Taking the next steps

As Peter Taylor substituted Louis Moult to widespread boos and groans two-thirds of the way into Bradford City’s eventual win over Gillingham last week, it was tempting to ponder just how long the City manager will be around to make such unpopular decisions.

This was the second home game in a row a substitution by Taylor was booed by some fans; and in the other two league home games there was the half time chant directed at him to “sort it out” against Southend, and booing the team off in victory against Stevenage.

Unlike his predecessor, Stuart McCall, Taylor is clearly not someone readily prepared to blame himself and believe those questioning him are right to do so, and one can speculate whether the reason his assistant Wayne Jacobs was sent out to face the media after the game was due to anger at having his decisions questioned once more.

A frosty relationship between manager and many supporters is beginning to develop.

The frustration last Saturday stemmed from the fact it was Moult rather than Luke Oliver taken off by Taylor. After a fairly anonymous start to his six-month loan stint at Valley Parade, the Stoke striker was finally beginning to show glimpses of his potential and was one of a handful of influential players helping City to get on top in the second half. Oliver meanwhile looked clumsy and awkward, the wrong man in the right place of City’s increasingly-frequent attacks. The sight of Gareth Evans ready to come on told us the hook was coming, but in many fans eyes Taylor was taking off the wrong man.

Football coaches often talk about the importance of going back-to-basics when things go wrong. If, for example, a midfielder produces a poor pass, he is encouraged to make sure he tries something much simpler the next time he receives possession, so he can quickly build up confidence again. When a team is on a run like City have been, it’s understandable Taylor would want to take a back-to-basics approach to selection and tactics. Start getting points on the board, then build up again from there.

Taylor’s approach against Gillingham strongly suggested going back-to-basics. Without James Hanson and after a loan striker turned down a move, the deployment of Oliver up front was all about better-retaining possession in the final third so the team as a whole could gain greater territorial advantage. Oliver was instructed to win and hold up the ball, thus bringing others into the game. Not fantastic to watch maybe, but effective. Basic you might say.

I personally believe Taylor got a better performance from his players than he’d dared hoped, particularly in the second half when Lee Hendrie’s introduction sparked more attacking impetuous and saw City gain a lot more joy from passing it through – rather than over – the visitors.

But this improvement suddenly made the tactic of Oliver up front far less effective, and what City really needed was a forward more comfortable in possession and who could make intelligent runs. The moment where Hendrie dribbled past a couple of players and produced a perfectly weighted through ball for Oliver, only for the tall defender to fail to control it with just the keeper to beat, summed up the sudden problem.

So like others I was willing Taylor to take off Oliver. And although I did not boo, I did groan and feel deflated when Moult was hauled off instead. This was surely a moment where Taylor could have been braver, shown more belief in the way his team was playing. But in the back of his mind perhaps was the risk of Gillingham scoring and City needed to go long ball in the final 10 minutes, where Oliver would have been needed.

But after so many times a City manager has been unjustly slated for his tactics when City have lost a game, Taylor ultimately deserves a lot of credit for the fact his tactics and substitutions ultimately delivered three valuable points.

As City head to Northampton this weekend, it will be interesting to see how much Taylor changes things around to build on the basics which have slowly started to come together since the season’s low point of the 2-0 loss to Southend. Both Hanson and Michael Flynn – another target man option – are not expected to be fit in time, so the chances of Oliver continuing up front would appear high.

But it should be recalled that arguably the best football City have played under Taylor so far, the final five games of last season, saw a 4-3-3 formation employed without a target man. This worked well because of the running and link up of Leon Osborne, Gareth Evans and Gavin Grant. It is that level of football City now aspire to reach again, and to which Taylor could consider evolving the back-to-basics approach from and look to employ at Sixfields.

Oliver’s move up the pitch enabled Steve Williams to return to the central defence against Gillingham, and the impressive display he and the fast-improving Shane Duff produced would suggest Oliver may have to join Zesh Rehman on the bench at some point in the near future. With Jon McLaughlin also looking more composed during the last two games, Taylor is moving closer towards a solid defence which has acted as the bedrock of his previous promotion-winning teams

At full backs, however, there are plenty of unresolved issues. Lewis Hunt and Robbie Threlfall have both attracted a lot of criticism for their efforts this season, but in many ways they are in excellent company as I struggle to recall many City full backs over the years who were not slated at some point.

