McCall’s next City squad starts to take shape

Pakistan skipper Zesh Rehman has been offered a deal by the Bantams but longest serving player Mark Bower has been freed as Stuart McCall starts building his squad for 2009/2010.

McCall’s side’s failure to make the play offs has led to budget cuts – that is the short and not especially representative version of long story – and as a result four senior players have been freed with Bower joining out on loan Barry Conlon, oft injured Paul Heckingbottom, bit player Keith Gillespie and – surprisingly – Rhys Evans out of Valley Parade with the goalkeeper being rumoured to be interesting League One clubs including Leeds United.

The City boss has also prompted Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding to try find other clubs – something they can do owing to oddly one sided clauses in their contracts – but worries that should they not do the wage budget will be restricted. With times tough for many, if not most, clubs at the moment it is hard to see who will take the players on. Michael Boulding was not short of offers this time twelve months ago but traded from a position of being the leading scorer in League Two, likewise Paul McLaren negotiated with City as the most creative man in League One. Now these players go to a depressed market with a line on the CV that is read as a failure to make the top seven in League Two.

Do not be surprised if we have not seen the last of this trio.

Another trio who McCall would like us to see more of are Nicky Law Jnr, Dean Furman and Steve Jones whom the manager is trying to recapture on loan. Matthew Clarke, Lee Bullock, Luke O’Brien, Joe Colbeck, Leon Osborne Jon McLaughlin, Luke Sharry and Matthew Convey have been offered contracts while Kyle Nix is welcome back to preseason one assumes to await news of an exit for Lee, Boulding or McLaren. McCall will talk with Peter Thorne tomorrow.

All of which leave City with a weakened version of this season’s team should these machinations come off. McLaughlin seems to be fancied to be the new keeper having kept a clean sheet in the final game of last term. At 21 he is young but League Two is – increasingly for City – a learner’s league.

Paul Arnison has a two year deal and one assumes will stick at right back although his unwillingness to relocate from the North East is rumoured to have caused problems for McCall. Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke in the central defensive roles with Luke O’Brien at left back is an inch worse than Graeme Lee partnering either one – Lee came out of the season with more credit than most in this writer’s opinion – but Rehman is a cultured player and one who one could have confidence in. Clarke will continue to have his critics for both not being able to spray a Glenn Hoddle pass – which defender can? – and for his defensive lapses but since he replaced Bower in the side City have stopped being bullied by the usual big men forward lines we face.

Without wanting to delve into the stats of how many six foot two plus players have won headers in City game against Clarke vs Bower anecdotally one would suggest it is obvious that Clarke has plugged that gap. That he has other failings is a problem but in a League where physical prowess – bigness, if you will – is often the route to goal it is that no being bullied which is important rather than Bower’s more intelligent style of defending.

As with Andrew O’Brien before him Bower’s style suits the club less the further down the leagues we are. O’Brien’s man marking is superb on Thierry Henry but wasted in the Championship and Bower’s foot in play could – and would – do a lot at a Barnsley but does not at Valley Parade. One would have confidence that Bower could nick the ball from big men frequently but McCall obviously worries that the long serving defender would spend the rest of his time on his backside having been flattened and getting little sympathy from Referees.

Hearts are heavy though when a player with a service record like Bower’s leaves a club. He has given the lion’s share of his career to Bradford City having signed up on the 13th of May, 1999 four days after promotion and broken into the side a few years later with honest displays. He did his bit in administration and beyond and few City fans would not hope that he can establish himself somewhere else for the five or six years he could have in the game.

Uniting Dean Furman and Lee Bullock would seem to be the key to McCall’s midfield for next season with the City manager keen to see the Rangers midfielder back in the position he dominated last term – he played few games than Paul McLaren but made a more significant impact and was certainly more memorable – but Ibrox boss Walter Smith may have different ideas. Bullock is a useful player who has only shown his effectiveness in short spells while at Valley Parade. Next season McCall seems set to offer the former Hartlepool United midfielder the chance to make the position his own.

However McCall has struggled thus far in his management career to find a player to fill that number four shirt and role which he himself took at Valley Parade. Furman won the place from Paul McLaren whose season could be described as “middling”. McLaren did not take the mantel of senior professional with enough zeal and as a result on occasion looked a peripheral figure – especially when compared to Furman – just as Paul Evans the season before had failed to make the McCall slot his own.

Returning to Hoddle momentarily it is said that when England manager Glenn was frustrated with the players inability to match the magic feats of his own passing and one can only imagine the frustration that McCall – a player who lived by taking games by the scruff on the neck – has watching two players who have no shortage of talent in Evans and McLaren failing to control matches. Is Furman a better passer of a ball than McLaren or a better tackler than Evans? One could argue not but he has more cunning, more guile and it seems a stronger character that allows him to have more of a constant effect over a ninety minutes.

Defensive midfield – Furman’s nominal position and the one McCall had – is perhaps the most crucial role on the field and Furman represents a safe bet for City. We have seen that he will not shirk in the role unlike the previous two candidates who were on the face of it excellent choices for such a position and thus he is a tried and tested option for a job which I would argue the failure to fill correctly has cost us over the previous two season, and probably longer.

It should be noted that Luke Sharry has had a productive season and while not ready for the number four role should be expecting to feature in a dozen or more games next term.

The scenario on the flanks remains as it was this season: Joe Colbeck, perhaps Chris Brandon, Omar Daley when fit, Nicky Law should he return and Steve Jones if he is interested. Returning Colbeck from the jaws is poor form and the critics that wait for such to attack him is of paramount importance for McCall as establishing Omar Daley as a threat on the left was this term. McCall flits between preferring a pair of wide players such as Daley, Jones and Colbeck and wanting one wide and one more tucked in as Chris Brandon or Law offers and one can expect that method of trying to fill the middle of the midfield to continue.

Brandon has been unable to provide much of an indication as to his effectiveness this season and – based on last season – given a choice between him and Law one would take the younger man from Sheffield United. Should Brandon be edged out of Valley Parade – and indications are that the club would be able to keep him – then Kyle Nix would be an able replacement and I for one am surprised that the young Rotheraussie has not been offered a new deal offering the heart and ability the former of which was often lacking last season.

