The goalscoring problem as City travel to Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will a real goalscorer please stand up. Hurry.

Make Peter Thorne guest of honour for City’s home game with Notts County

Peter Thorne’s departure from Valley Parade is a sad and unbefitting end for a player whose efforts over the last two-and-half-years have proved so memorable. Although Michael has written an excellent tribute, I’d also like to add my own.

Stuart McCall’s second signing after Barry Conlon, injury prevented Thorne from making an instant impact but, after netting against Chester City in an FA Cup 1st Round tie in November 2007, he played a key part in the team’s revival after a slow start to the campaign. That form continued into the start of the following season at least, though further injuries and loss of form saw him go goalless for three months, before he was the nearly hero of City’s late promotion push collapse – scoring memorably in the last minute against leaders Brentford to earn a draw, and then having perfectly legal goals against Morecambe and Dagenham ruled at pivotal moments in the games. It could have been so different for Thorne and City.

Thorne was a goalscorer and little more, and in the modern era where players’ faults are highlighted to unfair proportions, the fact he did little but tuck away chances was a reason to criticise, especially when he wasn’t tucking away those chances; but such prowess is hard to come by and will be missed. After the huge hole that was Dean Windass leaving in 2007, you feared City might struggle to find a goalscorer to replace him. Thorne took on that role and was widely loved for it. Now we can fear we might struggle to replace him.

Half a chance was often all he needed, bang, goal and the usual understated celebration. He scored many simple goals but he also scored some excellent ones, his high number of goals against Notts County probably standing out most. He netted a hat trick against the Magpies in January 2008 and two on the opening day of the season after, but it probably his effort at Meadow Lane in February 2008 that will go down as my personal favourite Thorne goal. Controlling a long pass from TJ Moncur calmly, he spun into the area and unleashed a powerful shot past Russell Hoult. No wonder Notts County were sick of him.

But they should have to see him one more time. After such heroic efforts Thorne shouldn’t be allowed to exit via the backdoor in this manner. We supporters deserve the chance to say goodbye and to show our appreciation, and Thorne deserves the chance to receive it. Make him the guest of honour at City’s game with Notts County next Tuesday, invite him onto the pitch at half time to meet his public. Let us chant his name one more time and remember the many great moments he provided for City.

We’ll really miss Thorne, please let us at least say goodbye.

Thorne follows Boulding out of Valley Parade

Following yesterday’s exit for the Boulding brothers the club have announced that Peter Thorne is leaving the club this week after two and a half years at Valley Parade.

Thorne’s record of 31 goals in 73 games made him top scorer although injury curtailed the effectiveness of the former Cardiff striker – who along with Barry Conlon was Stuart McCall’s first signings at the club – in his first and last seasons.

One of McCall’s biggest “if onlys” was that he would have liked the striker fitter for longer and another is that Thorne’s tally of 31 was not increased by the one he poked home at Morecambe only to be waved away by a poorly placed Referee.

At the start of this season Thorne agreed – at McCall’s insistence – a year long extension at a reduced rate despite his worries that his persistent back injury would stop him playing a significant role.

Thorne finishes his City career on 198 goals for all clubs in total and there is a school of thought that says that the club – and Peter Taylor – would have been well advised to allow the supporters a cheery send off of one of the most popular players of the past few years. Perhaps.

Thorne is not only held in high regard by supporters. Stuart McCall made him captain and paid warm tribute to him and the assistance he offered the other forwards in training. This was echoed time and time again by the likes of Gareth Evans who talked about how the senior forward had advised him on how to get through bad patches, how to be a better player.

Should Thorne decide to move from player to management I feel sure that he would have something to offer a club and should he do that I feel sure he would be a success. One club near his North West home could do worse than offering the former Norwich, Cardiff and Bradford City striker a chance to take charge.

One day his path might take him to the Valley Parade – home or away – and when he does he will be given the warm tribute that his smart play and clinical finishing deserves.

53 weeks ago – City were on top of the world

It was 53 short weeks ago that Bradford City crushed Aldershot Town on their last visit to Valley Parade. Two goals from the returning-to-form Peter Thorne, a beauty of an effort from the edge of the box by Dean Furman, a tap in for Barry Conlon and a comical own-goal set up by Joe Colbeck. 5-0, City fourth in the league with 11 games to go. The excitement was growing at the prospect of ending the season with the glory of promotion.

As we all know, it ended miserably with the platform that victory had laid on for City proving something of a peak to the second half of the season at least. The next nine of those remaining 11 were winless as the Bantams fell out of the promotion picture, the ending of the season with back-to-back victories thus meaningless. The backwards steps have continued into this season.

City now have a long way to go just to get to where they were after that Spring demolition of the Shots. The up and down nature of results since Peter Taylor took over the reins has at times given hope of a late play off push this time around, but the slip ups and barely decreasing distance from the top seven has all but extinguished such faint chances. After Saturday’s clash with Aldershot is over, there will again be 11 games to go – even a complete reversal of results compared to those nine games at the end of last season probably wouldn’t be enough.

If we could turn the clocks back to the final whistle a year ago and apply hindsight, what warnings would we now offer and to whom? Perhaps the most obvious would seem to be changing Stuart McCall’s u-turn over his threat to quit. As Taylor impresses for the composure and organisation he has brought to the team, the growing temptation is to look back over McCall’s final season and dismiss it a waste of time. If only Taylor had taken over sooner, it can be argued, the club might still be approaching the final section of the season with promotion hopes.

The ‘SOS’ demonstration at the end of the last season might be something we’d go back and urge the organisers to cancel. The holding up of banners in support of McCall has caused widespread debate even during this season, with the number of supporters willing to admit they displayed a sign surprisingly few.

Where I sit in the Midland Road Stand, a previously quiet and pleasant woman suddenly can’t stop ranting, during the last few months, about how poor a manager McCall is/was, and inadvertently slamming those who backed him. Prior to the start of recent homes games she’s repeatedly uttered, “Do you know who I blame for this season? All those supporters who held up signs supporting him at the last home game” out loud to everyone around her, the majority of whom did hold up signs. Sorry lady, it’s all my fault.

But perhaps we’d take a different approach if we could go back, considering where City might be today but for that late season collapse. If City have gone onto earn promotion during those final 11 games a year ago, there would have been no need to reduce the transfer and wage budgets by a third for this campaign – an action which has undoubtedly undermined efforts.

