Lazy / High / Low

I do not believe that any footballer is lazy.

I think that to become a professional footballer you have to put it a level of effort which precludes the genuinely lazy people from ever getting on a pitch. I have seen lazy footballers though – players like Alen Boksic who was once caught offside twice in the same movement while playing for Middlesbrough at Valley Parade.

So lazy was the striker – who was reported to be paid £61,000 a week for his efforts – that in the time it took him to walk back from hearing the whistle another Boro attack had started and he was caught offside again from a pass forward without ever having got onside.

The fact I can remember this outlier of laziness so clearly suggests to me that lazy football is a very rare thing.

Which is why I find it hard to consider Haris Vuckic and Mark Marshall lazy footballers following Bradford City’s inert home draw with Southend.

Two

There are two ways for a footballer to use the effort he puts into a game although these ways can be hard to categorise.

One way is to take responsibility for winning the ball back, for supporting your team mates by standing in a ready position to win the ball should they err, for ensuring that other players have options. Players who spend a lot of energy in this way are the players who make dummy runs that leave them isolated but other players open.

They are the players who hold deep rather than rush forward. They are the players who play possession football over five yards rather than ping a defence splitter over fifty.

We will – for the sake of this argument – call these players “High Percentage” because the governing motivation in what they do is to find options that work in a high percentage of situations.

Contrast that with “Low Percentage” players who take responsibility in a different manner.

A low percentage player is concerned mainly with how the next goal will be scored. They are the player who takes up the best position to for attacking play, who take that position in preference to offering an easier option for a teammate in possession.

The low percentage player surges into the box to following in for the chance – however slim – that a loose ball breaks to them. They play the glorious pass over fifty yards which is too often headed away but – sometimes – slices a defence in two.

Two2

The art of football management is – perhaps – balancing these two dynamics.

Stuart McCall – the definition of a high percentage player – has a belief in the low percentage footballer which was not shared by his predecessor as Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson.

That belief was obvious in McCall’s first (second) spell as City manager and has resurfaced in his second (third) spell. Against Southend United in a poor game with a poor referee that belief was a problem.

Trying to win the game while at 1-1 with twenty minutes left McCall put his faith in the low percentage Marshall, in Vuckic, and later in Jordi Hiwula, while high percentage Timothee Dieng watched from the sidelines.

City struggled to get the ball back from a Shrimper’s midfield for which “robust” and when they did get the ball struggled to get it through the visitors and increasingly made low percentage attempts to break that resistance.

Way

It should be said that most players exist on a continuum between the high/low percentage and that that position varies over time.

The best football of Peter Beagrie was a lesson in high percentage wing play but in his career, he had long spells of low percentage play. More recently Filipe Morais’ performance at Chelsea was low percentage for forty-five minutes then high percentage for forty-five – or was it fifty-four minutes – and one doubts had his performance not changed City could have come back at Stamford Bridge that day.

As a personal preference I like high percentage football – that is why I have little time for the en vogue motif of disliking Parkinson’s style of play – but I know very well that much of football support adores the low percentage player.

For me football is too in love with the periphery figure who would turn a game if only the work-a-day Joes in the rest of his team would only get the ball to him. I’m distrustful of any idea of football that suggests that a single player is removed from the responsibility of the team performance.

All players are responsible for the performance – at least that is what I think – but that does not stop the entire nation anointing Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, and Raheem Sterling as England’s saviours despite their inability to influence games.

City’s greatest low percentage player was Chris Waddle who would do one thing a game that no other player on the pitch could even do in their best dreams but would spend long spells of a match dreaming away on the wing.

Had Waddle stayed with City the mid-nineties season he played with City it seems sure that City would have suffered relegation but he left and was replaced with the more industrious – and higher percentage – Tommy Wright and results improved.

Last season Parkinson balanced the team more towards high percentage football and put out all ten outfield players to play in that way. That is why he favoured Tony McMahon on the right-hand side over Mark Marshall. While McMahon could not do what Marshall can do he can be relied upon to do something and it turned out that something was create goals which he did more of than anyone else in the division.

McCall believes he can free one or two – or last night two or three – players to provide the moment of low percentage inspiration to win games and balances his teams to do that and me to watch on increasingly worried.

Loved

Mark Marshall is well loved at Valley Parade these days – Vuckic less so – but both personify my worry.

Both are capable in their own ways. One of playing the ball that unlocks the defence – in Vuckic’s case, which he did for Marc McNulty’s goal on the night – and the other of making a telling run with the ball. Neither contributes to as much to the rest of the play as a high percentage players would.

Marshall lauds McCall for the freedom he has under this manager rather than the previous one and that is the freedom to play low percentage football. Marshall enjoys the freedom to try turn a sturdy full back and put in a cross but more so he enjoys the freedom to fail to do that.

He plays without fear but he also – by virtue of being a low percentage player – plays without end product and on the evenings where there is no end product the rest of the team – balanced as it is to allow he and (last night) Vuckic to create – struggle to find other avenues to goal.

So City end up at the whim of low percentage football which works less often but is more effective when it does.

Vuckic proved this when in the midst of a half of drifting where he wanted between the lines of midfield and attack he played a superb ball forward to McNulty. It was a telling contribution and something which Billy Clarke – the regular in that role – seemed unlikely to ever do. Marshall made no telling contribution and – by virtue of his low percentage play – was less use to the rest of the team than a Tony McMahon on the right would have been.

As the game ebbed to a draw and Southend’s muscular ways continued the usefulness that a high percentage approach seems to offer was more apt to the game that the the deft touches of a low percentage approach although McCall’s team struggled to adopt it.

The surprising thing – perhaps – is that anyone thought anything else would have been the case.

Drone / On

The 1-1 draw with Bristol Rovers at Valley Parade followed on from the previous three one goal each affairs against Gillingham, Millwall and Oldham Athletic as Stuart McCall’s team continue to delight and frustrate in equal measure.

Delight in that McCall has in a short space of time managed to create a team which mirrors much of what was wonderful about watching the manager play his own game. One could argue that City have become – in seven or eight of the players – a team of defensive midfielders so calm in possession, so unhurried in their play, and so pleasing on the eye.

But frustrating that the defensive midfielder is not the creator and the team lacks creation. With James Hanson restored to the starting line-up Romain Vincelot opted to break the pattern of short passes between players who were alive to possession and hit the big man from afar with a well floated diagonal pass.

Le Rory, or Rory Le Cardle. The more things change, one is forced to think, the more they stay the same.

Last season’s Bradford City seemed to get exactly what they deserved from every game. If they were poor or off the pace they were beaten. If they were together and strong they got a point or sometimes more. This season’s vintage the opposite seems true in that every week one is left with the feeling that City were due more but that some Olympian conspiracy had denied them what was rightfully theirs.

This is a trick of the eye though and of the brain. If The Parkinson Years – which will be cemented as The Parkinson Rivalry with next week’s trip to Bolton – taught us anything it was to focus on results as being the purpose of a way of playing. Attractive football that does not succeed is ultimately not attractive football.

Because frustration is not attractive. Mark Marshall’s contributions today include a lashed shot in a crowded which bounced up in the defence and was headed in by James Meredith to make the game 1-0. His replacement after seventy-five minutes Filipe Morais’ contribution was a poorly selected pass to a closed down Haris Vuckic that saw Bristol Rovers break away and score.

Both seemed to be to be the result of this frustration. The City forward play too up much of the game but again one struggled to recall a lot of spurned chanced. Consequentialism suggests that what Marshall did was good – it resulted in a goal for us – and what Morais did was bad – it resulted in a goal for them – and one wonders if McCall is happy with his team playing on such a knife edge.

The knife edge was deep into injury time when Vuckic headed towards goal from a few yards out and Rovers keeper Kelle Roos saved well. Had Vuckic’s effort fell a foot behind the line then the lingering worries that this team does not create enough may have receded.

As it is those doubts still hover.

Hover

Sixty-five minutes into the game a drone hovered over Valley Parade.

It was an amusing story in the morning that the Referee took the players from the field and the game was delayed.

But what it was not was the reason to start a conspiracy theory but start one it did. The Occumist view applies here. There may be concerns about television rights, or about other teams scouting, or about using the drone as a method of attack but – probably – the Referee’s biggest worry was that it might drop on someone’s head.

Perhaps his own.

Inefficient / Attitude / Passing

Nothing useless can be truly beautiful – William Morris

Long after the final whistle of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Oldham Athletic came the revelation that City have scored without reply in the closing stages of the game then the Bantams would have been top of League One.

Bolton Wanderers – under former City boss Phil Parkinson – drew on his return to another former haunt Charlton Athletic and Scunthorpe United lost at a Port Vale side who have carried on whatever promise they showed on the first day of the season to nestle forth in the five o’clock league table.

For the want of a goal the Bantams were thwarted on an afternoon which was more interesting than it was exhilarating.

The Stuart McCall brand Bradford City are a strange team to watch as they find their feet. For sure they are possessed of some determination having gone behind to an early Peter Clarke goal when the former Huddersfield Town skipper targeted Daniel Devine at a set piece and beat the youngster in the air.

Devine typified the team in shrugging off anything like a set-back and carrying on the afternoon. Following Tony McMahon’s injury Devine switched to right back where aside from avoiding crossing the ball he looked for all the world like a seasoned veteran of the utility man variety.

So determination and no little craft in that as a team the role of the midfield – and one could make an argument that City played six, perhaps eight, players in midfield against Oldham Athletic – is fetishised beyond what seems necessary or useful.

The ball was caressed around the field with élan and possession was retained for long periods of time. When the equaliser came – a Billy Clarke penalty – it seemed to come because that possession had wandered into the box as it continued a scenic tour around Valley Parade. Ousmane Fane – excellent in holding midfield for the visitors – pulled down Josh Cullen in a moment of undue rashness and the game was level.

It is easy to laud this new Bradford City for the contrast that it presents with the five years that came before it. The term hoofball is banded about freely to describe Parkinson’s City as if one could sum up an entire approach in a single word.

Alt

There is something to be said for looking at Oldham vs Bradford City through the eyes of Phil Parkinson. Imagine one of those away trips that took an hour to get over the Pennines to watch Parkinson’s City take an early lead. Imagine watching Rory McArdle and Reece Burke swamp a tricky little centre forward, deny him possession, and snuff him out as Clarke and Cameron Burgess did to Jordy Hiwula.

Imagine watching a wide midfielder capable of laser guided shots gradually minimised through the game. He troubles the goalkeeper from long range on occasion but that is more acceptable than cutting through the defence.

Imagine the satisfaction that would have come watching their Billy Clarke withdraw from pressing the forward to hunt deeper for the ball in increasing frustration. Imagine how one would phrase the summation of the game to anyone asking. “Yes they had possession but they just passed it around midfield and never really broke us down.”

There is much talk about how with a different centre forward for Bradford City – and City have fielded five already this season with Vincent Rabiega making his debut off the bench today – would score goals and this could be true but thinking back on the game with Oldham Athletic one struggles to recall a plethora of chances missed.

Billy Clarke and Jordy Hiwula can both be accused of having missed the sort of chances one would expect them to score but saying that leaves twenty of the twenty two shots on goal in an impressive statistic unaccounted for.

I would suggest that against Oldham Athletic as with Coventry City most of the chances are of the half, or not clear cut, variety. That (around) twenty two chances that create just (about) two moments where one might expect the striker to score suggest the problem is not in finishing chances but in creating better ones.

Which returns to the question of the creators and where they are failing to convert the possession into chances with the implied understanding that possession is not equal to chances. Clarke and Mark Marshall – who faded into anonymity after a good opening – are chiefly accused here but creation is a shared aim which is not being served at the moment.

Addressing that – and with Paul Anderson ready to leave the club this week there is scope to address it – is the prime concern and bringing in a forward secondary.

It could be that there is a forward out there who can make the runs and command the space in a way that allows for more possession to be converted into chances which could then be converted into goals. It could be that a new creator is able to do that. There could be a solution found in the current squad which – after all – is not second in the League One table for no reason.

How that is addressed is something Stuart McCall has time to work on and may not need to work on at all. That City are inefficient is less important than that the are successful and they are successful at the moment.

However as the collective at Valley Parade congratulate themselves for being less like they were under Parkinson it is worth remembering that there was more to the last five years than just how the ball arrived into the final third of the pitch.

Away

Away games such as Oldham Athletic enjoyed today – where a great passing team passed itself out and Parkinson’s City went back to Bradford with something – were a part of the success of those teams. Stuart McCall has transformed City into a team of would be promotion passers from the team that frustrated would be promotion passers.

That frustration was not a function of the style of play but rather of the team’s attitude and that attitude was about grinding out results through a kind of bravery which centred around a managed risk on the field.

Watching Bradford City pass the ball around a lot but create a little it remains to be seen if City have that bravery within them bursting to get out or if the side pass that retains the ball is a soft option. It is that part of the Parkinson attitude – not signing players – which will define if City are promoted this season or if they are another of the pretty teams who populate the middle of League One.

Nahki / Armstrong

And so the rumours continued.

Greg Abbott announced that Bradford City were interested in signing Adam Armstrong from Newcastle United while The Times are reporting that Armstrong’s parent club are now interested in Nahki Wells who, should he move to St James’ Park, would trigger a percentage clause in the transfer deal that took Wells from Bradford City to Huddersfield Town and give Bradford City the cash to spend on a striker.

The breathlessness of the above is indicative of a change in football over my eighteen years writing this website.

It used to be that football supporters lived for the football matches. Now the matches are a frequently ignored data point in the continuing narrative of squad gathering. Hull City’s victory in the first two games of the Premier League season is a quirk in the story of a team with too few players.

Bradford City beat Coventry City, Milton Keynes Dons and Peterborough United in eight days but this has not stopped the conversation around the club being entirely about who should be brought into – or moved out of – the squad.

Improving the squad may or may not be something that is needed this season – that would be a retroactive judgement made in May 2017 and speculation before that – but it is hard to imagine what football supporters would do in August if they were not talking about squad gathering.

Football supporting is now Pokemon Go with young men filling in for Pikachu.

Two

Nevertheless there are two things to note about the current cycle of rumour around Adam Armstrong arriving on loan from Newcastle United.

Notice how it is Chief Scout Greg Abbott and not Manager Stuart McCall who is talking about Armstrong. In fact it is Abbott who leads much of the conversation about recruitment to the club.

This in itself is in keeping with Abbott’s remit at Valley Parade and no bad thing but it is as stark a contrast with Bradford City up to the Summer of 2016 as one could see.

When Archie Christie had Abbott’s role he was geographically abused for having taken too high profile a role in transfer dealings and taking control away from the flailing Peter Jackson.

It is almost impossible to imagine Phil Parkinson’s Chief Scout Tim Breaker fronting a discussion on a target as Abbott does. In fact the first time most City fans heard Breaker’s name was in the revelation that he had left the club with Parkinson to join Bolton.

Abbott’s increased profile is a good thing. For football clubs to get better at transfers there needs to be a group-think approach to recruitment. Too often deals are done by managers to best serve the aims of that manager rather than the club.

The £250,000 that Phil Parkinson was able to reuse from the deal that took Oliver McBurnie to Swansea City was reused in the manager’s budget that season but as McBurnie starts to impress in Wales it is worth wondering if the long term aims of the club have been best served in that deal. I’m not the only one to have worried that after Parkinson, Lawn and Rhodes there is little left behind at Valley Parade.

Transfer group think is not popular in the English game – Liverpool’s transfer committee is seen as a problem – where any control taken from the manager is seen as a bad thing inherently.

my years of football have convinced me of it.

So Abbott speaking for the club is a change but and so it what Abbott is saying.

Should Armstrong join City on loan – perhaps as a result of Wells joining Newcastle United and freeing up the younger forward to move on – then City will be able to play Armstrong and Jordy Hiwula up front. Obviously this are two loan players.

City’s bid for Matt Green and the reported – or perhaps that is hopeful – interest in Adam le Fondre suggest that the alternative to a young loan signing not is an older permanent deal.

Which is a contrast to Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp’s stated aims when the new owners arrived.

Much was made of the fact that City could find value in signing released players from Premier League Academy football, turning their careers around, and developing them. That was how Bradford City would scale from being a League One club to being a club able to get into – and stay in – The Championship.

Hiwula or Armstrong or Josh Cullen might play well for City but the value for that will go elsewhere. City might get promoted because of their contributions but – we are told – when they are gone City will not have a Championship quality team.

Which suggests that either the plan has changed – let us hope not – or the plan was never there – let us very hope not – or that City are caught up in the Pokemon Go of squad gathering as much as the supporters are and that a deep breath would be best for all.

What are we trying to achieve and is signing Armstrong the way to achieve it?

On the day that Wells was to join to Newcastle United then City will be richer than they were. How is that money to be spent? Is it a scatter-signing for a player in August 2016? If it is how is it going to work better than when Stuart McCall scrambled for signings in his first spell as manager when the budget fluctuated wildly?

Which returns us to the central question of 2016 which is how are City without Parkinson, Mark Lawn, and Julian Rhodes going to be better? Indeed are they going to get better? There is no reason to assume an era of success will be followed by another and every reason to assume it will not be.

Is The Rahic Development Plan still being followed? Is it being followed by everyone at the club? If it does then it would make more sense rather than bringing in Armstrong to find a promising teenage striker we own or can own – such as Reece Webb-Foster – and give him the development time.

And while doing that take any money that comes from a resale of Nakhi Wells and use it to fund infrastructural additions which will make the club able to stand up in the Championship.

Changes / Institutional / Retention

There has been much talk since his return to Bradford City that Stuart McCall had changed as a manager and that talk was manifested for the first time as his team came from a goal down against Coventry City to win 3-1 at Valley Parade.

A goal down and not playing well one worried at half time that whatever the City manager was to say to his players it would make matters worse. This, after all, was the criticism most fairly applied to McCall in his first spell as City manager. That he has the capacity to take a disadvantage and turn it into an eight game losing run.

That was the McCall way. McCall created teams that played not just with passion but were fuelled by it. When that passion was applied the result was a team of flair and verve that – like some Hendrix lead guitar riff – worked not because it had passion but because it was passion. When it did not work one ended up with two month sulks.

Which contrasted with Phil Parkinson’s five years at City were the Bantams were bass guitar perfect in their rhythm never to be put off balance. McCall had – in his previous time at the club – sent out teams transformed from bad (or average at least) to good after the fifteen minute break but too often it was the other way around.

City trailed Coventry City to a debut goal from on loan forward Burnley Daniel Agyei who had turned Romain Vincelot and finished well following a frustrated attempt to clear the ball up the left hand side of a lopsided Bantams team.

McCall had sent out a three man central midfield with Mark Marshall given a single winger role that overstates his ability to have an influence on the game. Marshall provided an outlet on the right for attacking play but there was no mirror to that the left leading to the singular problem with clearing before Agyei’s goal and a general problem all first half that City were predictable in dysfunction.

Coventry knew what the Bantams would do and that when they did it it would not work.

Coventry City’s Tony Mowbray deployed his Sky Blues team – still looking for a first win – to press high up the field and lock on City player to player. They played at an intensity which was not sustainable for ninety minutes – legs would tired and tired soon – but that one worried at half time would have broken the home team’s resolve and need only continue to keep the Bantams at arm’s length.

But at half time McCall addressed the problem down the left by pushing Billy Clarke – rancid in the first half, much better in the second – alongside Jordy Hiwula and having one or the other break left when the Bantams had the ball.

This tactical tweak had two effects: It balanced the width of the midfield giving an outlet on the left and it stopped Clarke dropping deep and – as a result – allowed the three man midfield to push forward into the last third. It was the opposite of the charge of tactical naivety but I never bought into that charge anyway.

That the change worked was down to metronomically good displays from the likes of Vincelot, Josh Cullen, Nicky Law Jnr, and Daniel Devine. Players who were able to maintain a level of performance and – by doing so – provide a platform for those who were playing poorly to turn their performances around on on.

This was the hallmark of the Parkinson era and the thing one was most worried about losing when Parkinson left. No matter who took over the knowledge Parkinson grafted into his teams of maintaining a level of performance when performances around you after going bad had to be lost.

How that knowledge has been retained is a mystery or perhaps it has just been recreated. Vincelot’s clean through ball to Clarke after an hour came when the visitor’s legs were too tired to press but the Frenchman had not fatigued physically or mentally. Clarke went for goal but was pulled down and Tony McMahon’s penalty pulled the score level. It was simultaneously reassuringly familiar and entirely new.

Coventry City’s approach of going man-to-man on the Bantams failed following the dismissal of Jordan Turnbull for conceding the penalty and within minutes Mark Marshall arrowed in a diagonal long range strike which is as good as any seen at Valley Parade in recent years.

Marshall’s performance was still a problem though and one which may become pressing as City progress. He spoke following the game about how previous managers had not allowed him to play with freedom and there may be good reason for that. Marshall unleashed is as liable to land a 25 yard screamer into J block of the Kop as he is the back of the goal.

That Marshall is allowed a platform at all is a balance created by the metronomic midfield. My worry is that he does not create enough to provide weight in that balance. His improvement is slow but this goal and this game showed a step in it.

A second McMahon penalty came after Cullen was hauled down in the box – that the midfielders were getting in the box showed the turnaround caused by the switch McCall made with Clarke at half time – and the stand in skipper stepped up to score again before hobbling off injured.

McMahon will miss four to six weeks after history maker Kyel Reid trolled into him leaving him with a dead leg he pushed too far. Reid had a very Kyel Reid type of game. He ran a lot, fell over too much, and should have scored a couple of times but did not and on each occasion recognised his failure with a big smile.

But Reid looked different from a distance and playing for another team: more dangerous sometimes, more cynical sometimes, more desirable maybe too;

Which is enough to make one think on a wet summer August afternoon where what one worried about losing with Parkinson and regaining with McCall began to evanish.

Opening / Generative / Failings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Club / Preview

It will become obvious, dear reader, how little new Bradford City owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp are like former Bradford City owners Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes and how that difference is going to change the club over the coming years.

It was noticeable when talking on Radio Leeds that City’s James Mason told a story about how Stuart McCall – when he was approached for the City job in 2007 – was told by Julian Rhodes that had he not accepted the role then the club may fold. Indeed we might recall that the weekend after McCall’s final game Rhodes was faced with the same existential question over the club.

As Lawn and Rhodes recede into City’s history – where they will enjoy a luxurious place no doubt – one can expect lips like Mason’s to continue to loosen and the stories to tell themselves. When they do Bradford City will have moved on.

And moved on with Rahic and Rupp who are starting to generate warmth amongst City fans. Rahic took to a flat cap in Wednesday night and impressed people. His plan is to prepare a club for The Championship and allow football osmosis have its effect.

Having kept the season ticket prices “low” – of in German terms “high” – there was a move towards lower match day prices to £20. One wonders how far into a German model the pair will go and one assumes not to giving 50%+1 of the club away to supporters.

Rahic and Rupp’s changes to the club are glacial. There is much talk about improving the infrastructure around the club which had been previously underfunded with what seemed to be an effort from previous manager Phil Parkinson ensuring that as much of the budget was spent on the first team as it could be. It was noticeable that the new Bolton Wanderers manager has noted that he was not wandering around his new place of work in awe of the facilities he now had at his disposal.

A stark contrast to Benito Carbone’s statement that when he arrived at Bradford City he could find “Nothing that resembled a football club.”

City’s trusty facilities in Apperley Bridge have been subject to improvements but one wonders how much of Rahic and Rupp’s planning might include a move away to somewhere bigger, better, and more well suited. Peter Taylor had agreed a move to Weetwood in Leeds and Geoffrey Richmond was keen to build new facilities at the top of the M606.

City’s scouting structures have never been especially well stocked but in Greg Abbott Rahic and Rupp – and Stuart McCall – have appointed the highest profile person in that position the club have ever had signalling an increase in importance of the role. Forget Abbott as a former player City have never had a former manager in the role.

The importance of Abbott will become more obvious in time but from Rahic’s statements it seems that something of a transfer committee – or at least a transfer group think – has been build up where manager, chairman and Chief Scout get heads around a table to discuss not only the current transfer hunt but the plans for the future.

Assuming that Abbott’s future is not tied directly to McCall’s this gives City a possibility of institutional retained knowledge. Also it summons up the image of Parkinson and his Chief Scout Tim Breaker sitting down with Mark Lawn to talk over – rather than tell – which players they should be signing.

When do these changes manifest themselves? Slowly, one suspects, but in a determined way the fabric of the club around Bradford City is going to be different from this point on and different in a way which builds into place structures which have long been needed.

Preview / Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Unfamiliar / Preview

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

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

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

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

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

Drop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five

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

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

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

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

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

These are unfamiliar times.

Waring / Trophy

Bradford City will play Stoke City Under 23 team in the first round of the Football League Trophy along with Morecambe and Bury.

There is endless controversy about this move by the Football League to include Premier League reserve teams. The idea of watching Johnville Renee-Pringle, Joel Taylor, George Waring in a competitive FLT game is an anathema to what football should be.

Johnville Renee-Pringle has a superb name. George Waring has a decent record scoring six goals in fifteen games in a loan spell at Barnsley in 2014/15. Barnsley played Oxford United in the final of the Football League Trophy last season and won. Oxford lost the game 3-2 and George Waring – on loan from Stoke City once more – played in that game.

And so we have a situation in which George Waring plays for Barnsley and that is fine, and George Waring plays for Oxford United and that is fine, but when George Waring plays for Stoke City u23 then it is not fine. Not fine at all.

Swing

Let us dispense with Football League Trophy in one swing. Football teams represent communities of supporters and – statistically – there is serious reason to doubt that anything under the first team level is viewed as representative of that community.

People do not go to reserve games on the whole, they do not go to u21 games, they do not on the whole take a lot of interest in top level women’s football associated with their clubs. The tradition of British football is that a football club is seen as the first team and nothing else.

And so (unless there is a sudden groundswell of unprecedented interest) Stoke City u23 are not Stoke City – not really – and one does not expect Stoke City fans to come watch them. The game does not represent the community and game that do not represent communities are in decursu argumenti not football we need concern ourselves with.

It is a training match, or something similar, but what it is not is one community meeting another community for a game. This might be a romanticised view of the game (I’d argue that football without romance is just athletic movements) but important to football is the idea of meritocracy. In any game one team can beat the other. This might seem fanciful but I was at Chelsea and Aston Villa and I speak from experience. The irrelevance that the Football League Trophy has brought us is that the if Bradford City beat Stoke City u23 they will not have beaten Stoke City, and so the result will hardly matter.

But still we have the question of George Waring.

If we say that we are not interested in watching Waring play for Stoke City u23 and are against their inclusion in the Football League Trophy why are we for watching him play in the Football League Trophy for Oxford United? Or Barnsley? If it is not worth watching a Stoke City reserve like George Waring play for Stoke why is it worth watching him play on loan?

Year

Last season’s player of the year will not be at Bradford City this season. Reece Burke joins Josh Cullen and Lee Evans in returning to parent clubs. This is the case almost every year at every club in the lower two divisions.

Go to any League One game and it is not uncommon to see a half a dozen young players from Premier League academies on loan in League One matches. Players like George Waring who come from Stoke City u23. We do not want to watch them play for Stoke City u23, why do we want to watch the play for (or against) Bradford City?

Why is it good to watch Reece Burke but bad to watch George Waring?

If we worry that playing Stoke City u23 is not the same as playing Stoke City then what is playing a Bradford City team with two West Ham United u23 players in it? Football League rules limit the number of loans from a single club to four, and the total loans in one match day squad to five.

If Bradford City were to be offered a deal that gave them Reece Burke and Josh Cullen back for the 2016/2017 season but – as a part of the deal – West Ham’s Martin Samuelsen and Lewis Page must also feature for the Bantams then City would be able to field them all. There are a good few supporters who would see that as a very good deal. It might be a very good deal but if the Football League Trophy is Stoke City u23 and not Stoke City then how would Bradford City with four West Ham United players not be not Bradford City? Would it be any different with six players? Or ten? Or two?

Wider

There is a wider worry vocalised by Against League 3 that there is a covert agenda in place to bring Premier League B-Teams to the Football League in the same way that Real Madrid Castilla or FC Bayern Munich II.

The suggestion is that including Premier League u23 teams in the Football League Trophy is the first step towards such teams being allowed in the Football League. I would suggest that the first step has happened and that it has happened slowly to a point where as supporters we have got used to – even celebrate – our clubs being used as training grounds for a selected few from the Premier League Academies.

If we are against the Football League Trophy for including Premier League u23 teams are we not also forced to at least question if we should be against the same players being dropped into Football League clubs?


Note, I was not happy with the first version of this article so I made a few changes.

Wingers / Niedrigprozentig

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

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

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

Wiki

Only one of ninety one crosses results in a goal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiki

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiwula / Guesswork

There is a school of thought which governs the signing of players like Jordy Hiwula who was recruited on loan by Bradford City from Huddersfield Town having come for “six figures” from the same Manchester City young team that gave us Devante Cole.

That school of thought is to contextualise the single signing as being a poor one because of his lack of success elsewhere – Hiwula has barely played and when he has played has recorded modest goal returns of late – and because any player not wanted by another club has a flaw which would become obvious with more attention.

There is a logic to this second point – managers rarely rid themselves of good dressing room characters first and there is a worry that man who played up front with Devante Cole might have the same attitude – and the first relies on the inexorable gravity of football that concludes that because most seasons are not successful for most clubs in the high standards of promotions and trophies then most signings are successful either.

These are boundaries which players struggle to verbalise their position within. Hiwula said on signing “I think the way that Bradford play will suit the way I play” which – considering that this Bradford City has played but one game – either denotes that Hiwula really likes Rory McArdle’s passing, or that he has not noticed the change of everything since his played against City on loan for Walsall, or like most footballers he just says the thing that seems right at the time.

Which is exactly what the school of thought that damns he does. It is countered by a second school which is more optimistic in presenting previous successes as similarly negative. Did you think that the sixth choice striker from Carlisle United would be worth a punt? Did you think that the skinny Ginger son of a Leeds player was worth a deal?

And the problem with both these schools of thought is that they are largely distraction from the a central truth which became increasingly obvious through Phil Parkinson’s time at Bradford City which was that these judgements on good signings and bad signings are retroactive.

Rory McArdle was a good signing, Gary Jones was a good signing, Stephen Darby was a good signing but those things were not true on the day the signed. Universally Lee Power was seen as a good signing but his debilitation after two games means that very soon that was not the case. See also Gordon Watson.

The quality of a signing is about many things which start after pen is put to paper: work put in on the training pitch is one, avoiding injury is another; The season is unwritten and players are as good as the effort they put in. Devante Cole seemed to avoid putting in the effort to adapt to a system he did not enjoy despite obvious talents. Will his former teammate Hiwula put in the effort? Will Hiwula be a good signing? That is in the hands of Hiwula.

Which is not to say that there is not an indication from a club’s transfer activity of many things but to single out individual transfers and make judgements on prospective performance is largely guesswork, and of little worth, be it in praise or damnation.

Mister / Definitely

Uwe Rösler is definitely joining Bradford City who are definitely going to be selling Bratwurst at half time and definitely paying one and a half million for Reece Burke who definitely posted a picture of himself in a City kit and he will definitely replace James McDarby who is definitely joining Parkinson at Bolton with Jamie Proctor who would definitely have scored twenty five goals this season as would Dylan Mottley-Henry who is definitely in the Barnsley first team by Christmas and definitely would have been brilliant for us as would George Green who is definitely the English Antoine Griezmann and Stuart McCall missed out in him because he is definitely not a proper manager and definitely just signing his mates which is odd because we definitely have not signed anyone but when we do sign people we will definitely be signing cheap German players who will definitely not be good enough but will be in the team because Edin Rahic definitely picks the team and all this definitely would not have happened if the Germans had not forced out Parkinson because the old boardroom definitely would not have forced a manager out and we definitely are going to be awful this year and definitely will be rubbish and under prepared and Greg Abbott definitely let Nahki Wells go because he does not know a good player when he sees one and why didn’t we sign Tom Bradshaw anyway because without him there is no chance at all of promotion and without Josh Cullen there is no chance of even winning a game and the young players are definitely not going to be given a chance because Omar Daley is definitely coming back.

But I expect promotion.

Definitely.

Timeline / Reboot

There is a difference between you and me. We both looked into the abyss, but when it looked back at us, you blinked – Bruce Wayne, Crisis

There was a point in the history of Bradford City where the club took one turn, and could have taken another.

To be more accurate these points happen all the time but watching Stuart McCall take a Bradford City through pre-season at Guiseley I ended up thinking back to the days of January and February 2007 when Dean Windass was allowed to leave City and join Hull, and Colin Todd was sacked.

Todd’s contract was up at the end of the season and it was an open secret that Julian Rhodes wanted McCall to replace him. The need for totemic best player Windass seemed to be over with Rhodes convinced that the Bantams had enough points that David Wetherall could not possibly get them relegated in his time as manager (which he did) and had he not Rhodes might have used – not certainly not needed – an investment from then supporter Mark Lawn.

And had Rhodes excersized restraint and kept Todd, or Windass, or both, or taken another option then McCall may well have arrived in June 2007 to the very type of situation he found himself in some nine years later.

But these things happen all the time. Had Notts County’s one yarder in the first round of the League Cup 2011/2012 gone a foot lower then there would not be a Phil Parkinson legacy – such as it is – for McCall to adopt.

That legacy is not to be understated either. Parkinson has left City in rude health. The leanness of the squad in summer which caused so much consternation is purposeful and a feature of the majority of clubs outside the higher reaches of the game where lengthy deals on players are more often liabilities than assets. Only the foundations are secured in League One football these days.

And the foundations off the field are secured.

Parkinson – as far as the story is told – never walked into the boardroom and demanded money the club could not afford for players and given how easily led the boardroom seemed to be that is a good thing. That the squad last season was patched with loan players rather than panic purchases says a lot.

List the players from last season who City owned to still be at the club this season and names like Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby – both absent today and for the start of the season following operations – would be iterated through. Ben Williams and Jamie Proctor would not.

“The owl of Athena spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” – as Hegel should have said – and it seems that dusk has not come yet for Parkinson.

Rather than a reboot of 2007/2008 and McCall’s first time as Bradford City manager in League Two it seemed that the manager was on the road not travelled, and playing in what could have been.

What was was an entertaining encounter. It would be wrong to talk about Guiseley as more than an extended and expensive training session and so to pick out specifics rather than trends seems to miss the point of the exercise.

Those trends though seemed positive.

The young players who stepped up from the lower ranks which Parkinson ignored and played with the élan of The Lisbon Girls allowed out to party for the first time. Daniel Devine’s name suggests itself.

The trialists looked lively in a way that seemed different to those Parkinson brought in. All looked capable and some looked impressive. The wheat from the chaff comes in spending time with the characters and seeing how they fit into a unit which is what games like this are all about.

It was good to see George Green make a long awaited debut. George Green and the subject of paths not taken is interesting assuming you remember the name.

And of the new signings Nathaniel Knight-Percival did not have much to do while Nicky Law Jnr set up an equalising goal for Tom Hateley (trialist) to score from. That moment when Hateley equalised revealed the game for what it was. The Bantams were happy to kick the ball around but would not go home in a defeat. The gears shifted up after falling behind showed a team working fitness rather than working to win.

And all seemed new. Parkinson has left something good at Bradford City but his exit seems to have taken with it some of the stolid tenancies which mired City’s thinking. All that was good seems good and all that was not seems new.

Which is not something that one would have expected.

Holes / Fit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incommensurable / McCall

Officially announced new Bradford City manager Stuart McCall needs no introduction at Valley Parade and so let us not waste words with them.

And let us waste no time heaping praise on his playing career at City, at the FA Cup Final, at the World Cup, at Rangers. We know it was good, and he knows that we know it was good. We’ve been here before. Stuart McCall does not start his time at Bradford City ab ovo.

By appointing McCall Edin Rahic has joined a story en media res. The new City manager is the old City manager and in some ways he begins exactly at the point where he left the field having lost 1-0 to Bury in February 2010. The League Cup final, promotion at Wembley, Chelsea, Sunderland et al become a separate timeline that ended at Millwall and Phil Parkinson’s last game.

Rather than nothing being known about the new manager, everything is, and that brings with it a collection of nervousness about known quantities. Uwe Rösler would have brought with him questions, not so McCall.

With McCall we have answers on past behaviour, or at least we think we do, and the gnarling feeling in one’s stomach is the acceptance of that. It is the feeling of knowing what your birthday presents are.

McCall has been at Rangers, has been at Motherwell, and has been at Scotland and those qualifications need to disavow the most embarrassing of the criticism of him in the past – that he was “not a proper manager” – but from those experiences McCall needs to have learnt much to correct that course that he was on when he walked off the pitch after the Bury game five years ago.

Things that went wrong have to be put right in order that McCall be successful and some successful things need to be retained.

Ethic

McCall’s predecessor Phil Parkinson created teams which – through a peerless team ethic – dragged out results playing a direct game centred around not conceding goals. McCall’s Bradford City teams were in many ways the opposite of that. His teams worst characteristic was (and I exaggerate for effect) their ability to turn a poor decision about a throw in into a eight game winless run.

This is the greatest difference between the two managers. Parkinson build his team with an internal belief based on a spirit within the dressing room. There were times when this did not work and it was obvious that this did not work and times when it spectacularly did. It is impossible to imagine the McCall’s teams of 2007-2010 slowly grinding themselves back into a game at Chelsea when 2-0 down.

McCall’s teams, when they worked, were belief bubbles that players floated on. Remembering perhaps McCall’s best game – the 4-1 win over Exeter City – it was a projection of what Joe Colbeck could be to Colbeck and to the rest of the team that spurred the performance. This approach was not open to Parkinson who told the players that their achievements are the sum of their inputs rather than the fulfilment of their buoyancy.

Likewise ten minutes after Barry Conlon came on 2-0 down at Accrington Stanley the game was won 3-2 after the Irish striker caused mayhem in the penalty area. McCall cast the game plan at The Crown Ground aside in a way that Parkinson never did. When 2-0 at Chelsea (admittedly a different proposition) Parkinson’s team did not change how it played other than to play better. McCall’s ability to add a randomness to proceedings is a strength at times but was a weakness too.

Not only a weakness but a cause of weakness. When the belief is not in the dressing room and the player’s belief in each other’s abilities it is always subject to being assailed by external pressures. When Parkinson’s teams lost they looked at themselves and saw how they were good, and that how they would come good over time, but when McCall’s teams lost the looked at themselves to see all the ways they were bad.

Needless to say one hopes that the lessons McCall has learnt include an understanding of this and built it into his management philosophy.

Hope

Which leads onto a worry about losing the capacity that Bradford City under Parkinson had of being able to maintain a position within games. The term “game management” has become overused to the point of de-definition but recalling McCall’s celebrated 3-2 win at Accrington is to forget the times when games went beyond his side and they had little character to bring them back.

This is not uncommon but was uncommon under Parkinson who only rarely saw his City team more than a goal down. The ability to keep a game with grasp, even if it could not be grasped, is something that encouraged belief in the dressing room. City under Parkinson never lacked hope.

Yet so much of McCall’s managerial style was based around hopefulness (which is to say that his teams were never to be described as negative) that the nature of defeats like the 3-0 reversals to Rochdale and Accrington at Valley Parade came at a huge cost. To chase games at 1-0 down defensive responsibilities would be abandoned which would bring defeat, not victory, closer.

Those games were painful to watch in the stands and did damage to the squad. They were the counter to the sensational comeback but seemed to do more damage than those comebacks did good.

Another term used to the extent of de-defined is “stability”. It is not just manager retention, or squad retention, it is an environment in which lessons taught are understood and worked on, and improved, rather than one where behaviour patterns are random or seem to be random. McCall needs to have understood how to take the lessons from defeat but to not dwell on defeat and he needs to ensure that practise continues at City.

McCall the coach wins the praise of players for his ability to work with them but what is the point of having a coach to improve players if – as was the case – every twelve months the squad is changed drastically? Edin Rahic’s hopes of bringing in post-Academy players from top clubs seems to tie in with McCall’s skills but it will only work if there is a lengthy commitment to a stable development environment.

McCall can do this – arguably he can do it better than Parkinson – but the whole club has to be aware of the necessity of stability beyond the idea of just having the same manager standing in the middle of chaos.

Environment

Chaos perhaps being an apt description of 2007-2010 at times.

Stuart McCall created three teams at Bradford City and they can be summerised thus: The first one, the one that had a load of money thrown at it, the one that had a load of money ripped out of it; One might want to pretend against evidence that money is the governing factor in football but experience tells us otherwise.

It is rare that one finds a disharmony and successful football club. There are exceptions to this rule but more often it is accurate as it seemed to be in McCall’s first period as manager of the club.

Because there is a telling of history that is entirely manager-centric that is applied to Bradford City over the last decade. That Phil Parkinson arrived and – by virtue of his being a better manager than all who proceeded him – the club turned around.

This empowerment of the manager to the auteur of success is very common in football as it is “>in history. It speaks to something romantic in us all – that a single person can create wonders – and that romance is the hope that one such person might come and turn the fortunes around.

And the counter to that is that anyone who is a manager at a club that does not succeed has failed, rather than the failure being common or shared, as seems most often to be the case.

The reason Liverpool have not won the league since Kenny Dalglish left is because Kenny Dalglish Great Man theory says obviously untrue.

There is another view of history which would have it that Bradford City in Stuart McCall’s first time at the club was – to be frank – a mess.

This is an unpopular view and one that people are criticised for voicing. The perceived wisdom is that the club was making purposeful and direct steps back to the rude health as early as 2007 and that left it in good condition when Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp bought it. That wisdom does not correlate with what we know of the times.

You can pick your own example of this. What was going at Valley Parade when a deal was done with Royal Montegnée that brought Willy Topp to City as the first in a partnership? Did McCall want (W/B)illy and if not why did he get him? What was going on when Phil Parkinson – in the glow of the greatest FA Cup shock of all time – was seemingly forced to onto bended knee to apologise to two directors for pointing out the obvious problem with the pitch at Valley Parade?

What happened to the link up with RIASA? Was it a success or not? Why did the club employ Archie Christie to do one job and the manager Peter Jackson to do another when it would be generous to say that the two men did not work well together? Who wanted Christie at the club? Who didn’t? Why was Paddy Lacey signed on sixteen times the wage of Nahki Wells? Why did City end up paying £250,000 for a player that no one seemed to want at the club? Why was one of the chairmen serving up a spiteful fish course?

Only the most fanciful retrofit of history can call this a club pulling in the same direction.

Return, mentally, to the idea of the Bradford City squad being called in on a Sunday to play a game for a South African player that Mark Lawn had “discovered” and then having the game called off half way though and to be accused – according to then manager Peter Jackson – that they would not pass to the new “star player”.

That Jackson even let it happen, that Rhodes let it happen, that the architect of it Lawn let it happen, says so much about the state of the club at the time.