In August Stuart McCall would hope to line up with Joe Colbeck, Dean Furman, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon across the middle and few would suggest that represents a major shift away from this term with improvement inferred from consistency with all four players having spent long periods injured. Allowing whoever is in the number four role to build up a relationship with the defenders to feed the ball in ending the long hoof of the end of last term and with the three midfielders around him who would take the ball is crucial and Furman can be trusted to do that. If he is not retained we re-enter the lucky dip of trying to bring in a cog to be the most important part of our machine. Like good goalscorers – they don’t get given away.

Peter Thorne will talk to Stuart McCall in a conversation about “legs” and if the striker still has them and McCall will hope to move Michael Boulding on to no great distress from I. For all his hard work Boulding failed to build a partnership either with the forward he was alongside or the players supplying him from midfield. Barry Conlon officially left the club and Willy Topp is long gone leaving the City boss looking for three or four strikers for next term.

In this respect McCall is in the hands of the trio of players who may leave. Should Lee, McLaren and Michael Boulding all exit then pressure on his budget would be loosened and the City manager could get to looking for a goal getter or two – one would suggest he tries to find a fast one, a skilful one, a big one and one who can finish again but that is how we entered this year – but should this not happen then the Bantams manager will be left looking at scraps to find a feast. The ramification of Barry Conlon and Matthew Clarke’s fall out with McCall obviously preclude Conlon’s return despite a half dozen goals for Grimsby Town and one wonders if allowing the fighting Irish to leave is not going to haunt the Gaffer as he starts looking for players with passion, strength and a good track record and finds that Barry’s name comes top of the searches.

In such a situation Rory Boulding becomes an option although reports on him are mixed on the little brother while Leon Osborne and Sean Taylforth are no one’s idea of the player to lead you out of League Two. All three could be world beaters but the fact that they are – should Thorne not be retained – all that is in the cupboard for next term shows the problem Stuart McCall will have in building a side for next term.

In the season John Hendrie talked about the need for another striker and McCall tried Chris O’Grady and Paul Mullin in that role but ultimately when cutting the cloth to keep the club in business the side suffers and the forward line would seem to be where City are to take the hit.

So McCall is charged with three summer tasks. He must get the players he has offered new deals to to sign – some are given reduced terms – and will use the carrot of a smaller squad and a guaranteed place in the starting eleven achieve that with the likes of Lee Bullock.

Secondly he must work on ensuring he has the right man for the number four role with Dean Furman being nominated as the prefer choice. Filling this position is or paramount importance.

Finally he must find a set of strikers who want to play for the club and who have the ability but for some reason – probably as with Thorne it would be age – are not at a higher level and do not expect massive wages. Rumour has it David Wetherall is being moved to youth team coach. Wetherall never really got on with Dean Windass…

The budget announcement should not spell doom and gloom

In recent years, there’s being a growing obsession with playing budgets and the comparison to others. Every season one or two sides gain promotion on a shoestring budget, the achievements of which are used as a stick to beat failing clubs with larger ones.

At City we know this more than ever, manager Stuart McCall enjoyed what is widely recognised to be the largest budget in the division, but has not been able to use it well enough to claim even a play off spot. Meanwhile clubs such as Exeter and Dagenham have achieved more with less. Champions-elect Brentford have spent money they don’t have on gambling for promotion, though it remains to be seen if they will fall the way of Stockport next season.City have gambled to a point as well this season, and now we have to face the consequences.

There’s no doubt Stuart has had the luxury of a large squad to choose from this season, and the news the playing budget will be cut by a third for next season is understandably prompting concern. The noises coming from the Chairmen hardly seem the most positive, though given how often big budget results in big failure in football, it shouldn’t mean approaching next season in trepidation.

It’s traditional for City to release a high number of players at the end of each campaign and, with cuts to make and new signings to think about, Stuart’s attention will already be on which of his players deserve another contract in the likelihood of him staying on as manager. Rhys Evans made it known some months ago that he would like a new deal and the stability concept that has seen many of us argue for the man in the dugout to stay can also apply to the man between the posts.

All five of Stuart’s present centre backs could leave this summer, with captain Graeme Lee one of the four players with a clause in his contract allowing him to leave due to the club’s failure to go up. Lee has been criticised, but is a good League Two player and seems a committed enough person to stay around to me. Matt Clarke is unloved by many and it must be acknowledged that the previously struggling back four looked stronger in his absence on Saturday. Zesh Rehman took his place and was outstanding. His loan is up, but so is his contract at QPR. If it came down to a choice between keeping one of the two my vote would narrowly go to Rehman.

When Mark Bower signed the four year deal which is about to expire, back in 2005, it was for a club with ambitions of a quick return to the Championship. He is likely to be City’s highest earner, a position not befitting someone who has made only four appearances this season. If the long-serving defender is offered a new deal, it will be for far less money. Simon Ainge and Paul Heckingbottom are likely to depart.

In midfield Paul McLaren is another with a clause to leave and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took advantage of it and, with rumoured high wages, it would probably be for the best. Lee Bullock is out of contract but may have done enough in his last two impressive Valley Parade appearances to convince he could be a regular next season. Chris Brandon is rumoured to face an uncertain future, which is a shame as we’ve yet to see the best of him due to those injuries. Kyle Nix’s surprise inclusion against Rotherham looks too little too late, while we could only dream of keeping Dean Furman and Nicky Law. The former is reckoned by some Rangers fans to be ready for first team football at Ibrox next season, the latter’s future may depend on whether Sheffield United earn promotion to the Premier League. Even if surplus to requirements at Bramall Lane, he can play at a higher level than League Two.

Joe Colbeck’s sub cameo was uplifting and it’s unthinkable that he will be allowed to leave, Peter Thorne too has another year left in him and the 17 goals he’s bagged so far this season is impressive considering the number of injuries he’s picked up firing them in. If he stays, his decreasing fitness reliability means he cannot start the season as the main striker. Michael Boulding can leave but probably won’t. Rory too can go but again probably won’t.

