Through the looking glass

Through the looking glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopes and expectations

So here it is, the dreaded promise that pre-season brings and as a result, usually for Bantams anyway, the increased disappointment come May. Already on various message boards, across the web, fans are claiming how promotion is a must this year, as it was last year and what seems like every year since we tasted Premier League football and decided we were a big club.

In fact the last campaign I remember, outside the top flight, where fans weren’t widely expecting a successful season was 11 years ago. That year around this time I was sat in a pub in Wales with my dad and a high profile football magazine had predicted Bradford City would finish 24th out of 24. Being a naive young boy I refused to accept the prediction and the following conversation ensued;

‘They’re wrong dad, I bet you we get promoted’ a bold statement to which my dad replied ‘Unfortunately there’s not a chance’

Ever the optimist I insisted, ‘I bet you we do’.

‘Ok then, if Bradford get promoted this season I will buy us season tickets for the Premier League.’

That season a 3-2 win against Wolves on the final day secured promotion to the Premier League and the most expensive bet of my Dad’s life was lost, but unsurprisingly he didn’t care one bit.

Other than being young and not yet having faced the cruel realities of the footballing world, that year I had no reason to be sure of promotion. What reason have Bradford fans now got to be so sure of promotion this season?

Perhaps it is that the wage budget from a side who failed to win promotion last year has been halved? Or perhaps it is, as I suspect, that Bradford are too ‘big’ for this league. Surely the past few years have taught us, and also our neighbours down the road that this means nothing. I am sure there is very little that the fans can tell us about signings such as the ‘Barber from Bamber Bridge’, Steve Williams, or the possible signing of Guiseley’s James Hanson yet at the same time these two are expected to come from non league football and hit the ground running on the way to promotion to the third tier of English football.

Manager Stuart McCall one of the biggest culprits of this pre-season optimism over the past two years has told the fans to get real. He has told us the funds aren’t there to make dream signings such as Nicky Law, Dean Furman and Lee Hughes, the sort of players that will get you promoted from this division. The sort of players teams such as Notts County and Rotherham have got the funds to secure.

However, on the bright side a word of caution to these clubs and their newly found riches. Money meant nothing to the likes of ourselves and Shrewsbury Town last season as promotion was unable to be secured and little Exeter City – freshly promoted from the non-league – went up in both our places.

This is a reason for the optimistic Bradford fans to keep the faith. It is possible that James Hanson and Steve Williams could prove to be real gems and should we stay clear of injuries to key players such as Peter Thorne and Omar Daley, two of the major reasons for the collapse last year, we should be fighting at the right end of the table once more. Perhaps then come 8th May 2010 we will be sitting pretty in one of the top 7 spots.

I hope that these fans expecting promotion have those hopes fulfilled and like I did 11 years ago and all Bradford fans taste the sweet taste of promotion once more. Hopefully this time, for me, it will be that little bit sweeter because it’s unexpected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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