Making no excuses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robbie Threlfall the comeback kid

Two months on from his shock resignation as Bradford City manager, Peter Jackson has yet to utter one word in public regarding his reasons for departing, other than apparently telling a group of Huddersfield supporters that “two people at City are going to kill the club” for the way they are running it. When the day comes he sees it fit to explain himself, it’s hoped whoever is holding the microphone in front of him asks what his thought process was towards his left backs.

Back in those care-free days of pre-season, a flattering 4-1 win for Premier League Bolton over the Bantams was followed by Jackson revealing he’d told full backs Robbie Threlfall and Lewis Hunt, “they can go if they find a club”. For Hunt – only still at the club because a desperation for a right back forced City to offer him a new contract – being told he could leave was understandable and he’s only featured once this campaign. Yet as Threlfall made his 18th start of the season in the home win over Northampton – enjoying arguably his finest game to date in a City shirt – a question popped into my head concerning why three months ago he was told he had no future at all.

I’ll admit I’m a big Luke O’Brien fan. When it comes to selecting who plays left back between Threlfall and O’Brien, I would always – and still would do – favour Luke because of the greater attacking threat he provides. When Jackson rarely picked Threlfall in pre-season and then made his revelation post-Bolton, I was pleased that O’Brien has apparently won his battle to be first choice.

What happened next – and where Jackson’s honest opinion would be welcomed – was baffling. The final pre-season friendly against Carlisle saw Threlfall brought in from the cold and then starting the season’s opener against Aldershot with O’Brien not even on the bench. An unfortunate own goal wasn’t the greatest of starts, but Threlfall’s superb assist for Michael Flynn’s goal at Leeds will live as long in the memory as the Welshman’s terrific strike.

Yet still, we waited for O’Brien to reclaim his place in view of Jackson’s earlier declaration; and as City made a slow start and Threlfall looked fairly average in those early games, bewilderment grew. When O’Brien was brought on as sub in the Johnstones Paint Trophy win over Sheffield Wednesday – a week after Jackson’s exit – there was a chant of “hallelujah” in support of the Halifax-born player. But neither caretaker Colin Cooper nor new manager Phil Parkinson took Threlfall out of the team.

Which would have been harsh – because with each passing week, Threlfall has quietly gone about his business looking more effective than the last game. Having originally being signed by Peter Taylor in February 2010 and much made of his set pieces during his initial loan spell, he’s again making his mark in this area too. Most notably setting up City’s opening goal at Huddersfield in the superb JPT victory.

O’Brien played that night too, and to date all of his appearances have been as a winger rather than his natural full back role. With his greater dribbling ability and willingness to take people on, O’Brien could make a good career out of this position. Particularly because – unlike your bog-standard League Two winger – he has a much greater awareness of his defensive responsibilities and will regularly help out his full back. In the last two home games Parkinson has started with two out and out wingers and then brought on O’Brien when needing to protect a lead. On each occasion he made a decent impact.

So having apparently won the full back war only to lose the battle quite badly, O’Brien’s City future now appears to hinge on his willingness and adaptability to become a winger. Competition is strong in this area of the team too, but with Michael Bryan and Jack Compton only here on loan for now O’Brien’s aim must be to prove to Parkinson these temporary players are not needed long-term. New rivals, but the same kind of challenge he has been used to at left back.

Meanwhile Threlfall has surely become one of the first names on the team sheet. He was outstanding against Northampton, time and time again successfully tackling his winger and providing good cover for Luke Oliver and Marcel Siep, while showing great positioning. Meanwhile in the less-celebrated side of his game – going forwards – he put in a strong display, linking up well with Kyel Reid. He doesn’t take people on like O’Brien, but his greater passing ability means he is starting attacking moves and then joining in further down the line by charging down the flank. With Chris Mitchell struggling to get back into the starting eleven, Threlfall has taken on the greater responsibility regarding set pieces.

All credit to Threlfall for his attitude. There are more celebrated and eye catching members of the team, but his determination to re-discover his form – after a disappointing 2010/11 campaign – and battle for his future at the club is a shining example of what City are trying to achieve this season.

Improvement in individuals, improvement as a team. Threlfall was supposed to be consigned to the scrap heap, but too often City have given up on players and released them rather than develop them. Told to get lost by Jackson, he has come back stronger than ever. Threlfall’s first team spot is his to lose – and on current form I can’t see that happening anytime soon.

Bradford City man up

The Team

Matt Duke | Liam Moore, Luke Oliver, Marcel Seip, Robbie Threlfall | Michael Bryan, Adam Reed, Richie Jones, Kyel Reid | Craig Fagan, James Hanson | Luke O'Brien

There was a moment after Northampton Town’s Michael Jacobs hit a fine long range effort into the goal to give the visitors a second half lead that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City seemed to make the collective decision that they deserved more from the afternoon than defeat, that they should summon up from a reserve of responsibility and courage and force the performance to swing in their favour. In the parlance of our times: City manned up.

