A disengaging time

Is it simply because of the stop-start schedule of games over the past month, or is it something deeper?

Should Bradford City’s boxing day clash with Chesterfield beat the weather, it will only be the second time in 33 days the players will be in action. The season has been frozen by the late 2010 big freeze, not much is happening and it all feels a bit tedious.

But even when City were able to get on some green grass and beat Hereford a week last Saturday, enjoyment was in short supply. Far from it satisfying an itch, it seemed an occasion to get over and done with. In general the mood among supporters – as measured in many different ways, not least the number of message board postings, next year’s season tickets sold so far (according to the guy serving me when I renewed mine yesterday), and even hits to this site – appears flat. The news coming out of the club in recent weeks generally dull.

It’s all very quiet, it’s all a bit disengaging.

Supporting the Bantams usually comes with a feeling of frustration rather than constant happiness, and there’s no doubt things could certainly be a lot worse than they are right now. Yet still this is the most ordinary season I can remember in a long while. The football has been enthralling on occasions, but mundane more often. We’re not on the edge of our seats as often as we’d like, nor are we on our feet cheering uplifting goals as regularly as we’d expect.

It’s difficult to look forward to the second half of the season and feel the buzz of anticipation that a narrow gap to the play off positions should offer. It’s not that City aren’t capable of going onto finish in the top seven come May and thus fulfill our hopes, but more the probable manner in which any success will be achieved.

This is an efficient Bradford City side which is conservative and guarded. Wins are laboured. Flair is constrained by structure. Defence is the best form of attack.

We knew it was going to be like this, really. The February exit of Stuart McCall left a managerial opening that placed winning football matches as the top quality when choosing from a lengthy shortlist of applicants. Peter Taylor was the outstanding candidate, but behind his unquestionable achievements were loud warnings that style would give way to organisation. Years of failure left us wanting this winning-above-all approach; hard luck stories of good performances going unrewarded were tedious. Winning is all that matters; so Peter, do whatever it takes to get us out of this league.

We knew what we were getting with Taylor, and those expectations have been realised. McCall’s teams had heart and commitment, but naivety and disorganisation undermined their high levels of effort. City appear much more prepared under Taylor; they go onto the pitch with a more impassioned outlook which is about following a carefully laid out strategy.

If City were laying in the top three places, or even in the top seven, Taylor’s ways would be more enthusiastically backed. But even if the promotion places are still well within touching distance, the 14th-place position City currently occupy and fact the highest league placing of the season, so far, is only 10th leaves Taylor’s ways open to question and doubt. The sacrificing of as high of a level of entertainment could be more accepted if the league table made better reading. It seems were not quite getting the best of either world.

Which leaves afternoons like the recent one against Hereford endorsed but not enjoyed. City’s first half display had merited more than the one goal, but the second half defensive retreat in holding the narrow lead against a team at the bottom of the league was uninspiring and difficult to watch. It would be wrong to say that it was the performance Taylor had wanted to see from his players too – he admitted it was a poor second half display after the game – but such afternoons are becoming a regular occurrence.

And that’s where it’s becoming a bit disengaging to many supporters. If more regular defensive-minded wins like we saw against Hereford and at Bury will take City into League One next season we’ll all be delighted, but that doesn’t mean we’ll fully-enjoy the journey. And if we can’t enjoy winning games of football, what is the point of it all?

When Taylor’s City have been good they’ve been great to watch. The Cheltenham home win was the season’s high-water mark in quality of performance, the Oxford thrashing that followed two weeks later was more memorable and left us all feeling rather giddy with excitement. But with more games like Hereford and even the frustrating defeats to Wycombe and Macclesfield, it suggests the Cheltenham and Oxford wins were Taylor’s City on very top form rather than playing a level they can achieve on a regular basis.

Winning is important, but another key aspect of football supporting is the bond you have with your team. This season there are certainly plenty of players I admire – Tommy Doherty is a joy to watch, while Lee Hendrie and Omar Daley have put in some superb displays. I also have strong affection for the former non-league players – James Hanson, David Syers, Steve Williams and Jon McLaughlin – plus our homegrown talent Luke O’Brien. But in general, the relationship between supporter and other players is more distant and cool.

I write this having only missed two league games this season (plus I didn’t see two of City’s four cup games) and I am used to feeling ‘close’ to the players, through travelling up and down the country to cheer them on. But that affection between players and supporters which was so evident in recent seasons seems less to me this season. It doesn’t help that there are so many loan players who form part of the starting eleven each week, but sometimes in away games you’d like to see the players look a bit happier to see us before kick off and be a bit more prepared to applaud us at full time; rather than a half-heartededly clap from the half way line, like we received at Wycombe in our last away game. Michael Flynn is missed in so many ways.

