The no pressure game as City beat MK Dons in the FA Cup

Who wants to go to Stadium:MK? Who even knows where it is? Or what it is? “Is it a hockey stadium” Ian asks and then we have a debate over if hockey is a big enough game to have stadiums anyway. “It is something you do down the park” says Dawn, “or at school. It isn’t a grown ups game.”

This argument rages over the team news which sees City without a load of players and without Peter Thorne. “Perhaps we can lend his stick to Barry” says Noel breaking from shouting at us for not being able to stop arguing about having a colon in the middle of a phrase and find this stadium:mk thing. We are going to be late and we are. We get into the ground to see footballer:od (Omar Daley) messing around in the box and hitting a shot that sneaks in past Lewis Price in the home goal. “F*ck Barrack Obama! We’ve got Barrack O. Daley” is both idiotic and hilarious and as we look over the pitch to see how isn’t playing rather than who is. Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon in front of a midfield with Daley, and Leon Osbourn on the wings and Paul McLaren and Nicky Law in the middle. Law got off to a good start setting up the goal.

And City had a good start. Away games have long since been better than home for atmosphere and sure enough the Bantams fans buoyed by an early goal were in good voice. WimbleMKDons most dangerous man Dean Lewington started to warm up and I remember how he smacked Joe Colbeck over the back of the head in the second to last game of the season which resulted in Colbeck being sent off for a horrible tackle back. Colbeck, like Conlon, has come out of the other side of the tunnel of booing and Barry running about this afternoon is proof that while it is pretty stupid the players that come out of the other side tend to do so as better players.

Not that that is a good reason or anything.

Matt Clarke and Graeme Lee had the throats warming up but stuck back together today they were impressing in the first half blocking MK Dons as they tried to drive through the middle of City. If Roberto Di Matteo had had City watched they came back with the wrong info because City looked stronger in the middle today. Away from home and leading we could park a bus in front of the goal but we need to be careful on the flanks were TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien still amazingly keep out the Paul Arnison and Paul Heckingbottom combination.

Able to sit deep City enjoyed a good share of possession against the Champions of League Two who look less of a team than they were last term. Lewington still looks like the best player in the Galaxy when he faces City and manages to get above Graeme Lee as it looks like the City skipper could put in number two. Some Bantams make a decent shout for a penalty but of course it is given the other way. I wonder if I’ll live long enough that City ever get one of those games where we are the underdogs and everyone loves us and we get let off with two footed tackles and the News of the World want to talk to us but then I remember how much I hate clubs like that and the managers who play up to it like last week’s Barnet manager Paul Fairclough when he was manager of Stevenage when they played Newcastle ages ago. As I’m thinking about this I start to worry about how often Ali Gerba is getting caught offside cause at some point the linesman will let him go and he will equalise. He doesn’t but Jemal Johnson does hitting the ball in from miles away from the goal.

“That was a great goal” Ian offered at half time, “You couldn’t do that in hockey. The ball never leaves the ground.” Sometimes you wonder especially when it is really clear that you are nowhere near the National Hockey Stadium but it does turn out that stadium:mk is next to arena:mk where the Milton Keynes BasketBall team who they might have nicked off Chicago but probably didn’t play. “Rory Delap would be great at that, he should play for them” says Noel.

Half time is a different mood. What can Stuart McCall do? He is without a load of quality players in the midfield and almost every option that is suggested seems to be taking a punt on a player in the hope that while he might not do much most of the time he will be stunning today. Oddly enough this is not just applied to Billy Topp but Luke Sharry and Rory Boulding who as far as I can tell have done nothing to say they are the guys you play when you want to beat a team in the league above you.

Then again they have done nothing to say they are not. Sharry is a big lad and fills a midfield hole but we seem solid enough and have a good chance of taking these back to Valley Parade if we don’t throw Rory, Toppy and Sharry up front and take off everyone who is ever in our half.

