The basics of football management and how Phil Parkinson might not be able to go back to them

The second half of Bradford City’s win against Halifax Town saw Phil Parkinson move away from his most commonly used tactical approach of 2014.

An hour after the change in the dressing room at The Shay, City fans walked home with a victory, and I tried to summon up a phrase other than the cliche of “back to basics” to describe what had happened.

The discussion over Parkinson’s tactical approach did not last long.

Billy Clarke was lauded by many as if it were him and him alone (rather than the change of approach) that had made the difference, which seemed to lead to a consensus of opinion being framed that Parkinson’s error was in not picking the striker in the first place.

This talk gave way to a discussion on why Bradford City failed to wear Remembrance Poppies during the game, and whatever it was that Parkinson had done seemed to soon be forgotten.

The cliche, however, remained in my mind.

Unpacking the cliche

On any given Saturday afternoon, the losers of any tie will have a section of supporters soon making the case that the manager should leave the club. There is a common set of terms applied: “Taken the club as far as he can” is not unusual, whilst “not good enough” is more blunt.

Criticisms of managers are based on the results of games. The justification for a statement that a manager is “not good enough” almost always being a perception (reasonable or otherwise) that there is an acceptable set of results, and that those results are not being achieved.

This is obviously a judgement which should be subject to some refinement. The results delivered by a football club are the effects of any number of things, some of which are within the manager’s control. When the words “not good enough” are used, they are used as a catch all, but what do they catch all of?

What is a manager “not good enough” at? Our own experience suggests that there are very few situations in which a person has a uniform level of skill across a number of disciplines even if those disciplines are similar to each other. Mark Zuckerberg borrowed Eduardo Saverin’s ranking algorithm for Chess players whilst on the path to creating Facebook because while the Zuck could code like no-one else, that kind of applied Mathematics coding wasn’t something he could do.

Selecting tactics, recruiting players, coaching teams, building motivation… These are (some of) the constituent parts of football management that a manager may do, but all of these things are not done by all managers, and not all at the same level.

On Sunday Phil Parkinson reverted to an approach which was tried and tested in the past – he went “back to basics” – but what basics did he go back to? And since the basics we’re talking about are specific to Parkinson, why are they classed as basics in the first place?

Back to basics

After half-time, Parkinson changed from 4231 to 442 in his tactical approach, and this is regarded as his “basic” because it’s a standard that has has worked for him before. It’s worth noting that this “basic” is contextual. If Pep Guardiola were to send Bayern Munich out playing 442, then it would be a new tactical approach for him, not a basic. The basics of football tactics involve five forwards and a half back.

We can conclude that when we hear about Phil Parkinson going “back to basics” the “basics” we are talking about are in some way specific to Phil Parkinson.

And those who travelled to The Shay will have noted that as Parkinson’s tactical approach changed, so too did the motivation of his players in what my brother and I called “Rear Inserted Rockets.”

It is worth thinking about what Parkinson did not do at half time, and what he could not have done.

He did not sign any players at half-time obviously, nor did he coach the players in set-plays in the way that requires a training pitch. He did not make a decision on who would be in the match day squad because that squad had already been decided. He did not teach the players anything new or at least anything which could not be taught in a few minutes.

These are things which a manager is given the power to do but that are not done at half-time of a game.

The basics that Parkinson went back to are a subset of what makes up his role as a football manager.

This is common sense of course, but how often – when people talk about how good or bad a manager is – do the terms get unpacked? How often when someone says that a manager is “not good enough” are they invited to say what it is he is not good at?

Not good enough

It stands to reason that not all managers are equally as good at all things.

When we look at the meritocratic collection of managers at the top of the Premier League, we can see that the general view of specific managers is that they tend to be good at some parts of the job and less good at others. No one thus far has suggested Louis van Gaal is getting the best out of his players, or that he has a genius for recruitment, but Arsene Wenger, we are told, is good at developing players.

It is difficult to say that Roland Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino’s skills are because both have continued on the paths the clubs were on already. Pochettino’s club Spurs famously employed Harry Redknapp, the beloved “wheeler dealer” of transfer deadline day. Yet when Redknapp wanted to be England manager, the criticism of his skills was that he was more about smart recruitment than he was about tactical game approaches.

Alan Pardew is infamously “not good enough” according to the supporters who created sackpardew.com but seems to be good at creating a good team atmosphere within a squad, whereas supporters taunted Brendan Rodgers with the idea that he was not good at spending the money that the club brought in by selling a player that the previous manager who was not good at spending money bought in.

We get a general idea of what is good and bad about these managers, and we might postulate how good a fit they are for the roles they are in. Some clubs want their managers to be restricted to the training ground, whilst others want them to involve themselves at board level and leave the coaching to the coaches.

When we unpack the cliche of “not good enough” we start to draw out a map of where a manager excels. The cartography of ability can be superimposed onto the needs of a club and an idea of the manager’s suitability found.

Phil Parkinson in 2015

I would suggest, based on my experience as a fan of Bradford City, that the needs of the club which a manager must fill are near all encompassing when he is a manager at Valley Parade. Aside from the retarding requirement that the team plays football a certain way one, suspects that Phil Parkinson has, and is expected to have, full control over football at Valley Parade.

There is no Director of Football at the club, no Chief of Player Recruitment, and at senior level seemingly nothing except Parkinson and the people he wants. This underlines a state of affairs where while Parkinson may have a set of skills with peaks – team building is obviously one – and troughs. Being the manager of our club means there’s a need for him to involve himself in all of these things, and be “good” at them all.