Ten minutes later the Bantams had won the game.

Watching football with a scouting report in one hand is a strange afternoon. Northampton’s side lined up not at all as they had in the game which our report detailed and many of the problems which the City scouting report suggested a few weeks ago had been plugged by Gary Johnson’s side who were missing striker Adebayo Akinfenwa and seemed to have adjusted accordingly. The result was a robust Cobblers side who deployed a man – Ben Tozer – holding between City’s midfield pair and as a result broke up much of the Bantams play but that was all that the visitors did with the Bantams backline utterly shutting out the visitors.

A surprisingly recalled Michael Bryan carved out the best chance – only one of two which stood out the other being a long range effort by Robbie Threlfall – taking the ball in field and twisting the loft a shot onto the bar. City gave nothing away and edged the first half but it was difficult to see where the goals would be coming from.

Where Northampton would be getting goals from was less of a mystery with the report warning of Jacobs and his abilities to strike the ball. His opportunity came when Adam Reed – booked for a bad tackle, but later subject of a similar one which got no punishment – was left floored and as he struggled to get back to position Jacobs fired in.

At that point Reed and Richie Jones – the midfield partnership in the absence of suspended Michael Flynn – seemed to have struggled to get around the Cobblers midfield nor could they make partnerships with the wide men but both seemed to sense the need to make a performance and Jones stepped to the fore.

It had been suggested that the midfielder was wasted on the right flank last week and one might have thought that thinking wishful until Jones took control of the middle of the field coming forward with direction and drive, tracking back to create solidity when needed, and leading by example.

It was Jones who drove forward with the ball feeding it left to Bryan and eventually resulting in a cross which defender Andy Holt tried to cut out but only succeeded in handling. Craig Fagan beat keeper Sam Walker from the spot.

Five minutes later and Jones came forward again battling in to push the ball wide to Kyel Reid for the winger – who had usual game veering between utter frustration and sublime moments – to drop a ball to James Hanson who beat his man and converted from inside the six yard box.

It was a worthy turnaround and one which Jones had much to do with. The midfielder might spend his career being the guy who plays the ball to the guy who gets the assist and very few stats record that contribution, but I’m sure the scout report would have noted it, or will do in the future.

Having been beaten by a long range shot only City never looked like surrendering the lead. Luke Oliver’s performance was remarkable for the fact that we are growing to expect that sort of display from a player that many, many would have written off at the end of last season while Marcel Seip’s Valley Parade debut saw him looking assured, mobile and confident. No one said the words “Guy Branston” all afternoon and as City start to rise up the league so the goal difference starts to look more respectable.

Moreover though City’s victory was – as with the win over Torquay – hard fought. While the attractive football of Stuart McCall’s side might have gone so has the soft centre. City are less easy on the eye, but Saturday nights after a win are satisfying.

Sitting back on such a Saturday night and flicking over the scout report the danger of Michael Jacobs is written in black and white but so is that of Lewis Young – the right winger wearing number two who was frustrated all afternoon – who the Bantams coped with superbly. The talk about the goalkeeper Walker and his control of his box were accurate and City seemed to fire low hard crosses rather than allow the six foot seven custodian grab balls from the air.

One wonders though what the scouts who watched City will have written about the Bantams today. One thing is for sure those reports will have had the word “character” in them, and that is what took Phil Parkinson’s side to victory today.

Peter Jackson goes there and back again as City look for experience

Peter Jackson’s young Bradford City team are more passionate and hungrier than the squad he inherited from Peter Taylor. Take Guy Branston out the starting eleven and the average age of the players is in the low twenties.

The aims that Jackson – and the club – made clear in the summer is that in putting together a young team the manager is creating a future for the club. The last four season – three under Stuart McCall and one under Taylor – have seen four different teams with a half dozen players changed every time. These “overhauls” were the subject of Jackson’s close season planning. They were to become a thing of the past. That is the plan.

Or was the plan. Today news comes out of the club that City are looking for experienced players. Ignore, for the moment, the idea that the Bantams are talking about breaking the budget offsetting that mentally against the £200,000 raised by playing Leeds United which was offered for Romain Vincelot and consider the sort of signings which Mark Lawn is referring to.

Maybe bringing in a couple more experienced players to help the young kids out will help. That’s what we are trying to search for and do – Mark Lawn

Think back less than twelve months to Lee Hendrie’s short time at Valley Parade. An experienced player, one who performed well, and then vanished leaving us with a few more points that we had before he arrived but nothing we could take forward with us. The point of the plans of the summer was to stop short term recruitment. Has this plan really been reversed after five games?

If – as with Hendrie – bringing in old heads gets a few points what impact will it have on the players who were brought in with the promise that they would play

When some players aren’t performing, I know there’s back-up now. We might bring in a young player and put him out on loan. We can still keep a close check on him and bring him back ready to put in the team – Peter Jackson

Which is to say nothing about the fact that the problems that have caused City’s early season form is not the fault of the players but rather of the way they are playing. We could bring in Wayne Rooney but if we whack the ball at him over sixty yards and expect him to do pinpoint knock downs to a single team mate against six opposition defenders then we would get the same return out of him than we do from James Hanson.