Instead we might warn McCall where it would all go wrong –  to be mindful of defending set pieces at Spotland a few days later, to make sure Barry Conlon and Matt Clarke are behaving while staying in Devon prior to the Exeter game, how tinkering with the team too much leads to the inconsistent form, how a linesman will rob the team at Morecambe, not to sign Paul chuffin Mullin, that certain players cannot be counted on when the chips are down, and why it’s so important he doesn’t let it all get him down too much.

Perhaps most of all we’d warn him not to publicly threaten to quit in the manner he did after losing to Bournemouth, because it seemed to only breed instability and nervousness in the team rather than help it. The decline was already starting and he needed to be more positive in addressing it. The Bournemouth defeat was the third in a row; worrying form – but it needn’t have turned into the disastrous form that would continue another six games.

Mistakes were made, as McCall himself readily admits, and they soon added up to something far bigger. Ultimately City’s failure this season is due to the failure of the one before, and the immediate challenge remains reversing those backward steps. 53 weeks after thrashing Aldershot 5-0, it is now the visitors who harbour the promotion hopes. They, and so many other clubs, have been able to catch up and overtake City over the last 12 months, it’s already going to be a long road back.

But like in any aspect of life – it’s not how many mistakes are made, but how quickly they are learned from. Sometimes it’s a torturous and miserable path, but if the resultant lessons can be applied positively it will be a journey worth taking. If we had not put up our SOS posters and if McCall had departed during the summer, it’s highly unlikely City would be currently employing Taylor. Someone else would have come in and, with the same budget constraints, may have done no better.

The lessons McCall learned from his first two seasons would not have been applied, the new guy may have repeated the City legend’s mistakes of hiring players not up to this level or lacking in desire. However well it can be judged McCall performed this season, there’s little doubt Taylor has inherited a squad to build on rather than start all over again – due to McCall targeting the right kind of players within the budget constraints.

And if the short-term deal works out and Taylor can replicate the kind of success he enjoyed at Hull, the misery of the last 12 months and the refusal of McCall to quit last summer will ultimately have been worth it. Life doesn’t allow you to turn back the clock, mistakes cannot be undone.  City have had 53 weeks of regrets and now more than ever is the time to apply those lessons. Taylor is impressing in both victory and defeat. We know he has the experience, he’s proving he has the knowledge, the main question mark is that of his own appetite – and that of the Chairmen – to make it work.

53 weeks on Taylor has so far used only seven players from the sixteen involved against the Shots last season  – only three of which have started the last four games. Luke O’Brien, Lee Bullock and Matt Clarke have themselves been the subject of healthy debates for much of this season, but all appear to be impressing Taylor. Meanwhile the futures of the other four – Thorne, Michael Boulding, Zesh Rehman and Chris Brandon – look decidedly shaky.  Taylor vowed to give everyone a go and would seem to already be making his mind up over who he would offer a City future too and who he’d move on.

Two of his own short-term recruits have yet to really feature but, after a disappointing performance in losing to Port Vale, may now get their chance. Little is known of Luke Oliver, other than his height, but he could make his debut alongside Clarke in the centre of defence. Gavin Grant has arrived on a pay-as-you-play basis and in need of building fitness. With Gareth Evans having a poor game at Vale Park, that fitness might be tested from the start tomorrow. Omar Daley too will be vying for only a fourth start in a year.

Daley is one of the few players not out of contract this summer and Taylor’s ability to judge the Jamaican is hampered by his understandable lack of fitness. So far Taylor has gone for the workrate of Evans and O’Brien on the flanks to start and, if Daley watched AC Milan’s pathetic surrender at Old Trafford this week largely due to widemen not bothering to track back and Manchester United murdering the Italians down the flanks, he will have some idea of what he needs to do to fit in with the new-look City.

Elsewhere Mark McCammon will have arrived for a month at City with greater ambition than swapping one sub bench for another, and Taylor may consider him to start ahead of James Hanson or Michael Flynn, the latter moving back to midfield. The arrival of Adam Bolder sees greater competition in the centre of midfield, with Steve O’Leary still on the fringes, but Taylor would surely be reluctant to leave out either Bolder or the in-form Bullock.

Matt Glennon keeps goal, having been faintly criticised in public by Taylor for not stopping Vale’s winning goal on Tuesday. Glennon’s spell at City has been curious for its lack of incident. He has made some good saves, but nothing too noteworthy. He has also conceded a few goals he might have been expected to save. He has impressed in the command of his penalty area, but the long-term custodian he may not be. Having played only seven games for Bristol Rovers, a third return of Rhys Evans this summer would be widely cheered by fans.

Simon Ramsden and Robbie Threlfall retain the full back slots; Steve Williams may face the axe for Oliver; Jon Bateson, Michael Boulding and Thorne wait impatiently for rare opportunities.

This is a low

After a week of rising excitement and gushing praise towards new Bradford City manager Peter Taylor – sobriety. 

Optimism filled the air, and the away end, as the 15-week spell under Taylor’s tutelage kicked off, but the crashing-to-earth realisation there is no magic wand came long before the final whistle. If he didn’t know it already, the size of the task was coldly presented to the one-time England boss during this weak surrender.

If there’s a consolation to take, it’s that things really could have been worse. As Accrington’s John Miles was allowed to run clear on goal and slot home the first of two goals at 4.09pm, the bottom two clubs – Grimsby and Darlington – were both in winning positions and gaining ground. In the end Grimsby drew and Darlington blew an 80th minute 2-0 home lead to lose 3-2, meaning the Bantams retain a cushion barrier from the relegation scrap.

But there was little hope of an away team recovery in East Lancashire. Starting the game in a 4-5-1 formation – gasp, remember when Stuart McCall was widely criticised for being so ‘negative’ in playing like this? – Taylor’s City struggled to make any impression on a dreary game. James Hanson was the sole forward of the set up, but was so effectively marked out of the game by the hugely impressive Darran Kempson it would be no surprise if the home defender only took his sights off the former Guiseley striker as he boarded back onto the team bus.

Sure Kempson pushed his luck, shoving Hanson in the back and not being afraid to lead with elbows, but the weak manner in which Hanson allowed himself to be bullied out of the game shows how far he has to go before he can realistically hope for higher league interest to turn serious.

