Outsiders are welcome

“Come and visit Bar 71 lads”, said the Swindon Town steward who had appeared from nowhere after we had queued up at the County Ground away ticket office for tickets to Saturday’s game. “It’s for away supporters only, and we’ve put Bradford City photos up to make you feel at home. There’s even one charting how far you’ve travelled today, which I researched myself.”

So we did visit Bar 71, located directly underneath the away section of the County Ground. And though the posters looked a bit naff (see photo below) and the beer hardly cheap, it was nevertheless a pleasant experience with plenty of room and big screen coverage of the Chelsea v Arsenal game. And though we were the only people there for half an hour, by the time Robin van Persie was completing his hat trick, Bar 71 was packed out with City fans. And suddenly in from the pitch outside burst a jokingly annoyed Lennie the City Gent, wondering why no one was sat in the stand watching his routines. “Never mind the beer,” he ordered “get out there.”

"Welcome to Swindon, here's a picture of Craig Fagan to make you feel at home."

"Welcome to Swindon, here's a picture of Craig Fagan to make you feel at home."

There has been much comment made of Swindon’s decision to charge us £25 to watch a League Two match and rightly so. Times are tough and all that – football, at this level especially, should be an affordable activity not a luxury expense. A week earlier I’d attended the Blackburn Rovers v Tottenham Premier League fixture and paid just £17 for the privilege. When you consider the petrol expense of travelling 200+ miles to Wiltshire, Saturday was a costly day out.

Yet after getting past the monetary concerns, it was also a hugely enjoyable experience. Bar 71 might be little more than a glorified Working Mens Club, but it was a nice touch by Swindon to lay on facilities for away supporters. Financially profitable for them, of course; somewhere nearby, there will have been a local pub or two missing out on revenue we would have otherwise provided them. But the Robins were also making an effort to ensure our matchday experience was a good one, rather than rely on others to do so.

It may have cost £25 a ticket, but if we’re in the same division next season I personally will favour a trip to the County Ground over some League Two away games (like, for example, Port Vale – £20.50 ticket, not allowed in their supporters bar).

And that’s a point that few football clubs – Bradford City included – appear to be aware of. Away support is an important financial consideration, and there is much they can do to make sure a visit to your stadium is an attractive proposition beyond providing away fans with a decent view of the match.

Perhaps Brighton deserve the status of pioneers in this respect. As part of the development of their brand new Amex Stadium, they built an away stand where they can make bespoke changes to the facilities. Visiting supporters to Brighton this season have arrived into an away concourse in the colours of their team, with posters of their present and past heroes on the wall. Inside the ground, the away seats are cushioned. Martin Perry, Brighton Chief Executive, explained the reasoning to the BBC during the summer: “Why not be welcoming to your visiting club? Why not make it a fantastic experience for them? Because actually what happens is, they look for the Brighton fixture and they say “I’m going to that one” and we get a full house.”

Swindon’s Bar 71 was a low rent equivalent. Bespoke posters on the wall, a chance to socialise before the match and then a 5-second walk to the away turnstiles once everyone in your group had supped up. Certainly profitable for Swindon in terms of the bar and food takings; but potentially even more rewarding for the club when it comes to the number of fans who attend their club’s fixture at the County Ground the following season.

Not that it’s solely a football club’s responsibility to ensure away fans have an enjoyable experience. My favourite away trip of the season so far was Oxford in August. A few hundred yards from the stadium was a pub which put on outdoor seating, a special beer tent and a DJ playing indie classics. We were warmly welcomed to join the large group of home supporters, and we spent a good hour chatting to a number of friendly Oxford fans. A great experience which they do for every game, apparently; and because of it we’ll be travelling to Oxford the next time that City play them.

At Morecambe, Bradford City supporter Dan Thornton – who’s caravan park is based opposite the Globe Arena – has for the last two seasons put on special events before Morecambe-Bradford matches for City fans only. Although the racist stand up comedian was not to my taste and so I won’t be going again, other City fans were not bothered by it and will go in the same high numbers next time.

Whoever instigates them, the efforts of Brighton, Swindon, Oxford and Dan add something extra to the day which makes them more rewarding. When the most important factor – the match itself – is beyond our control and more often than not disappointing, it’s nice to return home from a day out with something positive to look back on from it.

Which brings us to the obvious question of what – if anything – Bradford City and us supporters are doing for visitors to our own city? As much as we can complain about Swindon’s £25 entry, the fact we charge away fans £20 to see their team at Valley Parade makes our moral high ground position rather dubious. The facilities in the Midland Road stand are okay but nothing special, while there is no Bar 71 equivalent (or a realistic location to open one) to offer visitors.

Sadly, there are no decent pubs in the immediate vicinity of Valley Parade and – without doing some research first – few away fans would have a clue where to find one. The excellent Haigy’s is hidden away, and the City Centre pubs aren’t especially football-focused. The Sparrow Cafe on North Parade, for the moment, remains a hidden gem that only a handful of City fans are aware of (well worth seeking out if you’ve not been, mine’s a pint of Bernard Unfiltered if you’re buying). That and a good curry after the match aside, it’s hard to know what would make a trip to Bradford especially more attractive for an opposition supporter.

Does it matter? When opposition away followings at Valley Parade are sometimes dipping below 100 and rarely top 500 I think it does. Consider that – to a Southern-based opposition fan – a trip to Bradford is similar in distance and effort to Accrington, Morecambe and Rotherham, which would you favour if money and a social life meant you had to pick and choose?

In early 2012 City will face away trips to London borough clubs Barnet, Wimbledon and Dagenham – a fair equivalent to the above for us. Some fans will go to all three of these; me I will probably go to two of them. Wimbledon I’ve not been too before so that will be included, and my other choice would probably be Barnet on the basis I had much more fun travelling down to North London last season compared to going to Dagenham the year before.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps we shouldn’t give a toss what away fans think of Bradford and the fact they will rock up on Manningham Lane at 1pm looking for a pint and can find only sex shops. But when experiencing the difference in visiting a club who were genuinely welcoming to me and who had clearly made an effort to ensure I enjoyed my time, I feel sad and wonder if we lose out financially from the fact ‘Bradford City away’ is unlikely to be any opposition fans’ highlight of the season.

The speed of progress as City continue to stutter

The Team

Martin Hansen | Liam Moore, Luke Oliver. Guy Branston, Robbie Threlfall | Mark Stewart, Ritchie Jones, Chris Mitchell, Michael Flynn, Jack Compton | James Hanson | Michael Bryan, Nialle Rodney, Ross Hannah

It’s already clear that patience is going to be a key requirement for this longer-term thinking to prove successful. Yet as Bradford City trailed Oxford going into the closing stages this afternoon – thus facing a third defeat in three – it felt as though a tangible positive was quickly needed in order to defer those nagging fears that the club might still be moving backwards.

So when substitute Ross Hannah latched onto Luke Oliver’s flick on to fire home an equaliser that was dubious in both it’s validity and in how deserved it was on the balance of play, joy was supplemented with relief that the season is finally up and running. Hannah is probably the poster boy of City’s revised player recruitment approach, but until now he’s struggled to make an impression even during pre-season. The intelligence in making the run that was rewarded with a goal on his Football League debut indicated that Hannah can enjoy success this season – and so to can his new club.

There is, however, clearly a long way to go. Oxford’s noisy home support at one stage resorted to chanting about how City’s players were “a set of w**kers”; and the way in which the visitors sought to time-waste and defend deep in preservation of a point was probably sensible but hardly commendable. Oxford were the better team – though far from conclusively – and, but for a magnificently well-timed challenge by Oliver in his own box, would have earned a late winner. Too early in the long-term development of these young Bantams to expect dominant away wins, but the level of improvement needed is substantial.

The performance at Leeds on Tuesday will live in the memory for some time, but the team’s ability to cope with the greater physicality of bread and butter League Two football is lacking so far. Just like against Aldershot, the three players signed from Falkirk – Mark Stewart, Chris Mitchell and Jack Compton – in particular struggled to make an impression on opponents who simply refused to provide them with the time and space they appear to expect.

