Opening / Generative / Failings

One day after the last game of last term Bradford City was sold to new owners starting a close season which felt like nothing of the sort. Managers went and came, players followed or did not and and so the opening day 0-0 draw with Port Vale which marked a new era beginning felt oddly like a remnant of the old.

Oddly because while the faces had changed the problems remained the same. Stuart McCall replaced Phil Parkinson as City manager and will have been pleased not only with his team’s clean sheet but with how untroubled his goalkeeper was. Colin Doyle’s opening day did not see him seriously tested.

That the defence played as well as it did denied its rapid construction with Romain Vincelot dropping in along Nathaniel Knight-Percival and both putting in fine first ninety minutes. In training in the week Nathan Clarke joined Rory McArdle (injured) and Matthew Kilgallon (to fit) on the sidelines but the famously niggard Parkinson would have been proud of how few chances the City back four gave up today.

The midfield saw Timothée Dieng injured too – that last week in training must have been very exciting – and with Vincelot dropped back Daniel Devine came into make his début as Nicky Law Jnr made his second, or is it third, first appearance for City.

Devine’s first game answered a problem for McCall. As an eighteen year old he was largely able to stand up to the cut and thrust of a physical Port Vale who anchored the midfield with the impressive and tough Anthony Grant but looked confident enough to play on a level with the more senior players around him. He was good in the way that eighteen year old midfielders should be good.

There is a desire to bring in another midfielder to the club and one hopes that that desire is sated by Devine’s performance. It certainly should be. New chairman Edin Rahic has talked about wanting to develop young players and here is the first opportunity. The virtues of development are seen alongside Devine in Nicky Law Jnr who left Bradford City some six years ago as the kind of flimsy attacking midfielder who needed the steel of a holding man alongside him and returned cast in iron.

That may over-dramatise his changes but his usefulness at collecting the ball and taking responsibility for it was a revelation in the truest sense of the word. Law spent much of the first half setting the midfield line and controlling the distance between himself and wingers Filipe Morais and Mark Marshall. He plundered the occasional shot at goal too as did Vincelot who saw a shot just go over the bar, Billy Clarke watched Vale keeper Jak Alnwick push his effort onto the bar too, and there was a slash off the line to keep Alnwick’s goal intact.

But to iterate chances oversells City as an attacking force. Marshall, Morais and Anderson toiled without much return or sign of return. Morais involves himself in much and performed best of the three but never managed to find a cross or through ball or piece of play that created the chances the play up to the final third merited.

Morais on corners seemed a curious thing when one watches this video of all seventeen of Tony McMahon’s assists last season and notes how many of them were corner kicks. McMahon was at right back today, James Meredith at left back, and neither combined on the flanks with the wide men in front of them as well as one might have hope. The season is early and there is work to be done on understanding players patterns but all five fullbacks and wingers used were at the club last season yet seemed more adrift that then players in the heart of the team who were making first appearances.

Marshall followed on from last season with a performance which left one wondering what his aims on the field are. Is he to supply the ball quickly to James Hanson before the defence is formed up or is he to take his time and why – assuming he has one or the other of those instructions – does he not do it nearly half the time?

He is frustrating to the point of bringing down expectation levels when the ball comes to him. His delivery – which I would have argued was the best part of his game when he arrived at City – is so seldom seen that he borders on making himself redundant.

Which is a good word for Paul Anderson who has – in August 2016 – mislocated anything that made him a player to get excited about when he arrived from Ipswich Town. Anderson is a spectator to his own abilities with seemingly no sense of position – he comes forward when the ball goes beyond him, he drops back when James Meredith wants an option – and no output. I’m reminded of Irvine Welsh’s take on the unified theory of life: “At some point you have it, and then you lose it.”

McCall could persist with both Anderson and Marshall and in the hope that the pair will rediscover whatever it was that attracted Phil Parkinson to them and one suspects he will. One of the better parts of McCall the manager was his warm hearted work with players to try improve them. It might be that one longs for the ruthlessness of Parkinson who sliced Gary Liddle out of his team eight months ago having had him as a core member of the team previously.

Perhaps McCall might ring The Macron Stadium and tell Parkinson that he left a couple of things behind? But that is not McCall’s style and it is a real test of the manager who is praised for his man-management that he might manage these two (or three) men into something much more impressive than they showed today.

Football was – for a time – not wanting for attacking midfielders who could play in wide positions. The decline in wing play seems to have altered this and now every player who does not have a position is a number ten rather than an eleven. I’m not a man of faith and faith is required to believe that Paul Anderson will do in his second season what Peter Beagrie did in his.

As it is McCall is stuck with a generative unit which adds too little to be worth the shirts they take up. Add Billy Clarke to the mix and one ends up with a Bradford City team that can defend well, takes the odd pot-shot, but does not create good enough chances. Plus ça change.

Neither James Hanson nor Billy Clarke are the twenty a season striker that are bayed for but I’d argue that with a generative unit that fails to create no player would score twenty in this team. Which is not to say a further forward is not needed but that the real problem lays in creating rather than converting.

Port Vale were happy with their point at five o’clock and the aforementioned Anthony Grant will have impressed the watching scouts but City should not be wondering how this draw was not a win.

Preview / Players

It’s just words I assure them. But they will not have it – Simon Armitage

Something unique at Bradford City as one of the goalkeepers is the only player in British Football to have his transfer fee on his back as a squad number. Number one, and costing just one pound, is Colin Doyle arrived from Blackpool and looks to be starting on the first day of the season.

A commanding figure at six foot five Doyle has had the kind of career that seems to engulf goalkeepers who get used to the bench. He is thirty one and has played less than one hundred games.

Steve Banks – who arrived as keeper coach from Blackpool alongside Doyle – has the faith that the Irishman can step up to the duties of a starting keeper and should he fail then Rouven Sattelmaier gets a chance.

Sattelmaier – City’s first European number twelve goalkeeper – has played more first team games than Doyle, albeit at a lower level, and is three years his junior. The German talks confidently about challenging Doyle for his position.

It will be interesting to see at what point Stuart McCall opts for change – if he does – but the relative levels of experience afford an odd unbalance in confidence levels in Sattelmaier’s favour.

Joe Cracknell is third choice. He wears number thirty. The lesson he might learn is to not to get to thirty having been anything other than a first choice goalkeeper.

Of the five candidates for the central defensive roles Stuart McCall is spoilt for choice. Rory McArdle is initially unfit having had an operation in the summer and Matthew Kilgallon has had not pre-season following his release from Blackburn Rovers and so may not figure in the opening games but Nathan Clarke is able enough in the short term and Nathaniel Knight-Percival impressed on previous visits to and from Shrewsbury Town.

Kilgallon seems to be too high profile a signing to be anything other than McCall’s long term choice in one of the two central defensive positions and Knight-Percival has probably not moved to West Yorkshire with now expectations. McArdle has proved himself to be as close to undroppable as a player could be and there is little reason to imagine he will not carry on at such a high standard.

Which leaves McCall with – when fitness comes – the sort of headache any manager might want of having too many good players. There is the option of playing three central defenders which the new manager did experiment with when he was the old manager but failing that it seems that Kilgallon, McArdle and Knight-Percival have got reasons to perform in a fight for their places.

Which damns Nathan Clarke and youngster James King to a season picking up scraps.

On the left side of the two full backs James Meredith has no competition for his position following Gregg Leigh’s departure although there are moves, we are told, to bring in cover for the Australian. Meredith could be employed further forward should McCall play a three man central defence with wing backs. Should Meredith miss out then someone in the squad will be press ganged to left back.

And that someone is probably Tony McMahon who has played in most positions at Bradford City in his one and a half years at the club and after being – some may argue – the best player last season on the right hand side of midfield he has been officially announced as now being a right back.

A stranger move it is hard to imagine considering Stephen Darby’s position not only as right back and captain but consistent performer over the last few years. It is not accident that Darby’s name – as with McArdle – appears alongside the better moments of Bradford City’s recent history. An acid test of McCall’s second/forth spell at Bradford City is his ability to see this.

Again as with McArdle Darby starts the season injured and is two to three months away from full fitness. McMahon has the position for now.

Darby is important – very important – but McMahon’s abilities are not to be underestimated either. He led League One on assists last season and performed the wide midfield role far better than players who were signed with much more flourish. Finding a place for McMahon in the side is important but to replace Darby is to cut out the heart to add an extra hand – or foot – where it should not be.

Daniel Devine can also play right back, but he can do anything, read on.

Stuart McCall’s situation with midfielders is similar to his central defensive proposition in that he has at least three players who one might argue should have places and two places to play them.

Romain Vincelot continues the Brexit baiting European-ness of not only being French but also wearing number six and playing in midfield – does he believe he is Luis Fernández? – and seems assured a place in McCall’s side while Timothée Dieng who wears a more respectable eight jersey has done enough in pre-season to suggest that the two might combine into a dogs of war midfield. Or should that be chiens de guerre or perhaps coeur de guerre which sounds much more romantic.

However Nicky Law Jnr’s return – the first summer signing of what can justifiably be called a new era – suggested that he was likely to be favoured in a central midfield role. The aforementioned McMahon and Filipe Morais can also play the role and Devine has impressed too.

Devine, King and Reece Webb-Foster who we shall come to later have an interesting position in the 2016/2017 Bradford City squad. Where previously injuries in the Football League were on the whole covered by loan players new regulations mean that such moves can only happen within transfer windows.

This sets a requirement for players like Devine to be kept near the first team squad as cover rather than being sent out on loan, or isolated from the first team squad because the intention is to send them out on loan.

As the aim is to have a Devine, or a Webb-Foster, or a King ready to be dropped into first team action in the way that Wes Thomas or Tom Thorpe was last season then there is an opportunity to have those players blended into the first team squad. And in that context should Webb-Foster show day in day out in training that he can score then his path to the first team is highlighted.

This was not the case under Phil Parkinson where young players would complain about a lack of development – there was no reserve team some of the time – and there was an obvious preference to loan signings over development players. News that McCall is interested in Liverpool’s Cameron Brannagan and is trying to bring back Josh Cullen is interesting in this context.

It would seem that Vincelot and Dieng will start the season in the centre of midfield for City and that Law Jnr, and Devine, will cool their heels waiting for an opportunity or for McCall to try a three man midfield that would take Dieng holding and Vincelot and Law alongside him.

It would be odd if McCall – an advocate of the FourFourTwo – abandoned that formation just as its resurgence post Euro 2016 took hold. His willingness to do that perhaps depends on Brannagan or Cullen signing or the performance of the most disappointing group of players last season.

We shall dub these the creators if only because repeating the words “wingers, attacking midfielder and and drop off strikers” over and over will get tiresome. Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall’s failure to fulfil these roles last season deformed City’s season and to expect both to improve is an act of faith.

Anderson’s first season was interrupted by injury but when fit his play was not especially useful. He is fast and able to send a ball into the box at a ninety degree angle to his running path but as previously mentioned crossing is football’s overrated virtue and not only would Anderson have to play better this season to impress he would have to play differently.

Which means that Anderson – who enjoys a seniority at the club and is expected to perform – needs to not take the easier options he so often did in his performances at the start and the end of last season where he went wide hugging the touchline and hit the ball into the box and to nobody. His delivery was poor and considering the lack of numbers City got into the box that was a problem.

Anderson needs a reinvention. He needs to be the player who uses possession much better than he has done previously. He needs to be the player who can effectively cut inside as well as go outside of a full back and when he does he needs to have more presence of mind to find a target more often or to choose to do something else such as a surge into the area.

It might be that Anderson does not have these attributes to his game but if that is the case then he condemns himself as a very easy player to play against and one which will struggle. Even at League One level football has no time for the player who has but one way to achieve his aim and persistence is only admirable when a player carries on doing something effective.

Which brings us to Mark Marshall who has a similar situation albeit one he has shown more capacity to address. Marshall’s delivery is better than Anderson’s and he shows a willingness to vary his play which makes him genuinely difficult to play against but he is troublingly negligent in the defensive side of his game.

Marshall too often could be accused in his appearances last season with exposing the full back behind him and not working well in the defensive unit. A coeur de guerre midfield might give Marshall more licence to idle in this regard but he is simply not a good enough winger to set up a team to carry him if he does not track back.

Unlike Filipe Morais who offers McCall the type of endeavour that the previous manager loved but not the creative output which the team needs. Morais is being considered more of a drop off striker to play in what is now called the number ten position but was the hole although his effectiveness there seems to be a result of his randomness rather than the teams ability to blend him into a style.

Morais, as with Marshall and Anderson, is a creator who does not create enough and this is where the worries about Stuart McCall’s planning for the season start. The back six players provide a superb platform – arguably better than the one that Parkinson’s side had – but there seems to be a dearth of creators to stand on that platform.

Which leads back to McMahon who – like it or not – created a lot last season and should Anderson, Marshall and Morais not step up their contributions significantly then one suspects that McMahon will need to be taken out of whatever hole he would like to fit into and bashed back into one of the wide midfield positions.

Creation, assists, and defensive ability to not leave the team undermanned this should not be a difficult choice to make but one worries that McCall will have to learn this lesson the hard way. As it stands McCall is putting a lot of faith in players who have done little to merit it.

Should McCall favour a three man midfield then one might see Anderson and/or Marshall deployed further forward as part of an attacking three but that does not seem to solve the problems so much as make them less relevant by shifting the creation to the three midfielders. If McCall opts to play Vincelot and Dieng deep and a row of three creators behind a front man then one might worry about the effectiveness of such an approach but still these players would have to step up their performance.

