When pre-season is not pre-season

If you missed Bradford City’s 4-0 win over Stambridge United last night then you are not alone. BfB did little to cover it and a straw poll of City fans responding to news of the opening goals on Facebook seemed to show that they knew that some games in Essex were coming, but they did not know when.

City won the game with goals from Leon Osborne, Scott Neilson, Omar Daley and James O’Brien – a second four goal win in as many days following the 5-1 victory over North Ferriby United – and word came from the South that City had been given a good game by the part-timers from Essex although many would debate how much of a game non-league footballers at the level of the club’s City gave played so far can give professionals.

Indeed there is a charge at Peter Taylor’s door that his pre-season preparations are weak and that is is no benefit to the players to have easy victories over poor opposition. Certainly Taylor’s aim is not to create an interesting and exciting set of games but is he creating a useful set?

Sadly – or perhaps not so sadly – no answer can be reached for some time. Since the days of Chris Kamara – if not before – every City manager has looked at pre-season as if it were non-competitive league matches to be treated as significantly as Johnstone’s Paint early rounds or end of season dead rubbers (which is to say as lightly as a professional club every takes a game, but still as if it were a “proper” match) but Taylor seems to take a new approach.

Taylor is doing everything he can to ensure that pre-season matches – at this stage – are not taken seriously by his players and that the games are re-contextualised as a part of training. A means to an end and not an end in itself.

Which is not to say that there is not a seriousness to the training that Taylor, Junior Lewis and Wayne Jacobs put the players through – quiet the opposite – but that Taylor is keen to ensure that his players know the difference between training time and the business time of the season.

Matches kick off at three in the afternoon, seven forty-five in the evening in proper games but Taylor breaks this association moving the kick off around an hour here, two there and ensures that games are presented to players and to fans in a different situation.

Eccleshill United aside the games – up to the race trim of the final week – are all far flung keeping the Bantams away from City fans who season on season extrapolate the entire league’s nine months or play on the basis of the first game they see in July. Rightly or wrongly players are judged in their rawest form. I never – and still don’t – think much of Michael Symes based on watching his first performance for City at Farsley Celtic. The likes of Stambridge might get a few extra people to have a look at the Bantams but in all likelihood two men and a dog will be watching City rather than the backing of an active travelling City support.

These things break the link between what happened at Stambridge and what will happen at Shrewsbury on the first day of the season. Breaking that link says to the players that they are in build up now suggesting that they are preparing for something in August not playing for the tiny glory of winning in a pre-season game.

Not that winning is in question. The teams are a distance below City’s standard but win, lose or draw one doubts Taylor would care any more than he would care if the Red Bibs beat the Yellow Bibs at Apperley Bridge. The aim is not to show how good – or poor – City are by winning games over the best opposition available it is to prepare the players.

Taylor believes this is best done by taking the pressure away from these games, making them more like a practice match than what we now know a pre-season games. It is building relationships between players, patterns of play on the field, understandings and partnerships. In a way Stambridge United, North Ferriby United and Eccleshill United are doing the job of human traffic cones to be trained against but not designed to challenge the City players in any way other than not allowing them to fail.

I mean that with no disrespect. Taylor approach presents City’s players with the opportunity to play against an opposition which as long as they approach the game in the correct way they will benefit from it. City played Didi Harmann and Joey Barton in a Manchester City midfield five years ago in pre-season and Steven Schmacher and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson spent the afternoon having passes picked off which – while purposeful practice – was unrewarding and represents a slight return. If Lee Bullock and James O’Brien play as they can then they spend games in possession, using the ball, building confidence.

The merits of Taylor’s approach will be evidenced in the season itself but – rarely in modern football – City have a manager who wants to approach pre-season as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

When pre-season became interesting

At some point after the middle of the 1990s pre-season became a thing of interest.

Perhaps it is the rise of Sky Sports and the need for constant football, perhaps it is the public’s thirst for the close season to end as quickly as possible, perhaps it is clubs trying to spin out two or three extra big money games in a season but whatever has caused it pre-season in modern football has become much more of a big deal.

Looking at the likes of Guiseley who had Bradford City on the pre-season fixture list until recently the games against league opposition offer a chance of a pay day in excess of most league matches. Kendal Town play Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic and walking around the Westmoorland town one would struggle to miss this fact – that and the fact that Chas Hodges is playing in town soon – which is a marked contrast to the games within the regular season which pass without note in that part of the Lake District.