Stewart especially was anonymous today and, but for his outstanding performance at Elland Road, his lack of form would leave him first in line to be dropped and trigger greater concerns over his ability to make the step up. Mitchell had a very ineffective first half but got better as the game went on. The 23-year-old’s dead ball skills are proving more effective at least.

In the first half, City just didn’t look or function like a team. Manager Peter Jackson kept the same 4-5-1/4-3-3 set up that worked so well on Tuesday; but each unit was badly cut off from the other, leading to huge gaps in key areas of the park that Oxford were able to capitalise on.  James Hanson looked a lonely figure up front, though his body language and level of effort was not great and, for the first time this season at least, the criticism he attracts from some supporters was justified. Flynn seemed to be under instruction to support Hanson as much as possible, but in general the midfield five were inadequate both going forwards and defending.

It was this isolation problem that led to Simon Heslop being afforded a sizeable amount of space to run at City’s back four and strike Oxford’s goal, 28 minutes in. A long Oxford clearance had been headed powerfully away by Guy Branston but, with every midfielder committed too far forwards, Heslop was able to charge forwards and unleash a low drive into the corner that the recalled Martin Hansen might have made a better job of trying to keep out.  All four of City’s defenders had backed off rather than one looking to make a challenge. A poor goal, which so many people shared culpability for.

At that stage City had probably had the better chances, with Flynn’s fiercely-struck free kick forcing an unconvincing save from Ryan Clarke and former Bantam Jake Wright scrambling the loose ball over his own bar as City players rushed in. The Welshman had another shot from distance sail wide, before Robbie Threlfall took the next long-range free kick and fired just over. Oxford soon began to mount periods of strong pressure, which had City’s back four working hard while lacking enough support from midfield. Cue the Oxford goal, which was followed by even greater home territorial advantage and City fortunate to go in at half time just one goal behind.

Jackson sought to address the positional issues, and the cherry shirts seemed more organised and collaborative as the second half wore on. However the team’s insistence on playing direct balls to Hanson was still leading to possession been easily squandered and supported Oxford’s initial focus on finishing off the contest. So, whether to stop his players from taking this easy option or because of disappointment over his target man, Jackson substituted Hanson and switched to 4-4-2. The momentum began to shift.

Nialle Rodney and new loan winger Michael Bryan came on and had a greater impact than the players they replaced, though U’s manager Chris Wilder reacted to City’s new emphasis on wingers by getting his own to double up with their full backs and central midfielders to sit deeper. Finding space in the final third was a real problem for City, so it was probably no surprise that the equaliser came from a set piece. Hannah had only been on the pitch four minutes when he struck, with the excellent Michael Duberry arguing he was fouled. His enthusiastic celebration in front of us away fans was a joy to experience.

The last ten minutes belonged to Oxford, but they failed to create a meaningful chance and City held on with Oliver in particular outstanding and Branston enjoying his best performance so far. Compton might have snatched a winner when he was played through on goal just inside Oxford’s half, but pace is not his strong point and the defence were able to get back and put him off.

So City are off the mark, but so far in the league at least there’s been more nervous questions than positive answers – and the gravity of the development needed is plain. Clearly some good players have been brought into the club this summer, but harnessing their exuberance and building their confidence are the immediate priorities if City are to become more competitive.

It all comes back to patience. If we fans continue backing these players, they can in time translate raw potential into rewarding results. Yet if, as has happened so often in recent years, we snap and angrily turn on them, we could very easily destroy them.

Hannah’s goal helped the new-look team deliver its first repayment of the faith shown in them by everyone, but they will probably need to produce more reasonably quickly if this long-term thinking is to become truly and widely embraced.

Beyond revival, and revival

Two years ago to the day on Saturday, a goverment think tank suggested that Bradford, and other northern cities like it, were ‘beyond revival’, and that its residents should move south to places like Oxford, instead. Some people who may or may not be writing this match preview may or may not have had one or two things to say about that. It may have been some time in coming, but it feels like there’s a revival in this part of the city.

Bradford City have lost their first two games of the season. The team have a 0% record in the league, and have been knocked out of the cup by the team most of our supporters can’t even bear to say the name of, at least not without vitriol. In two games, the against column reads five.

I state these facts because, despite these, there is great pride amongst fans about the team — which should not be confused with misplaced optimism. After a shaky first match against Aldershot, the team played against Leeds on Tuesday in the fixture most of the squad had been looking forward to since the draw was made: and their interest in playing the game transferred into a good performance that, rightly, the fans have been proud of. The call of Saturday has returned for fans and players alike, it seems.

And so to this Saturday, where City take on an Oxford side who have likewise had two defeats. As we will hope that City will be galvanised by their spirit against Leeds on Tuesday, the U’s fans will be hoping that their side can also continue with similar spirit to that which saw them bow out in extra time against Cardiff. That town is looking for a revival of its own right about now.

In the preview of the match, this site’s editor spoke of what there was for City to lose out of the match with Leeds, and it seems that the answer to that was the impressive David Syers, down in a heap in the second half at Elland Road, after bossing the midfield, now seeking specialist advice on a knee injury, rather than a trip to the city we should all be living in this weekend. Steve Williams may also lose the chance to continue in a central defence that asks as many questions as it answers, after suffering a problem with his thigh. Ramsden and Bullock complete the list of the maladied.

This leaves Jackson with a choice of Premiership stoppers to stand between the sticks: if Williams makes it, the chances are that he will once again play alongside man-mountain Guy Branston, and it would follow that Jansson would continue alongside them, after their 90 minutes together in Leeds. Should Luke Oliver come in, a new centre-back pairing would give neither Jansson or Hansen the obvious communicative advantage. The impressive Liam Moore, who positionally is probably the most aware defender in a City shirt at the moment, will undoutedly continue at right-back, and it is likely that Robbie Threlfall will default to left-back, continuing to fuel the speculation surrounding Luke O’Brien’s availability and squad status.

On-loan winger Michael Bryan will hope to take a berth on the right-hand side of midfield. Whether he does or not will likely come down to his fitness relative to his new team-mates, as the extra half-hour of football played by on Wednesday by Oxford should be looked to be exploited by Jackson. Likely, Richie Jones will continue exactly where he left off on Tuesday in replacing Syers, and the Oxford midfield should look to bunch up around Michael Flynn, fearful of another strike like the one lashed in against Leeds. Compton will be unlucky to be dropped after putting in some hard work in both matches, and it will boil down to whether the team is to play wide (Bryan) or look for free-kicks (Mitchell).

Up front, neither of the burgeoning partnership of Hanson and Stewart are looking troubled by Hannah, Rodney or Wells, all of which have come on for a few minutes, and none of whom have yet to show their true mettle as yet, although there is a slim chance it could be Nialle Rodney who benefits from Syers’ absence, depending on whether the manager decides to use the impact player early, or late, on. It will be a huge surprise if his pace is not seen at all during the game.

For the yellow side (which means the excellent pink kit gets an airing), three of their employees took the think tank’s advice literally, and now ply their trade there instead of here: the manager, Chris Wilder, was part of the decent City 1997-1998 Championship-level side, as right back. Jake Wright was a youth-team throwaway who now captains the U’s, and Paul McLaren got paid far too much money for delivering far too little, far too recently.

Whether the revival bears fruit on Saturday or not, the change in attitude in City fans is refreshing to see. As with any study, a change in behaviour is only significant if it then goes on to be the norm. The think tank may have written Bradford off: but, despite many times thinking the team is beyond revival, the latest crop are showing that belief, passion, and pride are sometimes formed from more than the mere sum of parts.

2011/2012 IV/IV: The teams

Following last season’s disappointment a new air of optimism currently surrounds the much changed, younger City squad compiled by Peter Jackson, but what can we expect from those who the Bantams will line up against in the new season?

With the loss of Bury, Chesterfield, Stockport and Lincoln from League 2 last time out, the division this year has taken on a very Southern feel with the addition to the League of Plymouth, Bristol Rovers, AFC Wimbledon, Crawley Town, Swindon and Dagenham & Redbridge. It seems that away day dedication will be pushed even further this year, with City set to clock up the miles – where are the Peter Taylor over night stays when you need them!?