It all changed – for regrettable reasons – when Lawn took a step back and Phil Parkinson was able to take a team to Wembley. This consolidated Parkinson’s power at the club and all other directions were ignored, and retroactive considered ignored, because the idea of upsetting Parky by making him bring his team in to try out the South African lad risked too much.

And so the club had a single direction and benefited from it.

Which is what Stuart McCall needs to have learnt from his first stay at Valley Parade. When he was given a budget that required one squad to be ripped up and another build McCall should have said “no, that is not what I’m doing here. It will not bring us closer to what we want.”

If McCall is a different manager now this is how he needs to be different. He is a “legend” but that is an honourific afforded by the supporters and not the boardroom. He needs to use his legend status rightly rather than have it used to mask any number of curious goings on.

Fr example When one of the chairmen stopped talking to Stuart McCall in 2009 he should have asked supporters – publicly if he had to – just how the eight month sulk helped move Bradford City in the direction they wanted?

If a legend is not on the side of the fans he is not a legend.

A football club needs to have a single direction and everyone is adjunct to that. If the direction comes from the manager – as it did under Parkinson – then everyone at the club needs to stand behind him and anyone who does not needs to get out of the way.

If the direction comes from Edin Rahic then McCall needs to either understand that and be able to agree and support Rahic’s direction or he needed to have not taken the job.

But he has taken the job and while at the moment it is unclear as to what the shape of this new era Bradford City will be McCall, Rahic, Rupp et al need to be of one mind in this.

There is a view of the history of Stuart McCall as Bradford City manager that paints him as a capable manager in what was an increasingly dysfunctional situation. It is a view that writing BfB during the course of the years, and talking to the people involved, I subscribe to.

His capabilities are shown at Motherwell getting them into the Champions League qualifiers, the dysfunction at City was seen by Peter Taylor, and by Peter Jackson, and all the many messes which made the rise under Phil Parkinson so remarkable.

It is hard to say if that is the case and if McCall was a good manager in a bad situation, or if McCall is the failure in the Great Man theory that some say, or if it is some other history as yet untold about to shape the course of our club.

As Stuart McCall is welcomed back to Bradford City for a fourth coming we might be about to find out.

Timing / Signing

There is a worry, dear reader, that good signings are being made in League One and that shod of a manager Bradford City are not making them.

This is a problem of course. Without having a manager, a chief scout, and with having chairmen who have just arrived it at the club one doubts that anyone has a list of targets to bring in or if they do that that list is especially impressive.

The most impressive run of signings in City’s recent history came in the summer of 2012 when within a month Rory McArdle, Gary Jones, and Stephen Darby all arrived. Their arrival was Phil Parkinson’s coup and probably had not little to do with the fact that all three had played for Rochdale under Parkinson’s assistant Steve Parkin. One wonders how long a signing like Rory McArdle or Gary Jones takes to make. Jones had been shown around Valley Parade the season before he arrived but stayed at Spotland suggesting a year long chase for him but for all we know Phil might have turned to Steve one afternoon and told him the club needed a good central midfielder and Steve got on the phone.

Nevertheless the worry is that as City stand still signings are being made and the Bantams are missing out.

Using the summer transfer windows from 2010 to 2014 as a five year sample (which excludes last season, for fairness, as I’ve criticised it heavily in the past) Bradford City signed forty five permanent players. This includes loan signings being made permanent in the summer but excludes loan signings. Here is a list of those players.

Of the forty five players signed I’m going to say that fourteen were successful. By that I mean that in the season they signed they started at least two thirds of the league games the club played in the season that follow.

This criteria might seem to err harshly but the question at hand is about if the type of players needed for success are being sucked up while City are managerless and not about prospects or good pro squad men.

Any player who signed but started less than a third of the club’s games is marked as a failure.

A list of the signings between 2010-2014 who started more than two thirds of the games in the following season ordered by day and month (not year)

  • 27 May 2010 – Luke Oliver – 100.00%
  • 30 May 2014 – Billy Knott – 79.49%
  • 7 June 2012 – Rory McArdle – 100.00%
  • 9 June 2014 – Gary Liddle – 100.00%
  • 22 June 2012 – Gary Jones – 100.00%
  • 27 June 2014 – Billy Clarke – 82.05%
  • 4 July 2012 – Will Atkinson – 68.42%
  • 4 July 2012 – Garry Thompson – 68.42%
  • 5 July 2012 – Stephen Darby – 86.84%
  • 13 July 2011 – Ritchie Jones – 79.17%
  • 29 July 2012 – James Meredith – 84.21%
  • 4 August 2012 – Nathan Doyle – 89.47%
  • 9 August 2010 – Dave Syers – 73.17%
  • 29 August 2011 – Kyel Reid – 66.67%

A list of the signings between 2010-2014 who started less than a thirds of the games in the following season ordered by day and month (not year)

  • 16 May 2014 – Matthew Dolan – 7.69%
  • 27 May 2010 – Lloyd Saxton – 0.00%
  • 30 June 2010 – Jake Speight – 31.71%
  • 1 July 2011 – Mark Stewart – 20.83%
  • 2 July 2013 – Jason Kennedy – 11.63%
  • 3 July 2013 – Mark Yeates – 23.26%
  • 6 July 2011 – Scott Brown – 0.00%
  • 8 July 2011 – Patrick Lacey – 0.00%
  • 13 July 2011 – Nialle Rodney – 0.00%
  • 14 July 2011 – Andrew Burns – 0.00%
  • 20 July 2012 – Alan Connell – 21.05%
  • 22 July 2011 – Nahki Wells – 29.17%* See comments below
  • 30 July 2013 – Raffaele De Vita – 13.95%
  • 1 August 2013 – Matt Taylor – 2.33%
  • 5 August 2014 – Ben Williams – 30.77%
  • 5 August 2014 – Mo Shariff – 0.00%
  • 5 August 2014 – Matthew Urwin – 0.00%
  • 18 August 2012 – Carl McHugh – 31.58%
  • 31 August 2010 – Chib Chilaka – 0.00%
  • 31 August 2011 – Dean Overson – 0.00%

I shall let you, dear reader, pick more bones out of those two lists but my interpretation of them are that our recent history points to successful signings being made early – in June – and that the closer towards the start of the season one waits the less likelihood there is that the player will play a significant role in the coming year.

There is, of course, a caveat to all this and it comes in the form of the Parkin/Joned factor mentioned above. That a glut of successful signings were made in June is probably more to do with ongoing relations that it is to do with the time of the signing.

We enter into post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking here. That successful signings are made in June is a factor of having the relationships and structures in place to make those signings. In short if all the work was done (at any point) previous to the end of the last season the signings will come in June.

If we consider the end of July and start of August to be the time when clubs who do not have those relationships make signings based on who is left following the players who are picked off because of Parkin/Jones style relationships (what we call scatter-signing) then City – with no relationship at the moment – would be operating in that way were they to be bringing in player now.

Scatter-signing in June is to replicate the behaviour of August two months early.

Bradford City do not have – or do not seem to have – those relationships or structure in place at the moment. There is no one at the club who knows a Gary Jones to bring in in order to bring him in in early June.

Should Nicky Law Jnr return with Stuart McCall then there would be a June signing because of that relationship but that is not the same as sitting a manager in the office in June and telling him to bring in five faces before the Euro finish.

The clubs who are working on signing Gillingham’s Bradley Dack – who City’s Billy Knott seems to have joined the Gills in anticipation of him leaving – have been working on that signing for months. Even if City’s new manager was to be on the phone buying players today the June signings would probably be out of his reach.

And so talking about not signing players in June misses the point. It is not that the players are not signed it is that – I would say – the structure that need to be in place to bring in a Gary Jones or a Rory McArdle need to be in place before June.

New chairman, new manager, new era and all. We have to accept that Bradford City are forced to sit out the June 2016 recruitment.

McCall / Recall

And so it was that Stuart McCall returned to Bradford City.

McCall – manager from 2007-2010, player from 1981-1988 and from 1998-2002 – has agreed in principal to replace Phil Parkinson at Valley Parade will see the former captain leave his current role as a coach at Scotland and return to full time management for the first time since he left Rangers in 2015. McCall also enjoyed success at Motherwell in the SPL.

His credentials at Bradford City are above reproach. For many he defined the club and his exit as manager was a painful chapter in the club’s history.

However his time as manager continues to divide supporters, as does his return. While McCall offers something of a safe place for Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp – the club legend is always a popular figure – there will be a sense that having not been able to achieve promotion previously McCall is tried, and tested, and failed.

Whatever one’s thoughts behind that it seems that McCall was able to impress the German owners of Bradford City in a way that the other candidates – including supposed preferred choice Uwe Rösler – was not. His experiences as a player are impressive, and his presence in the Scotland set up adds to his knowledge. One wonders how McCall has changed as a manager since he left City, and how much that has played into Rahic and Rupp’s decision making.

McCall is expected to be formally announced as Bradford City manager before the week is out. There is also speculation that the incoming manager has started a recruitment drive at the club. Maybe his list of preferred targets and Rahic’s belief in who the club should be signing correlate.

When Stuart McCall arrived at Bradford City he was a club legend and while he was criticised (by me, although that was often ignored) there was this was tempered in a way it was not for his successor Peter Taylor. One doubts that on his return the Scot will have any illusions that his reputation is still stainless, or that it will not stain.

In full knowledge of how much easier it is to talk about football rather than do it, to coach players rather than take the responsibility of the big chair, to be a hallowed and separate club legend rather than get dirt under the fingernails to try improve things Stuart McCall return as Bradford City manager.

In my opinion that speaks much to the character the man.

Welcome one and all to the fourth, and different, coming.

Tedious / Multiplication

At some point in the future football supporters are going to realise that they know more about football than the media that make money out of them.

Today this can be seen in serious terms in Marseilles following violence around the England vs Russia Euro 2016 game. The initial attempts to write stories about “the English disease” seem to have struggled against social media showing events as they occur.

Perhaps the best way to sum this situation up is that the media which took 25 years to tell you the truth about what happened to football fans at Hillsborough are trying to tell you the truth about what happened in Marseilles last night.

More light is the story this morning that Bradford City – which is to say Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp – have decided that Neil Redfearn is the choice for the vacant manager’s seat at Valley Paarde. The Daily Star reported this. That is the Daily Star that reported “I saw the killer smoke bomb” in 1985. Keep it light, Michael.

What are the chances that after a month in England Rahic has decided that the ineffectual former Leeds and Rotherham manager is not only a choice, but the choice, for the new managers role? I’d suggest that Rahic and Rupp might not even know the man’s name. How many twice sacked 2. Bundesliga managers do you know?

The Daily Star’s report is not even good rumourmongering. They have – one suspects – looked at the fact that Redfearn has no job and added to the fact that he once played for the club and probably not noticed the change in ownership. Perhaps Redfearn’s people want to remind all and anyone reading that he is available and some writer owed them a favour.

It is no more educated a report that all the reports linking Phil Parkinson to Reading were, and almost certainly no more accurate.

It is guesswork. And not even inspired guesswork.

Yet we, as football supporters, lend these fumbled in the intellectual dark a level of interest that they ill deserve. Because it is “int’ paper” we think it must have some truth to it. The media understand this and act accordingly taking our money as they do.

And it is easy to say that this is no problem at all. “It is just a bit of fun” but these people earn money by leeching of the interests of football fans and inserting themselves between clubs and supporters.

If we, as football supporters, decide we can do it all better ourselves (which I think we can, and that when this website was it is 25,000 a day pomp, we did – see comment below) we could cut out the people who make money by making things up and have the clubs talk directly to us.

Which, along with some honesty, would be a welcome change in how football works.

Untruth / Misinformation

If you are anything like me you probably spent a good deal of yesterday being lied to.

At 12:00 Phil Parkinson was due at a press conference where he would become Bolton Wanderers manager. He was late and the reason that was given by Bolton was that the new manager was stuck in traffic.

Of course he was not. Some two and a half hours later when Parkinson did take the the stage it was not the result of a traffic jam it was – as Bradford City’s official statement would later all but say – because the paperwork around the deal (which, lest we forget, is the deal and everything before is negotiation) had not been completed.

It is a white lie of course – stuck in traffic – and hardly anything to be especially upset about. Only it comes at the end of a week where where almost everything that seemed to come out of the Bolton Wanderers camp was – being kind – misinformation.

At the end of their negotiations with Parkinson the man himself would confirm that the club had made a contract through his agent some weeks ago. Once he had said that a lot of what had emerged out of Bolton in the last few weeks started to look like, at best, misinformation.

But one might be understanding to a need to not show one’s hand in negotiations was there really a need to lie about traffic conditions on the M62?

They have also told Parkinson that their debts are not what everyone says they are and that they will be able to sign players because their transfer embargo will be lifted soon. Very well, believe that too.

The Hunt

One should not single out Bolton Wanderers as especially egregious offender in this. They figure recently but are far from alone in seeing lying to football supporters – be they those who follow your club or not – a matter of course.

So much of the talk that comes out of football is colourful misinformation and most of this is considered to be fairly harmless. Teams overplay their chances, talk up their atmosphere, and do all those other things which sit comfortably on the side of “public relations” rather than lying.

And of course clubs deal in a marketplace where there is a negative result of allowing rivals to know you business dealings. This is obviously true in some cases. One recalls Bradford City flying Stephen Hunt from Ireland only to be told when he landed at Yeadon that Hunt had been contracted by, and would be signing for, Reading.

Even with the cover of secrecy that clubs protect their business dealings with Hunt was swiped away from City. It is impossible to say how many deals would be scuppered if there was no secrecy involved but then again it is also impossible to say how many would go along exactly as they do now.

All football club’s business dealings are treated as if secrecy is sacrosanct and the price of that secrecy is a practised dishonesty with supporters which I would suggest is unhealthy.

Unless one considers one’s self a consumer of a club’s football product then one probably sees immediately the problem that emerges when the community around a football club becomes used to the heart of that community habitually lying.

Look at any club forum on any discussion and there will be a theme running through that whatever the official line is, it is dishonest.

The football clubs that sit in the middle of our communities are thought of as having the ethics of politicians – and not the good ones – and for good reason. As the “stuck in traffic” suggests being dishonest with the community they are in is as natural as breathing for them.

Does it have to be this way?

Trouser

What would happen if a club decided that – as a core principal – that openness with the stakeholders in the community and transparency was the foremost concern.

In such a situation unless there was a critical reason to keep something secret it would be public. If a player wants to be paid £5,500 a week to play for the club then that would be known. If the club makes an offer for a player – in or out – then that would be known.

That someone might gazump a bid for a player is an obvious concern but players (and specifically player’s agents) are happy to tell our rivals who are interested that they had better make a move quick because money is on the table. At the moment what we have is not secret dealings, it is just secret from us.

Imagine if as soon as Bolton Wanderers made an approach for Parkinson, or Huddersfield Town made one for Nahki Wells, the information and amounts offered were available to all to read. Would the business of Bradford City have been significantly disadvantaged by this?

And while one could understand that a number of people would be upset by a searchlight being shined in all corners of a club’s business – George Graham would never have been able to trouser £425,000 in such a situation for example – the benefits could outweigh those concerns.

What those benefits are are, I’d suggest, that a fully informed community is better able to make judgements. Judgements on how the team should be performing, on how the business is performing, on almost every aspect of the club.

And better judgements make for a better community. #chairgate shows what a good community can be. If you are happy with, and see nothing other than, being a consumer of the Bradford City football product this will mean nothing to you.

History

That club’s are run with such secrecy comes from the origin as factory clubs owned by the bosses and watched working classes. When clubs moved to being privately owned the bosses became businessmen who held the same regard for the spectator as the paternal boss did for his employees. They were to be told what they needed to know and little more.

Now football clubs are part of an industry arm of capitalism they treasure secrecy as the source of a competitive advantage and Manchester United would no more reveal their plans any more than Apple would show you the next iPhone. In that they will leak it when it suits them.

Of course coming from the land of EV and 50%+1 this would be alien talk to Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp. With the exception of three German football clubs are owned by the members and while the expectation is not total transparency from elected boards down the level of openness that Rahic will have experienced at Stuttgart is probably unheard of in modern English football.

Ultimately this subject rests on how one likes to be addressed. Football club treat supporters like children to be protected from the bad, told only what is good for them, and expected to behave as they are instructed.

I do not have that constitution and that cuts against my grain.

This week has been a good week for Bolton Wanderers but – were a Trotters fan – I would not appreciate being spoken to in such a low tone of voice.

Selection / Manager

First this then what? While the history of BfB remains unwritten if I were to follow our friends at A Post in doing so there would be a large chunk of that about the process of recruiting managers.

Because while Bradford City have not had to appoint a replacement manager for some five years in the five years before the practice was becoming so common as to have started to be tedious.

The transition from Peter Jackson to Parkinson was something of a disorganised fumble with the candidates being interviewed not understanding the remit of the role they were applying for. Colin Cooper is believed to have told Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes that were he to get the job he would sack Chief Scout Archie Christie and Rhodes reply – as reported by Christie – was that Christie’s input on the manager would weigh heavily on the process.

At the time Rhodes and Lawn had wanted John Still the then Dagenham and Redbridge manager (who is now manager of Dagenham and Redbridge again) to take the position but were turned towards Parkinson as a better option.

Jackson’s appointment was a Sunday afternoon nonsense where it seemed that the club had decided that as a former player Jackson could skip an interview process for who would replace Peter Taylor and go straight to the manager’s chair,

Jackson had been working in a care home when he got the call to become a football manager once more. In my view he was barely adequate in his performance and the problems of his appointment were those of his departure. No matter how Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp go about recruiting the new manager for Bradford City one doubts it can be worse than that period of the club’s history.

Peter Taylor had been an outstanding appointment to replace Stuart McCall bringing to the table a seniority which McCall lacked and a proven track record of success. Taylor’s time at the club is rightly not fondly remembered but it is his professionalism rather than the lack of material which stopped him from sticking a few boots in on the way out.

The Shane Duff fish story speaks volumes.

Taylor’s appointment is perhaps the model that Rahic and Rupp – and any other chairman looking – would best follow when looking for a new manager. Selecting a candidate who had achieved success is important but much more important are multiple successes across different situations.

This adaptability is probably what attracted Bolton to Parkinson. Parkinson has worked on a budget at City at first, and at Colchester United, and he has shown an ability to take on big occasions at Chelsea, Arsenal et al.

There is an element of confirmation bias in Parkinson’s appointment.

The news that Chief Scout Tim Breacker is leaving with Parkinson comes as music to the ears as the club badly need to readdress that area. Parkinson’s recruitment was becoming an problem at Bradford City. Of the players he was happy with Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and Kyel Reid were all picked up a long time ago and if there was a faultline between Rahic and Parkinson along the idea of recruitment then one would struggle to suggest that the manager should have been allowed to carry on doing things the same way.

Likewise following the defeat to Millwall I expressed a concern that Parkinson had created a kind of Oakland Athletics in League One (The Oakland A’s being the subject of the book Moneyball) which was able win in the grind of week to week football but were found wanting at the sharp end of the season.

That concern was just that – a minor concern, rather than a fully stated question – and of course is denied by memories of Aston Villa away and Stamford Bridge but while the strength of Parkinson was his team’s ability to grind out results and sneak 1-0 wins that was a weakness when overplayed.

One should never be critical the the days of milk and honey ended but Millwall game illustrates this concern. In one of the forty five minute periods – the first – the Londoners dominated City and in the others the Bantams were arguably the better team but did not repair the damage done.

Perhaps more significantly to the concern is that in those three forty-five minute periods that followed Parkinson’s side did not seem as if it could repair the damage of being 3-1 down. Keeping game’s tight and nicking goals works over a longer period, less so in a two legged tie.

But would overplays this at one’s peril. Parkinson was an exceptional Bradford City manager and as Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp look for his replacement they must hope to keep the best of Parkinson.

Parkinson’s teams were seldom out of games. Rarely were the side over a goal down and always did it look capable of getting something out of an encounter. One of the more compelling reasons to follow Parkinson’s City on the road was the fullness of the ninety minutes of football. Never being out of a game was a watchword of the previous manager, and hopefully will be one of the next.

This was in no small part down to the spirit Parkinson’s side had which was second to none seen at Valley Parade. One could write books about how the players aided each other through bad moments that stopped bad games and probably still not understand exactly how that team spirit worked. Suffice to say whatever it is needs to remain, as to Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle the chief proponents of it.

Finally Parkinson’s pragmatism needs to be a factor in the new manager especially when confronted with the stated iconoclasm of Rahic and Rupp who have a clear idea of how they want the Bantams to play (“High pressing, exciting”) but may have to accept as Parkinson had that tactics are created to suit players and situations. Parkinson’s final season at City was defensive by necessity. The new manager, whomsoever he may be, should hope to make sure that he understands this.

Gone / Parkinson

It would seem that Bolton Wanderers will confirm that Phil Parkinson is their new manager tomorrow after Bradford City’s new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp agreed to allow the long serving manager to talk to the Lancashire club.

Parkinson leaves behind him a Bradford City transformed from the struggling League Two team he inherited when they sat in 23rd position. His record of having improved the league standing of the team in each of his five finishes is impressive in itself but coupled with a League Cup final, wins over Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Sunderland and Leeds United make a case that Parkinson is the club’s most successful manager in the club’s history in terms of the resources available to him and what he achieved with them.

Parkinson built teams of iron character with players who redefined, for me, unity on a football field and his legacy will be measured in the high watermark set for players who wear the shirt from now on in terms of the effort put in and the support given to team mates.

Legacy

While it is Parkinson’s abilities to make these teams of his overcome huge obstacles that will have him remembered – giving Chelsea a two goal start is a good example – his real successes are on the nuances of manufacturing a team which rewarded effort in support with effort on the field.

But it would be wrong to say that Parkinson did not have his detractors. There were many who were concerned with his style of play and how it focused on a long delivery into the final third. There were questions about his ability to recruit players to improve the team with the summer of 2015 resulting in a lottery of players none of whom worked out. There were also concerns about his willingness to bring young players into the Bradford City first team set up which contrasted with Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp’s stated aims of developing talent.

Those questions will not need to be answered and Parkinson leaves Valley Parade having created a genuine symbiosis between supporters and team that becomes the next incumbents biggest asset and the now former manager’s lasting legacy.

Parkinson also achieves that rarest of things for a Bradford City manager in that he leaves on something of a high. He has not been sacked (well, only the once, and that was a few years back now), or forced into resignation, or hounded out, or told he would have not had his contract renewed, nor did the club or a majority of supporters want him to leave.

Parkinson was a good thing and – it seems – that good thing has come to an end.

Motivation

As Parkinson leaves suspicion is thrown on Rahic and Rupp as to how they could have avoided the manager’s departure and how determined they would be to have kept him. One could only guess at this but it would seem that Rahic had meetings with Parkinson and one assumes that at those meetings the two explained their approach to each other. Parkinson, one assumes, did not especially like what he heard from Rahic and decided that his career was best served elsewhere.

One can have one’s own thoughts on if Rahic should – when Parkinson told him that he wanted to carry on his career elsewhere – have told Parkinson that all the manager’s plans would trump all the owner’s decisions. While the change of ownership might have given Parkinson the pause to exit it seems unlikely that fundamental disagreements could have emerged in the space of two weeks that precipitated the exit.

Parkinson may explain his motivation but ultimately you, I, and Edin Rahic have to accept that he has made that decision and take it with good grace. That good grace to the likes of Gary Jones and Jon McLaughlin who return to Valley Parade as opposition players, rather than boos and backbiting, is another part of the Parkinson legacy and something best carried on, in my opinion at least.

Incumbent

And with Parkinson exiting thoughts turn to his successor and very quickly to Uwe Rösler who has been linked with the position since the new owners arrived although Rahic was quick to speculate that the link was created in the English press because both parties were German.

Rösler’s track record in management is not especially good enough to promote his name above any other candidates and one hopes his application is considered in that way. Linking Rösler seems to be educated guesswork as does linking Dutchman Huub Stevens.

Steve Parkin and the rest of Parkinson’s management team are expected to follow him to Bolton Wanderers and – experiences with Chris Hutchins colouring judgement – that may be the best for all.

Anatomy / Rumour

Phil Parkinson is not joining Bolton Wanderers as manager and – and I say this as a seasoned watcher of rumours – it seems that he was never joining Bolton Wanderers as manager so why was so much mental energy wasted on thinking that he would?

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes – Mark Twain

On the surface Parkinson – a man born near Bolton but long since used to moving where his career dictates – is a decent fit for the remit of bringing a once Premier League club back to its former glories. Indeed that is the job he is doing now at Bradford City where one could argue he has hit something of a ceiling having had a few years in the same division. The logic is rough but from it one can get two and another two and sum something like five.

As a rumour it does not want for credibility. It seems like something that could happen regardless of if it will happen which is why somebody made it up.

And let us make no mistake, dear reader, rumours are not spontaneous. Someone somewhere makes them up and circulates them. Every manager move, every player suggestion, every report in the local paper, every whisper on a website is made up by somebody to serve some agenda.

Let us deal with the most easy first. Some people make up rumours and put them online for kicks. I’m going to do it now: City are signing Lionel Messi. You do not believe it because it has no credibility. For obvious reasons.

Change Messi to Bastian Schweinsteiger then credibility is still stretched but with the connection that he is German and Bradford City are owned by the German pair of Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp then the credibility grows. Albeit by the most tiny increments.

Change Bastian Schweinsteiger to Nick Proschwitz and without having any reason to do it we have a real enough sounding rumour. If Simon Parker is short of useful work to do (Heaven forbid) then I’m sure he can make 400 words out of “Internet theorists talking crazy talk about these Proschwitz rumour” by the Thursday copy deadline.

Creditability

Outside of mischief making the rumour in football is a useful tool in negotiations and publicity. So useful that it seems that there are swathes of the football media for whom speculation has replaced reporting or investigation as a modus operandi. Repeating rumours has become what the back pages of newspaper are for.

Take, for example, the recent coup d’état at Manchester United where the appointment of Jose Mourinho when it happened was almost ignored whereas the rumours that it would happen – which came minutes after the end of the FA Cup final – were given blanket news coverage.

Those reports were not the same inspired piece of journalistic guesswork. They were rumours seeded by someone (or perhaps someone’s agent) in what seems to be a protracted negotiation around Old Trafford.

Almost all rumours that have any creditability are the same.

Obvious

If you read that Proschwitz is likely to sign for Bradford City then someone is behind the rumour (well, I am behind that one, and you just saw me make it up above) be it Proschwitz and his representatives trying to promote his name and try get him a move to any club, or perhaps trying to get him an improved deal at his current club by making him seem wanted.

Or it is nothing to do with Proschwitz and it is someone at Bradford City (again, it is not) trying to put pressure on Jamie Proctor to sign a new contract on the understanding that if he does not then someone else is waiting in the wings to take his deal.

Or it is Bradford City showing an obvious hand to Proschwitz to say to him that he is wanted, or testing the reaction to his signing, or to indicate to anyone interested that they are in the market for a striker, or to suggest that they are in the market to appease these fans, or it is the club releasing information that has happened in a way that best serves their aims.

A rumour could be any of those things but the one thing you can be certain of is that it will not be the result of investigative journalism uncovering information and sharing it with you.

Proposition

One could trace the rumour linking Phil Parkinson to Bolton Wanderers back to source if one wanted to. My guess would be that it originated from someone near to the appointment process for the next manager at The Trotters who was looking to put pressure on the other people being interviewed but that is only speculation on my part.

It could have easily been a show from Phil Parkinson’s side to underline the support he has amongst fans who expressed horror at the prospect of his moving over the Pennines.

Without knowing who is behind the rumour – which was, let me remind you, a fiction – it is impossible to say what purpose it was created to serve.

There is a story in football about the free transfer bound senior pro listed on the off chance on March deadline day and snapped up for £250,000 “and not a penny more”. The art of negotiation is in making the other party feel that the market more favours your side. The rumour in football is another way of achieving that.

The rumour (if it works) engages the emotion of supporters and so we are being used as a bargaining point in someone else’s negotiation whether it suits our ends or does not. The football media is a willing accomplice in this but let us not kid ourselves that it is not our clicks, eyes, and interest that make that viable. We like to think that enshrined as consumers of the football industry product we are King and Queens, and are always right as is the customer’s mantra.

As football supporters we need to demand that our media (including BfB) deal more in talking about facts (and what results from those facts) and less about fanciful propositions, reacting to what has not happened and repeating what someone else said.

Until we do that we will carry on being pawns.

Wandering / Parkinson

If Phil Parkinson is going to Bolton Wanderers – and at the moment it seems that he is not – then Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp would be confronted by the perennial problems of Bradford City which dominated their predecessors tenure.

How does a football club give the manager total control while retaining institutional knowledge of how to bring success?

If Parkinson and his team were to leave, and it seems that he will not, then what at Bradford City is there to carry on the good work he has done? There is no Director of Football, no powerful Chief Scout, no Youth set-up turning out talent, no facilities that guarantee quality. It seems that the whole of the footballing side of Bradford City is Phil Parkinson.

Which is no bad thing.

Parkinson is the start and end of the football side of Bradford City because – one suspects – he wants it that way. His experience sharing power in a structure at Hull City that worked out very poorly. The club is shaped the way Parkinson wants it and that is probably why Parkinson is not looking to leave Valley Parade any time soon.

The manager as “club builder” is a massively out of fashion thing in football at the moment. Even the word “manager” is often not used to describe the man who picks the team who is often described as a “Head Coach” or “Chief Person Selection Architect” or similar. The structures to support the man who picks the team have long since bled over the lines that a person like Bill Shankly or Sir Alex Ferguson would have considered the remit of the manager.

And this may be no bad thing – too often clubs give a former player with no business, scouting, or planning experience the final say on everything at the club and a remit of a few months to start to show progress. Sharing the responsibility around a football club is a very good idea from the club’s point of view. The manager does not always agree.

Take, for example, the story of Rafa Benitez at Newcastle United. People all over Europe are scratching their heads as to why the Spaniard would go from The Champions League and Real Madrid to Tyneside and the Championship in the space of twelve months. The answer seems to lay in the responsibility Benitez has been promised by Newcastle United. He has been told he will have the final say on everything. That he can have the club builder at a club which (considering Leicester City are reigning champions) has genuine potential in European football.

No club of the size of Newcastle United in the rest of Europe wants a club builder manager. The offer is too tempting to refuse. Benitez could turn it down and find a club who want him to pick the team and sit on a transfer committee – and that might be a club that wins a league – but to control everything is to be the sole author of any success.

One assume that the same offers come into Parkinson – albeit under the radar – and are met with a response that unless control is near total then the City boss will stay where he is. Leicester City’s Claudio Ranieri is praised for how little of the set up he found at Not Filbert Street he changed. Winning the Premier League is massively impressive but it is a shared success.

Any success Parkinson has – and a promotion and a cup final is pretty impressive – he is the sole author of. The difficulties Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes had – and Stefan Rupp and Edin Rahic now face – is how best to support Parkinson’s efforts without bleeding over the lines of his responsibilities.

Neverend / Concerned

Football used to shut down in the summer.

When I was younger there was a period of the year where Bradford City were just not doing business. It was the start of the close season and – like a school at the end of July – the place was more or less empty. The modest club shop that sold rosettes and scarves was locked up, no players came and went, and if one was able to buy season tickets then few did.

To my young perception all football clubs seemed to be the same. In those days before the play-offs when the football season could be reliably predicted to end on a give date holidays were booked and the doors were shut. For at least a few weeks managers, players, chairmen and fans knew that everything frozen in some happy stasis.

It is obvious that that is no longer the case.

The football never really ends now. I’ve been following football for as long as I can remember and I’ve stopped being able to tell when it is season and when it is closed season.

Of course there is the obvious lack of Bradford City games to signify this although the proximity of the play-offs to the start of Euro 2016 and the overlap of pre-season with the end of that tournament means that in effect there will be a solid run of football for some City fans from June 2015 to at least May 2017.

I’m not really concerning myself with the lack of games though. Games have always been the brief moments of terror to punctuate the tedium. I’m talking about the respite from the pressures of active football, of which there seems to be no break.

The football club must be seen to be active in the pursuit of improvement at all times of the year and – perhaps – especially so in May, June and July where the barometer of performance is not able to indicate any upward trajectory. The current Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson answers all criticism with results, but without results the entire club looks static, and weak, until news is generated that tends upwards.

There will come a day when a manager is fired for not having signed anyone in June. It will not be Garry Monk sacked by the strange behaviour of an owner it will be the result of pressure from the group of supporters with an unquenchable need for assurances of improvement.

And so we have the faintly ludicrous spectre of the much respected Phil Parkinson spending the week filling in supporters on the movements of Ben Williams and Jamie Proctor.

Williams and Proctor are going to stag nights and to weddings and so it might take them some time to sign contracts offered but fear not, quenchless reader, for the club are doing everything they can.

Would anyone’s week been any worse had Proctor not been allowed to be chained to a lamp post naked without the entire Bradford City community being informed? Perhaps not. But it pre-emptively answers a question about what the club is doing to get better. Questions that are inevitably asked with unfathomable levels of increasing anger.

Who are these people, what do they want?

Retained / Leave

Steve Davies has been released by Bradford City along with Christopher Routis, Billy Knott, Alan Sheehan, Dylan Mottley-Henry and Sam Wright. Greg Leigh, Nathan Clarke, Ben Williams, Jamie Proctor, Joe Cracknell and James King have been offered contracts.

Davies leaving the club seemed to be inevitable after a season which he failed to secure a place in the starting eleven. The same could be said for Billy Knott who was always individually impressive in games but played a kind of attacking midfield which Phil Parkinson seldom uses. Knott and Davies could both be retooled into the withdrawn striker role which Billy Clarke plays but Parkinson obviously has not seen enough from either in that position. Davies’ legacy is a late goal against Millwall in the league game at Valley Parade and any number of kicks and niggles that earned him the nickname “The wind-up footballer” so easy did it seem to be to get under his skin as seen at Coventry City.

Knott scored against Leeds United, and played against Chelsea, and shall always have a place in my heart and I suspect yours.

That Jamie Proctor has been offered a contract to stay – and the contract offers in situations where the player will be at the end of a deal always tend to be of the take-it-or-leave-it variety – says something about his usefulness in the squad. When Phil Parkinson is asked to choose between Proctor and James Hanson his decision seem to be given the weekly grind of a season – and the injuries that brings – he might as well have both if the money is right. Otherwise Proctor is free to look elsewhere.

One suspects that along with Proctor Nathan Clarke, Greg Leigh, Ben Williams have all been given an understanding of their position in the pecking order. Clarke might have thought he did enough at the end of the season to warrant a chance in the starting eleven but his similarity to, and inferiority to, Rory McArdle has allowed him to leave if the offer he has is not suitable. The younger Greg Leigh is in a similar situation as understudy to James Meredith.

That Parkinson is prepared to let record breaking goalkeeper Ben Williams reject a deal and exit the club says a lot about his position and – one suspects – the hunt being on for a new custodian with often loaned out Manchester United man Sam Johnstone supposedly of interest to City.

All of which leaves City with:

  • Perhaps Ben Williams
  • Perhaps Joe Cracknell
  • Stephen Darby
  • Perhaps Nathan Clarke
  • Rory McArdle
  • James Meredith
  • Perhaps Greg Leigh
  • Reece Webb-Foster
  • Mark Marshall
  • Filipe Morais
  • Tony McMahon
  • Josh Morris
  • Paul Anderson
  • Billy Clarke
  • James Hanson
  • Perhaps Jamie Proctor

Player / Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budgets / Transparency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sixteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seventeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of which illustrates two things.

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

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

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

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

Welcome / Willkommen

As far as first words go Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp had chosen well. They had bought Bradford City – they explained – because of the supporters.

In their opening statement Bradford City’s new chairman Rahic – who will run the club while Rupp funds from Germany – spoke about how “(he and Rupp) have seen the way the club and fans interact and the model of affordable football is very important to us… having witnessed games here at the stadium we know how passionate the fans are.”

Rahic made the right noises and continued “I met with Phil (Parkinson) this morning and we had a very encouraging discussion about the future.”

And with that a good deal of worry over the future of the City manager was assuaged although one would wonder what the new chairman and football’s fifth longest serving manager will have talked about. One assumes that Parkinson, planning for this summer’s recruitment, will have sought to have an assurance that he would not be replaced (By Uwe Rösler or anybody else) understanding the importance that that assurance would have when signing players. Chief Executive as well as chairman one imagines Rahic will involve himself in that recruitment handling contracts as his predecessors used to take turns in doing and will have given Parkinson and indication as to what sort of budget he will have.

It is perhaps this working relationship between Parkinson and Rahic which will define the manager’s future at the club. I have been convinced for sometime that recruitment in football is a full time job – or at least two part time ones – and that it is not something that can be left solely to the manager. I am also convinced that there is nothing as disruptive to a club that a structure that means that the manager ends up with players he does not want.

The Newcastle United experience where Graeme Carr recruits players for one of many managers to use is typical of the system in that it has both failed to bring a successful team and failed to find that many impressive players. Newcastle’s policies though are based on Olympique Lyonnais’s approach which – in the days before Paris SG’s oil wealth – saw them win the league eight times in a row under four different two year managers.

It is a give that a transfer policy that – and pardon the Wired speak – crowd-sources the transfer targets while not forcing those targets on a manager seems an model to pursue. Many opinions on a player have to be better than one man’s thoughts but one man’s thoughts – the manager’s – have to be conclusive. Lyon – it is said – based their model on the relationship between Brian Clough who would yes or no Peter Taylor’s ideas on players to sign, and on how the Anfield boot room of old would decide the merits of a player that Bill Shankly suggested.

Last season eleven new permanent signings were made at Valley Parade and none cemented a place the first team. As Parkinson approaches the busiest time for recruitment Edin Rahic’s first priority must be to ask how he can help the manager with this systemic failure at the club.

Nevertheless so far Rahic and Rupp’s investment in City – be it buying or funding the club – is one of many mysteries which will no doubt become clearer in time. Rupp sold a business for €150m but with the club noting that expectations in the short term should be managed – nearly always synonymous with scaled down – then we wait to see what the next few days, weeks, and months bring.

However a smile, some nice words about the fans and a thumbs up for Phil Parkinson is a good first day.

Buy / Bye

Bradford City have been sold to German company ER Sportsgroup for £6m with current joint-chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes being replaced by Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp.

Rahic and Rupp will arrive on Tuesday and will continue to work with some of the current Bradford City staff but – troublingly – are attached to unsavoury noises about preferring Uwe Rösler to Phil Parkinson as manager.

This choice on manager is an early the acid test of Rahic and Rupp. I have said before that there is nothing about the playing side of Bradford City other than the things Phil Parkinson brings and to remove Parkinson would be to buy the club and throw away one of its defining features. To do that is just not the mark of sensible men.

However on Tuesday when Rahic and Rupp outline their plans for the club – and the newly formed ER Sportsgroup is called “group” indicating that the pair might have bigger plans than owning one League One team – should those plans include any form of youth development then one can see where problems with Parkinson’s methodology would arise.

Rahic and Rupp would do well to focus on improving recruitment at Bradford City in the short and medium term and recognising that Parkinson best serves most medium term aims. The club works better in The Championship and with better recruitment – and one notes Rahic has worked in scouting at Stuttgart – it would get there in short order.

However should the long term vision differ from Parkinson’s then – ultimately – they would replace the manager but in doing so without something very impressive to replace Parkinson with in terms of a structure and a pattern of success they would be damaging what they have bought.

If Rösler is arriving to serve that aim of assisting Parkinson then he is very welcome. There will be more on this, one suspects, in the weeks and months to come.

On Lawn and Rhodes one gets into matters of hagiography. One can read no end of appraisals of how they have saved the club in one way or another and the most nauseating of these are those with claim to speak for all Bradford City fans.

My views differ and if that is something which will hurt your sensibilities then return to the streams of praise and glory elsewhere, otherwise progress duly warned.

While he is a crashingly superb chap Julian Rhodes has proved himself dubiously effective at Bradford City in the tasks that he most often credited with.

Rhodes and Lawn are talked about as, indeed talk about themselves as, custodians and stewards of the club but Rhodes was there when £8.5m was paid out in dividends from the club which would spend a decade or more riddled with debts. Rhodes was there when the club went into administration with huge debts having received some of those dividends.

Rhodes was there when the club’s main assets (Valley Parade) was sold to one of its own board members in a deal which benefits that board member but will financially hamper Rahic and Rupp and has been a millstone for the club ever since. Rhodes was there when the club went into administration again in 2004 and watched as £500,000 from supporters pockets was what kept Bradford City going.

Rhodes was there when the club took a 9% above base rate loan from a new director which – were it not for Parkinson’s team’s historic League Cup final appearance – would still be outstanding and costly now.

I know Rhodes has done good things for the club and I appreciate the efforts he has put in and will be sorry to see him leave for reasons that – when I read the above litany – I cannot fathom. The impression seems to be that Julian Rhodes has always wanted to do well and perhaps, had he not ended up with the characters in the boardroom he did, he would have.

But that is not the case, at least not when one considers the club were in the Premier League and ended up at the foot of League Two via two spells in administration.

Perhaps the most honest history on Rhodes’ time at the club is that he represented rationality amongst irrational men and without him the forces of irrationality that allowed a football club to sell its home, to give its money to its directors, to come so close to non-existence, would have been more damaging that they have been.

As it is history named Rhodes the man who took City to promotion twice, and not the man at the club that went into administration twice, and that is nice for him.

History is set to lavish praise on Mark Lawn too, although one wonders for how long.

Lawn is a strange character to meet. Myself and Jason McKeown (mentioned again, like some forgiven child of mine) had a stand up argument with Mark Lawn where the joint-chairman had a tantrum at us for not having painting him in a better light in an interview that painted him in a good light.

Because the tantrum fell in the middle of an interview we were conducting with someone else it was recorded on Dictaphone and made for a curious listen later. Lawn’s main gripe seemed to be that we had been accurate in our reporting of what he had said and that were we more professional – Jason is, I’m not – then we would have changed what was said to something that was not said, but that he wished he had said, because it would have been better to have said that and not what he did.

I mention this because a lot of what I read about Mark Lawn seems to be from people who have had not had the pleasure of meeting him but judge him and his contribution entirely on the progress of the club.

Lawn gets credit because the last few seasons at Bradford City have been very good to watch and there is a reflection from that. How much impact he had on that, how much he created that, is something that will come out in time no doubt.

Lawn was – before Phil Parkinson’s arrival – the joint-chairman who took it upon himself to organise a training match to give a trial a South African player who – according to a ludicrous scene described in former manager Peter Jackson’s book – was not good enough to be a footballer. Lawn then abandoned the game because the players in the other Bradford City squad would not pass to the inferior newbie. That the City squad were involved in the charade Jackson details goes a long way to describing Valley Parade at the time just before Jackson left to be replaced by Parkinson.