McCall seems to be prepared to put that faith into Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall and one hopes that his faith is rewarded – much depends on it being – and one expects to see both starting against Port Vale for the opening game of the season and hopes to see the two players who were promised twelve months ago.

Which leads us to the subject of Billy Clarke and the strikers. Clarke’s promise at the start of last season evaporated leaving the top scorer of the year before idling towards the end of Parkinson’s time at City.

As with Anderson and Marshall the problem Clarke presents is that he does not scorer enough to be considered a goalscorer nor does he create enough to be thought of in that role and unless there is a drastic change in either of those qualities then there are problems when he is in the team.

One can try play a passing game routed through Clarke the number ten but to do so is to put undue faith in the Irishman’s sporadic ability to unlock a defence. This is a distinct contrast to James Hanson who one can rely on to beat defenders to high passes on a regular basis.

This was always the unsaid – or perhaps unheard – quantity in the debates over how Phil Parkinson’s side played football. Hanson would reliably win high balls, Clarke would not reliably unlock defences through craft. The argument was more pragmatics than cosmetics and the nature of that argument has not changed with the change of manager.

Get the ball to Hanson and there will be flick ons more often then there will be through balls from working the ball through Clarke. The two can play together with Clarke playing off Hanson but to do that Clarke needs to remain close to the man they call Big Unit and not wander off on esoteric crusades for the ball deep in the midfield.

Likewise to play the ball through Clarke and look for craft to open defences Hanson would need to be more mobile than he is and make the sort of runs which have not been a staple of his career.

Which is where Jordy Hiwula and Webb-Foster present options that are valued if only because they are unknown.

The problem that Stuart McCall has is that Bradford City do not score enough goals. I would argue that they do not create enough chances and the reason for that is that the team was set up defensively after a recruitment issue left the team with a goalkeeper and back four who could not deal with crosses.

The solution to not creating enough chances is in the creative players: the Andersons and Marshalls; and in the strikers: Clarke and Hanson; and the onus on them to make more chances to allow a reasonable conversion rate to result in more goals.

It is not impossible that this situation will have been addressed by a general step forward by the entire team – the defensive posture of last season prized not conceding over everything else – but unless it has or unless the players perform then the strikers will spend the season once more trying to convert a high percentage of fewer chances.

One can expect to see Hanson and Clarke start the season and one can expect before August closes the strikers and the creators to have been augmented. At the moment City and Stuart McCall seem to have a team that his half right which at least is not a step backwards.


This preview might get out of date quickly and if it does it will be updated. Just so you know.

Unfamiliar / Preview

Matthew Kilgallon joined Bradford City on a one year deal from Blackburn Rovers bringing a level of excitement to some supporters at the end of a summer where things at Bradford City fell apart and were put back together again.

The usefulness of Kilgallon’s recruitment will be seen in time. He and Nathaniel Knight-Percival joi in the central defensive position and Nathan Clarke and Rory McArdle remain. This gives Stuart McCall’s Bradford City three or four – depending on your view on Clarke – strong choices to start in the middle of the defence.

At the other end of the pitch things are different and attacking options are thin on the ground. McCall arrived in June to find James Hanson still at the club he had left five years ago but one could argue that Hanson and his colleagues players in attacking positions: Mark Marshall, Paul Anderson, Billy Clarke; need improvements on last season’s performances to be significant.

Teams score goals, not players and while four of those mentioned above could be more creative than converting – the flick down from McArdle’s diagonal ball is an act of creation – none could be said to have created enough.

Tony McMahon’s withdrawal to right back form the right wing – where he spent a season under Phil Parkinson – is a curious move from McCall exactly because it removes the one player in the Bradford City team who excelled in creation last season.

Drop

His name dropped into the preview it is worth acknowledging that Phil Parkinson is going to have more of of an impact on Bradford City 2016/2017 than Stuart McCall will. Parkinson – who of course exited for Bolton Wanderers in June – built as much of a monolith as football allows a manager to create in the modern game at Valley Parade.

Parkinson took his backroom team with him to Bolton and his backroom team – it is reported – took everything they had worked on with them. Once again – just as with the situation a few months prior to Parkinson’s arrival at Valley Parade – the file cabinets that contained scout reports were empty and the structures around a football club were scant.

And it is this way because Parkinson wanted it this way. The former Bradford City manager had had experiences sharing out the power at a football club previously – most notability at Hull City – and found it wanting. Parkinson fought a hard fight against unspecified directors with unspecified roles to make sure that he had some control in every aspect of the footballing side of Valley Parade and he won those fights.

There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop young players and so Stuart McCall arrived to find no young players with first team experience. There was no pressure on Parkinson to create a squad which was sustainable from one season to the next. There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop a squad with resale value until new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp arrived at the club and – within a few weeks – Parkinson was gone.

Rahic and Rupp arrived to replace Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes as Bradford City owners and began to talk about a future in which the squad was shaped around recycling the waste product of Premier League academies.

That last statement sounds needlessly dismissive and should not. If one looks at the example of The Chelsea Academy of the last fifteen years one can only think of a single player – John Terry – who was not waste. Millions are spent on players who are discarded for not reaching and elite standard but are able to be turned around and made into useful footballers.

A production line of turnaround players is as close to a business model as the game at lower levels has ever had and one which Rahic and Rupp believe they can benefit from. Clearly the club they bought was an ill fit to achieve that.

Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes freely admitted that they could see no other way of the club going forward than someone arriving and injecting more money and, as the ultimate result of that paucity of thinking, they were prepared to give Parkinson total control of all football matters.

Which is not to say that Parkinson should not have enjoyed carte blanche to do any or all these things as he sees fit. Parkinson’s methods showed constant year-on-year improvement and perhaps would have continued to do so but without the manager ceding some control they would not have aligned with the owners.

Parkinson used many short term contracts, and Parkinson used many loan signings, and Parkinson was not entirely interested in developing young players, and if the club are now interested in long term permanent signings of young players then it starts from a negative position.

Which is a long way of saying that the 2016/17 season – the first post-Parkinson season – is defined by the decision taken by Rhodes and Lawn to allow Parkinson to be the entire centre of the footballing side of Bradford City. There was no institutional retention of knowledge – the scouting cupboard was bare – and that is the result of choices made before June 2016, not after.

Five

Phil Parkinson’s final finish for Bradford City was fifth in League One and it is that which – rightly or wrongly – Stuart McCall will be measured against in the next twelve months as will Parkinson at Bolton Wanderers.

Both measurements could be unfair. For Parkinson his record of first season success is thin and the Trotters would be better to be prepared to wait.

For McCall he is a manager who started late and without structures which are necessary. McCall has not walked into a Southampton where the manager is an appendage to a well run system. He is at a club which – both rightly and wrongly – allowed itself to be defined by its manager and who has now gone.

There is much work to do to replace Parkinson and while Rahic has an idea of the shape that he would like the club to take in the long term there is no reason at all to believe that any of the work ahead of McCall, Chief Scout Greg Abbott, James Mason or Edin Rahic can be achieved without any negative effect on performance.

That Bradford City that finished fifth last season is gone and progress must now be judged anew.

These are unfamiliar times.

Unbalanced / Vincelot

Shall we begin with the warning, dear reader, that pre-season games are not to be taken too seriously and that not too much should be made of a poor afternoon where Bradford City lost 4-1 to Burnley without much of a whimper.

Burnley are a Premier League side and are built like it and the physical size of the visiting team’s back four against an attacking pair of Billy Clarke and Filipe Morais showed the porosity of options in replacing injured James Hanson. That Hanson when missed cannot be replaced is obvious to all. Play a different way without Big Jim, but do not play as if he is there. Stuart McCall found out today what Phil Parkinson knew in that. There is an obvious need for another forward.

At the back there is a type of order emerging with the Tony McMahon cemented in at right back in the absence of Stephen Darby and Nathan Clarke and Nathaniel Knight-Percival alongside him. They struggled today but signs of a relationship with Colin Doyle in goal were there. Daniel Devine will not be starting at left back but – at seventeen and taking responsibility for the ball that put some of senior professionals to shame – I’d expect to see him starting games this season. Despite playing left back today he was the best midfielder in claret and amber on show.

Which brings us to the afternoon’s issues: one old, one new.

City started the game off brightly but Mark Marshall’s inaction in the defensive third allowed Burnley to score – Marshall gets no credit at all for shouting back at McMahon (his captain, and full back) who balled him out after his mistake, Marshall is too old to be having a strop when his captain tells him what everyone else could see – and within minutes the game was utterly beyond the Bantams. In recent years we have seen Bradford City teams who prided themselves on never being out of games but the McCall standard of over-dramatisation returned and Marshall’s mistake swept through the team as nervousness and before half time Burnley had a 3-0 lead.

McCall’s statement that Marshall could play a key role this season assumed much improvement from the wide player which seems to have no evidential basis. Marshall’s tricks on the wing are impressive but he remains a literal liability. For every two times he does something with his ball skills he allows three chances behind him with he undisciplined performances. This was true last year and was true against Burnley in pre-season. Unless there is a very sudden change to how much he creates, or gives away, then McCall has a problem in the making.

The a different type of the same problem emerges for Paul Anderson. Once again big things are expected from the winger without any suggestion that he will achieve them. Both Anderson and Marshall create a type of possession but by fielding one or both of them McCall foregoes other possession. By telling Anderson to try fly past full backs one is axiomatically foregoing possession in from of the full back. Anderson/Marshall look for zone 16/18 possession and that stretches the midfield.

That midfield today saw a new recruit with Romain Vincelot joining from Coventry City for £80,000 to pre-empt the problem of the afternoon. Timothée Dieng held the middle of the pitch well but Nicky Law – coming forward out of midfield – left Dieng often alone in the middle of the pitch and – without Anderson and Marshall to tuck in – with too much work for one man to do. If McCall is to play Anderson and Marshall – and one would hope the pair would improve in the next two weeks to justify that – then Vincelot and Dieng are in and Law is out in order to create something like a balance.

More balanced would be to play only one of the Anderson/Marshall pairing and allow Law – or McMahon when Darby is fit – to create a tight three in the midfield but some distant worry niggles at my head and leaves me wondering if the changed McCall has changed for the better in learning the virtue of this kind of balanced middle four or if he may have fallen for an idea of attacking players rather than attacking chances.

The season is a long one and when it starts pre-season and its niggling worries are all but forgotten.

Wingers / Niedrigprozentig

Mark Marshall spent most of Phil Parkinson’s final season at Bradford City – and his first – sitting on the bench. He stands to spend his second season as one of the key players in Stuart McCall’s team.

On arrival at Valley Parade McCall discovered deep in a back cupboard a pair of wingers in Marshall and Paul Anderson in the same way one might knockdown a plasterboard wall in a Weatherspoons and find an ornate fireplace. Two flying wingers – as well as a tidy inside player in Filipe Morais – were idling around the training ground under contract and under used. It would seem that of all the things changed in the New Stuart McCall his love of a wide player is not one of them.

Said McCall on Marshall “He has proved he can play left or right. He’ll put crosses in from either side. We’ve had a bit of interest in him but for me he’s going nowhere. He can play a key part on both sides of the pitch. He likes to get wide and put crosses in and he gets lots of good balls in. And I’ll tell you what, he can finish. I know we haven’t seen it yet but he can do that as well.”

Wiki

Only one of ninety one crosses results in a goal.

That is as counter-intuitive a statement for supporters of English football – especially those of a certain age – to hear but with the plethora of statistical analysis of Premier League and Football League games over the last few season it has become obvious that eight-nine attempts to cross a ball do not result in a goal.

It cuts against the grain for a generation of City fans who grew up watching – loving – Peter Beagrie and Jamie Lawrence and then enjoyed Omar Daley, Kyel Reid and Adam Reach. Watching a winger tear into a full back is one of my favourite things to watch in football. But it is not one of the most effective.

This is attested to in research presented at Harvard and in in FourFourTwo magazine. Teams which cross the ball in open play more than others are significantly practically disadvantaged in scoring goals.

Crossing makes you lose more often. With a 0.01% chance of crossing resulting in a goal it is both inefficient as a way of creating goals and a poor way of retaining meaningful possession in the final third, as cross often results in turning over possession, and thus impairs other excellent ways of creating goals. Given the number of crosses in a game and that given that there are two teams in a given game one can only expect any single team to score from a cross once ever six games.

Once a month you can expect to see a cross result in a goal, and it could be against you.

Crossing, on the whole, does not work. Why did Phil Parkinson bring in two wingers? Why does Stuart McCall like them now? Read on, dear reader…

Tiki

The number of crosses (which is to say those in open play) in a game of English football has been falling for the past ten years. There are many reasons for this but all those reasons are haunted by the notional attachment to the Barcelona style of play known as Tiki-Taka. Tiki-Taka itself is a statistical reduction of the analysis that teams with low possession score fewer goals. Keep the ball away from the opposition and they will not be able to score. It is an inherently defensive tactic and always has been but has always been misunderstood as being based around attacking possession.

The world fell in love with Tiki-Taka because it fell in love with Barcelona and with Lionel Messi and this love blinding managers to some of the system’s drawbacks. First it is very hard to drill players into a Tiki-Taka system and equally hard to integrate new players into it. The authoritative work on this is I Am Zlatan where the iconic Swede all but states that Barcelona should change of they play to suit him because it is impossible for him to play as they do. Secondly it requires a specific possession skill-set in all but two of the eleven outfield players (goalkeeper, and one central defender who is allowed to be a clogger) and by requiring that skillset it diminishes other skills.