Parkinson’s “basics” are, in the end, all the club has. And this is presents a problem for both club and manager.

In 2015, Phil Parkinson will have two chances to improve his squad. Improving a manager’s squad has been given a common parlance of “having a good transfer window”, and it is a long time since Phil Parkinson could have been said to have done that.

In fact one can probably go back to the summer of recruiting Gary Jones – a player who was on Peter Jackson’s list of midfielders he wanted (but could not get) – and Nathan Doyle – who is a former Bradford City Player of the Season – for the last time Parkinson recruited very well. Since then we have had a mixed bag of the good (I like Billy Knott), the bad (Raffaele De Vita is hardly even spoken about now) and the average. It is here where we get to the subject of Jason Kennedy.

JFK

Kennedy is a useful footballer in that he is wholehearted and obviously has the attitude Parkinson wants in his players, but his confidence in his own passing ability (justified or not) sees him play in a specific way which rarely adds greatly to the team’s creativity. Gary Liddle is a steady performer who – no matter which set of numbers that add up to ten and represent playing positions is deployed – seems to be a six out of ten.

We do not know if these players are the best Parkinson could get, the best Parkinson could get for the money, or what Parkinson perceived to be the best, but we can probably conclude by now that Parkinson’s greatest skills are not in player recruitment.

He is superb at building a team out of the right characters (and he is right to make character a requirement), and anyone who saw the reaction of the players to the comeback on Sunday will note how he can get those characters to play for him.

What he needs to do better – perhaps – is bringing together a group of players who can perform at a higher level. The ability to do that – the Harry Redknapp smart recruitment – is not a basic that Parkinson can go back to.

And so we get a picture of the future of Bradford City under Phil Parkinson. It is of a level performance, and a good team, waiting for the manager to get it right – or maybe just get lucky – when putting together a squad.

Aaron McLean and the heroes of failure

The collective view of history

There is a view of history which holds that if there had never been a Genghis Khan, a Joseph Stalin, a Pol Pot, then the course of the world would have been drastically different. No Mongol hordes, no Cold War, no pogrom.

This is the individual view of history.

There is a competing view that suggests that those three people, indeed any person of history, is only of history because of the rising and falling of collective events. That if it had not been Genghis Khan then someone else would have been credited for leading the hordes, and history would have remember their name instead. That large groups rather than an individual caused the world to turn.

This is the collective view of history. It is less exciting, but probably more accurate.

From Pol Pot to Pulis

Stoke City’s rise to the place of mid-table in the Premier League is largely down to former manager Tony Pulis, and Pulis puts any success he has had down to a recruitment policy based on character.

When speaking about Ryan Shawcross Pulis commended the defender’s character – which is to say his desire to win football matches – saying that a team was built on players such as Shawcross.

“You can have other players who don’t have that (character),” Pulis added, “but only for eighteen months and then you have to move them on.”

The heroes of failure

Why do Bradford City supporters not curse the name Benito Carbone? Why is Ashley Ward’s time at the club given a light disregard when the memory of Mike Duxbury can cause grown men to froth at the mouth? What is it about Darren Morgan that has some City fans reserving a place in the inner circle of failure which even Aaron McLean – seemingly leaving City this week – need not fear reaching?

And what is this word scapegoat which is applied in defence of McLean? Has his treatment been unfair? What are the mechanics of failure at a club like Bradford City that can lionise one player and condemn another.

And let me start by saying…

When Aaron McLean leaves Bradford City, few will be upset. McLean has done well in the past proving his ability but did not do well at Bradford City. The sort of ability McLean is credited with is rare for Bradford City players over the last decade. Few players have been criticised for want of motivation rather than ability.

More common in the last decade have been the players who have shown a level of effort that defined their abilities. The words “give everything” are used about James Hanson, Gary Jones, and Andrew Davies. Players like Barry Conlon, Matthew Clarke and Lee Crooks were never said to be shirking, just that they were poor footballers.

McLean gets to nestle his name alongside Ashley Ward, Nicky Summerbee and Bobby Petta in the players who idled away their talents rather than had no talent to begin with.

In the worst possible way

Aaron McLean arrived to replace Nahki Wells. Wells enjoyed a meteoric rise at Bradford City. His speed and eye for goal were impressive and he played a role in taking City to Wembley twice in three months. After an early exchange of distaste for his choice of clubs following City it seems that Wells has settled back into his place in the hearts of City fans.

One might speculate that the fact that Wells has joined a Huddersfield side in the year they have achieved next to nothing is his saving grace for City fans. Were Town in the play-offs and Wells the architect of that, then things may be different.

But Wells is not an architect. The type of player he is – they are called “finishers” for a reason – puts him at the necessary end point rather than the engine room of a team. Wells was the end of a team of Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, James Hanson et al. Those players were the big characters who pushed the team. Wells, Nathan Doyle, Will Atkinson, Carl McHugh were (seemingly, and by virtue of their exit) the “eighteen monthers” that Pulis talks about.

Being Phil Parkinson

Losing Gary Jones was inevitable. Phil Parkinson probably joins with the rest of City fans who watch the skipper playing for Notts County and wonders if there was another year in the now 37-year old midfielder, but giving him that extra year is a delay of the inevitable need to replace him.

Losing a player like Gary Jones from your team – be it from age or transfer – matters more than losing a player like Wells because of the type of strong character he is. Bringing in or building a replacement takes time and may not be achieved. Those old enough may remember the attempt to replace the massive presence of Stuart McCall with Iain Banks and wince at the memory. If you are younger, read “Gary Locke” for Banks.