The Favourites

For the first time since City were relegated to League 2 they have not been tipped for automatic promotion, that acclaim has gone to the league’s big spending new boys Crawley Town. Following last season’s romp to the Conference title and lucrative FA Cup run, only ended by the champions of England, Crawley have flexed their financial muscles once again signing the likes of Wes Thomas (Cheltenham) and Tyrone Barnett (Macclesfield) on huge salaries. Although popularity amongst other teams and fans will be in short supply, this is unlikely to phase Steve Evans who appears to have unlimited funds to see that the Red Devils make it back to back promotions. And with the likes of Dagenham and Stevenage proving that it is not impossible to make that immediate leap, it is unsurprising that the club have been highly backed at the bookies. Former Bantam Scott Nielson is still on the books and will no doubt be on the end of a ‘warm’ welcome when returning to VP, following comments he made after his City exit.

Hot on the promotional heels of Crawley are fellow league new boys Swindon Town. Over the summer they have introduced some Italian flair on the touchline following the appointment of Paolo Di Canio. Expect much gesticulation and passion when the Bantams meet The Robins in the final game of the season (and that’s just from Jackson!). In the close season Di Canio has signed the relatively unknown Oliver Risser and appointed him the club’s captain as well as several established League 1 players. Also don’t be surprised if a few hot prospects from the Premier League turn up on loan over the coming weeks – I’m sure Paolo will still have Mr. Redknapp’s phone number!

Former Torquay boss Paul Buckle will be hoping that he can use his League 2 experience to guide league newcomers Bristol Rovers back into League 1 at the first attempt. Signing the likes of Chris Zebroski (you may remember him drop kicking Matt Clarke in the face!) and Joe Ayinsah (Charlton), expect attacking football from The Pirates who visit VP in September.

As well as the new boys, League 2’s bridesmaids Shrewsbury Town have also been tipped to go well again this year. Following play-off disappointment for the past three seasons “Salop” will be hoping they can go one better and achieve automatic promotion this year. In the close season Graham Turner has signed proven League 2 players such as: Marvin Morgan (Aldershot); Andy Gornell and Joe Jacobson (Accrington) and will be hoping that these will provide the extra ammunition to get The Shrews over the line.

“Local” Rivals

With the loss of so many Northern teams from the division, local rivalries are few and far between for the Bantams this year. Nearest geographically are Rotherham United, who despite the loss of player maker Nicky Law to McGod’s Motherwell, will be hoping for a strong season under relatively new boss Andy Scott. Scott’s first priority will be to keep hold of the much coveted Adam Le Fondre, whilst quickly hoping he can get the best out of hard-working City reject Gareth Evans (‘The goal is that way Gareth…’). The Millers will be trying to make sure that they don’t fall away as they have in previous years despite promising starts. City host Rotherham in November, with the away leg early in the New Year.

One time City managerial target John Coleman, will be hoping that Accrington Stanley will be able to maintain their strong form of last year despite losing their best players to other teams (Ryan, McConville, Gornell). Coleman will have to manage once again on a shoe-string budget and has so far snapped up the likes of defender Danny Coid (Blackpool) and young striker Kurtis Guthrie, whilst former Bantam Rory Boulding still features in the squad. Expect Stanley to finish mid-table this year as the loss of quality players will surely take its toll.

Morecambe (Bradford-on-sea) are entering the new campaign with a rallying cry in the hope to recapture the ‘fortress’ mentality of Christie Park at their new home ‘The Globe Arena’ (incidentally it’s not an arena, it has 3 sides!). Shrimps boss Jim Bentley will be hoping the combative style of former Bantam loanee Kevin Ellison will help them improve on a disappointing 20th position, achieved last time out. A big City following will once again will flock to Morecambe in early September, with the return fixture at VP in mid-January.

Conference Call

Gary Simpson’s Macclesfield Town have been made favourites for relegation to the Conference this year. Despite a comfortable 15th place finish last season The Silkmen are tipped to struggle, with bookmakers offering them at 2/1 to drop into non-league. The Moss Rose outfit will be hoping that new signings Waide Fairhust (Doncaster), former Bantam Jonathan Bateson (Accrington), along with others like the quick forward Emile Sinclair, will be enough to steer them clear of trouble.

Second favourites to face the drop are Cheltenham Town, following their disappointing second half to last season, which left them with a 17th place finish – one place above the Bantams. This is not a sentiment shared by the Robins new signing Sido Jombati, who claims the club should be aiming for promotion. Cheltenham have invested mainly in non-league players, much the same as City, with the hope of bringing success to Whaddon Road next season.

Once again Barnet have been backed to struggle this term, despite retaining the majority of their top performers from last year. Lawrie Sanchez continues as boss as the Bees aim to gain compensation for the move of last year’s demi-saviour, Martin Allen, to Notts County. With plenty of forward options in the form of Izale McLeod, Sam Deering, Steve Kabba and Mark Marshall (remember him embarrassing City last year?), Barnet will be hoping that they can sort out their defence which saw them leak 77 goals last season.

Hereford United will be hoping to make things a little more comfortable this year following their close shave for survival last season. Former ‘physio’ boss, Jamie Pitman, has signed the likes of Delroy Facey (Lincoln) and Stefan Stam (Yeovil) in the hope of playing attacking, entertaining football next term. The Bantams travel to Edgar Street in late October, with the Bulls coming to VP in February.

League Newcomers

Cash-strapped Plymouth Argyle will face a race against time to assemble a squad before the big kick-off on the 6th of August. With the likely take over by Peter Risdale not yet finalised and the club selling off the ground and its land to a third party: ‘Bishop International’ (sound familiar!?) it will be a success just to put a team out for the Pilgrims next season. Already potential signings have swerved away from the financially stricken club, Antony Elding (Rochdale) opted to sign for non-league Grimsby despite initially agreeing to sign for Plymouth. Survival will have to be their first priority and it is hoped that with the re-signing of influential defender Stephane Zubar, others will follow to sign up for Peter Reid’s cause.

The Crazy Gang return to Valley Parade next season and it is expected that they will bring more than 53 fans when they visit Bradford in late-September. Following five promotions in nine years, since their formation in 2002, AFC Wimbledon will take their place in the football league once again. They will start the campaign without last season’s top goalscorer Danny Kedwell, who has signed for Gillingham, but have retained the services of their player of the season Sam Hatton. Boss Terry Brown has signed up several new recruits: Jack Midson (Oxford); Mat Mitchell-King (Crewe); Chris Bush (Brentford) and Charles Ademeno (Grimsby) in hope of maintaining the club’s position in League 2 next year.

John Still’s Dagenham & Redbridge return to League 2 following only one season in League 1. The one-time City managerial target has managed to maintain the majority of his squad, but has lost key man, and former Bantams’ target, Ramon Vincelot to Championship new-boys Brighton. The Daggers are expected to finish mid-table this time out and will face the Bantams at VP in August, with the return fixture at Victoria Road in March.

Familiar Faces

Burton Albion boss Paul Peschisolido has signed several attacking options over the close season with the intention of pushing the Brewers further up the table than their 19th place finish last season. The Nottinghamshire club will be hoping to avoid the fixture congestion that plagued them last year. New signing Justin Richards (Port Vale) should be the main attacking threat and City play Albion away in October, with the home fixture in January.

Dario Gradi will take charge of Crewe for his 26th season at the helm. With the loss of Clayton Donaldson over the summer, Alex striker Shaun Miller will be hoping to fill the former Bradford youngster’s boots and build on his own 19 goal haul last season. Crewe have been internally backing themselves for promotion this year and will aim to get there playing attractive, technical football, the likes of which the Bantams experienced on the last day of the season.

Gary Johnson’s Northampton Town will once again carry high expectations into the coming season, with their expectant fans insisting that they improve on their disappointing 16th place last season. With a glut of new signings, including big striker Adebayo Akinfenwa, the Cobblers will enter the 2011/2012 season with aspirations of reaching the play-offs. City face Northampton at VP in late October and travel to the Sixfields Stadium in April.

