The team that taught me football: Part One

Best teams, worst teams.

It is all opinion and opinion is no bad thing but those opinions are formed by our experiences watching teams and players week in, week out each one teaching what could and should be done, what might be avoided.

I went to my first Bradford City game in 1981 on the last day of the season when we played Hereford United and lost 1-0. Since then I’ve seen hundreds of players and about a dozen or so managers and some I could not even recall playing but others have stuck in the mind and the ones which stick in the mind most are the ones who have formed my footballing opinions.

This is my team that taught me football.

Gary Walsh in goal

I’ve seen Paul Tomlinson frustrate strikers who rushed at him one to one because Tomlinson never got beaten one to one.

I’ve seen Matt Clarke bouncing around the goalmouth like a flea seemingly able to change direction in mid-air and had my heart in my mouth.

I know Paul Henderson was a model pro who settled himself down for the season astonishingly quickly and I’ve seen Jon McLaughlin race sixty yards to lump someone who has had a go at his friend and all these keepers have taught me something.

But none of them had what Gary Walsh had.

Gary Walsh taught me that goalkeeping was positioning. That the best keepers were the best not because they were athletic but because any athleticism they did show was second defence.

First was positioning. The ability to read a game and not thing a few moves ahead and then stand where they needed to be. Good goalkeeping is about looking forward, not reactions, and Walsh was able to do that.

So when I hear Match of the Day pundits say “They hit it straight at the keeper” then I raise a smile and think of Walsh, shuffling to the right two steps seemingly for no reason and then two seconds later taking the ball into his palms.

Nick Summerbee on the right wing

No one really liked Nick Summerbee and there were plenty of good reasons for that. His faking injury against City showed poor sportsmanship and his reluctance to join the club suggested that in his time at Valley Parade he would much rather have been anywhere else but what he did have – and what I took from watching him – was the uses of quality delivery.

Of course Peter Beagrie has superb delivery – better than Summerbee but then again everything in Beagrie’s team worked well and hardly anything in Summerbee’s team including Summerbee. He did not track back well enough, did not take control of games well enough, did not get involved enough. In fact all he did well was deliver the ball and he delivered the ball superbly.

And it is that which Summerbee taught me. What to do in a situation of limited talents. Managers would use Summerbee to take corners but seemed to notice that his team struggled to win anything from the delivery no matter how good it was. A great cross headed away and it was left to someone else to try create a second phase of the attack from the edge of the box.

And so Summerbee switched to that role. Rather than trying to deliver a good ball he would be detailed to get ball after it was headed clear and create an effective second phase. To return the corner with interest so to speak. In the football economics of scarcity it was an education. If you have two jobs to do that both require one player than the most obvious job is not necessarily the most productive one.

Summerbee did that for a time and drifted away from Valley Parade and no one really cared by that lesson is there when Garry Thompson tucks inside to form a firmer midfield rather than go to his man when everyone is screaming at him to make a tackle.

In left midfield Shaun Murray

When he was fifteen Shaun Murray was the best prospect in English football. Ten years later and having been through Tottenham, Portsmouth and Scarborough he had become a player for which it was said that he had a great future behind him.

He arrived at City, played a good season or two, and then faded making a decisive contribution in the gap left by Chris Waddle in 1997 before drifting away and joining Notts County on the way down as City went on the way up.

And so it would be easy to forget Shaun Murray were it not for a legacy he left for me which has become the yardstick of any creative player.

Shaun Murray always improved possession.

When he got the ball near the touchline he would either play a pass or win a throw in. When he got the ball near the byline he would either play a cross or win a corner. In the middle of the field he would find a good pass to a man who had space to do something with the ball or he would keep the ball and move it away from trouble.

So it was what he did not do that was educational. He did not try beat a man every time and get tackled, leading to the ball flying back against his team mates who were caught coming forward. He did not waste possession by putting in low percentage crosses. He did not dump the ball onto a teammate unwilling to take responsibility for his performance.

Which was nothing to do with being England’s one time brightest prospect or even from being especially talented it was from understanding the Cardinal virtues of football. That the job of a player in possession is to take responsibility and improve in the situation.

And every creative player since is judged by that yardstick.

Never criticise for making a mistake trying to do the right thing and want them to take responsibility for ensuring that when the ball leaves their feet the team are in a better position than when they got it. A bad pass is a mistake, running into two players you were never going to beat and having your team turned around is not.