Player for player you could swap out someone, and put in someone experienced and not make a massive difference with the players playing in the way – and in the shape – they were in the previous two 1-0 defeats (or rather at the time of concessions in the previous two 1-0 defeats, Chris Mitchell’s midfield role at Accrington was very useful.)

City’s best performance of the season saw a free interchange of the two midfielders David Syers and Michael Flynn with Jack Compton and Mark Stewart. Much of the play which has resulted in few chances has been static with players lacking any dynamics in their performances. Ross Hannah and James Hanson have been pressed against the back line constantly, the midfield has been a straight line, the full backs never getting past the wide men.

Of course Peter Jackson is not standing on the touchline screaming at Ross Hannah to not drop between the lines or Liam Moore to never go beyond Michael Bryan (we hope) but it is the role of the coaching staff to emphasise that need. Perhaps bringing in an experienced player, putting him on the field for a month, and pointing at him while telling Hannah et al that one should “do that” is a way for Jackson to educate his squad but it seems like a big turn around in a short space of time.

Everyone would be a football manager and everyone has their ideas on how a team should play. Mine involve supporting full backs, a drop off striker, one man wide and one tight in the midfield and a holding man to win the ball back. It is that last position – someone to sit deep in the midfield – which Jackson’s side lacks but every other position to play the way I would is covered in the current squad.

The same is true for Jackson. Bringing in Michael Bryan simply duplicated what Dominic Rowe was doing in pre-season. He has four different strikers: One who is superb in the air, one who is rangy and fast, one who drops deep and moves, and one who finishes well and has a stinging shot; but he has no supply to them. Jack Compton could provide that but seldom does he come have options around him when he gets the ball, nor does he get the ball in dangerous positions. Perhaps the players at City could not do the jobs that Jackson wants them to, but they should be given a chance to show what they can do in an organised team.

Poor early season form was expected and the manifestation of that is not especially enjoyable to watch but less enjoyable is the idea that the club is prepared to give up the plans of the summer because of a few bad results.

Peter and the resources

The Team

Martin Hansen | Liam Moore, Luke Oliver, Guy Branston, Robbie Threlfall | Michael Bryan, Richie Jones, Michael Flynn, Jack Compton | James Hanson, Ross Hannah | Nialle Rodney, Mark Stewart, Chris Mitchell

At the end of a week that promised much after the performance at Leeds United and delivered only a point at Oxford Peter Jackson was left declaring that he felt that his Bradford City team deserved more following the 1-0 defeat to Dagenham & Redbridge.

It was hard to imagine what else Jackson could say. He had seen centre forward Ross Hannah barged over in the penalty area in the last minute which seemed to be as obvious a spot kick as one might imagine and was cursing Daggers keeper Chris Lewington who saved a fine strike by the same man minutes before. At that stage – and a point Jackson might want to avoid – Luke Oliver has been thrown into the attack and City had resorted to throwing the ball forward.

Forward to Nialle Rodney who – for twenty minutes – got to live the life of James Hanson. Rodney had the ball fired at him at various hard to control speeds inaccurately and struggled to even get near to holding play up. Hanson had been withdrawn by Jackson after an afternoon where he won more than his fair share of headers – although struggled to link up with Ross Hannah effectively – and certainly won more than the unfortunate Rodney.

The substitution of Hanson seemed well received and one hopes that Jackson enjoyed the glow that comes from such a sop to popularism but on his exit Jackson’s team continued to lump the ball forward, used neither Rodney or Ross Hannah’s talents and were left resorting to throwing a central defender into the forward line.

Increasingly the story of Peter Jackson’s Bradford City team is that of resources – however limited – being used poorly. The midfield of Michael Flynn and Richie Jones performed well in the middle but far too often were watching the ball go over them. The two widemen Jack Compton and Michael Bryan were all but wasted. Compton found some room later in the game but Bryan saw little of the ball and seemed to request it less.

Ross Hannah and James Hanson – then later Nialle Rodney – had virtually no supply from the flanks either deep or at the by-line and – with Mark Stewart a later comer from the bench – the team ended as a very static 442 with no movement between the lines of players, nothing hard to handle, and little inspiration.

As such – and down to a goal by Jon Nurse after half an hour when a corner came in and seemed to be pushed around the back four like kittens patting a wool ball before the Dagenham striker converted it – it was hard to see the Bantams getting into the game and more worrying it seemed that there was no real understanding on the basis of this game and the previous four about how City should go about their business.

For the odd cat call aimed at Peter Jackson the players are the most common target of the ire of supporters that saw the Bantams booed off but it seems that the City manager is no closer to knowing his best eleven today as he was at the start of pre-season. That is acceptable – a young team is full of inconstancy – but there also seems to be no real idea of how City should be playing.