Former City man Chris Wilder will be entering the new season in the hope that his Oxford United team can build on their promising first season back in the football league. Ex-City flop Paul McLaren will take his place for the U’s next season and will hope for more consistency in League 2 this time out. Experience seems to be the order of the day for Wilder who has also recruited former Leeds player Michael Dubbery and ex-Bury goal keeper Wayne Brown.

In a repeat of last season, Micky Adams will lead out Port Vale and will want to finish the job he started before leaving for a forgettable stay at boyhood club Sheffield United. Marc Richards remains the main danger man for the Stoke club and will hope that he can find sufficient support from new signings Gary Roberts (scorer for Rotherham from halfway at VP) and fellow striker Louis Dodds. Vale face the Bantams at Vale Park in September and at VP on Valentine’s day.

On the Buses…(or coaches)

Industrious Aldershot will be hoping to build on their solid 14th place finish last time out. The Bantams play host to the Shots on the opening day and will have to be wary of the goal-threat of defender Antony Charles who had success against the Bantams last year. Dean Holdsworth will be hoping that the recent loan deal for Reading’s attacking midfielder Jake Taylor will help get the Shots off to a flier… obviously after losing to City!

Gillingham have made several signings over the summer and diminutive boss Andy Hessenthaler will be hoping that by signing non-league success stories like Danny Ked well (AFC Wimbledon) will be enough to push the Gills one step further than their play-off spot last year. Hot striking prospect Adam Birchall, signed from Hessenthaler’s former club Dover, is already facing a 6 month lay off with knee ligament damage, which will leave the Priestfield club on the look out for another ‘Cody MacDonald’ type player from the loan market.

Southend will enter the new season hoping to gain the consistency that saw the play-offs elude them last year. Shrimpers boss Paul Sturrock has made several signings to complement last seasons top performers Antony Grant and Barry Corr. City will once again travel to Roots Hall on a Friday night (Decemeber) and will host the Essex club, again on a Friday night, in April.

Torquay boss Martin Ling will want his side to go one better this year to soar into League 1. In order to replace target man Chris Zebroski the Gulls have signed former Morecambe hitman Rene Howe, and have strengthened their midfield with the signing of left-sided trickster Ian Morris (Scunthorpe). City travel to the English Riviera in mid-February (Brrrr…) and host the Gulls at VP in early October.

Withdrawing the question as City lose meekly to Oxford

The Team

Lenny Pidgeley | Richard Eckersley, Rob Kiernan, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall | Tom Adeyemi, Lee Bullock, David Syers, Luke O'Brien | Mark Cullen, Omar Daley | Gareth Evans, Jake Speight, James Hanson

Since the earliest days of Peter Taylor’s managerial career at Bradford City, I have been asking questions about the respective priorities of winning and entertaining. The game at the Kassam stadium provided the definitive answer to those questions and I shall ask no more.

Those among the travelling band – and there were a good number who made the long journey – will also know the answer. For those who weren’t first hand witnesses, please bear with me while I give some brief details of how the latest defeat panned out.

Before kick off there was the familiar sight of a changed City team. Hanson and Evans could only make the bench; Cullen made his first start; and Luke O’Brien moved forward to make room for Robbie Threlfall at left back. It looked like a fairly orthodox 4-4-2, with Cullen and Daley as the front two. So City wouldn’t be hitting any high balls up front, would they?

The Kassam could have been built anywhere – and it was. It is probably the only ground in the league which you approach from a science park. We kept being told that it would be 11 or 12 degrees during the game and maybe it was. But the wind blowing straight into the faces of the visiting supporters still felt remarkably cold and was to feel ever chillier as the game wore on.

After a couple of early Oxford shots, one going over the bar and the other being deflected gently into Lenny Pidgeley’s arms, City produced a surge up the left and, from Luke O’Brien’s cross, won their first corner after eight minutes. The home defence failed to deal with Robbie Threlfall’s set piece and, almost inevitably this season, David Syers was the man to put City a goal up.

I move forward at this point to some seventy minutes later, when the home team scrambled an equaliser, to be followed another six minutes later by an equally close range winner. The nearest Bradford City came to their own equaliser was when James Hanson, an 88th minute substitute, stretched, slipped and failed to make contact with a short back pass to the home goalkeeper. 2-1 it was, then, and it was impossible, even for those with the most blinkered claret and amber outlook, to deny that Oxford deserved their win.

I left out some seventy minutes, didn’t I? Well, here goes with my description of that period between City taking the lead and Oxford equalising, although it will follow a theme or two, rather than a minute by minute account.

Not for the first time this season a City goal almost immediately brought about an obvious tactic of settling for that one goal and defying the opposition to score. This strikes me as an increasingly bizarre strategy, not least because of the number of occasions when, in his after match interviews, Peter Taylor has complained about giving away soft goals. With such a risk being so evident, defending a 1-0 lead for 82 minutes seemed a foolhardy approach – and so it proved.

But this is not just any old defending. The cliché of the two banks of four was there in abundance, with the two front men a little unsure whether to stay somewhere near the front (i.e. roughly in the same county as the other nine) or to come within sight of the midfield and thus stay in City’s half of the pitch. This dilemma was caused because the bank of four that wasn’t the defence was almost indistinguishable for the other bank of four, so close together were the eight. For most of that seventy minute interlude eight white shirted players (and one in green) rarely ventured more than 30 yards from the goal they were defending. There was no such concept as ‘the goal they were attacking’.

Body after body was hurled in the way of Oxford shots. Pidgeley flew across his goal to make one blinding save and the home team’s finishing was sufficiently wayward to keep the score at 1-0 for what seemed like an age. There was no attempt to stop Oxford from playing the ball among themselves until they approached to within thirty yards of goal. Even then they had plenty of opportunities to pass through and round the massed ranks of the visiting defence. For long spells City seemed unable to keep the ball long enough to look up for a man in a white shirt. I was looking for a tell-tale sign of the invisible force field that prevented the ball reaching the half way line.

The familiar sight of eleven men back defending corners and free kicks brought the predictable result that the lines were never properly cleared. An interesting comparison here with the systems used by other managers in recent games against Bradford City. A week earlier Barnet, at 2-1 up and with quite some time still left to play, defended a City corner by leaving one man upfield and another out of their own penalty area. As the corner was cleared the two Barnet players lead the charge upfield that made it 3-1. Oxford, also 2-1 up but in the third of four minutes of stoppage time at the end of the game, also kept one man up while defending a City free kick. The clearance reached this one man, who held up the ball while support arrived and the pressure on the defence was eased.

The reaction of the away support told its own tale. Even during the heady moments of the 1-0 lead, the visiting fans were at best edgy, at worst critical of every breakdown of an embryonic passing movement. By the latter stages the mood became darker and darker, with hardly a positive word to be uttered by those who endured this match to its final whistle. And ‘endured’ strikes me as a mild term.

I must return to my original question about winning and entertaining. I do so with a heavy heart, both as a season ticket holder with next year already paid for and as a supporter of Bradford City Football Club, rather than as a supporter of any individual who might, for a shorter or longer time, have been connected with that club through the years of my support. In those years I have seen some poor sides. The Fourth Division strugglers of the 1960’s come to mind, as do later teams in the period before the glory days of Wembley and beyond. But none of those teams ever left me feeling as I did on my way out of the Kassam.

This Bradford City side spent seventy minutes offering nothing for its supporters to enjoy. It made no attempt to entertain. It concentrated on one thing only, namely winning by the only goal of the game. How and why the referee allowed Pidgeley to get away with such blatant and cynical time-wasting will forever remain a mystery. Less mysterious is what lay behind the strategy to defend the lead at all costs. Goal scoring and entertaining has become an optional extra at Bradford City. Winning is all that matters. Two years ago Wycombe Wanderers, managed by the same Peter Taylor, won automatic promotion from this league. In their 46 games they scored just 54 goals, but they lost only eight games. After 24 games Bradford City have scored just 22 goals, but have lost 12 times.

The plan, lest anyone else hasn’t noticed, is not working.