Yet as has been typical of City in recent weeks, when Hanson does play the over-used tactic is to hit the ball long towards his head. The midfield five were presumably instructed to read Hanson’s flick ons, but his low success ratio and poor movement from behind meant possession was regularly gifted back to the home team. And when City did play through the middle they found eager red shirts snapping at their heels, giving them little time on the ball. Such work rate simply wasn’t matched by those wearing black.

Scott Neilson and Gareth Evans were the more forward-intended players of the midfield five; but both lack in confidence which meant that, despite them notably trying harder than others, little went right. That’s not to say they ran themselves into the ground, certainly Neilson was often guilty of strolling, instead of racing, back to track runners. But if Taylor was able to avoid covering his eyes, he may seem some hope in the pair provided he can install some belief.

The other three in midfield were simply woeful, and would struggle to argue their efforts deserve anything better than relegation to the bench. Michael Flynn’s dipping of form in recent weeks is alarming and today he looked disinterested and out of ideas when in possession. The ability to ping a cross-field ball and make forceful runs – illustrated so regularly prior to Christmas – was hidden behind illogical passes and tame shots. He is supposed to be City’s general, but is going increasingly awol.

Lee Bullock was also uninvolved while Chris Brandon’s maddening tendency to drift all around the pitch and take up ineffective positions was yet again to the detriment of the shape of the team. It can be argued McCall failed to make the most of Brandon’s undoubted talent and we might expect Taylor to do better in the coming weeks, but much should come from the player himself and the impression all season is City fan Brandon lacks the commitment to be successful.

And if Taylor inherits some significant problems in midfield, the defence will surely contribute to some sleepless nights too. Zesh Rehman has struggled for form during most of the campaign, but this was perhaps his worst game yet for the Bantams. He looked panicky every time the ball came nearby. When he wasn’t hoofing the ball aimlessly forwards he was struggling to control it. He continued to lose his man when Accrington attacked and, when he did have time on the ball, often chose the wrong passing option. He was sacrificed in the closing stages as Taylor brought on Peter Thorne, a move which triggered cheers from an strangely muted travelling support.

Luke O’Brien also struggled, how he must long for the club to sign a left winger he can link up with or at least for Omar Daley to remain fit. So often the ball was played to O’Brien near the back without a single black shirt nearby to present a passing option. He had to keep taking the ball forwards only to be closed down and concede possession.

City’s five-man midfield should have meant one of Bullock or Flynn could drop deep to help, while Brandon or Evans should have drifted over more to the left flank to partner up with him. Matt Clarke and Simon Ramsden hardly enjoyed good games themselves, but at least showed more composure and urgency to do the right things.

After a dull goalless first half in which a tame shot from Brandon was the closest City came to scoring, Miles opened the scoring on 54 minutes with Clarke and Rehman having switched off. Hanson had minutes earlier fired City’s best chance over the bar from Ramsden’s free kick, but despite having 36 minutes to come back the Bantams rarely looked capable.

The introductions of Michael Boulding for Brandon, Leon Osborne for Neilson and Thorne for Rehman made little difference, and Miles sealed a deserved Stanley victory with four minutes to go after former City striker Michael Symes crossed the ball into his path. That might have been his hat trick goal, but minutes earlier Matt Glennon had denied the former-Liverpool trainee with a decent save.

The final whistle was met with loud boos and, disappointingly, some fans chose to give Flynn some distasteful abuse when he came over  to applaud the away end. For the moment no blame will be attached to Taylor, which means the players will have to get used to being on the receiving end of fans’ anger.

Which won’t help their clearly dipping confidence. It’s hard to believe these players were at least putting in some strong performances only weeks ago – usually not getting the rewards or the correct refereeing decisions. Now they seem to have little trust in themselves or each other to do the right things, and many are shying away from taking responsibility.

Even in a campaign which has featured the heavy defeats to Notts County and Rochdale, I would argue this performance and last week’s against Grimsby are the worst of the season. In fact it’s difficult for those of us who’ve being watching the Bantams for less than 20 years to recall performances as wretchedly-clueless as these.

All of which leaves Taylor with a huge amount of work to do. City have dropped to 18th, and the 14-point gap to the play offs firmly shelves any talk of a Chris Kamara-style late surge. The season cannot be allowed to drift into nothingness. The miserable outlook which has engulfed the club since Rochdale triumphed 3-0 at Valley Parade in December has to be shifted. The future has to look bright again.

The fantastic Accrington fans – who put on a magnificent home atmosphere which should shame most City supporters – regularly sang how we’d f**ked up the Premier League, the Championship and League One. The big question is whether this defeat represents a low point, or is the low point. Can it really get any worse for City than it is right now? We’ve asked that question often in recent years and later found the answer to be yes. Taylor’s task over the next three months is to at least ensure we supporters can one day look back on this afternoon and answer no, it couldn’t and it didn’t. 

But with a daunting trip to leaders Rochdale on Tuesday night, the doom and gloom is unlikely to shift quickly. It threatens to be a very long night and, on the back of this sobering afternoon, heavy drinking beforehand is strongly advised.

Jacobs can’t shake off the staleness as City draw with struggling Grimsby

A  banner was unfurled over the edge of the Main Stand top tier as the players came out for kick off which seemed to be in support of Stuart McCall; but before we’d had chance to read what it said, it had been removed.

This didn’t appear to be an act of boardroom concealing, more concern from stewards that the banner was covering up advertising hoardings. Though it was a shame the supporter’s home-made effort wasn’t allowed to be draped over some of the thousands of empty seats.

It was not meant to be, and perhaps the same can be said of Wayne Jacobs as Bradford City manager. Having requested to Mark Lawn that he is interviewed for the vacant position during the week, this disappointing draw with second-bottom Grimsby was hardly the commendation he needed ahead of Monday’s meeting.  Already an outsider for the position, his chances seemingly reduced with each passing minute of goalless action.

Apart from Jacobs patrolling the dugout in suit rather tracksuit, it was difficult to recognise much different. For 90 minutes City huffed and puffed, but the well-organised visitors defended in numbers and carried a threat on the break. Oliver Lancashire and Joe Widdowson were outstanding at the back and, although the Bantams spent long spells camped out in the opposition half, clear cut chances were at a premium.