As Dagenham offered little other than defensive solidity City deployed two wingers but seldom used them, had a pair of midfielders ready to go past the strikers but not strikers who came back to engage in interplay for the ball, a striker who is winning things in the air being given hoofs forward rather than crosses into the box.

So while Jackson can say that his team deserved more he might be correct in that they applied the effort but one struggles to recall the moments where City could have had more. Hannah’s two late surges towards goal aside there was no tempo or flow to the Bantams performance.

That can come. Four league games gone is nothing against a plan that is to develop over years but at the moment the players are being jeered and booed while being thrown onto the field without the organisation needed to win games.

Jackson veers between Kamara and Jewell

When the opening weeks of the season were put together by “the fixture computer” – which is to say some ludicrously complex set theory and a few blokes making sure that Hartlepool United get as long a trip away on Boxing day as possible – few people looked at the Bantams’ opening four games with any relish at all.

Aldershot Town looked like they could be tough – they were – and Leeds United away promised little. Following them up with trips on the road to Oxford United and Accrington Stanley and there was a sense that in these opening two weeks it would become apparent if the instant team alchemy which football managers dream of had taken place.

It had not.

Brighton and Hove Albion – now resplendent in a new stadium – and Chesterfield – then resplendent in a new stadium – both seemed to be touched by that alchemy last season with neither favourites for their divisions but both teams clicked quickly and they romped to titles. For everyone else it seemed there was but hard work.

And so there is for Bradford City. As everyone at the club and many in the stands talked about how this season the club would be starting to build long term and to create its own future rather than going all out for promotion. However an unhealthy – but not entirely unforgivable – hope that that future might start with a lightning strike of a team coming together instantly.

The 1-0 reversal at Accrington Stanley confirmed that City have – as was commented within my ear shot on Tuesday night – a long way to go. Having started that “long way” four matches ago that is hardly surprising and is sobering. Those looking at the Stanley team which finished fifth and lost a half dozen players miss the point of what the Bantams – and other clubs – try to build.

A half dozen players leave Stanley but the structures which have had the club progress to the level it enjoys remain, the culture remains, the team spirit remains. In short there is stability which enables Accrington to continue plodding along. This is very much the sort of thing that Bradford City are trying to build.

Bradford City and Archie Christie who arrived at Valley Parade from Dagenham & Redbridge in the Summer as the Bantams interviewed Daggers boss John Still and his backroom team before deciding that Still was the goods in the window and Christie the merchandise out back.

Christie’s plans are the dose of sense which has been missing from Valley Parade for over a decade. The Scot sees City as – perhaps – a better location to repeat what he had done in Dagenham on a bigger scale. The Daggers – fresh from League One – have come far with Still and company at the helm but getting it right at Valley Parade promises more than being a dot on the map of London football.

So Christie builds his development squad with the aim of bringing through three or four players a season who are good enough to press into the City squad. Logic suggests that might have to wait a two or three years to judge such long term plans rather than – as some seem Hell bent on doing – writing them off after that many weeks.

Christie’s work behind the scenes aims to create a stability for City to aid the manager who has struggled in his start to the season. Jackson – the man of Jose Mourinho action at Huddersfield Town – seems a reduced figure in the City dug out at the moment. What – when looking at in the Town dugout – seemed like calculated master strokes (Paul Barnes’ entry in 1998 which turned a 1-0 defeat into a 2-1 jumps to mind) when viewed in the home dug out seem to be random flailings.

Having played a tight passing game in pre-season Jackson’s side too often favour a long punt to James Hanson and while the switches in formation are more noticeable it seems as if Jackson has yet to decide a shape for his midfield.

Consider – if you will – Chris Mitchell who for all the talk of his only being in the team for set plays spend an hour of Tuesday night making sure that when a blue shirt came forward he was standing between ball and goal. He delayed, he stood up, he made sure that Stanley would not get through and all to the tune of people talking about how he should tackle more, even when doing so and failing would have left a bus sized hole in the midfield.

And so it was when Jackson went to a midfield that more evenly distributed the weight between Michael Flynn and Richie Jones rather than had Flynn forward and Mitchell back that Stanley wandered through the middle of the Bantams to get the goal which won the game.

It is hard to find anyone who could say that Mitchell has played well but taking him out of the position he was in brought problems and a pragmatist such as Jewell would see that as justification to have him in the side while the Chris Kamaras – given to flights of fancy – would think that another player who could add more going forward might be trusted to that role on the hope that both could be done. It was such a fancy which Jackson gambled, and lost, on on Tuesday night.

So Jackson flits between: a defensive midfielder behind three more attacking players, a tight three midfield with one winger and the unit of five which worked well at Elland Road; but so far he struggles to maintain a shape in a way which gains the upper hand in games. The first half against Leeds and Jackson had everything going right, when Leeds changed he seemed inactive.