Of the other loanees, Steve Jones was outstanding up front against Rotherham, but his inconsistency is maddening. Nevertheless an attempt to keep him should be made. Paul Mullin will not be missed by anyone but there’s little doubt another big forward will be signed up in his place. Keith Gillespie’s time at City will be quickly forgotten.

Stuart will be on the look out for new signings, but it shouldn’t be a case of ripping things up and starting again. This team has ultimately disappointed but it was the closest towards delivering promotion than any others we’ve had in recent years. Stuart has the summer to consider why it didn’t prove close enough and find the answers to ensure it goes closer next time.

For, while expecations may dampen for next season, there is no need to believe we can’t make a better fist of challeging for promotion with fewer resources. The economic climate that will start to truly impact on football next season, should result in clubs in a stronger position to negoiate with players over contracts. A smaller squad will hopefully result in a settled team. Injuries may undermine efforts, but the emergence of Luke O’Brien should provide confidence to try other youngsters. There may be less loan signings, but that would be no bad thing.

Stuart will hardly be left with a shoestring budget to build next season’s team, success as manager will come from making less go further.

Unfamiliar familiarity – Rotherham United v Bradford City – League Two preview

This is the seventh season out of eight to feature Rotherham away on Bradford City’s fixture list, though there will be nothing familiar about Saturday’s trip.

The financial difficulties which the Millers have struggled to overcome during the last few years has resulted in a temporary move to Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium. With a running track around the pitch and the stands – of which for only one side is there a roof – positioned well back, it will certainly be a contrast from the intimacy of Millmoor.

For Rotherham the move was born out of necessity as Millmoor’s landlord, former Chairman Ken Booth, demanded too much rent and not enough access to its facilities for it to be financially viable. Attendances have slightly dipped through the six-mile relocation, though with only two home defeats so far it’s clear the players have adapted to new surroundings quickly.

For us Bradford City supporters, it should be a case of being thankful for our lot. Clearly the Bantams have suffered from financial troubles in recent years and the two relegations since leaving the Premier League can be blamed on it to varying degrees. Yet both City’s spells in administration came before the sort of point deductions which have been inflicted on Rotherham for three consecutive seasons. As for a former chairman owning the ground and the struggle to make rent payments, a move to Odsal looked a possibility back in February 2004.

Which goes to show that, if there can be positives to take from what this club went through, it’s the timing of it. Pity the marketing men at Rotherham, who this summer had to work out how to sell season tickets for a club which had moved to a nearby city, which wasn’t fully guaranteed to be allowed to continue by the Football League and who even then started with a 17 point deduction. The self-righteous whining from Leeds United supporters last season has ensured many of us hold little sympathy for clubs who break the rules by getting in such debt, but things could have been much worse for us during those dark days and at the time that didn’t seem possible.

For City at least, such difficult times are now part of the history books and they approach the only proper League Two Yorkshire Derby of the season with strong promotion aspirations. Last week’s defeat to Wycombe may have tempered confidence among supporters, but manager Stuart McCall will know the true quality of a good side is how it responds to set backs. So far this season the players have made a good fist of it.

The team is likely to be similar after Stuart’s attempts to bring in a right winger on loan drew a blank. Rhys Evans keeps goal behind a back four slowly recapturing its early season solidness. Paul Heckingbottom came through the reserves unscathed midweek and Stuart may consider giving Luke O’Brien a breather. TJ Moncur seems to be comfortably first choice ahead of Paul Arnison on the right and Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke continue in the centre.

The other Clarke will continue in midfield. City’s line ups this season have largely not featured an out and out holding midfielder and the hope has to be that Paul McClaren, alongside Tom, can get forward more than he has been afforded to. Lee Bullock is close to a return to fitness and McClaren may be aware he needs to show more in order to keep his starting place. Nicky Law will play on the right with Omar Daley likely to provide the team’s main source of attacking inspiration from the left.

Up front Michael Boulding will be hoping to get the nod over Barry Conlon, with the latter still sweating over a new contract offer in the new year. There are some concerns over Peter Thorne’s recent performances, but there’s no one you’d rather have on the end of any decent chances the rest of the team can create during the game.

Rotherham are not without their problems having lost experienced keeper Andy Warrington to injury and with only Steven Cann, who played his first senior game midweek and was on the end of a 3-0 defeat, to call upon between the sticks. Manager Mark Robins too has been left frustrated by the loan market and, unless any late attempts prove successful, it will be a big day for the 20-year-old South African. They also have their own Omar, who is perhaps more Willy Topp.

One familiar face will be Alex Rhodes, who joined the Millers from City during the summer. The winger was an excellent proposition on his day, as Rotherham themselves know only too well, but lacked consistency. Had Stuart kept him on it’s likely he’d have barely figured for City this season up until Joe Colbeck’s injury, so his regularity for Rotherham suggests City would be finishing above them even if they’d not suffered that heavy points deduction.

Like City, Rotherham will be aiming to put their financial troubles behind them but the impact which the credit crunch has had on so many parts of UK life has yet to be realised in football. With the UK heading for recession tough times may be ahead and typically its lower league clubs who will suffer.

If United had trouble with season tickets this season what about the next, when people’s spending will become even tighter? This week Rotherham announced half-year season ticket prices which are still more expensive than it cost for a full City season ticket. If levels of support are to be maintained in 2009/10 season clubs are going to have to consider the sort of innovate pricing approach which has succeeded at Valley Parade, though that might be difficult for clubs like Rotherham to implement with money in short supply.

If City can march onto promotion this season they should have few problems retaining their support should they keep similar prices, which would once again leave us pleased with our timing and thankful for our lot.

McCall goes back to, and loses sight of, basics

Having apologised in public for underestimating the quality of City’s display last week Stuart McCall had clearly had a word in one of two ears before the Bantams started the battle for nine points in a week.

For forty-five minutes the Bantams did simple things impressively and should have been taking the first three of those nine points on the road. City faced Gillingham on Saturday, go to Darlington on Monday, and Grimsby on Friday and the Bantams are very much within – as opposed to ahead – of the pack leading League Two.

It was noticeable how the Bantams defensive line smashed the ball out of play when under pressure. how often Dean Furman and Paul McLaren got on the ball in midfield, how Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley moved wide when needed and came back when not. The simple things that when done well result in results.