Robbed of injury to Omar Daley, Jacobs’ team selection could easily have been that of McCall’s. Though Gareth Evans was moved to the left instead of part of a front three, bringing more balance to the side than for last week’s defeat to Bury. Scott Neilson was recalled on the right and improved on a tentative start to produce an impressive second half display which was aided by Jacobs’ switching Simon Ramsden back to right back at half time, as City’s captain was more supportive going forward than Zesh Rehman in the first half.

But elsewhere confidence was obviously lacking. For much of this season City have been too desperate to get the ball forwards quickly instead of showing composure; and though midfield pair Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn impressed in patches, the middlemen were often cut out in favour of a long ball from the back towards James Hanson.

With Grimsby playing a higher backline in the first half, passes in behind the strikers from midfield was an effective option, but when Town dropped deeper it was back to route one. Initial panic was often caused from Hanson’s flick ons, but Town always seemed to have more numbers back to snuff out the danger.

Evans had the best chance of the first half when a good pass had set Hanson clear before he pulled the ball back to City’s number nine. But Evans’ confidence seems to have been unaffected by his double at Torquay two weeks ago and he fired over. It’s now three months since he scored at Valley Parade.

And it’s nine months since Peter Thorne – making his first start since going off injured against Rochdale in the JPT last September – scored anywhere. The top scorer of the past two seasons was effective in holding up the ball, but inside the area the sort of half chances he sniffs out seemed to allude him. Michael Boulding was introduced on 65 minutes and wasted a decent opportunity when shooting straight at Nick Colgan. Hanson and Neilson also fired over from promising positions, but the 0-0 looked inevitable long before the assistant referee signalled four minutes of injury time.

Matt Glennon was a virtual spectator, other than an important save from a well-worked Grimsby corner just after the break. Despite the visitors’ relegation worries, they seemed content with a point and made few efforts to push forwards in numbers during the final 20 minutes. It was an afternoon to forget.

Which quickly pushes the focus back onto the managerial situation and, with Martin Allen and Russell Slade watching from the stands, they and others would seem to be in a better position than Jacobs after he oversaw this mediocre display. Jacobs’ best hope of earning the job would surely have lied in truly differentiating himself from his former manager, given Lawn’s rather tactless hint McCall would have been pushed had he not jumped.

In time, Jacobs would surely stamp his own mark on the club. But his chance always lied in the short term and this City display was much of the same and therefore makes it more difficult for him to convince Lawn and Julian Rhodes he could do a better job than McCall.

But whoever does come in has a job to do in quickly building up confidence and belief in a team which has become too used to feeling hard done by. Not losing today means the spectre of falling into a relegation battle remains distant, but with two tricky trips to Lancashire to come before a visit from a Darlington side showing faint signs of improvement – however futile – the urgency for improved results is increasing.

Like this drab draw which was seemingly decided long before the end, City’s season seems to be drifting to an inevitable mundane mid-table conclusion. That Jacobs was unable to make an impact means it will surely now be an outsider entrusted with shaking things up.

The legacy of Stuart begins as the Bantams welcome Grimsby Town

The pile of CVs has been sifted through, the initial interviews held. Events are moving quickly and we may have a strong idea of who the Bradford City caretaker manager for the rest of the season is to be before the weekend is over, possibly even before kick off of Saturday’s visit of Grimsby.

For the players especially, it’s a case of who they need to impress. It’s perhaps testament to just how small former manager Stuart McCall’s squad was – or his indecision – that there are no senior players rotting in the reserves. However well or badly they have performed, each player has it all to do all over again. Wayne Jacobs will be in charge from the touchline, but it may be a question of who might be watching from the stands.

And if the caretaker-to-be is able to run the rule over his new charges, he shouldn’t be too disappointed with what he to work with. McCall had to work under tough financial constraints which will have hindered his ability to build the team he wanted, but what the players lack in quality they have almost always compensated by their effort.

I’ve always found that a fair summary of how well a manager did can only be drawn after a lengthy period, and though we may in time label McCall a failed manager it would be premature to do so. Like with Nicky Law and Colin Todd, we may soon discover a change makes no difference, in which case the proportion of blame McCall would be considered to deserve for this season’s under-achievement lessens.

But what we do hope to learn in this season’s squad is that McCall has achieved one of his original stated aims, revealed during his first interview after becoming the manager in May 2007. He said then, “I think back to the first time I was here when we signed people like Greg Abbott, John Hendrie and Chris Withe…they went on to be great servants for the club and loved being part of it…I want to bring in players like that who will hopefully develop and grow with the club.”

McCall’s Monday departure ensured few people were too bothered with talking about the Bury defeat, and the post match comments of defender Simon Ramsden appear to have been widely missed. He told the Telegraph & Argus, “The gaffer has got a history with the club from playing and manager. You can see the club means a lot to him, as it does with all of us. Every time you put on the shirt you should wear it with pride and give 100 per cent.”

If three, four or five of the current crop of players can become entrenched in the hearts of us supporters in the same vein as Abbot, Hendrie, McCall and co, the departing manager can be considered to have delivered some success. If these players can continue their development and lift the club forwards, the foundations can be credited to the biggest legend of them all for rubbing off the passion he had. McCall didn’t view managing City as just any old employment, his legacy may prove to be a playing squad which shares this outlook.

The worry is the eventual long-term successor might rip this work up, rather than build on it. But if the caretaker-to-be is watching and they’re looking to do more over the next three months than merely put themselves in the shop window for a better job, tomorrow could be the day the players start proving themselves as key components of the next chapter.

Quite who’ll be given the chance to impress is another question. This is Jacobs’ second game in charge of the club after acting as caretaker for the then-Division One club’s trip to Stoke back in 2003. He certainly caused an impression that day, consigning Dean Windass to sit amongst us away fans. Second time around, Jacobs will certainly pick Matt Glennon in goal with the experienced stopper having had little to do but conceding six goals in his first four Bantams games.

The passionate Simon Ramsden was outstanding as a centre back last week and will surely continue there alongside an equally impressive Matt Clarke. I didn’t agree with the decision to push Zesh Rehman over to right back, and though Stuart could no doubt explain the logic to me I’m not sure he’d go as far as to claim it worked. The promising-but-raw Jonathan Bateson may be recalled, with Luke O’Brien at left back.