Which is to say that to play a possession game approaching Tiki-Taka one filters one’s players on how best they fit the skills needed and necessarily ignores those who have skills which do not fit. This reached an English nadir in Euro 2016 when Iceland’s overran an English midfield of Wayne Rooney, Dele Alli and Eric Dier. All three selected for the positions for their abilities in possession football rather than their abilities as central midfielders. Let us hope that Sam Allardyce does things differently.

This approach has become common in the Premier League rank and file and at clubs up and down the Football League who hold pretensions. If we take the definitive middle of the Premier League club at the moment – Everton – and look at their line ups towards the end of last season 1, 2, 3 one sees a morass of possession based attacking midfield players: Ross Barkley, James McCarthy, Tom Cleverley and Aaron Lennon.

Lennon is titularly a winger but started his career as a centre-forward at Leeds United before drifting out wide where he can beat players with pace but has no devastating cross to speak of. He is able to hold a ball and play a possession game and so he prospers. And this is not to criticise Lennon just to suggest that the game prizes some abilities he has to an extent where it overlooks ones he does not. Roberto Martinez – Everton manager at the time – would rather not lose possession than deliver a cross that found Lukaku more than one in ninety times.

It is not restricted to managers either. When he was favoured at Valley Parade many a fan’s team sheet was drawn up with a 433 that saw Devante Cole deployed in a wide attacking position despite seemingly never having crossed a ball in his life. Other skills are viewed of as more important.

Kiki

Which is to say that crossing has declined so it works one time in ninety because players selected by managers are not selected for their abilities to cross a ball and so quality suffers. As a result the ability of defences to deal with crosses has suffered from lack of use and a filtering of selection. When teams cross less they do other things and other defensive attributes are needed to play against them. Man-marking is more important than heading away high passes in much of football because there are so few high passes and so much movement into attacking space.

One hates to refer to England 1 Iceland 2 again but watching Chris Smalling play against the Icelanders is watching a player who has never been on a field against a James Hanson trying to work out where to stand against a player who does not want to spin off him.

Likewise strikers spin off defenders, they take up and look for space rather than occupying a defender as once they did. And the strikers who are good at finding space in order to retain possession are the ones who managers are picking. Ibrahimovic is once again the case in point here. His inability to retain possession in the way Tiki-Taka festished it meant that players who previously would have been described as midfielders were picked ahead of him for Barcelona to play as centre forward.

This was no problem for Barcelona and this is not a criticism of their achievements but rather an illustration of the priorities which football has fostered. Being good at attacking the area where there is no space – that is to say where a cross is aimed for in front of the goal and thus a direct path to goal – is less important in football than getting into the areas where there is space because there is no direct path to goal.

Teams are bad at crossing, and bad at defending crosses, and bad at attacking crosses and so there is an opportunity for a team who can cross a ball well to do so. This, one suspects, is why Parkinson experimented with bringing in Anderson and Marshall in the first place and why he abandoned that experiment after a few games last season.

McCall can revive that experiment and there is a scope for an advantage if the rot in defensive abilities is deep enough that League One central defenders are not able to deal with a decently floated ball into the box but statistical trends are against a manager who sets up a team to cross that ball.

Teams that cross forego goals – so the information tells us – and goals are hard to come by.

Holes / Fit

Stuart McCall gets to the business of building a squad to compete in League One next season and he does so starting with a compliment of ten outfield players and no goalkeepers.

The goalkeeping situation offers most scope for change. Ben Williams – who is considering a new deal – would not suit McCall’s style of play at all. Williams’ weakness on crosses forced deep sitting defensive lines in Phil Parkinson’s final season. McCall needs a keeper who can control the defensive line, keep it high, and clear out any cross that comes behind it.

And then he needs another of these keepers as back up, and perhaps a third considering the changes to loan rules.

Across the back four Parkinson has left three solid players: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and James Meredith; and certainly Meredith seems to be exactly the type of attacking left back which McCall fielded all through his management career. Darby offers a balance on the right and – unless Parkinson is able to call either of both like some crazed Boltonian head of the herd – McCall would be best advised to keep both in position.

Rory McArdle seems a player to build any defence around and McCall’s fondness for a big central defender was personified in Marius Žali?kas at Rangers a year ago. During his first spell at the club McCall inherited David Wetherall and Mark Bower and ended up struggling to work out what he wanted from his central defensive pairing.

The new City manager often preferred two commanding central defenders and McArdle fits that bill but he has played his best football last season with a faster, clean up player alongside him and McCall might be advised to find one of that type of player as well as cover.

Considering Phil Parkinson’s sit deep team Stuart McCall might be surprised to find he has two wingers in his dressing room. Both Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson need to perform significantly better to be considered League One standard – which for Anderson is a bold statement considering his pedigree and remunerations – but the new manager has shown a commitment to wide play which affords an opportunity.

Filipe Morais and Tony McMahon are not McCall’s definition of a wide player but both could prove useful if in the merits of a better balanced midfield are to the fore. This all assumes that McCall will play the 442 formation he did at Valley Parade in 2010.

McMahon proved last season his ill-fit in a central midfield role being to weak in the tackle to hold the middle of the pitch. McCall needs an entire new engine room for his team. Last time he favoured one robust midfielder and one more attacking player while fielding two who could still be considered box to box players. It will be interesting to see if in the intervening time he has gained any faith in specialist defensive midfielders.

He has four players to bring in for that area. It will be interesting to see who they are and what roles they will take. McCall needs to find character and leadership in those positions and those things are seldom going free in a summer. It is easy to say that McCall needs to find his McCall, and is not untrue.

One midfielder is expected to be returning is Nicky Law Jnr. The Junior being increasingly humorous in a man who, like your author, has inherited his father’s hairline.

Up front McCall finds familiar face James Hanson. Discussion on Hanson will always be split and split along an ideological line. Hanson is the only player City have who could clearly be said to be the best at an aspect of the game in the division. People can cross a ball better, and shoot better, and defend better but no one in League One is as commanding in the air as Hanson.

This has massive implications for the opposition going into game. If a manager ignores Hanson he faces the prospect of watching his team be dominated from corners and crosses. If he takes special measure for Hanson he surrenders more space to other City forwards. That two men are marking Hanson at set plays affords space to someone else.

Ideologically though some are unable, unwilling or uninterested in this sort of dynamic between teams and are of the school of the thought that suggests it is for a team to dominate and dictate their way of playing onto the opposition. McCall was of this mindset too, far more than Phil Parkinson, and it will be interesting to see if he has changed.

The aforementioned Clarke seems very much McCall’s new Michael Boulding and while one can expect the manager to look at bringing in strikers one doubts Clarke will be hurried out of the door. Reece Webb-Foster will probably be given a chance – McCall’s record on untried players is a stark contrast with Parkinson’s – and another rumour reunites McCall with brief Rangers loanee Haris Vu?ki?.

Player / Season

If you look back through the list of people who have won Time magazine Man of the Year you see some curious names: Stalin, Hilter, Kissinger. Time Magazine’s award is not a prize for the best or most worthy, nor is it an indication of the most agreed with, it is a statement on how that person captures the year gone by.

So it is in that spirit where I dismiss talk of Reece Burke as City’s player of the season and champion Kyel Reid.

Reid, more than anyone, signals the fulcrum point of 2015/2016 and the two Bradford City City’s that played in it. Brought in to replace the injured and floundering Paul Anderson Reid’s return from Preston North End signalled an acknowledgement from Phil Parkinson that something was going rotten in his Denmark.

Reid’s performances have continued the theme that Reid’s performances do. Some superb runs, some curious slaloms. Some controlled shots, some high wide handsomes. He plays with a smile and if his play does not make you then you are the worse for it. Watching a winger charge at a full back is one of football’s most glorious sights and Reid’s passion for that has taken me to the edge of my seat many times.

More than that though Reid was Parkinson’s man. A winger who borders on the flamboyant it is easy to exclude from one’s thoughts Parkinson having signed Reid three times in his career, including on his first day at Bradford City in 2011. The trust between manager and player is key here. As Parkinson watched his team ship goals he bright in an attacking player who he knew he could trust in defensive positions. As his team lacked character he brought in a player who he knew the shape for the dressing room. Reid fit in in 2015 because Reid fit in in 2011, and in 2010 at Charlton Athletic, because teams always need players with the character of Reid.

The turnaround in City’s season was not about mazy runs or pinpoint crosses it was about a solid defence and a strong character and the return of Kyel Reid – along with Tony McMahon’s move onto the right hand side of midfield – cemented that. One might want the best from Paul Anderson/Mark Marshall last year and next but Parkinson needs them to build a rapport with their full back. Reid seldom gets credit for his defensive positioning – and sometimes he is maligned for it as a kind of holdover from the days of Omar Daley – but his connection to James Meredith in the defensive third of the field stops crosses.

After Kyel Reid’s return City won seventy points from thirty six games. That 1.94 points a game compares to champions Wigan’s 1.89 points per game over 46 matches. The importance of knowing the character of a player before bringing him to the club is a lesson taught time and time again and comparing the failing Mark Marshall to Reid teaches it once more.

Reid might not have a contract at Bradford City next season. He is another player waiting for the retained list and perhaps worrying about how much investment Stefan Rupp and Edin Rahic will invest for other talent. But the example of Reid this season should inform next. Recruitment is not about something more that technical gifts. It is about reliability and character and if the players who come in at August 2016 do not have that then I’d hope Kyel Reid is sitting by his phone.

Budgets / Transparency

As one set of owners left and another arrived something of interest emerged in dispatches when it was revealed that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City had the fourth biggest wage budget in League One last season.

Parkinson’s side finished fifth in the division and probably at least two of the teams above City in spending were above in the table too (Millwall and Wigan Athletic, Sheffield United probably being the third) but the question is poised as to how one would know these relative positions.

The Salary Cost Management Protocol (SCMP) is the answer. It is a series of documents which completed for the Football League by the clubs in League One and League Two which gives an overview of the spending on wages.

Football League rules denote that only a certain amount of a club’s turnover can be spent on wages. That is 60% in League One, 55% in League Two. A club that spends more than that percentage will have a Football League transfer embargo.

And this is possible because the figures looked by the SCMP are based on projections rather than actual amounts. The clubs project the spending and the income they have and update the Football League monthly with changes to those projections.

The Football League collate them into the SCMP which is distributed in a fashion around the FL clubs in the interests of Financial Fair Play but is better than nothing. This is distributed once a month leaving City knowing that they were ranked fourth in spenders in League One.

So a club will tell the FL how much it is spending on wages in August and then any loan signings in or out can be added or subtracted. Youth loans and a club’s players under twenty are not included in the calculation. Transfer fees are included.

All clubs will update the FL on any changes in turnover which could see a projected 54% become a 56% while remaining the same absolute outgoing expenditure. If a club can increase its turnover from, for example, additional gate receipts from added cup ties then the same absolute outgoing expenditure would represent less of a percentage of turnover.

Injections of funds from the directors to the club add to the turnover figure but not loans from those directors. This is not the case in The Championship of the Premier League where injections are excluded leading to former champions Manchester City being punished by UEFA and current champions Leicester City being punished for spending too much in The Championship. I suspect both sleep well at night.

Sixteen

Bradford City’s fourth position last season, and the sale of players for cash like Devante Cole and Gary Liddle, could paint an interesting narrative as the season progressed. Filipe Morais – one of the longer contracts at the club – was injured in pre-season and still had to be paid taking up a percentage of the SCMP. Paul Anderson was also injured long term and took a percentage.

Let us assume that – for the sake of this first argument – of the 55% of turnover that Parkinson was allowed to spend on players Anderson and Morais accounted for a 10% of that figure. That Kyel Reid came in to add to the squad may have added another 5% but that would have (assuming City were operating at the full 55%) seen City spending 60% of turnover and running into problems.

City’s James Mason stated last season “(City’s) turnover has fluctuated between £4 million and £7.5 million in recent years, depending on our success on the field.”

This also illustrates the difference between a club’s ranking in the SCMP and the value they are able to put on the field.

For practical reasons then it seems that it is probably a good idea to not run a club spending 55% of turnover on wages. Indeed if a club goes within 5% of the maximum the Football League send men in suits to investigate.

To be prudent think of City spending 45% before Reid, and 50% after, and being on the margin before the Football League investigates which is – I would imagine – the last thing one wants in a club one is trying to sell.

When Gary Liddle left his wage was removed, his transfer added and Josh Cullen’s wage was not solving a potential problem. I reiterate that this is just an example of what could have happened, not a statement of what did.

As supporters we do not get to find that out. The opacity of the Football League transparency is not what it could be.

Seventeen

With new owners able to inject funds how much 55% of City’s turnover will be on playing wages is pure guesswork. Having bought a Football League One club, and not a Championship club, were Stefan Rupp want to put his entire €100m fortune in to buy and fund a squad he could do.

He could not do this following promotion to the Championship which perhaps goes some way to explaining the ceiling which is starting to appear in the middle of second tier of English football.

However we do know that if one is looking to maximise the amount allowed under SCMP then signing – and paying for the signings of – players like Reece Burke and Josh Cullen is a way to sign players while keeping the 55% of turnover untouched.

Assuming a squad of around twenty professional players were a club to bring in four Josh Cullens on loan then it would be able to use (and the figure here is a low average based on Mason’s figure) 55% of the £5m turnover on the other 16 players which equates to allowing an average of about £3,300 a week. Spreading the same money over twenty players gives an average wage of £3,650 a week.

If Mr. Rupp and Mr. Rahic were to throw in an extra £1m then an average of £4,000 a week for a sixteen professional squad. For a twenty man squad it would be £3,175 a week. An extra £2m brings that to £3,750 a week for twenty men and if £7m were split between £4,650 a week for a sixteen man squad with four Josh Cullens.