It has now become obvious even to this eternal City supporter that there is only the one aim. That aim is to win as many games as possible by whatever dreary means are required. That end, winning enough games to be promoted, will apparently justify those means. At least, that seems to be the thinking of those in charge at Valley Parade. But, unlike entertainment value, which up to a point is a matter of opinion and open to debate, winning is very black and white. Bradford City currently have nine white marks and twelve black marks. And, so far as concerns entertainment, they have precious little above no marks at all.

Even if we have to be so cynical as to think only about ticket sales for next season, does anyone in charge really think this will encourage those who are less mad than the 6,000 who have already paid their money? Is there really no thought to entertaining the fans? No, I promised I wouldn’t ask that question again, so I withdraw it. I know the answer only too well and I am much the sadder for that knowledge.

The goalscoring problem as City travel to Oxford

Tom Adeyemi’s season-opener at Shrewsbury; David Syers’ tap in at Stockport; Leon Osborne and Adeyemi’s crucial strikes at Barnet; Omar Daley’s clinical penalty at Bury; James Hanson’s tap-in and Gareth Evans’ belter at Lincoln.

And that’s it for Bradford City’s league goals on the road so far this season.

After 11 away matches the Bantams have netted a meagre seven times. That’s the worst record in the entire division, and says a great deal about why City are struggling to position themselves as promotion candidates. To put the goal-shy exploits into perspective, the last time the first 11 away matches of a City season saw less goals was the year we quickly drowned in the Premiership (2000-01).

With four of City’s next five taking place away from Valley Parade, a continuation of the improvement in the last away match is needed to ensure play off hopes remain alive following this crucial part of the season. Three of those four away trips – starting at Oxford tomorrow – are against teams currently above City in the league. Now is not the time to be affording more opposition goalkeepers clean sheets.

The fact Syers and Daley are joint top league scorers with four apiece underlines the lack of goals in City’s forward line. Last season’s top scorer Hanson (13) has struggled to recapture his form of a year ago, with just two of his five goals to date coming in the league. Evans (11 last season) has endured a difficult campaign due to injury and also has two in the league.

Jake Speight (one Carling cup goal), Louis Moult (one league strike) and Chib Chilaka (yet to score) had limited opportunities in the first half of the season. Daley has often played up front to largely positive effect, but will never be a great goalscorer. Luke Oliver’s brief spell as target man in early autumn featured no goals, Jason Price’s late autumn loan spell saw him net only once.

At the start of the season, manager Peter Taylor declared that he was lacking a striker with that extra know-how, and he must surely be wishing for a clinical forward who can sniff out half-chances and net regularly. Such players are always difficult to find, and City have been fortunate in recent years to have first Dean Windass and then Peter Thorne scoring goals for fun. It could be a while before we see a striker as prolific, leaving City’s Goals For column lagging behind others.

It would be wrong to solely blame the lack of goals on the strikers, as the service to the front players has been limited all season. We can quickly point to the lack of wingers in Taylor’s squad, which has resulted in a lower number of crosses from the touchline. City appear to favour working the ball into the box or direct passes for the forwards to attempt to make the most of. The crosses are largely supplied by full backs.

Years of inconsistent wingers hardly provide a convincing argument that Taylor is wrong in his alternative approach; but the fact City have failed to score in 10 of the 23 league games to date, and have only scored more than one goal in a game on four occasions, simply has to be improved on during the second half of the season.

It’s largely a question of balance. We know that under Taylor City will play more conservatively, but the priority seemingly given towards making City difficult to break down rather than taking the attacking initiative is placing a huge amount of emphasis on the first goal in every match. On more than one occasion when the opposition have scored it, City have collapsed as they get caught between suddenly requiring urgency to chase the game and maintaining cover at the back.

Witness the dismal displays at Burton and Cheltenham, or even the way City reacted to conceding to Barnet on Saturday. Perhaps the unfamiliarity of suddenly having to display attacking urgency is causing too many players to forget the defensive basics. When it’s a time for cool heads, City are consistently losing theirs.

Only three times this season have City overcome conceding first to get something from a game – the Carling Cup win over Notts Forest, the thrilling victory over Cheltenham and the disappointing 1-1 draw with Accrington. We go behind, and it seems to be curtains.

So not exactly a winning combination – struggling to score goals and reacting poorly to conceding first. Overcome these two problems, and City might still be capable of ending the season in the play offs. But it’s a question of talent,  it’s a question of spirit and it’s a question of confidence – all difficult for the manager to magically instil in his players.

Nevertheless City travel to an in-form Oxford with the play off spots still in sight and a week of feeling frustrated about slipping up to Barnet to get out of the system. Lenny Pidgley will keep goal having in recent days received criticism from a section of supporters over his recent form. In front of him will probably be Richard Eckersley, Shane Duff, Oliver and Luke O’Brien. Duff went off injured last week and struggled during the first half. As we saw in his first few appearances for City, it seems he is a player who takes time to recapture his rhythm after a lengthy lay off.

The biggest questions over Taylor’s selection lie in midfield. Tommy Doherty has been left out the last three games, the first two of which saw victories. Lee Bullock has performed well in his place, but City lack guile without the Doc’s impressive passing ability – not to mention the high reliance other team-mates place on him. Syers dropped below his usual high standards last week and, with two games in quick succession, may be rested for at least one. Daley will probably continue on the left wing, despite making a greater impression up front this season.

Then we come to Adeyemi, who had his loan extended until the end of the season this week. It’s perhaps unfair to bring up the giddy predictions of pre-season during cold nights of January, but all season long the confident proclamation of a supporter sat behind me at Rochdale in July – that Adeyemi could be the Patrick Viera of League Two – has stayed in my thoughts. Adeyemi has had limited opportunities in his preferred central midfield role – he was outstanding performing it alongside Doherty during the win at Barnet last October – but overall his displays have been frustratingly erratic.

Adeyemi is performing a wide midfield role, but not one where Taylor demands he races down the wing and fires in crosses. He is asked to help the central midfielders, especially when City don’t have the ball, so they are not outgunned in the middle of the park. He is asked to show discipline in maintaining his position, winning back possession and quickly releasing the ball.

He is doing the same role Paul Jewell asked of Windass during the first few games of the 1999/2000 Premier League adventure, and like Dean at the time he is heavily criticised for it by supporters who fail to understand what he is being instructed to do.

But that said, his performances haven’t been great and the decision to re-sign him poses a question – “is he really the best we can do?”. Yet perhaps the bigger point is that, very soon, Michael Flynn should be back and Adeyemi dropped to the bench in a reshuffle. Why bring in a better player – especially if it’s on higher wages – if the inspirational Flynn will be back in two weeks and in need of that starting place?

Up front expect Hanson and Evans to start with Mark Cullen on the bench. Perhaps he will provide the goals that are badly missing – his youth record is good – or perhaps Speight can make an impact as he returns to first-team consideration following his unsuccessful loan at Port Vale.

Will a real goalscorer please stand up. Hurry.

How Peter Taylor turned around Bradford City’s season

The contrast could not have been greater. A month to the day since Bradford City departed the field to yet more angry boos in the wake of a dispiriting home loss to Morecambe, jubilant scenes greeted the final whistle at Gigg Lane as the Bantams recorded a fourth win from five. The immediate future looked bleak on October 2, now it appears hugely exciting.

Midway through the second half at Bury, a massive argument between the two benches over a strong home challenge prompted a boisterous chorus of ‘Peter Taylor’s Bradford Army’ from the large travelling support. Compare that to the scenes at full time against Morecambe – part of which were captured live on the excellent Bantams Banter podcast that week, where in the words of Tom or Dom: “Taylor’s being booed, he’s just walked onto the pitch and is being absolutely annihilated.” – and for the City manager to still be employed is an achievement in itself.

After the Morecambe loss City had slumped to 23rd – or a ranking of 91st out of 92 professional teams who play in England. It was a new low point of a 10-year slump which has featured numerous “it can’t get any worse than this” moments. But 31 days later the Bantams have climbed to 10th position – a remarkable recovery after it had appeared the only way we’d be exiting League Two would be via the relegation trapdoor.