Last week Omar Daley reminded us of his frustrating inconsistency after an ineffective performance as part of a midfield three, which at one stage drew an angry tirade from Michael Flynn. In the second half a Bury breakaway was thwarted by the Jamaican racing back to clear, which emphasises how his patchy form cannot just be labelled as ‘laziness’. He should start in what may instead be a 4-4-2.

Flynn and Lee Bullock will look to continue in the middle, though this writer craves for young Luke Sharry to be given more opportunities before the season ends. Steve O’Leary skippered the reserves to a rare win midweek and may be considered ahead of Bullock. Chris Brandon and Scott Nielson, both struggling for form but not involved with the second string, will hope for a recall. Leon Osborne is back from injury and worth considering for the bench.

Up front Jacobs has the luxury rarely afforded to McCall of having four fit strikers to choose from, though form is another matter. Gareth Evans netted twice at Torquay, but still looks unconfident and is fast-becoming the main target for the boo boys. Michael Boulding flatters to deceive and James Hanson and Peter Thorne’s recent injuries leave them rusty.

Grimsby rock up to Valley Parade deep in relegation mire, winless in 19 and 13 points behind City – but if that gap has decreased come 5pm Saturday, Bantams’ alarm bells will start to ring.  The Mariners have not beaten City in 11 attempts and their last win at Valley Parade was back in 1997. They’ve managed just 20 goals in 28 league games this season; if they play half as bad as they did against City at Blundell Park earlier this season, a comfortable home win will be achieved.

Personally I would be sad to see Grimsby go down. Cleethorpes is a pretty ugly place, but there are worse away ends than the one at Blundell Park and the fish & chip shop nearby is astonishingly good. They are six points adrift of safety and former City striker Neil Woods has so far been able to turn the tide.

According to the chairmen City go into this game with nothing to play for; but with such an uncertain future for the players and coaching staff, it’s not a time to be deliberating the summer holidays just yet. McCall’s legacy does not deserve to be players who’d give up trying now, tomorrow is their first chance to honour the former boss.

The saddest of endings

Stuart McCall’s farewell lap around Valley Parade applauding supporters was a heartbreaking sight – but it was also a beautiful moment.

His actions at the end of the 1-0 defeat to Bury said everything that is fantastic about the City legend. He knew the game was up and that, whether on Monday it will be announced he has resigned, left by mutual consent or been given the sack, it was no longer up to him whether he could stay. But there was no quick retreat down the touchline; he showed typical courage and respect in going out to applaud his supporters.

And the reaction back was equally fitting. Sure there’d be typical murmurings of discontent about McCall during the match and many had exited the stadium before the final whistle, but this was a time for  putting aside misgivings and showing appreciation for the man, the legend, who will ultimately always retain the respect and adulation of City fans.

It was the saddest of farewells, handled with the greatest of dignity.

There’s been a fear among many of those fans who’d been demanding a change that, if action wasn’t taken swiftly, McCall might be subject of the sort of unpleasant abuse other managers have received in the past. No one wanted it end ugly, and it sums up the bond between McCall and supporters that the parting of ways is as amicable as can be. I was close to tears as I applauded McCall’s farewell lap, and I have so much respect to him for taking the time to do it.

Once the farewell had been competed, Bury manager Alan Knill walked over to McCall and hugged him. He was humble in victory, as is easier to be, admitting that, just like at Gigg Lane a fortnight earlier, the Bantams were unfortunate to lose. Undoubtedly City, who hurled everything including the kitchen sink at the visitors during the closing stages, deserved to take something from the game.

Yet I don’t agree that City – and McCall – had been unlucky to lose this time. I was disappointed with McCall’s formation and tactics. And though I wanted him to remain as manager, there is something troubling about the evidence presented in front of us over the lack of progress this season.

Even before kick off, City seemed to have a whiff of desperation about their approach. Playing 4-3-3 is not new this season – the merits or otherwise having been debated on this site only a day earlier – but 4-3-3 with James Hanson, Gareth Evans AND Michael Boulding? Three up front worked earlier in the season due to those employed to take the two wide slots of the front three – Evans and Neilson – been able to play out wide. But Boulding and Hanson are largely better through the middle and leaving Omar Daley in the middle three meant the balance to the team wasn’t right and the style of football suffered.

It reminded me of then-Shrewsbury manager Gary Peter two years ago, realising the season wasn’t going to plan – and therefore his own future was in doubt – and just deciding to “go for it” every match. He picked a team at Valley Parade full of attacking intent, but City tore into them with two of the four goals coming on the counter attack. Peters was shortly afterwards sacked.

Playing 4-3-3 like City did yesterday suggested a lack of confidence in the players. Even in a must-win game, McCall and City needed to show patience and have a greater game plan than just going for it. It was a contrast to the visit of Bury last season, where a more measured and composed approach eventually brought a late Bantams winner.

At the back at least, recent defensive problems were partly addressed with Simon Ramsden moving from right back to centre back alongside Matt Clarke – and the pair put in as outstanding and assured defensive displays since David Wetherall and Damion Stewart dominated at the back in 2006. Luke O’Brien had a tough afternoon, but characteristically stuck to the task.

However the decision to play Zesh Rehman  at right back was curious and ultimately flawed. Zesh is a good player, but has not had a good season and there’s frustration and even unfair suspicion over why McCall is seemingly unwilling to leave him out. At right back, Rehman kept losing his man and unnecessarily diving in for challenges when he just needed to stand up and block the path to goal – often leaving him on the floor and out the game, while the winger charged on.

Rehman played at right back towards the end of last season with limited success, but that was due to some disappointing performances from Paul Arnison. As well as Ramsden, City have the able Jonathan Bateson as a natural right back who gets forward well, and he should have been included instead.

City nevertheless competed well and were unlucky to go behind, but then the desperation was too strong again. On a difficult pitch and with Hanson competing well, playing a more direct style of football had been tolerated if not approved. Yet with 25 minutes to play Daley was withdrawn for Peter Thorne, and we had the sight of four City strikers and just two midfielders. As intentions go it was clear there would be no passing and running down the flanks, but that the back four would simply be charged with launching it forwards.

This long ball football would be understandable with 10 minutes to go, but with over a quarter of the game still to play it was premature panic. Thorne added a much needed touch of class up front and his link up play saw the ball begin to stick in the final third, but for a period it seemed as though the players had lost heart, couldn’t find a way back and were at a loss of what to do next. Heavy pressure belatedly commenced in the final stages, but the team set up suggested the manager didn’t believe his players could come back by playing football.