Certainly City’s return to action against Eccleshill United was eagerly anticipated with a good number of Bantams fans looking at pre-season as a welcome return to normality.

Turn on the ubiquitous Sky Sports News today and you will see highlights from pre-season matches up and down the land. Last year when Newcastle United lost 6-1 in pre-season to Leyton Orient then Sky’s talking heads damned the Magpies to a season of struggle in The Championship. They won it.

So in tone and in the minds of supporters and on the balance sheet pre-season seems to be interesting in a way which it was not previously. Pre-season matches happened for sure and occasionally they would be seen in the newspaper (as is my recollection) and talked about in vague terms by very few who seemed to have a mystic view of the new players on the first day of the season.

Steve Gardner turned up as an unknown on the opening day of one year with the words “He looked good in pre-season” offered by a City sage who had seen such things. The sage was considered rare and some what obsessive – like people who go to more than one date on a band’s tour – while extrapolations about Gardner, as with Newcastle, turned out to inaccurate.

At City the change over from a pre-season which was the preserve of the dedicated and the players probably occurred around the time that Chris Kamara was manager and City played Newcastle United in which Peter Beardsley and Tino Asprilla weaved majestically and a high quality Middlesbrough side in a two day period and then went on (again, if I recall) to play Santos of Brazil in a game which saw the only – to date – overhead back heel volley goal.

Compared to that the reality of the season seemed something of a let down. The circus had come to town and then left us with some reality where Norwich and Swindon – not Newcastle and Santos – were the opposition.

Peter Taylor managed Southend at the start of that period and Gillingham around the middle but perhaps it is his experience a England u21 manager which shapes his thoughts on how preparation games should be treated. He talks about how the Bantams could have played some big teams at Valley Parade – Premier League Burnley played at VP last season – but for the newly laid pitch but it is clear that Taylor sees these matches as build up to Shrewsbury Town on the first day, no more or less significant than any other training session and certainly not wasting the fresh grass on for a few extra quid.

So City have no big name on the fixture list – Rochdale are the highest placed side we face – and a swathe of games against low opposition including North Ferriby United who City play at one on Saturday afternoon. Taylor talks about the games in terms of being build up, fitness getters, and while supporters can watch the manager does not see them as being spectacles. His threat to take his team home at half time at Eccleshill says all you need to know about how Taylor prioritises.

Not for him an evening watching Beardsley and Asprilla run rings around his players. Not for him bowing the knee to boys from Brazil.

So a City squad of around twenty-two will be split into two teams of eleven with the aim of fitness not performance. City are without Michael Flynn (Groin), Tommy Doherty (Calf), Luke Dean (Broken leg) and Jake Speight (Broken promises) but Tom Adeyemi will make his debut following his arrival on loan from Norwich City and have Matthew Tipton and Lee Morris looking to earn contracts.

The game kicks off early for those who fancy a trip to Grange Road but one doubts that anyone will be encouraged to slam in an overhead backheel.

The thirst for real football

Last Saturday, myself and a friend who are both regular watchers of all things claret and amber found ourselves on the A63 heading towards North Ferriby, and then on to Church Road – the home of North Ferriby United.

As you may know a certain player by the name of Dean Windass once played for North Ferriby United before going on to grace grounds including Boothferry Park (former home of Hull City) and Valley Parade.

With the time approaching 2.40pm we were able to park within a few minutes walk from the ground and then upon entering the ground (cost of £8 plus £2 for a programme) we were greeted by some friendly officials. We then headed to the clubhouse where many of North Ferriby’s loyal supporters were to be found enjoying a pre-match pint. We decided that we had enough time for a swift pint prior to the match starting and so we enjoyed a pint of Boddingtons costing only £2.20.

Indeed, myself and my friend spotted the last available seats in the clubhouse but just to be sure I asked an elderly looking gentleman if the seats where available to which he responded with a polite “yes”.

The game had not yet started but already we had experienced things that you would not get at a Premiership game or indeed a game in the second, third or fourth tier of English football; free parking within walking distance from the ground, friendly officials greeting you upon your arrival to the ground, a non-inflated price for a pint of beer and a friendly welcome from the home supporters.