It is Parkinson’s hardest job and while developing Billy Knott may be a long term solution, one suspects the City manager has concluded that he needs to bring a character into the side and is working to that end. At the moment though Parkinson puts out the team he has and that team has some qualities, although is lacking in others.

Who does not love Xaviar Barrau?

Who was the scapegoat in David Wetherall’s relegation side which was the worst team Bradford City have fielded in my lifetime? Who carries the can for those feeble months? Not Wetherall, and not his players. Spencer Weir-Daley’s many misses against Leyton Orient and Omar Daley’s giving up of the ball on the wing are critical memories but on the whole the players are not criticised. Kelly Youga (injured during his time at the club) is fondly remembered. Who does not a place in his heart for Xaviar Barrau?

Wetherall’s side were simply too poor for scapegoats. To single out one player is to allow a club and a culture at a club to be freed from blame. No one points the finger because no one has enough fingers to point.

Likewise relegation from the Premier League is never assigned to a group of players, and the likes of Benito Carbone are heroes of the club. Circumstances dictate that a scapegoat will not be found, at least not on the field.

Parkinson’s team are not so outgunned as those two examples. The are far better than Wetherall’s side for sure, and the rest of League One is – in relative terms to City – not as good as the rest of the Premiership was in 2000.

Phil Parkinson’s team are closer to success. Indeed at the moment City win and lose on the basis (seemingly, but probably not in the opinion of the management) of individual actions. Billy Clarke puts the ball an inch lower and Oldham away is a good point; Christopher Routis heads a ball into the stands against Sheffield United then City get a battling point with ten men and so on.

Just as two years ago Rory McArdle’s determination was the difference between winning and losing against Aston Villa in the League Cup semi-final. When the difference between success and failure is small there is a temptation to assign it to individuals and individual actions.

Stevie Gee

Importantly though one can only justify assigning success to individuals when margins are small. A scapegoat is the player who did not apply the marginal difference. The opposite – a player who applied the individual difference between success and failure – is what he call in football a hero

Watching the career of Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard is watching that that theory in action. In European Cup and FA Cup finals (both of which ended 3-3) he has been heroic because he has been the individual difference between success and failure.

Last season his defensive slip against Chelsea – an individual mistake – seemed to cost his team the Premier League title. “If he had not slipped” is said with a misty eye by many, but few ask what would have happened if (now Liverpool’s) Dejan Lovren foul on Daniel Sturridge in November 2013 in a Southampton 1-0 win at Anfield had been given as a penalty.

Scapegoating is arbitrary.

Had Aaron set off in time

Aaron McLean’s first game at Sheffield United for City – a 2-2 draw – had the striker almost score the goal which almost built his confidence and almost put him on a run of goalscoring, and so on.

McLean is in poor form, and plays like a player in poor form, and many people (not me) consider that the problem City face at the moment is the need for a finisher. The logic follows easily that McLean, a finisher, could be difference between wins and defeats.

My view of football is increasingly more inline with Pulis, and it is more inline with the collective view of history. When Nahki Wells was scoring for City it was not because of his abilities so much as because of the team’s abilities (which he was a part of) and had you dropped Aaron McLean in then, McLean would be the “Goal Machine” his name so cruelly rhymes with. If you put Wells into the current City team, he would struggle.

The team struggles because of the recrafting job that is needed on its core following Jones’ departure. and the wider break up of the “History Makers” team that Phil Parkinson built. The eighteen months were up, and now Parkinson starts again. The manager is not back at square one, and the fact that the gap between success and failure seems bridgeable is a frustration, and causes this illusion.

Nahki Wells was a hero of Bradford City’s success.

Aaron McLean, because of his place in our history, is a hero of failure.

Letter to a person who did not like Garry Thompson

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, Adam Drury | Rafa De Vita, Nathan Doyle, Gary Jones, Mark Yeates | Aaron McLean, Jon Stead | Carl McHugh, Garry Thompson, Kyle Bennett

To the person who did not like Garry Thompson,

You and I share a football club and I am sure we share the same ambitions for that club. Probably, if we talked, we would quickly find common ground but that agreement would end on the subject of Garry Thompson.

I’m sure you clapped when Garry Thompson scored the winning goal at the end of a lackluster with Crawley Town that had seen both teams go in scoreless after a flat first half and Aaron McLean give City a lead after he finished a divine long pass by Nathan Doyle. We might have had the same reaction to Carl McHugh failing to follow a pass out of defence by Kyle McFadzean allowing Jamie Proctor to equalise.

I’m sure you clapped that just as you and I will have cheered Thompson’s goal against Arsenal, or the one against Burton Albion when all seemed lost, or his work in the goals against Northampton at Wembley and I’m sure that as I iterated through those goals you started to form an idea that those goals do not constituent a defence of a player who you believe is not good enough for League One.

Because that is what you have been saying about Garry Thompson this season: that he is not good enough; and while I’d hope your opinions did not effect Phil Parkinson’s decision to bring in the Kyle Bennett to take the right wing I am forced to wonder if you have been forced to consider your opinion of Thompson after seeing such an inadequate replacement.

When I watch Garry Thompson I wonder what you want from him other than what he shows? I watch him and see a player who puts everything into his performances and takes responsibility for those performances. I see a player with enough skill to take the ball past a player some of the time, good enough crosses to pick out a striker some of the time, who fires the ball in some of the time.

And I see a player who when he does get it wrong beats himself up about it.

When you watched Jon Stead being given a pass by Mark Yeates to leave him on his own in the Crawley half this afternoon and watched Stead fudge the chance and end up with nothing did you feel as I did that that failure should have hurt Stead more?