Finding four loan players who play like Josh Cullen – play off first leg choke excluded – is a different matter.

To put this in some context City’s highest paid player is believed to be on around £8,000 a week at the moment. That that player has stepped down from The Championship has not guaranteed success. (There is little way of avoiding the fact it is Paul Anderson, but apologies for saying it)

All of which illustrates two things.

First how slight the returns are for investment. Were Rupp and Rahic throw £10m at the club then not only would they be in the position of having to find something at Valley Parade to invest the £4.5m which could not be spent on players on but only then would they be able to pay a twenty man squad the current highest wage of £8,000. But £10m for a team of twenty Paul Andersons is not the sort of thing anyone wants.

Second the efficiencies of developing squad players from the youth ranks who allow for an increased average expenditure on the senior professionals. Too often football clubs have an attitude that a young player has to be either in the starting eleven, or nowhere near the team. Like lottery tickets they are either winners or waste.

SCMP gives them a usefulness. If a team can have a half dozen trusted young players that might not make the grade long term but can fill in at left back on a Tuesday night in Scunthorpe in case of injury then it is able to focus more resources on the senior professionals. This has not been a problem in the past because resources have been throttled at Valley Parade but going forward it may become more pressing a problem.

Phil Parkinson’s has seldom shown an interest in youth development. It might be time that he started to.

Ultimate / Reasoning

The news that Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle will miss the first month and two months of the season respectively following operations leaves Bradford City in a position of having five players for the opening day of the season.

Of the entire City squad – stripped of those on loan or on contracts that run out at the end of June – Phil Parkinson has James Meredith, Mark Marshall, James Hanson, Josh Morris, Filipe Morais, Paul Anderson and Tony McMahon remaining (see comments below). With recruitment over the summer a problem for the City boss but with investment having arrived one wonders if things were not meant to be this way.

Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp had declared an interest in buying City twelve months ago. One can assume that that interest became more concrete as the season went on. One wonders how much impact the German pair’s arrival had on Parkinson’s winter spending. Had the previous regime known they were selling the club would they have authorised signing players on deals that went beyond the end of the season? Would Parkinson have wanted them to?

Devante Cole – a square peg at Bradford City – left for around £45,000 and a loan deal for Jamie Proctor that became a short term contract. The money – one imagines – went into the books for negotiation making the club look healthier and Parkinson was not saddled with an eighteen month contract for a player (Proctor) who he probably would not want if he had improved resources.

The reported £85,000 for Gary Liddle caused a lot of upset and head scratching at the time but perhaps makes more sense now. The player is sold, the money goes onto the bottom line of the club, and Liddle is replaced with a loan player in Cullen improved the team. Again knowing that the club would be being invested in one might speculate that Parkinson would have been looking to replace Liddle with some Bradley Dack-a-like.

So Parkinson goes into the recruitment phase with a near clean slate which – if the James Hanson to Sheffield United talk come to fruition – could be even cleaner because of the approach to signing players adopted in the last transfer window.

As Alan Sheehan – who departed yesterday to Luton Town – might have been tempted to say. There is just an inner circle left at the club now and that seems to be the way it is supposed to be.

End / End

All good things, it is often said, must come to an end and so it was that on the 48th game of a season that started with an unsettlingly easy 4-1 defeat at Swindon Town Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City acquiesced to remaining in League One for another season.

City lost a two legged game 4-2 to Millwall and while there was plenty to be said about those games: why was that wall lined up like that? Why was a handball to deny a goalscoring opportunity not the cause of a red card?; more needs to be said about how City got to the play-offs.

Parkinson’s team had been built to win promotion, but struggled badly, and what was built was rebuilt. 2015/2016 was the year of two the Bradford City teams. The first was a team with flying wingers – even in the inside midfielders were wingers at heart – and had a name goalkeeper and a pacey forward. The second was a nailed together collection of talented loan players, short term signings and making the best of what was there.

And to that extent the success of this Parkinson this season – his ability to forge a team from scraps – is also his failure in that the summer recruitment of 2015 has more than anything shaped the campaign. That failure is shared – very little at a modern football club is down to one man – but the lessons from it need to be understood for the club to make progress.

The success of this season was the return of Kyel Reid as Parkinson attempted in a reboot of his team. Lee Evans and Josh Cullen were better than anyone can expect a pair of loan players to be and Reece Burke showed no little ability but each of those successes is a retrofit to a mistake in the summer. Jamie Proctor, who others adore but I have reservations over, arrived a swap for Devante Cole.

Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall had campaigns which neither would like to remember. That Anderson’s was hampered by a broken leg was unfortunate but neither before or after did he look like he was going to prove as useful to the side as Reid has. Likewise Tony McMahon’s season leading number of assists is impressive but his place on the right hand side of midfield was a result of his failure in the holding midfield role Cullen would take.

It is impressive that Parkinson found a way to make McMahon work – he is certainly the City manager’s type of character – but had McMahon, Anderson, Marshall et al started the season as well the likes of Evans, Burke and Cullen finished it then the play-offs would have been a consolation in a failed promotion bid rather than a richly deserved reward after playing catch-up.

The failure to recruit a goalkeeper – remember Jussi Jääskeläinen in a City shirt – which concluding with a disinterested Brad Jones wandering away led to Ben Williams which in turn led to a team necessarily stacked towards defending. Williams deserves some credit for a record number of clean sheets this season but never had a City team been so committed to not allowing the opposition to cross the ball and that commitment to defence and mutated the team into a glass-jawed pugilist able to take nine our of ten blows but incapable of landing a knock-out blow and on the canvas when something gets through the guard.

The credit for Parkinson is that he recognised that he had to shape his team in this way and – after doing so – shaped that team superbly. The fix worked, and some, and the fact that City were in the play-offs at all is a success far outweighs the problems in the first half of the first leg, and the second half of the second, and for that matter in the summer of poor recruitment.

Without Parkinson everything that is good about Bradford City would be lost.

Change

Next season everything about Bradford City changes.

The game that Bradford City play is changing. The next time you watch Bradford City a player making a foul while trying to play the ball in the penalty area that denies a goalscoring opportunity will not be sent off with the penalty and a yellow card being punishment enough.

That player would be sent off were the foul outside the penalty area leading to the potential for a situation where a player in the first minute of a game might beg the referee to place the offence in the box, not outside it, thinking that one down with eleven is better than level with ten.

Also a dog can head the ball into the net now, and it can still be a goal.

The players Bradford City play the game with is changing. Obviously a large number of the current squad are either out of contract or were on loan. A retained list will come out which will probably reduce the squad by four or five – we may have seen the last of Billy Knott, and that is a shame – while Lee Evans has already bid farewell to be followed by the other loan players. We will miss you Reece Burke. We will not miss Wes Thomas.

Loans in the style of Wes Thomas will not be replaced. The FIFA laws of the game have long been out of sync with how loans work in the Football League and the Football League have finally had to comply. Loans will be made in transfer windows. The team at the end of August will be the team at the start of January – Paul Anderson broken leg or not – and so more pressure is put on clubs to get their summer recruitment right.

We will never see another Kevin Wilson month loan cameo at Valley Parade again.

The club or Bradford City is changing. You do not need me, dear reader, to tell you the rumours around the ownership of the club or how much credibility those rumours have gained. The Rhodes family – who own 66% of the club – have long since said they are prepared to sell.

Whatever the reasons why the sale has suddenly become motivated, and whomever the new owners are, the challenges for the club remain and were unconquered in the co-chairmanship of Juliand Rhodes and Mark Lawn. The story that Bradford City missed out on Leicester City’s en vogue Jamie Vardy caused some amusement earlier this season but City seem to spend the summer months missing out on targets. Andy Williams ended up at Doncaster Rovers when Parkinson wanted him, Mark Beevers reached the play-off final with Millwall having sat around a table with City.

This is not a new problem. Chris Brandon once stunned his manager Stuart McCall by revealing how much he had been able to negotiate as a weekly salary. The club missed out on the chance to sign Gary Jones 12 months before he actually arrived having shown him around Valley Parade. Just after that Parkinson told me and Jason (The WOAP man, when he was still of this Parish) than every club needed someone who could get a deal over the line.

Recruitment is identifying targets and acquiring them in the most efficient way. If it were Lawn and Rhodes, of Mr Palidini, or the Germans, or the contacts George Galloway had (who never seemed to materialise, like all of Galloway’s promises) the task would be the same. Find more players to choose from and then the choice is made, sign them for the right price.

And this is the final headline of length, and with sub clauses, about how change will happen

That Parkinson was able to make a superb season out of the wreckage of the Summer 2015 recruitment is testament to his abilities as a manager. He got it wrong, and then got it right, and his right was bigger than his wrong.

But as Bradford City as a whole woke up with a sad heart after play-off defeat its worth noting that any failures done did not happen on the field against Millwall but in the summer before.

Bradford City need to be better at recruitment or this season will happen again, which might be no bad thing because it has been a blast, but were we to get recruitment right then we have a manager peerless to get the best out of them.

Phil Parkinson and the team of tautology

It seemed odd twenty minutes later but at half time I waxed lyrical about how good Walsall were.

Walsall were, after all, the first team to put the ball past Ben Williams in over eight games when they scored in what would be their manager Dean Smith’s final game in charge at the Bescot Stadium back in November and they had won that game.

At half time – defending City’s noisy North End – they had gnarled their way through the opening forty five minutes with the type of performance that City’s Phil Parkinson would have been proud of from his players.

Indeed Walsall’s James O’Connor typified the Saddlers approach to gutsy determination to not allow goalkeeper Neil Etheridge’s clean sheet to be dirtied. Away from Valley Parade during the transition period between City’s early season floundering and that eight games without concession it was exactly the sort of determination that O’Connor showed that Rory McArdle was dragging out every game.

But that was then, and this is now.

Transition

Turning this Bradford City team around this season ranks alongside Chelsea, Arsenal and Wembley twice in Phil Parkinson’s achievements as Bradford City manager.

So meek in surrender earlier in the season, and so aimless at times, this was to be a fallow year for Bradford City.

It was a season where signings did not work out – Paul Anderson watches from the bench, Mark Marshall nowhere, Brad Jones elsewhere – and where even the signings that did work didn’t work. How strange does Devante Cole’s decision to join a relegation battle in preference to staying at City look now?

Which is impressive is not just that Parkinson has spun this season into something when it threatened so often to be nothing but how he has done it.

Parkinson has created the team of tautology: A committed group of loan players.

Shut up Wesley!

Josh Cullen, Lee Evans, Reece Burke were a good chunk of the spine of Bradford City in the 4-0 win over Walsall and have been crucial in the transformation of the team. Indeed Cullen’s arrival allowed the much loved Gary Liddle to exit for Chesterfield and another relegation scrap and while one doubts Cullen (or Burke) will be starting next season in the Olympic Stadium with West Ham neither of them are committed to City in the long term.

But in the short term they are? And why is this? Loan players are as Wes Thomas has been. Oddly out of sorts perhaps, and stuck in their ways. Thomas was to the Bradford City support what Jamie Proctor became: The alternative to James Hanson;

Nevertheless Thomas’s unwillingness or inability to play a high pressing game – which resulted in opposition side’s getting an easy route out away from their own goal – has seen the player confronted with two choices: Parkinson’s way or no way at all. Being a loanee and able to ride out the rest of his deal Thomas seemingly did not care for the former and ended up with the latter.

Which has been City’s experience with loan players since their presence went from odd novelty to (apparently) a necessity in the last two decades of the game. If one includes Kyel Reid and Jamie Proctor as loan players (as they initially were) then half of City’s team could not be around next season.

So how are they not a team of Wes Thomas’s?

The fault is not with the stars

The answer to that question probably resides in Rory McArdle and James Hanson, who both returned to the side for the Walsall game, and with other long time servers like Stephen Darby, James Meredith and perhaps the aforementioned Reid.

There is an adage in football – which is attributed to Brian Clough but I’m sure pre-dates him – that a club is as good as its senior players. It seems that Parkinson believes that to be the case. There is a circle of players like Hanson, McArdle, Darby, Meredith, Reid, and perhaps extended to Ben Williams and Tony McMahon who create a tone and an atmosphere at the club which has in its way become a repeatable pattern of success.

To that circle – an inner circle perhaps – Parkinson trust everything. It is to those players who the manager turns when defeat to Coventry City and a draw at Shrewsbury Town has questioned the club’s play off credentials. And with rich reward too. Hanson scores his first professional hat-trick and remains the club’s top goalscorer while McArdle returns the club to clean sheets. The 24th of the season.

For younger players who arrive on loan at the club the message is obvious. Take your cue from that inner circle in how you play, and how you train, and learn the lesson about how far that sort of attitude will take you in football.

What do you learn

One wonders what a young player gets from League One football. Dele Alli – named PFA Young Player of the Year – started last year scoring against City for MK Dons. The intelligentsia have it that it is his blooding as a child in the lower leagues that maketh the man. As if the sort of cold Tuesday night in Crewe that the football media so often sneer at is actually of crucial importance in some way or other.

If it is then Cullen, Evans and Burke have those lessons which are attributed to Alli, and to his partner Harry Kane who wandered the lower leagues as a part of the loan system. Parkinson’s approach to the game involves making sure you are never out of a game – never cast adrift two or three goals behind – and keeping the competitiveness for ninety minutes.

