-0, the boos rang down and Stuart took the sensible option of quickly subbing him. The team improved without him over the next few weeks and other League Two clubs came in offering loan deals. He was allowed to go, but opted to fight for his place.

There have been others at City with apparently more skill and ability who have not possessed such mental strength to cope with problems, but Conlon showed he carried bucket loads of it with a stoppage time winner against Lincoln on Boxing Day – his first City goal from open play – and then a good run in the team where his partnership with Thorne blossomed. During away games at least, Conlon was a cult hero with “Barry Barry” regularly chanted. Others kept their arms folded, frowned and thought it was all a joke to show him any support. A missed penalty at home to Dagenham, despite the fact he’d scored his last three spot kicks, meant the knives were out and he was on borrowed time.

But Stuart kept him on during the summer and though his popularity sunk to new depths when he was harshly singled out as scapegoat for the Huddersfield debacle (he was terrible that night, in fairness) some took to booing him when he came on as sub. That manifested itself most publicly at home to Luton when he came on at 0-0, yet with his first touch he’d put the ball in the net and another upturn in form followed. This time, the goals came too and Conlon took the mantle as the main man for scoring during autumn as City kept pace with the early runners. With Michael Boulding also on board, competition for places is fierce, but there never seemed any doubt Conlon would be offered another six months – and an increasingly number of people feel he deserves it.

Conlon is not going to go down as an all-time City great and there will be some who will stubbornly hold onto their views that he is ‘garbage’ long after he’s departed, but the fact he’s won over so many – including his manager – is testament to work rate and commitment. Imagine if other recent players at Valley Parade, with twice the ability, had possessed such desire to play for this club, would we be in League Two right now? Barry said on signing until the summer, “There were a few sniffs here and there but it was Bradford City all the way for me. I had no doubts at all. I just feel at home. I love being around the place, the lads are a great bunch and there’s no way I wanted to leave.”

The biggest question with Barry has always been his consistency. If he could sustain the sort of form he showed in October and November over a full season he would have played at a higher level for longer. It’s partly because of this that he has only been offered short-term deals and, if City gain promotion this season, he is likely to become surplus to requirements. Nevertheless he will find no shortage of clubs willing to take him on, with a lot of their fans no doubt taking an instant disliking to him and dubbing him a “pub footballer.” Yet when he does eventually go he will leave with the best wishes of a significant proportion of City fans because he gave everything he had and proven a lot of us wrong.

The decision on City comes at Christmas – Bradford City vs Chester City Preview

Recall this time last year – dear reader – and remember the questions about Stuart McCall and his team which had broken out of a losing run that would put Paul Ince to shame but were a long way from impressing with a scrappy team culled together from free transfers and loan players showing few signs of becoming a capable side.

Peter Thorne was a malingerer, Willy Topp the great hope and Joe Colbeck a guy you send out on loan. How times have changed and how last year’s festive period changed them.

The Boxing Day 2-1 win over Lincoln City – Barry Conlon scuffing the winner in the last minute – built on a good performance in the rain at Chesterfield – and showed a City team with Omar Daley starting to find form and Colbeck energised that could compete with the spirited teams in the division.

A Referee cost City in the 3-1 defeat to Hereford but the impressive display cemented the feeling that City could now start a run for bigger and better things which has continued to this day. In the last 365 days the Bantams have not been as lowly as we were at the start of December 2007.

So a year on and the Bantams – unarguably in a better position – face similar questions and have a similar need for a thrust of improvement although while twelve months ago the impetuous was to move away from mid-table and relegation to flirtatious play-off lower reaches now it is impressed upon Stuart McCall and his charges that with more than the play-off team what is Bradford City will be a promotion side.

Such comments are – in the opinion of this writer – unduly harsh on a Bantams side that has suffered at the hands of footballing fatalism more than most this season. Not a team in the land could survive the loss of the entire midfield and two replacements: Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren, Lee Bullock, Dean Furman, Omar Daley and Joe Colbeck have been simultaneously out of action; without a dip in results and while some suggest that Stuart McCall’s inability to have his team hang into the top three places on a weekly basis is a criticism of the manager I would suggest that it is credit to him.

The injury situation at City should have crippled the team – Steve Jones, Nicky Law Jnr, Tom Clarke and Kyle Nix is no one’s dream midfield – but each week the Gaffer has sent out a team that while bettered was never battered and the kind of excuses that formed under the likes of Jim Jefferies were never allowed to take route. McCall’s nemesis spent much of the Premiership talking about injuries to David Wetherall and Andrew O’Brien yet Stuart’s red cross list has been worse and concentrated in an area of the field position but never been allowed to become a self-perpetuating reason for defeat.

The jury – one could say – is out on McCall but one suspects in modern football the jury never returns – or only does so retroactively as it did on Paul Jewell who like McCall build a side with character that competed but was criticised for being commensurate rather than dominant. I would suggest that the improvement of the last year suggests that McCall is performing well and that if someone were to try ascribe this to the injection of funds in the summer as a suggestion that anyone could perform as well give the cash I would point them to 17th place Manchester City. Resources are only useful once marshal and marshalling of resources are perhaps best seen in the fullness of a season – injuries and all.