It can be hard to tell how players feel from the stands but having watched Thompson for long enough I like the fact that his mistakes are not shrugged off. I see a player who holds himself to a high standard.

I wonder what you see. I can probably understand how you are able to rationalise away the good things but I can not understand how you can see a player who embodies the effort that has seen the City team go from the arse end of League Two to secure in League One via a League Cup final in two years.

Perhaps you look at players like Paul McLaren or Tommy Doherty and thought they were better players because of abilities with a dead ball in the former case or the latter’s occasionally masterful displays but what those players were lacking was what to me is obvious from watching Thompson. Both lacked Thompson’s work ethic. Every time he has been asked Thompson has done everything he could for our team. The same could not be said of those other players mentioned.

And if you do not value that work ethic then you do not understand what is good in football, and it is wasted on you. You talk about Thompson as if his presence (and goals) in the key games of the last few years were an accident, and perhaps those games were wasted on you too.

All season you have mumbled and grumbled about Garry Thompson. Sometimes you went so far as to abuse him and I wonder how that will have impacted his confidence. He lost his place in the side and as he led the lap around Valley Parade at the end of the game probably having played his last game for City his contract is up and you are probably happy about that.

On that all I can say is that to replace Garry Thompson is about more than getting a better right foot in. It is about a player and a team ethic which was prepared to be held to a high standard and about understanding that it is that high standard which has driven the team in the last few years.

You do not put enough value on Garry Thompson, you never did, and because of that I feel sorry for you because I bloody loved watching him play.

Yours,
Michael

A win over Peterborough United has City looking at the costs of survival

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, Adam Drury | Rafa De Vita, Nathan Doyle, Gary Jones, Adam Reach | James Hanson, Jon Stead | Aaron McLean, Kyle Bennett

If the adage holds true that football matches are won by the team which needs to win most then Bradford City can feel some pride in besting a Peterborough United who needed to win far more than the Bantams did.

This time last season City were not far from the position which Darren Ferguson’s side occupy in League One. The last play off place and looking over the shoulder at those who would take it. And just as City battled at Chesterfield last term on Good Friday for a 2-2 draw so The Posh put up a fight against Phil Parkinson’s side who nearly mathematically assured survival in League One.

It is a survival that has come at some cost. At the end of last season Parkinson was unimpeachable in his position as Bradford City manager having taken the club to Wembley twice. This term there has been a misguided but concerted effort to unseat him from some people who follow the club.

The inerudite attack on Parkinson is that he has “no tactics” which is to say that he favours a 442 and often is over concerned to ensuring the opposition do not progress rather than that his team does. The manager favoured a 4312 with Adam Reach playing behind Jon Stead and James Hanson and added Raffaele De Vita to the right side of a middle three alongside Gary Jones and the also returning Nathan Doyle.

Parkinson’s midfield offered a survival chance for Jones and Doyle who have not shirked from responsibility this season but have struggled. Reach ahead of the midfield give Jones a smaller zone to play in and allows him to focus his energy. Doyle too, dipped back into a ball winning midfield zone, had perhaps his best game of the season. Add to that a De Vita looking more comfortable and a shape for next season that ensures that two of the players who excelled in 2013 might feature in 2015.

All of which comes from the failure for Kyel Reid to survive. As Adam Reach dropped between the lines in Parkinson’s 4312 City forwent wingers and so the team finally found a way to cope without the pacy wideman who – it is worried and it seems – will not play for City again. Perhaps while Parkinson watched a fluidity to the first half of the Bantams performance which had been missing since sometime before the turn of the year he may be convinced that the 442 with wingers would not survive either.

Reach was impressive in the playmaking role behind the front too. His runs invited fouls and from one by Jack Payne the on loan Middlesbrough player lofted a fine free kick over the wall and into Joe Day’s goal. From another Sean Brisley earned his second yellow card in two minutes.

Brisley had been booked for pulling down Stead on 38 minutes, Reach on 40, and while from a Bantams point of view Reach’s sliding interception was impressive Peterborough fans might have been surprised by the high line the visitors played for the first half. In the second, with ten on the field, things were different.

The play off chasing side had to drop back and pull back players from the forward line and worked hard in doing that. Their second half display was a model of football efficiency rarely wasting the ball but the Bantams backline covered the attacks well with pressure put on the ball in the Peterborough half and cover in the City half very secure.

Four of the back five of 2014’s play off final have survived and while Adam Drury is an able deputy it seems sure that James Meredith will return to make the five. Parkinson has a decision to make on if he has faith with the five assuming he can keep all at the club. It has seemed apparent that Parkinson believes that should his side take the lead then Jon McLaughlin behind Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies and James Meredith are solid enough to see a game out. Parkinson’s case is made by City’s defence having conceded fewer goals than Peterborough’s this season.

Which suggests the problem – if retaining a place in League One could ever be said to be a problem – is at the other end of the field. While Peterborough attacked in the second half the Bantams took a step back and were balanced towards defending. One can hardly expect Parkinson to change in his next season and so if James Hanson and Aaron McLean – a second half substitute who came on to applause from both sets of fans – are to improve on this season’s returns then they either need to become more efficient in front of goal or they need to get more chances.

Which points to the decision Parkinson has to make in the close season. If he is to carry on with a 4312 – which has yet to last a full game – then he needs to find someone to play in the role Adam Reach took today. If he is to use the 442 then he needs to find a more apt set of widemen.

He should though get to make those decisions. After months without a win, after losing his centreforward, after losing Reid, after the chairman who could not keep his face off television last season going entirely silent on him, it seems that Parkinson has survived too.