It was perhaps the ultimate of ironies. That a manager who made his name as a player for his combative and inspirational skills in the middle of the park, had resorted to abandoning having a midfield in order to save his job.

And yes the argument goes that on chances, possession and territorial advantage, City did not deserve to lose. There’s an argument that the referee should have awarded a penalty and sent Bury’s Afe Sodje off. There’s an argument Bury didn’t look anything special. But ultimately the difference between the sides was the composure and organisation of the visitors and the fluster and anxiousness of City.

I don’t believe this is typical of McCall’s reign, but perhaps why we’re now saying goodbye to the City manager is because it is typical of McCall’s reign when things are going wrong. In his first season there was the autumn collapse of form that saw eight winless games and promotion hopes up in smoke. Last season the collapse came at the end of the season, lasting nine games, and this season’s recent run of poor form since December has been strikingly familiar.

At these difficult points we see too much indecision in the team selection and tactics. We see what initially seems a couple of set backs become a crisis of confidence. We see a slow and stuttered speed to the recovery. We see a manager trying to put a brave face on matters, but taking the setbacks too much to heart instead of instilling confidence into others. We see a football club quickly dropping down the league table.

Ultimately, as Stuart has acknowledged repeatedly in recent weeks, it’s a results business. No matter how much we supporters want him to be a success, the results simply haven’t been there. It is incredibly disappointing that it has come to this and it will take some time for many of us to fully recover and be enthused with City and football again, but if there’s a consolation it is that it has ended more painlessly than it might have.

Indeed the tone of McCall when speaking on the radio after the defeat was almost that of a relieved man. Acknowledging the circumstances of the game been so typical of the season to date, he even allowed himself a chuckle about his own misfortune. He seemed remarkably relaxed – but sad – and perhaps that was because the pressure could now be released off his shoulders. On the BBC One’s Football League Show last night, he even texted in to thank supporters again and to apologise he couldn’t have done a better job.

The special bond he has with the club and supporters remains in tact, and while for many that would always be the case the memories are at least not going to be added to by the sight of ‘McCall out’ chanting and the visible type of abuse which many of his Valley Parade dugout predecessors have endured.  It still sickens me that, after a 1-0 defeat to Doncaster in 2006, then-manager Colin Todd found his car had been attacked by City fans – I can’t imagine how I’d feel if such acts of horror had been inflicted upon McCall.

Nine months before that boxing day incident, I’d written an article for this site about why I didn’t want McCall (or Peter Beagrie) to become our next manager. My reasons were that I feared the souring of the special bond we supporters have with McCall, and that it would end with the usual suspects reigning down the boos.

A year later and, with the club in dire straits, I was prepared to abandon those fears and believe McCall’s installation as manager could have the romantic ending we all felt it would. As he prepares to clear his desk on Monday I feel devastated it was not worked out, I remain unconvinced it is the right move to part ways now, but I’m also happy that is ending relatively agreeably.

The City legend has given so much to this club across four decades, his lap of farewell at Valley Parade yesterday was yet another unforgettable Stuart memory.

The long walk

Stuart McCall took a long walk around the Valley Parade for – what is assumed – the final time.

McCall’s time as Bradford City manager would seem to be coming to an end – John Hendrie suggested that should he be asked to stand down he would – with rumours that Mark Lawn has been fighting all season to unseat the man of legend and Julian Rhodes about to give way.

Many times I have watched Stuart McCall applauding Valley Parade. Some players and some managers do that and others do not and perhaps we should not read too much into it but have travelled up and down the country to games much worse than this one and been acknowledged by the little man with strawberry blonde hair I did not stop clapping until McCall was out of sight.

That the Bantams were not out of sight in this game with Bury is a curious mystery but one which could be unravelled. The Bantams had the balance of both possession and chances but Andy Morrell put away the visitors only shot on target and the game was thus settled.

Which has something to do with the Bantams forwards – and there were many on the field today with the end of the match seeing Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding being supported by James Hanson and Gareth Evans – and the way the snapped at chances. As the Bantams attacked Evans slammed a chance wide, snatching at a shot rather than controlling. When the chance to get what would have been an equaliser came to Peter Thorne in the final minute the striker’s head send the ball agonisingly wide.

Agony which was etched onto Stuart McCall.

McCall has switched Simon Ramsden with Zesh Rehman and covertly replaced Matthew Clarke with Rio Ferdinand – or so it seemed as Clarke played perhaps his best game in a City shirt – giving a sturdy back line but not losing Rehman’s physical presence from set plays. Michael Boulding led the line in front of James Hanson and toiled ineffectually all afternoon. Boulding’s optimum times of usefulness are so few and far between.

For an answer on the fish-hooking Boulding received, the yellow cards for single offences by City players while Sodje was allowed to commit umpteen bookable offences, the two footed lunge before half time and on one will have to find an answer elsewhere for I am stumped.

For a reason why Matthew Clarke’s header on the far post allowed to be batted away with the arms of a defender you might want to ask this guy cause again I have no idea.

Nor indeed will McCall. Perhaps as he took the lap of honour to muse on the contrast between that moment and the penalty at Bury which went agianst the Bantams and contrasted the two but I hope he did not.

Boos rang out after the game. Boos for the result one supposes because the performance was worth a win. People walked away from Valley Parade as as they did McCall took what would seem to be his final lap of the pitch.

I hope that Stuart applauded the people who stayed in the same way we applauded him and perhaps he has the same thoughts about the people who leave early booing as I do. For a guy who is five foot eight Stuart McCall is a massive man and can take whatever comes at him from Bradford City.

Next game against Grimsby Town should the team play in the same way then it is almost impossible to see them not winning. Who the manager who benefits from is one can only speculate.

That charming man

If football has a charm – and this week the charmlessness of the game was brought front and centre – then it could be seen in the last seven minutes in Torquay last weekend.

The two close ranged finishes that Gareth Evans scored might have totalled less than five yards in distance but they seemed to make The Bantams feel miles better. If Stuart McCall came ten minutes from the sack then his glass was near empty but now – 20 games from glory – it is to be considered one percent full.

City have twenty games left in the season and sixty points to play for which equates to a good chunk of football to be played between now and the end of the year and the news that Peter Thorne – who is probably playing the last twenty games of career – will be taking part in those could be significant.