The midfield of woe is returning to fitness with Lee Bullock and Dean Furman both playing forty five minutes in the reserves. Both are looking at this weekend’s game with Chester as a way back before the Christmas break and one may suspect that McCall will give them the same type of “a half each” run out for the first team as they received on Tuesday afternoon for the stiffs. Doing so would allow Paul McLaren to retain his place and let Nicky Law Jnr shift right to the flank which he delivered such a sweet ball to Michael Boulding from last time at Valley Parade. Omar Daley’s return on the left last week at Brentford shows how important he has become to the team – a contrast to fifteen months ago and a change he credits McCall with.

McCall though credits Daley, Colbeck and his attacking three of Peter Thorne, Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon as being his entertainers and driving his City team on this term. He looks for another forward in the transfer window – reports that he was interested in Chesterfield’s out of contract Jamie Ward would seem to be wishful now Jewell’s Derby are interested – and sees strong attacking as the way forward. Thorne and Boulding are expected to start against Chester.

With this Keegan-esque mindset the defence that causes problems to some would seem to be less of an issue to the manager. Paul Arnison’s long awaited return for TJ Moncur should see the more attacking – or at least better crossing – full back in opposite Luke O’Brien who continues to perform well at left back. Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke – along with keeper Rhys Evans – will look on the McCall’s philosophy with the attitude that they aim if not for clean sheets then for one fewer concession than the other team and while statistics suggest that they could improve the Dagenham game showed that while it conceded in a mistake the back line did not buckle under the pressure.

Pressure that is not expected to be as great against a Chester City side who have scored only nine on the road this season and will no doubt end the season thankful of the deductions other clubs have suffered. A win over Chester precedes another Boxing Day game with Lincoln, a home tie with Morecambe and the visit of Shrewsbury. All tough in their own ways but all winnable for the Bantams who recall players to fitness and look to the sturdy first half of the season to set up a run for promotion in the second.

The decision on City – and most probably on Stuart McCall the manager – comes this Christmas.

The mid-point report questions the defence

As we approach the mid point of our season and the turn of the year heralding the opening of the transfer window, it might be a good idea to look at the story so far…..

Things are beginning to sort themselves out just a little bit. The top 10 teams are, well, the top 10 teams.

Wycombe are clear with a game in hand but the chasing bunch are pretty fluid. City are established in the top seven, which is good, but not in the top 3, which is not so good.

Stuart’s determination to bring in a first team striker is great news. A replacement for Willy Topp who, even his biggest fans should admit, wasn’t going to be a regular first team frontman this season.

We should get a player who is not just competition for Thorne, Boulding and Conlon but could fit seamlessly into the side if one or more of them is injured.

The goals should then keep flowing.

In midfield we should finally have everybody fit. competition right across the park can only be a good thing and, when you throw Furman (and possibly Law) into the mix as well, it will be really intriguing to see who become the regulars. Each fan probably names a different midfield four.

Now to the back four. Their school report would read “must try harder” as, a quick look at the top seven’s goals against reveals. We’ve conceded quite few more than the rest and this has definitely cost us points… games drawn we should have won and defeats which should have been draws.

To me personally this is the most mystifying fact – that the defence isn’t as solid as it should be. Our assistant manager Wayne Jacobs is a former premiership experienced fullback and our chief coach David Wetherall a Premiership experienced central defender. Between them they should have been able to sort out the current back four or, if they thought any player/players weren’t up to the task we should have got someone else in by now probably on loan at first to have a look at them.

Just a quick word about the keeper Rhys Evans. He is solid if not spectacular he’s made few mistakes and pulled off some great stops. while I had my doubts when he came in he’s certainly got me convinced.

To sum up, I can’t do better than echo John Hendrie’s comment of a few weeks ago that City are currently a top seven side but if we can tighten up the defence on a permanent basis a top three berth is there for the taking.

Just a quick word to those few people I’ve already heard in their darker moments saying “Well, I’d settle for the playoffs”. What rubbish! No team in the top half should be settling for a playoff position now or any time soon!

Only if – perish the thought! – it eventually becomes mathematically impossible to finish in the top 3 should any fan be even talking about the playoffs and the lottery they entail.

Puddings

Brentford 2 Bradford City 1- League Two 2008/2009

Like my mum’s Christmas pudding this defeat was hardest to swallow because it came late and followed a good meal.

City had played well during what seemed to be a 0-0 draw at Brentford and looked capable of doing to the home side what teams do to us. Frustrating and nicking a win.

With Omar Daley back and Paul McLaren having more say in the game the Bantams had the better of the early exchanges but despite Michael Boulding’s hard work the chances that came never seemed to sit up right. At the other end Paul Arnison was back at right back and the back four that went on to concede two goals looked solid as anything with Matthew Clarke especially impressive.

But, depressingly, the result of 2-1 came from a 94 minute header after City had clawed back from conceding a late goal. Boulding finished off to give City a draw that vanished not long after with the overriding fear being that if last week City drew the sort of game we would have won then this week we lost it and that without a change of luck or skill or whatever City will have a faltering challenge for promotion.

Next week at home to Chester we might see Dean Furman or Lee Bullock again but I’m worried that for all the skill of the returning players the spirit of the team has suffered.