So they would have over Gillingham had they been maintained for the full game. The Bantams battled with a Gills side who deserve a huge mention for playing an open game rather than trying to kill off the game when they arrived at VP and who would get their rewards. Those rewards looked distant when a free kick from Paul McLaren was headed towards goal by Furman – who had his best game for City thus far – and after a save and a scramble was smashed in by Peter Thorne for his tenth of the season.

All of which was City edging ahead rather than dominating but was a good return for the opening and deflated the visitors. That deflation saw Joe Colbeck batter in an impressive slip inside by McLaren from inside the box as McCall switched his wingers to allow the tired Daley to charge at the booked Barry Fuller but in that combination the problems that City would have in the second half – and had all day – were shown.

Colbeck and Daley are a quality pair of wide players and good enough for any team in this league but they are only best value when they are supported by full backs and today they were often left disconnected, flailing ahead without the back up a winger needs.

TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien were those full backs with Paul Arnison and Paul Heckingbottom on the bench and while O’Brien did not do much wrong at the back he offered little coming forward. Moncur – who replaced Paul Arnison in the side five games ago when the number two was injured in the Bournemouth game – was troubled while defending and failed to connect with Colbeck coming forward with unpredictable results.

From a statistical point of view since Arnison was injured five matches ago City have shipped ten goals and scored eight. Watch the team one sees Colbeck taking up good positions and being ignored by Moncur most of the time and the full back lashing in ineffective crosses. Arnison was criticised by some supporters but his crossing was better and he provided options for Colbeck which Moncur does not and after the defence got back to basics so – one hopes – will McCall.

Only once was Daley able to push the ball back to Luke O’Brien for support in attacking positions. In wins like Exeter The Full Pauls were a major part in making sure that Thorne and Michael Boulding had supply to score and that Daley and Colbeck had players to team up with that they could rely on to be predictable and constant.

As it is Thorne and Boulding feasted on scraps today and the game should have been beyond Gillingham’s reach but Simeon Jackson pulled one back for the Gills after getting beyond the pairing of Matthew Clarke and Graeme Lee following head tennis and high feet and smashing home. Jackson’s pace troubled City all day but in the second half the Bantams put as much into their defeat a the visitors did.

The simple things that were done in the first half faded. Defenders began to try to put foot on ball rather than clearing, pinging the ball over the midfield and into the arms of a referee and linesman who flagged for offside incorrectly three or four times as the ball was pumped up to Thorne and Boulding. City looked alive and dangerous when the ball was brought through wide but neutered by the linesman’s flag and the defending of the men from Kent when whacked long. City stopped doing the shorter passing, the easy play, that had served so well now and previously.

So too often the Bantams wasted the ball and turned over when in dangerous positions for the want of application falling too easily into the trap of believing the besting the offside flag was the only way to score. When Peter Thorne was substituted with ten minutes left he arched his back in agony knowing the game was not won. He was right.

Despite Mark Bentley’s deserved dismissal for a two footed challenge on Paul McLaren too many City players seemed too ready to so the most obvious – rather than the most simple – thing and point to the man in the middle as wronging them.

So when Jackson burst through and scored an equaliser the Bantams seemed a long way from the team that had done the simple things well in the first half and the team that could roar into games earlier in the season. Five minutes if injury time saw the Bantams find that roar with Colbeck hitting a shot to the top corner that was excellently palmed away, Graeme Lee smashing a header from teh resulting corner against the bar and Willy Topp hooking the ball over his shoulder and the bar as City went close to a winner.

However in simple terms the Bantams allowed two points to slip away today in the way that Accrington did last week and did so when losing sight of the basics which they had done so well.

Darlington on Monday and everyone – players and management – should be looking at the things that work most often most of the time.

Beating failure – Bradford City vs Luton Town – League Two preview

Come 5pm Saturday Bradford City’s promotion hopes will have either been strengthened or weakened – but one thing they certainly won’t be is over.

Two successive defeats is disappointing and three would be considered “unacceptable”, but with City’s home vulnerability resurfacing that is entirely possible as would-be-11th-but-for-crazy-points-deduction Luton come to town. After a week in which talk of failure has emanated from some quarters – preceding any actual failure itself – it’s worth reflecting on what it would look like. A home defeat would probably push City out of the play off positions; but, at worst, City would be six points behind the leaders, with 37 games to go.

It’s said by some that the fear of failure led to Stuart McCall playing 4-5-1 at Shrewsbury last weekend and, largely ignoring three key injuries and an appalling referee display, the City manager’s perceived negativity has resulted in some of the strongest criticism towards him yet. Whether or not the system worked in the way he intended; Stuart will obviously be moving back to 4-4-2 for this one.

Top scorer Peter Thorne, who’s absence in defeat has further highlighted his importance, is expected to be fit enough to lead the attack alongside Michael Boulding. Barry Conlon will be back on the bench having been made scapegoat by some for last week’s failings. Some of the criticism is unjustified but it’s hard to argue that the Irishman has done enough, when given the opportunity, to warrant a contact beyond January and it’s up to him to prove his worth. Willy Topp, fresh from a wonder goal in the reserves and closer to fitness, is also likely to be among the subs.

Lee Bullock’s injury will allow the promising Dean Furman to keep his place and Stuart may look for him to share more of the defensive responsibilities with partner Paul McLaren than Bullock has been. Former Hatter McLaren joined City in the summer having topped the League One assist chart the previous season, but the more withdrawn role he’s playing has lessened his impact going forward. Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley will be patrolling out wide, with some disappointment this week that they won’t be pushed as hard to keep up their excellent form as they might.

At the back Paul Heckingbottom, Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke will be looking to rediscover their early season swagger and, unless Paul Arnison makes a miraculous recovery, Simon Ainge will get a chance at right back. The 20-year-old made his City debut two years ago but has had few opportunities to push on, his last one ending in failure. Stuart’s decision to give youth a chance instead of making yet another loan signing is applauded on this site and Ainge will aim to make it a quiet afternoon for keeper Rhys Evans.