Thorne’s late entrance at Torquay did much to turn that game around and his absence this season has been keenly felt across the entire City side. His return give City more options than perhaps any other plater in the squad.

City face Bury at Valley Parade n Saturday – the second game with the in form Shakers in the last month which ended in controversy and a 2-1 reversal – and strikers (which is to say finishers) have been in short supply at the Bantams this year bring a problem which has shaped the season.

Without the finishing of Thorne Stuart McCall has looked to his striking ranks and found two fantastic workers and a player who is great on the counter attack but no fox in t’ box – so to speak – and rather than continue to plug away with two men up front, and considering the manager lost two right wingers from last year, a switch to 433 was made.

The idea being that 433 would address the lack of fire power with additional numbers and sometimes it works but more often – and increasingly of late – it has left the defensive side of the team undermanned. A 433 gives a back four with three midfielders to protect and – if they work insanely hard – two wide strikers to come back when full backs break forward.

In practice this does not occur and often City have been using a 433 and defending with seven men, although they attack with more numbers.

This is a contrast to the 442 which gives the back four, two midfielders and two wide men to cover full backs and allows a team to defend with eight men although they attack with fewer and poise less of a problem.

Peter Thorne addresses that problem if he can start finding the net as he did over the previous two seasons and in allowing a switch to a 442 he plugs the holes at the back.

I’m not in agreement with the idea that the Bantams defence make too many mistakes – although at Lincoln two weeks ago individual and selection errors were plentiful – just that they make the number forced by the weaknesses of defending as a team with seven men. Luke O’Brien – for example – has started to be criticised for his performances this season but often he is forced into defending against an overlapping fullback only with support from a midfielder who is co-occupied with another man.

Detail a wide man to track the full back and allow O’Brien to concentrate on a man. The two central defenders face similar problems with exposure coming most often when the ball is driven in at feet or by a pass not in the column directly between them but from the inner flanks.

This is why 433 is good at winning games but bad at winning promotions. If you match it to the right opposition then 433 can stack a game in one’s favour but in the week-in-week-out of League Two the 442 is most suitable, most often.

My hope is that McCall will return to a 442 with Matt Glennon behind Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien with Scott Neilson, Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and Omar Daley in the midfield and Gareth Evans and Peter Thorne up front but you, dear reader, will have your own selections.

Stephen O’Leary is hovering around the squad, Michael Boulding has his fans and some believe that Matthew Clarke should be in, others that Chris Brandon needs a place. Of the eleven mentioned James Hanson would be worth a place up front for Evans if fit and I have a preference for a tight three of a midfield which would include James O’Brien and only one flank man but feel McCall would be best served by going for the jugular with a pair of wingers.

I could be wrong, football is a game where wrong is more common than right, but the charm of football is in the things which go unexpectedly right.

Two close range finishes and a hope that springs eternal.

The problem with John Terry and the England captain

I don’t know the number of people who want John Terry removing as England captain and how that has increased since the confirmation that he might be – well – a bit of a git but I’m not one of them.

That is not because I think that Tezza and his wandering eye should be forgiven for his antics that seem set to lead to Wayne Bridge pulling out of his England role of being a reserve to Ashley Cole. It was that role Bridge perfected at Chelsea and one struggles to recall any player who has ever so clearly put being paid over being played. 129 games in the last seven years is a waste of a career and the fact that he has yet to play more games for the clubs who offered him the big money to leave Southampton than he did for the Saints is a damning statistic.

Bridge’s level of ambition aside it is not that Terry’s behaviour should be forgiven it is that I would never have picked him for the England captaincy in the first place. Steven Gerrard is a man who leads on the field, he near single handled won the European Cup one season and to me always seemed an outstanding candidate.

That said Gerrard was involved in a brawl in a bar and while he was cleared of any wrong doing legally had he been England captain would he have been called to account for the company he kept and the fact he was out drinking until the wee small hours? Others talk about Wayne Rooney as a potential England captain. If he had the job would he be required to curb his on field emotional outbursts to stay within the remit of skipper?

The problem with Terry’s role and the position of England captain in general – the position that Red Tops are calling for Terry to lose – is that for all the decrying over how poorly the Chelsea man represents the country neither Terry, England boss Fabio Cappello or the bosses at The FA could point to a job description for the position.

Naturally on a personal level we can all come up with a list of what we consider the most important things for the armband wearer to have and probably the vast majority of them would not include sharking on team mate’s better halves but there is no set of guidelines – as far as we know it – which the FA can point JT at and give him a cast iron reason why he should lose the position.

Should such a job description exist then the same people who are calling for Terry to be hoisted by the yard arm – The Red Tops – would have been the people who when David Beckham was England skipper would have been saying that the position should be all about the results on the field and the winning mentality within the dressing room and nothing about the personalities outside it.

As with the use of nameless “sources close to” Terry while objecting to super-injunctions the media are perfectly prepared to indulge in any double standard to sell newspapers.

Bradford City have had four captains this year: Peter Thorne, Zesh Rehman, Michael Flynn and – on Saturday – Simon Ramsden and most City fans have an idea of who they believe is best suited to the role although it might be worth noting that in Saturday’s 2-1 comeback all four were on the field when the goals went in.

In football leaders are Heaven sent while captains are often titular. Short of putting a rag in Stuart McCall’s mouth Rangers could not have stopped him showing the same leadership he did at City even though other players had the armband. Good teams have many people who are prepared to lead and taking the captain’s role from John Terry will not stop that ability coming through on the field.

Moving forward one suspects that despite the furore of the weekend this story is a seven day wonder and by the time South Africa comes around England will have largely filed John Terry and Wayne Bridge alongside the Steven Gerrard scrap, the Frank Lampard radio phone in and numerous other Earth shattering events that are supposed to have forced action from the national squad but in retrospect hardly wobbled the needle on a Richter Counter.

Moving forward – and before anyone else is given the armband and named England captain – it might be worth a set of guidelines emerging as to what the requirements of an England captain are and what is considered to be outside that remit. If the job is about representing the nation then why remove Beckham from the job? If it is about results then why even discuss Terry’s future?

Until a set of criteria exists that the occupant of the position has to work within then we are going to forever be trying the Captain accused in Kangaroo courts, deciding on an ad hoc basis what we want the job to be.