Parkinson, Taylor and the case of the low standard

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, Adam Drury | Kyle Bennett, Matthew Dolan, Nathan Doyle, Adam Reach | Aaron McLean, James Hanson | Gary Thompson

Gillingham boss Peter Taylor was kind enough to raise an arm to greet the Bradford City supporters who for a brief time watched him manage the side and for a time he must have wondered how the noise from the Bantams stands had changed.

Taylor once heard his own team booed off after winning a match, and his leader Tommy Doherty was booed on the field, to a point where the then City boss suggested that if the fans thought jeering was so beneficial he should work it into training.

When he watched Aaron McLean sprint into the box as a James Hanson header was fed out wide to Adam Reach and probably feared that the once feared hit man would dart past the defender and do what he had not done in eight weeks as a Bradford City player and score. He did.

McLean’s relief was obvious after his goal as was the affection for him from the Bradford City supporters. Such a drastic change since Doherty being booed, Taylor must of thought, and as City pressed on his Gillingham side in a tide which should have washed the Kent side away how right he was in his criticism of the booing supporters.

McLean has been nursed through every game by fans willing him to be all he could be. It warms the heart to watch.

But little else did as City squandered near total domination over Gillingham and ended up with a draw which it might be said both managers will be happy with but that Phil Parkinson should take no delight in at all.

Gillingham’s open midfield in the first half left an area between the back four and the midfield which City were able to exploit and did so. Adam Reach and Kyle Bennett started to show an understanding as if linked by sixty yards of elastic one showing one side when then other came in for the ball. Matthew Dolan moved forwards well and City had a chance to expand on the one goal lead but that chance – or those chances – were squander.

Amine Linganzi moved into the gap in the second half and Adebayo Akinfenwa came on and City would soon be looking at an equaliser by Cody McDonald and an afternoon where standards were lowered.

A word on Akinfenwa. He is often a joke of a player massive as he is but today Referee Michael Bull, and a good few of the City players, were taken in by that joke. Akinfenwa played by his own set of rules about the physical game and Bull allowed him to do so. It was like watching a kid at school who was rubbish so he was allowed to be offside to even things up.

But Akinfenwa is not rubbish, he is over weight, and he is allowed to throw that weight around with far less intervention from the Referee than other players on the field suffer. It is as tedious as it is disappointing and Andrew Davies must have wondered why Akinfenwa was allowed to spend fifteen minutes at the start of the second half jumping at him rather than with him (including in the build up to the goal) without a free kick being given.

But had Davies played with the spirit that saw him not even give Akinfenwa a kick at Wembley last May then City would have won and that leads us to the lowering of standards which was in evidence especially in the second half.

City have started to accept less than they should and this Parkinson should be worried about this.

First let me draw a distinction here between the idea that fans deserve more – a phrase I hate – or that players should always score with every shot or never make mistakes or other things which go under the idea of not accepting less and focus on this very specific issue of the lowering of standards.

Take Matthew Dolan on seventy minutes when the ball came to him thirty five yards out and when falling he lashed a ball which would not trouble the goalkeeper even slightly. Take Nathan Doyle putting in a half challenge in midfield and complaining that he has fouled. Take Kyle Bennett being challenged in his own half and unlike Adam Reach’s Elvis hips shimmy into the box in the first half falling and darting eyes to the Referee.

Parkinson needs to set a higher standard than this. He needs to underline to the players what playing well looks like and not accept that the players had a jolly good try at doing something else. Players need to play with their heads and with the trust in their teammates, and they need to play in a way that understands that they have teammates and that much of the time their jobs are to serve those teammates.

There was a moment in the game when Kyle Bennett, furthest forward, chased a ball and on catching it hooked it to the goalkeeper tamely. It was not understanding where your teammates are, it was not playing intelligently, and it was the sign of a standard slipped that Parkinson has to address.

Players are playing for contracts – they always are – and Parkinson will look at Adam Reach and feel that he has found a player who can raise the level of the team but many of the other players who may not be at Valley Parade next season are playing under a standard which they need to be to worth keeping at the club.

And again I underline the difference between holding a high standard and highlighting mistakes. It is not that players are pilloried for mistakes it is that some of the players will have left the field today feeling the did “alright” in a “decent result” and I believe that that is not the right attitude for a team looking to progress.

Today City needed to play to a higher standard and did not. Parkinson’s reaction to that – if he thinks that the way Matthew Dolan played today will replace Gary Jones (eventually) or the way Kyle Bennett played will be a substitute for how Kyel Reid played – will define next season.

Bradford City left considering credit where credit is due

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, Carl McHugh | Kyle Bennett, Gary Jones, Nathan Doyle, Adam Reach | Aaron McLean, James Hanson | Gary Thompson, Andy Gray

Carl HcHugh already has scored more important goals for Bradford City than his last minute looper from a corner over Port Vale which gave Phil Parkinson’s side a first home win in months but weight lifted off shoulders at Valley Parade has seldom been greater.

McHugh got his head to a corner put into the box by Gary Jones which seemed to have gone beyond the young Irishman but had not and then was describing an arc Chris Neal into the back of the Vale goal. It denoted similarly to the goal which was decisive against Aston Villa in the League Cup semi finals last season but connotations were massively different.

This was relief, it was all relief.

City had looked like being frustrated again. Frustrated by a team which played strongly but has only won once in twenty one fixtures. Frustrated by a by a Vale side who played for a draw save the odd enterprise forward that Jon McLaughlin can be pleased keeping at bay. Frustrated by a referee Mark Brown who seemed to have decided that he would keep bookings and controversy to a minimum by ignoring what deserved one and would have caused the other.