For Luton, former Bantam Lewis Emmanuel makes a second return to Valley Parade since leaving two years ago. Briefly it seemed he’d gone onto better things in the Championship but, despite having trials at Birmingham and Southend during the summer, Lewis has fallen with the troubled Hatters and could feasibly be playing non-league football next year. It’s to be hoped Don Hutchinson won’t carry the influence his fellow ex-Premiership star Darren Anderton managed two weeks ago, while ex-Chelsea striker Sam Parkin will need to be watched.

Yet the biggest threat of failure will arguably come not from the visitors, but in the stands. Considering we were topping the division two weeks ago, the criticisms levelled at City by many supporters this week have been unnecessarily high. Conversations before this match are likely to contain the phrase “we’d better win today” and, judging on past form, the chances of supporters getting behind the team if they don’t start well are highly slim.

A delve into City’s recent history adds further reason to fear such failure. During the past two seasons, promotion hopes looked credible going into the middle of September – and were all but extinguished when October was over. It’s easy to pin point the respective defeats to Huddersfield and Hereford as the moment things went wrong, but defeats are always going to happen and it was the later ones at home to Brighton and Accrington which really tipped the balance towards another season of failure. During both these games the crowd quickly turned on the team and worked against it – and a similar reaction if things aren’t initially going to plan on Saturday could prove similarly damaging.

Earlier this week one fan wrote they were sick of hearing the management and chairmen falsely building up our promotion hopes each summer, as though pre-season optimism has nothing to do with us supporters. Well promotion this season is my dream, promotion this season is your dream, promotion this season is Stuart McCall’s dream, promotion this season is Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn’s dream, promotion this season is even Barry Conlon’s dream.

If we all channel our efforts in the same direction, accepting we succeed and fail together, the chances of us all achieving those ambitions will surely be greater. So, should City fall behind on Saturday, how are you going to react?

Keeping back the kitchen sink

City proved more than a match for local rivals Leeds in this entertaining JPT clash at Elland Road.

Bradford did much of the early pressing, with Omar Daley’s blistering pace proving a real threat. In one attack he dribbled down the left, cut inside and released a powerful shot that went into the side netting.

But Leeds took the lead via Robinson’s highly controversial penalty. With the ball heading into the box, Paul McClaren was adjudged to have handled by the linesman – a very poor decision right in front of the sizeable City contingent. McClaren clearly chested the ball down quickly having collected the ball from some height, but no contact was made with his hand ( we had a view from only a couple of yards away, nearly at ground level).

But minutes later, City seemed to have levelled. A scramble inside the Leeds box resulted in Colbeck thrashing home from close range, but the goal was ruled out for offside.

With the half drawing to an end, Robinson smashed the City bar with a thunderous effort from 20 yards which was quickly knocked out by Heckingbottom. From the resultant corner, substitute Becchio was disappointingly allowed to head home directly from the cross, with Lee and Conlon seemingly to get in each others way when trying to mark the striker. It was poor defending from a set piece.

Thankfully though, City refused to lie down in the second half. Despite a couple of hairy moments where Leeds went close, including hitting the post from a Richardson effort, City more than held their own. Colbeck and Daley both had excellent games, and they forced a number of second half corners with their good wing play.

And real hope was in the air when a goal was pulled back by Barry Conlon. Daley brilliant weaved his way around the Leeds defence, and cut the ball back to Kyle Nix. His cross cum shot was diverted into the back of the net by Conlon to the jubilation of the Bradford faithful.

At this point, we had Leeds worried. All the play was with the away side, as we tried to force penalties.

But there was an air of disappointment in the air when it became apparent that McCall was not willing to bring on another striker to really force the issue. Tactics from the start were to play Barry Conlon in a lone striker role , with the midfield packed out with five. Surely with 20 minutes to go we could have brought on Boulding (M) or Thorne to add some real threat?

But Stuart only decided to bring on Lee Bullock with 5 minutes to go for Dean Furman (who had a promising full debut) and Micheal Boulding was given 60 seconds to make an impact. Why couldn’t we have really thrown the kitchen sink at Leeds in the final stages to make it interesting? Chances are we might have conceded if it didn’t work out, but at least we would have had more of a chance of levelling things up and forcing penalties which could have lead to a famous victory on enemy territory…

But don’t let those thoughts put a dampener on what was an excellent and very credible City performance. We more than matched the best squad in League One for the full 90 minutes, and really had them under the cosh at one stage. Despite us being 2-0 down at the break, we actually had the better of the play in the first half. And in the second, we made them nervous and really had a good go. It was a night to be proud of the team – and more encouraging signs for the rest of the season.

As we were kept inside the ground for 25 minutes after the final whistle had gone, there was plenty of time for reflection on our start to the season. If we continue playing the way we did in this match, there is no doubt that a top three finish will surely be ours.

The stats show that we have lost two games in a row – but that doesn’t tell the whole story. We battled gamely in both the defeats and have shown real signs that we have the spirit to not lie down in games, which is crucially important.

A trip to Vale Park on Saturday awaits for City – and three points there could really set us on our way to keeping up with the leading pack, with two very winnable home games to follow.

Our last trip to Port Vale resulted in us winning 1-0 with Steve Claridge getting the winner. This time we will be pitting our wits against a Port Vale side with ex City man Lee Sinnott in their managerial hotseat.

Lets hope we can perform on Saturday in the same courageous way we did tonight at Elland Road, and concentrate on get our promotion push back on track.

The game we won and lost

This game has convinced me that City are going to get promoted.

Cause I was not sure before and I’d seen the Huddersfield game and I’d worried that against Rochdale we had looked a bit shaky and against Notts County we seemed to wobble but today losing to Aldershot convinced me we were going up.

Cause we had character.  We showed character.  We would not have even made a game of this in the last decade since we went out of the Premiership.  This game would have been like all those get a goal, get thrashed that we have done.  It would have been like Leicester City in 2001 but done at a lower level.

But it was not.

We took the lead when Joe Colbeck dummied a Paul Heckingbottom corner for Paul McLaren to score and that was the difference in a first half of cut and thrust that saw both teams look decent.  Lee Bullock should have added a second but the girlie named Nikki Bull saved his close ranger but those two efforts were City’s only proper danger and I thought about the Rochdale fans moaning that they had more chances than us last week.