Christmas will be telling. City need to avoid the pudding.

The four corners – Brentford vs Bradford City preview

The Bantams travel to the football ground with a pub on each of the four corners looking at the four corners of the midfield as the return to fitness begins.

Paul McLaren was back for last week ahead of time and the extra week should see the playmaker building up match fitness. The number four’s impact has been lessened by injury since his arrival in the summer and an unbroken period from now to May could go a long way to seeing City promoted.

Lee Bullock – McLaren’s partner has been missed more than he was appreciated and is back in training with a return expected for the Christmas games. Dean Furman is further away but is also expected to be starting 2009 fit. When all three are in the running for places – should it happen – it will be interesting to see which two are considered corners of the City midfield. McLaren and Bullock is the accepted wisdom but Furman impressed.

Such a problem exists on the flanks too with Omar Daley returning to the side for this weekend’s clash while Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon wait until the new year to be back in contention. Daley’s performances this season – in the face of a criticism which would see him “got rid of” despite his obvious advantages – have belied the fact that in the dream City midfield on paper in August he was on the bench and Brandon and Colbeck were in.

As with Furman, Daley’s performances have made him undroppable and away from home watching the winger sprint puts the fear of God into the opposition. His return is anticipated.

No return to date for Paul Arnison who was not popular in the position where no player is every popular – right back – but since losing his place to TJ Moncur the momentum has build behind him. Moncur’s mistake last week added to his critics but no calls for his exit owing to that will come from this quarter rather a belief that Arison supported his winger better than Moncur and was a route to goals and that is why we prefer the one over the other. Moncur, however, is expected to take right back opposite Luke O’Brien – roasted a little last week – at left back and Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke in the middle.

A point on last week is that Dagenham celebrate the game as their best performance in recent years if not – truly – ever and look at the 66% possession stat with glee. In this context the defending of Lee and Clarke with the full backs and the goalkeeping of Rhys Evans was exceptional and did not get enough credit. Yes, the mistake cost a goal but the draw was saved by some sturdy backline duties.

And the draw came from some impressive attacking play by Nicky Law Jnr and Michael Boulding both of whom are to feature in a team that should read Evans, Moncur, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien, Steve Jones, McLaren, Law Jnr, Daley, Boulding and Peter Thorne. They face a Brentford team doing well in the league in 8th position but coming off the back of a 2-1 defeat to Barrow in the FA Cup and in the midst of a goalkeeping crisis.

Lies, damned lies, statistics and Bradford City

Wasn’t it Paul Jewell who said ‘There are lies, damned lies, statistics and Bradford City’? Oh no, it was something else that Jagger said. Back to that in a minute. No, according to Mark Twain it was Benjamin Disraeli who made that comment – or at least he would have done if he had still been alive back in 1903.

But have a look at the official club website and you’ll see some quite alarming statistics from Saturday’s game. They say, for example, that City, starting a home game as second in the league, had just 29% of the possession, had just half of the number of shots on target as the Daggers and won 4 corners as against their opponents’ 13. Those are the kind of statistics that don’t lie.

At least now I know why the manager keeps his hair as long as it always has been. It’s so that nobody realises how much of it he tears out whenever we gave the ball away – which happened roughly every thirty seconds yesterday. He will soon be as follicularly challenged as the rest of us, especially when we concede possession about 25 yards from our own goal.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded the Daggers’ corner count being 14, if the extra one had been the ball TJ could just have knocked out of play instead of letting it be put back across the face of Evans’ goal, thereby setting up the equalizer. But come on, be fair to Evans. He’d kept us in it and there was very little he could have done to prevent that goal.

Of course, what the statistics don’t tell you is that, for all that City were outplayed up and down the pitch, there was only one team who were ever going to score that opening goal. I don’t suggest it was fated or anything like that. What I mean is that it took a passing team, operating at pace and a real quality goal scorer to create and score a goal like that. We’ve done it before – Rochdale comes to mind – and we’ll do it again this season. There are ways of soaking up pressure and still scoring goals and we seem to have some of the best ways. They’re called Boulding and Thorne.

Even allowing for the justice in the equalizer, City could have lost the point gained. Apart from the referee, who else thought it wasn’t a penalty? And what about the reaction of the Dagenham players? The last time I saw that sort of scrum round the ref was when Andy D’Urso had the temerity to award a penalty against the home team at Old Trafford and Roy Keane’ eyeballs were several inches away from the sockets. Wasn’t that exactly what the Respect campaign was all about? So how come not a single yellow card resulted from the cavalry charge?

Ah yes, that was what Paul Jewell said. After the recent Derby game against Nottingham Forest he gave the referee 100% in his report card, because he wanted to see if anyone actually read the numbers awarded by the managers. That was the game where the ref gave a penalty for a handball that wasn’t, where quite literally a one second pause would have solved everything, that being the time it took for Derby to put the ball in the net. The penalty was saved and even the second time Derby put the ball in the net the ref found a push, although he couldn’t say by which Derby player. Replays showed two or three from Forest, none from Derby.