In terms of Hunt, the criticism he’s receiving has to be balanced by the fact he is a second choice right back at a fourth division club. The wage allocated for this role isn’t going to be high, and so Taylor is limited in the options and ability he could bring in. Meanwhile Threlfall had a shocker at Shrewsbury on the opening day, and hasn’t recovered.

Luke O’Brien, who’s had his own dips of form, is arguably playing his best football of his career so far. The Gillingham half time switch around that saw Threlfall replaced and O’Brien moved to left back is surely likely to be continued while Threlfall rebuilds his confidence. But let’s not forget it is his form, rather than ability, which is the problem.

In midfield there are suddenly stronger options when a fortnight ago it looked a major problem area. Lee Bullock picked up the sponsors man of the match last week and his return to form benefited Tommy Doherty; while the arrival of Hendrie further brought the best out of both. For now Hendrie will probably remain on the bench, or start the game and be taken off, as he builds fitness. David Syers is beginning to look the part and should be fit to start; Omar Daley has been an unused sub for the last two games, and the Jamaican’s future is beginning to look bleak.

Up front there remains a troubling lack of goals, and the poor form of Evans and tentativeness of Moult leaves Taylor with some difficult decisions. Osborne’s first meaningful appearance of the season last week attracted derision, but his form at the end of last season showed promise and it would be worth getting behind the player – who has emerged through the ranks, remember – rather than writing him off so prematurely. For now at least Oliver classes as a forward option.

Northampton are fresh from incredible cup exploits over Liverpool, but in every other way will hopefully be stale. Taylor had joked about asking Liverpool assistant manager Sammy Lee to make sure the game went to extra time, and the fact Clobbers’ players were on the floor with cramp towards the end of their penalty shoot out win would suggest the Bantams will carry a fitness advantage from no midweek action.

City have so far lost two and drawn one on their travels, and though it is still early days the points return from the trips to Northampton on Saturday and Rotherham on Tuesday will say a lot about the team prospects for the rest of the season. A four-point haul would set City up nicely for upcoming easier-looking games and a climb up the table during autumn.

Achieve that and, come winter, it’s hoped the only frost we’ll be talking about is the stuff which forms on the ground, rather than the nature of the feelings heading towards and from the Valley Parade dugout.

Stalling

At 2-0 ahead and with only 15 minutes to see out, Bradford City’s players might have been forgiven for considering the hard work to be complete and that their smooth climbing up of the gears to control the game boded well for the season’s journey ahead. But if the cruise control option was slipped into, a late Northampton bump punctured any daydreaming and saw three points demoted to one.

A point which at least stretches City’s unbeaten run to nine – the last time such a feat was achieved came when Lee Mills and Robbie Blake shared 15 goals during the December and January spell of 1998/99 promotion season – but the missed opportunity leaves an increasingly-meaningful early season League Table still displaying City behind the early-season pace setters. Those nine games now include four draws – three of which saw City advantages succumbed after the clock passed the 70-minute mark. But for dropping those six points, the Bantams would be sitting joint second. The conundrum of having enough in the tank to last the distance during matches needs solving, so early season form can advance into promotion-challenging.

It should have been a heartening afternoon’s work for City. Robbed of the services of Gareth Evans, James Hanson and Peter Thorne, manager Stuart McCall was left pushing square pegs into round holes in order to keep faith with the 4-3-3/4-5-1 system which is serving his side well on its travels.  Lee Bullock was moved into the unfamiliar role of target man, with right back Simon Ramsden taking his holding midfield slot.  The opening 15 minutes offered largely negative indications to the yet unanswered question over the squad’s strength in depth, with Northampton forcing pressure and only failing to open the scoring due to lack of composure. But gradually City’s players found their feet and took more of a command as a dull first half came to its conclusion.

Bullock in particular came out with plenty of credit for the level of competence he displayed in holding up the ball and winning knock downs. Of course it wasn’t the same as having Hanson’s extra running all over the final third and greater willingness to track back, but the discipline of holding position in a crucial area, which Bullock does so well in maintaining when undertaking his regular deep midfield role, was something other players could utilise, firing balls towards the part of the pitch they had confidence he would be in. Either side of him were Michael Boulding and Scott Neilsen who both worked hard tracking back and making darting runs down the  flanks. Boulding has arguably not contributed such a level of effort for the team during his previous 40 Bantams career starts.