But the Shots managed what Rochdale didn’t.  The lashed the ball at Rhys Evans goal and while the Stags staggered around trying to make the perfect chance this home side just needed the perfect hit which they got through Ben Harding who equalised with a twenty yard shot.

That when when City could have lost the game and would have done in the past but didn’t.  Joe Colbeck led the charge back and got mercilessly hacked in the box for a penalty which Peter Thorne saw saved.

It was one of those reality checks.  Not the getting thumped at home by Wigan rather than going top of the Premiership but still pretty bad.  Peter Thorne can miss? Really?

Thorne did it again but by then things had got worse and City had seen Marvin Morgan stick the ball in from close range.  This was a disappointment.  Two minutes after the penalty miss and heads were down.  Head picked up again though and quickly.  The goal came when Aldershot got to the by-line and pulled it back.  I hate goals like that and have a worry about Rhys Evans’s ability to command his penalty area.

Anyway Thorney should have scored.  He got through and Nikki Bull swept the ball off his feet and for a minute he looked like a play who didn’t score with every touch but in truth and on another day we could have been 3-1 in this game then it struck me.  On many other days we will be 3-1 in the game.

We created a bag full of chances but did not put enough of them away and they created some chances and they did well with them but a couple of times they were thanks to the kind of luck of the draw long rangers that sometime do for you but don’t work that often in League Two.  Graeme Lee tried one and it almost worked but most of the time they don’t and don’t worry about losing to them.

Worry if you let in goals like the one Lee Bullock got to equalise.  A well worked move ended in a close ranger header.  Those are the goals that teams need to cut out at source and that you can defend against.  You stop the other team having the ball in dangerous positions and you stop them working with it and when they get frustrated and try something that works one time in a thousand you have done well.  That is what City did with and when Scott Davies whacked the ball back after a good bit of defending then they got the win.

But we got something else from the game.  We got a load of chances and we got the knowledge that had we converted more of them we would have ended up winning.  Four games down and we have three wins.  Stuart McCall will want three points from home games and one from away and that average would give us eight.  We have nine.

On to Port Vale with Leeds in the cup in the week.  Vale fancy their chances but if we play like this we will carry on picking up the points on the way to promotion.

I’m certain of that.

Aldershot Town vs Bradford City – League Two 2008/2009 preview

Aldershot Town are on of those “When we were…” teams. They look at their current surroundings – back in League Two – and compare and contrast with City’s time in the Premiership. “When we were in the Vauxhall Square Third Division West this lot were in the Premiership.”

It is motivation and it is true. Teams like Aldershot and Morecambe have risen as we have fallen and to do so they have by in large been organised and managed correctly much as we were on our ascent to the top flight. They look at our high watermark and compare it to their low and it gives them spirit which we must overcome.

Aldershot’s return is welcomed. They are a club who suffered at the hands of disinterest and bad chairman but sorted themselves out and went the long route back to the League. The results thus far have been a win, a draw and a defeat at much fancied Shrewsbury and they are becoming known for a dogged resistance. They did have former Bantam Ben Starosta on loan but he has left the club. His name aside they are a squad of honest names many of whom have risen with the club.

Looking to rise with Bradford City is Dean Furman who signs on loan from Rangers but is not expected to start the game with Paul McLaren recovering from his dead leg to partner Lee Bullock in midfield. Expect Furman’s debut after an hour or so to bolster the often flagging midfield. Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley keep places on the flanks but as Chris Brandon returns to training Daley will feel the breath of a replacement on his neck.

The back five of goalkeeper Rhys Evans. Paul Arnison and Paul Heckingbottom as full backs and Matthew Clarke and Graeme Lee in the middle is immutable as is the strike two of Michael Boulding and five goal Peter Thorne although Barry Conlon’s five in one game in the reserves will see him sit on the bench with confidence.

Good teams, and the season so far suggests City are one, pick themselves.

Living up to the hype…

City’s highly impressive start to the league season continued as they maintained their 100% record to cast aside last season’s playoff finalists Rochdale.

This was the sort of clinical win that really gives us justified hope that City are real contenders this season.

Rochdale proved to be very sticky opponents. In fact they dominated much of the play in terms of possession and threatening attacks. But they critically lacked the killer instinct in front of goal, with £60,000 ex Halifax striker Jon Shaw really disappointing, and justifying Stuart’s unwillingness to part with any funds to secure his signature.

A quick glance at the statistics from the game shows that Rochdale had plenty of shots at goal, but failed to get even one of them on target.

Omar Daley had a good early chance as he took possession of the ball with plenty of space on the left hand side of the penalty area, cut inside to the centre, skipped past a defensive challenge, but blasted straight at Dale keeper Russell. But if truth be told, Rochdale had much the better of the early exchanges.

Their build up play was excellent attacking the Kop , and forced City into one or two hairy moments the back. Too often did Arnison allow crosses to come in from the left hand side and threateningly cross across goal. But Dale failed to deliver the goal that their possession and build up play probably deserved.

City edged in front on 20 when Daley released Peter Thorne on the right hand side of the box. The veteran striker then whipped in a perfectly executed pinpoint cross right onto the head of Micheal Boulding, who headed firmly down to celebrate his first Bradford goal.

Unperturbed by conceding, Rochdale continued to press for the following 15 minutes, but again lacked cutting edge. And they were stunned when Paul McClaren whipped in a brilliant free kick from the left that was nodded in perfectly at the back post by an unmarked Peter Thorne who doubled City’s advantage with a header from close range. The irrepressible Thorne has had a stunning start to the season and is already establishing himself as a legend among the City faithful.

There was still much work to do in the second half, and City did it extremely well defensively. Clarke and Lee grew in stature in the second half, and both Heckingbottom and Arnison carrying out their defensive duties admirably. Heckingbottom in particular had an excellent game – and nearly scored a collectors item goal with a brilliant run in the first half!

Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley didn’t have their most productive games offensively, but in the second half, both showed a desire and willingness to track back defensively to help out their full backs. Their effort did not go unnoticed.