Out of a clear blue sky

As the sun shone into the breakfast room, all you could see outside was the sort of transparent and uniformly bright blue sky that you never spot on an away trip to Morecambe. It was only at the other side of the building, where the light dusting of snow was still frozen to the parked cars, that there was a clue as to just how cold it had been overnight, even in Torquay.

A walk down to the marina showed that the temperature was rising, without quite reaching Riviera standards. It had been much warmer in Bournemouth last March and we know how that game went. City were woeful and, as those of us at the game learnt much later, Stuart McCall’s post-match interview had included a promise to resign if City did not finish in the top seven.

But Torquay in January was different – and it wasn’t just the physical temperature that was lower. Everything was lower, not least City’s league position and all the reputations that hang on such matters. This time round, the question of how much longer the City manager might remain the City manager looked increasingly out of his control.

One of the great beauties of going to these ‘smaller’ grounds is that the stewards will generally talk with you, rather than at you. You get bits of information, tips about who to watch out for and even a tale that, when last Saturday’s game went from a 2-0 home lead to a 3-2 away win, the stewards had to prepare themselves for a possible pitch invasion as a protest against the manager. Hm. Sounded a bit like two of them on a knife edge, then.

The man to look out for, according to the friendly steward, was the midfielder who could be mistaken for the mascot – his words, not mine. Danny Stevens is 5’ 10”, according to the club website. Club websites, unlike BfB, are not to be relied upon. He must be nearer to 4’ 10”. And he is so fresh faced that I bet he isn’t allowed to play in night games. But he certainly played in the bright spells of this game.

City started with the eleven that finished at Lincoln. Bateson, Rehman and Evans all started on the bench, alongside the returning Thorne and O’Leary. The second half display at Sincil Bank had clearly convinced the manager that this was his best ‘formation’. By half time he was equally clearly unconvinced.

I would dearly love to tell those who were not among the 300 or so travelling fans just what the ‘formation’ at kick-off was, but I am struggling. There was an obvious back four, with captain Ramsden returned to right back. Michael Boulding was naturally playing up front, but for much of the first half he might have fallen out with the rest of the team, so rarely did a claret shirt get anywhere near him. Daley and Neilson stayed wide, which brought them near to my seat and thus into my focus. Otherwise the midfield was largely anonymous.

One of the main reasons for that anonymity was the persistent long high ball up the middle to, yes, Michael Boulding. Once again the opposition centre backs must have thought it was their birthdays. Torquay, on the other hand, who must be used to playing on a narrow, but otherwise splendid, surface, kept the ball on that surface much more often, not least when feeding it to the aforementioned Stevens.

If I was a proper sports journalist, I would be able get away with phrases like ‘tormented the City defence’ and ‘ran them ragged’. Instead, I shall just settle for saying that almost every note I made of a Torquay attack in that first half – and there were plenty – featured the number 19. After 15 minutes it was his run and shot that forced Matt Glennon into probably his best save of the game, as he tipped it round his left hand post. Sadly, Glennon was unrewarded. The resulting corner was not dealt with and one huge centre back really did think his birthday had come, when his shot from around the penalty spot went through the crowd of players and low into the net.

One the rare occasions City did keep the ball on the floor, Michael Boulding had a shot that went narrowly over and Chris Brandon also put his one effort some way off target. At half time the sun was beginning to set over Plainmoor.

The City manager, having changed the team at half time at Sincil Bank, went two thirds of the way toward changing it back again at half time at Plainmoor. Off went Williams, on a yellow card and looking like a sending off waiting to happen, and on came the second of City’s captains, Zesh Rehman. Ramsden kept the armband. And Gareth Evans started in place of – oh, yes, that would be Brandon. This time I really can report a 4-4-2. Better still, I can report energy, enthusiasm and, for the first time in this game, a team that looked capable of troubling the home goalkeeper.

A shot from Evans was pushed away by the keeper, before the Torquay leading scorer, Scott Rendell, who had already risen from the dead (or a collision with Matt Clarke) once, had to leave the game with a broken arm. Not that this stopped the home team continuing to pressurise and force City into last second blocks and conceding corners.

And then, with the sun having set over his left shoulder, out of the old wooden stand came the old wooden gunslinger. No, that’s not fair, is it? Far from it. But up stepped captain number three (Ramsden still retaining the armband) Peter Thorne, last seen in a JPT game two centuries ago. And maybe my pre-match chat with the stewards had got back to the Torquay team. ‘If he gets on, he’ll be our best bet for a goal’, I’d said. OK, so you won’t find his name on the score sheet. But you ask their defenders about him. And ask the keeper who had to make two stops from close range within the first few minutes of the poacher’s arrival.

The second of those saves, following an Omar Daley run, brought the corner that was to replicate Torquay’s first half goal. This time it was Gareth Evans who poked it home (sorry, keeper – terrible pun!) through the melee that hadn’t cleared it. Under ten minutes left, but for the first time in years City were back level in the late stages of a game and still had eleven men on the pitch.

Sustained City pressure actually made it look, incredible as it seemed at that moment, as though we could win this one. The home keeper was being reminded by the ref that another exercise in time-wasting would not be tolerated. And then up popped the fourth official’s board with a bright red 4 on it. And then up popped Captain Ramsden, now corner taker extraordinaire. This time it was a curling free kick on to Rehman’s head, down into the same melee and, via Evans’ toe poke (sorry, keeper, done it again!), into the net in front to the ecstatic visiting fans.

Could City hang on for the remaining three minutes of stoppage time? Of course they could! Only some petty argument between Matt Clarke and Elliot Benyon, which brought a pair of yellow cards, would interrupt the oh so smooth progress to three away points.

Over the last umpteen weeks, we have bemoaned our luck. We have pointed to refereeing decisions that have changed the course of the game. We have examined statistics that showed every week how we had more shots at goal, more shots on target, more corners – and fewer goals than the opposition. All of that changed yesterday. City have not come away with a more blatant theft of three points since a Dean Windass belter of a free kick at Yeovil, where even Mr Singh didn’t manage to ruin our day.

Maybe the tide has turned. Maybe Gareth Evans’ confidence will now return. Maybe Peter Thorne’s battered body will hold up for another three months. On such fragile building blocks will the remainder of City’s season rest. Until Thorney’s arrival, it looked remarkably like the sun had set forever. Now the future is that touch brighter. But how dark might it be at Valley Parade next time out?

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