He may also be the joint-chairman who – according to former player Shane Duff – used to insult the players performances as he served them lunch in the (admittedly excellent) 1911 Suite at Valley Parade. Imagine being at your work and hearing something like “here is your fish, and by the way you are garbage at your job”. Imagine being the manager trying to build a successful team in that environment. Imagine believing that doing that was a way to bring success. The mind should boggle.

These are two examples, many more come through grapevine. Many who encountered Lawn had a story of curious behaviour but vested interests and the desire to stay on the right side of the club are powerful motivators. With the need to stay in his good graces no longer important you might start to hear a second side to the story of Mark Lawn’s seven years at Bradford City and his role in the progress under Phil Parkinson.

You can choose to believe – Dear Reader – that Lawn went from failed scout (and, perhaps, demotivational chef) to architect of football success in the space of a few months if you wish but I would suggest that if you do then you convict yourself of naivety.

Your choice.

What should not be accepted though is the suggestion that Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn saved Bradford City.

Lawn’s claim to this has always been a mystery to me. Lawn invested in the club and a good deal of the investment – a loan and some funds – was spent on a promotion campaign with an increased playing budget. There was no promotion but the club did not go out of business as a result.

Had Bradford City not spent that money then the club would have achieved at least the same outcome but – considering later it would get to the League Cup Final with a smaller budget – there was no reason to suggest it would be endangered without it. Just that City wanted to spend more money to get promoted. The only danger of a bust was, not for the first time in City’s history, the result of trying to get a boom.

If Mark Lawn never offered his money to City then City would have just had to make do with (in one season in L2) a £1m smaller wage budget and still not have been League Two’s lowest spenders.

Mark Lawn as the saviour of City is a myth.

Julian Rhodes’ credentials to the honourific are a little better.

Rhodes and his family have invested into the club as well as taking out of it but given an appreciation of the comprehensive view of his time one might be tempted to suggest that Julian Rhodes saved the club from himself, or at least from situations in which he was involved.

It would be wrong to minimise the efforts Rhodes (or Lawn’s for that matter) has put in to Bradford City but equally wrong to overstate them. If he is to be credited as saving the club then he must also be attributed as being there when the club was put in danger.

Which is the crux of the matter.

When Bradford City was put in danger in 2004 following a schism between Julian Rhodes and Gordon Gibb it was not Rhodes who saved the club. It was you.

You and other supporters.

The supporters of Bradford City, and the community of Bradford and football at large, found around £300,000 in the space of a few weeks which was used to fund the club over the summer where football clubs have no income.

This ensured that when Rhodes wanted to return, and for that matter later when Lawn wanted to invest, there was a Bradford City at all.

Without that £300,000 – £300,000 raised by you and people like you and added to by Rhodes (see below) – Bradford City would have not been saved. Neither joint-chairmen at the time (Gibb and Rhodes) would fund a summer without income. When August and paying customers came round again Julian Rhodes was able to launch a CVA that gave him ownership and control of the club without Gibb and – according to the Kroll administrators at the time – with no debt.

That there was a Bradford City to sell for £6m in 2016 is because of the money you gave in 2004. Money you did not give as a loan at nine per cent, or in exchange for shares, or with any expectation of being paid back.

Julian Rhodes as the saviour of City is a myth.

It was not Julian Rhodes who saved Bradford City, nor was it Mark Lawn.

It was you.

If you want to give that credit away then again, your choice, but be very wary of anyone who wants to give it away for you or to take it from you.

As the club changes hands to new owners then it is worth remembering that the reason there is a Bradford City is not because of Rhodes and Lawn, or Richmond, or Gibb, or Rahic and Rupp.

It is because over the years supporters decided it would not let the club die despite the decisions in the boardroom by people who come and go.

Lawn and Rhodes are not the custodians of the club, nor are they saviours of the club. You are.

We are.

People can name stands after Rhodes if they like or build statues of Lawn if they have that much metal but never let anyone say that those people saved the club.

You did that.

Not the boardroom, the fans.

They messed up, you fixed it. You always do. You have the power, not them. Owners, directors, chairmen and all will come and go at Bradford City but you will remain.

You saved the bloody club. You are the bloody club.

Mr Rupp and Mr Rahic need to know that as they arrive at Valley Parade tomorrow.

End / End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change

Next season everything about Bradford City changes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Parkinson and the team of tautology

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

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

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

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

But that was then, and this is now.

Transition

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

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

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

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

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

Shut up Wesley!

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

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

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

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

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

The fault is not with the stars

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

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

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

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

What do you learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you remember the last time?

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

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

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

The character of Bradford City’s goalscoring problems

To understand the problems Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are having scoring goals at the end of the League One season – a season which has gone far better than one would have thought for much of it – one has to go back to the problems that marked the start of the season.

By August 2015 Parkinson had put the final nail into the coffin of his 4312 playmaker formation by signing Paul Anderson to add to other recruit Mark Marshall to give his team two out and out wingers.

Marshall and Anderson would be Jamie Lawrence and Peter Beagrie for the 2015 generation and City would rampage through the division with an attractiveness which joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes have asked for previously.

However in the opening week trips to Swindon Town and York City, and the game at home to Gillingham, Parkinson’s plans faltered and they faltered because his team were vulnerable to counter-attacks and crosses and these vulnerabilities were caused by a hole in City’s defence.

Joke Hole

That hole was an key. The hole was a gap between goalkeeper Ben Williams and the centre of the defensive line. Whenever a ball would come into the City box Williams and the defenders would struggle with one being too far from the other and as a result opposition strikers being given the freedom of the penalty spot to exploit City again and again.

This coupled with the counter-attacking problem in that Swindon Town exploited ruthlessly. When a City attack broke down the opposition recycled the ball past the wingers and brought the ball into dangerous wide positions challenged by only the City full back, or took it past the central midfielders.

Parkinson’s first solution to this problem did not work.

Brad Jones came and left very quickly and is widely considered to have been a failure at the club. After Jones’ exit a kind of media spin was given to the remaining keeper Ben Williams – that he had “seen off” the more experienced Jones – and so could be considered solid number one material. Williams bought into that and his grown since.

Williams’ record breaking run of clean sheets has written him a paragraph in the history of Bradford City and he deserves credit for it. But how those clean sheets came about is the root of the current goalscoring problem.

Because as Jones left and Williams stayed Parkinson changed City’s approach to games, or their tactics if you will.

Mints

(Brian Clough used to say there is a lot of nonsense talked about tactics by people who could not win a game of dominoes and I’m very aware that I may add to that but I’m not a believer in the reductionist view of tactics which had taken hold at all clubs in modern football where tactics can be boiled down to how the ball is delivered to the final third of the field: long pass or series of short passes; and I’m not a fan of making the word synonymous with the word formation which is also too inexact for our uses. For the word tactics to be of use it has to be nuanced, else it is a nuisance.)

Staying with his philosophies on the game Parkinson changed how City played to stop them conceding goals. His five years at the club have shown us that Parkinson works from a solid defence forward. To this effect the midfielders would take a step back in the course of play and not commit to attacking in forward positions when City had the ball.

Flash your mind back to 1999 and Jamie Lawrence crossing from the right. In the box Lee Mills would be in the six yard box, Robbie Blake would dally at the penalty spot and Peter Beagrie would be just past the far post, just out from the touchline. That season Mills, Blake and Beagrie scored 75% of City’s goals. In addition Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley – one forward one back – would offer short options and there would be a full back in attendance.

attacking-1999

Consider last night at Coventry City when Kyel Reid had the ball and in the box was Jamie Proctor, and that was it.

Billy Clarke offered a short option but staying outside the box and both Josh Cullen and Lee Evans were back down field. The support from the full back was there but on the opposite side of the field Tony McMahon was not in the box looking to add to the forwards, or forward if one were more honest. Instead McMahon is stepped back making sure that if the keeper catches and throws the ball out City are not exposed.

attacking-2015

Reverse the wings and the story is the same. This is not an issue with personnel it is a part of the way that City are playing. Everyone is a step further back than they could be, and the are further back because when they stepped forward at the start of the season they left holes which were exploited and results were terrible.

That Williams and the back four can claim a record number of clean sheets is a function of the fact that they are not fielding as many crosses, or taking on as many shots, because the midfield is balanced towards making sure that defensive holes are plugged.

Being Reice Charles-Cook

zones-on-a-field

When Reice Charles-Cook – the Coventry City goalkeeper – caught the ball on Tuesday night he looked to get play started quickly for the Sky Blue team that make a fetish of possession but the quick throw to a midfielder on the wing or a player in central position in zones 4-6 are not possible because Reid, McMahon and Clarke are already in zones 4-6 getting back to zones 7-9 while – by contrast – Blake, Lawrence and Beagrie would be in zones 1-3.

Likewise when City attack Cullen and Evans do not need to venture to zone 14 – Billy Clarke lives there – so they stay in zones 8 and 11 making sure that any breakdown of play does not leave the defence exposed. No counter attacks through zone 8/11, no wide attacks leading to crosses through 4/7 and 6/9.

This approach has done wonderful things for City in the last few months – the move from struggling in lower mid-table to third in League One is a result of this approach – but were Parkinson to alter it now for more of an attacking focus then the defensive issues that mandated the approach would no doubt reappear, or at least Parkinson might worry they would.

The defence – and specifically the control gap between Williams and the defensive line – has not been solved just been filled up with players sitting back. It is control through numbers. Shrewsbury Town’s equaliser will remind you that that issue between Williams and his defensive line has not gone away.

And Parkinson knows this.

Character and confidence

He knows that if he were to add – for example – Filipe Morais to the right flank over McMahon with instructions to get into zone 17-18 then the team would return to the same concession problem it had at the start of the season. He knows that if he had Billy Clarke (or someone else) press alongside Proctor in zone 17 rather than staying in zone 14 then the result without be that Cullen and Evans came forward, making the entire defensive unit harder to control, and the concession problem would emerge again.

Parkinson might try beat opposition sides in a scoring contest a la Kevin Keegan trying to win games 4-3 but considering the statistic talked about about City’s forwards scoring one goal in thirty shots over the last two games – which I would argue were low quality shots, because of the options in the zone 17 mentioned above – one doubts that the manager will change his approach so drastically.

And why should he? That approach has taken a team which struggled badly at the start of the season into genuine contenders for the play-offs. That prospect did not look likely at Gillingham when the third goal without reply went in back on the 2nd of January. Parkinson has shown that he can build confidence from teams that do not concede, and that is what he has done this time.

The arguments over Billy Clarke’s missed goal at Coventry – it never looks any better – or his goal should have stood goal at Shrewsbury – it never looks offside – can continue but on a longer timeline City’s goalscoring is not about players missing the target but rather about decisions made to patch defensive weaknesses and to give the team the chance to build confidence by not being beaten.

Like it or not that is the character of Bradford City 2015/2016.

When to start pressing your palms together as Bradford City beat Oldham Athletic 1-0 at Valley Parade

Bradford City ground out a win against an Oldham Athletic team who played most of the match with ten men after Connor Brown was sent off for a late and long lunge at Kyel Reid and were defeated when James Meredith’s deep cross was lob headed in by Tony McMahon.

City had chances to add to the lead which were squandered – strikers James Hanson and Billy Clarke both were guilty of missing the target in the final third – but it seemed that there was little commitment from City boss Phil Parkinson that his team would add a second, or third, goal against a team in the bottom four and playing with one fewer men.

Parkinson was happy with a one goal win. Parkinson is always happy with a one goal win. Parkinson has been Bradford City boss for around 250 games and we know that he approaches football like this. He likes clean sheets and takes a geological (“Geology is the study of pressure and time“) approach to winning matches.

This approach was in evidence at Parkinson’s finest hour and in many other fine hours before and since.

The game this time last year against Millwall which saw the visitors fold after an early sending off was the game that everyone wanted once Brown was sent off but it did not happen. Oldham under new manager John Sheridan were more robust than that Millwall team and approached the game trying to not be beaten rather knowing they needed to trying to win.

Wedded to that was City’s struggle to make play. James Meredith had one of his better games but most of the other players have had more fruitful afternoons. None of the players have got more points on an afternoon – there is no four points for an entertaining win – and so City continue to occupy a place in League One where with games in hand and a good wind the Bantams would trouble the play-offs.

Pressing palms

After around eighty minutes of the win over Oldham Athletic a cross from Mark Marshall was headed wide by James Hanson. It was a bad miss and received only a smattering of applause from the Valley Parade crowd of 18,522. I did, and was (in a roundabout way) ticked off for a friend who sits nearby at VP.

“I’m not clapping that” he remarked with what could be described as a cheery grump, before asking me why I was. The exchange was good natured with fifteen minutes of him turning to ask if it was acceptable to clap now and me telling him that he could not.

This exchange culminated with (and I shall let you, dear reader, judge if this is a high bar to clear) my point which encapsulates the argument crisply.

“You can clap when the fourth goal goes in against Chelsea, or you can start before then, its up to you.”

It all comes back to Chelsea in the end.

Gnomic

What is supporting a football team? A disinterested friend of mine calls it “cheering laundry” while a friend of his defines his life by the fact that he has a season ticket at Old Trafford. One suspects that there is a type of support for every supporter.

But there does seem to be an Isthmus of Suez between those who believe that supporting is an active participation in creating a better football team and those who believe it is appreciating the endeavours of that team. The former see supporting as an active process of involvement in a community while the latter look at it as a reactive experience in which their involvement is largely immaterial.

To start to characterise the two groups the latter group Hanson’s miss has nothing to applaud. It is a failed attempt to produce an aim. To the former group Hanson’s miss is a subject to improvement and that that improvement is made through hard work by the players and that hard work comes as the result of encouragement. It is not hard to imagine what the latter group would think about that.

The latter group look on a miss like Hanson’s as being similar to a duff album track, or Star Wars Episode One, as something that could be done better but was not. Why get excited about something like that? Why clap Jar Jar Binks as a good attempt that went wrong?

The former would reply that the heights of achievement are only possible because of the support at the bottom and that when teams are playing poorly, or when players miss headers, it is the role of supporters to rehabilitate and return to the heights.

When to start and when to finish

The classic Chicken or Egg situation exists here. Are Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United et al popular because they are successful or successful because they are – or were – popular? Is there a symbiosis of the two?

The Chelsea game gives a case in point. The cheer for the fourth goal – the footballing cherry on the top – was so much full-voiced than that for the first which seemed a consolation at the time, or the second which equalised. Instinctively I know why this is but it would be better to have cause and effect explicit.

I clapped Mark Marshall’s cross, and James Hanson’s effort to get to the ball, and Jon Stead’s 1-2 goal and the effort which created the single chance City mustered at Accrington in a Peter Jackson inspired 1-0 defeat which represents the lowest ebb of City’s play I’ve seen.

Hanson’s header went a long way wide but his header against Aston Villa put the club into a Cup Final. The approach, losing a man, getting in front of a defender, the effort required, everything to the finish was the same. Is only one admirable?

Perhaps I should have saved my applause for the moment Yeates had put the ball past Cech or some other rung on a ladder between there and here and somewhere lower. I did not and I cannot help but wonder what football would be like if people did that.

The Neville Southall problem returns to Bury as City draw a blank in the FA Cup third round

Bradford City fans saw the end of Neville Southall’s career, Bury fans saw the start. Southall – who many regard the best goalkeeper of his era – played 39 games at Gigg Lane and presented manager Jim Iley with a problem.

Southall’s predecessor John Forrest had kept goal for the Shakers for twenty four years but such was the new goalkeepers nascent ability was such that that Iley’s strikers – who included future PFA chairman Gordon Taylor – were struggling to beat the him in training.

So much so that Taylor and his team mates got used to spending training sessions putting their best efforts at Southall and seeing them saved.

They got used to not scoring. And they lost confidence.

The Phil Parkinson era

Southall had been gone seven years, Iley four, when Phil Parkinson made his debut for Bury. City manager Parkinson played 145 games at Gigg Lane most of them as the position of midfield spoiler that he would make his hallmark at Reading.

There is an adage that one can trust a manager to know his own position. The suspension of Nathan Clarke following a sending off at Gillingham that also saw Reece Burke injured and then returned to West Ham United had given Parkinson a problem in the middle of his back four. Rory McArdle needed a partner and while Christopher Routis had returned to fitness Parkinson had previously dropped Gary Liddle back from the holding midfield berth to he him in the role.

And that approach had failed. It had failed at the end of last season and failed at the start of this and – to my estimation – it had failed not because Liddle can not play the position (he spent a season in central defence at Notts County before arriving at Valley Parade) but rather because he was missing from the middle of midfield.

Phil Parkinson decided he would not be without his Phil Parkinson.

The best from the worst

Liddle in central midfield presented the problem of using Christopher Routis in the heart of the defence – a role he has not played since Joe Garner spent fourteen minutes ripping him apart before he was sent off – in front of a keeper in Ben Williams with whom there is a direct correlation between McArdle and Burke being in front of him and him keeping a clean sheet.

One recalls with horror Williams struggling to set the defensive line at the start of the season and the number and type of goals conceded as a result.

Looking over the field and almost half the City players: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Kyel Ried, James Hanson and James Meredith; had joined the club as it struggled in the bottom half of League Two. Bury are a peer at of City in the top half of League One and all those five players are worth their places a league and a half above where they were when they first got on a training pitch with Parkinson.

Which is something to describe in assessing the skills of Phil Parkinson. He picked up the players signed when CIty were (arguably) at their worst and got the best out of them.

And so it proved with Routis, and so it proved with Williams, who both performed superbly. I would have written off Williams as not worth the work to improve but when Andrew Tutte got behind McArdle in the first half and was in a one on one situation with the City keeper my heart was not in my mouth as Williams narrowed angles, made himself large, and ended up pushing the ball away.

Likewise Routis kept le coeur from la bouche most of the afternoon matching McArdle for vigour and showing the physical strength that was missing from his game previously. He went too far and one two footed tackle in the second half should have seen him sent off.

Parkinson had decided that the way to battle Bury was to battle Bury and City were physically robust bullying the Shakers into the playing the game as the away team in the own stadium a fact made easier by the decision to put Bantams fans behind both goals. They do not like it when you suggest away fans outnumbered the home around these parts but that seemed to be the case from my corner of Gigg Lane.

What did John Iley do about that problem?

Having been bullied onto the back foot by a City team pressing high Bury struggled to create a tempo to their play and while they had two chance to snatch a lead it would have been snatched. The Shakers best moment ended with Darby and McArdle taking control of the ball between them in a six yard box scrum and wandering away with it as if it were a training game.

But at the other end of the field the Bantams struggled to convert chances. Tony McMahon hit the post with a free kick, Liddle headed wide when everyone expected him to score, and Hanson scooped over from inside the six yard box in the last minutes of stoppage time. Confidence is obviously low and shows with all City’s players.

Difficult to score against but labouring at the other end with strikers. What did John Iley do about that problem?

The Iley way

Iley effectively banned Southall from training – albeit with a smile – and in doing so allowed the 1981 vintage Bury strikers to get used to scoring in practice again. Southall’s rise was inexorably unaffected.

The Shakers ended the season blasting in fours and sixes, clearly with confidence recovered, and finished above City in the 1981 Division Four table. Southall left for Everton and glory at the end of the 1981 season and so the problem solved itself the next season having been fixed on the training pitch before.

And one suspect that it is on the training pitch that Parkinson will solve his team’s goalscoring problems. The team are defending well, are creating chances, are controlling games. The ball will not go in and confidence has suffered as a result but Parkinson (and I) believe that it is easier to add goals to a team that defends well that stop a free scoring team conceding.

This is Parkinson’s way. He builds teams that are hard to beat and capitalises on what can build the confidence. Sixth choice striker off the bench against Rochdale blasts it in and he becomes Nahki Wells. Middling League Two team beats Arsenal and Parkinson galvanises the club around it. City bob along in League One, beat Chelsea, and end up a a place outside the play-offs.

Parkinson takes a clink of the light of confidence and bathes the players in it. How that is done will probably not become a part of football folklore like Iley and Southall have but everything we have seen from Parkinson in the last five years suggests it will.

How Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds

An away trip through South Yorkshire

Chesterfield away is a classic of the genre. A one goal victory that came when Bradford City ground the ambition out of the home side leaving only struggle.

Every pass forward was marshalled and pushed away by an imperious defensive line. Every easy clearance was made hard by strikers and midfielders who chased down what would have been the routine were it not for the attitude that manager Phil Parkinson has drummed into his team.

The goal came when Tony McMahon finished off a mazy run and low cross by Billy Clarke. Clarke enjoyed his best game in claret and amber and tormented the Chesterfield backline dropping into the hole between James Hanson and the midfield and exploiting it.

Chesterfield’s response – to bring on the aging Richie Humphrey – showed a team stepping back on their home turf. McMahon’s goal finished off the home team.

Parkinson would say after the game that City could have had four – indeed the post was pinged a number of times – but really the City manager oversells his policies. A one goal away win excites Parkinson – and excites me – because of the grind that has seen wins come Scunthorpe United, Rochdale, Doncaster Rovers, Oldham Athletic.

Those days are Parkinson at his best.

Playing away to teams that want to win mirrors the visits of Sunderland, or Arsenal, or Aston Villa, or the trip to Chelsea. When the opposition commits to victory Parkinson uses Hanson the battering ram occupying multiple defenders, and soaks up pressure with a mean back four.

The City manager’s problems come at home when teams sit back and defend the Bantams attack which is sporadic as shown by the third fewest goals scored total in League One. When City are forced to make the play in a game then games slip away from Parkinson.

Or sometimes things do not work.

An away trip to South Yorkshire

Text message before the game with Sheffield United: “Upper or lower?”

Reply: “Neither.”

Going to a football match should not cost more than going to the cinema. I’ve said this in the past and I believe it.

I think that Bradford City’s home pricing is a rare oasis of sense in a madness of a game in which this generation sells the game from the next and does so with a great deal of support from those getting fleeced.

Bradford City’s away pricing – and walk up pricing – is equally toxic to the game as a whole. Last time I checked it cost £25 to go to Valley Parade as an away fan. It cost £22 at Chesterfield, it cost similar at Walsall, it cost similar at Doncaster, or at Scunthorpe and so on.

The impact of this aggressive pricing that makes following football a thing that only some can afford is obvious to anyone who sees the aging supporter group and the gentrification which seems to come with it.

£27 to get into Sheffield United is certainly something I can afford but it is not something I will pay. It is a few pounds more than other games and those few pounds are hardly significant to me but I will not pay it.

And I do not know when the hand becomes the wrist nor do I feel like I’ve created a hard and fast rule never to be broken but I would not support this part of football’s attempts to gouge out of my pocket because they assume that because I can pay it they should sell to me, aged 42, for a price that me, aged 21, would never have been able to pay.

The combination of the two

If you enjoy a team that puts in a performance that is part frustration, part opportunism then you would have enjoyed the Chesterfield game.

I would argue that Chesterfield, or Scunthorpe, or Doncaster, or Oldham were little different to the game with Chelsea that defines 2015 for Bradford City: Minimise chances coming at your goal and maximise what one has at the other end.

But I cannot say with all honesty that all people would enjoy all or any of those games. I am cut from a cloth were I am more impressed with hard work and honesty on a field than I am by rabona kicks and 45 man massing moves.

I enjoy seeing a team with limitations which overcome those limitations, some of the time, and the processional football of the Champions League leaves me cold. I’ve no interest in football where the players who walk onto the field against Barcelona believe they are beaten before kick off.

Winning away at Chesterfield from few chances but battling to make sure that the team does not concede a chance let alone a goal is a good Saturday afternoon for me but probably only because of the narrative it creates.

It is enjoyable to watch my team Bradford City attempting to overcome limitations because I know those limitations. There is an overarching story of the emergence of Rory McArdle from understudy to as rock of defence, or about Tony McMahon finding a role having floated anchorless at the start of the season.

(There is also a story about James Hanson being not good enough for a transfer to a professional club, not good enough for the bottom of League Two, not good for the middle of League Two, not good enough for a League Cup semi-final, not good enough for a play-off second leg, not good enough for League One, not good enough for a team chasing the League One play-offs. One day he will not be good enough and I’m sure the phrase “we told you so” will be used regardless of all the times naysayers were proven wrong. Watching Hanson over the last few years is a lesson in the narrative of football.)

These things are seen over the course of months, and years, and not in isolation. Football, for me, is never viewed in isolation. I find the idea of turning on Sky Sports to watch any old game as mystifying as opening a book at a random page, reading twenty pages, and then putting it back on the shelf.

To watch the unfolding narrative of a team one needs to be able to watch often and prices over £20 are no aid to that for me but would have been a substantial problem to me twenty years ago. Is Sheffield United vs Bradford City £27 worth of entertainment when – if one considers it – one could take a friend to watch The Force Awakens in IMAX and still have change for popcorn?

I can’t remember a worst time

Sheffield United away is not Chesterfield. Without a game owing to waterlogging and without the regular training pitches owing to flooding reports return that City lack sharpness and are easily beaten. Football is a multi-polar world and games are hard enough when preparations are ideal.

The supporters – both Bradford City and Sheffield United – are subject to some racist chanting from Sheffield United fans and some chanting that is unpleasant. This will be passed onto The FA – who are perhaps the least able and qualified body in the Universe on this subject – but probably not to the Police.

The FA never seem to tire of their role as prosecutors of – some might say persecutors of – those whom the Law of the Land can find no case against claiming their lower standard of evidence as somehow better than the one that is required by any court which could not be prefixed with the term Kangaroo.

I would not want to have The Racists of Sheffield who were at Bramall Lane to be convicted for what they said or what they think. I’m happy to just consider them to be a collective of idiots and be done with it.

But I did not pay £27 so what can I say?

The focus

To suggest that football needs to understand better its audience is to allow the game – the collective of clubs and organisers – leniency on the charge that they understand full well that they increasingly greying men who populate matches are the ones who will dig deepest for tickets and that they exploit that.

The people who run football always need more money and they know that people aged 35+ in good jobs with good incomes will fund their extravagant demands for more wages paid, more promotions pushes, more mistakes and managerial pay-offs.

These people are the focus of football’s attention. In twenty/thirty years time when those people have retired to Saturday afternoons in more comfortable surroundings there will be no generation to replace them because that attention is so narrowly focused.

Oddly enough because of the odd combination of Wembley twice and season ticket pricing Bradford City are one of the clubs who have some protection against this – there is a healthy group of younger City fans who have been allowed a stake in the support – but mingle with the home fans at an away game and appreciate the difference.

Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds.

The longview

Sheffield United away is I am told a bad performance in isolation but not out of keeping with how Bradford City perform. When taken over a longer period City are averaging a point and a half a game away from home, as well as the odd Chelsea if you will.

Often the game plan of Chesterfield works but when it does not the result is as it was in South Yorkshire. Since Phil Parkinson arrived his plans have had a shifting impact on the mentality of the club.

When he arrived the club was congratulating itself for avoiding relegation out of the Football League under the hapless Peter Jackson. Now there is a consideration that the club is not ideally placed to reach the second tier of English football.

But I – and perhaps you – only know this having been fortunate enough to be able to afford to follow the club from that period to this.

I do not see how that will be possible for the coming generations of football.

Getting back to a better bad as City lose 2-1 to Walsall

Football, in the end, is a zero sum game. If a game if going to have a winner then – in a very real sense – it has to have a loser.

Between that starkness lays an admission that performance in football match can be anything other than zero sum. It is possible, and not uncommon, for both sides to have played well in a game one lost. Players can put in good performances against other players who put in good performances.

And so when Bradford City surrendered the seemingly endless clean sheet that had meant not conceding a goal in the previous two months it seemed hard to accept that the Bantams might have – in a first half which many grumbled through – that City had played well.

Played well but not as well as the host Walsall.

Walsall are an interesting team managed by the very impressive Dean Smith. Half beautifier/half pragmatist Smith sends a team which likes to pass the ball but does not marry themselves to passing football. That plays an open game but closes matches off with (frankly shocking) time wasting. That has room for flair players but takes care to take care of the oppositions.

So it was that when Rory McArdle would get the ball he would have the nuisance Tom Bradshaw closing him down in a way that central defenders seldom get closed down. That the midfield allowed Billy Clarke to drop back as far as he wanted and effectively ensnared the striker into the middle and pushed the Bantams pair of Lee Evans and Billy Knott deep. That the home side played the ball across the back to pull City one way when attacking having compressed them when defending.

Bradshaw took the first goal well after a long range shot got caught in McArdle’s feet and the striker enjoyed the spoils. A good finish but without the type of long range effort that Ben Williams has been gathering with ease for the last half a dozen games taking a ricochet it was hard to see how Walsall were going to score.

Which perhaps speaks to the general improvement that has been seen in City since the last defeat. After the loss at Colchester the idea of the first half at Walsall representing a low tide mark of form would have been considered surprising.

A bad half at Swindon saw City ship four goals and a summer of confidence. If the first forty five minutes against Walsall represent bad then one can reflect that it was only 1-0, and that Walsall had not dominated possession, nor squandered chances, nor had City not been in the game.

City cold have scored through a James Hanson lunging header, and lived with the home side who were fourth at kick off to such an extent that for Phil Parkinson’s side to come back into the game after half time there was little in the way of wholesale changes needed.

Evans and Knott pushed forward pushing Clarke forward and it was the Irish striker who headed on for Evans to hit a well placed drive across the Walsall keeper Neil Etheridge which nestled delicately into the low corner.

Tony McMahon – ineffective for a large part today – lashed a chance over. James Hanson had a mobile and burly game and saw one header pushed away by Etheridge. City looked secure in at least a draw but a poor exchange between Evans and Kyel Reid saw Romaine Sawyers quickly pass to Milan Lalkovic who beat Williams with a low, hard drive past him.

The speed from the ball being given away to it nestling in the goal was reminiscent of the early season woes but the character of the game – and of the players – could hardly be more different.

A bad – if you want to call it that – first half recovered from and in the end Parkinson’s side would have been left believing they could have had more even if they did not. Contrast that to the aforementioned season opener at Swindon when a good first half was so quickly undone and players so quickly surrendered.

If this is the new bad, it is better than before.

But football performance, to the wider world, is that zero sum game and the display gets little credit. Had Referee Mark Brown – who gave a handball decision against Bradshaw for jumping at Williams and having a flailing arm redirect the ball, and one against Hanson when the striker missed with a leap and saw his trailing arm carry the ball – decided that Devante Cole’s injury time effort that was blocked with two raised hands was of the same nature as those offences then we may well have been looking at today as a hard battled for draw.

As it is it is a hard battled for defeat. Which is zero. In the zero sum game.

Smiling a little bit as Bradford City draw 0-0 with Coventry City

If football is about making people go home happier Bradford City’s scoreless draw with Coventry City at a cold Valley Parade was probably the net best result for all concerned.

For the visitors Coventry City they exit the stadium still top of League One and reflecting on the adage that any point away from home in league football is a good result.

The Sky Blues players left having worked hard and both given out and taken a few lumps as Referee Nigel Miller allowed both teams to be as physical as they wanted to be. Billy Knott and Gael Bigirimana battled hard, Lee Evans and one time City target Romain Vincelot battled hard. It was a hard battle.

Coventry City manager Tony Mowbury will be happy enough that his team stuck to a plan to try stretch out Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City by playing the ball across the backline to draw City players forward and break the team’s shape. Parkinson will be pleased that his players did not break their shape, and looked solid all evening.

Parkinson should be especially pleased with the emergence of Rory McArdle from able deputy to defensive leader. It was obvious that McArdle would have to make this step up in the absence of Andrew Davies and worrying that it seemed that he would not be able to but – mouth on and arms pointing – McArdle had taken responsibility for the positioning of the defensive unit which has not conceded a goal in the last six games.

Which is not to underplay the role other players have in that – this is the evening where everybody emerged a little bit happier – but McArdle has answered the biggest test of his career to date in moving from a good lieutenant to a leader and against striker Adam Armstrong who had twelve goals this season his unit did not even blink.

Which is not to say that there were not chances. Coventry hit a post while Reice Charles-Cook made a superb save from a Tony McMahon low shot. But at the final whistle Coventry City were top, Bradford City had entered sixth position and the play off berths, and neither team had lost in the league in November or October.

So everybody goes home a little bit happier, or should at least, knowing that more definitive games are to come.

The superb and stupendous success of Scunthorpe United

There were probably more Bradford City fans in the stadium applauding off their side than there were supporters of Scunthorpe United following City’s 2-0 victory.

The Bantams had scored a goal in each half with Kyel Reid being fouled after his own shot was saved to allow Tony McMahon to score his second penalty of the week. Greg Leigh scored his second mesmerising run and finish from left back of the week too. Which was good, if you like that sort of thing.

City drafted in Jordan Bowery on loan from Rotherham United to cover Steve Davies in covering James Hanson in the forward line. This caused some upset with some supporters aghast that the Billy Clarke/Deavnte Cole partnership would not be given a chance, others that Bowry’s training would be to have Rory McArdle kick the ball at him very hard, and others that Luke James would be furious. The irony of Parkinson being called out for overlooking long term loan players in favour of short term loan players is not to be lost.

But so it was that Bowery – a willing runner who ran up with cramp towards the end of the game – played target man and Billy Clarke fell deep from the forward line to bolster a midfield which was already bolstered by favouring the more defensively minded Gary Liddle over in form Billy Knott.

City dug in and delivered the ball quickly to the final third. It was the first Wintery day of the season and – at times – one half expected to hear the old stand-by that the ball would come down with snow on it.

Oh to be a Scunthorpe United supporter

By contrasts Scunthorpe United are a joy to watch. Set up with a 433 with one fulcrum midfielder they deployed the insanely talented ballplayer Gary McSheffrey on the left side of a three up front and he drifted between the lines perfectly.

The Iron midfield moved and played short balls well – or tried to – and the forward play of Darius Henderson was all about him dropping deep and trying to turn balls on the floor into him, into passes to supporting players. Henderson ended up isolated and isolated because after a team the belief seemed to seep out of Scunthorpe.

Promiscuous manager Mark Robins has created a Scunthorpe United team who try to – underline on the words try to – play football “the right way” and while the two best chances that the home side created came from raked balls forward on the whole Robins deserves whatever credit swirls around for playing passing football to focus on him.

Yet nobody stayed to applaud his team off.

What you say you want

What Scunthorpe United do is what you (and it should be obvious who the “you” referred to is) say you want. You say you want to see Bradford City play passing football. You say you want City to stop playing long balls to a target man and play through the midfield. You draw little pictures of formations with Devante Cole on one side of attack and no Tony McMahon.

This is what you say you want. Players with deft touches trying to create the perfect chance. The passing game. If you are brave enough to match the courage of your conviction and utter the phrase “I’d rather see City lose than play like this.”

This is what you say you want.

And I wonder if you would stay behind and applaud off a team that lost 2-0 and lost heart when the deft touch was bitten down and the team fell short in effort as well as quality despite the desire to do the right thing.

The evidence of the home supporters suggests that the superb and stupendous success of Scunthorpe United is not all it is cracked up to be.

And perhaps you should stop saying it is.

And onwards

There was a sense of hopelessness in the air when Phil Parkinson brought back Kyel Reid and put McMahon on the right at Rochdale but City have not lost a league game since.

McMahon talks about a team meeting that turned the season around and brought the squad together. That togetherness is – to me – what is worth watching in football. Seeing players enjoying working hard for each other, and enjoying the rewards.

It is what elevates the game from twenty two grown men running around a bit of grass taking everything too seriously.

Stern tests await. Coventry City are top of the League One table and arrived at Valley Parade on Tuesday night. They used to have McSheffrey and now have Joe Cole in his position.

One can not imagine that if reading that all the Bradford City players would smile and note that McSheffrey’s position is somewhere deep in Stephen Darby’s pocket.

Parkinson’s best ever Bantams keep their eyes on a further prize beating Aldershot 2-0 in the FA Cup First Round

Phil Parkinson ventured the opinion that the current Bradford City team who progressed to the Second Round of the FA Cup with a 2-0 victory over Aldershot Town was the best the manager has assembled in his time at Valley Parade.

Indeed many of the statistics which jump out from the game support Parkinson’s supposition. Ben Williams connected a fifth clean-sheet in a row on a night where he was never seriously tested and Rory McArdle looked comfortable alongside Nathan Clarke at the heart of the defence in a way that one could only have dreamed of after the opening day defeat to Swindon Town.

Indeed Billy Knott who was a passenger on the road to nowhere at at The County Ground on the first day has taken massive strides to where he should be as the type of take responsibility midfielder which is needed in League One promotion teams. It was Knott who flighted a fine long pass wide to Greg Leigh who burst into the box and deftly finished to end the game and three quarters deadlock between these two sides.

The quality of Leigh’s goal was something to observe but while Parkinson talks in glowing terms about his team that idea – of quality – is not often heard connected to the Bantams. It is interesting that while supporters may talk about City as necessarily hard working at best the manager is prepared to be proud and state that this win – a 2-0 over Aldershot – was the result of the best team he has put together.

Move back some five years or so and Peter Taylor’s Bradford City were beating Aldershot – then a league side – by a similar score and not pleasing chairman Mark Lawn. Lawn had recalled how Taylor’s side were less entertaining in only dispatching The Shots by this score rather than the more entertaining 5-0 that Stuart McCall’s side beat them. Indeed the City co-chairman said tellingly about the McCall side that “it was a different type of football but I believed it was a type of football which would get us out of this league.”

Now it would seem that the manager is confident enough in his positions – and why should he not be – that he is able to declare that it is this team, and this style, that will bring promotion again rather than bowing to the idea that his City side would be more atheistically pleasing.

More power to Parkinson’s elbow. Who knows what the viewer at home thought of the FA Cup tie that was featured on BT Sport but in the lashing rain of Valley Parade one could not help but admire the determination which the team put to the cause.

Determination in staying with a game plan and the game plan was to edge this game as it is all games. Keeping chances at a premium one end costs them at the other. Injury to James Hanson is a worry – Aldershot were given a Refereeing pass by man in the middle Keith Hill for some rustic tackling – but Tony McMahon’s penalty after Luke James was felled in the box put that worry back to being Saturday’s problem.

The next round promises Chesham United at Valley Parade – a team lower in the pyramid than Aldershot but equally deserving of the respect that Parkinson paid his first round opponents that manifests itself in taking the same approach to Cup games against the non-league as League games against rivals – and the hint of more to follow.

Last year Parkinson’s team beat Chelsea on its way to a quarter final. Parkinson thinks this team is better.

The Ben Williams season continues with City facing Aldershot Town in the FA Cup

Williams from Williams

The first time Ben Williams became known to Bradford City supporters was during the first round of the FA Cup when – minutes into the game with Halifax Town – he was picking the ball out of the back of his own goal.

An inauspicious start to a campaign that would see Williams keeping goal at Stamford Bridge but his afternoon at The Shay better when Phil Parkinson switched formation and Filipe Morais and Billy Clarke turned the match and the season around.

Jon Stead scored – he always scored in the FA Cup – and Williams’ role was largely forgotten but he did make a very good save from a Williams’ close range header. I’d describe it as memorable but it seems that not a lot of people remember it.

Ben Williams save from Steve Williams. Steve Williams is a former Bantam who exited Valley Parade around the time of the change from Peter Taylor, to Peter Jackson, to Phil Parkinson . In the words for former Chief Scout Archie Christie when asked why the talented Williams had left said that the player “did not want it enough.”

Wanting it enough was big for Christie, and is big for Phil Parkinson.

Wanting it

The last three weeks of Bradford City have been the definition of “wanting it”. A trip to Millwall, a visit from Blackpool, a trip to Aldershot for the 0-0 draw that brings about this reply, and a 2-0 win over Crewe Parkinson’s team had dug in hard to turn a few good wins into an impressive unbeaten run.

Parkinson’s has taken his Bradford City back to the most simple of building blocks creating a team which fetishises not conceding in the same way Barcelona lust for possession. Parkinson’s City will not concede – so the thought goes – and as a result the result will take after itself.

One has to go back to 24th of October when Wigan Athletic took the lead past Ben Williams for City’s last concession. Williams could have done better with that strike, and he got lucky with a shot from Crewe on Saturday that slipped greasy off his body and flew back into play but Williams has earned his luck with his graft.

My issue with Williams’ goalkeeping style – that he allows too much of a gap between the defensive line and himself – is addressed by Parkinson compressing his defensive unit at the expense of his forward line leaving the forward line lacking numbers. It is meat and potatoes and City are criticised for a negative approach to the game.

Criticism is always relative though, and relative to the criticism one gets for losing.

The work

The work which Phil Parkinson’s team have put into the last two months is transformative. Players have developed pairings where previously there was confusion. Stephen Darby has found an unlikely partner in Tony McMahon while James Meredith probably thought reuniting with Kyel Ried was unlikely too.

The central midfield pair are of two of Lee Evans, Gary Liddle and the much improved Billy Knott are a product of days at Apperley Bridge. Knott would be the poster boy for improvement with his push back from the Ghetto of being an “attacking midfielder” into a genuinely useful box to box player.

Would be if it were not for the backline of Rory McArdle, Reece Burke and Williams himself. Calm has replaced barked blasts. Control has replaced scrambles. Stern has replaced soft when running at the heart of the Bantams team.

There is a significant need for a collective improvement. It has happened.

A Ben Williams sort of season

Bradford City’s season has become a Ben Williams sort of season. Capable of slips, and at times doing things wrong, but improved with hard work and no better/no worse as is shown on the field.

I’ve always found this aspect of football as – perhaps – the most understated joy in football.

To support a Liverpool in the 1980s, a Manchester United in the 1990s, a Manchester City now is to experience football top down where expectation is winning and winning is everything. Bristol City supporters last season – with a team outspending its league – expected the same. It is rare to have that in football, I’m sure most at City never will have had it.

For the rest the drama is in watching teams which are – and I struggle to find a better description – only as good as they are on the field. City are in a morass of teams in League One who are in a similar situation. The FA Cup against Aldershot Town offers the kind of assumption which the Bantams seldom get, and can never enjoy.

Aldershot Town are struggling for form in the National League but so were City when City rolled up at Chelsea last year – everything in the FA Cup is set in the Chelsea context for a while at least – and while the Bantams should win they will only do so with the same hard graft that has turned the season around.

Hard work, and hoping the mistakes go unpunished. A year on from his debut and we are all having a Ben Williams sort of season.

Bury, Wigan Athletic, styles of play and the reductionism coming to Bradford City

Constructionism

Three ways of playing football in a week on show at Valley Parade, and three different outcomes.

Foremost was Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City who – revitalised after a poor start to the season – play a direct game and press high looking to force mistakes from an opposition.

Parkinson’s side look to make the most of set plays and do. Both goals against Bury and the single strike against Wigan Athletic were the result of corners. That this will be the case was obvious as Wigan put eleven men into the penalty area every time Tony McMahon or Lee Evans crossed. It worked on fourteen occasions. On the other James Hanson headed past Jussi Jääskeläinen for an equaliser.