Ramsden too looked solid protecting the back four and marked his return from injury by opening the scoring five minutes after the interval when his shot from the edge of the area was deflected over Cobbler’s keeper Chris Dunn’s outstretched hand.  The goal was part of a more purposeful start to the half by the visitors, which continued four minutes later after a free kick was aimed at Bullock to knock down into the path of Boulding, who brilliantly volleyed home. The subsequent celebrations seemed to involve every outfield City player and the obvious happiness they possessed towards Boulding for netting his first goal of the season suggests the strong team spirit on evidence in recent weeks stretches beyond the regular starting eleven. Boulding continued to play in a manner which makes it impossible for Stuart to drop him when others return – now he needs to maintain it.

Further goals might have followed for City, most notably when Boulding was denied a second by a superb low save from Dunn, after his view of the shot from a fair distance had been obscured until the last second. Northampton continued to show spirit, almost getting a goal back after the referee David Phillips bizarrely ruled a sliced clearance by Jonathan Bateson caught by Simon Eastwood was a handled backpass. Awarding Northampton an indirect on the six-yard box line, the 11-man City wall was able to scramble it away. Eastwood also made two brilliant saves to add to his growing collection of notable stops, but continues to look weak when dealing with crosses. Despite some questionable decisions by Phillips, the game was petering out.

Which is when cruise control may have been adopted and when Northampton unexpectedly came back, netting first through substitute Alex Dyer when his effort from the edge of the area flew past Eastwood; then equalising with a minute to play after a hotly disputed free kick was crossed into the box for the oddly-named John Johnson to fire home. As City’s players came over to applaud supporters at the final whistle, the looks of dejection were clear.

A lesson of sorts had been issued to the players. The incredible level of hard work and dedication they exhibit is something which must be maintained throughout because, as Northampton proved, there are other teams who can muster similar levels of determination to challenge them back. And though Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams, Luke O’Brien and Bateson all enjoyed outstanding games at the back and Michael Flynn was as inspirational as ever, the spine of City’s team still needs to get stronger in order for these nine unbeaten games to prove the start, rather than the peak, of something.

Achieve that and City really can put the foot down and accelerate into the distance.

Weekend preview part one – Team Bradford

Compare the mood prior to Saturday’s trip to Northampton with that ahead of the visit to nearby Gloucestershire, seven short weeks ago.

Bradford City headed to Cheltenham Town with a record of three defeats, one draw and zero goals scored. Numerous rumours were flying around that a defeat would see manager Stuart McCall dismissed, with the feeling the squad he had assembled was wholly inadequate to meet the season’s expectations. One 5-4 victory and a subsequent seven further unbeaten games later, the contrast could not be greater.

As distant as it now feels, it’s worth reflecting back on the atmosphere during those opening three weeks of the season. Stuart was on the receiving end of bucket loads of criticism from supporters, not helped by the unhealed scars from the previous campaign’s late collapse. Yet despite admitting the pressure was on, Stuart kept a clear head and a stronger sense of perspective compared to how he’d often reacted to set backs during his first two years in charge.

After the opening day hiding at Notts County, Stuart spoke as a manager who was in it with his team, holding back from slamming the players whose confidence he now had to repair. “It’s how we react in the short term to this defeat. Individually and collectively we’ve got to show some courage and determination to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” he stated. The use of the word “we” may seem minor, but is significant.

For Stuart and Wayne Jacobs kept faith in their players and began to slowly rebuild shattered confidence. Whatever was said in the dressing room and on the training pitch remained private. Matt Clarke had been hauled off on the hour mark and has yet to play again this season, but Stuart has deliberately held back from publicly slating the centre back.

A couple of weeks later Lincoln were enjoying a fortuitous win at Valley Parade and the criticisms from fans turned to the fact Stuart was apparently too close to his players, too desperate to remain one of the lads. The Official Message Board ran a poll questioning whether he should stop wearing his regular tracksuit top and shorts in the dugout, and turn out in a suit. But as the players struggled to overturn Lincoln’s lead and the abuse reigned down on them, Stuart’s bare legs could be symbolically viewed as him showing his team that he was with them, one team, Team Bradford.

And the eventual rewards is a strong team spirit and astonishing level of work rate which puts numerous recent City players – many with unquestioned higher ability – to shame. After the draw with Morecambe Stuart spoke of the joy he felt watching his team play the football they do – and he was speaking for us supporters too. That spirit is not something that can be easily manufactured, as we’ve seen in past seasons, but it’s worth wondering how big a factor going through such a difficult start to the season was on how well Team Bradford are now doing.