The second half started in our half with Omar Daley’s long runs and Barry Conlon’s head being the only way that City could find to get out from the cosh. The home team won corners that were cleaned out by Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke who were both having great games. “The second corner should be a short corner” Dawn said and we all agreed that was a good idea really and that football could learn a lot from Hockey. “You could get two goals for shots from outside the box” which was a Basketball thing and could have had City losing at this point so probably wasn’t a good idea. “Imagine what Deano would have done with the stick, heads would have rolled.”

The Milky Dons started to use the flanks more with former Town flop Kevin Gallen running the channels for them and Michael Boulding starting to do the same for City. The defence which is never lauded of late did not buckle and Stuart McCall seemed to have settled for whatever this stiff rear guard and occasional counter-attack football would produce be it replay at Valley Parade or narrow defeat. We were all surprised when what was produced turned out to be a goal from Graeme Lee.

Boulding was fouled on one of his enterprising runs and while had Lee not blasted the free kick in then we would probably be asking why the fouler was not sent off but the free kick saw Lee step up like Marco Flaming Sas and belt the ball in hard and low to the back of the Dons goal. Like Marco Flaming Sas. I mean, who was expecting that? “He slam dunked that with his chuffing stick!”

Then it was attack and defence with Lewington wandering around the field trying to do everything and Matt Clarke looking as strong as he ever has. The Referee blew his whistle and we were through to the second round six fielders out and no Peter Thorne and everything.

Which says something about Stuart. Belief was thin on the ground today for us all and most of us who had come expected very little and chattered through the game about nothing much like the management team enjoying a trip with no expectation to win. Following City this year is about getting three points every week and the two cup games have been local derbies. We came here with hardly any midfielders against a team that beat us twice last year. This is the least pressure of the season and probably the most fun.

Stuart always clenches is fists and punches the air after a win but today he did so without that feeling that he had stuck it to his doubters but with a smile that he might have not expected it either.

The second round awaits. I doubt it will be as much fun.

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.

The rest of League Two – Preseason 2008/2009 [II]

The numerous season preview supplements produced at this time of year act as a reminder, if it were needed, that the hopes and expectations we City supporters have for the coming season are not dissimilar to the majority of League Two fans.

Much has been made locally about how last season’s promotion of the MK Dons and Peterborough has left a more levelled playing field, but we aren’t the only ones thinking such sentiments. Some clubs will look to Hereford’s unexpected promotion last season and be confident they can emulate it, others may be hoping it’s emerging young talent can push them forward in the manner of Stockport and Rochdale, while others are upping the wage budget in a bid to go for it. League Two may look weaker without the presence of the Dons and the Posh, but it’s likely to be just as competitive.

When considering who might be in the promotion shake up it’s typical to start with the clubs who have spent money, those who lost out in last year’s plays offs and those relegated into the division last season. The club record £170,000 that Shrewsbury Town has spent on Nottingham Forest striker Grant Holt stands out like a sore thumb compared to everyone else’s summer recruitment. Last season was one of underachievement for the 2007 Play Off Finalists but manager Paul Simpson will begin his first full season with expectations not much lower than at Valley Parade.

Holt made his name at last season’s play off finalists Rochdale, who are likelier to be up there come May. Keith Hill has worked wonders at Spotland and their counter attacking approach impressed last season. Arguably lacking a decent striker, the Dale will hope Halifax’s Jon Shaw can make the step up; especially as midfield playmaker David Perkins, twice the thorn in the side of City last season, has left.

Wycombe Wanderers parted company with manager Paul Lambert at the end of last season and welcome Peter Taylor – with more than a point to prove following a difficult couple of years. They will probably do better than the other semi-finalists of last season, Darlington, who have lost star players David Stockdale and, while not confirmed yet, Tommy Wright. Dave Penney spent big last summer but doesn’t appear to have significant funds this time around.

Elsewhere big things are expected of Lincoln City, who prospered last year under Peter Jackson before his time off through illness. New keeper Rob Burch was sought after by others, including City, while Frank Sinclair could prove a clever buy if he still has the legs. Chesterfield fans seem to dislike their manager Lee Richardson but have one of the best strikers in the division in Jack Lester, Alan Knill will be looking to continue his rejuvenation of Bury and they could be dark horses, while Grimsby has strengthened defensively and will hope young striker Danny North can fulfill his potential.