And for that Taylor deserves a huge amount of credit. In the wake of the Morecambe loss, tabloid speculation took hold that he had to win the next game or would be dismissed. Taylor and City pulled back from the brink, winning 2-0 at Barnet in a thrilling manner. But even then it seemed Taylor’s future remained right on the knife edge and, as Cheltenham took an early lead at Valley Parade the following Saturday, the end appeared close.

City recovered to win while producing their finest display of the season so far; and though a 3-0 setback at Burton once again raised question marks, victories over Oxford and Bury have firmly pushed away the pressure of the sack. Now to keep going.

Above all else the turnaround has been achieved by placing a greater emphasis on the quality Taylor has available. The less-than-inspiring end of September/early October, which featured defender Luke Oliver up front and seven hours without a goal, saw City play some quite dreadful long ball football. It was back-to-basics, desperate tactics seemingly aimed at grinding out results. It was also horrendous to watch.

At Barnet Taylor went back to 4-4-2 and employed Tom Adeyemi alongside Tommy Doherty, to provide the cultured midfielder with greater support – and City struck two quality goals in the second half to win the game.

Doherty’s early games were relative quiet and unassuming, with the summer signing attracting the kind of criticism gifted players like Nicky Summerbee and Gareth Whalley received for their shortcomings. He looked quality from day one, but struggled to get team mates on the same wavelength and to make the sort of clever off-the-ball running he has the ability to ping a pass to.

In recent weeks it has been a privilege to watch someone of such talent making a big impression, and his performances against Cheltenham and Oxford have drawn comparisons to Whalley. I feel we are very lucky to have such a superb player for this level; he is pivotal to Taylor’s side.

Now that he has settled in and built up fitness, Lee Hendrie is also making a huge difference to City. He scored the crucial second goal against Cheltenham in what was his best all-round performance for City. Hendrie clearly has a clever football brain and the vision to spot things others don’t see. Here until January at least, with each excellent performance the likelihood of another team coming in is growing.

But for now he is not only helping Doherty increase his influence, but setting a superb example to others in helping Taylor evolve the team’s shape. Hendrie is not an out-and-out winger, but a wide midfielder able to tuck inside and help central team mates. His good habits appear to have been taken on board by Leon Osborne, who is growing into his right midfield role, and the shape of the team looks more solid, particuarly when City don’t have the ball.

The third creative player who’s authority has grown is Omar Daley. Deployed up front alongside James Hanson or Jason Price, Daley has revelled in the trust his manager has placed in him and is causing all kinds of problems in a free role. He regularly pops up all over the final third of the park, and this is proving difficult for defenders to pick up.

Balancing out this trio’s flair is the ball winning and athleticism of David Syers or Tom Adeyemi, who carry greater defensive responsibilities. Syers has looked strong going forwards in games, but Taylor is clearly looking for more positional discipline and the more withdrawn style he displayed at Gigg Lane on Tuesday is likely to be more the norm than the attacking midfielder who has already scored four times this season.

With the defence continued to look solid, in keeping with the start to the season where goals against wasn’t a huge problem, City are looking tougher to beat and capable of scoring regularly – particuarly with full backs encouraged to carry the ball forwards. The balance has been achieved, enabling the flair we were beginning to fear would never be a feature of Taylor’s management to become the telling factor.

So City march on; and though there is no guarantee the upturn inform will continue, the manner of recent displays suggests Taylor has found most of the answers to the strong questions been asked of him a few weeks ago, and that he can continue building from here.

Now who thought that would be the case a month ago?

The optimist and Omar Daley

If you are the type of supporter who rarely views games away from Valley Parade – and with 11,000 at home and about a tenth of that number following City away that includes a great many of us – then the next time you see Bradford City they will have played three games and shaped much of the season.

City take on Bury at Gigg Lane on Tuesday night and on Saturday week Peter Taylor takes his team back to former club Wycombe Wanderers and sandwiched between is an FA Cup first round game at Colchester United and do so having won three of the last four games.

Rollocking good wins over Oxford United and Cheltenham as well as a ground out display at Barnet have seen Taylor’s City team turn around. Those nine points – were they not firmly ensconced in “the bag” – would have seen City at the foot of League Two and probably the manager out of a job. Oxford United’s supporters insistence that Taylor would be “sacked in the morning” seemed a little wide of the mark five goals later.

Indeed five games after the 1-0 Morecambe Taylor – should he get a result against Bury and other results go the way he would want – then the Bantams would be tickling the play offs.

Not only that but wrapping five past Oxford – and beating Cheltenham – could hardly have been more enjoyable. Taylor side have – on occasion – played entertaining and winning football.

This balance of enjoyable and winning is especially relevant agianst Alan Knill’s Bury side. Last season City faced Bury twice in the space of a month and twice Bury manager Knill stated after the game that his team was outplayed and twice saw his team victorious the second time being in Stuart McCall’s final game as manager.

Those performances typified the end of McCall’s time at the club and formed much of the problems that Taylor had at the start of this season. McCall’s City played well but got beaten, Taylor’s side just got beaten but as things turn around for the current City manager he must hope to not suffer the same outrageous fortune as was suffered at Gigg Lane last year. Now City have slipped into a knack of out playing the odd team it is enjoyable that that is being reflected in the result.

(As a note about mentioning of Stuart McCall in this and other context. I grow tired of hearing and pretending that one of the most significant figure in the last few decades has no significance. If you don’t like mentions of Stuart McCall when that significance is called upon on this site – or if you want those mentions to be aggressive – then please feel free to take a number, stand in line, and kiss my arse.)

Enjoyable being a key word for Saturday’s win. The joy painted over the faces of the players as they roared into Oxford was marked and one can not help but wonder if the likes of Omar Daley and Lee Hendrie might have wondered when in treatment rooms for extended stays that those days would ever come again. Daley’s celebrations earned him a booking but few would deny a player who has suffered so much his moment in the sun.

Few I say but some would. As a player Daley is frustrating for sure but the level of criticism that pours forth to him would suggest he is something other than the player capable of winning games as he did on Saturday.

They key – perhaps – to understanding the Daley game is the oft said idea that he takes the wrong option which often means he takes an option which does not come to fruition (not always the same thing) and there in is the frustration of the man. Arriving four years ago Daley was rightly accused of laziness – his woeful defending coast City dear against Leyton Orient – but in the years which have passed his development has been noted.

Yes, he takes wrong options but he is brave enough to make a decision, to take an option, and that speaks to his character and his improvement. Football is full of players who will take your money and try make sure they never look too bad and as a result never do anything that good – j’accuse Andrew Taylor – but Daley risks standing out for the wrong reasons in order that he might at times stand out for the right ones.

His enjoyment on Saturday was shared by all who had bitten the tongue when frustrated by his running in the wrong direction who did not lambaste him but just hoped that next time would be another of those times, and it was.

Lenny Pidgeley is expected to make a second start for the Bantams after a good debut and the back four of Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams who was peerless on Saturday, Luke Oliver and Luke O’Brien will continue in front of him.

Tom Adeyemi was something of a passenger in the first half against Oxford and David Syers’ hammer finish from the bench suggested the one over the other. My call would be Syers to play alongside Tommy Doherty but when you are in the position that Taylor seems to be taking City into one does it by managing players and whatever he is doing with Syers is clearly working.

Lee Hendrie and Leon Osborne play on the flanks in what is this writer’s favourite type of midfield. Four men with one fast and wide and one tighter and more on the flanks. It is the same balance of a midfield as Jamie Lawrence, Stuart McCall, Gareth Whalley and Peter Beagrie.

Up front City wait for a call from the FA to find out if James Hanson will be suspended following his red card on Saturday which City have appealed and Jason Price stands by to start in his place. Omar Daley is alongside, finding his niche.

So three games on the road begin and an optimist would say that City will be back at Valley Parade with 23 points, a place in the second round of the FA Cup and a triplet of great performances that got great results. That optimist probably never grumbles at Daley either, probably enjoyed Saturday more than most too.

The Bigger Picture or the Little Details?