The four wins out of five undoubtedly recaptured that missing enthusiasm and showed what this team is capable of, and it’s not just for the health of City’s league position that we all hope such heights can be realised on a more regular basis. For now, it’s hoped that the eventual resuming of City’s season will thaw out current levels of cynicism and restore that joy of following  the Bantams, which is felt even in difficult times.

Because personally I want to care more about City’s season than I do right now. I want the highs to feel better, even if it means the lows have to be greater too. I want to load up the Telegraph & Argus website on a Monday morning and feel connected by what’s going on at the club, rather than experiencing bordom at reading another interview from an underachieving loan player unsure about his long-term future.

I want this mission of getting promoted out of League Two to be enjoyable and engaging, rather than feeling like a task that has to be completed before the fun can resume again.

How much is game in hand worth? Gillingham vs Bradford City Preview

Snow.

The world is full of it and if this country had proper snow ploughs then we would not have a question mark over this weekend’s game with Gillingham. No, we would have a question over whether a vehicle used once every twenty years would start on a cold day.

If the game with Gillingham goes ahead then City look at playing off with the Kent side for a play-off place with them in seventh and the Bantams a place below and the right set of results – or postponements – could leave either fourth on Saturday evening.

Postponements being the challenge of logic in football. Inevitably they occur – City already have an away game at AFC Bournemouth to attempt to replay as well as Monday night’s cancelled Darlington home game – and unrealistically they twist the table leading to the question “how much is game in hand worth?”

Shrewsbury are a place above Gillingham and two above City and a point ahead of the Bantams. Is it safe to assume that – that game played – we can adjust City above the men from Gay Meadow? Some – Bill Shankley for example – would say not and point to every point having to be earned. The grizzled Scot would say that you have nothing when you have nothing and dinne ye forget it.

Nevertheless with 45 point from 28 games City are picking up 1.7 points a game so extrapolating that average we could assume that we would get that point – and a bit more – at least. Taking an example Grimsby Town – 22nd on the league and a point and place below Barnet – score at 0.78 points per game and thus it is probably not safe to assume they will overhaul the club a place above them however the fact that they are one down in the played column – and no one in the league has the 30 games played that have been scheduled – gives them the optimism that they may collect all three points.

Indeed when City faced relegation from the First Division under Chris Kamara Grimsby Town looked at our game in hand against then high flying Charlton Athletic and could have worked out a similar logic with City as likely to collect three points at home on that Thursday night as they were at any other time during the season. We won that game and beat QPR to stay up with our game in hand counting for three points.

Countering that in 1988 West Ham United had five games in hand over Liverpool which – if they were all won – would have seen them snatch the league. They collected less than half of those points and one was left to reflect not that Frank McAvennie and co had blow a chance at the league just that it was a quirk of statistics that suggested they had one and had the games been played in their scheduled slots in the season they would have been the same unremarkable results and the Hammers would have ended up third in a less exciting way.

Games in hand create falseness. City pick up 1.87 points a home game and 1.31 from an away one but how one uses those stats to create an adjusted league table is no more an accurate reflection than assumption that every game not played will be won.

What we do know is that the Bantams beat Grimsby Town last weekend and Stuart McCall struggles with riches in the midfield – Joe Colbeck is expected to start the next City game be it this one or the game with Wycombe Wanderers on Valentines Day – and misfiring strikers up front.

The midfield of Colbeck, Dean Furman, Nicky Law Jnr and Omar Daley seems set to continue while Paul McLaren is injured – in my experience the people who suggest we do not need McLaren in the team also puzzle about our corners not beating the first man when he is not playing and I would yoke those two points together – but McCall has a liking for Steve Jones which could see him included somewhere. McCall had tried playing Jones as a forward having seen his own strikers notch but two in eight from free play.

Probable starter Michael Boulding believes both he and partner Peter Thorne can get to twenty by the season end and I am reminded of an old footballing adage about front men: How many goals does the front man of a winning team scored? Enough. City are a drawing team of late and the strikers need to improve, or at least have improvement visited on them with better service.

The defence at City is mean – almost as mean as its critics – and only seriously leaked when they lost the headed defensive clearances of Barry Conlon at Luton. Six foot plus Zesh Rahmen’s inclusion at right back was more to do with getting a third big man to mark at set plays than it was a reflection on Paul Arnison and Rahmen is expected to retain a place alongside Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke with Luke O’Brien at left back and Rhys Evans between the sticks.

Except, of course, they will all probably be at home, kicking their heels, talking about snow ploughs.

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