Wigan’s response to City’s strengths was to try counter them – naturally enough – while trying to play to what they believe are their own better qualities. Gary Caldwell’s Wigan side are quixotic in a belief that every move must be built from the goalkeeper to defender and forward and Jääskeläinen never once kicks from his hands. The try pull the compressed Bradford City side forward because Caldwell – as well as Parkinson – knows the need to counter the opposition.

David Flitcroft at Bury falls somewhere between. As the second goal – a deflection from former City man Reece Brown – bounces into the Bury goal Flitcroft forgoes his attempt to pass the ball and ends up with four players across the forward line. They will score in the dying seconds of the game when a long punt from the keeper is flicked on and then over shoulder volleyed past Ben Williams without having touched the floor from keeper’s hands to the back of the goal.

Flitcroft’s five man midfield met Parkinson’s strong banks of four in a first half in which both teams tried to make sure that there would not concede. Rory McArdle headed in just before half time from another well delivered corner. Bury hope to control games, to shut down games, away from home and as with Wigan they successfully identified Parkinson’s plan and looked to counter it. Bury are a burly side – more so than City – and at the end of the game Steve Davies run in the side would be ended as he begins three months on the sidelines.

This physical approach is also seen when Wigan Athletic score having felled the oak of James Hanson with a high tackle. This was not illegal – at least not illegal today for this referee – but City always seem much worse at dishing out this kind of physical play than they are at receiving it. The likes of Billy Knott might put in the odd sliding tackle and deserve the odd card (although not Knott today who is booked for being pushed over) but City seem incapable of making a tactic out of this.

The strategic physical approach is all over Wigan’s play. They are beasts one minute brittle the next and Chris McCann earns the ire of the crowd for faking a foul every time a striker goes near him. McCann is not injured, he will not miss three months, but he successfully stops City from pressing high as they fear more bookings.

This behaviour is effective and not isolated to the left back. You will not read about it in the morning papers when you read that Wigan Athletic try play the game in a better way than Bradford City but Gary Caldwell’s Latics gamify the Referee’s decision making process. Any Referee will book a player for persistent misconduct after five fouls and most players commit at most four in a game. An act of fabrication – be it in foul or reaction – adds to the natural attrition of discipline and scares back players pressing high.

To their credit Flitcroft’s Bury do not react in the same way and battle man for man with a City team which is getting used to hunting in packs. Knott starts to look capable as he did before his dalliance with the footballing graveyard of the “Attacking Midfielder”. He runs down players alongside Evans who provides a more than useful pass. Bury’s struggle to contain City as they leave defensive duties in search of two goals and Mark Marshall is criminally profligate in front of goal.

City miss enough chances to win the game against a Bury team which is aptly described as free-spending by four or five goals ending instead with a seemingly slim 2-1 victory. The response to the game is muted – the late goal took a gloss off the match – and needlessly so.

The draw with Wigan results in Tony McMahon punching the air as if in victory. McMahon was persona non gratis at City a month ago but having come into the bolstering right wing role his delivery and attitude have found a place and a balance with Kyel Reid on the wing opposite. McMahon is the spirit of the new City that emerged four games ago and has not lost since. His energy allows for a high pressing game and his delivery is useful. More over though what he does is working, and often that is all that is needed.

Neither Wigan nor Bury will adapt their games to exploit City’s most significant weakness of the season. Wigan artfully try to pass through Rory McArdle and Reece Burke while Bury look to play into a single striker. Neither cross to exploit the gap between Ben Williams and his defensive line and the goalkeeper has two good games to build confidence right up until Michael Jacobs hits a shot from the edge of the area that the keeper gets to but does not keep out.

For Caldwell it seems to be a matter of principal that players like Yanic Wildschut – too expensive for Bury who tried to bring him in from Middlesbrough – be able to dribble through the opposition. Later in the game Grant Holt is on the field but the service to him is not apt and he struggles. Caldwell can be proud of how rarely his team resorted to playing crosses directly to strikers if that was his aim but his aim counter-acted what often works against Bradford City.

And so City win and Wigan draw and Bury lose. The approaches to the game are different in many ways. Bury want to stop the home side playing but fail to do so and then become more direct than any team could imagine. City look to maximise set-plays and deliver the ball early and direct while Wigan Athletic want to play on the floor and take as long as they can about it. If Wigan cannot play how they want they will not play – simulating imagined offences – while Bury will be burly and too much so as they try claw back into the game.

Reductionism

The increasing level coverage of football has not increased the depth of that coverage and unnecessarily there is a reduction of the complex to try to be more digestible than it is. Ockum’s razor asks you to make things simpler but not more simple than they should be.

And so the way a team plays football is reduced from the multitude of variables to a single almost aesthetic consideration. How the ball arrives in the final third of the field. Is it lofted in from a defender, played from a winger, passed from a midfielder. Pick a variable and label a team forgetting anything else that most obviously is involved. Colin Todd called Phil Parkinson “the enemy of football” on the basis of such a reduction.

That reductionism has started a train of thought amongst Bradford City supporters which normally one could ignore – this is about the football and not about supporting the football – were it not to do more than form a significant part of the discussion around the pitch and start to impact what is on it.

With Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes already declaring that for City to prosper in football it would be necessary (in their opinion) for an injection of funds and perhaps their exit there is little prospect of City taking the approach that either Wigan or Bury have of trying to spend more than the rest of League One to escape it. It is possible – and I would say preferable – to be promoted without this sort of financial investment but as most teams are attempting the same that becomes hard to ensure. Would City with – as was wanted – the odd Doncaster Rovers player here and Jussi Jääskeläinen there be guaranteed promotion. No.

So without success – or perhaps guaranteed success – the questions become not about if something will be achieved then how it will be. It is not if City will finish in the upper-middle of League One it is how will that happen.

And so the suggestion is that without guaranteed success then the way that the status quo is maintained becomes important. If we are not going to be promoted then – the thought goes – can we at least be entertained? Do we deserve what oft sacked Steven Pressley described as “dark ages football

And of course this assumes one is not entertained already.

There is a school of thought – one that I subscribe to – that entertainment in football is not synonymous with passing football and that how the ball is delivered into the final third is but one of a number of things all of which can be entertaining. I have long since recognised in myself that I do not go to Bradford City games to watch Barcelona’s passing style. Indeed if I wanted to see that I would go to Barcelona – or at least watch the disturbing last bastion of acceptable nationalism on Sky TV – which I do not and will not do.

I would consider this to be symptom of a footballing culture which has allowed television to reshape it and is currently in the process of letting new media complete the mutilation. Highlight TV shows like Match of the Day sold the public the idea that one did not have to watch a full game to understand it, one could just watch a slice of it. It is garnished with a uncritical critical media who for largely commercial reasons repeat this same trope that watching football matches is of the waste of time that is the difference between ninety minutes and the highlight clips. To hear Robbie Savage blindly reading out appearance, league position and goal statistics to support his idea that a single incident can be extrapolated into the entire make up of a player is to commit suicide of the intellect.

This of highlight slice is further shrunk into clips of the highlights of the highlights which are distributed on YouTube creating a contextless football which is all about a series of ten seconds slowed down and repeated until one is convinced. One has never really appreciated the difference between the types of football supporter if one has not had to break up a work conversation with someone else who ventured to a Millwall, or a Walsall, or a Torquay to hear the progress of YouTube scouting on the latest player linked to a high up Premier League team.

At that point one can almost certainly guarantee that what you enjoy as a regular watching a League One team is not the same as what someone who has the mediated top flight football experience enjoys. It really matters to those people what pace EA Sports assign a player in FIFA 16. Really matters.

And it is for those people that football has contorted itself and continues to do so. The mindset that is rife in football – the middle ground – is one which suggests that only the things which make a good highlight reel are of value.

One is tempted to suggest that every person in a stadium has a set of elements they enjoy in the context of a football game and that while it will be true for some of them that they have haphazardly wandered into Valley Parade having mistaken it for Nou Camp BD8 for many, if not most others it will not be. For one person football might be about community, another it might be about victory and nothing else, and another might want to watch wingers beating men (one of the most exciting sights the game has to offer) and very little else.

It became obvious to me that I watched football to watch the narratives created around a set of players. To watch a boy become a man and a man accept – or not – the responsibility for how he plays his own games and then for his team’s performance. This arc is – to me – endlessly fascinating in its differences. Some players thrive, others do not, and watching a team over a series of weeks and seasons is watching the progression of that narrative. That Stephen Darby went from skinning kid to captain was a thing to be seen and to be enjoyed, that James Hanson went from the man who worked at the Co-op to a League Cup final was enjoyable in itself and that enjoyment had little to do with the type of football played.

(This contrasts sharply with the Mercenary team of Colin Todd where the likes of Bobby Petta, or Steven Schumacher, or Marc Bridge-Wilkinson were lauded for failing to take responsibility for the general performance of the team field and singled out for praise for individual displays. There was no need – under Todd – to make sure all your team mates played well, just yourself, and that attitude which Todd allowed was – to me – the enemy of football. Likewise at the moment Phil Parkinson’s neglect of the youth set up and disinterest in bringing through players is not something I enjoy.)

Yet the mix of reductionism and a belief that there is a single criteria of enjoyment is pervasive in discussions on the game to a point where it starts to be a metric to criticise a manager as if he had failed. The less one plays in this way which is perceived as what everybody wants the more a manager should be called to account. And at Bradford City we talk often about how we have “fans as chairmen” (I would argue we abuse that phrase) but by virtue of Mark Lawn/Julian Rhodes being fans they can be assumed to be vulnerable to the same moods as fans.

There is a constant background noise against Phil Parkinson for his way of player (“bilge“) but will anyone be critical of Gary Caldwell for trying to pass through the middle of a team who are so obviously vulnerable to crosses? Will anyone – other than the odd City fan – be critical of him for ostensibly allowing his players to fake fouls and injury to avoid having to cope with Phil Parkinson’s high pressing team?

One doubts it. Aside from not winning the reductionism in football criticism has it that only the way the ball arrives into the final third of the field is a subject of debate and criticism. Were I to watch City players behaving as Wigan’s were yesterday – “tactical simulation” might cover the charge very well – I would enjoy the game less regardless of result but factors like Parkinson’s unwillingness (for whatever reason) to “tactically simulate” are not brought into the discussion about the aesthetics of managers performances.

All other factors are filtered out until one returns to this idea that if the team is not to be successful it should play the game in a specific way regardless of the issue that maintaining a way of playing as dogma can be – and was in the case of Wigan – counter-productive.

Assuming Parkinson does not continue his trend of upward movement at City – and that is not a safe assumption to make – then he will increasingly be called to account for his approach to the game. Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce, Charlton Athletic under Alan Curbishley, Manchester City under Peter Reid, West Ham United every other manager it seems that football is littered with clubs that believed that they should be playing the reduced, different, “better” type of football and slumped as a result.

This will be the discussion at Bradford City – if not in League One now then in The Championship later over the course of the manager’s three year deal – and the people who assume that all share their view that Parkinson’s approach to the game which is direct but is also honest is inherently worse than (for example) Caldwell’s passing and faking or Flitcroft’s controlled midfield and less controlled aggression. They will assume it is commonly held that a team that passes the ball into a striker’s feet is inherently better than a team of character, or a team of players who test and surpass their limitations, and they will demand it.

And you may agree with that, dear reader, but if you do not and if you believe that there are many thing about Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City you would not change then you had better prepare to take a corner and argue for what you want.

The reductionists are shaping the middle ground of football to be a bland nausea of highlights and YouTube clips. They want to take Bradford City and shrink it to the three clips that will look good on Football League Tonight.

If you do not want that you had better get used to tools of opposition against this reductionist mindset and get good at making your arguments.

The first day, the fourth year, and Bradford City beating Doncaster Rovers 1-0

Day one

There is a much mangled by often said phrase which mumbles around the words that time will make strangers of us all. It is is a gnomic observation and one which has little denoted meaning. “Death” is sometimes substituted for “Time”, “Angels” for “Strangers”

But it is not perhaps unfair to suggest that if the phrase can be applied to mean anything it means that people change over time. I am not the man I was four years ago, dear reader, and probably neither are you.

And nor is Phil Parkinson who has been Bradford City manager for a shade longer than that period.

The friend who is a new manager

The talk before this game is about the new manager. The new manager of Liverpool Jurgen Klopp has taken the national headlines. At Doncaster Rovers Darren Ferguson arrived on Friday to take charge of the home side.

Doncaster Rovers and Liverpool are not often united in expectations but both are united in a sense that pervades that both feel as if they should be higher up in football without any real justification for that. Klopp’s arrival at Liverpool will not make Manchester City any poorer, or Arsene Wenger any less keen to focus on finishing third or forth without risk of second of fifth.

Likewise there is little about Doncaster Rovers that suggests they have a natural place in The Championship and plenty to suggest that – as with a few other club in this level – they do some things right and others not. Standing around the Keepmoat Stadium looking at the pitches for juniors, the modern facilities, the ample parking one cannot help but be half impressed and half underwhelmed.

For all that impresses in the environment there is a sense that as Ferguson arrives the manager is an afterthought in a club doing all the right things to be an impressive 40-60 ranked side. They have created a setup for a team at this level. I contrasts sharply to City who are a club built in the image of the manager, and entirely dependent on that manager.

Ferguson might change that at Doncaster. He could take Doncaster to “the next level” that I’m sure has been mentioned in his recruitment. He, and Klopp, are welcome friends. Time has not made them strangers yet.

Phil Parkinson the Stranger

Which is the excitement of a new manager and the contrast with having a manager for as long as City have had Phil Parkinson. Ferguson, and Klopp, are dealing in potential. Today could be the start of the Ferguson-Era at Doncaster – in two years they could have been at Wembley twice – but it probably will not be. What is most odd about considering four years of Phil Parkinson is that most managerial appointments do not work out but Parkinson has.

Nevertheless there is a growing conflict within the Bradford City support that divides along an analytical style of Phil Parkinson’s style of play.

That style of play has always been pragmatic more than pretty and the defence for it – if a defence is needed which I would say it is not – is that the directness brought about success. “Would you rather be playing pretty football in League Two?” comes the retort, as if that sort of weighing of options were ever offered.

It has been noted that City are not progressing up League One – although the league position finished suggest otherwise – and that results at home are not good – especially if one excludes Sunderland and Millwall which in this argument one does – and so if results are not what one would want why suffer a manager playing a style of football which is not pleasing on the eye?

And of course it is never phrased that way – no one suggests Parkinson should leave Bradford City – rather it is phrased that things would be better if Parkinson were to adopt a different style of play. That if Parkinson cannot bring progress (and that is some assumption, considering he is doing) then he could at least have the decency to stagnate in an attractive way.

To wish for the end of things

Time makes strangers of us all, but Parkinson is no so strange.

When he arrived at Hull City – a larger club than Colchester United where he had made his name – Phil Parkinson was offered the opportunity to change his methods. I am told that he believed he flexed too much, and that senior Hull City players believed he flexed too little, and after an indecently short length of time Parkinson was sacked.

That Parkinson walked away from that experience – and from his time at Charlton Athletic – with the belief that he needed to be more committed to his approach rather than more flexible to change as he accuses himself of being in the past says much about why the manager is not about to begin Tiki-taka football now.

(An aside on Tiki-taka)

(It is worth noting that Tiki-taka – lauded as the most attractive way of playing the game that speaks of Spanish passion and flair – is at its heart a statistical reductionism of football tactics based on the correlation between the amount of possession a team has an its frequency of victory.)

(It is a Moneyball tactic that objectives the number of goals scored as a function of possession and thus makes possession the most important aim within a game. Possession in Tiki-taka is more important than scoring goals because retaining possession minimises the oppositions opportunity to score goals. It is, at its heart, a defensive approach.)

Not changing

To wish for Phil Parkinson the Bradford City manager to take a different approach to the game is to wish for another manager of Bradford City.

When after thirty seconds of the game with Doncaster a throw in cleared the first defenders and ended up in the middle of the penalty area one wished for City to have the sort of player who poked the ball in in such positions and there was Devante Cole to do just that.

One goal in less than a minute and to hope that Phil Parkinson would use the early goal as a platform for more is to not understand the manager who it was said of that he made teams which could defend. Recall Parkinson’s coming out party as City manager against Wigan Athletic, or the follow up against Arsenal, and Parkinson played a team of pragmatism and pressing.

The management of players working hard to constantly defend is what Parkinson brought to City and what he will hope to return to. With eighty nine minutes left to play were the situation reversed and who in Doncaster knows what new manager Ferguson would have done?

How does a Doncaster Rovers fan know how a new manager will react 45 seconds into his first game? Every City fan with an attention span know what Parkinson would do.

What Parkinson did

The performance, as it arrived, was in the spirit of 2012/2013.

The midfield pair of Lee Evans and Gary Liddle sat on top of the Rory McArdle and Reece Burke back line, and Steve Davies (and then James Hanson) defended the midfield. Tony McMahon came inside to bolster and Kyel Reid and Devante Cole stretched the home side to prevent them coming too far forward, and to stop them adding pressure to pressure.

Attack sporadic, and pushed wide it was the Parkinson we had become familiar with and perhaps forgotten. The feeling that if Nahki Wells can nick a goal then the defence could see any game out was the stuff of that season that ended at Wembley.

The best laid plans…

Which is not to suggest that there were not chances for Doncaster to get back into the game – indeed they will still be smarting over a chance that hit the bar, came down and was not ruled to be in before it was punched in by a Keshi Anderson – but the chances were minimised, and they were pushed out wide then soaked up by the central defensive pair.

Up front Devante Cole scored – he seems to do that often – but most important ran his legs off chasing down clearances and putting defenders under pressure damaging the delivery forward for Doncaster.

Like Ferguson Devante is another Manchester “son of” and that will take a line in a report despite Darren not taking the job officially until Monday. Whatever Ferguson attempts to do with Doncaster Rovers it would be easier with a striker like Cole to do it with. It is easy to forget after five Cole goals in eight games that had Parkinson had his way then Doncaster forward Andy Williams would have been leading the line for City.

We have got to know much about Parkinson. We know that he is not the greatest recruiter in football – and no one’s idea of a wheeler-dealer – and struggles to replace players he has made on the training field. Wells was replaced by Cole after eighteen months of looking at players like Williams but City still wait to see a new Gary Jones, a new Andrew Davies.

Cole fits more and more into Parkinson’s plans and Parkinson’s plans continue unchanged. Today those plans came good while often of late City have looked incapable of seeing out a lead. Parkinson makes his players, and his teams, on the training field. Improvement happens slowly but is permanent when it does.

The poster boy for this is is James Hanson. There is a school of thought that Hanson – working hard off the bench today – is “not good enough”. The people saying this flatter themselves having said that Hanson was not good enough for the bottom of League Two, and then for the top of League Two, and then to fight relegation in League One, and then to play in team fighting for promotion from League One.

The retort writes itself of course but the more salient point is that under Parkinson players like Hanson, like Rory McArdle, like James Meredith who could have spent careers in League Two are continuing to improve. “Hanson is not good enough” will eventually be right, because time will make a stranger of us all.

Parkinson is at City – Parkinson is in football management – because he believes that a team that plays as City did today defending, pressing, working with each other, will be successful.

After four years that is no different than it was on his first day at the club.

City need to learn from the 2-1 defeat by Barnsley

With just few enough changes to his Bradford City team in this rain delayed Football League Trophy game with Barnsley Phil Parkinson used nobody’s favourite Cup Competition as a proving ground.

A proving ground for Billy Knott who was given a role in central midfield alongside Gary Liddle given the job of showing all that he could operate from box to box around the ball winning Liddle.

Forty five minutes into the game – for I write at half time – the midfielder has shown a willingness to chase the ball that was rewarded with a chance to finish for the opening goal.

Knott hit the ball low across the box following the best approach play the Bantams showed perhaps all season – Sheffield United aside – when on his first appearance Greg Leigh surged forward and Mark Marshall took a wide position. Options up field brought the reward for Knott after a cross was battered down.

31 games, and impossible to dislike

Also on the proving ground alongside James Hanson in the forward line was (or is) Luke James who approaches football as a fly approaches the job of exiting via a window. James is everywhere he should and should not be and as a result often looks like he could achieve his aims were he not to buzz away.

He went 31 games at Peterborough without scoring but was described as impossible to dislike. His enthusiasm is admirable.

Also admirable, and also attempting to prove himself, is Nathan Clarke who suffered in the Liddle-less team at the start of the season when the acre in front of the defender was unpoliced.

A solid midfield in front of him and Clarke begins to look more secure and even manages some impressive moments but – like Knott – having lost his place to a loan signing there is an onus on the player to push his borrowed rival and that pressing is not helped when a free kick is swung over just before half time and headed softly past Ben Williams.

Williams stays on his line – obviously – but does nothing to keep the ball out. Clarke and Williams dart eyes at each other and forty five minutes work goes into the dressing room undone.

Half time.

A new tactic

Barnsley’s second half approach was as obvious as it was effective and resulted in a 2-1 victory for the visitors. Lee Johnson’s side played the ball on the flanks and crossed into the area between goalkeeper and defenders which it is increasingly obvious opposition teams have seen as the Bantams weakness.

And it is not my place to say how Phil Parkinson should be solving that problem. It might be – and I suspect it is – a facet of Ben Williams’ game which is not going to be changed and Brad Jones is a better option because of this but it may be that with work on Rory McArdle and Clarke/Reece Burke that gap can be plugged.

It might be that goalkeeping coach Lee Butler can fix the hole in the Bantams defence with hard work on the training pitch. It might be that Williams (or Jones) can fix the problem by working extra sessions with the defenders although if there is the scope for that one would have thought it would have happened by now.

But when Barnsley – once again – scored by placing a cross into the area which goalkeepers never come it became obvious that that gap needs to be addressed and that Parkinson is failing to address it. The changing of goalkeepers on the basis of the errors they have made rather than their approaches to organising a defence has brought us to this situation.

2-1 down Devante Cole and Steve Davies toiled up front as replacements for James Hanson and Luke James little changed. Knott’s attempts to control midfield was a qualified success only without the drive from the middle of the pitch to provide a counter option to the wide players especially when MaMahon – as a wide player – is supporting the two players in the centre of the field.

The evening ebbed away from City and Barnsley progress reflecting that while they could hardly be said to have controlled the game, they created the type of chances that would be easier to take, and took them.

A lesson or sorts.

Colchester United and the Crawley Brawl

As far as match reports go few are more erudite than Damien Wilkinson’s comment on Bradford City’s 2-0 defeat in Essex at Colechester United.

Colchester will probably have harder training sessions than that.

The names may have changed but the problems remain for Bradford City. A goalkeeper making a mistake, a team playing without character, a ninety minutes where there were not enough threats to the opposition goal. A replay of Saturday but one could pick a dozen games since City returned to League One where the same could be said.

It has become manager Phil Parkinson’s nadir. The manager who builds teams – including one at Layer Road at the start of his career – based on players who will play for each other turning out teams who do not play for each other.

Original sin

Brad Jones – signed with fanfare – may step down as goalkeeper for the weekend trip to Rochdale after his mistake led to Colchester’s first goal.

Jones’ mistake does nothing for Ben Williams’ ability to control the space between where he can reach and where he positions his central defenders which is more Williams’ problem than his occasional mistake. Goalkeeper – more than any other position on the field – is a judgement made and stuck to. It is worrying that Parkinson believes in a fluidity between his custodians.

Worrying but not unprecedented. The City manager moved between Matt Duke and Jon McLaughlin when they were sharing goalkeeping responsibilities. Only Jordan Pickford – probably as a product of his loan arrangement – has been cemented into the City goal.

Street fighting man

McLaughlin’s exit plays heavy on the mind.

In Jon McLaughlin – who is keeping goal for League One leaders Burton Albion – City had a keeper who some still recall as making more than his fair share of mistakes but was vocal enough and improving to a point where he holds down a spot in the team at the top of City’s division.

McLaughlin’s play aside when considering the character problem in the team which City put out I cannot help but recall the sight of the City goalkeeper sprinting fifty yards to punch Crawley Town players after they had started to fight with City, and City’s Andrew Davies.

And while I’m not suggesting that there is a nobility in scrapping on the field I think back to The Crawley Brawl as a galvanising point for that City team.

I cannot – with all my powers of imagination – see many of the current City squad prepared to do what McLaughlin did that night. I cannot picture Williams or Jones or many of the current team sprinting fifty yards to stick up for their team mates in a fight.

Character study

As City warmed up against Colchester United Radio Five Live hosted a debate where they bemoaned the lack of leadership within the current Arsenal team. Arsene Wenger stood accused of inheriting leaders like Tony Adams and not being able to create anyone to replace them once they had passed into memory.

Journalist Henry Winter suggested that Wenger’s problems were the problems of all football. That in an era of squad players who understand that they will not be in the side every game, and in the era of increased player movement between clubs that can see someone like Mikeal Arteta leave Everton for Arsenal having seemingly become a part of the Goodison Park furniture, that the sort of leadership and character of a Tony Adams was not appropriate.

Expanding on Winter’s hypothesis would seem that managers have pursued players who can be used sparingly, and who understand that they are not essential to a team and can be rotated out, and so they do not grow the characteristics of the ever-present leader.

League One football is not Arsenal’s concern but the hypothesis may hold true.

It is hard to have players who could be described as leaders when those players after often at clubs over relatively short terms. Not every player had it in them to concern themselves with the general performance. Most look after their own game and – if you are lucky – that of the player next to them in a partnership.

Leadership – the type that promotes character in the team – seems an increasingly rare commodity and one which is not suited to being rotate or traded. For a player who has arrived on a two year deal as most do the point in which he starts to grow into a role at the club seems to be the point where the club start to look beyond him.

Take – as an example – Lee Bullock who in 2010 was the player’s player of the year but having spent eighteen months at VP. He signed a new contract that summer but changes of manager and focus saw Bullock play less and move on. While not wanting to comment on Bullock’s skills as a player it seems uncontroversial to suggest that no sooner had Bullock settled in then he was being marginalised in the number of games he played, and ultimately in his position at the club.

With players coming and going in this way it it hard to imagine how a player will establish themselves as leaders in the group of players to have the effect on the field we talk about. After six months you know everyone’s name, after eighteen months you might have everyone’s respect, but if you are marginalised after that how do you lead?

It has always been thus.

Stuart McCall was made, not bought, and both Andrew Davies and Gary Jones who also typified the trait were rehabilitated having started their role at the club as curios and ended them as key men.

Parkinson needs to grow leadership from within the squad – and perhaps allow the squad to promote their own leader – and that is a process which takes time if it happens at all.

Right now we are waiting for that before the club can progress.

A side note, for the foolish only

There is no question of another manager being best suited to carry out that process.

Perish that thought.

History

Until leadership emerges within the squad City are subject to defeats and bad performances as befits any team. Two defeats – marked out because of their lifeless performances – are set in the context of a season which is in turn set in the wider context of the club’s history.

Just like the display against Gillingham in September 2001 – a 5-1 win which represents the best I’ve ever seen City play in a season which had little else of skill – the highs and lows are modulated to fit in with the overall view of the season.

The good are forgotten in bad seasons. The bad in good ones.

Much of what came before the Crawley Brawl is not remembered now. The brawl itself though – the way the squad stood literally shoulder to shoulder in the fight – seemed to jump start the team spirit of 2013 and beyond.

Colchester United 2-0 away will sink into that context too, providing Phil Parkinson can find another way to galvanise Bradford City, to create team spirit where there is none, and to enable the team to create its own leaders and character.

Paul Anderson’s broken leg and the Refereeing of low expectations

While not quiet having the effect of overshadowing the lack-energy display against Peterborough United at the weekend the injury to Paul Anderson and Phil Parkinson’s search for a replacement has taken some of the attention away.

As Parkinson started looking down his list of wingers available – seemingly not keen to give Dylan Motley-Henry a place in the team which his squad status demands – the club and community were in regret over Anderson. The BBC noted benignly that Anderson had broken his leg while City themselves bemoaned the bad luck involved.

Bad luck is if you slip on ice and break your leg.

If someone jumps at you with a studded boot without taking care for your safety, and of the referee who is supposed to be in charge of your safety ignores it and all the builds up to it, I think you are entitled to put it down to something other than misfortune.

Indeed Anderson did not break his leg. It was broken and it was broken by Michael Bostwick.

Let us not blame Michael Bostwick

That Bostwick made the challenge he did is not the bone of contention. He approached the prone Anderson a minute after breaking his fibula in two to acknowledge and perhaps apologise for it. Both were probably appreciated by Anderson and by the City players but neither were strictly necessary. Bostwick was not even spoken to by Referee Paul Tierney.

Tierney saw the tackle – we assume – and decided that the break was an accident (in that it was an unintentional outcome) rather than an intended outcome. He is probably right that Bostwick did not try to or want to break Anderson’s leg but one hopes Tierney is given pause to question the cause and effect of his application of the rules around the aggressive play that Peterborough used on Saturday.

The Posh battled and that battle resulted in any number of tackles which could have and did not injure players. They were not especially guilty of this over and above other teams (including, at times but not on Saturday, City) but they were guilty of it.

We enjoy seeing physical committed football and it is a way to win games. To fight for the ball is a good thing as long as it is done within the remit of the rules which – Tierney’s judgement is – Bostwick did.

By way of example

Consider – if you will – Anderson’s injury in the context of him playing a chess match with Bostwick. It is unthinkable that a Chess player would break another’s leg. Breaking limbs, indeed grazing hands as they reach for pieces, is just not done in Chess.

It is a ludicrously extreme example. Imagine a Badminton game where a leg was broken. A physical sport and one where players have been know to be physical with each other there is at least a convention in Badminton that if the ball is near your opponents head so that to hit it would be to hit him or her then one does not swing at it.

At the other side I’m sure there are sports in some dystopian future in which the aim is to inflict pain and that Anderson’s broken leg is a victory for Bostwick. Who knows? My point is that there is an ability within the sporting context to set what is considered acceptable force in pursuit of victory and what is not.

And I would suggest that Tierney has his calibration of that wrong and – so much as he represents the views of Referees and Authorities who agree with him – English football has that calibration wrong.

Low expectations

Tierney and his ilk convict themselves of having low expectations of the English lower league footballer.

A tackle like Bostwick’s – and again I do not blame him for playing within the rules as played every week – is considered acceptable in League One because of a low expectation of the players involved in the game. Who can expect more of a League One midfielder than that?

But to expect a player to deliver less because of a perceived lower ability is to ignore the evidence that emerges from growing leagues in football. Leagues like the Japanese Football League which for obvious reasons is less physical and has fewer technical skills in the tackle but is not more violent as a result. It is not that in the J-League tackles like Bostwick’s are sent off more, they are just not done.

The calibration of the football culture – more recently established than the third tier of the English game – has made recklessness in tackles inappropriate.

The opposite is true in the Australian League – eye wateringly brutal at times – coming as it does in the culture of Aussie Rules and Rugby League.

There is an ability to tune the calibration of what is acceptable in football which – at the moment and in the English game – is I would suggest – a little off towards the physical side of the game that left its mark on Paul Anderson’s leg.

But the crunch

None of which is to suggest that Michael Bostwick has to foul to be a good player. His opposite number Gary Liddle typifies the idea of a player who can be commanding and aggressive without being dirty. Liddle is forceful but in control of what he does.

Liddle is the modern type of central midfielder a far cry from some of the players who played that role for City. Players like Greg Abbott and Mick Kennedy spent entire games kicking player as much as ball. There is no comparison between those players of the 1980s and Bostwick, let alone Liddle, but the fact that thirty years ago those players could be popular in the game and are not now suggests that it is possible to change what is acceptable in the game.

Is watching Liddle worse than watching Abbott or Kennedy? I would argue that Liddle winning a ball firmly is better than Abbott’s hard but fair because of the skill that goes into the tackle.

There is nothing lost by forcing players at all levels to be better at tackling if they are going to tackle.

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

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

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

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

What City did wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The strange case of Steve Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angles

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

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

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

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

Trajectories

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

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

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

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

Obtuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The post-script

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

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

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

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

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

Which took something from the spectacle.

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

A false premise

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

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

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

The three types of mistake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second mistake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The third mistake

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

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

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

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

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

Directing Traffik at Boundary Park as City beat Oldham Athletic 2-1

There was a time in one of the easier away victories Phil Parkinson will have claimed as a manager when it seemed that the direction of the traffic of Bradford City’s would be constantly one way.

Devante Cole had scored his second goal in two games latching onto a smart through ball by Billy Knott with a run behind the home side’s back line and the Bantams – then playing against ten men – were enjoying the luxury of being able to be profligate with chances.

Mark Marshall, Luke Morris, and James Hanson all enjoyed lashes wide or over and one could easily say that that was the result of a confidence that comes from having a goalscorer in the team. Such are the thoughts when leads are comfortable.

That it was comfortable was the result of a high tempo start where City applied pressure up field which Oldham struggled to cope with. The Latics midfield was centred around the thirty six year old David Dunn who had some class on the ball but needed others to get stuck in for him in midfield. That following the sending off for Jonathan Forte for heading Stephen Darby one of his midfield-mates was Mark Yeates explains City’s dominance.

Gary Liddle took most of the midfield duties for City allowing Knott the space and remit to have one of his best games at the club. Knott drove from midfield past Dunn who could not keep pace and Yeates who never kept pace and Danny Philliskirk who might have kept pace but was dragged wide as – finally – City’s wide players understood their purpose off the ball.

Reece Burke scored the opening goal for City after a Mark Marshall pull back when a deep free kick was flapped at by Joel Coleman in the home goal. There is a gap between where defenders stand and where goalkeepers can get to which Coleman is still working out.

My contention is that Ben Williams has not worked this out and as he keeps goal for City at the expense of Brad Jones – a reward for consecutive clean sheets – he does so despite this fact. Oldham’s goal came from Mark Yeates pitching a ball over the zone between defenders and keeper perhaps knowing that Williams would not come – he did not – and seeing Joe Mills score to make the last ten minutes more tense than they might have been.

The goal had a sobering effect.

Parkinson may have told his City players that they need to be more clinical in front of goal – plenty of wasted chances today – and he might use the concession as a reason to put Jones over Williams which seems as inevitable as Cole over Luke James who made a spirited by fruitless cameo today but mostly he will use the game as a signal of things improving.

Seven points from two away and one home game is impressive enough to justify City’s position as second favourites for the division.

Parkinson wandered up to the City fans after the game – mutual applause and all – and both fans and manager can be glad of how convincingly the form has turned around.

It was one way traffic, but deservedly so.

The aside about the K in the title

I once met Clint Boon of The Inspiral Carpets – the Madchester band who were Oldham fans – at Kendal Calling festival and I went up to him to talk about Oldham as I bought a brownie his wife was selling. I said Hi and he said Hi and as an ice breaker before I started talking about how icy cold it is at Oldham – although was not today – I thought I’d tell Clint how much I enjoyed the Devil Hopping album that the Carpets put out as they declined in the mid-90s. Clint was pleased – very pleased – and enthused that he liked the album too raising the idea in my mind that people in bands might release albums they do not like. I suppose they must. I told Clint that I thought that Devil Hopping was the Inspiral Carpet’s attempt to be “The British R.E.M.” and his face lit up. As it happens that was exactly what Clint was aiming for with the album and to have that recognised – and recognised by someone buying one of the brownies he was selling – seemed to have given him unexpected recognition of a sort. He looked around perhaps for someone to share this with and his eyes fixed on a man wandering up to the brownie stall. It was Tom Hinkley – lead singer of the Inspiral Carpets. “Tom, this guy liked Devil Hopping. He thinks its British R.E.M.”, Tom was less enthused but it did not matter to Clint who was smiling broadly adding “You can have that brownie for free.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The questions marks

Wingers was not the sum of the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wrong side of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they fail, and we all fail.

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

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

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

The pressure on Phil Parkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six months time

In six months time this article might be absurd.

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

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

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

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

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

Post script

James Hanson played well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are used to that team.

What we have now is the team more ordinary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The penalties favoured York.

So now then

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

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

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

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

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

Bradford City’s first day defeat and the honesty applied to it

After watching his Bradford City team lose 4-1 to Swindon Town on the first day of the season Phil Parkinson was in need of the very trait the lack of which defines close season: Intellectual honesty.

The second half collapse which saw the Bantams go from strolling to a comfortable win to strolling a deep defeat was nothing new for Parkinson and seemed to be 2015 in a match for the City manager. It started well and then drifted and as it drifted it went away from the team, and the manager.

And it is the manager Parkinson – rightly praised in the build up to the season – who needs most to find the honesty to look at this performance and sort bad luck from bad judgement, and bad play from bad players.

45 Minutes

The opening goal of City’s season was a near carbon copy of the Andrew Halliday effort at Chelsea. A ball worked down the right and put back to Tony McMahon who held the ball up and played it to Joss Morris who – four minutes into his debut – applied the finish.

It was Morris who was fouled for a penalty which Billy Clarke hit too low but wide enough to beat most keepers but Lawrence Vigouroux is six foot six and pushed the ball away.

Which is where the first dishonesty in the game emerged. The penalty was not a turning point in the match. Accepted had the game been two or three to nil at half time then Swindon Town might have found a rally more difficult but the penalty miss was part of a half long period of pressure where the Robins allowed City to dominate possession happy in themselves to play nice passing football at speed and be blocked off by the Bantams physical size.

City bullied Swindon for forty five minutes and Swindon in turn allowed that to happen. The speedy possession play was ineffectual. Ball comes forward, ball pinged around some strikers, Rory McArdle cleans it out, Swindon look sad.

If one is looking for a turning point in the first half then look no further than Billy Knott’s break on 38 minutes which was abruptly ended by a two footed tackle by Nathan Byrne.

Byrne got the ball but with two feet so the Referee Steve Martin seemed to have mandated a given a free kick for an offence which is only punishable by a red card, and gave a yellow.

Quite apart from the fact that Nathan Byrne was to have a not little impact in the second half this moment formed an idea in the head of Swindon boss Mark Cooper which was to turn the game.

15 Minutes

How knows what is said in a dressing room at half time and how those phrases are manifest in performance. Who knows what. Phil Parkinson will look back at the changes he made as having a cause and effect on the second half collapse, Mark Cooper on the revival. One suspect that Cooper said a phrase like “get amongst them” or “match them physically”.

Cooper and Swindon seemed to recognise that the Referee Mr Martin was no disciplinarian and had a broad definition of what constituted robust play. In the first half Bradford City’s side had dominated play because they were more physical but there was clear space between the edge of Mr Martin’s robust play and City’s first half play that Swindon could occupy.

90 Minutes

The effect was that Swindon applied pressure some of which resulted in free kicks and some of which did not and Bradford City wilted in the face of that in the same way that common at the end of last season against Preston North End or Bristol City.

Parkinson’s half time changed the way that City approached the second half. Playmaker Knott and right midfielder Christopher Routis were detailed with closing down Swindon as they tried to play out of the back line leaving left midfield Morris and central man McMahon as the two in the middle and Billy Clarke and James Hanson falling wide when Knott and Routis were closing down quickly.

The idea was not without merit in that twice City robbed Swindon as they worked the ball out of defence but its massive detriment was how porous it left the City midfield. Swindon moved the ball around well but with City committing Knott and Routis to attacking the ball in the Swindon Town half should Swindon get pasted that line – which they were always going to – they found rather than eight or nine players defending six or seven.

They had the space to play and Byrne – lucky not to leave the field in disgrace – left it with a hat-trick with Jon Obika adding a fourth for good measure. Each goal a celebration of passing and moving, running into space and playing the ball quickly, and enjoying the fact that putting in the sort of challenge that is not the done thing in pre-season they had gone in the space of a half hour from being bullied to doing the bullying.

And at ninety minutes the distressing thing was just how City had let that happen.

Honesty

Returning from Swindon will have given Phil Parkinson time to think over what went wrong and much of the season will depend on what those thoughts were.

The manager could look at the players and conclude that they were lacking. It would be true to say that the depth of the collapse of the second half showed the same signs of weak character which were obvious at the end of last season but that explains the depth of the defeat but not the direction. How did things go to defeat at all after the first half? This requires an honest answer, or a series of them.

The Routis/Knott closing down was a tactical mistake from Parkinson.

It solved a not especially urgent problem – that Swindon could bring the ball out – by creating a far more pressing problem of Swindon being able to find space to pass the ball around in the City half which was the cause of the defeat.

The decision to leave Gary Liddle on the bench – one Parkinson said before the game was down to the form of other players – was also a mistake.

The main crux of criticism directed at Liddle is that he is a more defensive midfielder and offers little going forward but this is to vilify a man for his virtues. City needed Liddle to stand up in the midfield and stop Swindon Town playing and whatever the abilities of Tony McMahon he did not do that.

In fact McMahon spent the second half closing down Swindon players who had just played the ball away and if Morris was near him he was doing the same thing but Morris was more often caught between two players with options and failed to take either.

Routis had too far to travel between his hunter role beyond the forwards and his midfield duties which he did well in the first half when no pressure was applied and Knott spent much of his time cast as a Bradford City Frank Lampard watching play happening thirty yards away from him and waiting for the ball back.

The application of honest to Billy Knott is that he needs to be able to play a box-to-box midfield role or all his abilities in the attacking positions are all for nothing. I think he has that capability but I think that if leaving him on the half way line when play is happening in the City is because Phil Parkinson does not feel Knott can play central midfield then he would be best not having Knott in the squad.

As it was Knott was isolated and away from the game which badly needed a player who would try take control of the midfield and – as with the defeats of last season – rather than that it got Christopher Routis.

That Morris always had more to do than McMahon was because of a grimly sobering reality that Mark Cooper’s half time team talk seemed to have told Swindon that they should attack City down the right to avoid Rory McArdle and target Nathan Clarke who was slower than the attacking players, and more lumbering than the attacking players, and without Andrew Davies’ judgement that allowed him to suffer those deficiencies.

If Nathan Clarke is to be a first choice central defender for City then Parkinson needs to find a way of fielding a midfield that offers him more protection against the ball being dribbled and played at him at speed. This would mean looking at a holding midfielder (or two) sitting ahead of the defence to break up that kind of play which again points to Gary Liddle’s afternoon on the bench as a thing of mystery.

Which is not to say that McMahon is not able to play the position he did today just that he did not do it effectively today. If City were to play Swindon every week then I’d be urging Parkinson to field a Double Six of McMahon and Liddle with three in front and a back four behind to compress play leaving Hanson up front alone but City will not play Swindon or Swindon like teams every week. Few teams try to play possession football at pace in League One and next week we may be talking about how it is a lack of creativity, not the inability to stop creative teams, which is the problem at hand.

Part of the rigour of intellectual honesty on Parkinson’s park though also comes in recognising what has gone well on an afternoon that ended badly. He has a Bradford City team which is brittle but – when on top of games – is dominant. James Hanson’s play is both target man and works well in support and Hanson works hard suggesting that if the supply to Hanson is good then City will prosper.

There is a worry about how infrequently Billy Clarke gets into dangerous positions but B. Clarke is an intelligent player and should supply increase then he will adapt his game appropriately, or he will stand down.