Lee Bullock didn’t really get involved enough for my liking – he had very much an “Eddie Johnson type” game. McClaren seemed to stroll through the game in a pedestrian like fashion without really impressing (apart from the excellent free kick) before going off with a knock.

In a rare second half counter attack, Micheal Boulding raced clear with intent. With Conlon lurking at the back post, Boulding ignored the big Irishman and struck a brilliant low left foot shot that beat the keeper, hit the inside of the post, and rolled across the goal line out for a goal kick. Desperately unlucky was the impressive Boulding , who was always willing to run beyond the defensive back four and produced numerous excellent flicks for Thorne to feed on. Their newly formed striking partnership is looking extremely promising.

With time ticking on , McCall basically extinguished any chance of City scoring again by leaving Barry Conlon on his own up front. TJ Moncur came on as part of a five man midfield that was the kill the game off as a contest. Not even the player that outdid City twice last season – Adam Le Fondre, could change the course of the game. He was unlucky late on with a strike that bounced off the cross bar.

But in truth, on reflection over the 90 minutes, City were comfortable and had quite convincingly cast aside the much fancied Rochdale.

They say the makings of a successful team is how they react to defeat. That hellish rainy night at Legoland has not impacted our team and what we are setting out to do in the league. We have followed up that crushing defeat with 2 wins, 4 goals and 2 clean sheets. And even in the game against Huddersfield, we more than held our own for 60 minutes.

The way the team have battled back at Macclesfield, and now against a very good Rochdale team proves that we really are worthy of the League Two hype this year. We have been excellent in every department, and if we can keep that up consistently this season, there is no doubt we will end up as Champions. Inside of sulking about losing to our local rivals we have put on two excellent displays.

Can we keep it up? I think so. City are the real deal this time round and, given the evidence of our nearly fully fit team so far, you would be foolish to bet on them finishing outside the top three.

The important and exciting thing this season is that every position seems to be covered squad wise so that even if injuries become a factor, we have good players who can step in. If Thorne or Boulding are injured, Topp, Boulding (R) or Conlon (or maybe not?!) can step up. If Omar Daley is showing inconsistent form, Joe Colbeck can step in on the right. If Lee Bullock is out injured again, the hungry Luke Sharry wlll want to grab a first team opportunity with both hands. If Matt Clarke’s decision making is called into question at the back, Mark Bower will slot in bringing his experience at the club to the forefront.

These are the type of advantages and options that we have not had since 1999.

This is our season.

It has to be.

Bradford City vs Rochdale – League Two 2008/2009 preview

League Two has yet to take shape – unless you count the hope that the Bantams will stay at the top and the Alan Davies on QI way that some clubs hang at the bottom – but already City have made their intentions known by winning two on the trot. Rochdale – last year’s beaten play off finalists – offer a more stern test than Notts County and Macclesfield did.

Indeed Dale – who have spent longer in the 4th tier of English football than anyone – beat City twice 2-1 on the way to that Wembley final with the Valley Parade game ending Stuart McCall’s men’s slim playoff hopes.

Following Wembley Keith Hill’s men have spent money on Jon Shaw – who at one point interested City – and fancy themselves as promotion material and a comfy win over Barnet got those ambitions on track.

All of which recalls the glorious spirit of 1969 when Rochdale got promoted back to the third tier of English football having been placed in Division Four following the split in Divisions Three North. Dale were out of the bottom available league for five seasons before being relegated in 1974 – a season in which they won only twice. It is the club’s centenary year this term and they hope to celebrate with a second league promotion in one hundred years.

Dale have lost key man David Perkins since last season but retained the impressive Gary Jones and have a goalkeeper who the manager calls one of the finest passers in the football league.

The Bantams are expected to field the same starting eleven as beat Macclesfield last week with Rhys Evans in goal; Paul Arnison, Graeme Lee, Matthew Clarke and Paul Heckingbottom at the back.

Joe Colbeck starts his first home game of the season on the right after having a hand in both Peter Thorne’s goals last week. Paul McLaren and Lee Bullock are the middle and Omar Daley is expected to line up on the left wing in the continued absence of Chris Brandon who not only tweaked his ankle to delay his debut this week but also moved back to a shiny new house in Bradford.

Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding start up front with Barry Conlon on the bench. Willy Topp will miss up to four weeks after getting injured in the reserves during the week.

A team game

Among the strong bluster of disapproval which resulted from Tuesday evening’s Carling cup nightmare at Huddersfield, there was one line of criticism which particularly stood out.

In response to manager Stuart McCall’s post-match omission that their League One opponents had been a class above during their 4-0 triumph, some argued that this shouldn’t have been the case because the summer recruitments – the majority from the division above – should leave us with a team which could hold it’s own in England’s third tier. Given the club’s ambition is be competing at the top end of League One next season; doubts were raised at the team’s ability to achieve it.

No one would argue Tuesday was anything other than woeful, but it was the way City collapsed having fallen behind – rather than his players capabilities – which will have concerned Stuart the most. It’s a squad still needing time to gel and, as a test of what it is capable of, playing Huddersfield was too much, too soon. Everyone can see we have good players, but it will take time to become a good team.

The basic surroundings of Moss Rose proved ideal for rebuilding battered pride and switching focus back to the season’s main objective of promotion from League Two. City will face tougher games over the coming months than a poor Macclesfield side could offer, but this comfortable victory will help build confidence for them.

Right from kick off, with City quickly winning possession and straight on the attack, it was clear the players were determined to make up for Tuesday’s disappointment. Two early goals made for a comfortable afternoon as City went up and down the gears, rarely threatening to lose grip of the game. If a more emphatic scoreline looked probable at one stage, it was still an impressive 90 minutes from the Bantams.

Unlike Tuesday, City played like a team. A team with an impressive forward line; Peter Thorne again the hero with a second double strike in two starts. The first a looping header from a delightful cross which flew into the far corner, the second a poacher’s effort after poor control by Silkmen defender Sean Hessey allowed him the chance. Last season’s top scorer had to wait until November to net his first goal and, with four already, the prospects of a bigger return this campaign look good.