The Team

Lenny Pidgeley | Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams, Luke Oliver, Luke O'Brien | Leon Osborne, Tommy Doherty, Tom Adeyemi, Lee Hendrie | James Hanson, Omar Daley | Jason Price, David Syers, Lewis Moult

For the second home game running I’ve walked away from Valley Parade with that feeling that can only be brought on by a convincing home performance and three points to go with it. The little details being a five goals for, none conceded and a climb up the table and the ‘big picture’ looking rosy. Although at one point it felt like that feeling could well have been overshadowed by a very questionable refereeing performance.

I must admit with news of Jake Speight going out on loan to Port Vale I was beginning to question Peter Taylor’s grasp on ‘The big picture’ and the hopeful long term progression of the club; Speight being a player Taylor actually paid for only to send him away in favour of a loan signing. But what can we expect from a club that frequently shows a tendency towards the short term fix.

City fielding short-term keeper Lenny Pidgely over first choice stopper Jon McLaughlan also struck of the short-term approach. Strange again I thought. The big picture was looking blurred.

If the little details can be qualified as today’s game then they in contrast seem to be in sharp focus.

City showed in the second half what they have been lacking for the majority of the season, a killer instinct needed to finish a team off and a real confidence when playing at home. Second half goals from an impressive Omar Daley (who my dad said should’ve been subbed at half time – shows what he knows!), Hendrie, Syers and Moult led to City’s biggest win since the 5-0 defeat of Aldershot just prior to the season implosion of two years ago.

The first half actually passed without too much footballing incident, both sides worked hard but the ball often found itself bogged down in the midfield. City occasionally showed glimpses of good play through Doherty and Hendrie, the latter I feel was sorely missed last week at Burton, but neither keeper was really troubled.

The locus of attention was instead focussed on diminutive referee Mr. Webb (not Howard…) who, along with his assistants, made several confusing decisions throughout.

Notably, in the first half there was a decision where James Hanson was played in behind the Oxford backline; admittedly I initially thought that Hanson was offside, however it appeared to me (in the Midland Road stand) that the linesman held down his flag to indicate that Hanson was in fact onside, only to then raise it seconds later. Confusing.

Unfortunately, this type of inconsistency continued.

Take for example when Daley put City in the lead minutes after half time. A flick back from Hanson saw the Jamaican fire low past Oxford keeper Clarke; obviously overjoyed at finding the net Daley firstly shook hands with a fan and then jumped over the advertising boards to celebrate with a number of the disabled fans at the front of the Midland Road stand.

The ref went straight to his pocket to show Daley the yellow card, much to the home fans’ dismay; it appeared that Daley then talked some sense into Mr. Webb by explaining his actions, a point which most thought the ref accepted until he then pulled out the card anyway, cue loud booing.

Some might argue the ref was only applying the law, but this summed up the over zealous official who seemed more concerned ‘the little details’ such as free-kicks being taken within an inch of the foul than with the overall picture of the game. More on the ref later.

Daley doubled City’s lead in the 56th minute with an emphatic left foot strike beating Clarke at his near post, top corner.

This brought about a big turning point in the match in terms of the home teams’ confidence as City became much bolder with their play, utilising the midfield which had been relatively by-passed in the first half. It was encouraging to see Tommy Doherty put in a good performance, once a gain showing several class touches and vision that we were told to expect at the beginning of the season.

Added confidence arguably led to the tireless James Hanson chasing down a relatively lost cause only to out jump Oxford left-back Tonkin (apt name given the score line), drive into the box, cut inside centre half Creighton who then dropped him. Penalty.

The first spot-kick was well saved by Clarke… but hold on the officials had seen something – Clarke had been adjudged to have been off his line when the kick was taken – the second penalty was rolled home to put City in a very commanding position.

City’s play then proceeded to flow, neat one touch football brought several ‘Ollaaayys’ from the obviously delighted crowd and it was from one of these ‘give and go’ passing moves that the major flashpoint of the second half occurred.

Back to the ref.

Hendrie laid a shortish ball to Osbourne who was hacked by already booked centre back Creighton – Second yellow, straight forward decision where the ref really didn’t have much of an option.

Following the decision a mass brawl erupted between both sides, with even the Oxford keeper getting involved. The initial source of the fight was unclear to me, but something obviously wound up former City youth player, Jake Wright, who made a forgettable return to his former club.

What followed was much conversation between the referee and his two assistants, the up shot saw Hanson given a straight red card along with Wright for what one can only assume was for violent conduct – the fact that neither side really came to blows other than the usual football handbags, again seemed fairly irrelevant to the ‘zero-tolerance’ ref.

Hanson was applauded by fans when exiting the pitch, actions of a guilty man? The ref could have quite easily booked both players and allowed the game to continue, but now it looks like City will be without Hanson for two league games and the FA cup trip to Colchester next week.

With the pitch looking a lot larger following the player cull, City found plenty of space in the Oxford half.

They played with a belief that has seemed so lacking at times this season and were rewarded twice more with a net busting volley from David Syers, following a good run and cross from Mr. Consistency Luke O’Brien; then a late solo effort from fellow sub Louis Moult who curled in an effort from 25 yards.

It seems that the little details are coming together for Peter Taylor, his decisions to replace McLaughlan and favour loan players over Speight appear to be fully justified following such a brilliant result, but it is how he decides to bring these details together to make the big picture that will determine whether he creates a master piece or one to be glossed over.

So to high flying Bury on Tuesday night – a personal derby for myself as my girlfriend writes the match reports for The Shakers – with confidence high. I am looking forward to a really entertaining game as I know that Bury play a good brand of attacking football which we can hopefully emulate in our continued quest for the big picture coming together.

1999, and all that

It’s 10-and-a-half-years since Oxford United last visited Valley Parade – but the remarkable period in City’s history which that end-of-season game was part of ensures the memories remain vivid.

Oxford home was Bradford City’s penultimate fixture of a Division One campaign on the brink of ending in glory. A week earlier, the Bantams had defeated QPR 3-1 at Loftus Road while promotion rivals Ipswich Town incredibly lost at home to bottom-placed Crewe. Fantastic news for City – lifting them into the second automatic promotion spot on Goals For with two games to go – but the Portman Road result was not so good for Oxford, who were battling with Crewe and five other clubs to avoid the drop.

With City facing Oxford at Valley Parade a day before Ipswich’s tough away encounter at 4th-placed Birmingham, there was genuine optimism this was going to be the weekend that City – with a far superior Goals For total (Goal Difference wasn’t used back then) – would seal promotion to the Premier League. The easy part of the bargain seemed an inevitable victory over a struggling Oxford who hadn’t won in five. What could possibly go wrong?

That day was almost a living nightmare. I still have video highlights of the disappointing 0-0 draw, taped from Yorkshire TV’s Goals on Sunday, and even watching years on you can still feel the tension that was rife among the sell-out home crowd. City struggled to rise to the occasion, Oxford refused to lie down. They even created the better chances, forcing Gary Walsh into a couple of superb saves.

The Valley Parade clock seemed to tick by worryingly fast, the atmosphere was flat – we all just seemed too nervous to even attempt a chant. I felt sick in my stomach as the growing sense of realisation we weren’t going to win – and therefore might have messed up our promotion chances – sank in.

In a cruel and horrible twist, deep in stoppage time Stuart McCall was presented with the easiest of chances right in front of us in the Kop. He headed the ball over the bar, and the split-second we allowed ourselves to believe we’d got out of jail gave way to crushing misery. McCall was inconsolable as he left the field – the TV highlights capturing a shot of a ball boy attempting to hug him, only for the skipper to brush him off.

It all worked out wonderfully in the end of course: Birmingham beat Ipswich the following day to leave the Tractor Boys a point behind. A week later came that stunning victory over Wolves, which sealed City’s promotion and lead to wild scenes of jubilation in the away end and back in Bradford. And in hindsight we could look back on the Oxford draw and feel glad we didn’t win, so we got this never-to-be-forgotten moment at Molineux. Oxford were relegated, despite winning 5-0 against Stockport in their final game.

Although I still look back on that afternoon against Oxford and feel sick at the despair we endured, with each passing year of disappointment there’s part of me that longs to experience such disappointment again. True we’ve had some truly miserable times over the past decade, but for City to be up their fighting for promotion and to have some many sleepless nights hoping they could cross the finishing line is a different kind of emotion – and one we’ve struggled to come close to experiencing since.