And why was I reminded of Paul Jewell? Easy really. That Derby ref was none other that Mr Atwell, he of the phantom goal in the Watford and Reading game and he of the non-penalty and no respect at Valley Parade yesterday. (I gather Derm Tanner’s substitute on Bantams World needed the prompting of John Hendrie to point out that this was the phantom goal ref. Still, given that he also insisted that the cross for Boulding’s goal came from Jones, maybe he could give up the day job and become a linesman.)

I just wondered how a Premiership ref couldn’t book anyone for that confrontation. Then I thought of the absolute howlers he’s made already this season, each of which has cost points for different teams and, for Aidy Boothroyd, a slap on the wrist for his reaction. But yesterday there were no TV cameras, save for the highlights package which will never show the incident. Or maybe Mr Atwell finally figured that, when you have just dug that hole a little deeper, there really must come a time to stop digging. I could almost wish for the return of Graham Poll.

Well, almost.

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.

Topp exits Valley Parade

Willy Topp was not the player we thought he was when he signed. Being fair he was never going to be.

Aside from the obvious difference when he arrived he changed his name from Billy because, well, because he though Willy Topp and Dick Head were a little too close together the Chilean who promised goals delivered none.

Topp was to be the new Robbie Blake. He was to be the tricks and the flicks that lifted Stuart McCall’s first generation of Bradford City out of League Two. One good turn against Shrewsbury Town deserved another but did not get one and an impressive goal in the reserves apart Topp hardly even registered on the Bantams radar.

Nevertheless he figured in the minds of many. Topp should be given a chance – we heard and in some cases said – but reports of injuries, returns to his homeland for rumoured curious reasons and poor training seemed to add up to one thing. When put in the squad at Bradford City Topp could not match the efforts of others.

In many ways Topp should be where Barry Conlon is now – Topp started the season as City’s cult hero and Conlon as a boo figure – but the application of the Irishman on the field puts his rival into the shade.

Stuart McCall watches Barry and Billy, Leon Osbourne and The Bouldings and Peter Thorne every day in training and the Chilean has started to figure bottom of that list. Without wanting to suggest a blind faith in McCall’s judgement one has to assume the Topp offered nothing in excess even of the younger players in the squad like Rory Boulding who figured above the Chile man on the bench on Saturday.

Other suggest that Topp was hamstrung by a manager unwilling to try out a formation that would suit him supposing that a 433 would have benefited Topp allowing him more room to show off his skills and this may be true but at what cost to the rest of the squad? Chris Kamara played a team to fit in Chris Waddle but faced relegation until the star man left and he was replaced with more down to Earth football. All of which assumes that if unleashed with a formation change Topp would have been worth the effort. His impressive flashes numbered fewer than those that Kyle Nix produced last season.

On Topp’s exit City are second in League Two and nothing has suggested that that extra place could be earned by bending the team to fit in the Chilean. On the contrary the moral of City’s season to date has been the triumph of effort, believe and the rewards of doing the right things most often rather than hopefully employed low percentage solutions.

In a way that is the lesson that Topp gives us as he leaves. While eyes look at Billy with hope and optimism Michael Boulding – who’s arrival at City was met in places with a grimace rather than the smile of Toppy – was scoring goals and running himself into the ground and has a half dozen goals to his name.

It is impossible to form an argument that Topp should feature above Michael Boulding, Conlon or Thorne and in the end – distressingly – all the man from South America offers is tricks and mirrors while three strikers deliver goals.

Topp may go on to great things – few will wish him bad on the way out – but City have learnt another lesson on going for solid, consistent ability rather than unknown and perhaps talent.

Of course there will persist in the mind the Topp – when “given a chance” – would have been as sublime as Benito Carbone or Peter Beagrie but the reality is the player sitting on his hands while others strive and succeed.

Willy Topp joins a list with Jorge Cadete and Bruno Rodriguez. The players who we thought were going to be.

The luck of the draw

Watching the Bantams go out of the FA Cup 2-1 to Leyton Orient two frustrations of this 2008/2009 season struck me but only one left me surprised.

The Bantams interest in knock out competitions ended after a header former Leeds man Danny Granville headed home a well placed corner leaving City – who had got back into the game following going behind in the first half – tired and heading for the exit.

City had started slowly – a problem of late – and Graeme Lee’s continuing problems with TJ Moncur maintaining a position to his right hand side saw the skipper foolishly following the wrong man leaving time and space for Jason Demetriou to turn and pick out a fine shot to beat Rhys Evans from range. It was a deserved reward for the team from the division above having the better of the opening exchanges and there was a worry that as with Tranmere Rovers 3-0 win in a previous FA Cup tie that League One would just have too much quality.

Credit then City for clawing back into the game to such an extent that the first half ended with the Bantams in the ascendency much of which had to do with the Bantams midfield – second choice and second best – adding a needed steel to proceedings.

The quartet of Nicky Law Jnr being anchored by Tom Clarke with Kyle Nix on the right and debut loan winger Steve Jones replacing the injured Omar Daley were bullied out of the opening exchanges but added perhaps a little too much of the tough stuff with Clarke picking up a booking and Nix pushing in two challenges that had they connected could have resulted in red cards.