On Tuesday night with scores level Naille Rodney came on for Ross Hannah to play a withdrawn role and the midfield to press on which seemed to leave City with far too many players drifting between the Stanley midfield and defensive lines and no one grabbing the ball. Bit by bit Jackson drifts towards Kamara and his hit and miss deployments of players and tactics and one worries that – like Kamara – it might be possible that Jackson finds the right combination at times and then moves away from it not knowing what is good.

In that one recalls the dogmatic Paul Jewell who stuck with the team he wanted to play after it had returned two points from twenty one in 1998. Jewell had an idea of how he wanted his team to play, and who he wanted in that team, and the same at the moment (and at the time) can not be said about Jackson.

So the City manager goes into the game with injuries ruling out David Syers, Lee Bullock and Simon Ramsden but with pressure to make changes to a team which has but one of the five points Jackson might have targeted.

Jackson is under pressure to drop James Hanson for reasons much discussed but doing so would strike one as popularist rather than practical – especially considering the team’s tendency to hit the ball long. Mark Stewart played no part against Accrington a week after looking superb against Leeds United but Naille Rodney – willing worker – has staked a claim and may get the chance. Ross Hannah was praised for his rewardless efforts on Tuesday but one doubts that he will be selected against Dagenham. Perhaps Jackson will use a 433 having tried it against Carlisle United in pre-season.

The midfield could see Jack Compton on the left and Michael Bryan on the right with Michael Flynn and Chris Mitchell in the middle but Richie Jones looks like a capable player waiting to find a role to fill and should Jackson not want a defensive minded midfielder then he may slot in next to Flynn. Bryan started Accrington well but faded.

At the back Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall are making good at full back – Luke O’Brien’s continued absence is the stuff of conjecture but it seems that Threlfall has made good his chance and is playing well which is more than can be said for Guy Branston who has struggled to put in consistent ninety minute performances since arriving. He is partnered by Luke Oliver who played a superb game at Stanley and if Steve Williams does return to fitness then dropping Oliver would be a very tough decision, although one Jackson would make if he had a clear back two in his mind the excluded the former Wycombe man.

Martin Hansen continues in goal. He shouted on Tuesday night, a couple of times, and that is an improvement and something the keeper can work on. A young lad Hansen has years of improvement in front of him and should not chuck his gloves over just because he has let in a few goals.

Nor should the rest of us.

Managing the Expectation of Progress

The Team

Martin Hansen | Liam Moore, Luke Oliver, Guy Branston, Robbie Threlfall | Michael Bryan, Chris Mitchell, Michael Flynn, Jack Compton | James Hanson, Ross Hannah | Naille Rodney, Richie Jones

If the trip over the Peninnes to Accrington was to provide City with the barometer test of their season so far it left a prediction of high pressure and potential storms ahead.

Whilst the pre-season emphasis has been on development, consolidation and forward thinking, the general mood of the City fans stood on the terraces prior to kick-off at the Crown Ground, was that of the familiar expectation of a result from a youthful looking Bantams team that featured Ross Hannah, new winger Michael Bryan and a 442 shape, with Mark Stewart and Ritchie Jones making way.

An undertone of negativity seemed to be present in the away as even before a ball was kicked some ‘supporters’ could be heard slating the likes of James Hanson and Mark Stewart for previous performances deemed ‘not good enough’, citing lack of work ethic and ability as the main downfalls. Hanson in particular seemed to attract particularly virile remarks, which set the tone for a testing night for the Bantams.

Both sides went into the match having collected just one point from their first three games and the slight nerves that come with a slow start to the season were evident in both defences early on.

The first defence to flinch was the home side’s, when in the 2nd minute City were almost allowed to grab the initiative when Stanley keeper Sean Murdoch played a sloppy pass out of defence which James Hanson intercepted and laid off to Hannah who cleverly lofted the ball over the onrushing keeper into the net. Unfortunately for City the linesman had already raised the offside flag against Hannah to save Murdoch’s blushes.

Later in the half it was Guy Branston left feeling fortunate when he switched off to allow Stanley winger, Nat Taylor, to sneak into the box unnoticed, only for Luke Oliver to clear his dangerous cut back.

Oliver’s display was excellent throughout the night, both aerially and on the ground, and the fact that he stood out as City’s man-of-the-match, says much about the midfield and forward threat posed by the Bantams in the match.

The majority of City’s attacks in the first half were to aim for James Hanson and hope that Ross Hannah took advantage of any flick-ons and despite early sharpness from Hannah, his confidence took a knock after being flagged up as offside on several occasions. This lead to the strike force drifting further apart as the half went on, leaving both strikers isolated and in need of support.

With a lack of chances the City fans took their frustration out on the linesman and he received a chorus of boos as the teams walked off at half time and when remerging for the second half.

With the exception of Oliver, both defences experienced a shaky opening 45 minutes and it seemed that a defensive mistake would be the decisive factor in the game in the second half.