Parkinson also needs to look at Ben Williams in the harsh light of Football League reality.

Williams is an unremarkable goalkeeper and one of whom it will always be said that he did not have a chance, or that the defenders should have protected him, or that looking at goalkeepers for concessions misses the reason for concessions but I struggle to recall a time which I had so little expectation that a goalkeeper might – occasionally – stop a shot from going into the goal.

Both Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson made cameo appearances and Steve Davies came on and looked like he wanted to plant the same kind of “robust” challenges which the home team had done. City ended the game with Tony McMahon and Christopher Routis in central midfield and the kind of result which one would expect from a team with Tony McMahon and Christopher Routis in central midfield.

Which is both a criticism of the character of the players in the second half and one of the management in not foreseeing that repeating the same mistakes will get the same results. Central midfield is the heart of a team and City’s team were heartless in more ways than one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait…

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

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

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

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

At that point obvious stops being the operative word.

The multi-polar world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except for the manager.

They have their second choice as manager.

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

Parkinson: Special One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That, at least, is obvious.

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

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

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

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

They come, they go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Character

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

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

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

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

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

Cost

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

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

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

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

How Bradford City mastered calm seas beating Carlisle United 2-0 in pre-season

And the day continued well. Phil Parkinson and his entire back room staff are in talks over new contracts and that was the discussion as fans mingled with players following the 2-0 pre-season win over Carlisle United. The drizzle gave way to a pleasant sun the early evening and all seemed to bode well.

Parkinson’s team had been in full race trim for the only Valley Parade friendly of pre-season and while Carlisle United had a moment or two they seemed a keen poorly set up by manager Keith Curle and set to struggle.

Curle approach centres around switched on midfielders who can dynamically move from the holding role to forward positions and he gives that responsibility to Jason Kennedy as if Jason Kennedy were able to be Steven Gerrard if Curle wants him to. I doubt he will last the year.

Parkinson’s approach is as contrasting as one can get. James Hanson is target man, Billy Clarke plays off him and with two banks of four behind them. For forty five minutes City play meat and potatoes football and they play it well grinding Carlisle in the first half and scoring two in the second.

The second saw Parkinson’s playmaker return but rather than trying to play through the man behind the front two the role was more space hunting third striker looking for the ball that came from Hanson’s head or – later – Steve Davies.

Davies was an inch away from scoring with his first kick but rather was next to Gary Liddle as he tapped in a flick down. Josh Morris had scored the first after switching to the right wing following a productive first hour on the left hand side.

Morris was impressive on the day, as was Liddle who played next to Rory McArdle in the back four, but all impressive performances were set in a context of how little trouble the visitors caused.

And there are things to write about the squad. Things to write about how Josh Morris provides a better supply of crosses than Mark Yeates in that he will cross from the byline. There are things to right about how when Gary Liddle moves out of central midfield there is no cover for him. Things to write about how Parkinson has a better first team but a weaker squad.

But all those things are conjecture based on a weak sample. Most pre-season tells one little, this one has said virtually nothing. Leyton Orient’s Nathan Clarke watched the game from the stands an looks set to sign during the coming week which will replace Andrew Davies.

One wonders if Parkinson hopes that he can maintain a small squad with players able to cover more than one position rather than bring in poor characters. Tony McMahon seems to cover one half of the defence and Alan Sheehan the other while Parkinson would rather play Christopher Routis in whatever hole the team presents than he would bring in players he does not know, who might not have the character he wants, who might not fit into his dressing room.

At the end of August Phil Parkinson will have managed more Bradford City games than Trevor Cherry did which we can broadly define as being the longest serving manager in the modern era. At the end of the season he will be the third on the list of most games managed.

This, it seems, is what stability looks like. Parkinson has players he trusts in the dressing room – players like McArdle, and Stephen Darby, and James Hanson – and he understands that those players have bought into an ethos. With that comes the tacit understanding that that ethos will be maintained.

That puts the onus on Parkinson to only bring in the right sort of character. Football is replete with players who can kick a ball well but are bad characters and it is those people who Parkinson has spent the summer avoiding. Judging a players ability to kick a ball can be seen in a friendly game, seeing how well a player fits into the dressing room will only be obvious as the season goes on.

The type of creativity Phil Parkinson wants as Bradford City start 2015/2016 beating Farsley 3-0

“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity” – Charles Mingus

Bradford City’s 3-0 win over neighbours Farsley was a given but the players in the first half who ran up a three goal lead through two James Hanson headers and a low finish by trialist Sanchez Watt deserve credit for starting the 2015/2016 season with good tempo but the theme of the afternoon was how this new generation of Phil Parkinson’s side was to do with the team’s syncopation.

Within thirty minutes James Hanson had shown that his much converted prowess in the air would figure heavily in Bradford City’s arsenal this season with Phil Parkinson having spend both forty five minute periods playing the 442 with a withdrawn striker which had seemed to be his modus operandi in his first few years at City. Full backs were instructed to go beyond wingers – which they did resulting in a third goal – and a thin slice of the performance suggests that next season will see the tactics of simplicity at Valley Parade.

Which is to say that most of the afternoon in West Leeds was spent wondering how creative this version of Bradford City would be and how important creativity is to a football team.

“Creativity comes from a conflict of ideas” – Donatella Versace

The head of Hanson is a tried and tested route to goal for Bradford City. Hanson flicks on, Hanson heads in, let us take it as read that Rory McArdle – not playing today but wandering the stands – will be hitting diagonal balls towards Big Jim all season long.

This presents two problems. What is Big Jim is not there? There is an argument that the main problem with the now departed Andrew Davies was not that he suffered injury and suspension is was the impact on the team in his absence. Take out Andrew Davies and the rest of the squad would be given am excuse for defeat. Of course we got beat by Preston North End and Bristol City – the mental process goes – we did not have Davies in the side.

This is the idea that a player is almost “too good” for the team he is in and that removing him improves the team. It is counter-intuitive and often seeps into debate as justification for making a team worse and one could dismiss it for that if it were not for the occasions when it is accurate. Chris Kamara’s Bradford City with Chris Waddle beat Everton, and Waddle was the best player by a country mile, but the team lost and drew a lot and only when Waddle exited for Sunderland to be replaced by Shaun Murray, Tommy Wright and other inauspicious names did staying in the division look possible.

The best player left but because the team had to do more than just giving the ball to Chris Waddle and seeing the outcome then there was a general improvement. Without Andrew Davies will the rest of the players be unable to use the excuse – and I use the term in the context of mental reasoning and not about what is said in the T&A – of Andrew Davies’ absence? We shall see.

And we shall also see if the same is true of James Hanson. Steve Davies sat out Farsley too and he may be a Hanson in waiting but none of the other forwards looked capable of replacing Hanson. Those forwards included Billy Clarke who picks up this season where he left off last as prolific but probably not prolific enough and Luke James who caused some problems with his energy but suffered in comparison to Sanchez Watt who enjoyed the forty five minutes before him.

Watt scored and showed a left footed touch to play the sort of ball which will be useful to overlapping players. He slowly got into the game and started to demand the ball more than wait for it. He looks every inch a confidence player who has not got confidence, or at least not where he needs it. Parkinson has a few weeks to decide if he and Steve Parkin can get into Watt’s head and press the right buttons. If they can Sanchez Watt would be a real asset. If not he floats away as it seems he will do.

(If he does though he will still give me this Abbott and Costello moment for the ages heard from two men over my right shoulder.)

Man One: “Who is that?”
Man Two: “Sanchez Watt.”
Man One: “I don’t know what?”
Man Two: “That’s his name.”
Man One: “What?”
What Two: “Watt.”
Man One: “That’s what I’m asking?”
Man Two: “Watt’s his name.”
Man One: “Yes.”

(Humour like that – and I swear that is verbatim – is worth ten pounds of anyone’s money.)

That aside aside there is an obvious problem with Hanson being a single point of failure within the team which was auditioning central defenders with the ability to play a long pass. Gary Liddle best asset as a defender is his abilities in midfield and Alan Sheehan took the second half in the middle of a back four with Greg Leigh playing left back for a half in which he registered nothing of note.

More impressive was the six foot five Jamie McCombe who seemed to quickly find a place in the Bantams side. McCombe is thirty two and has had his own injury hell but I would be very surprised if he were not a City player next season.

Which is not to say that he was especially good against the limited opposition – he was serviceable – but he fit into the role Parkinson has for him so well. Tall enough to offer a threat from set plays, comfortable on the ball enough to play it with control, and massive. Youth player Kesi Omolokun was the fourth central defender on show. He was untroubled during the second half.

In the second half midfield Christopher Routis epitomised Mingus’ point about being weird not being the same as being creative. Routis continues to be an impressive physical kicker of a ball but one who seems to lack a position. We know he is not a central defender in League One and as a midfielder he tackles sometimes and uses the ball badly. I want so much to be proved wrong about Routis because if his abilities to kick a ball could be put into a position then he would be very useful but I cannot see how it will happen.

And trying to force Routis into central midfield makes that a player like Sam Wright – full of energy for the first half and able to take responsibility for the ball – would have his development curtailed. A product of the youth set up Wright burnt himself out after a half hour but he showed his willingness to take positions and offer options to team mates as well as his control of the ball. It is not to damn him with faint praise to say that he could be a man to take a space on the bench this season but rather to suggest that doing so would bring better results than constantly trying to shoehorn Routis into positions he does not show the discipline to play.

Discipline being a key for Parkinson. Routis winning the ball in midfield and having options in front of him – only to see him smash a ball high and wide – is no more useful at Farsley than it would be at Wembley. Routis has a choice between trying to score blistering goals against weak opposition and trying to show how he can perform in a team. He makes his choices, Sam Wright made his, and I know who I believe the club should reward with first team football.

Josh Morris looked able next to Wright in central midfield although one might think that he is best used on the left flank with James Meredith going past him. Morris run and shot off the bar showed a player who enjoyed having the ball but most of his play focused on usefulness and that was a good start. Daniel Devine took a role in the second half but would need to do more to commend himself.

At full back Tony McMahon returned and Luke Hendrie – son of John (although I shall try to not hold that against him) – played at right back with McMahon strolling through the second forty five minutes and Hendrie overlapping well but defending poorly in the first half. Hendrie has spent much of his career to date as an attacking midfilder – a position which borders on fiction – and that showed but there seemed to be some potential going forward but a lot of work to be done as a right back.

Sons of Fathers include Harrison Gilkes – the son of Michael – who was generally unimpressive in the first half on the left flank running at players and losing the ball. Dylan Mottley-Henry and Joe Brennan took the second half wide positions and both looked eager. A note too on Filipe Morais who showed accuracy which gave a second route to the head of Hanson. Increasingly Morais looks key to Parkinson’s plans.

In goal Ben Williams causes me worries, and Joe Cracknell has nothing to do.

“Creativity is the thing that everybody wants and nobody wants to pay for” – Me, this week

And so considering the game the questions arise around how creativity should function in Phil Parkinson’s side. We have always known that Parkinson as a manager wants a controlled, dependable creativity. The Versace idea of creativity as being a clash of ideas is something which City tried last season and got success at but that success was limited. It game us – one could argue – the greatest season to support Bradford City we’ve ever known: Chelsea, Sunderland, Leeds; and it saw an improvement in the League One position but it saw fluctuating results.

Players have come available this close season – players like George Green – who represent that idea of idea clash creativity. The Gascoigne figure bewitches the mind but Parkinson wants the Mingus idea of creativity. He wants a lex parsimoniae creativity of simple football played in small, well practised units.

Parkinson wants the creativity of dependability, metronomic in making chances. To get this he needs reliable routes to goal. That Morais will find Hanson from dead balls is already obvious as is Rory McArdle hitting Hanson long but Parkinson wants Meredith opening the same path, he wants a player entering in the second phase of attacks, he wants full backs able to go past wider players. He wants to collect a team or reliable attacking routes to goal and he is building that from his 442 formation.

At the moment he has James Hanson’s head. It is not wonder he did not want the striker to go.

Phil Parkinson against the forces of wilful blindness

It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore – Margaret Heffernan, Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious

Two absolute legends gone in the space of a few days. I wish them nothing but the best – Mark Hainsworth ?aka @bcafcmark, Twitter

If Andrew Davies’ exit to Ross County this week was unexpected Jon Stead’s signed for League Two Notts County rather than Bradford City was confirmation for Bradford City supporters.

No one was sure what Stead’s move did confirm – that the club had less money that it seemed of should have to to be the prime concern – but Mark Hainsworth’s tweet recalls the way that City fans took Stead to their hearts after the win over Chelsea.

The fact that Stead had seemed to be Mr Huddersfield Town for a long part of his career hardly seemed to matter. Indeed as Stead put Chelsea to the sword he was technically a Huddersfield Town player and that alone seemed to be enough of a factor to ensure that Simon Eastwood’s career at Bradford City never got out of the blocks when he joined on loan from the team to the West.

City fans fell in love with Jon Stead and as Heffernan says it is not only true that love is blind it is staggering how much evidence we are prepared to ignore in that blindness.

Wilful blindness

Wilful blindness is a legal term applied to a situation in which a person deliberately avoids knowing information to avoid being liable for knowing it. In short it is why if someone gives you a £1,000 to carry a suitcase through HM Customs you are liable what the contents of the suitcase are.

Wilful blindness is carrying the case without opening the case because you know what you would find if you opened the case. It is when you avoid knowing pertinent information to avoid liability.

It is a dangerous trait to employ in football where liability is not decided so much as detected. If a Chairman retains the services of a manager being wilfully blind to the mistakes he is making results quickly remove that blindness. A manager can more easily be guilty of it. Playing a favourite player despite his failings is masked by the other players on the field but even that is eventually found out.

Do I not like that

Overall, people are about twice as likely to seek information that supports their own point of view as they are to consider an opposing idea – Heffernan

When Graham Taylor removed Gary Lineker in the final twenty minutes of his final game for England in 1992 the nation went into uproar at the way the England manager had cruelly ended the career of one of the finest strikers in the side’s history and sabotaged chances of progressing in Euro 92.

A sober remembering of the game – a 2-1 defeat – recalls that Lineker was playing poorly and the Silver Haired Goal Hanger admits so himself. That Taylor replaced Lineker with the monumentally average Alan Smith rather than – for example – fresh faced Alan Shearer was a whole different mistake but in removing Lineker Taylor worked against the wilful blindness of a country who were perfectly prepared to ignore The Static Crisp Salesman’s ineffectiveness which saw him not score in Euro 92, or in the run up to Euro 92.

It would be too much to suggest that Taylor was struck by inspiration when he ignored this common wilful blindness but there was something iconoclastic about his actions, even if they were fruitless.

Which Jon Stead?

The Jon Stead against Chelsea was a rare sight at Bradford City but it was an impressive one. Stead’s performance was inspirational and at the end of the season it was mentioned as the best single display by a player all year. It is impossible when thinking of Jon Stead not to think of that day.

But there were games against Chesterfield and Preston North End as City’s season fizzled out which were also a part of Jon Stead. His play was frustrating and he was easily marshalled by the more impressive defenders of League One like Ian Evatt and Paul Huntington.

Without knowing what he was offered by Bradford City – or by Notts County – to make him one of City’s highest paid players as was suggested would be to be wilfully blind to those games where Jon Stead was – well – not very good. Not very good or at least not very useful to the aims of scoring goals which has to factor into Phil Parkinson’s thinking.

Like Graham Taylor in 1992 dealing with Gary Lineker Parkinson does not have the luxury of looking at Stead with optimism and ignoring the information he does not want to be the case. If he spends his budget on a player on the hope that the high watermark of his performances will be the common and constant watermark then he will fail ass a manager.

He has to open the suitcase because he is liable for what is in it. Signing Jon Stead is an exercise in wilful blindness.

Yes, but which Jon Stead?

It would seem that Steve Davies has joined City to replace Stead and the standard that Davies will be held against is not the Stead of those games where he wandered, or looked disinterested, but the Chelsea and the Sunderland matches where he was at his best.

When Davies has failed to score on some boggy pitch in Bury he will be compared unfavourably with Jon Stead, but not with the real Jon Stead, but on the one we create out of the parts we want to remember.

But Andrew Davies

Andrew Davies played three season for Bradford City and played twenty eight league games in each. I think he was City’s best player last year and I would rather he was still at the club and not wandering the Highlands of Scotland.

If Phil Parkinson’s job on Jon Stead is to not be blind, is the same true of Davies? After all while I can say that the team was measurably better with Davies in the side I can bring to mind mistakes he made that cost games.

Likewise while talking about how the defender can play twenty eight games a season I ignore the fact that in his first season it was suspension and not injury that cost him matches, and that in the second half of last season injury compounded injury.

I think that he is worth a new contract but I am wilfully blind myself in this matter. I’m partial to Davies. He is my sort of player and I do not find myself wanting to think on his faults now he has gone.

But think on them we should else we ignore the obvious and create too high a standard for the next set of Bradford City players.

James Hanson’s exit to Millwall highlights the benefit of managerial stability

At time of writing Millwall seem to want James Hanson more than James Hanson wants Millwall but rumours in football has a habit of becoming true in football and while it is an unwelcome thought for many, if not most, that City’s modern day icon might end up playing for another club it is a thought that is increasingly crystallised in the mind.

For the sake of argument, and for this article, let us assume that Hanson is heading South and ask ourselves why Bradford City would be in a situation where a popular player is being allowed to join a rival club for a not substantial sum of money,

It is said that Hanson will cost Millwall £500,000 some of which will go to Guiseley as a sell on payment leaving the Bantams with, well, not that much. I’ve said before that I believe Bradford City’s board allow themselves to do bad deals and shall not labour the point.

Suffice to say that Hanson is not going to Millwall because a deal that was too good to turn down came on, nor is he going because he needs to change clubs, nor after the successes of last season could anyone say with a straight face that the club needed the money.

Why Millwall want Hanson

It is not that hard to see what would attract Millwall manager Neil Harris – himself a burly centre forward – to Hanson. Over two games in the FA Cup last season the City striker bullied the Lions until the were kittens.

One could almost say that it was the pinnacle of Hanson at City if it were not for Aston Villa and his leaving of Ron Vlaar in his dust which reminds us – and perhaps suggests to Harris – that Hanson is not the one dimensional player that some have accused him off. Indeed one recalls Keith Hill saying of City’s patterns of play after the Bantams best Rochdale 2-0 at Spotland that had he had James Hanson in his team then he would play like City do too.

Such talk underestimates Hanson in my opinion – and seemingly in Harris’ too – and I would point to his rangy finish against Burton Albion amongst his many successes with ball at feet but I, Hill, Phil Parkinson and probably Neil Harris at Millwall know that having Hanson in your team urges you to play in a certain way.

Seemingly Harris wants Millwall to play like that in League One next season and Phil Parkinson does not want Bradford City to.

Why Phil Parkinson does not

2014/2015 is remembered as a vintage year for Bradford City – Chelsea and all that – but a quick reality check recalls a season in which Phil Parkinson tried and failed to change the club’s style of play which saw a low at half time against Halifax Town in which it seemed unlikely that the Bantams boss would remain the Bantams boss.

Parkinson hit the reset button on his City side which struggled to try play with a playmaker rather than with supply from the flanks and were in danger of going out of the FA Cup in the first round. Filipe Morais became an effective force on the right hand side and fits better in a three when following Halifax and a return to confidence the playmaker returned.

It had its moments but eventually failed to push for promotion largely because of the problems with injury to Andrew Davies. In brute mathematical terms the playmaker formation did not produce enough goals to make up for those which which went in when Davies was not present and Christopher Routis was.

Parkinson had tried to change his forward players using Billy Clarke behind James Hanson and Jon Stead on occasion, and Billy Knott behind Hanson/Stead and Clarke on others. The change seemed to be more tinkering than fixing the problem the the number of goals (by which I mean chances to score goals) was suffering because the supply came in the same way to the same players and from the same areas.

To make a playmaker formation work this season when it did not last a more fundamental change is needed and that change seems to be in moving Hanson on. Already the club have tried – and failed – to sign Andy Williams as a replacement.

This is where I part company with Parkinson in my thinking. I believe that Hanson has the capacity to be the forward that Parkinson is looking for. The one in three man to go with a one in two man and I base that opinion on having seen a good chunk of the 225 games James Hanson has played for Bradford City.

But there’s the rub.

The problem with stability

If you watch Bradford City home and many away games you may – in the past five or six seasons – have seen James Hanson play around two hundred times. You’ll have seen him play well, and seen him pay badly. You’ll have seen him at Wembley in June and at Torquay in December. You’ll have an educated view on James Hanson.

José Mourinho has probably seen James Hanson play once.

So who knows James Hanson better? You or José? Modesty aside logic forces you to answer the former.

This is – in embryo – the argument for stability in football management which used to be the province of this website and the main point of discussion between supporters. A reason why it is bad to change manager is that a new manager has no experience of the players in his charge.

The majority of the time a new manager arrives at a club and on the strength of a few weeks of training and a couple of games making a number of value judgements on players which necessarily have to be less informed than they should be.

Being hypothetical again imagine Phil Parkinson had joined Sheffield United and we were now starting the Stuart Gray era at Valley Parade. How could Gray make an informed decision about a player he may never have seen kick a ball? And probably had never met?

The answer, in practise, is that a manager like Gray cannot do that and do rather than looking for what they need within the ranks of a club a new manager brings in “his own people” at the club’s expense and allows squads to be broken up without them getting a chance to show their qualities.

But this is not the case with Phil Parkinson and James Hanson.

Parkinson has probably seen as much of Hanson playing at anyone needs to – certainly more than Neil Harris has – and he has worked with Hanson day in day out for years. He knows James Hanson well enough that he can make as qualified, as educated a judgement on a player has any manager at Valley Parade in my memory has.

It will make me sad if Parkinson thinks that the future of Bradford City does not include someone with the heart, and the usefulness, of James Hanson and I might wonder how much the manager wants to force a style of play and at what cost he will go to do that but I could never accuse him of doing these things rashly, or without everything he needs to make a judgement call.

Which is the benefit of managerial stability. Assuming Parkinson is making the decisions around Hanson – and is not under financial pressure to make them – then one is forced to see those decision in a long term context. Parkinson has tried to make what he wants to do work with a squad that included James Hanson, and now he believes he needs to try it with a different squad.

Putting a manager into a position in which he can make this sort of nuanced, fine decision to improve squads rather than the constant overhauls which used to mark the club’s summers is exactly where we want the club to be.

But I’m still hoping that we might get their with Big Jim Hanson up front.

Aaron McLean and the middle of an Era

There is an overuse to the term “End of an Era” which has rendered the words almost meaningless.

Steven Gerrard leaving Anfield after nearly two decades, Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United after nearly three deserve the grand description. Most player comings and goings – and for that matter must manager changes – do not. The previous City managers before Phil Parkinson lasted about seven and eleven months each. No one’s idea of an era.

(This morning I heard that Steve in Accounts is moving to a different floor and thus no longer making the Friday butty run, and that this was the end of an era.)

And do the exit today of Aaron McLean from Bradford City is not the end of the McLean era.

No sun sets as the striker who’s body language seemed to perfectly betray his ambivalence for the club he had joined in January 2014 cancels the last year of his deal. McLean showed the occasional flash of why Phil Parkinson bought him but – more often – why Phil Parkinson should have stayed away from the forward.

For the City manager it was a rare example of confirmation bias. McLean at his best darted around the penalty area beating defenders and finishing with a touch, or moving slick off the ball, or he was a power house on the ball and impossible to knock off, and thinking about him one might remember that more than one remembered his meandering away from play, or his tendency to be static unless the game panned out exactly how he had thought.

If one thought on his signing – and perhaps think now – that McLean was right for City one remembers the good parts of his time in claret and amber and throws away the bad. We all have a tendency to be biased towards the facts which confirm what we want to be the case, rather than what is.

Too often not useful on the field and too often a square peg in a hole that his predecessor fit so roundly in one need to waste too much time on the reasons why Aaron McLean’s attitude did not find a place in Bradford City dressing room other than to suggest that the tight team spirit which pervades the club under Phil Parkinson could have been a hindrance to him.

The day after Nahki Wells left for Huddersfield Town he was playing golf with his former Bradford City team-mates (“Troublemaker” anyone?) who are clearly a close knit group of men. The players who fit in are improved by this – Filipe Morais springs to mind – but those who do not seem to be isolated figures.

Of course this team ethic does more help than harm and one can only feel sorry for a player like McLean if he has arrived to find himself a square peg off the field as well as on it, but not too sorry when one thinks of the wages freed up by his departure. Wages which Phil Parkinson is expected to spend on bringing Jon Stead to the club on a permanent basis.

A high profile signing such as McLean who has not worked out has ended many manager’s careers at clubs and there is a strong argument one could make that had 2015 not opened with Parkinson’s side beating Millwall and Chelsea then McLean’s failure could have had more serious ramifications for the City boss.

That it did not tells us something about where Bradford City are in the maturing middle of the Phil Parkinson era at Bradford City. The manager has had his beginning, and now has made mistakes and is allowed to learn from them rather than be punished for them.

McLean thus is Parkinson’s difficult second album. Learn from it, move on, but come back with something better next time.

The reasons Phil Parkinson might join Sheffield United

Sheffield United want Phil Parkinson to be their manager having made an approach for the services of the City boss yesterday which was rebuffed. Rumours are rife in these matters – the Blades are also said to be keen to talk to Nigel Atkins – but it seems that the South Yorkshire side will return with the promise of more money as a managerial transfer fee to sweeten the deal for the seemingly outgoing chairmen pair of Rhodes and Lawn.

Aside from the obviously open nature of the Blades approach the promise of money always being a reason why bad footballing decisions are made at Valley Parade it seems sure that at some point as he picks up an award for his work at Valley Parade this season at half time in the FA Cup final Parkinson will be considering if his future is in West or South Yorkshire.

We all know why Parkinson should stay.

He has assembled a squad with the character he believes is necessary for success. He has the prospect of a wealthy set of backers. He has been in the situation of jumping ship for a seemingly more sturdy vessel before when he joined Hull City from Colchester United only to be shipwrecked before.

If anyone knows the impact of moving clubs on a career heading on an upward trajectory it is Phil Parkinson. We do not recognise it at Bradford City but Bradford City were Parkinson’s last chance saloon. If Parkinson had failed at City there was not another job for him elsewhere in professional football management. He would be wary of returning to that situation should a trip to Bramall Lane be successful.

We know these points by heart now. The heart of Bradford City wants Phil Parkinson to stay so why would he leave?

Why indeed. We know this list in the darker places of our heart too. That Bradford City have a limit which Mr Lawn and Mr Rhodes have set a little too readily and that limit is not a significant distance from where City are now.

When Parkinson talks to his board they talk about getting to the middle of The Championship. Sheffield United will talk to him about the middle of the Premier League. Such overweened ambition may be best avoided for any manager but ambition is not easily ignored for the ambitious as we remember from the last time one of the Steel City two came asking for a gaffer.

Then there is the prospect of a Director of Football arriving at Valley Parade in the shape of Neil Warnock. Warnock – a Sheffield United supporter – is reported to be incoming chairman Gianni Paladini’s choice for a role supporting Parkinson. Some suggest that Parkinson will see this as a negative. He has said previously that is is happy to work in such a structure noting in a conversation about Director of Football elect Archie Christie “everything club needs someone who can get a deal over the line.”

I am of the belief that a Director of Football at City is badly needed to support Parkinson and that a manager who wants to run a modern club single handed is condemning that club to an existence of slight returns but the usefulness of someone in an overseeing role is not the subject of this discussion. If Parkinson moved to Sheffield United he would be welcomed by Scott McCabe who holds the title Director (Football Club) and John Stephenson who is Head of Football Operations.

There is no choice to be made between the two roles that leaves Parkinson in singular control of the club except – perhaps – in a Bradford City without Paladini and with the current board.

But therein is the problem. The current board who forced Parkinson to bend a knee this season and who have a perfunctory relationship with the manager. The boardroom which is – by nature of having co-chairmen – schizophrenic and has on a couple of occasions have seemingly been so ready to boot the manager out of the club that former players say that have been sounded out about an interim role.

One can see the outline of shapes but it is hard to get the detail about Parkinson’s relationship with the board from distance but that relationship – should Paladini not arrives – could be the key to the manager’s future of the club.

The rise and pause of James Hanson

Having watched them fail to cope with his muscular style in the FA Cup it was hardly surprising that Millwall put in a bid for James Hanson. The London club – who will compete with City in League One next season – have seen the effectiveness of the Bantams bluntest object first hand and were evidently impressed.

The Lions bid has been rejected. The word from Bradford City was that it was not near the amount the player is valued at which sounds troublingly more like a negotiating tactic than a hands off notice. We await developments with a sense of worry.

For most who cast an eye over Valley Parade in the past five years James Hanson’s rise is the rise of Bradford City. Emerging from nowhere – he did used to work at the Co-op – to heights previously unprecedented and very unexpected. It was Hanson who scored the goal which took City to Wembley in 2013 and who the BBC choose to use as their representative of the club in their coverage of that League Cup final.

It is not hard to associate the tall striker with all the good things that have gone on at City in the past few years. He was the man of the moment in the greatest moment to date at Villa, he scored a superb strike at Burton Albion in the playoffs, and he worked his backside off on the left hand side against Chelsea. In-between he puts in the kind of hard working displays that he promised back in 2010.

But there is a temptation to ask what the limits of using a player like Hanson are. At League One level the teams that do well have a powerhouse forward like Hanson but the higher up a club goes the less used the more obvious parts of Hanson’s game are. Strength and the ability to hold the ball become necessities at some point although that point is a deal higher than the middle of League One where City are at the moment.

One is tempted to look at the stalled progress of Hanson’s former partner Nahki Wells and suggest that somewhere in the middle of The Championship – the hurdle that Huddersfield Town cannot manage to leap over – there is a gradual change in playing style away from the type of football that gets you into the league at the bottom and towards the type of football that gets you out of it at the top. Wells and Hanson were a classic big man/little man pairing and that is out of fashion at Watford and Norwich where promotion is being celebrated.

Indeed much of what Bradford City under Phil Parkinson do could be said to be out of step with the successful teams of the division above. Football as a whole sneers at City’s physical play, direct football and hard work ethic. That sneer is turned away after Chelsea, or Sunderland, or similar but only in those instances. The prevailing narrative of football is that what City do week-in-week-out is some how less teams that pursue “pure” football.

Parkinson is given awards for his work but none of the managers who lost at Stamford Bridge is tempted to imitate him.

Which gives Hanson, and Parkinson, a moment of pause. Will City’s rise be a result of the same patterns of play – albeit with refinement – or will the club, management and players have to change to progress?

The mystery of Christopher Routis

“No object is mysterious. The mystery is your eye.”
Elizabeth Bowen

The news that Christopher Routis is staying at Bradford City for another season is a mystery that adds to the intrigue around Phil Parkinson and the remarkable progress he has made with Bradford City.

Manager Parkinson has watched more of Christopher Routis play than most ever will in and out of training. Parking watched Routis at Oldham Athletic redefine the term “bad game” for a new generation of City fans. He saw him so woefully out of position and then out of the game at home to Preston North End.

And Parkinson saw Routis put in the type of performance that became his trademark late in the season as he filled in in for Filipe Morais in midfield. Chesterfield at home was the prime example. He did some good things, some bad things, but showed a good attitude to try recover from the bad.

Jungle canyon rope bridge

The mystery is that the areas of Routis’ game which were lacking during the season seemed to be the areas which Phil Parkinson looks for more than anything else in his players while the things that Routis does do well – and I struggle for an exhaustive list – hardly seem important to Parkinson at all.

Routis stands alone in the City squad in the profile of his play. He has some abilities on the ball but is no one’s playmaker. He can tackle but is no one’s central defender. He is not short of effort but he is no one’s engine room player.

What use is a ball playing defender to replace Andrew Davies or Rory McArdle when absent to Parkinson? If Routis could do what Davies or McArdle do in the way that Gary MacKenzie did then his abilities to (occasionally) flight a ball forward would be useful perhaps but because his style of intercept defending is so different it seems to cause more problems than it solves.

One might put forward the idea that he may make a holding midfielder but Parkinson is reluctant to use him like that and it is not hard to see why when – in one of the other two midfield positions where his passing should be useful – he is bullied off the ball and out muscled from games.

Put that axe down son

Let me emphasise that I’m not seeking to put the hatchet into Christopher Routis, or say he is a poor footballer, just that having watched him I’ve yet to see him be effective for anything like a sustained period. He is a midfielder in teams which are beaten in midfield, and a defender in teams which make defensive mistakes. In anything other than bursts of minutes he has yet to play well for the club.

That Routis may or may not be what is called a talented footballer is not the question. The question is to the usefulness of having him in the squad.

After a year of watching him I’m not massively convinced by his talents, and I’m less convinced that he has a place in the Bradford City squad as managed by Phil Parkinson.

Nevertheless Phil Parkinson wants him in the squad, and Bradford City have given Christopher Routis a contract for another year meaning he will be in the squad.

What is not seen

Recalling Bowen’s comment there is no mystery as to how Routis plays or what we can expect from him so we must wonder what Parkinson gets from the Frenchman that balances out the problems he has.

Routis is not the shouter like Gary Jones, nor the leader like Andrew Davies, nor the constant performer like Rory McArdle. What he adds must be the most invisible of things which Parkinson values. One is tempted to think of it as the most mysterious thing too. The trait which Parkinson finds which he wants in the squad despite everything else.

Whatever that is, it has just secured Christopher Routis a new deal.

Andrew Davies and why he is my player of the season

Dipped in the River Styx

Andrew Davies was a curious signing for Bradford City. Brought in from Premier League side Stoke City where he was persona non-gratis one could not help but hear the feint ringing of alarm bells.

Why would Davies – a Premier League player on £14,000 – join Bradford City and how had City got him to join without paying him anything? And how could he come into the team which had Peter Jackson’s big signing Guy Branston it it. Branston’s lunging defending was the legacy which Phil Parkinson inherited from Jackson. Parkinson wanted a fresh start. And he got it through Andrew Davies.

Rarely has a manager and a player operated in such simpatico as Parkinson and Davies, and not since Paul Jewell trusted Stuart McCall to lead on the field and leave him to led in the dressing room have two people tied their fortunes so closely together.

The manager: intelligent and practical; The player: passionate and purposeful; The combination at the heart of all that has been good about Bradford City.

The shot of Paris

Davies’ weakness is obvious to all. He has missed ten leagues games every season he has played for Bradford City. Sometimes suspended but often injured Davies seems incapable of a full season at full fitness. The frustration he feels at it is obvious late in 2014/2015 as he bangs his fist on the floor when he pulls up once more.

City’s promotion attempt fails, and the two are not unconnected.

One wonders how high an Andrew Davies who had the fitness of his defensive partners Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle could have gone? If he was at City and playing would this season in which the play-offs were missed by one place and four points have turned out differently?

If he had not had this Achilles Heel would we have seen him at Bradford City at all? His misfortune has become something at Valley Parade and taken on a purpose.

At Troy

League One gives players two types of challenges. The best games and the best players are battles of wits in which a smart player tries to give a defender the slip, sneak past him or through him, or pull him out of position to leave a hole for a team mate.

Look at his face closely and you can see Andrew Davies’ concentration in those games. Those are the games where a tackle is not followed by a clenched fist or self congratulation but a check over the shoulder and a retaking of position.

Then these are League One’s battles against League One’s battlers. Davies is the man for both occasions. He thrives on a physical challenge. What he gives up in speed he makes up in judgement – most of the time – and importantly he makes up in the discipline he drills into his defensive partner Rory McArdle and his two full backs.

Perhaps the greatest attribute one can afford a player is that he improves those around him. Sometimes it seems that with Andrew Davies in the side City are a match for anyone.

Indeed they are.

The river of oceans

Andrew Davies will always be Chelsea away. Put up against a genuine legend of the modern game in Drogba, and against a team who would move and pass their way to the Premier League title Davies and McArdle shipped a couple of goals in what many if not most expected would be up to a half dozen for the home side.

But something happened after half time and before Filipe Morais’ equaliser which is seldom credited. Davies lead the team in effort, and in passion, and in ability frustrating the Blues and setting up what was to come.

It speaks to the man’s character, and it echoes ever game Davies has played this season. The instance that no game should be given away, and that the attitude of the club must be that Bradford City do not let victory go cheaply, and that if victory has not gone the there is always a chance.

Give Phil Parkinson £10m to spend in the summer and he will not find a better player to encapsulate that. Get Andrew Davies a new contract.

And shall we mention

In the interests of a top five in player of the season I would suggest that Davies is followed by by Rory McArdle who has one again been a definition of dependability. Then by Billy Knott who has progressed from a high level with a winner against Leeds to a higher one later in the season where he was given an inside midfield role.

Then by James Hanson who continues his rise and at points starts to look like he is finding a ceiling but – crucially – ignores any suggestion of a limit to what he can do by constant, perpetual, hard work. Finally Filipe Morais who had something of a tempestuous time but his goal at Chelsea, and his contributions in other occasions where he sacrificed himself to the team ethic, were the proof of what Phil Parkinson is trying to do at VP.

The end of a season which asked more questions than it answered

One could be excused for not knowing that Bradford City’s season finishes on Saturday at Crewe Alexandra such as the finality of the last home game of the season with Barnsley that saw the Bantams win by a single, excellent Jon Stead goal.

Stead hit a volley across the Tykes keeper Adam Davies and into the far side of the goal after a well floated Billy Knott cross had found the striker running deep in the penalty area. It was the type of moment of excellence that City’s season has produced sporadically and that suggested that the year that was could have been more.

Indeed next Saturday when 2014/2015 has ended and assuming a set of results The Bantams could finish the year a single place outside the play-off.

Seventh would underline the improvement of the year – Phil Parkinson will once again have improved on last year – but continues the theme of the taunting of what might have been for this team. On the final day of the season that saw City produce (some argued) that greatest shock result in history The Bantams will be playing for the chance to allow Notts County the chance to avoid relegation.

Notts County – home of Gary Jones and Garry Thompson, formerly of this Parish – played a small part in City’s season refusing to move a home game in the run up to the Reading FA Cup Quarter Final. The result was a knackered City being outplayed on the BBC which seemed to deflate the rest of the season.

Jones and Thompson and a host of other players who have been a part of City in the last four years were obviously absent from the post-game meander around the field. It was not so much a lap of honour or appreciation so much as an acknowledgement of the end of a chapter for Bradford City.

After four years of Phil Parkinson the manager had taken City to a point where the club had reached a ceiling of sorts and – with rumours of investment – contemplated which parts of its soul would be exchanged for a chance to crack that ceiling.

56

There is little to say about the observance of the minute’s silence, the singing of remembrance songs, the wearing of remembrance hoodies, the fact Roy Hodgson and FA Chairman Greg Dyke laid a wreath and so on which is apt to say in relation to the memorials for the fixty six supporters who died at Valley Parade in the fire of 1985 and who are commemorated at the final home game of the season.

People express their grief in different ways and I have spoken to a number of people who have an unease at the commercialisation and branding that has recently grown up around the tragedy as I have people who find the commemorations moving. Again People express their grief in different ways.

Martin Fletcher, for example, has channelled his grief and need for answers into a set of questions which make up a part of his work “56: The Story of the Bradford City Fire” and Fletcher has been criticised – and abused 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 – for doing this. I’m not here to suggest that Fletcher is right or wrong although I am sure that he has the right to ask questions, and that asking question is the right thing.

On Saturday every ground in the country stood silent for a minute to remember for the victims of the fire of 1985. The England manager and the Head of the FA visited Valley Parade to pay respects. It was a national football event. It was the recognition which some people maintain the fire of 1985 has never had in the English football community.

Succinctly

Succinctly: It is time for the Bradford City community to step back and allow the bereaved families and friends to remember the individuals who died as they see fit.

We talk about “The Fifty Six” but to the wife that lost a husband, the son that lost a father, there is no fifty six. There is one or two or three or four with memories which need to be kept, graves that need to be tended, and years that never happened, and lives that were not lived.

We – the Bradford City community – are not involved in that and we need to recognise that.

Individuals who support Bradford City are, and often groups of individuals who support City are, and those people will go on tending graves, feeling loss, and being haunted on empty Tuesday afternoons in September regardless of the ribbon shown into the shirt or the silence at Goodison Park.

We need to recognise that.

Money

Driving away from Valley Parade on Sunbridge Road a Rolls Royce belonging the the Dorchester Hotel overtook us. The imminence of money is all around Valley Parade. Gianni Paladini, Bernie Ecclestone, Latish Mittal are reported to be in talks to buy Bradford City and to invest millions into the club starting with an eight figure sum just to buy League One players.

One side says that the deal is a long way off but other sources say that it is all but signed save creating a name plate for the honorary title that Mr Lawn will retain at the club.

Why buy Bradford City?

A list of clubs owned by people willing to sell which have shown the ability to fill Wembley Stadium is not a long one. It includes QPR – who the people who are trying to buy Bradford City own/previously owned – and a few other clubs.

There are worries about what new owners would do at the club. The worries seem to take two forms. That they might ruin the supporter base with expensive season ticket prices and that they might ruin the playing side by sacking Phil Parkinson.

On the second point it is probably worth remembering how insecure Parkinson’s job is under the current regime.

Earlier this season it seemed from the outside that Parkinson had to be dragged into apologising to board member Roger Owen after complaining about the state of the pitch. Parkinson had believed – with good reason – that the pitch was Owen’s responsibility and criticised that.

At one point I heard – and there is no guarantee of the veracity of this comment – that Parkinson had been told to apologise on pain of being held (and sacked) in breach of contract. He went home with this in mind but cooler heads prevailed and he humiliated himself with an apology the next day.

I repeat the no guarantee about this information just as there is no guarantee that the other times the the board have considered sacking Parkinson were accurate. Former players have been asked if they would be able to become Interim Managers, or so they say in private, but they could be lying.

Without winning

Bradford City’s have had spells under Parkinson where wins have been impossible to come by. When City went twelve games without winning in 2014 there was no full throated support from the boardroom to dispell the rumours that clouded Parkinson’s future.

There was uncertainty at a boardroom level – at least perceptually – and while it would be far from me to suggest that new owners would behave any different it is important not to idealise the current regime (not a problem I have) or forget how quickly things turned to see the exit of Peter Jackson, for example, or the situation at the club under Peter Taylor which Shane Duff reported as a picture of a manager undermined.

Worry about Parkinson’s job position under new ownership if you will, but if there is no takeover then worry about him under the current board too. The Devil you know might be better than the Devil you don’t, but they are both still Devils.

Bradford City are not so much managerially stable as they are successful. When Parkinson’s stock is low he beats Arsenal, or Chelsea, and it rises again. You can call this stable if you want but to do so is to ignore the meaning of the word as it is used in football.

If one were to buy Bradford City then chief in its assets would be Phil Parkinson and so removing him would seem counter-productive.