Nevertheless the muscle matched the visitors from the league above who’s robust style of play had seen a heavy challenge on Barry Conlon in the first ten minutes result in the in form 100 goal man coming off after twenty minutes with a back injury and considering that none of the midfield four would be in Stuart McCall’s all squad fit team then credit is due for the resurgence that bore fruit after an hour when a smart through ball allowed Michael Boulding – who ran tirelessly all afternoon – to get behind the immense Alton Thirwell who had a superb game for the visitors and equalise for the Bantams.

At that point City looked the team most likely but the goal galvanised the visitors who stepped up and within ten had taken the decisive lead. The Bantams had chances to equalise – Peter Thorne uncharacteristically heading the best of them wide – but Thirwell, Jordan Spence and midfielder Adam Chambers kept a strong spine to restrict City who lost by an edge, but just an edge.

Curious then that a decent turn out despite pricing villainy by the Londoner’s boardroom did not get behind City more. The Bantams battled with a team a league above and battled well. A nicer drop of the ball or a slice of luck and City could have been through yet the atmosphere was once again strangely muted. Hardly a surprise but whatever a crowd can do to push a team through we do not seem to do it, at least not at Valley Parade.

Surprising and disappointing has been the rumbling of balls around Bradford City this season. Four times the Bantams have been drawn out of hats and every time we have faced a team in the highest division possible. Huddersfield Town, Leeds United and Milton Keynes Dons have previously faced City in the cup this season all from League One.

With the Bantams doing well in League Two we could assume that a draw against anyone below us – and in every draw we have been in most of the teams have been below us in the league structure – would have been more beatable but rather than Grimsby Town away in the Johnsons Paint we end up with Leeds and rather than Chester in the League Cup we went to Huddersfield. Of course there is no guarantee we would have won those hypothetical games but City should not be down hearted about being out of all the cups but rather surprised at the bad luck that saw us get four tough games.

Leyton Orient was a winnable game – both in theory and during the match – but it was not Histon Town 1 Leeds United 0 and as we look to the league now and the next five months of trying to ensure promotion we should do so knowing that in all four of those games – save the second half against Huddersfield – the Bantams gave as good as they got against the teams we want to be playing week in week out.

Four times we played league one clubs. Once we learned a lesson, once we got an apology, once we played and won and once we played and lost. We are ready for that league.

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.

Battling back

City produced a fine comeback from 2-0 down to grab all three points and ascend into 2nd place in League Two.

It was a game full of incident and open play, and City’s superb resolve and spirit was highly commendable against dangerous attacking opposition.

McCall sprung a surprise in naming the starting eleven by leaving top scorer Peter Thorne on the bench. His troublesome back problems that have developed over the last few weeks is likely to be the reasoning behind not risking him from the start. With so many injuries to contend with, McCall tinkered with a diamond formation in the first half, with Tom Clarke playing the anchor role in midfield protecting the back four, and Omar Daley getting a free role to roam with menace.

Things could not have got off to a worse start when a long throw into the area was not dealt with, and Jack Lester rifled in a left foot strike beyond Rhys Evans to put Chesterfield ahead.

The game opened up and City had two good chances to level via Omar Daley – in particular when he seemed to have got clean through and just before he was about to shoot, an excellent last ditch challenge was produced by Chesterfield defender Downes, to deny the pacy Jamaican.

Things went from bad to worse when Chesterfield doubled their advantage on 23. A loose ball floated around the penalty area that City failed to clear and it was left to Darren Currie to produce a rasping left foot strike that took a deflection and flew into the roof of the net, prompting jubilant celebrations from the scorer.

To their credit, City never let their heads drop and really began to play with more purpose despite being 2-0 down. There was some nice interplay and with Michael Boulding a willing runner all night, City began asking questions of Robert Page’s Chesterfield backline. When Barry Conlon was fouled just outside the box, the resultant free kick was left to skipper Graeme Lee who smashed the ball directly into the net with a thunderbolt that threw City a lifeline.

And just before halftime a short corner produced a left wing cross that was headed firmly down by Boulding that drew City level.

The second half began with City in the ascendancy and should have taken the lead twice through Boulding. First, he was unlucky to see his strike bounce wide following an excellent cross from the left from O’Brien. Then he really should have scored when one on one with Page, but he dragged his shot wide of the target.

Chesterfield were still having a fair amount of attacking play though, and Jack Lester missed a very presentable chance when clean through on goal to the left of the box. But Evans did a brilliant job, making himself big, and only providing Lester with an acute angle left to shoot which he sliced into the side netting.

The penalty that was awarded in City’s favour that won them the game seemed to be a fairly harsh one from my viewpoint. Nicky Law did brilliantly to take on his man and dribble inside the box, but seemed to go to ground too easily (I haven’t seen the replay yet) and initially I thought Law was going to be booked for diving. But the referee pointed to the spot, and served as some compensation for the terrible offside decisions that were given against us attacking wise.

Battling Barry Conlon grabbed the ball and confidently stepped up to take the penalty (I must admit I wanted either Boulding or Thorne to take it!). What followed was an audacious chip (Dwight Yorke style in his heyday) that went straight down the middle for the Burly Irishman’s 100th League Goal highlighted by his flash of his undershirt in the goal celebration, which was rewarded with a booking.