A factor that was proved correct when in the 77th minute new Accy loan signing, Wes Fletcher, poked the ball under the onrushing Martin Hansen to trickle home the winning goal for the home side. The mistake in this case was made by Branston, who allowed Stanley sub Ian Craney to turn him too easily and provide the assist.

As the second half progressed the strain on City’s midfield seemed to increase with Scottish recruit Chris Mitchell struggling to have an impact; the play passed him by all too often and left the lively Flynn, who again looked solid, over stretched and in need of support to win the midfield battle.

Even when Ritchie Jones was introduced in the 64th minute and Mitchell pushed out to the right, it seemed that City seemed to lack the energy and industry of David Syers, who will be missed over the next three months.

City went in search of an equaliser and Nialle Rodney looked lively after replacing Hannah, but all too often when the ball was rushed forward a lack of passing composure caused play to break down.

And despite a few promising runs and crosses late on in the game from Jack Compton, City failed to register a single shot on target.

On balance, Accy just about deserved the points and displayed a confidence when passing the ball through the midfield that City seemed to be lacking, choosing instead to rush the ball forward and hoping for the best.

As the players trudged off the pitch following the full-time whistle, the object of pre-match hostility, Hanson, seemed to bear most of the brunt from some fans, but to most it seemed that the expectations were those that Lionel Messi would struggle to fulfil. The perception is that because of Hanson’s size he is expected to chase down and over power all those that stand in his way, even though for the majority of these ‘causes’ Usain Bolt would struggle to catch up with them!

For Hanson his expectations for the season have been set, and as the most experienced striker at the club and at this level, it may be a burden that he will need assistance with from a more experienced forward if we are to see the best of him and City this campaign.

Hanson’s plight seems to reflect that of the club’s in general, we are told that we want to see the development of the team and an improvement on last season would be deemed a success, but the high expectation levels of the past few years seem to be proving a hard habit to kick for some supporters, which only leads to added pressure on inexperienced shoulders.

The success of the season will depend on how Peter Jackson and the club go about managing these expectation levels, and it is hard to predict anything other than stormier times ahead, if the confidence of the Bantam’s fledgling side takes too many more knocks.

Accrington Stanley and the Bar(ry)ometer

For those seeking a barometer on events at Bradford City’s the club’s trips to Accrington Stanley’s Crown Ground provide just that.

The first meeting between the teams in modern times saw Joe Colbeck – fresh from his return from loan at Darlington – the hero as City ran out 2-0 winners and Omar Daley tore the home side in two. The hard work of striker Barry Conlon brought praise that visit and there was a sense that four months into his time at the club it seemed that Stuart McCall was starting to get the basis of team together.

Three years ago City were outplayed for eighty minutes and then Stuart McCall brought on Barry Conlon and one might riot some how managed to be the catalyst for a stunning turn around that saw City leave Stanley boss John Coleman with a ruined wedding anniversary and City fans happy.

Happy for a time though because it was though that – eventually – City could do better than Conlon and his manager Stuart McCall and so the change was made to Peter Taylor who with huge fanfare took his City team for their first game.

You might remember the wet ground, the late arriving and early departing Mark Lawn with a vandalised car, and the performance that set the tone for Taylor time at Valley Parade. There was a sense of optimism in the air that day that – probably because the display was away from home and followed not long after by a great 3-1 win at Rochdale – which went undented. Recall, if you will, the people who said that Taylor was going to sort out the mess that Stuart McCall had caused. Try not to look at the top of the Scottish Premier Division.

The optimism of Taylor’s arrival was in marked contrast to last season’s trip to The Crown Ground where City were so badly second best that manager Peter Jackson could find not an iota of optimism. Having taken up a team of the Disunited from Taylor Jackson – following Accrington – could not see how the club would claim another point in the season. At that point Peter Jackson thought Bradford City would go out of the Football League.

So Bradford City go West for the fifth time with Jackson having nailed together a team he has more faith in and which built around the optimism which was in such short supply in April’s visit. A team for which improvement is the aim and the assumption that enough improvement will drive promotion. Seeking a first win of the season following Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Oxford and on the last of three trips away from home that started at Leeds the tone for the return to Valley Parade for three back to back home games will be taken from this barometer test.

A device to measure pressure City’s barometer readings have been troubling for some years. This summer – for the first time since relegation from the Premier League – there seems to be a realism in the club’s aims and that has brought with it a sense of optimism that the club is going in the right direction.

There is a question as to how long optimism can be maintained without victories and – along with that – the merits of optimism. Paul Jewell’s side famously gathered two points of the first twenty-one and got promotion at Wolves with many expecting them to fall at the last hurdle. Any optimism garnered on the last four trips to Accrington have done nothing to stop the club going backwards, often by a route of its own choice.

As long as there is progress in the players then – perhaps – there should be an optimism to match.