And that frustration came to an end when McHugh’s goal went into the goal which itself came some had been convinced that the Bantams did not look like scoring. They streamed away into the dark Bradford night frustrated at City’s inability to score.

And while those people were ultimately wrong it was not hard to see how the conclusion formed.

As strong as the back two of Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies looked and as well as Stephen Darby at right back and McHugh returning to the left after his cruel exposure at Sheffield United played the Bantams did not threaten goal enough.

James Hanson is Sir Bobby Robson‘s one in three man and does all he needs to but Aaron McLean is struggling to play off him.

McLean seems to need more room than is available when a solid defence close to a deep midfield is deployed as it did today with the risible Anthony Griffith playing a holding role for the visitors. Still McLean’s endeavour does not falter and that earns him his chance to play in a City side swelled by victory.

In midfield Nathan Doyle seems not to be as he was while Gary Jones retains a level of energy and application which one cannot help but be impressed by but Jones’ work rate would be impressive for an eighteen year old.

The two wide men offer contrast. Adam Reach asks a question of a defender almost every time he gets the ball and sometimes the answer is simple – you can’t go past me but you can have a throw in – other it is not and every time he makes the defender work. Kyle Bennett is too easy to defend against and while one feels that there will be occasions where things go right for him in a spectacular and impressive way those occasions will be fleeting. Reach does more than Bennett but one gets the feeling Bennett will one day do something Reach could never do.

Bennett is a frustrating figure – an un-Parkinson like player – but he has the benefit of being defensively disciplined. Reach is a much harder player to play against for defenders and Bennett still has to show that he can be useful to the team on a consistent basis.

Nevertheless Bennett was one of the last off the field at the end of the game after Jones had led the applause for the supporters who had not gone for the early bus. They make an impressive noise, these City fans, and they do it regardless of wins or goals.

And they seem linked by symbiosis to the Bradford City team who seem refuse to give up on games, or on the spirit in the club, or on the manager that must have come close to the sack.

The players must have known that had spirited defeats become meek surrenders then the manager Parkinson would have struggled to keep his job and its to their credit that they did not let that happen. One hope that they continue to not let it happen at home to Milton Keynes Dons on Saturday.

Its credit too the boardroom at Bradford City that they have watched three months or more of games with only a single win but did not flinch. No articles distancing themselves from Parkinson, no whispers that the boardroom might be unhappy, no suggestions that things “had to turn around soon”. Just support for Parkinson and what he carries on trying to do. Credit is due to Messrs Lawn and Rhodes for resisting baser urges.

Urges which would have said – correctly – that the way a chairman wins over support is to be seen to be doing something even though that the best course of action was to do nothing other than support Parkinson in what he continues to do.

And will continue to do on Saturday taking what he can from the last few months. I confess I’ve no idea what Parkinson did when McHugh scored – goal celebrations I do alone – but I imagine he allowed himself a moment of relief before looking soberly at the team, and where improvement is needed, and how to get that improvement from the players.

A year this week Parkinson was preparing his team for Wembley in the League Cup final. The team was beaten that day but that defeat became a tool of motivation for the rest of the season.

Having looked the end so squarely in the eye in the last months one waits breath bated to see what Parkinson will make of this opportunity.


And if you, dear reader, want to know more about Port Vale then BfB points you to One Vale Fan which is a site older than this one.

Doyle will not face charges

One time Bradford City player of the season Nathan Doyle will not face changes after his arrest two months ago.

Derbyshire Police concluded their investigation with a spokesperson confirming that Nathan has been released from his bail and no further action will be taken.

Doyle is currently playing for Barnsley and scored his first senior goal on Saturday in a 3-1 win over Nottingham Forest.

Good player, bad player

Nathan Doyle’s accent to the top of football predicted by many during his four months at Valley Parade could not have gone much further off track than it did yesterday. Released from Hull City and then signed by Barnsley where he spends most of his time on the bench. Yesterday Doyle and two other men were pulled over while driving in Derby which resulted in three men being arrested for possession of a Class A substance.

The future for Doyle is difficult to appreciate – footballers like Mark Bosnich, Roman Bednar and Shane Nicholson have played after public abuse of cocaine – but the fact that his projected career did not match his actual career is a lesson for all when it comes to gradating and valuing footballers.

We hang onto words like “good player”, “bad player” and “not good enough” but which would be categorise Doyle as simply on the basis of his playing career? He was “good player” when he left Bradford City, “not good enough” when he was at Hull City and probably considered “bad player” now yet one doubts his abilities have changed. If anything having played with Premier League players at Hull for two years he has probably learnt much.

His motivations, on the other hand, are no doubt different. Leaving Bradford City after being picked by Colin Todd from the stiffs at Derby Doyle seemed to relish every game and no doubt he was spirited enough when he arrived at the KC Stadium but a year or two of reserve football, the infamous on pitch telling off and a few changes of manager later and Nathan Doyle is where he is now.

From a playing point of view Nathan Doyle is far from alone. Football is peopled with players who kicked up a storm when they were young and spend the next few years trying to get back to where they were predicted to be going. Robbie Threlfall – wowing all with his youth team performances for Liverpool a few years ago – is a current example of this in the City team but scanning down the squads of most teams turns up many a player who was subject to “The Boys A Bit Special” articles a few years before.

There are no “good players” or “bad players”. Players play well, or they play poorly. That is all.