City held on for the last 20 minutes against ten men (Goodall was sent off for a second bookable – his foul on Law inside the penalty area) largely thanks to an excellent save from Evans from a Jamie Ward effort, and TJ Moncur made a vital interception at the back at the death – nipping the ball away from Lester with the goal gaping inside the area.

Whilst they made it very hard for themselves, its hard to find anything to criticise about City’s under strength side tonight. Yes they started slowly – but their battling back from adversion is promotion form (demonstrated also away at Accrington to grab all three points).

Boulding had a productive night and never stopped running. Tom Clarke produced an effective display protecting his back four, as was his brief. And Lee really is producing “Captain Fantastic” performances consistently now – a really worthy replacement for David Wetherall. His strikes from set pieces are now something of a secret weapon ( 30 yards out against Bury, The winner away at MK Dons in the FA Cup and now tonight).

My only grip about tonight were my fellow supporters in the Midland Road stand. With 2 – 3 minutes remaining there was an exodus of people making their way to the exit. Having just seen their team produce a stunning comeback against a very strong side, surely the team are worthy of a standing ovation. Or at least a round of a applause from the over 11,000 home fans? No, some people want to leave early to “ miss the traffic”. It’s pathetic.

You either commit to supporting the team or you are simply a spectator with no heart in caring about the team when they deserve some support or a pat on the back. People would be quick to boo the entire game if the team lost but to not reward a winning team who have dug really deep to deliver an excellent result is really not on.

At the rate that people were leaving the ground before the final whistle it was like we had lost 4-0.
Anyway, well done to Stuart and the lads. Our position in the table is very encouraging. And what is more encouraging is that I don’t think we have even hit top gear yet. From the way things look tonight, a top three finish is very achievable by this team, who like to do things the hard way.

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.

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.

More of the same from less – Wycombe Wanderers vs Bradford City preview

Dean Furman is still injured and Paul McLaren is still carrying a knock. Joe Colbeck and Lee Bullock still cannot run about and Chris Brandon is not coming back until next year. The Bantams are still as threadbare as they were going into the game with MK Dons last weekend but after that win the City have hope.

Hope that is that Stuart McCall’s side which he this week declared he was happy with the progress of is more than just the eleven players on the field and that there is strength in the squad.

Barry Conlon showed that strength coming off the bench and scoring goals and being part of last week’s winning side but the Irishman is expected to step down for a biting at the bit Peter Thorne. Michael Boulding’s intelligent play and pace away from home rather than Conlon’s battering ram approach will be favoured alongside.

At the back Matthew Clarke’s return to the team and to form seems set to leave his Huddersfield name sake Tom cooling his heels with Graeme Lee partnering him at the back. TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien are expected to continue at full back with Rhys Evans behind them.

The midfield continues to be a black hole of injury. Omar Daley has continued good form on his return on the right hand side and Leon Osbourn did enough on the left to suggest his continued presence in the side. Certainly Stuart McCall seems more impressed with the youngster’s attitude than he is with Willy Topp’s. Topp – an option in midfield – seems to be a long way from the side.

Wycombe go into the game having led League Two but now on a dip in much the same way City were. They have drawn four of their last five fixtures and have needed 90th and 98th minute goals to maintain the stream of points. They are – for sure – a good side but City’s one defeat in seven suggests that we are too and that this is a game between teams who will be battling for the chance of automatic promotion and the championship rather than play-off places.

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.

Too much ying for City’s yang

If there was one positive for us Bradford City fans to take as we exited Valley Parade at full time it was that it’s unlikely we’ll witness as wretched a second half performance from our team all season.

Going in at half time in a far from commanding 3-2 lead, the players appeared unsure whether to keep attacking or see out the game and failed to do either with any conviction. And although it’s questionable whether Albert Anomah’s 75th minute prodded equaliser crossed the line, there was no disputing how deserved it was – or how fortunate City were that the two points lost didn’t become three.

This was an afternoon in which much of what’s good about City this season was on display, but was undermined by much of what’s not good. Three times they took the lead in the first half and each time it was well taken. First Barry Conlon nodded the Bantams ahead after 10 minutes following a fine team move out of defence which resulted in Peter Thorne’s clever lay off been crossed into the box by TJ Moncur. Paul McLaren’s superb free kick delivery on the half hour was aching to be nodded home and Thorne did just that to put City back in front. Conlon then got his second – and sixth of the season – after finishing well from Moncur’s pass for 3-2. Recalled to the starting line up after his midweek heroics, the Irishman had an excellent afternoon and has now moved ahead of Michael Boulding in the goalscoring charts.

Yet in between those three goals were two soft ones at the other end to grimace about. Conlon’s opener was cancelled out after a woeful Moncur back pass sold Rhys Evans short, but even then the City goalkeeper should have made a better fist of clearing the ball instead of dallying and allowing John O’Flynn to roll the ball into the net. After Thorne’s header for 2-1, Anomah beat Luke O’Brien on the byeline and got a shot in which Evans did well to save, only for slow defending to allow Nicky Nicolau the space to slam the ball home. Conlon then struck again to re-establish a lead City’s first half efforts deserved.