The dominative not really a winger, not big enough for a central midfielder Shaun Murray was smart enough to realise that, and in realising that I learned a lot from him.

Denmark, Barnet vs Bradford City

Take apart the falling apart at the end of last season and one can find a plethora of points when in retrospect it is obvious that the writing – such as it was – was on the wall.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark it did not say although it might have done had the effect not been ruined by replacing the Kingdom with the London region of Barnet.

Rotten is was though and the 4-1 reversal that saw 100 year old striker Paul Furlong become a sprightly tormentor and Albert Adomah tear a hole in the curtain of City’s defence.

That was then, this is now and much change has been made since. The general consensus on the Bantams this term to even the brightest days of last is that they are more enjoyable to watch by virtue of the level of effort put in by the players being higher. It is rare to go through a City game at the moment without the words “He puts it in cause he knows what it is like to work at the Co-op/as a plumber/cutting hair and he does not want to go back.” Certainly watching the energy of the over forty Furlong playing every game as if it were his last last season showed that it is not only former non-league players who can have that desire.

Nevertheless it is a given that City did not have it then but do now, and this is to be celebrated rightfully although there was talk in the week as to who came up with the idea of bringing the likes of Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding in the first place.

Considering the money came from joint chairman Mark Lawn’s loan to the club which suggests a logical train of thought that when he brought this pile of cash to the club it was with the express idea of bringing in bigger names which Stuart McCall duly – and gleefully – did. Cash is tight no so who had the idea to find cheaper replacements? File under “Specialist subject: The bleeding obvious“.

So the band of hearty, if cheaper replacements are more enjoyable to watch and if Gareth Evans cost the same as Willy Topp – and we are lead to believe that he did – it is not so much the strategy of recruitment that has brought benefits but the quality.

Quality not having previously been associated with Simon Eastwood until the faffing keeper seemed to be reborn at Shrewsbury with a sterling performance that he took into the game with Burton Albion making two fine one-on-one saves that put supporters of a certain age in mind of the legend of Paul Tomlinson. Tomlinson – who played more between the sticks than any keeper in City history – seemed so good when faces one-on-one with a striker that one felt a little disappointed if a goal resulted from such an attack.

Blame that has been heaped onto Eastwood has roved to Zesh Rehman somewhat unfairly. Odd how often City and Geo-Political machinations align – read Peanut Farmer Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that Obama’s critics are racist – and certainly similar has been said around Zesh at the moment.

For my money Zesh could improve but he is taking on responsibilities for leading the defence and I would rather a player be seen to err in what he does rather than not make a mistake because he does not involve himself in play.

Steve Williams – who will partner Rehman at Barnet – has played hardly a dozen games as a professional footballer and looks accomplished in a way that one could have only hoped for. Simon Ramsden – another recruit – also looks a cut above last season’s new faces despite being “a cost cutting replacement”. Ramsden and Luke O’Brien are the full backs as City settle into a solid and predictable back five.

Predictability is not something one could accuse Chris Brandon’s play of and the lively midfielder still lurches between seemingly like an essential name on the teamsheet and provoking a desire to cast him far from Valley Parade. Ostensibly he is City’s playmaker but sometimes the phrase luxury player seems to fit him more. Without him slotting onto the left City are less inventive with the ball, with him we are less robust in winning it back which is a role that Lee Bullock has warmed to very well. Bullock’s trio with Michael Flynn and Stephen O’Leary was broken up by the latter’s injury – a shame – and Brandon is not able to fill the slot next to the fiery number four so Stuart McCall deploys him opposite Scott Neilson on the flank or brings in James O’Brien.

Last week’s experience in the 1-1 draw with Burton Albion saw City fail to have a strangle hold on the midfield which a trio in the middle rather than two flank players could have given us and one could assume that away from home ball winning would be more important – leading to a suggestion that Brandon should be benched – but with the onus on the home side to attack more a more inventive player could make the most of possession when it comes.

Gosh managing a football club is hard.

Much easier is the forward line which has Peter Thorne out injured and Michael Boulding waiting for the right alignment of planets that would create suitable conditions when he might play well leaving Gareth Evans and James Hanson to lead the line with the possibility of Hanson dropping into the left hand side to allow Brandon to tuck in and perhaps curing both problems creating a robust midfield, having the inventive playmaker in and keeping the hearty players in.

Perhaps that football management is not that tough after all. Then again perhaps one day I’ll be made King of a Scandinavian country.

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