It’s a sad state of the continuing financial problems many clubs in the lower reaches of the Football League are suffering from that this year’s League Two relegation battle could be determined by point deductions. Three seasons ago Luton finished 10th in the Championship, but the odds are heavily stacked in favour of a third successive relegation and drop into non-league following the 30 points taken off them. Play off form will be needed just to stay up and, with the club still in a mess, that seems unrealistic.

Bournemouth and Rotherham’s hopes of merely beginning this season are still in the balance and respective 15 and 17 point deductions look like a best scenario. That may allow other clubs to breath easier but Chester City, another club with money problems, won’t be counting their chickens as they remember how last season’s dramatic collapse in form almost cost them their league status. Some of the division’s smaller clubs, such as Macclesfield, Accrington and Dagenham, will also be targeting the 50 point mark rather than any loftier ambitions.

Gillingham’s recent financial difficulties make it difficult to imagine they can achieve much beyond midtable but Port Vale, under former City defender Lee Sinnott, will be a better bet for an instant return to League One. The league’s new boys, Aldershot and Exeter, arrive with romantic stories of rebirth and should both be good enough for midtable, where they will surely be joined by Notts County, Barnet, Brentford and Morecambe.

The quality of League Two is derided by some, while others trumpet it as featuring real football and real fans. Last season many clubs enjoyed better form on the road but the ones who did make it to the division above were strong at home, too. This season’s League Two promises to be unpredictable, ugly and beautiful; and those successful in realising their pre-season expectations next Spring will probably be all three.

Not fit to referee

I shall be clear, dear reader, from the offset.

Joe Colbeck deserved the red card after 37 minutes for a violent tackle on Dean Lewington which saw the 2-0 down City’s performance against the Champions of League Two but aside from ordering the Bantams player of the season off the field Karl Evans put in a shameful, disgraceful, unfit for purpose refereeing display.

All of which stops the match report I would like to have written about City’s man of the hour and about the prospects for next season and forces me to write once more about the appalling state of officials.

First things first though this afternoon – the final home game of the season – saw David Wetherall’s last match at Valley Parade and the penultimate of his career. Wetherall led City’s players in the minute’s silence in memory of the victims of the fire of 1985 and as he did my mind drifted back to May 2000 when Wetherall’s header kept City in the top flight and relegated our opponents the Dons. I recall that on that day the Liverpool supporters observed the silence with not a decibel before joining the Bantams fans in roaring through a pulsating game of football. The visitors today paid similar respects and held a banner to commemorate. They are much criticised – these Milton Keynes Dons – but as supporters they did themselves credit today.

Paul Ince’s team deserve some credit too and obviously can play a bit. They go up as champions largely on the strength of the away form that make this the eighteenth win on the road of the season but the Dons win at all costs attitude is best summed up with a casual phrase thrown around in the second half. “Paul Ince will make a good Arsenal manager one day.”

The Dons took a lead early on with after City had started the brighter and Barry Conlon should have given City the lead but Willy Gurrett loomed large the in the goal after good work had put the Irishman through and Conlon hit the ball wide. The Dons lead came from a ball crossed from the left – Darren Williams did not have a good game and left Colbeck out wide to cope with Lloyd Dyer – which travelled too far untouched by Bantams to be not considered a mistake by the back four when Jude Stirling headed home. Ince fielded a 352 which was effective while the Bantams soft pedalled.

Dyer scored the Dons second after powerfully converting a long throw which bounced over Wetherall’s head and it would be tempted to chalk that goal off as being a mistake by the man who is a little too long in the tooth but Williams once again allowed Dyer free reign to come in from the flank and Eddie Johnson simply watched the winger run past him to score. Johnson seems set to be a good twelfth man for the Bantams should he stay but one suspects that promotions are not made of displays as he puts in all too often. His inclusion at the expense of Tom Penford seemed unjust and up until the sending of off Colbeck which was to follow Johnson did not show enough desire. Not enough by half and he was not alone in that.