A half which heavily featured attacking football from both sides. Manager Stuart McCall, without the suspended Omar Daley, moved Boulding out wide and brought in Conlon; but while Boulding had enjoyed an excellent game on the left wing at Grimsby eight days ago he was a huge disappointment. Whether he was unhappy to be switched or there’s some anxiety at playing in front of a large demanding crowd which is hindering, he failed to produce what was expected. Worse he was woeful at tracking back and helping out O’Brien; the latter too often left exposed against the threat of Anomah, who thankfully couldn’t cross as well as he could dribble.

Going forward Boulding was little better and, with Nicky Law playing in fits and starts, City played without the wide threat which has helped them to stretch and win games this season. Stuart must have recognised this and no one would have blamed him had he brought Kyle Nix or Leon Osborne on at half time, but instead he persisted with a line up which wasn’t functioning properly.

Barnet came out strong in the second half and their threat never went away. With pace on the flanks and a midfield not afraid to put a boot in, it became more and more one-way traffic as City struggled to keep them at bay. Rare home attacks carried a threat – Law and Conlon both going close – but the visitors enjoyed far more of the ball and posed too many questions of a fragile backline.

And herein lies the problem with City at the moment. There’s no doubting the attacking quality within the ranks, shown here despite the absence of key players, but when they do go in front there is some uncertainty over what to do next. Once again we see too many long balls launched in the hope the strikers can hold the ball up, but the offside flag or strong, and sometimes questionable, Barnet challenges limited this effectiveness. Stuart seems to want City to pass the ball about from the back and this often works well, but when the nerves are prevalent or the lead is slender ‘hit and hope’ seems to be favoured. To Barnet’s credit they must have noted this and sought to apply pressure on City from high up the pitch.

In such situations it’s as if City have one less player in midfield and the ability to slow the game down, keep passing the ball around and take the sting out of Barnet’s attacking momentum seems to be beyond the players. They will often work really hard to win the ball back, only to lose it cheaply seconds later. It meant the defence was overworked and the equaliser seemed inevitable.

The sight of Dean Furman having to limp off the field was distressing, given he was the only member of City’s midfield successfully doing the right things. His injury might have meant Stuart decided to keep Boulding on when his ineffectiveness should have been rewarded with an early exit from play, but three minutes later City were kicking off again and seemingly lacking the belief and composure to get back in front.

The performance of the backline is clearly a huge concern. Graeme Lee has looked much more the player of early season during the last two games, but he needs to be more commanding of the troops around him. Tom Clarke is a decent player but struggled as the game went on and it was O’Brien’s toughest afternoon to date, not helped by that lack of support in front. Moncur considers himself a right back, but the doubts are still there. Much of the recent defensive shortcomings have been blamed on Matt Clarke, but I believe he hasn’t been as bad as others make out.

Not that City particularly missed him, but there is someone sat in the same dugout who it can be argued they are. David Wetherall was always going to be a tough act to follow after retiring last season, but it’s the way Stuart is now trying to get City to defend which is perhaps causing teething problems. Wetherall’s lack of pace meant City had to defend deeper and the back four are now trying to play a higher defensive line. This is working reasonably well – though defenders need to be more decisive in possession when opposition forwards are pressing them – but was seemingly abandoned in the second half due to the midfield’s lack of control. The pressure grew, but the more forward players didn’t drop further back with the defence and huge gaps emerged which Barnet were able to exploit.

After Barnet’s equaliser there only looked to be one winner as the impressive visitors continued to attack. At least the defence did well to prevent a late winner with some excellent headers and blocks, how frustrating for them it must be to see the ball come back towards them so quickly after.

The full time whistle was met with boos, but it’s questionable how this sort of reaction helps anyone. There still remains a lot to be positive about when assessing City’s chances this season and the problems afflicting it can be sorted in time. Some fans said that last season City would have lost the sort of game they won against Bury midweek, well that’s true about this game too.

An unexpected late Halloween horror show at the back to endure, but the ability to keep producing fireworks at the other end has left City in an excellent position in the league. Those shortcomings will need to be banished in order to stay there.

Stuart goes in without his wingers – Bradford City vs Barnet – League Two Preview

Stuart McCall never got to the by-line.

He never skinned a full back and he never cut inside.

Little legs and a low centre of gravity Stuart McCall would have been a rubbish winger but his City team is all about the men on the flanks.

Omar Daley’s random darts have confused enough defences this year to make him one of City’s most dangerous players and the route of lots of chances but while no one else can understand a word he says Referees can and have booked him enough to suspend him.

Joe Colbeck offers something different but still important for City beating men with accurate crosses but injury at Grimsby has him sidelined and Stuart is left looking for new wingers.

Nicky Law did a reasonable job on Tuesday night but did not give the supply line that Colbeck or Daley does and Kyle Nix might be able to do what Joe does but movie left but only on a good day and the Rothstrailian hasn’t had one of those in a while.

So options like Leon Osbourn and Billy Topp in a wide role are getting talked about. Expect one to sit on the bench but Nix and Law to be the guys next to Paul McLaren and the brilliant Dean Furman.

Similarly up front Barry’s heroic header on Tuesday will bring him a place on the bench behind Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding.

At the back Matt Clarke is back and could replace Tom Clarke which would be harsh on the loan player from Udders who did well alongside Graeme Hammer Boot Lee. Tom Moncur and Luke O’Brien are full backs with Rhys Evans in net.