Were one to buy a League One club and look for the best manager available then Parkinson would be high on one’s shortlist anyway. It is not for me to ventriloquize Paladini but why buy Bradford City and sack Phil Parkinson? When looking at Bradford City’s structure or a vision on the field what else are you buying into?

Season ticket prices

Likewise if one were to buy Bradford City because of the support then why damage that with increasing season ticket prices? The current pricing structure has allowed for an increase in permanent support and the ability for City fans who are not taxed by massive home season ticket prices to spend more travelling away.

The broadness of City’s support which is not exclusive of people on lower incomes, nor the young, has given a lively and exciting fanbase. Why buy Bradford City if they intended to damage the support base?

One could increase prices per person with the drop in attendance and increase revenues in the short term but one risks decreasing numbers, (audio) volume and support levels to the point where City stop being an attractive club to buy.

Double season ticket prices and one might as well buy the comfortable few of Chesterfield, or the tidy support of Doncaster Rovers.

Sitting Bull

Phil Parkinson has ended a season having won plaudits on one hand, and been bullied on the other. In my hand I do not have a season ticket renewal form which – had it been issued around the time City were plastered over every newspaper in the World for beating Chelsea – would have guaranteed that the new owners would host 2015/2016 at 2014/2015 prices and probably been very well subscribed as a result.

This would have secured the impressive supporter base secured for another season. We hear constantly how the current boardroom act as custodians for the club but that does not extend to committing new owners to honouring the (good) practices in place for supporters at the moment, or so it might seem.

Bradford City has two assets: Phil Parkinson and the supporters; only bad business would change these on a whim.

The season ends, the season begins

Gary Liddle played well covering Rory McArdle in the centre of defence against an aggressive Barnsley attacking line up but his relocation from holding midfield seemed to highlight the problem of the season and why in a year of dizzying heights the Bantams end up firmly in the middle.

Liddle shifted out, Christopher Routis in midfield, Tony McMahon in the holding position, Billy Clarke in the role earmarked for Mark Yeates, Mark Yeates nowhere to be seen. The method of Phil Parkinson’s success is in character and – simply put – he does not have enough character to go around.

Rightly – in my opinion – Parkinson would rather play someone with good character out of position than give a shirt to someone who he believes does not have the mentality he is looking for.

Christopher Routis is the prime example. Often poor but also willing he goes his place because – to paraphrase – a better man than he is a footballer. With players out of contract in the summer the question that Routis poises (and he is by no means a great leader) is key.

How does Parkinson assemble a squad with both character and capabilities? What value do you put on each? Andrew Davies has both only plays two thirds of the season. Jon Stead has both but only for two thirds of the season and at other times his character goes missing. Should both be given contracts? Should either?

All season there has been an issue with players outside the match day squad struggling without Reserve football to engage them. Players who are decent enough when in the side are not options when in the squad.

The poster boy for this is Jason Kennedy who will leave City in the summer and look back at his time before Filipe Morais’ second half against Halifax Town as being his best while at the club. As soon as Morais started to play regularly and Kennedy stopped having games to play in it seemed obvious who should be selected and who should not be but it is easy to forget just how rusty players like Morais, like Francios Zoko, like Oli McBurnie become without Reserve team football to play.

Whatever reason there is for not entering a second string side into a Reserve League must be balanced against the impact it has on the fringe players of the squad. At the moment City can maintain around fifteen or sixteen players who can be called on to play and – tired legs, injuries and suspensions being what they are – that has proved too little to mount a promotion challenge.

The squad needs a depth of quality but – at the moment – the fitness of players outside the match day squad cannot be maintained and even when it can large squad beget their own problems with players too far away from a starting shirt to keep motivation and bad character creeping in.

If – as talked about – there is an influx of money into the club in the summer these questions become easier when answered by the fundamental questions remain unchanged. How to keep a squad of 22 players happy, and at peak fitness, and all getting on with each other. City and Phil Parkinson are nearly there and have been there at times this season, and over the last few years.

Get that right next year and – money or not – the end of season would be more than a 1-0 win over Barnsley.

The thrashing by Bristol City that taught us what we already knew

The emotion

“Eight One.

Eight Bloody One!

Eight One To Brighouse. They are a team of old aged pensioners! The centre forward wears glasses. During the match!”

Eight goals! Four of them from back passes to the goalkeeper!

They were the worst.”

Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns

The substance

If the one goal defeat at Gillingham did not finalise Bradford City’s inability to make the League One play offs in 2015 then the goal sodden mess of a 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City did.

For those who had seen City only in the brightest moments: the Chelsea, the Sunderland, the Doncaster Rovers, the Millwall at home, the Preston away; then this result might not be able to be set in context. For those of us – and this is most of us – this represents the low watermark in a season which offered equally contrasting highs but was always due to tend to the middle.

That Bristol City looked like the all-stars of the bottom two divisions goes some way to explaining their success this year. The likes of Luke Freeman, Marlon Pack, Wade Elliott, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, and Aaron Wilbraham have been best players for different teams for the last few years. The Robins have put them together with devastating results for the Bantams.

Bradford City – on the other hand – endured a night of compounded mistakes passing through the team like a virus and starting from the dis-effective. There was something in the way that Mark Yeates kept playing James Meredith short that caused Meredith problems and those problems chipped into a decent display from the left back which became a very poor one.

From Meredith it spread. After the left back was beaten by the effervescent Freeman for a second goal which Stephen Darby was massively outjumped for it had passed to the opposite full back (credit Darby, he strode on manfully) but most crucially to the goalkeeper Ben Williams.

Williams’ command of his box was shot and the area behind Rory McArdle and Gary MacKenzie was freeland for the opposition where it should be an area for a all out keeper to come claim balls. This would be seen in the 4th goal, or perhaps the 5th, where Pack bent a ball behind the central defenders and in front of Williams and there was the freedom of the pitch to head home in.

It is horrible to write off a man’s career but Williams seemed a spent force. A technical goalkeeper who needs to show a command of his box which he does not he is like the minutes after a goal when Jon McLaughlin would sulk stretched out for entire games. Jordan Pickford’s mouth on style will take him to places Williams’ laconic ways will not, and are far more useful.

MacKenzie caught what was going around. His defending was average but his failure was in attempts to play controlled passes rather than clearances, and a strange choke that saw him trying to volley away things he would previously have headed.

The Choke – an interesting concept in Sports Psychology – I use to to describe a failure to win what was expected but to do what is normally done. MacKenzie – when under pressure and at three goals down – stops being the reliable clearance based replacement for Andrew Davies and starts trying to play the ball like Beckenbauer.

The midfield were out muscled – at times unfairly and Gary Liddle will wonder how his being elbowed in the closing stages is something that can be ignored – but at times by a Bristol City side who were more committed to winning the game. The 442 Phil Parkinson favoured for the evening badly needs a speedy winger to stop an opposition midfield sitting toe to toe knowing it will not be beaten for pace.

Parkinson switched to a 4312 for the second half. If the manager wants to maintain an ability to move between the two formations he needs at least one fast wide player who can make the flat four lass flat and he needs to rethink Billy Clarke’s ability in the playmaker role in a three man with one behind formation.

Clarke drifted out of the game at about fifty five minutes last out never to be seen again. Pack dealt with him well – one seldom comes up against such a player – but to highlight the problem Luke Freeman was offering a masterclass in playing the playmaker role for the opposition.

Freeman was a constant threat – the type of player you do not want to see on the ball – in a way that Clarke has not been. In truth Freeman offers a model the playmaker role – set out for Mark Yeates at the start of the season – to be filled by Billy Knott who does the job of constant annoyance better than Clarke.

As it was Clarke was ineffective as was Jon Stead. Stead fills the heart with joy – Chelsea and all that – and typifies City’s season. Sometimes he is Chelsea, sometimes he is this, and when negotiating with the forward (perhaps in Lira, so to speak) one hopes nights like this where he offered very little of note are remembered.

Which is not to criticise the former England u21 player but while he was an England u21 player James Hanson was working at the Co-op and on the night when he saw his team get battered Hanson emerged with credibility. His head did not go down, his levels did not drop, and he alone could be said to have earned his corn on this woeful evening.

What then for Parkinson and his squad. As obliquely referenced above takeover talk buzzed around Valley Parade with the idea of investment on the horizon. Often a double edged sword this investment may give Parkinson the wage budget to improve his side but Parkinson will look for characters to do that, and it is character that was lacking tonight.

The squad – at the moment – seems to break into three groups. There are players who lead and who have the character needed for success: Hanson, McArdle, Davies, Darby and more; and there are players who when led will show the character to create a great group and team: Morais, Knott, Meredith, MacKenzie and more; and there are players who seem to have failed a test of character or of usefulness: Yeates, Routis, Zoko, Williams and more; who the manager has taken a look at must have found wanting.

The ability to process the side to sift the one from the other is the test that Parkinson faces every year. It seems more pressing when one throws a carriage clock out of a window but it is not.

Promotion this year was an optical illusion based on the curvature of a win over Chelsea and ignoring the displays where City came up short mentally, and in character, and was a practice in confirmation bias.

The 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City confirmed promotion for them but told us what we already knew – that Bradford City were not going to be promoted this season – and so we move onto next.

Phil Parkinson facing the face of success as Preston beat Bradford City 3-0 at Valley Parade

The 3-0 defeat to Preston North End will be hard to take for Phil Parkinson and his Bradford City team but contained within it a number of sobering lessons.

The game turned almost entirely in the fourteenth minute when a hopefully ball forward to Joe Garner was demurred from by Christopher Routis, who then ended up on the wrong side of Garner, and then brought Garner down, and was then sent off.

Following that City enjoyed a good deal of good play and Jon Stead will look back at a shot well saved by Sam Johnstone (who frustrated City in a 1-2 reversal by Doncaster earlier in the season) but after half time when Gary Liddle – press-ganged into central defence – slid into Jermaine Beckford the direction of the match was sealed.

The three goals flattered Preston who played well and one was left with the feeling that but for a fourteenth minute sending off one could have seen a superb football match but with the certainty that for the visitor’s had enough talents they did not need all the help City gave them.

Mistakes

I’m not going to criticise Christopher Routis for his sending off but I am amazed by Phil Parkinson believing that the Swiss was ever going to be suitable to play central defender in this match.

Routis is titularly a central defender and perhaps it says he is a central defender on his passport but the skills that are needed to play a League One football game as a central defender (especially against Beckford and Garner) he does not possess. Rory McArdle does. Andrew Davies does. Gary MacKenzie does. The Preston three of Tom Clarke, Bailey Wright and Paul Huntington do.

And while hindsight is 20:20 playing Routis in the position was a mistake by Phil Parkinson and one that had consequences in short order. Without Davies and without MacKenzie one might suggest that Parkinson had only two central defenders left in McArdle and Routis and was forced into the selection but to that I would say he then had only one and had to play someone out of position.

Christopher Routis has shown time and again that he cannot play a central defensive position in League One. Parkinson made a call playing him there rather than dropping Gary Liddle into the back four and was rewarded for that with the performance one had come to expect from Routis even when Routis is playing well.

He does individual things well some of the time and is poor in team patterns. The curious thing about Parkinson’s decision to play him was that there were four very good examples of what good look like when it comes to defending in League One. It looks like Tom Clarke, it looks like Rory McArdle, and it does not look like Routis.

Not mistakes

Why Parkinson felt that Routis was capable is in his judgement and his judgement is sound most of the time. Routis aside Parkinson will look back on a team that showed much against a very good Preston North End side although there are areas of concern and lessons to be learnt.

Going forward City’s cutting edge depends on Jon Stead and Jon Stead’s mood seems to govern much. Against Preston he was not the Jon Stead who put Chelsea to the sword and was subdued. James Hanson – on the other hand – maintains a constant level of performance. It is not hard to see why managers have been frustrated with Stead in the past but Parkinson has a decision to make on the mark he sets on Stead.

The Jon Stead of Chelsea is a player one would take the edge of the budget for, the Jon Stead of Preston is somewhat lower in value, and only those inside the club know what offers have been made to the forward. With Aaron McLean still earning for City whilst in semi-retirement at Peterborough for another season there is a need for the City to have a player who can provide (in both scoring and creating) goals in games like Preston at Home.

If that is Jon Stead then one would be overjoyed – he has a #sowhat cult following and all – but the lesson of Preston for Phil Parkinson is that of the two Steads and the judgement the manager must show is which one will get get most of the time should he be signed, and how much is that worth?

There is value to be had elsewhere. City have no goalkeeper signed up for next season. Ben Williams saved a penalty and has some talents but if Parkinson wanted a keeper to control his penalty area and clean out crosses then Williams is not that man.

Which is not to take anything away from Williams but rather to say that this game with Preston is the type of match that Phil Parkinson needs to take lessons from.

We know what good looks like

To get promoted from League One you have to be good. Good looks like Bradford City’s performance with ten men in many ways. Short of a man the players worked hard and worked hard for each other. At times it was – to use a cliché – difficult to tell which side had the full complement of players but when Daniel Johnson first and later Chris Humphrey fired the kind of shots one takes when one has a man, and a goal, advantage the difference was obvious.

Good looks like confidence, and City can add more of that, and it looks like self belief and that is sometimes lacking from the Bantams. Mostly though those things need to be tweaked rather than overhauled and after the game one was left with the idea that City with eleven men would not be far away from Preston. That City have the right framework in place for promotion, but need to improve in some areas.

Phil Parkinson does not need a template for knowing what a team which can be promoted looks like but – if he does – Preston North End might represent it.

(Aside: Dylan Mottley Henry made his début and looked keen.)

Parkinson’s success is seen in the shifting of the Overton Window when Bradford City beat Doncaster Rovers 3-0

The Overton window in politics

In political theory, the Overton window is the range of ideas the public will accept. According to the theory, an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within that window. At any given moment, the “window” includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.Overton Window, Joseph P. Overton

It is commonly held, and held for good reason, that the current and previous incarnation of The Labour Party (Miliband and Blair) are substantially to the right of the 1970s (Wilson) party and that the current Conservative policies are also massively to the right of where they could have been in the same decade. 1971’s Industry Relations Act from Ted Heath would put him left of current Labour thinking.

The Overton window is defined – broadly speaking – by the left and right of what the public will accept and so the two parties stand glaring across it. The window was dragged significantly to the right under Thatcher and so Heath would be out of step with modern Tories just as Blair would be out of step in the 1970s Labour movement. The left and right are relative to a centre which is defined by the greater populous.

James Hanson, predictable

Which seems to have very little to do with a Friday night in Doncaster and Bradford City wandering into the dressing room at half time scoreless against a Rovers side who – like Chesterfield on Tuesday night – looked very similar to the Bantams in approach and effort.

First half blows had been exchanged – weakly perhaps – and once again City seemed to be playing a game on a knife edge. Gary MacKenzie’s slip on Tuesday night had decided the Chesterfield game in the visitors favour and something similar would decide this game, or so it seemed.

Which was the frame of reference that a grumble about the predictability of City’s approach of hitting the ball to James Hanson came about. The speaker thought City needed to “get rid” of the man 442 had called the 45th best player outside the Premier League and one could waste ink on the denotation of this rather than its connotation: that City needed something to tip the knife edge in their favour.

Hanson was policed all evening by a Doncaster Rovers backline who know the striker’s threat and did what they could to respond to it. After forty five minutes they would have been pleased with their attentions – not so after ninety – but the instinct of City fans that the Bantams needed to add something less predictable alongside the thrust of James Hanson was telling.

At this stage of the season four years ago there was (needless, in my opinion) talk of City falling out of the League because of Peter Taylor’s management and Peter Jackson’s arrival was seen as something of a saving grace. Taylor’s team were never in danger of relegation and so any credit to Jackson for “saving” a club that was not in trouble is – in my opinion – misplaced but he is given that credit in wider public opinion.

The Overton window in football

Manchester City almost finished in the UEFA Cup places in 2005. At the time it was high drama in the Premier League. David James – goalkeeper – went up field to try seal this amazing achievement for the Blue side of Manchester but it was not to be. In the end Manchester City reflected on a good season but finished 8th.

A similar finish for Manchester City now would be cause for alarm. The ownership of the club – through Khaldoon Al Mubarak – has changed what the populous believe Manchester City should be achieving significantly. When winning the Premier League last season the reaction was muted – or so it seemed – because of failures in the Champions League.

The Overton window in football for Manchester City has shifted as a result of the massive investment in the club.

The same can be said for Chelsea who played league games at Valley Parade in the 1980s but now measure their success by European Trophies and Premier Leagues. It can be said to have shifted down for Newcastle United who go into a derby game with Sunderland hoping for local bragging rights and a secure Premier League finish as a return for a club that twenty years ago believed they would win the League. Mike Ashley’s ownership of the club has – in the minds of fans and the rest of football – made sure that ambitions should be limited and so they are limited to a window of achievement which is shifted downwards since the Keegan era.

It can be said for Blackpool who – when the North of England used to holiday there in the 1950s – were a team capable of winning trophies but as overseas holidays took business the Overton window for football slide down and down to a point where the team who had the Greatest Footballer ever (some say, Matthews himself thought Tom Finney was better) are now amazed to have had a year in the top division.

Four years ago the Overton window in football at Bradford City had shifted down to a point where relegation from the Football League was feared and the idea of promotion from League Two was considered to be all but unreachable. “My main aim next season is to play attractive football, but winning football as well” said Jackson, “I can build for the future.”

Something changed

What words were said at half time by Phil Parkinson at Doncaster Rovers we will not know but the outcome was incredible. In the second half the Bantams were yards ahead of the side that has matched them stride for stride in the opening forty five minutes. Gary McKenzie’s opener came from a scramble on the far post following a corner, and a cross in, but it was the result of pressure following half time that did not relent.

Hanson, tireless, chased down defenders all evening and in the centre of midfield Billy Knott and Gary Liddle stopped the home side having time on the ball. Indeed Knott – coming up against one time favourite of this Parish Dean Furman – can be pleased with his best performance in a two man midfield for City so far. His tendency to go missing went missing and Knott manifested his progress over the season in the display. Liddle battled through and Filipe Morais’ control of possession in the home side’s half showed what had been missing in recent weeks.

Hanson ran defenders down and made room for Billy Clarke to add a second. Tony McMahon got a third – his first for the club – filling in at left wing for Mark Yeates who felt his shoulder pop out ungraciously in front of the visiting supporters. McMahon seems ready to play anywhere for City just to be at City and that attitude is probably worth noting.

McMahon’s goal – picking up on a slip by Reece Wabara – completed a fine enough evening that Phil Parkinson walked the length of the away supporters to give thanks to those who had come down from Bradford. The scenes seemed as unlikely an hour previous as they would have done four years ago.

Which is Parkinson’s success at Bradford City and one which is not dependent on promotion being achieved this year although this result increases the chances of that. The shift in the Overton window in football upwards for Bradford City has it that City should be thinking in terms of a Championship side and thinking about how to win games against teams like Doncaster Rovers who have just exited that level. How can we win the game on the knife edge to chase a place in the Championship? It was not a question we asked four years ago.

And while Manchester City and Chelsea are foremost in clubs who have shifted their windows up through investment – and clubs like AFC Bournemouth, Hull City and others have had smaller investments and smaller shifts – most of the time when the Overton window for football shifts it is because of money coming in or (Blackpool, Newcastle United, Leeds United, Portsmouth) going out in City’s case it has been achieved on the field, with the same scale of resources, and no sudden injections of funds. In fact City have paid back investment in the last four years.

Which is truly remarkable. With the same resources (less, arguably) which were considered only good enough for playing “good football” at the bottom of League Two Phil Parkinson is measured against Bradford City’s ability to be promoted to The Championship.

Now that is success.

The power of facing character comes into question as Bradford City lose to Chesterfield

I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. George Orwell, Why I Write

A poor place to start – when talking about events such as Bradford City’s 1-0 reversal at home to Chesterfield that squandered a play-off advantage – is with the self.

That one might have preferred to be elsewhere on the inexplicably snowy last day of March 2015 – perhaps watching England draw with Italy, perhaps doing one of any number of other activities – avoids the subject of the game itself and it was a game which presented facts, some of which are unpleasant to deal with.

Bradford City lost the game after a mistake by Gary MacKenzie which saw him head a ball back towards Ben Williams – and short – rather than in the opposite direction. Byron Harrison intercepted and scored. It was Chesterfield’s only goal from their only shot on target.

The mistake itself should be a problem to no one – mistakes are not infrequent and being able to overcome them is how we define character in football – and certainly that mistake aside defensively the truth is that Bradford City were untroubled.

But Bradford City were found lacking going forward. Chesterfield – a compact team who showed a significant commitment to curtailing any opening that City could force – achieved their aims of denying City space to play in by closing down quickly and making possession hard to maintain. It was not pretty, and perhaps not even admirable, but it was effective.

City – on their part – were cowed by the visitors. Specifically there was falling back by the Bantams players from doing what was difficult to taking easier options which were ultimately (and always going to be) fruitless. Billy Clarke – having problems with the 38 year old Ritchie Humphreys in the holding role – was guilty of taking soft options. Jon Stead was under the control of another veteran Ian Evatt all evening and again took softer options that were need to break a resolute defensive line.

No matter how valid it is Stead on the ground looking at the Referee saying he has been pushed over has never been the prelude to a penalty, but Stead on his feet pushing his back into a central defender has been the precursor to match winning goals in big games.

The Referee Jeremy Simpson was appalling – as usual – and many players may feel hard done to the morning after the night before but more resolution from the Bantams could have opened up Chesterfield. Claims and little passes out of danger did not.

Two Asides

Two points. One: The booking for François Zoko for diving which seemed to be the result of Zoko falling over the ball. No one asked for a penalty, no one suggested Zoko dive, but Referee Simpson had decided that he wanted to book Zoko. I can only hope that he had a personal reason against Zoko as a man – perhaps from a previous game where Zoko had gone unpunished – and was of a mind to book the Ivorian at the first opportunity because failing that one is left with two very dubious choices as to why the official did as he did.

Two: Christopher Routis continues to show the problems he showed as a central defender in central midfield. As a defender he was able on the ball but not drilled to the way the team plays. As a midfielder he is able on the ball but again does not play as the team needs him to. This is not a criticism of Routis specifically – he is the player he is – but the role he plays needs a player who can better balance the cause and effect of what he does with the players around him.

The player who plays that role has to understand the dynamics of the game. He has to understand when to stay close to Gary Liddle to look for a short pass and when to go long and wide and look for a ball behind the full back. He also has to understand when to not move forward into the areas that Clarke behind the front players wants to move into and when to do that to offer Clarke a chance to switch positions.

It is a tough position to play and it needs a player who can read the game in situ and Routis is not that player. As able a deputy as he proves trying his hardest to fill a gap the gap going forward has become more and more obvious and is repeated on the left hand side when Billy Knott is not playing.

Facing

The mix through of players who could not and players who would not commit enough to win the game was decisive and the chance to move sixth which presented itself receded. Tony McMahon had a late strike which Tommy Lee – a fine keeper – saved well but few of the City players will be especially happy with being bullied out of a game.

Phil Parkinson has made his career on pulling teams together and battling through. On Saturday I thought that City had to over-perform to win sixth place in League One and losing to Chesterfield 1-0 was a prime example of what happens when The Bantams do not do that.

One never wants to fall into cliché but there is a truism in games being won by the team that wants to win more. Chesterfield made it difficult for the Bradford City players to do as they wanted to do and so some of the players did something easier and less productive.

That is the test of character that we so often talk about Phil Parkinson’s City teams passing, that was failed last night.

The game was settled by a small margin – a mistake – but such is the nature of games between teams that have similar virtues. Parkinson – if this season is not to fizzle out – needs to find a way to have his players overcome stiff resistance or face the unpleasant thought that to progress he will need different, bigger, characters who can.

The continuing problem with Bradford City’s promotion push

When Fleetwood Town scored the second of their two late goals to equalise a game that Bradford City were strolling in one could not help but wonder two things: Just how the visitors from the East Coast found an extra two gears after a performance that suggested they had finished playing for the season, and just what Phil Parkinson would be saying to his Bradford City players after the game.

On the first point one has to give credit to Fleetwood and their manager Graeme Alexander for turning the game around. For long periods they looked uninterested in not losing the match, and incapable of doing to stop Bradford City winning without breaking into a run.

Nathan Pond equalised in the last moment capping a very good display from the defender but for long periods of the game the visitors were pedestrians watching the football go by. It speaks to their character that they came back into the game from the position they did, but it should worry Phil Parkinson that they did.

Which moves onto the second point which was the problem with the level of application which the Bantams put into the game and how this differs from Monday night. If Monday night was City exhausted this was City playing without wanting to expend too much energy.

Things started well enough when Billy Clarke slipped down the left and Jon Stead put in the ball from close range and Christopher Routis finished a fine move just after half time to suggest that the game could be won without much of a stiff challenge from Fleetwood but during the afternoon City lacked a level of application which would have won the match with ease.

Which is not to minimise the tiredness of bodies – it was obvious that the players are still suffering the long season – but when that tiredness is allowed to manifest itself with inaccurate and unproductive play then it becomes a problem and that was a problem today.

To win matches players must show character and showing character is a lot of about wanting to take up a position that gives a team mate an option for a pass rather than sitting behind an opposition player. Showing character is about making sure that when one is the only target (or one of few targets) for the pass then one attempts to take up a position where the pass is easier.

City’s midfield two of Routis and Yeates, and Clarke playing off the front man, were all too ready to watch the ball being hit long to James Hanson and Jon Stead from the safety of marked midfield positions. The full backs delivered little and the front two took up few threatening positions to be delivered too.

These issues compounded but would not have been a problem were it not for the late rally that Fleetwood mustered. When the visitors got going they found a City team who were not controlling the game so much has enjoying the remainders of it.

And one could point at Billy Clarke’s last twenty minutes where the ball passed over his head far too often and he engaged in neither attack or defence or François Zoko’s failure to hold the ball and preference for trying to spark a low percentage chance out of every ball rather than high percentage retention but to do so would be to inadvertently make a virtue from a performance which seemed better than it was up until the final moments when it got the result it deserved.

Without putting more on the line City will not win games, and not win promotion.

Which is not to damn City’s chances. In Parkinson we have a manager who has made a small art out of getting a team to believe it is better than it is, and then making the players that as good as he told them they were. Think back to the games before Millwall at Valley Parade and remember how Gary Jones returned with people suggesting that City had not improved the side since the summer.

The FA Cup run has created the idea that City are too good for League One and – on our better days – that is very true but those better days come from levels of application that far exceed what was seen today in the last ten minutes for sure, but in the previous eighty too.

Parkinson knows this of course. His stock in trade is getting overperformance from players. Not for nothing is Jon Stead’s game at Chelsea called the absolute best single player performance of the season.

Which is the continuing problem with Bradford City’s promotion bid. As with the recently finished FA cup run the push for promotion requires City to overperform often and – when things do not favour Phil Parkinson’s side – they are dragged into a plethora of clubs in the middle of League One.

How Bradford City lost the first game of the Qatar World Cup

Milla!

My worry for the World Cup in Qatar is that should – in 2022 – I carry on my personal tradition of taking the four weeks off work to watch the competition I might end up watching some really poor football matches.

Which is not to say I am not sympathetic to the problems of human rights – I am – or annoyed by the politics of FIFA – they annoy me – but the problems of football have always been weighed against the the enjoyment of football.

FIFA might be considered by many a bunch of crooks but watching Germany rip into Brazil was amazing as was watching Cameroon beat Argentina in 1990.

Cameroon beating Argentina might be the biggest shock result in World Cup history. For Cameroon everything went right and for Argentina – World Champions on the day – very little did.

Upset

All of which echo’s Phil Parkinson’s words after City lost 3-0 to Reading in the FA Cup this week.

In the days after the game Parkinson said “To achieve a cup upset, which ultimately we would have to do again (to beat Reading), you need everything to go in your way. A lot of things went in Reading’s favour, from completely resting their team on the Saturday, having a home fixture, being able to play their strongest side and then getting off to a terrific start.”

Parkinson has balanced his commitment to Bradford City with his love for Reading well this week but – perhaps – this is where the manager is a little selfish. Once the Berkshire press and national had taken the microphone away Parky concluded: “They got lucky, we could not even put up a fight.”

Which was not what the BBC wanted to hear and probably not what the Reading newspapers – who quickly announced that The Royals were in a cup final before adding a “semi” for good measure – were keen on hearing but it seemed to be the most honest assessment of the situation I had read.

Back to the future

The Qatar World Cup will be played in December rather than June or July which will cause all manner of problems for the Premier League but at least will allow football to be played. In December the temperature of Doha drops to twenty-six degrees rather than the upper thirties of June.

The logic is simple. Football cannot be played in in June in Qatar. It is too hot and while some players could have struggled to have a game the chances of good games were probably reduced. Even FIFA – an organisation who seem to have very little interest in actual football compared to organisation of football – could see that it faced a global humiliation of a month of watching teams West Germany/Austria through games.

The prospect of games were teams were concerned with saving energy, or just trying to get through games, because of the heat seems to have loomed large and the tournament was moved.

Even FIFA understand that to host a good football competition you have to give the teams a chance to play good football.

“Come Monday night we turn the telly off”

The Reading vs Bradford City game had been put on Monday night because of various TV deals between the FA and UEFA about showing Champions League matches.

Playing the third long away games in six days Bradford City were shoved onto BBC One for a live no-contest. Four minutes into the game it was obvious that City were not just going to lose that match but that they had been incapable of competing in a game.

The players were not able to play a competitive match.

And this is not to do with a level of fitness – City were not less fit than Reading – it is to do with understanding multi-polar handicaps.

City were not more able to play a third game in six days than England or Scotland would be able to play in the June heat of Qatar unless – of course – England were playing Scotland in which case both teams would be suffering the same handicap.

Reading knew that and that is why the gave their team six days off. To extend the point the game on Monday night was like a World Cup game in Qatar were City playing in June while Reading were in December.

Which is why the overwhelming feeling for me and seemingly for Phil Parkinson too from Monday is not that City got knocked out of the FA Cup – although that happened – but that City never got a chance to try progress. That The FA did what was best for the TV Deals they struck, and best for UEFA and their TV deals, but not what was best for teams wanting to play a good football match or fans wanting to watch a football match.

Which considering the FA’s stance on FIFA moving the World Cup leads one to conclude that the FA are less interested in allowing teams to play football than they should be.

When the immoveable object met the immoveable object and Bradford City and Reading agreed to a replay in the FA Cup sixth round

Balls in bags

On Monday night, at Old Trafford, something well happen that has not occurred in over one hundred years. Bradford City will be in the draw for the FA Cup semi-final. The goal-less draw at Valley Parade in the FA Cup sixth round with Reading guarantees that the Royals will be in that draw too.

The immoveable object met the immoveable object in the first of the four quarter final ties and while City will look back to a chance or two which could have resulted in more the game which mustered only a single shot on target had the hallmarks of a pair of teams more concerned with losing than committed to winning.

Which is not to criticise either side for that approach – I spoke recently about how Phil Parkinson’s approach puts importance on not being out of a game – but to explain the dynamics of a game which promised everything and left tension unresolved.

Each side enjoyed a half of the game. The first forty five minutes Reading edged possession and hit the post through Pavel Pogrebnyak although the seemed to be a fast and loose being played with left hand touchline calls by a linesman who gave the benefit of geography to the Royals.

Nevertheless Pogrebnyak’s shot – along with a deflected effort by Hal Robson-Kanu – was all that Ben Williams in the Bradford City goal had to do. Williams’ inclusion over Jordan Pickford was a surprise but a pleasant one. Williams kept goal for every Cup tie while Pickford was tied to Sunderland.

“The guy that brung her”

That Parkinson kept faith in the keeper that had got him to the sixth round recalled Paul Jewell’s decision at Wolves in 1999 to go for promotion with the eleven who had been his most regular starters. “A girl dances with the fella that brought her”, I said then and I think it now.

Indeed after watching Ramires burst from the Chelsea midfield to put the Blues into a 2-0 lead Williams has not conceded a goal in the FA Cup. Thinking back to that day one recalls how Chelsea were lacking a Claude Makélélé in holding midfield.

While Chelsea had allowed the Bantams to build in the forward midfield positions Reading deployed a man to sit in front of their back two and make sure that Billy Clarke’s influence on the game in the first half was as minimal as possible. Nathaniel Chalobah sat next to Clarke and forced a gap between Jon Stead and James Hanson which split City’s forward options leaving the Bantams disjointed in the final third.

Chalobah put in a very impressive game – especially in the first half – and looked as if he may be the decisive difference between the sides until Phil Parkinson tweaked his approach at half time to play more through left and right midfielders and less through his front man. Chalobah – oddly – is on loan from Chelsea. He has a very brought future.

Tweak

Parkinson’s tweak was to have the ball played through Billy Knott and Filipe Morais – and to have Knott and Morais pick the ball up deeper – and then allow Clarke to drift left and right effectively taking himself and Chalobah out of the game.

And so City enjoyed more of the game in the second period. Morais had a chance just after half time which he passed when he could have shot – he seldom is accused of “making the wrong decisions” as a Kyel Reid or Omar Daley was although he probably does as much – and James Hanson swept a ball the wrong side of the upright after good work by Jon Stead.

The best chance of the game presented itself when Morais bent a free kick in and Andrew Davies connected but watched his headed chance take the paint off the post as it skimmed wide. Davies’ reaction suggested he knew that the best chance of the game had gone, but that the tie would have more chances in it, and so it will prove on Monday week.

Reading’s Pogrebnyak tried to handle the ball into the goal in the last moment. That was all the City defend had to cope with in the second half.

It would be easy to miss

In the swirl of a crowd of 24,321 at Valley Parade and the first FA Cup sixth round since the mid-1970s, and in the media coverage which seems to have decided that this game was not worth watching, it would be easy to not give credit to Phil Parkinson’s team. (Hob Nob Anyone? can give Steve Clarke’s team credit.)

That City went toe to toe with a Championship side is impressive. If one were to ask which side regularly played at a higher level one would be simply guessing an answer. There was a character needed from City’s side today to handle being favourites and there was a character needed to turn the performance around at halt time.

That good performances and great character are common does not make them less impressive.

Looking forward

One wonders what City have to do to win the second game which was not done today. Away from Valley Parade the Bantams have a tendency to replace Billy Clarke with Billy Knott and play Andy Halliday – a late sub today – to create a different shape to the midfield and that shape seems more effective.

City have won more games away from Valley Parade this season in League One than at home, and on travels to Chelsea, Millwall and Halifax Town have shown character in different ways. The Valley Parade turf was better than it has been (which is, of course, not down to Roger Owen who is not responsible for the pitch) but is heavy and the ball bounces little from it. A better surface will not suit City any more than it does Reading, but it will allow for City to play the tight triangles that much of Parkinson’s attacking play is built around.

City face trips to Coventry City and Gary Jones’ Notts County in the nine days before Reading. In League One today City slipped to tenth and the expereince in the build up to this tie did not suggest that the Bantams will be turning games in hand into three points.

1911, and all that

But those worries are for another day. It will be the 16th of March and City will still be in a cup competition and that has not happened in over one hundred years.

Not for Parkinson though. The manager who has as a modus operandi not being out of a game is not out of a tie. Nine days to assess Reading, and the game that passed, and to plot a victory which will make City more than a name on a ball in a bag.

Nine days cannot pass soon enough.

Bradford City and Peterborough United ab ovo

Nec reditum Diomedis ab interitu Meleagri, nec gemino bellum Troianum orditur ab ovo; semper ad euentum festinat et in medias res.
Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the egg, but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things…
Horace on Homer, Ars poetica.

To watch a a football match is to experience life in medias res. While every game has a structure starting, middling, and ending those games are largely only understandable in a wider context. Uninteresting is the match which does not continue a story at the start and suggest one at the end. The meaning of the 32nd game of a season is given by the 31 game which proceed it.

Not so Bradford City’s trip to Peterborough United where both clubs seemed to be attempting a start of things.

Most obviously in the case of the home side who dispensed with the services of Darren (Son of) Ferguson in the week and replaced him with Dave Robertson. That Robertson ended up winning his first game in charge of The Posh was largely down to a first half in which Bradford City wasted some chances and wasted more chances to create chances against an ill fitting wing back formation.

With Billy Clarke playing removed from Jon Stead in the forward line and Billy Knott partnering Jason Kennedy in the midfield City’s compact 442 once again committed only to not giving away too much of the game too early while Peterborough were laid raw in wide positions. Oliver Burke looked fast and had a fine chance to claim a lead which he squandered and from that point he faded. Andy Halliday returned to the left wing where he had been unimpressive at the start of career and looked unimpressive showing perhaps that he has found a calling in inside midfield that should not be ignored. When he switched inside later in the game his seemed more comfortable.

City’s side was marked by its absences today. The point where Filipe Morais and Gary Liddle became cemented into the team sheet might only be obvious in retrospect, but it is obvious. James Hanson spent the warm up going through his paces with the coaches but was not included on the bench. James Meredith warmed up a few times but that was all the stretching his legs got and it seemed to become clear that minds were on next Saturday’s FA Cup quarter final with Reading and not on Dave Robertson’s first game as a football manager.

Indeed when Oliver Burke was removed following Peterborough’s scrambled first by Gaby Zakuani – and when Parkinson moved to a 4312 – Meredith remained on the bench with Knott taking the holding role rather than Alan Sheehan moving forward. Parkinson may reflect how much more comfortable his side seemed in the 4312 having switched from the 442.

Robertson in the home dug out found his victory from going to a 442 and launching the ball into the City box as often as could be. If this is the start of his time as Peterborough manager then the home fans who this week went through possible replacements for Ferguson discarding some for not playing good enough football may find that they have to get used to something less beautiful. There is enough about Peterborough to suggest that they will be aiming for promotion to The Championship next season.

For City the game was players not playing with injuries they would previously have battled through, and a general lethargy in the display, and at some point in the afternoon a plan formed which is probably not spoken at Valley Parade.

Looking at City’s performance this season and seeing how strong the top four in League One are a case could be made that anyone outside the third and fourth positions in the play-offs has less chance of promotion. Parkinson could send his team out to sacrifice life and limb for a push to get to fifth or sixth but – having been defeated in the play-off semi-final – the result would be that next season the club would be in no better position than it was this.

However if those limbs are saved for the Reading game and if the Reading game were won then the rewards of an FA Cup semi-final would add significant chunk to the club’s income and – with no directors to trouser the cash as a loan repayments – that income would have no better place to go than into Parkinson’s purview. A new pitch, three top quality recruits, and a new contract for Andrew Davies and City start August 2015 as one of the favourites for promotion.

One shot as favourites rather than two as outsiders.

A late penalty made the score 2-0 but that is immaterial as – it may be – is City’s game with Crawley Town on Tuesday night. A win against Reading next Saturday and Parkinson will turn his attentions to next season via a semi-final, just a Robertson will hope that this result and his plan for next term gives him the job at London Road on a full-time basis.

Which would make this game the embryonic start of next season and a rare case of football’s ab ovo.

If Parkinson is the Special One if City only get one point?

As time ticked out on Bradford City’s 1-1 draw with Walsall at Valley Parade Andy Halliday – playing right wing – stood defensively containing the visitors left back preventing him from playing the ball forward.

Play the ball forward – or beat Halliday with the ball – and the Saddlers would have a chance to create a chance. And from a chance they could turn the point time would give them into three. And that could not happen.

Likewise had Halliday tried to win the ball then City could have fashioned a chance to do the same but to do so risked losing position on the field.

As it was Halliday kept his man on the flank and the clock ran down.

Is Parkinson a special one?

Have no doubt, dear reader, that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City side against Walsall will not have returned to the dressing room to an angry manager. Parkinson will not have blistered the walls with shouting nor will he have been furious at chances missed. In fact the 1-1 with Walsall is exactly how Parkinson would want his Bradford City team to play.

Of course he would have wanted more goals to be scored and fewer conceded. He would have wanted Francois Zoko to make more of the chance that fell his way in the second half, would have wanted Billy Knott to have confidence with his right foot when given the option to shoot with that, would have wanted Rory McArdle to not lose his location and head the ball cleanly seven yards the wrong side of the goal post. He would have wanted all those things.

And he would have wanted Billy Clarke to have run back to replace Andy Halliday when Halliday gave the left hand side of the Walsall attack too much space that allowed Anthony Forde to cross and Jordy Hiwula-Mayifuila to head in after slipping away from the otherwise excellent Gary McKenzie on his début. We all wanted those things.

But we have learnt Parkinson’s method over the last 3 years, 177 days of his time at Bradford City and nothing suggests that he would unbalance his team to try take all three points when he had one. The failures that prevented City winning were in execution for Parkinson, but not in the planning.

Which raises an interesting question for City fans to consider.

At 2-1 down to Chelsea Phil Parkinson did not send his Bradford City team to play an all-out attack, nor did he at 1-0 down to Leeds, but those wins came from a combination of maintaining City’s position in the game (which is to say, not conceding more) and taking chances that presented themselves.

One can – and I have – criticise that approach as not doing enough to commit to winning a game against opposition who aimed to draw at Valley Parade but one cannot deny that the overall approach for games does not differ between matches.

Stuart McCall – for example – was fond of changing his team with the ebb and flow of the game. Chris Kamara was too. I would suggest that both McCall and Kamara would have looked at the Walsall equaliser as a signal to make attacking moves, bring on strikers and generally try to create a win.

And I found both managers created very exciting teams to watch. One recalls McCall’s City 2-0 down at Accrington Stanley only to win 3-2 following the introduction of Barry Conlon. Barry came on and caused chaos on the pitch that City benefited from massively.

One recalls the game at Addams Park Wycombe under Kamara were City went two down early on and Kamara brought on Carl Shutt to create a 253 which made for a massively unbalanced game which ended up as a cricket score in favour of Wycombe. At two down, Kamara thought, City were not going to win the game anyway so why not throw in some chaos and see what happens.

Parkinson is not a manager who enjoys adding chaos into games.

McCall or Kamara might have thrown another striker on at Chelsea, or today, and it might have worked. For Parkinson though staying in the game and working hard has worked.

But it has only worked at Bradford City and Colchester United. Supporters of Hull City and Charlton Athletic found Parkinson intractable and unadventurous and were largely glad when he left their clubs because of his tactics and approaches. At Valley Parade today he defended a 1-1 draw, and one doubts he would apologise for it.

If one is happy with Parkinson’s games at Chelsea, and at home to Leeds and Sunderland, then one is happy with the approach that created it then perhaps one just has curse bad luck today and regret that ill-fortune did not favour City today while accepting that other days it does.

Parkinson’s football is the application of pressure towards steady progress. To want him to be different is to want another manager.

Seven

The frustrations of the afternoon were obvious to all. With injuries to James Hanson, Filipe Morais, and Andrew Davies Phil Parkinson reverted to his 442 deploying Halliday on the right, Mark Yeates on the left and Billy Knott with Gary Liddle in midfield behind Jon Stead with Clarke playing removed from the front man. The result was a less pressing midfield that contained the game more.