To not lose easily perhaps sums it up best and contrasts with a Walsall side who saw the tide turn away from them on Saturday and did not want to get their feet wet in it. From dogs of war to puppies in the space of fifteen minutes and incapable of stopping the game from going away from them. Parkinson’s approach would have been to close the game down at 0-1, and he has been criticised for that, but only once or twice have City been out of matches all season.

That approach has become the season and there is something about Parkinson’s approach – about following Parkinson’s approach – that is instructive to young footballers. Certainly they show the trappings of players who understand the nature of league football. Burke is committed against Walsall ensuring nothing goes past him. Evans has a poor first half but Cullen carries his team mate through a bad forty five minutes and the pair emerge imperious at the end.

Cullen carries his team mate. A 20 year old loan player prepared to put some of his performance into making sure his team mate’s performance can recover. If that does not tell you the scale of Parkinson’s achievement with this group of players nothing will.

And the achievement is in the approach and the approach relies on the inner circle of players who maintain an attitude throughout the club.

After all these years City have finally got good at loans.

Do you remember the last time?

Just as City start to master loan signings then loan signings disappear. The loan system as we are used to it in the Football League is changing and next season loans are restricted to transfer windows. No emergency bringing in Kyel Reid after an injury to Paul Anderson, no drafting in Lee Evans because things are not going how you want them.

Next season’s summer recruitment has to be more fruitful than this year or the club face a long slog to Christmas but the same was true this season and when Hanson wandered off with the match ball – two headed goals and a powerful right foot finish – one might have wondered if Parkinson were forced to work with the players he had would he have been able to get them to the play-offs this season? If Paul Anderson had not had his leg broken would he be doing what Kyel Reid is now?

In this case retrospect does not have to provide an answer.

The strange case of Steve Davies as Peterborough win 2-0 at Valley Parade

When Graeme Westley was appointed manager of Peterborough United during the week he sent an e-mail to the club’s fans promising that The Posh would make 600 passes a game, leading to 25 shots, leading to victory.

He promised to win, of course, because all new managers promise to win football matches but the dressing that Westley – a manager with some qualification around the bottom of the Leagues – used was seductive. Not only would Peterborough win but they would pass there way to victory.

And passing equated to the beautiful game. Westley’s promise would be that he would have Peterborough United remoulded as the football good guys – the Barcelona of the Nene – but one game later a man had a broken leg and even the opposition manager felt free enough of sanction that he would directly state that the tiki-taka team were throwing themselves to the floor to cheat.

What City did wrong

Phil Parkinson had a lot to complain about after the game but little new to say.

The regret that goes towards Paul Anderson – who had his leg broken by a Michael Bostwick tackle in the first half which the Peterborough midfielder can share the blame with Referee Paul Tierney. Referees should not allow bad tackles to the point where players think that diving in as Bostwick did can ever be acceptable and when they do referees should punish them.

That Anderson will miss the rest of City’s season is a function of a Referee who feels that he does not have to take the duty of care that he has to players seriously. It should be made clear to players like Bostwick that when they make tackles with aggression and without care they will be sent off. They are not so they carry on doing it.

But tackles like that are a long way from the promise of beautiful football. Westley’s brand of football is steel tackles in a silken passing glove. For the entire match they showed the aggression normally associated with kick and rush football but married it with an attempt to play a passing game.

As a plan it could work, as could Parkinson’s more practical approach, but both require a level of commitment from players which was lacking from the City squad.

Anderson’s break adds to injury problems but more troubling has been the manager’s inability to get anything like a performance regularly from either Anderson or Mark Marshall on the other wing who slumped back down after a promising game last week.

Which is not to assign all the blame to two players – lethargy was common – but rather to say that just as shaping a team last season around Mark Yeates as playmaker failed because Yeates did not perform so this season stumbles because the angles of attack which glowed last week were absent this, and they were absent for the want of effort.

Players in teams that win games make it their business that the team plays well. This quality is lacking from the current City site some of the time, not all of it, but there is no one charged with maintaining that quality in the way that a Stuart McCall did, a Gary Jones did, or an Andrew Davies did.

Parkinson is battling the entropy of average performances and today he lost that battle all of which leaves the strange case of Steve Davies.

The strange case of Steve Davies

Replacing Paul Anderson midway through the first half it seemed unlikely that the entire game would hinge on substitute Steve Davies but it was the centre forward who played right wing who was ten years on the wrong side of the winger who raced forward for the first Peterborough United goal and his lack of positional sense to play in a position which is not his own that cost much.

However it was Davies’ header which hit defender then post a few minutes early which on a day with a dash more luck would have had the balance swung towards City.

Davies’ willingness to get involved was a contrast to his team mates but when a ball came to him in the box he swiped and missed, and another was stuck under his feet as he tried to get through, and nothing much went right for him.

Indeed he was left leaving Steven Darby with too much to do at right back as Westley’s side put in a second. As much as Davies tried he could get nothing right.

But try he did, even as things did not go right for him, and one can’t help but wish the rest of the player would follow his example.

Bradford City from all angles after the 2-2 draw with Sheffield United

Angles

…and what made Bradford City’s pay so impressive was the number of angles on which they attacked.

When the ball was in the middle of the field Lee Evans was able to use his not inconsiderable passing abilities to play in Mark Marshall on the right, or the much improved Paul Anderson who is starting to look like the player promised when he signed, on the left and to find Devante Cole who ranged around the forward line.

The old standby of the long diagonal pass from Rory McArdle to James Hanson was still a feature – coming as it did with the usual brutalising of Hanson by defenders – but there was much more for the Bantams to do to cause a threat.

The irony being that at the end of the game it was exactly the kind of attacking play – the long ball and the bluster – which ended up denying City victory.

Trajectories

That City should have won the game is to say that during the first half in which the Bantams were on top of the game there should have been more than a one goal lead after forty five minutes. The goal – coming ten minutes before the break – came from James Meredith following a ball which the full back had given up on and dinking the ball over Sheffield United keeper Mark Howard.

It was a break through based on pressure. City had been able to apply pressure many angles and as a result circumnavigated the Blades holding midfielder Louis Reed in a way that they were not against Bradley Dack of Gillingham or Shrewsbury’s Ryan Woods earlier in the season. Sheffield United, on the other hand, seemed to be at a loss for any kind of response.

The Blades wanted Phil Parkinson in the summer but settled for Nigel Atkins. Atkins’ teams try to play their football on the grass, and they try to pass and move, and the fail on the whole. Sheffield United look like a team who have gone backwards since last season while City look better.

Which is not to say that City have eclipsed United but that the trajectory of both clubs seemed obvious.

Obtuse

James Meredith – who it seems is on the brink of joining new goalkeeper Brad Jones in (or around) the Australia national squad – put the ball past the keeper who was making his first appearance following a hurled in Sheffield United throw in.

That City had a second goal came from Devante Cole chasing down another ball that it seemed the defenders would take but did not. Cole’s speed is impressive and so is his presence of mind in his play.

He charged down Howard’s attempt to clear and scored his third goal in four games. One day he will actually kick a ball into the goal at Valley Parade but until then his knees and arse efforts are validated by getting into dangerous position.

Meredith’s goal at each end was unfortunate and the result of the Blades having either run out of ideas in their passing game or abandoning them altogether. Long throw ins, long punts, and the Blades got back into the game but did so by sacrificing whatever principles they have adopted.

City, on the other hand, and under that pressure from Sheffield United’s more direct play fall back more gracefully to the default position of playing into a target man. Steve Davies replaced Cole and headed wide. James Hanson saw Jose Baxter head his powerful attempt from a corner off the line in the last action of the game.

That City were 2-2 at that point. A long pass from defence was picked up by Billy Sharp who race between Rory McArdle and in behind Reece Burke and the striker put in a rebound after Jones had saved well. Sharp took his goal well and Atkins will be pleased with the spirit his side showed in coming back into the game but worried that the way they were able to get back to parity was a long way away from the way they started the game, or want to play it.

I had one, two, three, four shots of happiness

In nineteen ninety-eight Bradford City started slowly. This is not rare. Many seasons have started badly but that is exceptional because it ended with promotion to the Premier League. Eight or so games in City drew 2-2 with Sheffield United – Dean Saunders was exceptional for the Blades that day – and following the game Paul Jewell’s struggling side started to gain admirers.

“I think we will make the play-offs” I observed, and was wrong, because Jewell’s side went better. Watching over recent years has been an extension of that feeling. It seems that Parkinson is building another team, making a another set of people to be better players, getting more and more out of the squad.

We only had one chance to see Paul Jewell do that at City – he only got to build one team – but Parkinson is in his third era now (The Wembley Team, The Chelsea Team, and now this) and his methods of blending the ill fitting Anderson into the useful player we saw today seem to work.

The post-script

Referee Neil Swarbrick would not have been in charge of this game had it not been “treated” to being played on Sunday morning for Sky TV and one cannot imagine the bog standard League One official who would have been there making such a mangling of the game.

Swarbrick presents himself as a man who believes that the Referees job is to be a part of the unfolding story of the game. Phrases like “playing the referee” seem to have ligitimised this type of thinking in officials who revel in their role as deus ex machina of events.

They are not. And when they are – as Swarbrick clearly enjoyed being – they ruin the narrative that a football match creates.

Starbrick has a single role: To enforce a set of rules handed to him dispassionately. Another referee once said “I’ve never sent a player off in my life, players get themselves sent off. I’m just there to make a note of it.”

No one forced the booked Billy Sharp to dive, or continue fouling, or scream at the referee following every decision against him and I’m not saying that I like that those things should result in cautions but they should. Swarbrick decided that it would be the turn of his hand that decided who lived or died, who could play and who could not, as befits his self appointed role beyond his remit.

Which took something from the spectacle.

Three more years as Phil Parkinson signs up but deserves more at Fleetwood

A false premise

Bradford City would have beaten Fleetwood Town with some ease were it not for a mistake by Ben Williams where the keeper fell behind the line trying to catch Jimmy Ryan’s free kick.

Phil Parkinson – who signed a three year contract to carry on as City manager this week – will have been pleased with how his team responded. James Hanson equalised after a great run by Devante Cole fed Josh Morris who crossed to the number nine who finished well.

And Cole hit the post later, and headed wide, and Hanson flashed another wide and with the last action of the game Steven Davies headed in a Lee Evans free kick which was ludicrously flagged offside by a linesman who – frankly – was pretending that the part of the rules that mention “benefit of the doubt” are simply not there…

The three types of mistake

It turns out that there are only really three types of mistake in football.

There is the type of mistake in which a person tries to do a right action and fails. This is the striker missing the open goal, the defender bringing down the player he tries to tackle, the goalkeeper who – in this case – goes behind the line with the ball.

We see this kind of mistake all the time in football. The stray pass is less highlighted than Williams’ mistake but is a version of the same. That Williams made the mistake is more costly than a Billy Knott pass that went past Morris and into touch does not mean the essence of the error is not the same.

A person tries to do something and does not achieve it. Mistake number one.

One is left with the conclusion that to blame Williams for the defeat is to punish him by virtue of the position he plays. It is – in this consideration – no more of a good idea to apportion blame to Williams than it would be to Devante Cole for trying to hit the goal but hitting the post.

Dropping a player for making a mistake is an obvious managerial mistake. It presupposes that the replacement player will never make a mistake – which is not true – and it sets the precedent that all players in the team are one slip away from being out of the team.

A team cannot play with confidence if it is one bad pass, one off target shot, one slip on the line away from the Reserves. A good manager knows this.

The second mistake

The second is the mistakes in which a person thinks he is doing the right action but is not.

This is the kind of mistake which defines how limited a player is. The best example to come to mind is Paul Jewell who – before he was a great manager and a decent centre forward – was a terrible winger who would sprint past a man well enough but never raise his head when crossing the ball.

Every cross randomly shot into the box for no one at all. It did not matter if the actions Jewell took of firing the ball over without looking were taken well or badly they were the wrong actions (or they were only right by chance) and so they were mistakes.

We deal with these mistakes all the time saying things like “that is the sort of player he is.” We do it with James Hanson who scored the kind of finish which he rarely scores because his skills are more battering ram than fox in the box. We did it with Hanson’s former strike-partner Nahki Wells who could sprint past any defender and would have considered the kind of goal which Hanson claimed at Fleetwood to be all in an afternoon’s work but seldom involved himself in the approach play as Devante Cole did all afternoon.

Which is not a criticism of Wells but an acceptance that some players do the wrong things – this second type of mistake – and some do not. Cole’s afternoon in front of goal could have been more fruitful – misses are mistake one – but his all round play promises so much.

Cole involves himself in build up, he moves into position in the box, and he thinks about what he will do on the ball before he gets the ball. Even when these things do not come off – be it hitting the post or blazing over the bar – they have such scope.

Cole does not make this second type of mistake but Ben Williams does when he pushes the defence out further than he can cover when he comes off his line. If you are convinced that this is Williams’ problem then Saturday’s mistake was neither here nor there. I want a goalkeeper who can control the area in front of him and Ben Williams does not do that well enough to be a part of a successful team.

As it is there seems to have been a waiting for Williams to make a mistake – a type one mistake – before he can be dropped which should it happen seems undignified and troubles me. If I make a value judgement on how Williams keeps goal I find myself wanting someone else but that is an honest decision. Parkinson using Saturday as a pretext to make the change he wanted to but could not seems like a decision fudged.

The third mistake

The third type of mistake a person can make in football may not really a mistake at all. It is to follow instructions that bring about the wrong action. It is for a full back to stay back and hold the line rather than attack because those are the manager’s instructions. It is for a midfielder to not chase down the ball but to keep in position. It is for Rory McArdle to play a long pass to James Hanson because that is how Phil Parkinson has instructed the team to play.