Barnet are without Jason Puncheon since last year after if wowed then transferred but they do have Luke Medley now which says a lot about where the club seems to be going.

They messed about in the top half of the table for a bit but are bottom half now. Expect a battle but one City can win if the squad can keep in mind the fact that the flying wingers are not replicated.

Not so much Plan B as Style B.

Whatever happened to Plan B?

When Barry Conlon checked back to see it the header that gave City a 1-0 win over Bury we all checked back a month or so to when City were in trouble.

Back then Barry was getting booed and City were on the way out of the promotion picture. The reason for this was Stuart McCall who was tactically naive or he lacked a plan B or both.

The jungle drums that beat were against him but sound distant now. McCall was never the hapless legend afforded a job above his talents that his detractors would have him portrayed but neither does he have a Midas touch either. Sometimes he gets things right and sometimes he does not and it seems that the former out weigh the latter.

McCall suffers as all managers do from the wisdom of crowds where broad judgements are given to fine situations. It is very much a tool in the modern arsenal of a manager to be able to filter the signal from the massive noise that pervades every decision one makes.

McCall’s continued use of Conlon shows this skill is growing in the City boss. The manager wants Barry in the squad but not the side and while backing him to beat boos and be useful he is careful not to overplay his importance at the expense of his plans for Michael Boulding.

McCall does the same with TJ Moncur who’s presence in the side over Paul Arnison is a mystery to me but not to the manager who ultimately is charged with maintaining cold judgement when all around are dealing in hyperbole.

The calls for Barry to start will increase but Stuart must keep his own council on the hard working, prolific Boulding despite the noises around him and the emotion of Conlon, Willy Topp et al.

Perhaps one day McCall will join a club where if need not worry about damaging his legend status – his comments at City have shown on occasion an impressive willingness to wield the power he has – and his relationship with supporters will differ.

Then he may be aggressive as well full throated in his defence of a Conlon but for now he has the lesson of filtering out all except performance and the justification that comes with winning.

Now the manager faces a different set of tests with Joe Colbeck out for two months and the continued motivation of Omar Daley now paramount but those tasks begin from second in the division.

Plan B? Tactics? Barry Conlon? Everything becomes right with a win.

Where the pieces fall

The ball would not drop.

It held in mid-air like the frost had clung to Bradford’s trees this first Winter morning and took time to come down to the crisp grass of Valley Parade.

Later it would fall to Barry Conlon – of course to Barry Conlon – who would stand straight and head past Wayne Brown.  Allowing Conlon to head past him was the only one thing the man in the Bury goal did wrong all evening but a half hour before that moment it would be Michael Boulding trying to take down a looped cross from Peter Thorne and – when on his own in the middle of the penalty area – control and convert the chance.

The chance had come when Brown had sprinted back to his line to scoop away a back pass by David Buchanan which had seemed to be going into the visitors goal. Boulding’s pressure had forced the error but that would be no consolation as the ball steadfastly refused to sit up to be struck hanging in the air from Thorne’s cross.

Wins, promotions are made of such things.

This phrase seems to be commonly uttered at Valley Parade of late as the Bantams slump – the dire Bantams of Darlington eight days ago – nestle in to second place in the table with 14 games gone. If promotions are made of late goals and of the late goals that Conlon seems to have more of a hand in then they are also made of characterful performances where the Bantams ground out that rarest of things – a home win against an opposition who would have been happy with a point.

Happy and deserved. Bury were a desent side who came to Valley Parade with a game plan to anchor the midfield and hit on the break.  After a half where City edged the game once the mismash of players had started to build an understanding of each other the Bantams began to convert possession into chances.

Nicky Law Jnr came in on the right wing for the injured Joe Colbeck and offered little going forward but his attitude and approach was typical of a City performance which ensured that despite some interesting probing by The Shakers the defensive line remained solid and from that came the win.

Bit by bit in a first half City took more and more control of possession in the game. Tom Clarke – in for Matt Clarke – looked to have a head beyond his years and put not a foot wrong. As the game wore on into the second half Luke O’Brien would become more and more important as a distribution outlet and as a capable defender. His current form would keep Paul Heckingbottom out of the side.

From Boulding’s chance onwards City mounted attack on attack save sporadic meanders forward by the visitors with Dean Furman’s deep role allowing him to control the passage of possession and Paul McLaren probing forward. Law’s right wing role did not offer the outlet of Colbeck and City struggled to breakdown Bury but with the lion’s share of the ball the game was the Bantams to win.

A free kick for an arm in Furman’s face dummied by McLaren and struck with hitherto unpredicted venom by Graeme Lee and the ball pinged up into the air looping down to the waiting head of Conlon who after scoring joined the rest of Valley Parade in expecting referee Mr Friend to be anything but but tellingly as his central defenders were booked for complaining Wayne Brown said nothing.

The goalkeeper twice watching how the pieces fell in front of him. Two similar situations, two different outcomes.

Colbeck’s injury could keep him out for months, Daley is suspended for Saturday and Peter Thorne took a whack and could join Mark Bower, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon on the sidelines. Like all managers Stuart McCall’s test is to make the best of the pieces that fall to him and second after fourteen games he would seem to be making a good fist of that.

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