Jackson goes into the game with Martin Hansen in goal – there is a rumour that the Liverpool loanee is undroppable in his time at City although there is always that rumour about loan players. Jon McLaughlin is working his way through his interrupted pre-season and once again is being viewed as an answer to all problems. Never wanting to disrespect a player who I believe is a good and serviceable goalkeeper worthy of his place in the squad and team but never has a player sat on the bench performing so well. On the bench he is the human traffic light always on red, the unbeatable keeper, the greatest custodian in the club has had.

Three of City’s back four have been unchanged all season – the other position has rotated to three different names. Liam Moore, Guy Branston and Robbie Threlfall are constant, Luke Oliver, Steve Williams and Lee Bullock have changed. Oliver is expected to retain his place having played his part in the build up to Ross Hannah’s equaliser on Saturday. There was speculation that Oliver pushed Duberry, or at least that is what Duberry said, or was told to say by someone at the club, and he is sticking to but he is not doing twenty months for that, no way…

The midfield presents Jackson with options having favoured a five at Leeds and Oxford with Chris Mitchell at the base of Michael Flynn and Richie Jones with Mark Stewart and Jack Compton on the flanks but the improvement seen with Michael Bryan and a 442 might prompt a change in shape that sees one of Flynn and Jones benched. Jones brings a hamstring niggle into the game and perhaps that will see him sitting the match out.

Stewart – a player still finding his feet but showing some nice feet when he does – would then press forward alongside James Hanson who once again showed the limits of his abilities as the only player detailed to attack on Saturday. Given the thankless task as the only pink shirt in the other half at the Kassam Stadium Hanson has an unfruitful afternoon and sure enough garnered criticism for his play in isolation. Conlon used to suffer criticism too, but his replacement was Stanley legend Paul Mullin and soon Barry was missed. An object lesson if ever there was one.

All of which is expected to leave Naille Rodney and Ross Hannah on the bench – impact substitutes in a Conloin stylee perhaps – but gives Peter Jackson the sort of selection problems which Taylor could have only dreamed of where his has a choice of players who all seem to be keen to show how they are improving.

To show a twitch on the barometer, and perhaps a reduction in pressure.

Beyond revival, and revival

Two years ago to the day on Saturday, a goverment think tank suggested that Bradford, and other northern cities like it, were ‘beyond revival’, and that its residents should move south to places like Oxford, instead. Some people who may or may not be writing this match preview may or may not have had one or two things to say about that. It may have been some time in coming, but it feels like there’s a revival in this part of the city.

Bradford City have lost their first two games of the season. The team have a 0% record in the league, and have been knocked out of the cup by the team most of our supporters can’t even bear to say the name of, at least not without vitriol. In two games, the against column reads five.

I state these facts because, despite these, there is great pride amongst fans about the team — which should not be confused with misplaced optimism. After a shaky first match against Aldershot, the team played against Leeds on Tuesday in the fixture most of the squad had been looking forward to since the draw was made: and their interest in playing the game transferred into a good performance that, rightly, the fans have been proud of. The call of Saturday has returned for fans and players alike, it seems.

And so to this Saturday, where City take on an Oxford side who have likewise had two defeats. As we will hope that City will be galvanised by their spirit against Leeds on Tuesday, the U’s fans will be hoping that their side can also continue with similar spirit to that which saw them bow out in extra time against Cardiff. That town is looking for a revival of its own right about now.

In the preview of the match, this site’s editor spoke of what there was for City to lose out of the match with Leeds, and it seems that the answer to that was the impressive David Syers, down in a heap in the second half at Elland Road, after bossing the midfield, now seeking specialist advice on a knee injury, rather than a trip to the city we should all be living in this weekend. Steve Williams may also lose the chance to continue in a central defence that asks as many questions as it answers, after suffering a problem with his thigh. Ramsden and Bullock complete the list of the maladied.

This leaves Jackson with a choice of Premiership stoppers to stand between the sticks: if Williams makes it, the chances are that he will once again play alongside man-mountain Guy Branston, and it would follow that Jansson would continue alongside them, after their 90 minutes together in Leeds. Should Luke Oliver come in, a new centre-back pairing would give neither Jansson or Hansen the obvious communicative advantage. The impressive Liam Moore, who positionally is probably the most aware defender in a City shirt at the moment, will undoutedly continue at right-back, and it is likely that Robbie Threlfall will default to left-back, continuing to fuel the speculation surrounding Luke O’Brien’s availability and squad status.

On-loan winger Michael Bryan will hope to take a berth on the right-hand side of midfield. Whether he does or not will likely come down to his fitness relative to his new team-mates, as the extra half-hour of football played by on Wednesday by Oxford should be looked to be exploited by Jackson. Likely, Richie Jones will continue exactly where he left off on Tuesday in replacing Syers, and the Oxford midfield should look to bunch up around Michael Flynn, fearful of another strike like the one lashed in against Leeds. Compton will be unlucky to be dropped after putting in some hard work in both matches, and it will boil down to whether the team is to play wide (Bryan) or look for free-kicks (Mitchell).