One can hear these described as mistakes often. “Just hitting it long” seems to be a bugbear and when Steve Davies came on for Cole late on as Parkinson looked to consolidate what he had rather than go after what he wanted at 1-1 there were noises that the manager had brought the wrong player for the occasion on.

Davies, as it happened, scored with almost the last touch of the game heading in after a free kick but it was ruled out – another type of mistake – but he remit was to come on and hold the ball up front which he did as Parkinson’s game management came to the fore.

Another game without defeat builds confidence within the squad which was Parkinson’s aim from the opening exchanges of the season. Players who were lagging behind the line are coming up to speed – Paul Anderson was his most impressive today – and players like Billy Knott are being given challenges which they rise to.

The premise of Parkinson’s management at City has always been gradual improvement through a squad which stood together. Parkinson’s progress is not about smash and grab raids and it is about not losing, and taking a point even if you did deserve more.

Bradford City from finish to start as Devante Cole starts in style in the win over Port Vale

After ninety six minutes of the game the Referee – a rather finicky official named Jeremy Simpson – alleviated the final pressure from Port Vale to and blew this last of many whistles. The game won with a goal by new recruit Devante Cole a minute earlier had threatened to end scoreless – a second blank ninety minutes following the draw at Barnsley – but Cole’s latching onto a ball which bounced into the box saw him able to cap a début cameo in the finest way one might imagine.

Cole beat Mark Marshall to the ball in the box and Marshall had some return for a afternoon of frustration against his former club where often he seemed to operate on a different wavelength to that being used by his team mates. Marshall poised more of a threat as the game wore on and it is obvious that for all his speed his main attribute is delivery. He excels in his delivery and had he got to the ball he might have been expected to score too but he did not, Cole did, but Marshall seemed not at all concerned with who put the ball past Jak Alnwich in the Port Vale goal as long as one of the two men in the box had.

That there were two men in the box to celebrate the goal came, in no small part, to the work of James Hanson on the edge of the eighteen yard line. Hanson suffered a blow to the leg earlier in the match and as City hit the ball to him he was marked one in front and one behind and he darted away and under the long pass Rory McArdle had played taking the defenders, one in front and one behind, out of the penalty area leaving a large space in which the ball bounced and Mark Marshall and Devante Cole lurked.

That the space was formed behind Hanson, who took two defenders one in front of him and one behind him out of the penalty area was because Rory McArdle had his the ball long and accurately towards him. McArdle’s passing to Hanson has been a significant route to attack for Phil Parkinson’s side in last three years and so it was again. A tried and tested pass forward which McArdle was able to play not in a rush – a rush would have been to hit the ball when he picked up up seconds and twenty yards before – but when he was ready and where he wanted to play it from.

Rory McArdle, walking the ball forward, looking for James Hanson with one in front of him and one behind him, and knowing that even though the fourth minute of four in injury time will elapse soon there is a benefit to an accurate forty five yard pass over a wilder seventy yard punt. McArdle who has slowly begun to take to the role of seniority in the back four and who got the ball from Reece Burke who seems as assured a stand in as one could imagine playing with. Burke and James Meredith had made some progress down the left in the second half after a scattershot first in which Marshall appeared to appear in random places and no pattern to the attacking thrust down the left could be established.

The requirement for Marshall on the one side and Paul Anderson on the other to provide more attacking thrust – rather than just to join central midfield – was largely because of the performance of Gary Liddle in the centre of midfield. Liddle quietly put in the kind of defensive shielding performance which the likes of Ryan Woods were lauded for. Liddle slotted back into the role breaking up Port Vale’s attacking play and playing simple balls to midfield partner Lee Evans and later Billy Knott.

Liddle was composure and with his strength Evans and Knott were able to drive from midfield and there were signs of a healthy responsibility for the ball. Evans dropped between the lines to take the ball from Burke and McArdle and looked for targets which were hard to find, but hard to find against a Port Vale side who had four clean sheets in six games. As the game continued players began to make themselves targets, increasingly confident that Liddle would win the ball, that McArdle would play the ball, that Hanson would head the ball.

“Real bottle,” Peter Beagrie said and I paraphrase, “on the football field is doing the right thing the twelfth time even when it has failed the last eleven times because it is the right thing.”

And I am not inclined to disagree with him.

Taking back control of the result as Bradford City draw 0-0 at Barnsley

When talking this week about the need for Bradford City’s players to put in a Bradford City performance manager Phil Parkinson engaged in a little modesty, and a little evasion.

I don’t think there was enough out there in terms of the Bradford spirit and determination we’ve known – and that didn’t sit easy with me – Phil Parkinson

Four years ago on Tuesday saw the Bradford City manager who proceeded Parkinson go into a broad room meeting trying to justify a lifeless performance against Dagenham & Redbridge and failing. He resigned and within a week Parkinson came to the club after the cameo of a Colin Cooper 4-2 against Barnet.

Many wanted Cooper to have the job and Parkinson, less obviously attacking in his approach than Cooper, was criticised as he went about a process that made City more predictable and by virtue of that less interesting.

Jackson’s last side was as lifeless as one could imagine but it was not criticised for that having come after Peter Taylor’s weak outfits and Stuart McCall’s sides who famously could take an offside decision going against them in a win and sulk it up into a six game losing run.

This has been the way Bradford City have been perhaps since Paul Jewell left the club in the Summer of 2000. For those ten years we were a club often at the whim of external forces be they financial or on the field. To a greater or lesser extent until Parkinson arrived City were a club who seemed unable to control its own fortunes.

Unless one wants to journey back decades then it would be more accurate to say that it is not a “Bradford City performance” that Bradford City failed to show in the 2-1 defeat to Gillingham it was a Phil Parkinson performance.

Modus operandi

Having watched Phil Parkinson’s teams over the last four years it strikes one that first and foremost the City boss demands the level of effort which was lacking from his players on Tuesday night. For much of Parkinson’s time at the club he has been able to select a team from a squad who all were able to reach that level required.

That that situation was coming to an end has been obvious for some time. If one believes that the Gillingham performance would not have happened had Jon Stead been in the forward line, or had Andy Halliday been in the team, then one convicts oneself of the most idealised thinking.

On Tuesday night – and over the week – it became obvious that he did not have eleven who put in what Parkinson requires and so new faces were called in: Reece Burke on loan from West Ham United, Lee Evans from Wolves.

In the past four years Parkinson’s loan signings – as opposed to his loan to purchase deals – have largely been to decorate the fringes of his team. Burke and Evans came straight into the side recalling Parkinson’s first month at the club when the likes of Matt Duke, Jamie Devitt, and Andrew Davies were signed and put into the side.

Loan signings disrupt the flow of a team, but when the team is not flowing what is to lose?

Replacements in South Yorkshire

In the event Lee Evans turned in a fine performance in central midfield as the Bantams had more control of the central area than they had in any game previously this season. It should not be said that Christopher Routis is the sum of the problems at Bradford City but with him injured, and Tony McMahon ill, the middle two of Evans and Gary Liddle looked to have the kind of solidity which has been lacking of late.

Evans will be at the club for five months at least. He is young and has some ability. His signing on loan suggest is is an after thought but one finds it hard to believe that Parkinson can have thought that he could go into the season with such poor resources in central midfield and perhaps Evans’ two weeks sitting out games at Wolves focused his mind on how to progress his career at another club.

Only here for a month Reece Burke – 19 years old and having only played five games previously – slotted into the defence alongside Rory McArdle and never looked out of place. Burke put in a calm, assured performance as one might expect from a player on his debut but he seems to be a short term solution to the problem of replacing Andrew Davies.

Alan Sheehan – who has performed the role better than anyone else this term – was on the bench and is thought to be about to leave the club. Millwall defender Mark Beevers has had talks over a move but those talks came to nothing. Nathan Clarke is on the bench until such a time as Parkinson redeems him.

Redemption/reconstruction

While there were chances for Bradford City to win at Oakwell against Barnsley Parkinson’s City were not seeking a redemption so much as reconstruction.

Burke slotted into a back four which was supported by a central midfield who did not stray too far up field and most of the afternoon the full backs were supported by the corresponding wingers Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall.

Parkinson has made it clear that we are at a stage in the season were we can judge all the players (except for Brad Jones, once again absent having missed training all summer) but judgements on those two wide players – and a third Josh Morris – are not kind.

Anderson has – thus far – failed to live up to the hefty reputation he arrived with. His performance against Gillingham was risible and while he was defensively better at Oakwell he showed only very occasional abilities to go beyond the forward line and link onto what could be won by James Hanson.

There is much to do for Anderson.

Josh Morris – who replaced Anderson after just over an hour – has shown more in terms of the ability but is frustratingly easy to knock off the ball for a player with pretensions to take a central midfield role as well as a wide one. For defenders playing against Morris is about playing on the line of fouling and hoping that the Referee has no sympathy for the player who concludes every challenge looking back at the official and appealing.

More curious is Mark Marshall who has very good delivery of a ball when he happens upon the right position to deliver it from but getting Marshall into those positions seems to be a random process. Defensively he issues vague and wrong instructions to the full back behind him but such things are worked on in training and that could improve with time.

Going forward Marshall needs to position himself to take on defenders and go forward rather than to dribble past central midfielders and move sideways. A man who can beat a player is useful when attacking but dribbling through central midfield is dangerous at worse, and fairly pointless at best.

One understands Marshall’s frustrations even without agreeing with his way of venting them.

City’s trip to Barnsley was about keeping a clean sheet and in keeping a clean sheer starting building belief in the squad that it is master of its own destiny. The balance was in favour of defending and none of the wide players was given much of a remit to attack. Parkinson wanted to see if Anderson, Marshall, and Morris were prepared to dig in, that the team were prepared to do as told, and to be responsive for achieving an outcome, and the answer was a qualified yes.

In this context Steve Davies and James Hanson toiled up front with the latter often isolated and the former missing a great chance when one on one with Adam Davies in the Barnsley goal.

One doubts Parkinson will lose much sleep over that. He goes into training for the first time this season – and I would say the first time since Reading – with a team that can be said to have had control over the outcome of the game rather than been buffeted on the winds of occasion.

That was the first thing Phil Parkinson achieved when he arrived at City four years ago. He hopes to have won it back on Saturday.

Parkinson under pressure after City lose 2-1 at home to Gillingham

One wonders how quickly the pressure that swirls around football managers will start to swarm on Phil Parkinson after Bradford City lost a one goal lead to be beaten by Gillingham.

Pressure from results should be irrelevant. Results in football are both the most and least important thing in the game.

They are the most important because they are what the entire football club is geared towards achieving but the least for the same reason. As the sum of all the efforts of a club they aggregate out accurately in most cases. When those efforts are lacking then it is not important that the results are so much as it is an obvious effect.

Which was the case tonight as City’s early season crystallised.

Once again Phil Parkinson favoured the three man midfield with a playmaker but tonight the reason for that choice was not so much the dogged determination to force Christopher Routis into a position so much as the manager addressing the problems that were on the field against Gillingham, and probably seen in training for weeks.

And those problems were distributed around the field, and those problems were largely to do with the level of effort which the players applied and the amount of commitment which those players had.

The level of effort was not enough generally and it was not enough specifically in the case of Parkinson’s two wide players Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson.

“There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them there.”

If there is an experience in football which fills me with dread its the winger who screams for the ball while hugging the touchline. They are the Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin of football. If only the ball could be got to them in whatever position suits them then they would use their influence to turn the game around.

The onus on the other players to serve them. It is the antithesis of the way of thinking and of playing which has seen Bradford City rise from League Two via Wembley and Chelsea.

And Parkinson – in August 2015 – has two of these players.

Marshall demanding the ball in his own half so he can run into the crowded midfield beating men but not making progress. Anderson getting the ball, turning from goal, and laying it off. Both of these players could be great in the future but if they are they need to make games like tonight far away exceptions to their common performances.

I have no truck with the idea that the other players on the field owed these touchline-huggers the ball.

Players get the ball when they are in good positions. When wingers run towards full backs effectively compressing their own team they are worse than useless. When wingers stand behind covering players they are worse than useless. When wingers watch the central midfield struggle from a distance they are worse than useless.

And it was obvious to me while watching Parkinson unleash his two wide men kept under wraps since signing that he must have noticed this tendency in both at the moment and that has forced him to pick narrow formations that exclude them.

There are two ways to play football: To make things happen, or to be a part of things that happen.

The last few years we have been spoilt with players who made things happen: Gary Jones, Andrew Davies et al; and out history as a club idolises them: Stuart McCall, Peter Beagrie et al; and the way those players was contagious.

And they spread their ethos of taking responsibility for the performance around the team. The culture at City in the last few years and at our best has been one of players taking responsibility for performances.

Tonight we had wingers standing with arms in the air. An illustration of the exact opposition of what brings results.

I refuse to write off careers on the basis of a few games but as far as I have seen of both Marshall and Anderson they have not even begun to show the character that success demands. This requirement comes into play before one considers the ability they may or may not have.

The questions marks

Wingers was not the sum of the problem.

We have a group of players who present with question marks over their character who have come into a group of players who had question marks over their character.

This is the team that surrendered to Bristol City, this is the team that were found wanting in the last third of last season following Andrew Davies’ injury, and those problems have not been addressed in the summer recruitment.

There is no pirouette to perform which says that it is the fault of the new players for polluting the old or the old players for not unleashing the new. There is a significant lack of character and willingness to take responsibility for performances that manifests in different ways and to different extents around the team and the squad.

And while some players are more guilty than others all players – and the manager – have to improve the collective. It is hideous in its cliché but the tide needs to rise, to float all the boats.