Indeed Walsall seldom attacked through the middle and Liddle and Knott will reflect on a successful afternoon but Yeates was out of sorts on the flank and not involved enough to pick up the tempo of the game. Halliday was manful on the right. He was seven out of ten. Again.

The result was not so much a lack of creativity – chances came – as it was a misshape on the creativity. Stead held the ball up by fewer players ran past the forward line from midfield than had in previous games leaving him to pop the ball out from between his feet to anyone who might be near.

The supply from the flanks was sporadic. At one point Stephen Darby beat six men on a mazy dribble which was impressive but underlined the problem the players were finding. Without the reliable diagonal ball to to Hanson from McArdle City were less predictable but by virtue of that easier to play against. The paths to goal were improvised and Walsall’s backline stopped what they could. Dean Smith is a good manager and had his side well drilled.

But Smith, like Parkinson, hoped that what was created would tip the game his way but would rather not have lost. Walsall have not lost in eight away games and have their own trip to Wembley to plan for. City take up sixth place in League One.

It should have been a good day all round, but we have got used to better days than this. They are not long the days of milk and honey.

Parkinson has his thoughts on the bread and butter.

How Bradford City got to the sixth round of the FA Cup and how easy it was

A story of abject failure

Bradford City’s 2-0 win over Sunderland was most remarkable because of how easy it was.

From Billy Clarke’s third minute shot deflected in by John O’Shea onwards the result at Valley Parade was hardly in doubt.

Bradford City played accurate passing at tempo which Sunderland could not match, and with a shape which Sunderland would not adapt to. Robbed of midfield quality in Jack Rodwell and power in Lee Cattermole Sunderland played Liam Bridcutt and Sebastian Larsson in the middle against City’s three of Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle and Billy Knott and lost the midfield.

Bradford City dominated the first forty five minutes. Liddle sat behind his two partners who were both admirably disciplined, and while Bridcutt picked up Billy Clarke in the playmaking role Sunderland manager Gus Poyet left Larsson on his own with three players.

And Larsson could not deliver a quality of possession on the flanks for Sunderland who had based the game on the ball to wide players – Adam Johnson looked lively – which would be put in for Steven Fletcher to finish with Danny Graham in support. Fletcher vs Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies was hardly even a contest.

Better matched were James Hanson and Jon Stead against O’Shea and Wes Brown but with Clarke coming forward and Hanson moving out wide left City pressed with strength, movement and intelligence. O’Shea and Brown with Bridcutt coming back were unsettled by Hanson’s strength and Clarke’s speed with ball at foot.

Only unsettled though, but with so much of the rest of Gus Poyet’s team selection playing exactly as Bradford City’s Phil Parkinson would have wanted it to be it seemed that the Premier League time arrived at, and played with, a hand tied behind their back.

And that hand was tied by Gus Poyet. At half time, watching his team lose the midfield battle, Poyet threw on Connor Wickham for Graham, went route one, and lost the game.

In terms of a manager approaching the game, understanding how the opposition would play, and putting out a team capable of navigating that Poyet failed utterly abjectly.

Shall we switch narrative?

We have become old hands at this of course. The giant killing narrative that is spun around a team who have done what Bradford City have done in the last few years. The talk is of passionate performances and playing with character. It is of small changing rooms and bad pitches.

(The pitch was was better today, something I would congratulate and praise Roger Owen for but as he has said he is not directly responsibility for the pitch and that it is not his responsibility so I offer him no congratulations and no praise at all.)

Talk like that misses the point of Bradford City’s wins against Chelsea and Arsenal, Aston Villa and Wigan but it especially misses the point of this game. Bradford City did not approach Sunderland with a blowing hurricane, just with determination, but Sunderland’s preparation and approach was so far away from what it should have been that the distance between the two sides was great.

For all the coverage of a “team of heroes”, or “plucky players”, or (curiously) “real men” the reality was a Bradford City team who put in a very steady performance. Not that the players were not very good – they were – but that at the end of the game where City had won in something of a canter no player had especially surprised, or played beyond himself, or amazed.

All had played very well, in a very good unit, and carried out the roles that they were assigned very adeptly. Billy Knott – the agent provocateur against Chelsea – slipped into the discipline of a central midfield role as well as he had since first he joined from Sunderland. Filipe Morais continues to curb his solo excesses too.

Everyone played very well but Bradford City did not spring a surprise on Sunderland, or mug Sunderland, or rough Sunderland up. Bradford City played in the same way as in the win over Milton Keynes Dons on Monday, and did not have to play better to beat Sunderland.

Sunderland were the team that were beaten 8-0 by Southampton once again. Bradford City – in this giant killing – were just here to make up the numbers.

The best thing about Sunderland

The only good thing one can say about Sunderland is that the team is much, much poorer than the supporters. The supporters of Sunderland applauded former players, applauded Bradford City for beating them, applauded Bradford City fans for the atmosphere in Valley Parade. They deserve better.

They will be told – perhaps by Guy Poyet – that City roughed up the team on a bad pitch and the media will tell them they were beaten by a team with chutzpah.

But that is not true, and those fans know it.

Poyet set out an attack that played to City’s strengths and a midfield that was outnumbered in the centre of the field, and they played without the commitment to a team structure and the belief that what they were doing would work.

One does not want to downplay what Bradford City and Phil Parkinson have done against Sunderland or in his time at City. The level that City play at is very high and the squad’s character is obvious to all.

Sunderland played badly and often Parkinson’s teams make other teams play badly. Parkinson has his team close down the space for opposition players making time on the ball claustrophobic. That was certainly the case today.

But Parkinson just had to ensure that his team continued Monday night’s MK Dons performance and the victory was not even difficult.

So then now…

After a few minutes Billy Clarke took the applause after lashing a shot back across goal which cannoned off John O’Shea and into the goal past Vito Mannone and City – perhaps – expected the Premier League visitors to come back into the game. Phil Parkinson’s return to 442 from his 4312 was the making of his City team against Halifax in the first round of this competition, as City go into the sixth round the three men in the middle smothered Sunderland.

Sebastian Larsson – a fine player – struggled to move the ball to the flanks effectively. Occasionally Johnson looked impressive but with only Larsson in the middle either Knott or Morais could help full backs deal with wingers. Graham was anonymous finding no room to play around Gary Liddle and Stephen Fletcher’s abilities in the air are less than either of Davies or McArdle’s.

The best Fletcher did – and the best chance Sunderland got – was a ball that slipped through the offside line and nestled at the Scots striker’s feet until McArdle appeared (as if from) nowhere and hacked the ball away. The cliché writes itself here, McArdle wanted it more, but Fletcher did not seem to want it at all.

Contrast that with the quick thinking in the second half when James Meredith pushed Johnson all the way back into the corner of the pitch and Johnson lobbed the ball out for James Hanson to head softly beyond Brown and O’Shea, but not beyond Johnson deep, and to Jon Stead who picked up the ball and finished well under Mannone.

An hour in and with Sunderland resorting to playing long balls which Davies and McArdle took care of, and aside from Ben Williams making a single save the Bantams defence was untroubled.

Phil Parkinson and his City players took plaudits from a capacity Valley Parade – including a good few Sunderland fans – for a fifth Premier League team beaten in three years. The sixth round of the FA Cup is the last eight teams in the country. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United (or Preston North End), Aston Villa West Brom, Reading, Blackburn Rovers and Bradford City.

Wigan was unexpected and tough, Arsenal was hard but deserved. Aston Villa was a double sucker punch at the end of the game and Chelsea was understanding the power of pressure and seeing that pressure pay. These were all great, great games and great football matches to be at.

Sunderland, though, was easy.

How we will all be sorry after Bradford City drew 2-2 at Port Vale

Football, not football

Writing about football is difficult.

Writing about writing about football is easy.

In fact I would argue that the vast majority of the coverage of football is, in one way or another, the coverage of the coverage of football. The most viewed BBC Sport page is an abstract of a lot of newspaper stories of “gossip” – which is to say stories which no one even attempts to claim are true – while picking up the collection of local papers after the 4-2 win over Chelsea revealed column inches of reports on what City fans had said about the game on Twitter.

It is reaction to reaction, and while it is often confused for writing about football it is not. Football is that thing that happens on the field between three and five on a Saturday.

This is a preamble as to why the week of accusation followed by apology at Bradford City has been both the most and least interesting subject of conversation.

It is interesting because it concerns two of the most fundamental considerations at a football club that impact on football.

Most obviously the pitch. Literally the core of a football club Phil Parkinson pointed out, rightly, that the pitch was in very poor condition. Colchester goalscorer Chris Porter said it was the worst he had played on.

Worse Gus Poyet, manager of next Sunday’s opposition Sunderland, suggested that the forthcoming FA Cup tie between the two clubs might be moved to The Stadium of Light to provide a decent playing surface.

He did not mean it really. It was a joke but the butt of the joke was Bradford City’s ability to maintain the basic needed for a football match – a pitch – and so the butt of the joke was Bradford City.

Bradford City are a laughing stock.

The lack of blame game

Parkinson had pointed the finger squarely at Roger Owen and his co-director Graham Jones for failing to do anything about the state of the pitch which the manager had believed was within the remit of Mr Owen. He later apologised for mentioning any specific director and agreed that the quality of the pitch was a collective problem.

The club – in turn – issued a statement which read that Mr Owen and Mr Jones had no specific responsibility for the pitch but iterated through things that the pair had achievements including “sourc(ing) funding for equipment and improvements through the connection with fans group, Friends of Bradford City where they are the link to the Board” which would seem to be an act of receiving, rather than raising, funds.

Other achievements of a similar scale were mentioned and as the statement made it clear that they were responsible for small achievements but carried out those responsibilities without any remuneration. The message from Bradford City seemed to be that Parkinson was wrong to think that the pitch was the responsibility of Mr Owen and Mr Jones because the pitch was a little above the pair’s pay grade to be involved with.

Parkinson had thought that it was Mr Owen’s job at directorial level to look after the pitch but he was wrong. It was nobody’s job, at least not specifically, and so no specific director deserved any specific criticism for not doing anything about the pitch because – as a collective – all the directors shared responsibilities and thus – one assumes – any criticism shared between the directors too.

And Parkinson had made criticism, albeit pointed in what the board of directors said was the wrong direction, but that criticism was not responded to. Not responded to in in public at least. In public had been where Parkinson’s apology was made. It was carried on the club’s website which seemed to have misplaced the City manager’s original criticism from the news section.

Without portfolio

I think at the time they thought I was making excuses because the home form was poor but I don’t make excuses. Nothing was done, no help was given to the groundsman and now he’s the one with all the stress of us playing on probably the worst pitch I’ve ever seen.Phil Parkinson, 2nd February 2015

So one considered the second point which was Parkinson’s apology to the Directors without Portfolio for suggesting that they had responsibilities they did not have. Parkinson had said that he had been left with the impression that it was considered the problem of the pitch was an excuse for poor results. In Parkinson’s apology he did not, nor did the club, attempt to put right the statement Parkinson had made about the directors believing that the manager was making excuses.

Indeed there was no clarification from any specific directors or the whole of the board as to if Parkinson was right to think that it has been considered he was excuse making, that he was wrong to get the impression, that the board would perish the thought that the manager who had taken them from the bottom of League Two to the fifth round of the FA Cup via Chelsea, Arsenal, Wembley, Twice might incorrectly walk away from a board meeting thinking that he was doing anything other than a near unprecedented superb job as manager, at least from the business’ point of view.

So the picture was complete. The manager who beat Mourinho had walked into the boardroom to complain about a fundamental problem with the pitch but left having his judgement on football questioned and with the impression that it was thought he was making up excuses.

Football has a right history of managers clashing with Directors. Sam Longson got his own way at Derby County against Brian Clough and that is why Nottingham Forest ended up with two European Cups and not The Rams. You either think that football managers should be second guessed by local businessmen or your don’t. Most managers do not believe they should and some find a place where they are in harmony with the boardroom. One wonders what Phil Parkinson spent the week considering.

And so to Saturday

All of which is 1,016 words that are only tangentially about football in that they threaten the club’s ability to play the game well at home – the pitch – or under the successful manager in Parkinson who has attracted admiring glances from clubs in the top two divisions. The grass at Port Vale allowed City to settle quickly into an easy pattern of attempted ball retention against a Valiant’s side which looked as poor as any City had faced this season, Millwall aside.

Nestled in lower mid-table Rob Page’s Port Vale allowed Parkinson’s Bradford City as much time on the ball as wanted – at least in build up play – and there was something about the ease on the ball which concerned the Bantams. The popular diagonal pass between Rory McArdle and James Hanson went unplayed as McArdle enjoyed the time to pick a pass to central midfielders who moved forward uncomfortably.

With too long in possession City were indecisive and allowed the first half to all but peter out without a chance. At times it seemed like there was a game being made of attempts to play the perfect pass into Jon Stead, other times City looked like they would dominate in the box only for the ball to go unfinished for the want of players looking for flick downs.

In such situations one always worries about Filipe Morais. As a player Morais is alternatively impressive in position and undisciplined in action. He suffers a tendency to try shortcut build up play with a lashed shot at goal or an attempt to dribble from the centre of the midfield which fail but is a key part of build up when he succeeds.

For Parkinson this must be frustrating because of the frequency in which when Morais goes “off-message” fortune favours him. Forty minutes into the game and Morais decides that it is time for him to lash a low shot from outside the box which is easily charged down but the same player – doing as manager and team mates would want him to – grasped the ball and took it to the byline to cross to the waiting James Hanson who headed the first goal.

Filipe Morais squandered possession with a daft shot but got the ball back and made the opening goal. The tendency to do the former seems symbiotic to the ability to do the latter. In the second half when a good run from James Meredith saw Hanson test Vale keeper Chris Neal again and the ball fall to Morais, exactly where Parkinson would want him to be, to finish smartly, exactly what Parkinson would want him to do, and make the game 2-1.

2-1 because minutes before Vale were allowed to cross in with ease as Morais allowed the left back all the time he wanted to make his cross. The problems with a wingless team are the number of crosses that come in. Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle deal with a lot of them but not this one which was rolled in by Achille Campion from a flick down which both central defenders would probably wish they had attacked more firmly.

Who then does Parkinson charge with the responsibility for the goal? Morais for not cutting off the supply? McArdle and Davies for allowing a flick down? Billy Knott for having seen a close range chance which would have made the game 2-0 earlier saved by Neal who would do the same to Hanson later on?

By the time the game entered injury time City should have been leading by some margin and would have been but for Neal. Vale’s goal was a rare foray forward in a game which was increasingly about City coming forward. The late entry of Mark Yeates for Knott was Parkinson putting on a player who could make the most of late possession but Yeates was caught on the ball and a few seconds later Jordan Pickford was being sent off as the rapid counter-attack saw the keeper slide Greg Luer’s legs away.

All Ben Williams did was pick the ball out of the back of his goal.

The reaction to the reaction

And so back in Bradford blame was assigned.

It was the fault of Jordan Pickford for the foul, or of Mark Yeates for losing the ball in midfield, or of Hanson/Knott for not finishing the chances that Neal saved, or of Parkinson for not going for the win but the game ended level and a point away is always a good result at any level.

The disappointment – it seems – is that there was a growing consensus in support in the reaction to the Chelsea win that City were upwardly mobile and making a surge for the play-offs. This may still be true and this result may be a part of that but the narrative is not about conceding goals in the last minute.

The problem with the growing consensus is that it is based on reaction to the reaction.

City beat Chelsea, and so should be able to beat anyone in League One, and if not then there must be a reason for it and if the reason is at all mitigated then that is “excuses” and not tolerated. Anything other than a victory is because the team failed to do something they should have done, and failure is something that should not be tolerated.

And the people who fail, and who make excuses, should be told that they have failed and made excuses.

It is through this bastard child of logic that one can come to the conclusion that Phil Parkinson is the reason that City are not successful rather than the reason they are. People with that way of thinking honeycomb the support of football and get far too much attention for my tastes. These people flatter themselves that they present an alternative view of a situation but what they offer is a twisted view based on misunderstanding and ignorance. They should be pushed to the edge of the community of Bradford City support with the other trolls.

However, and this is worth considering, if a person was able to do it without pay there would be nothing to stop such a person with such a twisted view of how football works and the reasons for success from joining the board of Bradford City, from not have any specific responsibilities of any note, and from using board meetings as a place to let Phil Parkinson (or any other City manager) know he is making excuses for his poor performance face to face.

And let us hope is not something that happens or we all really will be sorry.

The moment when Andrew Davies would have done something different

The war on cliché, Part 2

Was Andrew Davies playing badly or was Gary Liddle leaving him exposed? Davies struggled on the heaviest, muddiest Valley Parade pitch most could remember and with Colchester United front man Chris Porter. Porter is a 31 year old journeyman but he is wide, tall and capable with the ball at his feet.

Davies watched Porter hard trying to decide how much space to give the forward. Was he so mobile that he would be quicker over short distances and so should be given a yard of space or should he be met with strength man on man and marked close? These calculations Davies makes on a game by game basis in the opening few minutes of matches.

What impact the pitch too? The mud was hard to turn in favouring the ball over the top of defenders and Davies could not rely on beating Porter in the air. The mud was heavy too and too pace from Davies as it did Porter. Davies did not have the speed to spare though and with Gary Liddle not closing down the midfield Davies had much to consider.

As it was Davies would get to grips with Porter and silence him. He would spend most of the afternoon beating the not inconsiderable Porter to the ball in the air and frustrating him on the ground. Porter would spend eighty minutes with hardly a kick of the ball but not until after Porter had beaten the City defender all ends up to the ball and bent a fine finish past Jordan Pickford.

Davies got the measure of Porter, but by then the damage had been done, and Davies was thinking that he should have given Porter a few yards of space before, while Porter was probably in the process of sizing up Davies.

At this point football is a game of scissors/paper/stone. If Davies goes close on a player he has not sized up and the player is fast then he is exposed, if he goes deep and the player wins the ball in the air and sets something up he is exposed. It the Porter runs at a player he is not sure of the pace of runs and the player is as fast he is frustrated, if he tries to win the header he risks getting cleaned out.

Paper, on scissors, and it was 1-0.

Or, if you will

It were after the Lord Mayor’s show for City as they suffered a cup hangover and saw Colchester race to the lead.

What was impressive when City were impressing

It took around twenty minutes for Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City to get to grips with the Colchester United side who played a compact three at the back with wingbacks and two holding midfielders on top the backline. United took the lead after five minutes and could have scored more with Jordan Pickford taking credit for one extremely impressive save but one in the lead the visitors were forgiven for sitting deep.

Forgiven and very well prepared. The two holding midfielders Tom Lapslie and David Fox trapped Billy Knott between them and there was little space for James Hanson and Jon Stead. Lapslie, 19, was very impressive in the role and it was not until Knott started to come deep and pull those two shielding players out of position that the Bantams started to get an understanding of how to create an attack against the visitors.

When they did those attacks were hampered by a playing surface that cut up badly under foot making floor play hard, and by the size and numbers of the Colchester defence. The more the game progressed the more the game suited defenders.

Most pleased Parkinson

And it is these moments that one suspects Phil Parkinson is most pleased with his Bradford City players. Having opened the game poorly, and been punished by Porter’s strike, the response was all the manager would have wanted. Slow building from the twentieth minute City got back into the game, and then controlled the game, and finally claimed an equaliser when Jon Stead found space behind the full back and crossed for Filipe Morais to finish from close range in a rare moment when the visitor’s box was not over-peopled.

Morais, more than anyone, had been guilty of trying to force a performance but once again knuckled down and was rewarded with his goal. Parkinson will be pleased that – once again – the collective effort and character of Bradford City was the defining factor in the game. In the last ten minutes City pressed for a winner but Colchester United held firm.

The Bantams turned the performance around, but not the game, and were left thinking what might have been had Davies done something different.

How far can Phil Parkinson take Bradford City as his old team come to Valley Parade

Phil Parkinson’s time at Colchester United intersected at Valley Parade when Colin Todd dubbed him “the enemy of football” for the negative tactics which Parkinson used then, and uses now, to get success.

At Charlton Athletic Parkinson inherited a team from Alan Pardew which ended up being relegated but reached the play-offs places before his exit with one fan summing up the manager as offering nothing more than long ball to (Paul) Benson.

When Parkinson took over at Bradford City he was dubbed by some “Peter Taylor Two” so well known was the manager’s faith in a brand of football which few would describe as expansive and Coventry City manager Steven Pressley called “dark ages football”.

Few in The Shed at Stamford Bridge felt the lack of light.

The debate now over

For Parkinson the discussion on tactics has ended – if he ever considered it open – in the years since he took Colchester United to the second tier of the game and exited for Hull City. Parkinson’s teams play a certain way, and they get win, and that is that.

They win against Arsenal and Aston Villa and Chelsea for sure but against Burton and Preston and Rochdale too. They win individual games which get world wide coverage but they pick up a good number league points on their travels in games which are barely reported.

The 1-1 draw between Todd’s Bradford and Parkinson’s Colchester is remembered only for the irony of the manager’s statements when Parkinson arrived at City but it is typical of the type of result that Parkinson gets to trundle his team to improvement.

That improvement is metronomic. It creeps into the team. Three months ago and Filipe Morias was a mystery – to me at least – but Parkinson saw something and Parkinson tweaked something and Parkinson ended up with a player who for all his headline stealing is best because he is so practical. He fits into the hole Parkinson gives him to play in and – that run into the Chelsea midfield on 38 minutes aside – he has bought into Parkinson’s ethic.

Parkinson took a Colchester United side with the division’s lowest attendance – an a small budget – past Todd’s City and into The Championship. He left to join Hull City because of the greater scope that Hull offered with more money and bigger crowds.

The question that poises itself as old plays current at Valley Parade today is what is the scope for Parkinson at Valley Parade? How far, with an eye on realism, can City go under Phil Parkinson.

Mr. Christie

Former Bradford City Chief Scout/Director of Football/Whatever Archie Christie – who had a hand in appointing Parkinson – had his eyes set on the club sitting smack in the middle of the Championship. He thought it would take five years to achieve and that after that he would have no idea of how to progress the club from that.

“I’ll have tea think ov another plan” was his light hearted reply but his attitude is not uncommon in the perceived wisdom in football that has it that most teams if run well, playing well, and possessed of a decent budget will hit a glass ceiling in the middle of the second tier.

From that point one is playing against clubs with budgets that dwarf your own, facilities that are Premier League standard (often because the clubs have recently been in the Premier League) and there will always be enough of these teams outside the top league trying to get back in to make sure you cannot. For all the football you play, the good lads you have, the spirit you create and the Chelsea aways you enjoy the top table will always be denied to you.

I call this the 30-man-top-table theory which suggest that the Premier League is basically too small for all the teams who should be in the Premier League but those teams – the 20 who are in it, and those teams who have been relegated but are still rich – are constantly the sides who will be contesting places in the top division.

That some of them spend some time outside the top division is immaterial. They are a league within themselves and only from their ranks will the next Premier League be formed.

The problem with this theory though is that it is objectively wrong. There are plenty of teams who have put themselves into the Premier League on smaller budgets and maintained that position for sometime. Stoke City are a celebrated example, Hull City too. Likewise there are plenty of one time established teams who having fallen out of the Premier League now are the rank and file of the Football League. Leeds United and Nottingham Forest spring to mind.

AFC Bournemouth and Brentford are both pushing for promotion this season. If the second half at Stamford Bridge tells you anything it is that football is more or a meritocracy than people want to tell you it is.

What does Parkinson need?

What does Phil Parkinson need to move City on?

Time is an obvious factor. That City have not sacked Phil Parkinson is largely because of the bi-annual giant killing fillups. Had City not beaten Arsenal then the middle of League Two position was hardly recommending Parkinson to the board (who, I am told, have had cause to discuss the manager’s position) but after Aston Villa Parkinson’s stock was so high as to render him untouchable but halo glows only last so long.

Likewise when the Reading job came up a few months ago there were pockets of supporters who suggested that Parkinson had taken City as far as he could and it would be best if he did exit. Malcontent malingered and defeats to Rochdale and Yeovil gave it a voice that was silenced seven days ago.

That Parkinson does not come under pressure for his league form (which I believe to be good, but I understand that other do not) is a result of his side’s performances in the cups. The worry is that if Parkinson stopped performing “miracles” in the cups then the good progress he makes in the league would be for nothing.

In the medium term money is an obvious factor too. The higher City rise the more the club gets and needs but in Parkinson City have a manager who understands how to get efficacy of the player market and how a squad of 18 who are bonded can be better than two dozen players some of whom never play. I believe he needs support in this – the higher a club goes the harder the “right” player is to find – but I believe his philosophies are the ones the club should follow.

More than that I believe that the philosophies that Parkinson follows – and that Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche follow at their clubs – will become common at the top level of football. How it happens I could not say but Financial Fair Play will force smaller squads which will play better than larger squads. Parkinson and City are ahead of the curve on this and have a competitive advantage which will not last but can propel the club as it does.

Finally there is the question of City’s support level. It was a happen stance that the proposal for affordable season tickets which have changed the nature of the Bradford City support for the better. Jose Mourinho might have spent the second half watching the City fans and worrying about the noise but pre-Wembley-and-Wembley Roberto Martinez at Wigan Athletic did the same.

Cheaper season tickets had brought younger fans, and a broader fan base, which is a more vibrant fan base. That is what lets BfB sit hear at the rambling esoteric end of the market and Bantams Banter at the ranting, pleasing end and everyone to be happy. Because of the shot in the arm that was affordable season tickets City have a great mix of fans including more younger fans than one sees at most Football League clubs who – when a boy gets to be a man and money is most needed – jack up the prices to unreachable levels.

I’d like City to go further in this but they are unique in football in how far they have gone and while every year we have a debate over if the club can “afford” to keep the tickets I’d suggest we cannot afford not to. We need to keep the fan base energised, and the way to do this is to not exclude anyone with an interest in the club but without the means to buy a season ticket.

This third factor is key to the long term future of the club. The boys who bought a ticket because it was a hundred quid that they could afford at eighteen will bring friends, and eventually children, and I would expect Bradford City to buck the age trend in the Football League. Attendances will dwindle at the clubs that are pricing younger people out of the game and City will have the advantage again.

The definitive redefined as Bradford City beat Chelsea 4-2

The war on cliché

I went to to write an article in Czechoslovakia under the old Communist regime one day in the ’80s. I thought to myself whatever I do, whatever happens to me in Prague I’m not going to use the name Kafka. So I went to this meeting and someone must have given us away because it wasn’t long before the door fell in and in come police dogs and guys in leather coats who said, ‘You’re under arrest and you’ve got to come with us.’ And I said, ‘What’s the charge?’ And they said, ‘We don’t have to tell you the charge’. And I thought “fuck”. Now I do have to mention Kafka.

Christopher Hitchens, 2009 North Korea: no liberty

The magic of the FA Cup

There is a moment when one stops taking breaths.

The ball down the wing crossed by Filipe Morais that goes to Jon Stead and at the point where it arrives at Stead the breath has left one’s body. Watching Stead holding the ball there are thoughts in one’s mind about how well Stead holds the ball, about how Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma are used to playing a game where standing off is more common than tackling, about Stead’s options.

Around this point one passes the normal amount of time which one leaves between exhalations. Stead has a claret and amber shirt near him and could pick out a pass but at this point your eyes are darting everywhere. Malcolm Gladwell suggests at moments like this: tense, excitement, literal breathlessness; a person takes on the characteristics of an autistic person and everything is literal and for a second nothing connotes as it should.

This is not a team about to fall out of the League One play-offs playing the best team in the country. It is not an unexpected two-all with minutes left on the clock. It is not really even in the wider context of a football match where this passage of play with give way to another passage of play.

It is just a man with a ball and he is going to kick it. You have not taken a breath.

Then from a deep position – so deep – runs Andy Halliday. A man who’s most remarkable attribute in his Bradford City career to date has been his unremarkable steady performances. The man who is the definition of seven out of ten. Who has run into an acre of space in the space between the Chelsea backline and midfield.

(Later I would think of writing that this is the hole where John Obi Mikel should be, but really it is the hole where Claude Makélélé should be. It was certainly the hole where Cesc Fàbregas should have been but was not. At the time though I was not thinking that. I had just literal comprehension of the moment. The ball. So close to the goal. The tightening of the throat that breathlessness brings.)

Who better than Andy Halliday?

As the air in front of 6,000 travelling Bradford City supporters went unbreathable and as Jon Stead saw his run from deep and played the ball into him who better than the player who has defined the term steady performance to calm hit the ball beyond Petr Cech.

86th minute, from two goals down to three-two and against a team which is populated with Premier League icons, and the man who puts in seven out of ten every week has just put the ball into the goal as if he were playing in training.

And then context floods back in.

This is The FA Cup fourth round at Stamford Bridge against the best team in England managed by the best manager in football at the moment bar none who were leading by two goals when the sun shone across the field but under floodlights in the second half Bradford City have gone into the lead with minutes left to play.

Chelsea manager José Mourinho has said that to lose this game for Chelsea would be a disgrace and as Andy Halliday put his hands to his face and slid to his knees that defeat went from possibility to probability. The come back of all come backs, the giant killing of giant killings was happening.

The football match of football matches. Was happening.

And exhale.

That Mark Yeates moment

Imagine having been standing at the side of Edger Street watching Newcastle United beat Hereford United 1-0 when Ronnie Radford picked up the ball in a muddy midfield. Imagine having watched Lawrie Sanchez make his Wimbledon début in 1984 and then four years later seen him score in the FA Cup final.

Jon Stead pointing at where he wants Mark Yeates to play the ball as Yeates breaks down the left. Yeates playing the ball into Jon Stead who stands strong and plays it back to Yeates where he wants it. Yeates past the defender and playing the ball past Cech’s left hand and then running away with his arms outstretched. They will play that clip forever.

Yeates’ goal could be the definitive moment of Bradford City supporting. It was the coup de grâce that was missing at Wolves, or when beating Liverpool 1-0, or against Arsenal and Villa. It was the underline. It was the world, and the fireworks.

Burnt forever into the mind however it came to mind.

I saw it from behind the left post with Robert to my left and Nick to my right. The guy who was three seats to my left probably heard it over his shoulder as he left early to catch a flight. The fans in the top tier literally over my head making the roar. Back in Bradford listening to the Radio. Watching Jeff Stelling going back to Stamford Bridge one more time. Walking around Ikea looking at Twitter having agreed to go when it went 2-0. The diaspora of Bradfordians all over the world. Everyone.

This was the new moment of supporting Bradford City.

With apologies to John Dewhirst (and his superb A History of Bradford City in Objects which you should buy) if you have a history book at home take it out and throw it in the bin, its worthless.

Chelsea 2 Bradford City 4 (Four*)

Chelsea’s side showed a number of changes from the League Cup semi-final draw with Liverpool on Tuesday night but so did Bradford City’s side that lost to Oxford United after our League Cup first leg two years ago. We expected to beat Oxford that day and there are posters of Petr Cech and Didier Drogba outside in the gallery of icons of the club. The manager has decided that he needed a freshness to his side’s play and rotated.

Not rotated was the manager: Mourinho. The only football manager to achieve the Garbofication of being known by a single name. The best manager in the world, or so it is attested, has decided that he can manage his resources to win this game. Who am I to question Mourinho?

Mourinho is right. As the game plays out it plays out as he wants it to. Drogba is a powerhouse capable of moments of sublime skill and possessed with the strength of a bear. He only goes over when he wants to – which is too often for my taste – and he wins all that comes forward forcing a save from Ben Williams which the stand in keeper can be proud of diving down to his left after the Ivorian bent the ball with the outside of his boot.

Chelsea’s methods are as they would be in the Premier League. The tendency is to hold the ball in the forward midfield and play diagonal fading passes that go through the path where central defenders and full backs overlap to cause confusion pulling one player into another and making space. It worked in the 5-0 demolition of Swansea City and it worked against Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby.

City then being dragged around the field by a team who claim to have perfected football. The first goal came from a corner with Gary Cahill dodging McArdle and flicking in with his right boot. It was a soft goal – the kind of goal Southend score against you – and Chelsea did not have to work hard enough to get it.

And Chelsea are working hard. The home side had cleared a lash from Gary Liddle and Andrew Davies had seen Cech push an impressive header away minutes earlier. The strength of Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City side in wins over Arsenal, Aston Villa et al has been how difficult The Bantams made it for the opposition to do – well – anything. There was an ease to how quickly the ball was in the Bradford City goal after Filipe Morais ran the ball into a blue shirt in midfield.

An ease that should not be mistaken for easy. The cutting attack of Ramires was everything that Chelsea promise. Ramires sprinted ball at feet half the length of the field to – after a one-two with Salah – slide the ball past Williams. Heads and hearts were heavy. Phil Parkinson had options he could utilise. He had deployed James Hanson in a role that saw him roam wide left and track back to full back on a number of occasions which seemed to have been an unnecessary rampart against an infrequent source of attack. Jon Stead was leading the line and while he battled well with Cahill, Cahill was claiming the upperhand even after a long Filipe Morais free kick had been recycled to Stead by Billy Knott deep in the box.

Knott fed the ball to Stead who lashed home from just inside the box. It was an impressive strike and at half time it seemed like it would be the spoils of the game. The performance – lauded in the Sunday morning papers – had sagged too low in the first half. Filipe Morais was struggling in midfield with his Roy of the Rovers moment not happening and Knott was struggling to make an impact in the game. Halliday had a decent first half though, a kind of seven out of ten.

(If I look at my phone I note that at half time I send a message home saying that I thought we would create a chance or two and would score in the second half, but that Chelsea looked like they would score more.)

Filipe Morais in bullet time

In the run of football a trailing team has a tendency of having five or six minutes of pressure at the start of the second half – rockets having been firmly inserted into arses – before the leading team reasserts the dominance that gave them the lead in the first place. If a team can ride out that storm it can win a game.

This was the context that City’s early second half attacks were in. A foray or two before one of the players who played in the World Cup asserts himself and the game is out of City’s reach. Perhaps watching from the Chelsea end the lack of pressure between forty-five and seventy-five minutes is damning. As City’s chances were created at some point the home side started to find it difficult to play inn contrast to the first half where things were easier.

Midfield passes were intercepted with Gary Liddle outstanding. At some point Mourinho had started standing up to join Parkinson in prowling the touchline. At some point Drogba started to spend more time clutching imagined injuries than he did standing up to Davies. At some point Ramires stopped being able to find a pass in midfield as he was crowded out. The solution: to bring on one of the most decorated players in football Cesc Fàbregas for John Obi Mikel becomes an irony in football history.

Long throw on the left by James Meredith which James Hanson flicked on and Billy Knott hass got onto the goal side of his man to bend low and blast to goal from inside the six yard box. Cech pushes away and the ball is four yards out at the feet of (former Chelsea youth/part of José’s first team/released from Stamford Bridge) Filipe Morais.

The next second plays out over a lifetime.

Morais’ face is a picturebook as he addresses the ball with an open goal before him. It is determination as he runs into position without harassment by Chelsea defenders. It is focus as he moves hie right foot towards the ball to strike it. It is unbroken as he watches the ball pass the goal line before even registering that he has done anything more than a five yard pass. And then it is an explosion of joy.

It was Catch-22 for Morais. In the first half Morais had tried to create a Roy of the Rovers moment for himself and in doing so seemed to make sure it would allude him. Allowing that moment to float away as he fitted into the Bradford City unit allowed the moment to arrive, and to be engorged on. His chest not a mortar, his heart not a shell, but a part of something bigger, a team. And by serving the team that Filipe Morais was given deliverance and in doing so created the purest moment I have seen in football since first I walked into a stadium in 1981.

Halliday followed, and Yeates followed, and that was that really.

A special one

“The Special One” is a misquotation of José Mourinho from his first Press Conference at Stamford Bridge. I am not one of the bottle, I think I am a special one. “A” special one considering the ability for multiplicity not “The special one” suggesting the singular.

Even José Mourinho thinks that that he is not the only special one.

Football’s love of fitness

At the moment English football is in love with the idea of fitness. Players must be as fresh as possible every game and every game players are rotated out and into sides to ensure that the team on the field are at the peak of fitness.

You can see how this idea has been imported as a part of Sports Science. A tennis player may miss one tournament to be at his peak for Wimbledon. A sprinter may plan his next four years in order to be at his peak for the Olympics. Being at 100% – not 99.9% – makes all the difference in those situations and it is a factor in football but it is not the only factor.

Being a team game much of football is based around collective abilities rather than individual ones and collective abilities are gained collectively. For a team to create patterns of play between players then the players involved need to be the same in training and in the game, more or less. You can swap a player in and a player out here and there but too many changes stop these patterns from working.

For the want of a better phrase we shall call this “blend”. It is the sum of how well drilled the players are for set pieces, and how when Rory McArdle has the ball at right centre back James Hanson at left forward is ready for a long diagonal pass which he will look to head on to either Kyel Reid running in behind him or Nakhi Wells in front of him. When the names changed, the blend was damaged, and 2014 was a year of getting that blend back.

And blend is, I would argue, at least as important as fitness. There is a level where players are so tired that they do not perform for sure, but there is also a level where players are so unblended that they do not perform and then there are games in which there is a play between those two factors.

José Mourinho opted to win the game through fitness. His players were fresher and had the advantage in the first half very obviously but as the game wore on that fitness advantage waned but Chelsea’s players did not have the fluidity that they had had in their previous games because of the changes made. Phil Parkinson opted for blend. He kept established patterns learned his small squad knowing that they would never be at the peak of fitness as their opposition were.

Blend, again I would argue, becomes more important when fitness becomes less important within a match. At seventy five minutes when legs are heavy and not covering as much ground it is the fact that players have a set of patterns of play to rely on rather than that they can cover ground quickly that makes for the difference in games.

The interplay was fitnesses’s attempt to destroy the belief of blend before blend could take effect. Belief is the third leg of this stool.

The Premier League especially has an obsession with changing teams to maintain peak fitness but this comes at the expense of having small groups of players who have played together often (peak blend) and one wonders – and seemingly Sean Dyche at Burnley is experimenting with the idea of – how a team would perform in the Premier League if it focused on blend not fitness and if a team of fewer players more used to each other could excel in League football over the course of a season

Because José Mourinho’s side were not conclusive victors at seventy minutes when the fitness of players is equal – everyone is tired – there was a chance for Phil Parkinson side who were more used to playing with each other, to where to pass to find each other, to where runs off the ball would be made and so on, to have opportunities to in the game.

Parkinson’s side took those opportunities, and we are now living in the time where the rest is history.

The illusion of The FA Cup

Fairy tales have a habit of being more about hard work than magic or anything like that and magic itself is an illusion.

Football itself is full of illusions. That big always beats small, or that the gap between the top of the bottom is an ocean of despair and not a river to be crossed.

If a team, a manager, and perhaps a set of supporters believe that illusions are just that then incredible things happen.

And perhaps that is the magic of The FA Cup.

Millwall, Yeovil Town, Chelsea and the most important thing in life

Before we begin

Ask me who I think the best manager is I say Brian Clough. Ask me who my favourite is I say Bobby Robson.

There are many reasons I have such high regard for the former England and Newcastle United manager and I am not alone in holding him in high esteem. The Brazilian Ronaldo was signed by Robson’s PSV aged seventeen and considered the manager a Second Father.

Robson brought a dignity to his football. When asked about Diego Maradona’s handball in 1986 he said only “Well, he knows he cheated”. When asked if he thought about what would have happened had his England side not lost on penalties to West Germany in 1990 his reply was a haunted “every day.”

When he watched his Newcastle United team beat Bradford City 4-3 and was asked about the poor defending on display he told the journalist who asked him that he has seen a brilliant game of football between two great teams and that he should go home to his family happy.

“That is what I’ll be doing.” he said.

Only one team in it

Shall we clarify how much of a favourite Millwall were presented as before the FA Cup Third Round. There was a chance of an upset at The New Den on the Saturday morning but when the game kicked off the media focus was elsewhere. The City game lurched back and forth with one team taking the lead, then the other. One wondered if there could be a cup tie giving more entertainment.

Two goals for Billy Knott and a couple of defenders struggling to cope with James Hanson who – if City lost – would probably have been the player sold in January to balance the books. The game seemed to matter.

At 3-2 with ten minutes on the clock it seemed that Bradford City would have something of an upset but Ricardo Fuller scored late and in the reply it was considered that City would have more of a chance.

Favourites now then. Valley Parade bustling after a successful campaign to hashtag-be-the-difference based on the anticipation of a fourth round trip which would take City to Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea.

Chelsea were and are top of the Premier League. It was anticipation. The chance to be against the best.

And then it began

And it was over very quickly.

The sixth minute dismissal of Mark Beevers was already against the run of plan. The Bantams had put in three corners before Andy Halliday put a ball forward to James Hanson who outpaced Mark Beevers. Beevers who pulled him back and the Referee did as they do.

Two minutes later Hanson was heading a flicked on corner in to suggest that City should start preparing for the trip to Chelsea. Ten minutes later and another ball in was loose in the box watched – watched – by three Millwall players. Jon Stead had time to cross oceans and acres to put the ball into the goal. He did.

The rest of the story, dear reader, you know. Halliday, then Knott again and Millwall ended up paying their supporters back for turning up.

And so we asked the question

Were Bradford City good or Millwall bad?

The question did not dare suggest itself until after Saturday’s trip to Yeovil Town. Millwall gave up but – it must be remembered – they gave having started from their position of strength in the first game.

When Lions manager Ian Holloway talks about how he has never seen a team collapse in that manner he excuses himself of amount of time which passed in which the advantage in the tie – not just the replay – past from South London to West Yorkshire.

That a team has a poor performance is almost always the result of a good display by the opposition. Bradford City had got into a habit of making games difficult for opposition sides from the divisions above in the League Cup. Make every free kick difficult, make every throw in prompt, run for every ball to make the defender run too, make every passage of play into something that presents a difficulty for the opposition.

Bradford, 2000

When Bradford City beat Chelsea 2-0 in the Premier League on Benito Carbone’s home debut the performance represented something of a high watermark.

I once saw David Wetherall – defender in that side – asked if he thought that City had only won because Chelsea were so bad that evening that they beat themselves. Wetherall could hardly understand the question and struggled to answer.

He mumbled “erm, not really.”

Bradford, 2015

As Millwall manager Ian Holloway kept his team in the dressing room for an hour following the game Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City side took the plaudits.

There was a crispness to how the playmaker midfield – abandoned of late but reasserting itself – worked with Billy Knott in the forward midfield position and all over the pitch players could be proud of great performances.

The pitch was covered with high watermark performances. Filipe Morais’ ability to find the rhythm for the inside midfield role as distinct to that played when on the wing seemed like a justification for his two and a half year contract. Morais is a more useful player than first he seemed and his ability to play simple football most often sets him apart from other players who show off tricks to try convince all that they are more useful footballers than they are.

Andy Halliday was praised for his steady work ethic. The back four for their solidity. When Alan Dunne throw James Hanson into a wall and goalkeeper David Forde punched Billy Knott in the face City were even praised for how they all stood together in the brawl that followed.