I must stress at this point that it goes to show what a superb deal Julian Rhodes has offered us, the Bradford City supporter, with the season ticket prices for the current season and last season; still cheaper per game than a Unibond Premier league game. The only other disappointment was the programme which we felt didn’t offer value for money as a large proportion was devoted to adverts.

However, with the time fast approaching 3pm, we walked outside and found a standing spot just to the side of the goal that North Ferriby United were attacking. To the delight of the dozen or so faithful supporters who had made the long journey from Kendal, their team were 2-0 up after about half an hour. Then a dubious decision was made by the referee right in front of us. The Kendal Town goalkeeper clearly handed the ball outside of his area but to the frustration of both the North Ferriby United supporters and players, the goalkeeper was only shown a yellow card.

A couple of North Ferriby United players made their feelings known to the referee but it was nothing like the overstated reactions that you see from Premiership players week in week out when they believe that the referee has made a wrong decision.

A trip to the tea bar during the first half provided more friendly service, this time from the catering staff. And the prices were cheaper than those experienced at league grounds. Half time approached and North Ferriby United pulled a goal back from the penalty spot. A short walk to the clubhouse at half time to find out that City are one up at Port Vale through Lee Bullock.

The second half progressed with myself and my friend stood at the opposite end of the ground, urging ex-City striker, and substitute today, Stephen Torpey to score an equaliser for North Ferriby United. I must confess that I wasn’t the biggest Torpey fan whilst he wore the famous claret and amber.

The goal that North Ferriby United deserved didn’t arrive, partly thanks to two smart saves by the Kendal Town goalkeeper. In the final minutes, one of the Kendal Town substitutes was sent off for what was perceived as a reckless tackle much to the disgust of the former Preston North End player, Lee Ashcroft, who is now the player/manager at Kendal Town.

An enjoyable afternoon had been spent at Church Road and as we walked towards the exit of the ground, it was good to see that the teenagers present inside the ground and wearing Hull City replica shirts easily out-numbered the single teenager who was wearing a Chelsea replica strip. In the week that we had heard how Manchester City were going to win every trophy in the next ten years following the takeover at Eastlands, I couldn’t help but think to myself that real football is now only to be witnessed in the lower leagues.

Inking In

Farsley Celtic are the success story of West Yorkshire football. Standing in their cobbled together ground seeing a club punching over its weight going for it against a twenty-two man Bradford City team one cannot helped but be impressed with what is going on at City’s new nearest neighbour. If Bradford City or Leeds United punched this high then Championships would be won.

Farsley mean business and were in race trim. Gareth Grant had something to prove against City and roasted Luke O’Brien at left back and City’s first half middle which included Everton trialist Scott Phelan whent from control of the game to a worrying back foot. Simon Johnson up front was fed by Joe Colbeck and slid over a ball for Peter Thorne to get a debut equaliser but Damien Dunne gave the home side a decisive lead.

Four days later and Colbeck – persistant target of both critisism and plaudit even amoust the thousand who travel to pre-season – impressed in a 2-0 win over North Ferriby United ripping into the home side’s full back and firing over a string of excellent crosses. Joe Colbeck with end product is almost everything. The rest comes from Peter Thorne and Barry Conlon who both look like the burley sort of striker that City will need in League Two. Thorne got his second – adding to an opener by Omar Daley – and City had both good win and good workout.

Wins and workouts aside the modern friendly is about squad shaping. Conlon and Thorne are Bantams and they will surely be joined soon by a return of Paul Evans who slotted back into Bradford City colours aptly. Evans taking a free kick blasted at goal is a sight one thought one would never see again and one is so glad that the midfield engine seems set to return.

Joining City seem to be Nathan Joynes and Thomas Harban on long-term loans from Barnsley. Harban looks an interesting player with decent ball skills. Joynes – a forward – is superb until the finish which “lacks polish” to say the least. Simon Johnson moves on to Hereford having not impressed McCall. Joynes seems to offer the same. One wonders if the fear of a two year contract should City win promotion is behind that one.

Former Hartlepool United and Sunderland right back Darren Williams has been offered a contract. He is not Darren Holloway. Repeat it softly to yourself before you go to sleep dear reader.

Kyle Nix is to be told on Monday what his future is. It is six to half a dozen if he will stay. McCall seems to want Scott Phelan and Phelan – a full back at Goodison moving into midfield – looks worth a punt. As with Nix he finds out today as McCall – two wins and a defeat into his City career – inks in names to his team sheet.

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