There is the continuing mystery of Gary Liddle who played a good performance in central defence rather than the much needed role in midfield. There was the problem with Tony McMahon who when put in central midfield represents the softest centre. I consider the role that McMahon plays in front of the back four as being the most important on the field and McMahon has not shown the capabilities to play that role thus far.

Again I do not seek to Damn him. He may be very good at that position but his very good performances will be a long way from this one not just in terms of the effect he has but in terms of how committed he is to the rest of the team and the performance. If he has a role in winning teams it will be shown character not present tonight.

The wrong side of history

This is the pressure on Parkinson. The parts he has brought together for this Bradford City team do not fit easily. He may try take responsibility for the defeat – as he did – but he can not take the players responsibility for the (lack of) effort away from them.

The players who did put in a shift tonight – and there were some – need to do more than just concern themselves with their own game. James Hanson, Rory McArdle, Alan Sheehan who put in good personal performances need to pull up the performances of those around then. That is what Gary Jones would do, and it is what Stuart McCall would do, and it is what Phil Parkinson needs from his senior squad members.

From a tactical point of view Parkinson needs to etch-a-sketch his team and start again.

Central midfield is the most important position in the team and out best player for that role should be there, so put Gary Liddle there. Hanson up front, Darby at right back, McArdle in the middle. All players you can trust to get a team out of a slump.

A shape emerges from that process and I don’t pretend to know what it is. I’ve banged on all season about Christopher Routis but watching Routis involve himself in play contrasted with Anderson hiding when the ball came forward, putting defender between him and the ball, it becomes obvious why Parkinson is picking the Swiss/French.

The pressure on Phil Parkinson comes from the squad he has assembled and making it work. I’m no fan of cliché like “Big Time Charlie” put unpacking that term is useful in analysis of Gillingham at home. Some players on the field felt that is was not their responsibility to win the game.

The wingers, McMahon perhaps, Ben Williams seemingly, Josh Morris, Billy Knott in parts (although his performance is a confusing one) and perhaps one, some or all those players think that they have made a bad move coming to Valley Parade, or that they are somehow apart from the performance of the team.

It is a long way from the Championship Play-offs to the bottom of League One but the blow of that distance needs to hit home hard – if it applies – and players need to make sure they do all they can to be a part of the a successful team.

Or they sulk, on the wing, or in midfield, or in goal, making out that it’s someone else’s job to get you the ball, or stop the man, or organise the defence.

And they fail, and we all fail.

Certainly I’m not going to be part of any criticism of the players who do show the characteristics in favour of new faces who meander the field.

There is no improvement in giving the ball to disinterested players and hoping that that sparks them into life. Anyone seeking to say that things would be better if only the players who has the bottle to win the ball shovelled it to those who did not have the weight of a history of Bobby Petta, Harpel Singh, Tim Steele et al to argue with.

Peter Beagrie did not stand on the wing with his arms in the air sulking because he could not get a pass. He rolled up his sleeves, hunted the ball, and supported his team mates.

The pressure on Phil Parkinson

Parkinson is under pressure but that pressure should be self applied.

It should be to make both his new signings and the players currently in the squad understand that there is a baseline of effort which they have to commit to win matches and that did not commit in the 2-1 defeat to Gillingham.

On the night James Hanson scored from a fine Billy Knott centre but weak attempts to control the midfield against an able and mobile Bradley Dack led to second half pressure from the visitors which too easily overwhelmed City’s rearguard and the game was lost through a Hanson own goal following a long range effort that went through Ben Williams as if he were not there.

The day after Parkinson needs to work out which of his players he can rely on to show character, and to put in effort, and turn performance around. He needs to deputise those players into forming the mentally weaker players – the followers if you will – to create an effective squad.

He needs to find or make a few Gary Jones/Andrew Davies in the current group and have them lead. The names which suggest themselves have been suggesting themselves for months: Rory, Stephen, Jim, Lids; but the team built around those men drifts.

I think that finding those leaders with the current squad might be the most difficult task that Parkinson has had as Bradford City manager.

I know that there is no other manager I’d want doing it.

Six months time

In six months time this article might be absurd.

Team building is a snowball rolling down a hill. It starts often in defeat and the response to that. Paul Jewell famously used the two points from seven in 1998 to build 1999’s promotion.

In six months time Paul Anderson might be everything we are told he is.

Mark Marshall might rip defences apart, Tony McMahon might be solid in central midfield, Stephen Darby might be improving the players around him, the defensive unit might be organised and on and on.

If all those things are the case are it will not be an extrapolation of the performance in this 2-1 defeat to Gillingham, or the (lack of) character shown in it, or the contempt for the effort that is required to win matches on display.

It will be the reaction to that. That reaction is the raw material which Parkinson has to shape his future from.

Post script

James Hanson played well.

The welcome to Bradford City moment as the Bantams draw 1-1 with Shrewsbury Town

For those who were new at Valley Parade in this the first home game of the season one got a sense of an early baptism. The Bradford City who beat Arsenal and Chelsea are also, and very much, the Bradford City of a 1-1 draw with Shrewsbury Town.

With morale low and a team to build Phil Parkinson would have liked to win, would accept a draw, and did not want to lose and everything about this first home game said that. Playing his playmaker formation with James Hanson and Steve Davies in the forward line Parkinson’s City matches Micky Mellon’s Shrewsbury Town man for man with Billy Clarke occupying the impressive Ryan Woods who sat in the spoiling role in front of the huge Jermaine Grandison
and the coveted Connor Goldson.

And in doing so the two sides, more or less, cancelled each other out. A mistake by Martin Woods in midfield allowed Billy Clarke to burst forward and scored following a returned pass by Davies. Tyrone Barnett equalised after half time getting credit for chasing a very long ball forward and perhaps earning the luck that came as his shot cannoned back off Rory McArdle and then over Ben Williams. Nothing Williams could do about that which seems to be a phrase said a little too often for comfort.

Those goals sandwiched half time and from that part on it was a very typical Parkinson performance. Not wanting to throw players forward and risk losing the game City did try Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson as wingers to pull the play out of a packed middle but the middle two of Shrewsbury were firm.

Goldson was rated highly and is composed on the ball. Alan Sheehan has not been rated so highly this week after his penalty miss starting as central defender in the place of Nathan Clarke he put in a very good display. He seems prepared to offer Parkinson an option in that position and I believe is worth considering for the role.

Gary Liddle’s return strengthened the midfield immeasurably and Josh Morris showed his ability to play the side role in a three man midfield. I shall not pretend to Parkinson’s preference for Christopher Routis but will note that Routis had a serviceable game but if he wants to be a midfielder he needs to stop wasting possession on silly passes and ludicrous shots. If we are to persist with Routis then he needs to be judged on the same standards as other players in the team.

There were shouts for penalties as the game wore on and Stephen Darby’s shot at the end of a well worked move was blocked when it looked like it would win the game.

But this was a game not to be lost, and it was not, and at every step in the accent of Bradford City under Phil Parkinson there have been games like this where one wishes that City were more adventurous and not be so content with a point.

But such is Parkinson’s way and it is that way which has brought all these people to Valley Parade in the first place.

A life more ordinary as Bradford City lose on penalties to York City

Let us not, dear reader, waste too much time with the symbolism of Bradford City’s long standing record of winning penalty shoot outs coming to an end at York City. Eventually all sequences end.

Let us look instead at the nature of the performance that led to the penalty shoot out. Once again Phil Parkinson’s team put in a hollow performance. There was a shell of a performance and there were moment of good play and spells of in game dominance but in the core of the display was empty.

City are playing without character and, truth be told, it has been that way for sometime. Bristol City, Preston North End, Swindon Town. These games tell the same story as York does. Playing some good stuff, having chances, but when pressure comes the players – both collectively and individually – failing to show the mental toughness to stop games from going against them.

Which is hard to say about the team and especially hard to say about the team that builds its reputation on having that very quality. Two down at Chelsea, Arsenal equaliser, Burton away and so on.

And of course we have to realise that having a team that showed that level of character was a hard build thing on Parkinson’s behalf. Forged perhaps in the Crawley Brawl and build though an historic League Cup run the opposite of which we have seen this year we got used to having a team that excelled in its mental toughness, and its character, and its spirit.

We are used to that team.

What we have now is the team more ordinary.

That we return from York City recalling a fine volley from Christopher Routis and talking about how serviceable Routis was in midfield is an illustration of that ordinariness. Routis gave City the lead peeling away at a set piece and cleanly striking the ball in after a deep cross.

Sitting in the middle of a 442 with Gary Liddle Routis played some good football and Liddle’s breaking up skills were important and the problem was a collective one of character rather than one of performance it is worth dwelling on the performance for a moment.

Make a square mentally between the central defenders and the central midfielders. Controlling that square is absolutely how teams win football matches. Stopping the opposition playing within that square is what good teams do.

With Nathan Clarke as one corner of that square struggling to get up to speed following his signing and Routis on the other struggling to constantly maintain his corner the square stretched and York were allowed too much of the ball in that most dangerous position.

This manifest itself when Clarke was run at, and Gary Liddle brought down, Reece Thompson was he broke into the box. The gap between Clarke and Liddle was too big and Thompson got to pick his attack. Luke Summerfield scored the penalty.

Later James Berrett would hit a free kick in after being pulled down by Rory McArdle stretching too far and again showing the gap between defence and midfield. Defenders should not need to lunge for the ball in such a way and that McArdle did continues the theme of the mental toughness that is lacking.

Mental toughness, and character, are much to do with how much faith one puts in one’s teammates and at the moment the answer to that question is not much. Rory McArdle will lunge at the ball believing and only he can get the ball away, Gary Liddle will bring down players believing he and only he can make the tackle.

Every goal that goes in comes with a worrying Ben Williams lambast – which seems different in character from Jon McLaughlin’s similar shouts but in a way I struggle to quantify at the moment – which suggests that he has not got the belief in the defenders. The way defenders turn away suggests the feeling is mutual.

The defence of Williams is that he can not be expected to save anything that comes at him – a curious job description for a goalkeeper – but I’m not sure how Williams’ post-goal antics fit within that. On assumes anyone who believes that Williams should not be expected to stop any of the six goals he has conceded this season would also not expect Alan Sheehan to score a penalty. His miss tonight compounded Billy Clarke’s on Saturday.

James Hanson equalised in the last minutes of stoppage time and going forward Mark Marshall looked interestingly threatening while B. Clarke, Luke James and Steven Davies – to be known as Serpent Head or Serps if you will – looked good. Paul Anderson struggled all night.

But one of the marks of the ordinary team, rather than the extraordinary heroics of the last few seasons, is the clenched sigh of what could have been had various strikers done more. It is football’s l’esprit d’escalier.

The penalties favoured York.

So now then

Phil Parkinson has admitted that he allowed Jussi Jääskeläinen to leave the club rather than the Fin signing for Wigan over City. Chris Kirkland is, it is said (although not by me), training with City with a view to filling the number one position. That Parkinson watched Jääskeläinen for two weeks and then decided he was not the man suggests that the City manager is looking for something Jääskeläinen could not give him.

Likewise City have had a bid accepted for a defender – believed to be Connor Goldson of Saturday’s opposition Shrewsbury Town although you trust rumours at your peril – but one can not underline enough how the problems with Parkinson’s side are not solved by signing players.

York City looked like middle of League Two team and when the applied pressure to City – just as Swindon did on Saturday – City had no reply. Players became disconnected to other players. The shape broke up. The lack of whatever you would call it: team spirit, belief in one’s peers, confidence; was obvious.

Those things are uncommon. Ordinary teams do not have them in the abundance Phil Parkinson has built them into recent Bradford City teams.

This is Phil Parkinson’s hollow team. As a manager he knows what he wants and he knows this is not it. It will take time, and hard work, to build them back into this Bradford City team.

The obvious quality of Phil Parkinson and how he could be the decisive factor in 2015/16 Promotion

The season starts and one thing is obvious: Bradford City will be promoted.

That is obvious. It is obvious because I’ve read it in FourFourTwo and it is obvious because Bradford City beat Champions Chelsea last season and that must mean that Bradford City can win League One.

It is obvious because City have brought in some real quality in the form of Paul Anderson and Mark Marshy Marshall, and while seeing Andrew Davies go is hard seeing Mark Yeates and Andy Halliday go is not.

And it is obvious because City finished a place off the play offs last season, and every season Phil Parkinson has improved Bradford City’s league finish, and as we all know no one ever gets in the play offs and does not win.

It is obvious and because of that it is a thought that has passed the mind of even the most negative Bradford City supporter.

No matter how many layers of cynicism a person might surround themselves with one cannot escape that feeling on a sunning Tuesday morning that this year is the year that City return to the top two divisions for the first time since May 2004.

But wait…

A Barnsley website who had, one assumed, lost Jason McKeown’s email address asked me to preview the coming season. They asked what my realistic view on the Bradford City season was. I chewed my pen (metaphorically speaking) and considered beating Arsenal, beating Aston Villa, late serge and beating Burton, Wembley again, beating Chelsea, getting to Wembley for a major Cup Final.

It struck me that at Valley Parade of late realism is in short supply.

And perhaps in that context it is excusable if all of us go on a little fantasy safari when considering the prospects for the season that starts at Swindon on Saturday.

The counter to those thoughts are the huge gulf that was obvious between Bradford City and Bristol City in the mauling of last season and the general lack of character in the team around that time. Reality comes in wondering if the Bantams have a Marlon Pack/Luke Freeman pairing as Bristol City had or a back line as strong as the one that took Preston North End up? Or a 25 goals a year striker?