It’s impossible to find the words that do justice to just how much promotion meant to us that year, but perhaps things have now become so bad that, if and when success does return to this club, we’ll feel just as happy as we did then.

For much of the club’s subsequent fall, there’s been a feeling promotion should be our right rather than the astonishing achievement 1999 was. As such, if we had achieved promotion from League One in 2006 or League Two in 2009, the celebrations would have probably felt more reserved. A sense of entitlement that we were simply fulfilling our right, rather than delirium that our lives could be blessed with something so remarkable.

Perhaps the ongoing frustrations of League Two life and never-ending despair that we can’t seem to bottom out now mean that a promotion from League Two would leave us feeling just as happy as Wolves 99. While the twists and turns leading up to it would at times leave us as emotionally-traumatised as the last time we played Oxford.

All of which seems a long distance away as City welcome Oxford tomorrow while 20th in League Two. Wins over Barnet and Cheltenham lifted spirits and breathed new hope into a season heading down the pan, but the setback at Burton last week has again dampened the mood. There’s less anger than post-Morecambe, but things still feel very on edge. Another defeat tomorrow – or even a repeat of the outcome when City last played the Us – and the pressure will rise again.

The task in hand is far from easy – the Oxford of 2010 do not represent anything like the home banker to City that the 1999 match-up suggested. Like City the last decade has been hugely difficult for United, with the 1999 relegation quickly followed by demotions to League Two in 2001 and out of the Football League in 2006. For three seasons the club enjoyed the highest gates in the Conference but failed to climb out of a division they appeared too big for – sound familiar, eh? – before beating York in the play off final last May.

The manager is another reason to look in the past. Chris Wilder played 45 times for City during the 1997-98 season, before moving to hometown club Sheffield United on transfer deadline day.

After impressing as manager at Halifax, Wilder guided Oxford back to the Football League and is a name who often crops up when debating a managerial change at Valley Parade. Wilder and Oxford have started well and lie in 11th place ahead of their trip to West Yorkshire – though their recent league form is just as inconsistent as the Bantams.

Jon McLaughlin will continue in goal for City – despite another bout of public criticism from his manager after Burton last week and the added pressure of Lenny Pidgeley arriving on trial. The defence will see two changes as the departing Man United loanees Reece Brown and Oliver Gill leave gaps that will be taken by Zesh Rehman and Luke Oliver.

Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien will keep their places, but the disruption to back four selection throws questions over the value in signing the two youngsters for a month and looking to build with them. Or to quote Rehman, “No disrespect to the two lads coming in (on loan), but I don’t think they did anything that I felt I couldn’t do.”

Lee Hendrie is fighting to be fit after missing last week, with Tom Adeyemi set to return and battle with David Syers to play alongside Tommy Doherty. The early signs are that Syers provides the midfield with greater balance, and his last two performances make him difficult to leave out. Leon Osborne is slowly developing into a decent player, but continues to be the target of some supporters.

Up front, it’s hoped Omar Daley will be trusted to return to the free role position he was performing so well, with Jason Price and James Hanson vying to start alongside him and the other making a very good sub. Price has so far won plenty of praise, but Hanson’s return makes him less needed than he was a few weeks earlier when Oliver had to play up front. Timing is everything in football, and it remains regrettable Taylor couldn’t have signed a loan striker earlier than he managed.

Jake Speight, Louis Moult, Robbie Threlfall and Lee Bullock are all battling to return to the side, and could yet play a significant role in the season. And as the visitors remind us of our enjoyable past, it’s perhaps the last trip City made to Oxford which should provide the greatest inspiration.

City won 1-0 in December 1998, to reverse a two-game losing run. That paved the way for a superb run of form – eight wins from the next nine matches – and solved the final piece of then-manager Paul Jewell’s promotion squad conundrum which had seen the team selection evolve after a dreadful start. Robbie Blake was switched from right winger to partner Lee Mills, it all fell beautifully into place. The immediate challenge for Taylor is to shape his squad in a similar fashion and unearth the right formula that will turn an under-achieving team into promotion contenders.

Tomorrow will hopefully see another positive step towards fulfilling that aim – so in time we can party like it’s 1999.

Being There

O.K, so the trip to Crewe seems a life time away by now. But, while I was looking forward to a break from the football, I’m ready to get back in there. And, since there’s a competition where every game is live on TV, what better way to meet the need?

Well, lots of better ways, actually. I could take up watching some dry paint get even drier. It’s not just that the games are pretty rotten so far; it’s the atmosphere I miss. Back in the Midland Road, there’s the same voices, the same cheering and the same referee baiting that have been together for years. If the game gets a bit dull (Dull? Bradford City?), we always find something to talk about, even if it is the price of bottled water. And there is a genuine atmosphere a Valley Parade. The volume goes up and down with the ebb and flow of the game. We may not like the booing of our own team – indeed we hate it – but it does at least reflect the ups and downs of the team we support.

Watching the World Cup on the TV is a poor substitute. There’s all that incessant background noise. No, I don’t necessarily mean the vuvuzelas, although they create such a monotone that they are the very antithesis of an atmosphere. I mean the commentators and their sidekicks.

Did I want to be told, as the first game was about to start, that we should all be South Africa supporters now? Why??? Still less was the first goal ‘a goal for the whole of Africa’. You ask the Ghana supporters, the Ivory Coast lads, the Algerians and the rest of the African tribesmen. And who thought it even worth saying, as we watched a village jumping up and down to celebrate the goal scored by their local hero, that ‘football is for people’? There I was thinking it was for sheep.

So far I’ve heard only one decent joke, from Barnsley’s very own Mick McCarthy, and he could have improved on his wit if only he’d said that a Nigerian defender was so bad they named him twice. The defender, by the way, is called Odiah and if you pronounce it as though he were Irish and the ‘i’ was a double ‘e’, then you might see the joke. But we deliver better lines than that in Block B.

Of course, the one time the persistent background noise went away, it took the picture with it, unless you count the advert as being anything worth seeing (which it wasn’t). Only England could be so cruel as to score at that moment. I bet down on the pitch somebody threw up another advert right in front of Rob Green. But did he want to buy a new car? Or perhaps it was an ad for Specsavers. No, too cruel.

Anyway, with the World Cup so far failing to satisfy my need for proper football, I’m not waiting for England’s next game with bated breath. No, before then there is the much more important day when the new fixtures are released. I shall be charging up the sat-nav, digging the road map out of the car boot and getting on to those websites where cheap hotel deals are advertised.

I shall be reminding myself of how to get to the football ground nearest to the River Mersey (useless fact, except for those who thought it was Anfield, Goodison or Prenton Park) and the best M5 junction for Cheltenham. I shall especially look forward to going there, in the hope of meeting the same steward as I met last year and whom I assured, having seen City fail to score all season and then leave both Thorne and Boulding on the bench, that the game had nil-nil written all over it.

Torquay will be a must, no matter what time of year, since it allows us to see friends and family. Hereford’s another good excuse for a weekend away, if you can forget about the inside of Edgar Street.

And this year there are two new grounds. Stevenage (no longer ‘Borough’, apparently) play just down the road from my old mate John. And Oxford might be on the cards, even if the memories it will bring back will mean less to Herself than to me. In truth, any Oxford football memories do not include the Kassam stadium. The few professional games I watched there were at The Manor Ground and included a dodgy encounter one evening with some Millwall fans.

I can still claim one little bit of football history from The Manor with a game a few of us went to only because we knew it was making history. So, for the anoraks, what was (and, with the arrival of penalty shoot outs, will probably forever remain) the longest F A Cup tie on record? Now, do you dare put a comment to this piece, thus revealing yourself as an anorak (join the club)? Or do you just Google it and sit in silence? Or do you hope that our editor rescues you from your dilemma by putting in his own, doubtless correct, answer as soon as he posts this piece?

So, forget about Algeria, Slovenia and the inevitable loss on penalties to the Germans. Concentrate on Thursday morning and work up your plans for being there. Just don’t bring one of those bloody vuvuzelas or any of that lot off the telly!

Recent Posts