Motivation changes, colleagues change, situations change but the idea that Threlfall kicks a ball worse than he did two years ago or that Doyle so forgotten how to control a ball is a little silly. The more anyone does anything the better they get at it. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers creates a rule of thumb that the one things that unites World Class performers is not a genetic quirk or an enlarged part of the brain but that all have put in 10,000 hour of practice.

For all the talk of “God given” talent David Beckham got good at free kicks by kicking a ball at a traffic cone on the park until after it had gone dark. Physical changes might rob a player of his skills – broken legs that do not heal and all – but just like you never forget how to swim a player never forgets how to play.

In the event of a player like Lee Hendrie – coming back from years of injury – then perhaps one can suggest that a player has lost the ability to access his skills. Hendrie might not be able to get up and down the pitch like he used to but he knows what to do, and how to do it, if his body will let him.

Motivation changes and managers try to control the mind-set of players as Peter Taylor has done and one can imagine that for a player like Doyle going up the leagues but into the reserves, or a player like Hendrie used to checking into the training facilities of Aston Villa and now avoiding dog poo on Apperley Bridge, retaining the mind set that brought you to prominence is hard.

The French side Olympique Lyonnais – masters of the transfer market – identified a different problem in motivation in that they looked at the performance of players signed after winning World Cups, Champions Leagues or European Championships and noted a dip which they put down to motivation. Such players are not hungry for success any more – they are successful – and their performance suffers as a result. It is probably not going a problem that is going to apply to City any time soon but it explains why Fernando Torres and Stephane Guivarch did not set the Premier League alight on return with a World Cup winners medals.

Following Lyon offers a set of rules for the transfer market that are tried and tested as the French side won their domestic league from 2001-2008. Lyon were one of the first clubs to seriously engaging in “settling” which is often lampooned as “telling spoilt rich footballers how to get to Tescos” but they have found is a way to protect their investment. They sign – pretty much – only French and Brazilian players because they know they can settle them. From Bruno Rodriguez to Billy Topp, Juanjo to Jorge Cadete City have a string of players who would not have been signed under the Lyon guidelines.

Another of Lyon’s maxims of the market revolves around the notion that players are not the subject to wild fluctuations in ability and – having accepted that – any problems they do have can be solved and the player can be returned to form.

“Buy broken players, and fix them” is the summation and it would apply to Doyle right now. Pick him up, straighten him out and get him back on track and then you have the player who left for Hull City. If Barnsley decide they have had enough of him then from a purely footballing point of view it would make sense for any club to sign him although as City saw after signing Jake Speight the ethics of the broken player are a different thing indeed.

What makes a good loan deal?

The penalty saves Simon Eastwood made against Notts County did a lot for the confidence that City fans had in the young keeper who arrived on loan from Huddersfield Town at the start of the season but seemed to do very little for the confidence of the custodian himself.

Saturday saw another Eastwood performance where he made some impressive saves but enough errors to cost goals. This has been the pattern for the keeper all year with the ten minute spell after half time against Crewe being illustrative of the player. One stunning arm out save from a Steven Schumacher header, one picking the ball out of the net when a long range shot from the same player bounced through him.

Eastwood arrived at City having played a same for Town and a dozen on loan in the non-league and perhaps Stuart McCall was hoping that after three months or so wearing the gloves week in/week out that Luton born keeper would have started to show improvement that comes with being blooded.

The theory is a good one because if Eastwood could cut out the brain-freeze errors that see him wandering around the penalty area like a loose defender then he would be a decent keeper who made brilliant saves. The problem is that such progression has not been seen in Eastwood and he remains now, as he was when he arrived, a player who is good at football rather than a good footballer.

This is not at all unique. Back on the 9th of May 1999 when City were promoted at Wolves the world ball juggling champion entertained City fans with his tricks on the side of the field while the 22 players were not as good with the ball but better footballers got on with deciding who would be in the Premiership next season.

Eastwood – as previous Bradford City keeper William Foulke – could make a living at a goalkeeping stall in Blackpool showing off his shot stopping but he needs to get better at playing the game of football if he is going to make a living in the game.

A poor loan spell at City did not do Boaz Myhill – the Hull City ball-picker-out-of-netter – played twice for City letting in five to Sheffield United one afternoon but after joining the Tigers in the bottom division he has played for them all the way into the top flight and has played over 240 games for them. One assumes that after running under a ball when the Blades bore down on goal Myhill took stock and learnt – certainly his cameo’s on Match of the Day are not litters of errors which suggests he is a better keeper than he was – and so in that way his time at the Bantams was a massive success. At least is was for Boaz Myhill.

Myhill’s Hull team mate Nathan Doyle’s loan time at the Bantams seemed to be great success for City – he was player of the season despite only being at the club until Dean Windass sprung him after Christmas – but for Doyle it seemed to secure him nothing more than a move from one team’s reserves to another from which he is loaned out, in Yorkshire.

Two years on and Doyle seems to be pretty much where he was when he left the Bantams – although perhaps he is on more money than he was at his first club – but perhaps that is a slight return and not really what we should be looking for when we ask what is a good loan deal if only because even with his contribution the Bantams still were relegated.

Other players like Andy Taylor – the Middlesbrough left back who impressed many during his four months with the Bantams – and last season’s midfield pair of Dean Furman and Nicky Law are perhaps a better example for a typical loan deal. These players come to the Bantams as rough young players who can kick a ball well and after a few months or a season of regular play establish themselves as footballers who understand the rigours of the first team game.