Compare and contrast with another City, Hull. This time last year, manager Phil Brown was considered the best thing since sliced bread. Hull were beating the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham in their own backyard, taking a place in the top four of the Premier League. Brown was rightly receiving the plaudits, but while most managers would keep their feet on the ground he appeared to let it all go to his head. Article after article praising Hull appeared in the media, almost always including a quote from the Geordie. Going a little too far, he even decided to publicly reveal he had once been turned down for the Bournemouth job. Given the Cherries were, at the time, struggling near the foot of League Two, it seemed unnecessary to kick a club heading down. It also seemed to escape Brown’s attention that Bournemouth’s plight was down to disastrous finances rather than some apparent foolishness in rejecting his application. Brown had done brilliantly to get Hull to the top flight, but he’d had the luxury of sizeable transfer funds along the way, too.

And when things began to go wrong, Brown apparently was more pre-occupied with making sure he passed on the blame than keeping the spirit high amongst his players. The now infamous half time telling off of his players on the Man City pitch was at the time widely viewed as a managerial masterstroke, showing he won’t tolerate the poor standards that had seen the Tigers 4-0 down. Yet at the time it was only their second defeat in seven games, and the public dressing down is now widely looked on as Brown making sure his players copped the blame, removing himself of responsibility to the Hull supporters and watching world.

The poor form got worse and Hull only survived relegation by the default of the season running out just in time, but even then he couldn’t resist stealing the limelight by getting on the KC stadium microphone to serenade the Hull fans. The message was clear, “Look at me, I’m the man who kept us up.”

Hull’s form has continued into this season, but it’s in Brown’s post match comments that suggest he’s only making the damaged team spirit worse among his players. Unlike Stuart in the same situation, it’s not a case of “we defended poorly today”, but “I was disgusted with some of the defending, individually and collectively. For me it was demoralising and I hope it was for the players as well.” Every week he seems to be lambasting his players via the media, and every week they seem to lose.

Which may have nothing to do with Stuart, but does  demonstrate two different styles of management which, for the time being, are delivering different results. City head to Northampton with plenty of confidence and with only one enforced change needed after the encouraging draw at Morecambe. Gareth Evans’ red card has not been appealed – a curious decision from City which it’s strongly hinted is down to the cost of appealing and lack of faith the TV pictures and opposition of an arrogant referee would clear the former Macclesfield striker. An unsuccessful appeal risks an extension to the three-match ban, which suggests the FA’s system is flawed and unfair on lower league clubs who don’t enjoy the benefit of their matches being covered by 50+ TV cameras. If a club appeals a sending off that was clearly a sending off, they deserve to pay the costs and have an extra game ban be slapped on. If it’s more borderline, and at worst City’s appeal would be considered that, there should not be such ramifications.

Evans’ absence affords Michael Boulding three games to stake a regular claim for his place. There remains a nagging doubt City’s squad will not prove sufficiently strong enough for the demands of a full season, but there is currently plenty of quality on the sidelines at the moment. Having taken a pay cut during the summer, Boulding can only be considered as positively contributing to the team spirit, though his work rate will need to increase from some laboured early season outings. His ability is not in doubt, but his desire to match the effort of Evans is. Boulding will only have himself to blame if his spell in the starting eleven is short lived.

James Hanson will take the central striker role next to Boulding with Peter Thorne – back in action for the reserves midweek – likely to take a place on the bench. This time last year Boulding and Thorne had netted 11 goals between them – four fewer than City’s total goals this season – and still have much to offer. Scott Neilsen seems to be getting better each game and will continue in the other wide striker role in Stuart’s 4-3-3 formation of choice.

In midfield, James O’Brien quietly impresses while the influence Michael Flynn is having on performances has not been seen from a City Number 4 since his manager. Lee Bullock plays the holding midfield role with increasing assurance. Simon Ramsden is hoping to be fit enough to take Jonathan Bateson’s slot at right back with Steve Williams, Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien completing the back four in front of Simon Eastwood.

Whether a ninth unbeaten game can be achieved against opposition which has just tasted its first victory in six and have a caretaker manager in Ian Simpson taking his last chance to stake a claim the permanent position remains to be see. Whatever the outcome, the journey back North will be undertaken by the same Team Bradford which set off to Cheltenham winless but still together seven weeks previous.

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