Alongside him Michael Boulding looked more the part after an underwhelming full debut at the Galpharm. He made some impressive runs and took up clever positions. It might not be the kindest comparison, but he is the first City striker since Michael Branch with the ability to run the channels, popping up all over in and around the penalty area. The former Aston Villa striker had chances to open his Bantams account, most notably hitting the post in the second half.

A team with wingers who excite if also frustrate. Joe Colbeck returned from suspension and, while quiet by his standards, set up Thorne’s opener and played a part in his second. Omar Daley was back on form and terrorised Macclesfield’s shaky backline on several occasions. Just like against Notts County the week before, he almost scored from a mazy dribble which began in his own half, just taking too long to get in his shot after reaching the penalty area. Opposition managers will become increasingly wary of Omar’s threat on the break and, like Boulding, he was unlucky to see a second half effort come back off the woodwork.

A team with a capable central midfield. Lee Bullock hasn’t torn up any trees during his first two games this season, but caught the eye with an impressive display. Paul McLaren continues to play things simple and some his best work isn’t always noticed. It might not work every game, but the duo controlled the tempo and set up several attacks.

A team looking solid and mobile at the back. Macclesfield, who’s first half wretchedness was probably best summed up when, on the end of heavy pressure in their area, a defender managed to clear the ball to their striker on half way only for the flag to go up, showed more fight in the second. Substitutes Izak Reid and Francis Green made a difference, the latter unlucky not to pull a goal back after his shot was tipped over by the impressive Rhys Evans.

The home side had a strong penalty shout rejected, but otherwise found City’s defence too strong. Paul Arnison has been criticised for his performances so far, but defended efficiently and got forward well. On the opposite side Paul Heckingbottom has made a bright start to the season while Matt Clarke continues to look solid, his distribution improved from Tuesday.

But it’s his central defensive partner and club captain Graeme Lee who fans were raving about at the final whistle. His best moment in an outstanding display came in the second half when, with Macclesfield adopting manager Keith Alexander’s trademark tactics of pumping the ball into the box, he headed the ball clear four times in quick succession. Just like Peter Thorne with Dean Windass, Lee is showing there is life after a club legend and his on-looking predecessor, David Wetherall, would have been proud.

All of which ensured Macclesfield were out of ideas well before the end and City could have easily had two or three more to reflect their superiority. Billy Topp – who’s dominated the post-Huddersfield discussions – came off the bench for his first appearance of the season and looked sharp. A look at the unused subs is another reason to feel optimistic.

This is a team which isn’t fully there just yet, there were still moments where players could have done better and understandings still need developing. In the closing stages Evans and Daley had an argument after the Jamaican gave away the ball in a bad position and Lee, as captain, had to get involved. Daley has managed to lose his cool at some point in each game so far and while that might be a concern it’s also a sign he cares. As does the way Evans and Lee argued with the winger and other players helped to later calm him down by talking to him.

What sort of season City will enjoy is still unclear, but the indications are positive from the two league displays so far. This is team with great potential and, when it is up to full speed, should prove difficult to stop. Tuesday’s shocker will take time to forget, but this team looks capable of celebrating something far more significant than a place in the second round of the Cup come May.

Huddersfield Town vs Bradford City – League Cup First Round 2008/2009 preview

Having won on the first day of the season Bradford City go into the first local derby in sixteen months with tails high and a wound to heal.

The last visit to City’s least favourite rivals at the end of the 2006/2007 was one of the low lights not only of that season but of the fall from the Premiership which we hope to have now turned around as Huddersfield recorded a simple 2-0 win against a lifeless City side under David Wetherall’s management.

A season and a bit later and investment and management sees City looking upwards for the first time and Stuart McCall getting an early chance to measure himself against a team from a higher division,

McCall faces a Huddersfield side managed by a former assistant boss from Valley Parade whom he played under – Stan Ternant – who thanked goalkeeper Matt Glennon for a last minute save that stopped the lead they had taken through Andy Booth from being turned around to defeat in the 1-1 draw with Stockport at the weekend.

As with McCall’s City Ternant has stacked experience in his side with the likes of David Unsworth, Chris Lucketti and Luke Beckett – almost a Bantam joining Booth and Danny Cadamarteri who was a Bantam and a really wretched one at that. Added to that are a selection of youngsters who have come through Town’s set up and one could expect that as a higher league team they may be tempted to give some squad players a run out.

Former Town boss Bill Shankley said that were Everton playing in the back garden he would close the curtains but knew that winning the Merseyside derby gave his Liverpool team important bragging rights and such factors may change the teams put out.

McCall is expected to give the majority of the side that started at the weekend in the win over Notts County but may be tempted to give Michael Boulding a first start over Peter Thorne who suffered cramp after his two goal haul. Either that or Willy Topp will be given a chance to emulate his hero Edinho – well, my hero – and score at Town’s ground. Barry Conlon is likely to retain his place.

Chris Brandon is missing for a return to the club he has just left and Joe Colbeck misses the final game of his suspension leaving Omar Daley free try continue his impressive start. Kyle Nix on the left with Paul McLaren and Lee Bullock in the middle although McLaren’s tender ankle may give Luke Sharry a start.

Paul Heckingbottom, Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke make up three of the back four the other is right back Paul Arnison who splits opinion for reasons that pass my understanding. Playing behind Omar Daley is a hard enough job for any full back with the winger far too often allowing a man to go past and double up on the full back. Not only did Arnison’s direction keep Daley closer than any full back has previously managed but he got forward and supported Daley to boot.

Add to that his assist on the first goal and one wonders just what a full back has to do at Valley Parade be considered to have performed. Stephen Wright, Gunnar Halle, Gus Ulhenbeek, Darren Holloway and Darren Williams have all been been pillared at points yet Simon Francis and Nathan Doyle were loved. Similarly Heckingbottom is criticised for things that Andrew Taylor and Luke O’Brien are not. It would seem that the forgiveble players – loanees and young lads – play as full backs do and are excused and full time seniors are never forgiven should a single winger go past them.

Rhys Evans keeps goal and Stuart McCall bites his nails on the touchline. This is a chance for the Bantams to notch a scalp on what we are hoping is the way back, to win bragging rights and to build the morale that can keep the league performance ticking over.

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