For City talk moved to a game with Chelsea of course, but also to play offs and possible promotion. By contrast Holloway was telling his charges that eight changes would be made for Saturday and a new captain would be appointed as they prepared for something like a slaughtering.

And that night I remembered my favourite maxim of Bobby Robson.

Having won European trophies with Ipswich Town, and having been knocked out without a win of Euro 88. He had taken England to semi-finals but been the subject of very personal criticism Robson had experienced enough of football to advise this:

“You are never as good, or as bad, as people tell you you are.”

Yeovil, 2015

Perhaps it was the idea that the club he was playing was selling tickets for another match on the day they faced his side but Yeovil Town manager Gary Johnson sense that his team which had not won since September would get something against City.

It was in the air.

The Bantams too light in the tackle perhaps fearing suspension, too slight in the challenge perhaps fearing injury. Or perhaps a ten minute game against Rochdale followed by a mid-week cup tie on a heavy Valley Parade pitch just took it out of the team. Either way City were a shadow.

Gozie Ugwu scored the only goal of the game and Parkinson will have been pleased with a second half where his team pressed more but City suffered a second league defeat in two. This one was against the team bottom of the league.

And so in an atmosphere of discontent over tickettng for the Chelsea game Parkinson’s side were driving back into ill temper.

Not good enough was the general tone and in fact not good. The unexpected high watermark was expected to be the new standard.

Here comes the fear

Chelsea manager José Mourinho described the game against Swansea City as “the perfect game

The Londoners were magnificent in putting five goals past Swansea City without reply. They have a fluidity in their forward four which one doubts Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle will have faced before and they have John Terry and Gary Cahill ready to go man for man with Hanson and Stead.

It would be a folly to suggest that Chelsea have all the ability by City have character because without character Chelsea would not be the top of the Premier League.

And they are top of the Premier League, and they are playing well.

Chelsea are playing the best football in the country at the moment and they have won every league game at Stamford Bridge this season.

One wonders what to expect next week in West London. One wonders what we will go home and tell the family.

Lisbon, 1992

When he was appointed Sporting Lisbon manager in 1992 Bobby Robson appointed José Mourinho – then a scout at another club – as his interpreter. Robson took Mourinho to Porto, and then to Barcelona.

When paying tribute to Robson following his death Mourinho said that Robson had told him the most important thing in life:

“You are never as good or as bad as people say you are.”

On how the sending off of goalkeepers is a punishment without proportion

Imagine, if you will dear reader, a different scene on Saturday when Bradford City lost to Rochdale when Jordan Pickford was sent off for denying Matt Done a goal or goal scoring opportunity which had almost certainly gone. Imagine Done more central, no defenders, and Pickford taking the man squarely and cleanly.

Imagine that Pickford had unequivocally denied Rochdale a goal or goal scoring opportunity. The Referee would have sent Pickford off with the same haste and City would have faced the same situation of facing a penalty kick and playing a game with ten men.

Even though in this hypothetical situation Pickford would have been guilty of the offence the punishment given would still have been too harsh. The sending off of a goalkeeper for denying a goal or goal scoring opportunity is a disproportionate punishment for the offence and does not offer recompense for the offended against team.

Cold goalkeepers

In no other situation in football are you required to make a substitution in haste. If a player is injured you can withdraw him and bring on a replacement when that replacement is warmed up. You can take as long as you want to do this.

This includes goalkeeping changes which often result in close to minutes injury time rather than goalkeeper sendings off which are completed with such speed that the replacement keeper does not have the time to prepare and he is not in the flow of the game.

If a defender is sent off for denying a goal or goal scoring opportunity then the goalkeeper is warm when the penalty happens, if the goalkeeper is replaced he is cold. Why is the team punished extra by having a cold goalkeeper because of the identity of the sent off player?

And what about the risks of demanding a cold player come straight into action? What about when the cold goalkeeper pulls a muscle diving for the penalty? Is that to be an additional part of the punishment?

In no other situation is a player expected to play cold.

The ten men

Whilst considering the concept of additional punishment the penalty not considered reward enough for a denial of a goal or goal scoring opportunity offence and so the team must play with ten players for a spell of time which is decided by when the offence occurred.

If we put Pickford’s hypothetical offence in the last minute of a game where then the punishment is a penalty and playing a minute or two with ten men. If we put it in the first minute minute of a game then the penalty is faced but the team have to play with ten men for a full 89 minutes. What about a keeper sent off after fifty eight minutes in a final already lost?

It is impossible to say that those three situations represent the fair punishments. To play without a man for almost a full game is clearly a more harsh punishment to be missing a man for injury time.

Of course there is an argument that says that goals earlier in the games are more formative of the match and thus important than goals later in the game and so a player denying a goal or goal scoring should be punished more severely if he does it early in the game than late. Try telling that Asamoah Gyan and his Ghana teammates.

Reducing an opposition team to one fewer men is only sometime a punishment. For City at Wembley against Swansea City Matt Duke’s sending off was neither here nor there – the game was gone – but had the score been been 3-0 to the Bantams then it would have obviously had a different importance and be more of a punishment.

The formation

A football manager’s role on match days is to assess the ebb and flow of games and respond accordingly. When a manager sees a goalkeeper sent off for an incident that results in a penalty kick and he must make a decision on who to remove to bring on a replacement before the penalty is taken.

But he cannot make that decision. He does not have a vital piece of information. He does not know if the game is ebbing or flowing? He does not know what is going to happen from the penalty.

If the game is in the balance – say 0-0 – and he takes off a defensive player he assumes that the penalty will be scored and he will chase the game for an equaliser. If he takes of an attacking player and needs to score he is a man shy in achieving that goal. If the penalty kick is missed then his plans have to be rethought.

Again at no other point in football is punishment so disproportionate. If any other player is sent off the manager is allowed the fullness of time to decide who to remove and how to change his formation in knowledge of the score of the game.

Only in this specific instance does the manager have to make a decision before the game can continue knowing that the next action in the game has a great chance of rendering his decision wrong.

If the game is 0-0, and a player is sent off for a bad tackle in midfield the manager can decide if he will move defensively to try maintain a draw or press on and try win. If a defender is sent off for the denial of a goal or a goal scoring opportunity then the manage is able to make the decision as to a replacement knowing if any resulting penalty has been scored.

Why should the goalkeeper being sent off be given such a special and specifically disproportionate set of punishments which exceed the punishment given to a team when a defender commits the same offence?

What Phil Parkinson should have done against Rochdale

Ten minutes into the game and Matt Done has done what he had done and Jordan Pickford has been sent off. The first thing Phil Parkinson should do is to send Matt Williams to warm up but rather than removing Andy Halliday Parkinson should have given a green shirt to whichever of his players still on the field has even the slightest ability between the sticks.

Jon Stead is tall and agile. Stead gets the gloves and goes in goal while Williams warms up.

Rochdale take the penalty. Penalties are most often scored regardless of the quality of the goalkeeper.

85% of penalties which are on target go into the goal. 94% of the time keepers move one way or the other and when that way is the right way they have a 40% chance of saving the ball hit in that direction but when the ball is hit centrally, and the keeper stays in the middle, they have a 60% chance of saving the ball.

The best strategy for penalties, in other words, is to stand in the middle of the goal and hope the player misses the target. Which is what Parkinson should have told Stead (or whomever) to do. Probably he would not have saved it but probably all penalties go into the goal.

And so after the penalty is scored Parkinson would know that Halliday was the man to remove because there was a game to chance and remove him for a now warmed up Williams with Stead returning up front.

Had the penalty been missed or Stead have saved it Parkinson could remove a different player, probably Stead, and tried to grind out a victory with the eight players in defensive position as he has previously.

But what is to be done, part one

In the case of denial of a goal or a goal scoring opportunity Referees have to understand that they are handing out the single biggest on field punishment in the game – the A-Bomb of football – and perhaps consider if a player running away from goal with covering defenders who is – shall we say – brushed is really the situation that whomever framed the rules envisaged when this ultimate sanction was created.

Those Referees who do feel they have to send a goalkeeper off and that the punishment they are mandated to give is without proportion might want to complain to their superiors and try get the rule changed.

I shall not hold my breath for that.

But what is to be done, part two

Football needs to look again at what the role of Referees is and what he is trying to achieve. Football’s laws have evolved rather than been created and many of them do not achieve the aims we should expect them to.

The redress given for the denial of a goal – as Ghana attest to – is not on a level with a goal scoring opportunity. Consider the Luis Suárez handball in 2010 and the Jordan Pickford sending off on Saturday and reflect that Pickford’s punishment was massively greater than that of Suárez.

My brother and I have talked long into the night on the merits of awarding an unopposed penalty as redress for the denial of a goal. That is a way that the offended against team could have redress.

It is thinking like that which can start to level the injustice which is codified into football’s laws.

How the Reading job showed City’s Parkinson problem

Why Colin Cooper did not get the Bradford City job

I heard a story from the horse’s mouth. Colin Cooper, in interview with Joint Chairman Julian Rhodes, was asked how he would work with incoming Chief Executive Archie Christie and Cooper was clear.

“I would not,” he said, “I’d get rid of him.”

“Well,” Rhodes is said to have replied, “he is making the decision.”

The dream job comes up

As soon as the statement was read out that Reading had “parted company” with Nigel Adkins Phil Parkinson’s name was being mentioned in connection to the vacancy. Within a few days Steve Clarke had been appointed to the job.

Parkinson is to Reading what Stuart McCall is to Bradford City – or Peter Beagrie perhaps – but a man of some significance at Elm Park and his performances as Bradford City manager could hardly suggest his name more.

However Parkinson’s achievements – and other Football League achievements – seem to be unimpressive when it comes to recruiting managers in the Premier League. This tendency to forgo Football League managers has started to spread downwards.

Which saves a problem

All of which saves Bradford City looking for a replacement for Parkinson and the upheaval that that would bring.

It would be foolish to say that Parkinson is a peerless manager and that City could not replace him but remembering that the last time the people in the boardroom were asked to come up with a name to manage the club that name was Peter Jackson.

When one looks at the difference between the club then and the club now it is hard to find anything which cannot be put down to Parkinson. From Wembley to Wembley, Wells to McLean, the club is built in the image that Parkinson wanted.

Which is not to criticise

And this is not an overt criticism of the boardroom just a recognition that they greatest achievement they have in the modern Bradford City is not getting involved and allowing Parkinson to build the club as he wishes. The impressive thing is how much Parkinson has built on his own.

Of course he has had Good Lieutenants at his sides but compare the years under Parkinson to the conflicts at the club between Peter Jackson and Archie Christie, or Archie Christie and Mark Lawn, or Mark Lawn and Peter Taylor (or rather, some of his players), or Stuart McCall and Two of the Boardroom and on and on.

Since Parkinson arrived Bradford City have not so much been a club united as a club with someone to stand behind and follow. Right now Parkinson is running Bradford City and everything at the club is adjunct to that.

The boardroom request to play more attacking football is characterised as just that – a request – rather than a demand. When Parkinson could not get his team playing around a playmaker he decided to revert to his previous less attacking formation and not a peep was heard publicly from the boardroom.

What would be left?

Without Phil Parkinson Bradford City have very little at the club on the footballing side. One assumes that on his exit Parkinson would take his backroom team with him – they all signed contracts at the same time suggesting that unity – and once Parkin et al leave then there is no chance of continuity.

For the right reasons they appointed Phil Parkinson with a remit to remake the club as he saw fit. To their credit they have largely stayed out of how Parkinson has run the club. I have worried in the past that Parkinson needs some support in his role and that the club lacks institutional knowledge retention but I’d be more worried is this boardroom started to tell the manager how to do his job. When it comes to football at Valley Parade Phil Parkinson is by a good distance the domain expert.

The boardroom are stuck in catch 22. They found success by giving Parkinson free reign to do as he wants but then they are under the constant threat that Parkinson could be tempted away and they would be left with nothing.

This is the Parkinson problem and without a solution there must just be relief that when Steve Clarke was appointed.

City beating Dartford in dressing rooms, manager’s offices and boardrooms

Bradford City beat Conference side Dartford 4-1 in the second round of The FA Cup with an ease which would suggest that the Bantams were old hands deposing of lower teams in knockout football.

It was hard to remember that three years ago around half the number of people here tonight saw City beat Burton 3-2 AET in the League Cup that concluded at Wembley in a game which less than half the first team played. Or so it seemed at the time when Gary Jones, James Hanson and Nahki Wells sat out the match.

If one were to look at the litany of failure than was Bradford City in knockout competition in the 2000s one would recall half teams being half interested playing in front of half full grounds.

The very obvious result of 2013’s run to the League Cup final and the transformative effect it had on the club has been convincing Bradford City that using games like this to rest players is a poor idea. Whatever one gains in freshness one loses – or perhaps just fails to gain – in the positive effects of playing teams in knockout football.

Winning games brings confidence. Confidence is what makes groups of footballers in football teams. One recalls how Phil Parkinson’s side found itself after Aston Villa and Arsenal, or indeed after Burton, and one cannot help but think that if anything is to come from this season over and above the middle of League One then it will come from a similar path.

So Parkinson prepares the team properly and sets out the team properly and one can expect that in the dressing room the team was told to take Dartford as seriously as any League One side faced and one also expects that that message has been repeated in at the training pitch. One also doubts that the chairmen will have questioned Parkinson’s decision to push the club forward in Cup competitions. The days of vague mumblings about the cost of progression either on legs or bank balances are over.

The club is changed. When walking onto the field the City team was noticeably unnoticeably changed from last week. Jon Stead was favoured over James Hanson who made a late appearance that would see him cup tied. Billy Knott and Gary Liddle were given the opportunity to continue what looks to be a fruitful partnership in central midfield and Filipe Morais was given the chance to replicate on the right what Mark Yeates does on the left.

Watching Phil Parkinson’s return to 442 the most obvious deficiency is a lack of pace in the side and the most obvious place to add that pace is on the right wing or in the player who plays off the front man. Which is to say where Kyel Reid or Nahki Wells played.

This creates a situation in which Filipe Morais and Billy Clarke approach games attempting to show how useful both can be almost to point to the other as being where the change should be made.

In fact today when City were leading by three or four goals Billy Clarke was upset with Morais for not finding him in the penalty area when Morais bulled away on the flank. The criticism of Clarke is that he does not threaten the goal enough – good approach play in Mark Stewart was the first thing that Parkinson was not satisfied with at Valley Parade – and so the striker looks to add to his tally wherever he can.

Today he did, a close finish after a scramble on ten minutes that set the tone for an afternoon where City would be largely untroubled. Jon Stead got a second twenty minutes later after turning in a low left hand cross from Yeates and all was going well at half time.

Morais’ third took a deflection to take it past Jason Brown in the visitors goal and Yeates finished off which a curled finish after delighting and tearing into a right back Tom Bradbrook who was never able to cope with the Irishman’s direct running and control of the ball. Lee Noble tucked in a nice back heel for the visitors who deserved something for their trouble and approached the game with a good spirit.

City’s back four of Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies and James Meredith coped with a new keeper Ben Williams sitting in for Jordan Pickford who Sunderland would not allow to play. The back four have joined together strongly and Andrew Davies is the keystone. There are rewards for progressing in this competition and Davies’ contract needs renewing. One hopes the one begets the other.

Bradford City go into a third round draw as a reward for the approach to knockout football which seems to have taken root at the club, at least in The League Cup and The FA Cup.

Dartford were treated with respect and respectfully beaten. There will be hope of what we might call “another Arsenal” to follow of course but seeing the club having learned something from the last few years one might thing we might settle for another Dartford.

Bradford City vs Gillingham being settled by threefold repetition

In the game of Chess there are five ways to draw. Most of them involve no move being playable within the rules but there is a method called “threefold repetition” in which a draw is called should the same position occur for a third time in a game.

The purpose of this rule is to avoid a situation in which the two players go into a stalemate situation. It is rare in the world of perfect objectivity which is Chess. Not so much a rule to say that a draw has happened, but one which pre-empts the draw.

Even before Gillingham substitute Antonio German scrambled a stoppage-time equaliser to give his side a 1-1 draw at Bradford City a threefold repetition could have been called on the game such seemed like the inevitability of the result.

Inevitable in that watching Peter Taylor’s teams for his brief time in charge of Bradford City – especially the way he set up his teams to play away from home – was seeing a manager comfortable with a point.

Inevitable in that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City teams hold close to the believe that games are on gradually rather than but great pushes and even when an own goal by Leon Legge following great work by Andy Halliday on the flank the Bantams did not commit to getting a second goal.

Inevitable that Gillingham keeper Stuart Nelson made two saves which turned goal-bound shots onto the post one in the first half from Billy Knott and a second from James Hanson in the second. With goal efforts at a premium Nelson’s reactions were as valuable for the visitors as Jordan Pickford’s were at Preston last weekend.

That City had the better of the chances seemed to suit their being the home side but as both teams were comfortable with a point a draw was the result.

Which returns to the the threefold repetition rule and its place at Bradford City. The rule is in place to stop games in which no progress is being made and on a cold November afternoon turned evening it seemed that no progress was manifested on the field.

All animals are equal, but some…

This week there had been talk from the Inner Party of the Bradford City Supporters Board that the club were aiming to be in the Championship by 2017. It was not clear why exiting administrator David Baldwin had made this claim to the selective group without adding any detail as to how they would be achieved – it would seem that the feedback from this curious organisation is a one way process – but make it (it seems) he did.

What is the plan for that? And why is there an assumption that everything tends to improvement. City seem to sit at a crossroads in the club recent history. There is the will to improve the clubs and many paths to take to do it. The management of the club is in a good position – Parkinson gets a lot out of his players – but there are questions about recruitment that were highlighted by Aaron McLean’s exit this week.

Likewise there are questions about the structure of the club the exit of David Baldwin – a man rated above his abilities in my opinion – and how to craft the business as it tries to grow. Further there are questions as to how those improvements would be translated into success. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s contention in Why England Lose is that the only real guide to one’s place in the pecking order in football is turnover and that increasing turnover moves a team up the divisions.

Aside from wanting it to be so, and hoping that the statistically improbable falls in a way that benefits, what right have Bradford City got to expect that next season will be better than this? If Andrew Davies were to leave when out of contract in the summer why would we expect someone better to replace him? Why is there an expectation that Gary Liddle – excellent today – should be better than Gary Jones?

These are points which need to be addressed before the club start talking about 2017 in the Championship.

So now then

Phil Parkinson’s side could have been accused of not being committed to trying to win the game but Parkinson was no more going to send his team to be gung-ho than Peter Taylor’s were of doing anything other than defend.

Two teams cancelling each other out and neither looking in a position to make progress. Phil Parkinson is a good manager doing a good job at Valley Parade but one wonder what he is up against week-in week-out and how the teams who do progress support managers?

This is an open question. I am not suggesting a plan to be followed but what I am wondering is who at Valley Parade had the domain knowledge that would be helpful to Parkinson? In a week where City have agreed to pay 75% of the wages of a player in a side chasing promotion I think we all have to admit that there is scope for improvement.

On the field some games are won, some are lost, and like today some are drawn and that is how it will stay unless for outrageous fortune one way or another. That or the intervention of the boardroom at the club who – at the moment – seem to have aims without plans.

Peter Taylor, a miserable night and a miserable football match, that all reminded me of what happens when the board have aims without plans.

Why you cannot fit a system around Aaron McLean

Aaron McLean has joined Peterborough on loan for ten weeks – although one suspects that he will not play for Bradford City under Phil Parkinson again – and so a tedious post-mortem on his time at the club begins.

Did the board panic by McLean? Not really. Was he Parkinson’s signing? Seemingly so. What does that say about Parkinson? Nothing good. Will McLean be a great success “home” at London Road? Seemingly inevitably.

McLean’s parting shot was gentle enough. He suggested that the move was the best for both him and City because he did not fit into the system that Parkinson played. As has been debated much this season Phil Parkinson has tried very hard to change his system from a 442 with James Hanson leading the line to a 4312 centred around Mark Yeates.

The transition has proved difficult and but McLean has not suffered any more or less with the change from playing off James Hanson in a target man system to the Mark Yeates playmaking system that City started the season with. It would be fair to say that he has not done well under either of the two different approaches to the game.

System that McLean did not fit into

With the Hanson system McLean’s role would be to get close and look to be found, or find, head downs and flicks on or defensive clearances. In this the second striker role McLean would have been tested on his speed of reaction and his ability to read the game.

If the target man wins the ball and heads it on the second striker has to be first to set off – the first yards are in the head – using his anticipation and reactions. If the defender wins the ball but does not clear well, or a mistake is made, then the second striker must read the game well enough to be in the position to benefit.

Wayne Gretzky – who some call the greatest Hockey player of all time – was the master of this type of game reading. He would seem to skate in the opposite direction of play and almost by magic the puck would end up at his skates.

It seemed like an innate ability but, as with most innate abilities, it was the result of a significant effort on Gretzky’s part and Gretzky’s father who schooled him in the game from an early age. Gretzky was not big, so he had to be there first, and to be there first he had to know where the puck would go.

This is pattern matching in sport and in the case of the great man Gretzky it came from a dedication to study the game and break it into patterns the outcome of which were predictable. The puck would come out in that position this time, because it most often did.

Dean Windass was very good at this game reading too and a lot of his goals came from him “being there” as if through blind luck. One doubts Dean thinks too much about how that happened.

Aaron McLean showed no real capacity to pattern match especially well. McLean was not “there”, nor was his first off the mark as Nahki Wells had so often been. It is easy to say that McLean did not fit into that system because he was not Wells but its accurate to say that he did not because he did not have Wells’ characteristics as a player.

System that McLean fit into

The Yeates playmaking system required the striker to move around more and create space for other players to fill, and to move into space in dangerous areas in anticipation of the playmaker either passing to that space, or to someone who moves the ball into space.

When playing with a target man a striker reacts, the strikers in a playmaking system have to be proactive. They have to either create a target or play a part in someone else being a target. The onus on the striker is to work hard without prompting and often without reward.

Every run a striker makes probably is not picked up on by teammates and much of the time the striker seems to not be effecting the game. The reward is that when the run is picked up then the position that the striker finds himself in is – on the whole – a better chance.

Aaron McLean – a strong player with a powerful shot – always showed that when in those position he was able to control the movement of the defender near him and, when called upon, shooting accurately and with power.

Off the ball McLean could find pockets of space – his typical goal is to cut across a defender and use his power to keep the defender where he wants while he finishes – but he did that infrequently.

McLean’s strength, technique or movement was not a significant problem but his motivation to keep on making those runs that the playmaker system requires was. For whatever reason McLean was not doing what he needed to be doing.

We could probably wrap this up into the cliche of “losing confidence” and not be paying anyone a disservice but I expect it is deeper than the term often connotes.

Why Parkinson lost patience

With McLean in the side Bradford City played – broadly speaking – two systems. One of which did not suit him that Phil Parkinson moved away from it. One which did suit him but he lost confidence in it.

It is no wonder Parkinson sounds terse when talking about the striker whose exit will be “better for both sides”. He gave the chance to Mark Yeates to be playmaker and Yeates responded. He gave Aaron McLean the chance to be a powerful striker and McLean beat a path to the door.

And Parkinson is not alone. McLean came from Hull with warm regards for his effort but a recognition that he “was not suited to the right wing” or “was playing out of position” and one wonders how much of that masked the same problem of struggling to find a system to fit McLean into with managers finding out as Parkinson has that when you do fit him into a system he does not deliver what the manager wants.

Now City have reverted to playing off a target man – be it Jon Stead or Hanson – McLean does not fit into the system and moves onto Peterborough where Darren Ferguson will try do what managers at Hull City, Ipswich Town, Birmingham City, and Bradford City have failed to do and find a way of getting enough out of Aaron McLean to justify fitting a system around him.

Phil Parkinson understanding the peaks and troughs of managing Bradford City

Fatuous wisdom in football has it that the only way to get out of bad form is hard work. The statement is not incorrect, just tautologous. The only way to achieve anything (or anything good) in football is through hard work.

Hard work is a prerequisite and is in turn both the most and least impressive thing about any player. If the best one can say about a player is that he works hard then he obviously offers little else, if a player does not work hard then he has little else to offer.

And so to Jason Kennedy, obviously, who is damned by the preceding comment. The tall, bald former Rochdale midfielder has become the poster boy for Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City this term. Not massively gifted and suffers in comparison to what preceded but capable in limited ways.

Those limits – the landscape of City’s abilities – have become obvious as the weeks progressed. Phil Parkinson can take the credit that comes from a 2-1 win at Preston North End for understanding them better than most.

In fact Parkinson deserves credit for – what Orwell was credited with – his “power of facing” the unpleasant truths about the Bradford City squad and its limits. Seldom has a Bradford City team been so clearly defined by its limitations and rarely have those limitation been circumnavigated so well.

Parkinson sent a back four out with Jason Kennedy and Andy Halliday sitting in front to shield Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies and the midfield pair did not even battle for possession with the Preston middle so much as make it their business to make sure that possession was dissipated to the flanks.

The two midfielders are not creators but will shield, the two central defenders can defend crosses, the two fulls back (Stephen Darby and James Meredith) with the support of wide men in front of them can put pressure on wide men to reduce the quality of that delivery.

Likewise those widemen, Filipe Moraris and Mark Yeates, have no pace to speak of and so no time was wasted trying to play the ball in behind the home side’s backline. Everything was worked carefully in front of the defence and converted to set plays because Parkinson also knows that if he side can generate enough set pieces then one of will be converted and so it proved when Rory McArdle got his head to a corner and that header found the goal via a post.

It was not really deserved but then again with City dug deep and Preston North End failing to break the Bantams down then why would they deserve more? At least that is what Parkinson will have drummed into his players at half-time. If they carried on doing what they were good at right, and avoided being tested on what they were not good at, then they would win.

And so it proved for the majority of the second half. Preston’s Joe Garner was flimsy between McArdle and Davies and so Kevin Davies was introduced and proved equally at arm’s length of the two defenders who stuck to their remit perfectly. Which is not to say that the pair were never breached – Garner had one header cleared off the line before his goal with five minutes left which seemed to share the points – just that they looked as robust a pair as they had done two years ago.

If Preston’s equaliser was the result of the home side’s pressure the goal which won the game for City was for the want of pressure applied to Mark Yeates. Deepdale was hoping for a winner sixty seconds after the equaliser and perhaps right back Jack King was absent mindedly hoping for that too as he allowed Yeates to take control of a long cross field ball and have all the time he wanted to pick out and place a low shot around the goalkeeper and into the net.

Yeates celebrated with gusto. The turnaround in the effort Yeates has put in are in keeping with the importance Parkinson places on him. It has been said before that Yeates will create one thing a game and today he created the moment of the season, Leeds aside.

And let no one take the credit for the win away from Phil Parkinson who was the author of victory. It is difficult for a manager to look at his team and not romanticise. It is difficult to look at the limitations you’ve ended up with and have your pattern of play defined by that.

There is a frustration for all at Valley Parade that 2014’s signings have – on the whole – not moved the team on (Why should they? Why should we assume that Gary Jones would be replaced by a better player?) and Parkinson’s ability to recognise that and build a team appropriately – a team which won – allows him time and confidence to take on the task of improving players.

It seems that Parkinson, who has sampled the peaks of his job as City manager, understood the trough and planned accordingly.

The basics of football management and how Phil Parkinson might not be able to go back to them

The second half of Bradford City’s win against Halifax Town saw Phil Parkinson move away from his most commonly used tactical approach of 2014.

An hour after the change in the dressing room at The Shay, City fans walked home with a victory, and I tried to summon up a phrase other than the cliche of “back to basics” to describe what had happened.

The discussion over Parkinson’s tactical approach did not last long.

Billy Clarke was lauded by many as if it were him and him alone (rather than the change of approach) that had made the difference, which seemed to lead to a consensus of opinion being framed that Parkinson’s error was in not picking the striker in the first place.

This talk gave way to a discussion on why Bradford City failed to wear Remembrance Poppies during the game, and whatever it was that Parkinson had done seemed to soon be forgotten.

The cliche, however, remained in my mind.

Unpacking the cliche

On any given Saturday afternoon, the losers of any tie will have a section of supporters soon making the case that the manager should leave the club. There is a common set of terms applied: “Taken the club as far as he can” is not unusual, whilst “not good enough” is more blunt.

Criticisms of managers are based on the results of games. The justification for a statement that a manager is “not good enough” almost always being a perception (reasonable or otherwise) that there is an acceptable set of results, and that those results are not being achieved.

This is obviously a judgement which should be subject to some refinement. The results delivered by a football club are the effects of any number of things, some of which are within the manager’s control. When the words “not good enough” are used, they are used as a catch all, but what do they catch all of?

What is a manager “not good enough” at? Our own experience suggests that there are very few situations in which a person has a uniform level of skill across a number of disciplines even if those disciplines are similar to each other. Mark Zuckerberg borrowed Eduardo Saverin’s ranking algorithm for Chess players whilst on the path to creating Facebook because while the Zuck could code like no-one else, that kind of applied Mathematics coding wasn’t something he could do.

Selecting tactics, recruiting players, coaching teams, building motivation… These are (some of) the constituent parts of football management that a manager may do, but all of these things are not done by all managers, and not all at the same level.

On Sunday Phil Parkinson reverted to an approach which was tried and tested in the past – he went “back to basics” – but what basics did he go back to? And since the basics we’re talking about are specific to Parkinson, why are they classed as basics in the first place?

Back to basics

After half-time, Parkinson changed from 4231 to 442 in his tactical approach, and this is regarded as his “basic” because it’s a standard that has has worked for him before. It’s worth noting that this “basic” is contextual. If Pep Guardiola were to send Bayern Munich out playing 442, then it would be a new tactical approach for him, not a basic. The basics of football tactics involve five forwards and a half back.

We can conclude that when we hear about Phil Parkinson going “back to basics” the “basics” we are talking about are in some way specific to Phil Parkinson.

And those who travelled to The Shay will have noted that as Parkinson’s tactical approach changed, so too did the motivation of his players in what my brother and I called “Rear Inserted Rockets.”

It is worth thinking about what Parkinson did not do at half time, and what he could not have done.

He did not sign any players at half-time obviously, nor did he coach the players in set-plays in the way that requires a training pitch. He did not make a decision on who would be in the match day squad because that squad had already been decided. He did not teach the players anything new or at least anything which could not be taught in a few minutes.

These are things which a manager is given the power to do but that are not done at half-time of a game.

The basics that Parkinson went back to are a subset of what makes up his role as a football manager.

This is common sense of course, but how often – when people talk about how good or bad a manager is – do the terms get unpacked? How often when someone says that a manager is “not good enough” are they invited to say what it is he is not good at?

Not good enough

It stands to reason that not all managers are equally as good at all things.

When we look at the meritocratic collection of managers at the top of the Premier League, we can see that the general view of specific managers is that they tend to be good at some parts of the job and less good at others. No one thus far has suggested Louis van Gaal is getting the best out of his players, or that he has a genius for recruitment, but Arsene Wenger, we are told, is good at developing players.

It is difficult to say that Roland Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino’s skills are because both have continued on the paths the clubs were on already. Pochettino’s club Spurs famously employed Harry Redknapp, the beloved “wheeler dealer” of transfer deadline day. Yet when Redknapp wanted to be England manager, the criticism of his skills was that he was more about smart recruitment than he was about tactical game approaches.

Alan Pardew is infamously “not good enough” according to the supporters who created sackpardew.com but seems to be good at creating a good team atmosphere within a squad, whereas supporters taunted Brendan Rodgers with the idea that he was not good at spending the money that the club brought in by selling a player that the previous manager who was not good at spending money bought in.

We get a general idea of what is good and bad about these managers, and we might postulate how good a fit they are for the roles they are in. Some clubs want their managers to be restricted to the training ground, whilst others want them to involve themselves at board level and leave the coaching to the coaches.

When we unpack the cliche of “not good enough” we start to draw out a map of where a manager excels. The cartography of ability can be superimposed onto the needs of a club and an idea of the manager’s suitability found.

Phil Parkinson in 2015

I would suggest, based on my experience as a fan of Bradford City, that the needs of the club which a manager must fill are near all encompassing when he is a manager at Valley Parade. Aside from the retarding requirement that the team plays football a certain way one, suspects that Phil Parkinson has, and is expected to have, full control over football at Valley Parade.

There is no Director of Football at the club, no Chief of Player Recruitment, and at senior level seemingly nothing except Parkinson and the people he wants. This underlines a state of affairs where while Parkinson may have a set of skills with peaks – team building is obviously one – and troughs. Being the manager of our club means there’s a need for him to involve himself in all of these things, and be “good” at them all.

Parkinson’s “basics” are, in the end, all the club has. And this is presents a problem for both club and manager.

In 2015, Phil Parkinson will have two chances to improve his squad. Improving a manager’s squad has been given a common parlance of “having a good transfer window”, and it is a long time since Phil Parkinson could have been said to have done that.

In fact one can probably go back to the summer of recruiting Gary Jones – a player who was on Peter Jackson’s list of midfielders he wanted (but could not get) – and Nathan Doyle – who is a former Bradford City Player of the Season – for the last time Parkinson recruited very well. Since then we have had a mixed bag of the good (I like Billy Knott), the bad (Raffaele De Vita is hardly even spoken about now) and the average. It is here where we get to the subject of Jason Kennedy.

JFK

Kennedy is a useful footballer in that he is wholehearted and obviously has the attitude Parkinson wants in his players, but his confidence in his own passing ability (justified or not) sees him play in a specific way which rarely adds greatly to the team’s creativity. Gary Liddle is a steady performer who – no matter which set of numbers that add up to ten and represent playing positions is deployed – seems to be a six out of ten.

We do not know if these players are the best Parkinson could get, the best Parkinson could get for the money, or what Parkinson perceived to be the best, but we can probably conclude by now that Parkinson’s greatest skills are not in player recruitment.

He is superb at building a team out of the right characters (and he is right to make character a requirement), and anyone who saw the reaction of the players to the comeback on Sunday will note how he can get those characters to play for him.

What he needs to do better – perhaps – is bringing together a group of players who can perform at a higher level. The ability to do that – the Harry Redknapp smart recruitment – is not a basic that Parkinson can go back to.

And so we get a picture of the future of Bradford City under Phil Parkinson. It is of a level performance, and a good team, waiting for the manager to get it right – or maybe just get lucky – when putting together a squad.

Beating Halifax Town by returning to a Phil Parkinson team

Two years ago Giantkiller. Now giant. Brought down to size. Three minutes and everyone was getting what they wanted.

Bradford City’s trip to Halifax was a defeat waiting to happen and when Lois Maynard ploughed in from close range following a series of corners needlessly conceded defeat seemed to be worryingly unavoidable. It was what the BBC, BT Sport, and a lot of the local media coverage had sharpened pencil for.

The team that conquered Arsenal, have themselves been giant killed.

The overdog role with a depressing ease

A cliche like that proves irresistible even to the subjects of it.

Halifax Town – OK, FC Halifax Town if we must – took the role of the underdog with a lot of the gusto which City took showed in the cup run of 2013. Town made things were difficult for the Bantams. Throw ins were launched long and were hard to head out. Midfielder’s were chased down. Wide men were pushed wider.

The home side made the most of set plays which led to the goal after three minutes and to the general sense that Halifax took their role in a way Phil Parkinson would have been proud of. Parkinson’s City took the overdog role with a depressing ease.

Starting out with a flat four with two in front of them, then a three sitting behind a single front man were disparate and far too easy to play against. Filipe Morais, Billy Knott and Mark Yeates were a line behind Jon Stead but ineffectual and quickly parted, separated, and not difficult to counter. The onus was then put on holding two midfielders Jason Kennedy and Andy Halliday but they failed to provide that and both seemed to be guilty of waiting for someone else to make something happen.

There was a moment – following City’s cup keeper Ben Williams’ save from former City defender Steve Williams’ close range header – where another narrative wrote itself. It was about the decline of a manager in Phil Parkinson and how in the future we would talk about how one could tell that things were over for the City boss when he played that Andy Halliday in central midfield in a 4231.

The rapid switching between formations, picking players in ill-suited positions, and lifeless performances or cup exits are the stuff of the last days of a manager’s time at any club. What happened to the Phil Parkinson who used to so love his 442?

It may have been that that thought occurred to Phil Parkinson at the same time as it did to me. His Bradford City team were not playing very poorly – chances were being created – but the story of the season has been sporadically creating chances without patterns in the play.

Former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi said of Mario Balotelli that is was “not a player, because a player moves as part of a team. He’s just a footballer.”

City had a lot of footballers, just as Arsenal had, but Halifax had a team.

Giantkiller/giantkilled

Perhaps that realisation stung Parkinson.

City had so easily fallen into the giantkiller/giantkilled narrative and responded accordingly. I like to think that the City manager thought that if this game at Halifax was going to be the start of the final days of his time at the club then he would go out on his own terms.

Parkinson of old. Four Four Two and the big man/little man combination of substitute Billy Clarke alongside Stead. Billy Knott – wandering in the first half – was given a place in the midfield engine and the full backs Stephen Darby and James Meredith were given the support of wide men in front of them.

Clarke threatened goal within a minute pulling a good save from Matt Glennon and carried on his direct, provocateur play by pulling the Halifax backline wide and creating a hole that Jon Stead appeared in when Morais had played a fine ball forward. Stead walked the ball around the keeper to equalise.

And two minutes later Morais had been found by Clarke and blasted across Glennon to score.

More dangerous, more determined and stronger at the back Parkinson’s team started to look like a Phil Parkinson team. Halifax huffed and puffed but City looked like a solid unit again and for the first time this season – maybe this year – seemed like they would score more goals. Pressure, directness and confidence. I do not know if it is what the boardroom call attacking football but it was Phil Parkinson football.

Reshaping the squad

City go into the second round, and have beaten a second West Yorkshire club of the season, and move on to face Preston North End next week with Parkinson mulling over which way he takes the City squad.

By returning to his favourite formation Parkinson seemed to free his City players from thinking in terms of their personal displays and enable them to focus on a team performance. The English footballer’s DNA is 442 and as soon as Parkinson switched to it the players seemed to switch to inbuilt positional play.

Morais – lost on one flank in the first half and playing the sort of game Sacchi would comment on – was more effective in a right wing role not only because he knew where to go (Note to pedants: his football education is that of the English footballer) but because every other player knew where he would be. When Billy Clarke flicked the ball forward to him for his goal it was in expectation. It is not that Morais found Clarke in a good position for the first goal or that Clarke found Morais for the second it is that both knew where to expect to find each other which will have pointed a way for Parkinson.

All of which questions the shape of the City squad. Next week Phil Parkinson takes his team to Preston and Kyel Reid who’s pace is lacking from the Bantams squad and seems to prevent City returning to 442. Perhaps when the transfer window opens Parkinson needs to find someone who can add the pace if he wants to return to his way of playing.

Because after avoiding the obvious narrative at Halifax Town Parkinson will probably be afforded the chance to reshape the squad once more.

The first time Bradford City reconsider being the overdog as Halifax Town look for a giantkilling

Of the 79 other balls in the FA Cup First Round draw, few would have been as warmly met as the ball that signified a potential trip to FC Halifax Town – after comprehensively vanquishing Chorley in a replay – for the Bradford City supporter and, indeed, the wider TV audience: but there is more than geographical proximity that adds import to this fixture. This is the first time since the cup run of 2013 that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are forced to bring the mirror to themselves and see what gazes back at them.

First, dear reader, let me make no apologies for referring comprehensively to “that season” – any article anyone at all could write about Bradford City in 2014 and beyond has the potential to lazily fall back on using that cup run as reference: but in this case, I feel it is truly the first time introspection has a real reason to be made.

The diversion of cup competition while City are in poor league form a welcome one for Bantam fan, player and manager alike: it is fair to say that in the forest of League One trees, not many are being pulled up by anyone in a claret and amber shirt this term. Nor, to stretch the metaphor to the point of abuse, are they lost in the woods.

The team remain resolutely mid-table, overall neither excelling nor failing, and this in itself is cause for the mist of doom and gloom to become increasingly lower. The natives are restless, and they demand satisfaction.

With the FC Halifax Town game, the opportunity is rife – Sunday’s opponents are two divisions beneath in the pyramid: their team is partially made up of players who never made the grade at ours – and would never get in our current side, and add to that, the cameras will be watching as our bumper crowd shifts a further 20 minutes down the A58 (or A647 if you like your air thinner and your weather more extreme). Foregone conclusion: rub your hands together and wander off into the sunset.

At the risk of pointing out the clearly obvious: apart from the slight distance between our ground and The Shay, this is what Arsenal and Aston Villa both thought – and Watford and Wigan must have both thought it was even more of a relatively closed-door formality.

We are no longer the independent coffee shop outselling the Starbucks next door: in this particular dynamic, it is us who is the Tesco looking to flatten a third-generation cornershop. No neutrals will be looking to cheer us on from their sofa – our Cinderella story is very much over.

The great cup run of 2012/13 was built on standing against adversity, on steel, on being greater than the sum of our parts, and on steadfast terrace support. On Sunday, the likelihood of any of these things being present is slender: even if the fans do sell out the allocation – which, at the time of writing, is not being projected – what is the atmosphere amongst fans going to be? It is not, “We are here through thick and thin and Oh my we’ve done it”, it is, “If we do not score within the opening five minutes we will make our ire known”.

Only three players, and the manager, remain present from the team that started Capital One Cup Final – the same number of ex-City men in the opposing squad. It is going to be as much, if not more so, of a challenge of their mental strength as it is for newer cohort members. They have tasted success because they had belief in themselves as a unit against the odds: how can Phil Parkinson, who told Rory McArdle, Stephen Darby and Andrew Davies in the dressing rooms of Vicarage Road, the DW Stadium, Valley Parade, Villa Park and ultimately, Wembley, that if they galvanise and believe in themselves as a unit, they can accomplish great things – and then principally delivered on that promise – now turn around and make those same players believe that others who are now in the equivalent position cannot easily do the same?

As much as these three and the rest of the team will utterly embrace the diversion from the frustrations of the league campaign; will they be as excited, as invigorated, as out-and-out ready for the proposition of facing FC Halifax Town as the players of FC Halifax Town will be of facing Bradford City? The three players who have been rejected at Valley Parade will have, no doubt, watched the 2013 Cup Final and thought, “I could have had that moment” and whereas the stage on Sunday is very different, their motivation will be clear.

19 years ago was the last time Bradford City faced non-league opposition against a then- relatively-unknown Burton Albion and only the rear-end of Gary Robson could save our blushes, awkwardly bundling in with a part of the body few have ever scored a goal with, much less a midfielder who would usually have struggled to tell you the general area of the goalmouth, to sneak a 4-3 win. I have no doubt that the team of 1995/96 did not conceive they were going to be so closely-ran – in May that year, they were celebrating promotion to the Championship-equivalent at the Old Wembley.