Colbeck’s sending off on 37 minutes was just. He trolled into Lewington who he had tormented with his pace earlier in the game as he steamed in anger. That Colbeck’s fury was caused by Dons skipper Keith Andrews elbowing him in the face in the pattern of play that preceded it is no excuse just as those managers who moaned that Dean Windass had squeezed testicles or niggled their players before retaliation had followed. The likes of Cheltenham’s John Finnegan painted themselves as wronged heroes following retaliation against Windass and were allowed to do but to be they were over angry and needed to allow the referee to take control rather than giving out what justice they saw fit as should Colbeck. That Karl Evans was a pathetic referee is not a reason why you should be allowed to take your anger out on another player so violently and Colbeck blotted and impressive copybook.

Nevertheless a strange fury surrounded the deserved red card and City to a man increased the levels of performance. Wronged – supposedly – the Bantams roared into the Dons and began to create sustained spells of pressure with Kyle Nix prompting in the midfield and Barry Conlon making himself a nuisance up front. Omar Daley’s dazzling run and left footed finish gave City a glimmer of hope at half time and the half ended in farce. A visitors corner ended up in disgusting two footed smash tackle on Kyle Nix by Jordan Hadfield which was much worse than the attack that had seen Colbeck sent off and went unpunished as Evans called a halt to the first half with former Bantam Aaron Wilbraham holding Scott Loach in a headlock and trying to shake him to retrieve the ball.

Colbeck deserved sending off. Football has no room for retribution being taken out in that way but it has no room for players grabbing each other in headlocks – the thin end of a wedge that ends with violence – and it certainly has no room for the type of two footed lunge that sent Nix spinning from Hadfield. The Bantams went in at half time 2-1 down to a chorus of boos for Referee Evans who would come out to perform so much worse in the second half with the words “You’re not fit to referee” ringing in his ears and such a phrase is true. Referees have a duty of care to the players written into the rules of the game in in ducking the decision to punish Hadfield or Wilbraham Evans hid from that responsibility. I would not like to have been a player on the field in such a lawless environment.

Evans made a litter of mistakes small and large in the second half missing the most obvious corner seen in football, allowing a waist high wrestling move on Darren Williams when he came through, giving a random set of decisions against Barry Conlon and Dons man Danny Swailes as the tussled all afternoon and at one point allowing Wilbraham to sneak back onto the field of play after going behind the touchline and rob Loach of the ball which he pinged off the bar of an open goal.

Your average football fan can be forgiven for not knowing that player who leave the field – go over the white line – have to ask permission to come back onto the field and that it is only a convince to allow them not to return to the pitch at the halfway line (as substitutes do) but Karl Evans is paid to know the rules of football and rather than stopping play and booked Wilbraham he allowed play to continue. It is Law 12.6 if you want to grab your copy of the rules and check it out and it is right above the rule that he used to send Colbeck off.

What can you say about a situation where the Referee knows or applies on the rules he decides at that time? I hope he is just a pathetic referee rather than a bent one but I can not accept that he is neither.

The frustration with Evans’s display was matched by that of City’s knocking on but never breaking through the MK Dons defence – David Wetherall’s header wide went in in a more romantic world – and in the end a ten man Bradford City were better than the eleven of the champions. Paul Ince had four months at StockportMacclesfield (an impressive five months) before he started at the Dons and one cannot help but wonder if after four months of learning at City Stuart McCall had have been able to start the season at the beginning of January would the Bantams be in the position that Ince’s men are?

McCall has got a City team that try play a bit, that can play a bit, that are naive in places but very exciting to watch. The team needs a tweak here and there but not wholesale change and one hopes that Colbeck will have put off potential suitors today and that should he start for the year long loan that seems to hang on Watford getting promoted then Scott Loach does not have to many games as he did today but the Bantams should be considered serious promotion contender next season.

This season though is full of what ifs. What if Peter Thorne had been fit at the start of the season? What if Joe Colbeck had found such scintillating form earlier? What if that run of not winning all through Autumn had not come? What if? The Dons take the championship but one cannot help but be reminded and paraphase of the famed comment of John Bradford – there, but for the grace of God, goes Bradford City.

The grace of God and a better referees maybe.

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