Up front, neither of the burgeoning partnership of Hanson and Stewart are looking troubled by Hannah, Rodney or Wells, all of which have come on for a few minutes, and none of whom have yet to show their true mettle as yet, although there is a slim chance it could be Nialle Rodney who benefits from Syers’ absence, depending on whether the manager decides to use the impact player early, or late, on. It will be a huge surprise if his pace is not seen at all during the game.

For the yellow side (which means the excellent pink kit gets an airing), three of their employees took the think tank’s advice literally, and now ply their trade there instead of here: the manager, Chris Wilder, was part of the decent City 1997-1998 Championship-level side, as right back. Jake Wright was a youth-team throwaway who now captains the U’s, and Paul McLaren got paid far too much money for delivering far too little, far too recently.

Whether the revival bears fruit on Saturday or not, the change in attitude in City fans is refreshing to see. As with any study, a change in behaviour is only significant if it then goes on to be the norm. The think tank may have written Bradford off: but, despite many times thinking the team is beyond revival, the latest crop are showing that belief, passion, and pride are sometimes formed from more than the mere sum of parts.

The work in progress

48 hours on from the red hot away atmosphere at Elland Road on a sunny Yorkshire evening, the quaint surroundings of Steeton AFC’s Summerhill Lane ground and a heavy downpour formed the more grounded backdrop to the Bradford City Development Squad’s place of work.

They were here for a friendly against their West Riding County Amateur Football League counterparts – a derby with none of the intensity of Tuesday but with plenty of meaning for all on the pitch. The serious stuff has got going for City’s first teamers, but for almost everyone wearing the lovely pink kit this evening it was an opportunity to prove they are capable, one day, of promotion to the senior squad.

City's Development Squad in development

City's Development Squad in development

Much has been said over the summer about the Archie Christie-led initiative of tutoring a group of younger players, so they can potentially be good enough for first team action over the next few years. But as the football season gets into full swing, it’s likely the Development Squad will become largely forgotten. Indeed some of the usual message board trouble makers have already attempted to criticise City devoting a budget to Christie, while hinting at a rift between him and first team manager Peter Jackson.

But if Jackson really doesn’t care for all of this, he must be desperately short of things to do in an evening. Tonight he, joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn and Head of Youth Operations Peter Horne watched from next to the City dugout while Wayne Allison – surely a Jackson appointment – barked instructions at the team alongside a near-silent Christie. Interest within the club for the Development Squad is clearly strong.

The treacherous downpour and lack of team sheet meant this writer struggled through his rain-soaked glasses to identify everyone who was playing for City this evening. From the first team squad there was Jon McLaughlin in goal for the 90 minutes, Leon Osborne leading the attack and – yes, he is still alive – Lewis Hunt at centre back. Meanwhile new loan signing Michael Bryan lined up on the right flank and enjoyed an encouraging evening.

An up-for-it Steeton made the sure game was competitive, but as City got into their passing stride they were clearly a cut above. Scott Brown, who isn’t allowed to play for the first team until he turns 17 in November, was once again utterly masterful in the centre of the park. The Scottish teenager effortlessly sprayed the ball around with great accuracy and confidence, spotting things others don’t see. He is Bradford City’s secret weapon for either later this season or next, and the potential is huge.

Dominic Rowe took a spot on the right wing and drove the team forward well, though his positional awareness still needs some work. Adam Robinson looks a great prospect at centre back, while the number three (who’s name I wasn’t sure of, sadly) was terrific getting up and down as left back. Up front Osborne showed a much greater level of maturity compared to his petulant display at Silsden a month back, and it was great to hear him offering rookie partner Darren Stephenson advice and encouragement throughout.

It was Osborne who put City in front after he was played through on goal and rounded the keeper. Soon after Stephenson – who earlier had missed an open goal, albeit from a tight angle – struck a second from inside the box. The rain was incessant in the first half and my lack of coat or hat soon had me shivering. Suddenly a comforting arm was placed around my shoulder, before I turned round to see who it was and to accept their offer of a handshake. It was Jackson,  walking around supporters saying hello. The personable style of this man is hugely impressive, I think I’m developing a man-crush for him.

Shortly after a half time interval made entertaining by ear-wigging Allison’s team talk on the pitch, it was 3-0 when a young substitute – who I believe to be Kieran Djilali, on trial from Crystal Palace and very sharp –  finished emphatically from just inside the box, and the rest of the game seemed like a typical second half pre-season friendly where little happens. The cross bar was struck towards the end by City and Steeton’s players looked increasingly agitated with each other; Luke Dean was assured in a less familiar right back position.

A decent evening’s work, though the quality of opposition and basicness of Steeton’s ground symbolised how there is some way to go for the Development Squad strategy to achieve its objectives. This is no overnight route to success, and in things don’t go well on the pitch this season the conviction in maintaining this long-term approach may be tested by some.

But if, as per usual, the first team fails to live up to expectations this campaign, there’s great comfort to be had from knowing that a Plan B is already in operation.

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