At that point obvious stops being the operative word.

The multi-polar world

The temptation is, of course, to take the team one follows in isolation and to consider that if your team has done well in recruitment, or preparation, then it will improve in absolute terms in League One. League structures are always relative.

You can be better than last year (or worse) but your position will on the whole be decided by the strength of the other teams in the League. Was the Benito Carbone team in the second year of the Premier League worse than the one which finished 17th the year before?

It certainly was at the end of the season but after the other win over Chelsea in August 2000 was the team worse or was the problem that there were no Watford, Wednesday and a woeful Wimbledon dropping like a stone to finish beneath them?

Football is a multi-polar world. Your league achievements are necessarily measured against the other teams around you. It might be obvious that City have improved (or not) but have they improved more than the teams around them in League One?

Looking at the teams in League One this season first day opposition Swindon Town lost in the play off final last season which normally denotes a challenger but they seem to have lost a lot of players and are blooding a new team.

Relegated clubs can be strong but few will fear Millwall considering how easily the were brushed aside eight months ago at Valley Parade. Wigan Athletic have a lot to do to end a losing mentality which has come into the club since it got to an FA Cup final three years ago. As for Blackpool it is very possible they will carry on where they left off last season and finish bottom.

The likes of Peterborough United, Doncaster Rovers, and Barnsley would all argue that they have as much of a right to be considered promotion contenders as anyone. Scunthorpe United, Bury and Fleetwood Town have spent money to get where they are but not Bristol City levels of money and even if they had sometimes when you spend money you get Aaron McLean.

I have a belief that Burton Albion are worth considering as having an interest in the play off places. They are a club that seem able to transcend managerial changes and maintain steady progress. Coventry City have potential and in Tony Mowbray they have a pragmatic manager.

All of which leaves Sheffield United as being everyone’s favourite for promotion. They reach semi-finals, they bubble under in League One, they have a strong fan base and get great noisy crowds. They seem to have everything that a club that is trying to get out of League One wants.

Except for the manager.

They have their second choice as manager.

Nigel Atkins manages Sheffield United now but they wanted to take Phil Parkinson to South Yorkshire. It seems that the Blades boardroom came to the same conclusion that echoes around the City manager.

Parkinson: Special One

If all league football is relative then perhaps management is absolute.

Perhaps a manager who improves a team always improves a team. Perhaps when Parkinson is given the chance to manage – a chance Hull City did not give him in his brief time at that club but did at Colchester United – he will always improve a club as he has Bradford City.

It is hard to draw a conclusion but Parkinson’s admirers are many and growing with every achievement.

From the outside when looking at the twenty four teams lining up in League One some teams have spent more, and some teams have more season ticket holders than others, but no team has a better manager in a better position to manage his club than Phil Parkinson at Bradford City.

Parkinson has carved a space out for himself. He arrived at a club where Mark Lawn was accusing the players of not passing to a prospective signing, that had had a manager who (reportedly) felt bullied out of the club, and where the dysfunctions at the club had become endemic.

The success Parkinson earned on the field gave him the scope to create the role he wants off it. Parkinson is as powerful a manager as Bradford City have had but still had challenges to his role. One could worry about how success would be maintained should he exit if one wanted but more important would be ensuring that he is allowed to do his job and shapes the club around that.

We are, perhaps, lucky that the Sheffield United approach and the moment Parkinson had to bend the knee to the boardroom were separated by six months. Imagine starting this season without Parkinson. Where would thoughts of promotion be then?

When looking at which teams will be promoted what is most often the decisive factor? It is not in the quality of players but rather the quality of manager. The thing that unites the clubs that went up was that they had experienced managers who are spoken of in terms of their quality.

What Steve Cotterill, Karl Robinson and Simon Grayson offered last season is the thing that Phil Parkinson offers this. Likewise when José Mourinho got over his defeat at City by winning the Premier League it was – we are told – because he was the best manager. Success – the theory goes – goes to the best manager.

That, at least, is obvious.

The three things that Phil Parkinson is looking for in a player

Talking about the squad that Phil Parkinson is putting together Mark Lawn let slip an insight into the Bantams Summer transfer dealings.

Between what some thought were indiscreet comments about where Luke James fits in the squad and a his belief that Parkinson is building a stronger team this season than last Lawn gave an indication as to the theme of the last few months of City’s recruitment.

…look at the wages that people are paying now. Because the increase in the Premier League is vast, it trickles down. This year’s wages are probably on average 30-50 per cent more than last season. That’s right across the board at all levels.

They come, they go

Adam Drury spent a little time at City on trial this summer. He has moved on to Blackpool. Jamie McCombe played too but does not seem to be joining the club. Sanchez Watt scored against Farsley but he does not seem to be returning to the club.

Andrew Davies exits and it seems to be without reasons although money is never far away from the reason that footballers do anything. The summer has been players coming in and going out and perhaps Lawn gives an indication as to why this has been happening.

There are three requirements for a player, judging from the outside, if he wants to join Bradford City in 2015.

First he must offer what Phil Parkinson sees as an obvious improvement on last season’s team in the managers eyes.

It’s not difficult to see the progress of this idea through the last two years in League One. Players like Jason Kennedy, Mark Yeates, and Gary Liddle have had varying degrees of success at replacing members of the squad which won promotion.

Kennedy was no Gary Jones. Yeates did not play like Kyel Reid but created about as much, Liddle improved on most of what Nathan Doyle did and while he lacks Doyle’s ability to maintain possession while marked I’d say what he offered in other areas made him an improvement.

The aim of most football recruitment is at least the Yeates Return. Which is to say that the team gets no worse. Parkinson seems to have tried this season for at least a Liddle Return. That players are obviously better.

Parkinson abilities to achieve that will be seen in time but his modus operandi seems to be born out by his approach to the goalkeeping position.

I consider Ben Williams to be a poor keeper in comparison to Matt Duke or Jon McLaughlin but I would not sign a keeper who was as good as Williams for the sake of it. Parkinson would not either and seems to have settled on Jussi Jääskeläinen a player with hundreds of Premier League games played under his belt.

Parkinson, seemingly, does not even entertain the risk of an as good as and wants to see clear water between the player going out and the player coming in. That is ambitious.

Character

Which leads us to the managers second requirement and one I often talk about which is the character of the individuals signed.

Parkinson is all about the character. I’ve only a vague idea how one assesses a player’s character but I that it is part of player scouting and I know its important to Parkinson.

Leyton Orient’s captain Nathan Clarke signed for City yesterday motivated by his desire to return North for his family. Parkinson seems to be of the belief that a team can not have too many leaders and without wanting to doubt N. Clarke’s abilities one suspects that leadership has attracted City.

Character and the search for it has probably played more of a role in the summer than is obvious. Watching pre-season games is a tenth of a trial of a player. The rest is to do with how he gets along with team mates, staff, and how he conducts himself.

I would not like to suggest that Watt or Drury failed on those things but inevitability some players are better footballers than they are men and that is exposed during a week at a club.

Cost

Nevertheless, and returning to Mr. Lawn’s point, the third factor that comes into play is how much money players are asking for and the value that that represents.

As Phil Parkinson stood proudly next to recruit from Ipswich Town Paul Anderson that question of value seemed to be more pressing. Anderson is likely to be joined at City by Jussi Jääskeläinen. Both come with the excellent pedigrees and ringing endorsements as to their characters.

It would seem that while Mark Lawn has drawn the conclusion that League One players are asking for more money this season Phil Parkinson has opted to try sign – for want of a better phrase – Championship players who still expect to retain Championship wages.

One wonders how much competition from sides higher in the pyramid for Anderson, or Jääskeläinen, or Steve Davies, Josh Morris and Nathan Clarke and how much the increase wage demand City are finding has come from deliberately trying (and succeeding) to bring in players who are 30%-50% better.

An evening to savour or get out the way?

Driving back up the M6 towards Skipton after Bradford City’s opening day defeat at Shrewsbury Town, a convoy of Nottingham Forest supporters’ coaches crawled by the other way. The passing of ships in the early evening night carried a certain symbolism – for in recent years both clubs have been travelling in very different directions.

It wasn’t that long ago that City v Forest was a regular league fixture. First in Division One from 2001; then, after a one-year break caused by City getting relegated first, in League One. A pair of fairly big fishes tredding in choppy lower league waters, struggling to recover from calamitous falls. Each club specialised in under-achievement, and struggled to adapt to the fact recent Premier League glory days probably wouldn’t be re-lived anytime soon.

But while City sunk another league, Forest resuscitated and now return to Valley Parade for this League Cup tie a big Championship gun looking to avoid a giant-killing. The differing fortunes have much to do with finances and Forest’s stronger fanbase – no need for cheap season tickets to entice supporters to the City Ground, even at their lowest ebb. Yet the fact things can change relatively quickly offer hope for City that they too can follow Forest’s journey of revival.

Now which way up should this map be?

The Notts Forest supporters were travelling home from Burnley on Saturday night following a 1-0 defeat. Ah Burnley, remember when we used to be able to look down on our neighbours from just over the border? But then the Championship is now bursting with teams that not long ago we considered ourselves well above: Doncaster, Hull, Scunthorpe, Swansea, Barnsley – and let’s not even get started on Blackpool.

City have not so much been driving in the slow lane, watching others overtake them, as stuck on the hard shoulder with smoke coming out the engine.

Perspective in football is always changing. And it’s nights like this – rather than Saturdays like the one coming up when Stevenage come to Valley Parade, where it hits home how much City have faltered over the last 10 years. Four years ago City travelled to Forest on the opening day of the season as equals, the narrow 1-0 defeat which occurred offered few clues to the great chasm which has since developed. 59 league places separated the clubs at the end of last season, it’s a long way back.

After the disappointment of Saturday, Forest’s quick return up North to Valley Parade this evening is probably looked upon by Peter Taylor as an unwelcome hindrance. The City manager returned from Shrewsbury with plenty of food for thought and, for the first time since he took over last February, faint criticism from some fans over his team selection and tactics.

The flaws of his 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation at the New Meadow were expertly exposed by Graham Turner’s strong outfit and, despite the success City enjoyed from this approach at the back end of last season, there are calls for a return to 4-4-2. But against such strong opposition as Forest, albeit as the home team, it will be a tough dilemma to abandon or stick with the extra defensive benefits the so-far employed tactics offer.

Do City have a go this evening, take the game to quality opposition in an attempt to get them on the back foot? Or is it better to prioritise containing players of the calibre City won’t face during the bread and butter league campaign? Does Omar Daley’s return from suspension encourage Taylor to play two out-and-out wingers to supply crosses for two central strikers, or would that risk a central midfield two ending up over-run by a team known for passing the ball?

A year ago McCall was slated for playing 5-4-1 at the City Ground, though the then-City boss was already in a position where whatever he attempted to do would be criticised by a section of supporters. The surprising level of dissent shown towards Taylor by some fans in the away end on Saturday, and on Message Boards in recent days, would suggest  he’s not in the ‘can’t lose’ position this nature of cup tie would normally represent. A poor showing tonight, and the criticism may get louder.

With such uncertainty over what formation Taylor will play and the possibility of resting players, it would be wasting mine and your time to try to predict tonight’s starting line up. We may see a struggling-for-fitness James Hanson rested up. Both Louis Moult and Jake Speight impressed when coming on from the bench on Saturday, and one or both may get the chance of a full debut alongside Gareth Evans.

Daley is likely to be given a first outing of the season, either up front in a three-man attack or as a wideman. Light relief on Saturday came from a heated argument between two City fans in the second half, triggered by one angrily questioning why Taylor didn’t bring Daley on. When the other person sought to  point out the obvious – the Jamaican was suspended – the exasperated retort was “Yes I know, but why doesn’t he bring someone on like Daley!” The debate raged on about how Taylor didn’t have such an option, and suddenly the importance of Daley in City’s promotion bid became evidently clear.

Also in line for a first appearance is Luke O’Brien. Alongside Zesh Rehman a scapegoat for many fans last season, the duo’s absence saw Scott Neilson and Luke Oliver take over the roles of being singled out for abuse and may now be dropped. Luke still has a lot to offer this club – and after Robbie Threlfall’s dismal performance on Saturday, perhaps even as a left back again – but faces a difficult fight to claim a regular spot. Zesh and Shane Duff may also earn a start. Michael Flynn is nearing a return to fitness, but it’s questionable whether he or Tommy Doherty will be risked from the start tonight.

Like City, Forest go into this season having to cope with heightened expectations following their over-performance in finishing 3rd last season. Manager Billy Davies is robbed of five players due to international call ups – including £2.65m Welsh striker Rob Earnshaw. That may allow one-time City loanee Dele Adebola a rare start, who should receive a warm reception on his first return.

Last season against City, Davies opted to play several first team players. Chris Cohen and Paul Anderson ran the show that evening; though after going onto become key players in their ultimately failed promotion bid, they may now have been elevated to the status of needing to be rested ahead of a home game with Leeds this Saturday. Their exclusion would increase City’s chance of causing an upset.

Tonight’s game will be a useful exercise in how City measure up to one of the best sides in the Football League – and how much progress there has been towards bridging the gap over the last year. But while a cup run will be welcome in this season especially, Taylor is likely to be prioritising Saturday’s game with former club Stevenage. A repeat of that famous win over Forest in 1995 will be most welcome, but only if it helps the team in their quest for promotion like it did that season.

But ultimately we should fear defeat this evening and the start to the season becoming worse before it gets better. A year ago after losing at the City Ground McCall declared “the season starts here.” Taylor may end this evening uttering something similar.

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