The Bantams got something from the players but as with Doyle it is rarely enough to create anything like a promotion campaign from and the work of Michael Flynn, James Hanson and Gareth Evans show the debilitating way that the loan player – with his route out of the club – effect the level of effort put in. The aim for Furman and Law was – perhaps understandably – contracts for next season not promotion this and while there was a convenient eclipse of these aims when backs were to the wall they were not the men to be counted on.

(This is a standing debate between City fans – the end of season collapse and the abilities/attitude of Dean Furman and Nicky Law – and one I suspect will not be resolved here. Suffice to say it while cannot be true that the team lacked drive to maintain a promotion push but the heart of the team excelled there were many causal events in place.)

Should Oldham or Rotherham be faced with similar problems would this be the case? The Myhill scenario suggestions not. Last season’s players were added to with a good half dozen other players of a transient nature which caused its own problems. Taylor’s loan at City saw him put in displays which got him recognised and awarded a first team place at a (relegated) Boro but his level of effort was similarly capped as one might say Furman and Lee’s were.

These were good deals for the players and for the Bantams individually although collectively represented something of a weakness. The players were markedly better when they left the club than they were on arrival – more confident, more drilled into a playing style – and moved onto higher divisions or more money and so perhaps they can be good loan deals.

There remains though the quantity of loans and the effect on the team’s morale – not repeated in Stuart’s battlers of this season – which perhaps offers us the answer that a good loan deal is a scarce one in which the player – especially a young player – is allowed to grow as a team footballer without being relied on.

Eastwood though the exception to that rule – goalkeepers being different and all – because while he is alone in being on loan he is relied on as the keeper to settle the defence – something he has failed to do so far.

So City are stuck in the invidious position of waiting for Eastwood to start to show signs of the progress which all young players make while out on loan while understanding that that lack of progress is costing goals. In ten years time Eastwood might look back on the last few months as the making of his career where he learnt the hard way the way to be a professional footballer – certainly he has the raw ability of a quality goalkeeper – but the longer City wait for the lessons to sink in the longer we will go on conceding unnecessary goals.

McLaren departs Valley Parade leaving Stuart with a familiar problem

Paul McLaren has today had his contract cancelled and departed Valley Parade, leaving manager Stuart McCall yet again facing that strawberry blonde-coloured hole to fill.

McLaren is the fourth different player to wear the number four shirt vacated by Stuart when he was released in 2002, but despite appearing the best prospect yet to take on the challenge of mastering the midfield dominator role City have struggled to replace, he will join Tom Kearney and Paul Evans in the nearly men section of the club’s history. Only Nathan Doyle has enjoyed success while wearing number four, but he was a right back.

Stuart has two central midfielders on trial ahead of the commencement of pre-season friendlies from Saturday in Grant Smith and Jordan Hadfield. Neither has been shy in expressing their disgust at previous managers overlooking their ability, both are hoping Stuart will be able to recognise it over the next couple of weeks.

Holes can be picked at their arguments for irregular football with their clubs last season – is Greg Abbott of all people a bad judge of a tiggerish central midfielder like Smith? Even allowing for some less than sophisticated tactics by manager Keith Alexander that make central midfield unnecessary, at the end of the day Hadfield couldn’t get in the Macclesfield Town team. Both have a lot to prove to give Stuart confidence they can succeed where others have failed in replacing Stuart the player.

As for McLaren, he started his City career looking like he was in second gear and rarely managed to climb any higher. He had moments where he looked to good for the division, but rarely battled hard enough to be able to show it.

The real disappointment of McLaren hanging up City’s number four shirt is that last season’s number 23 isn’t going to be taking it up.

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.

The report on Furman gives him reason to give his all

Dean Furman’s arrival at Bradford City fills in the final piece of Stuart McCall’s promotion jigsaw with the former Rangers midfielder going back to his old club for a man in his position. As far as loan signings go it is one of the safest the Bantams could have made.

I’m no fan of loan players believing that for every decent recruit like Nathan Doyle you can recall a half dozen poor players like Harpel Singh, Paul Tierney or, shudder, Darren Morgan.

Even those viewed as roaring successes never show the same gusto as a contract player. Andrew Taylor was skillful for sure but used that skill to make sure he was never the man to lose the ball pinging impossible passes to marked men in preference to being caught in possession.

Stephen Warnock’s brother mailed BfB during his time at Valley Parade to defend the loan player’s right to be less interested in the team paying a part and not all of his wages. Nicky Law was not even playing Stephen in the correct position, we were told, so how could we expect him to put in the effort shown for Liverpool?

He made a fair point and our ire of that day, and our caution of this, is not to do with players who should put in more but rather clubs that come to expect it.

Teams full of loan players are bad teams. They lack the ability to get off the canvas with the part time players looking for the exit rather than rolling up sleeves all too often. Give me players who will give all for the club. Give me Stuart McCall’s.

All of which brings us to Furman who is City’s sole loanee and one seemingly picked by McCall not to make up the numbers but with an understanding of the role he plays.

Where he fits into the Bantam’s side is not know but the legs of Paul MaLaren and Lee Bullock have faded in games and while he may have recovered from his dead leg this week the City 4 is a marked man and the roughness will bring about a need for a replacement.

Furman stands in Luke Sharry’s way but Sharry is young and still not ripe, at least in McCall’s opinion, so stays in the reserves.

The success of Furman remains to be seen but the stir created when City signed MaLaren was noticeable. Should the Rangers man go back to Ibrox having been the spare playmaker that helped who games despite injury then he will do so with endorsements ringing in his ears.

Which perhaps is where confidence in this signing is justified. An endorsement from McCall on a midfielder will have weight with Walter Smith that near assures City of a player who will give something like his all.

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