Pre-season plans take shape as Bolton Wanderers head to “Valley Parade”

Bradford City have today announced their pre-season friendlies for the 2011/12 campaign, which throw up a number of intriguing games. The headlines unsurprisingly centre around a visit from Premier League Bolton Wanderers. And, whether a slip of the tongue or an indication of how the rental negotiations are going, the Telegraph & Argus has stated the friendly will be played at Valley Parade.

Bolton travel to West Yorkshire on Sunday 24 July; the first time they have played the Bantams since Wayne Jacobs’ testimonial in July 2004 ended with the long-serving left back scoring a penalty in the last minute that was so weak you had to question whether it had all been contrived. Bolton manager Owen Coyle has been a regular pre-season visitor to Valley Parade, however, bringing along his Burnley side in 2008 and 2009.

Before that pre-season will begin at Silsden AFC’s new ASDA Foundation Stadium on Wednesday 13 July. As a Skipton resident, the seven-mile journey to watch this game will be the shortest trip I will have ever made to watch the Bantams. Two days later (Friday 15 July) City travel to Ross Hannah’s old club Matlock Town, before the much-discussed friendly with Guiesley (Tuesday 19 July) finally takes place, as part of the James Hanson transfer two years ago.

After Bolton’s visit is the annual game with Bradford (Park Avenue), on Wednesday 27 July, this time at the Horsfall stadium – two miles away from Odsal (so maybe a chance to check out pre-match pubs for next season?). Pre-season ends with a home visit from Greg Abbott’s Carlisle United on Saturday 30 July, one week before the opening League Two fixtures.

When pre-season became interesting

At some point after the middle of the 1990s pre-season became a thing of interest.

Perhaps it is the rise of Sky Sports and the need for constant football, perhaps it is the public’s thirst for the close season to end as quickly as possible, perhaps it is clubs trying to spin out two or three extra big money games in a season but whatever has caused it pre-season in modern football has become much more of a big deal.

Looking at the likes of Guiseley who had Bradford City on the pre-season fixture list until recently the games against league opposition offer a chance of a pay day in excess of most league matches. Kendal Town play Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic and walking around the Westmoorland town one would struggle to miss this fact – that and the fact that Chas Hodges is playing in town soon – which is a marked contrast to the games within the regular season which pass without note in that part of the Lake District.

Certainly City’s return to action against Eccleshill United was eagerly anticipated with a good number of Bantams fans looking at pre-season as a welcome return to normality.

Turn on the ubiquitous Sky Sports News today and you will see highlights from pre-season matches up and down the land. Last year when Newcastle United lost 6-1 in pre-season to Leyton Orient then Sky’s talking heads damned the Magpies to a season of struggle in The Championship. They won it.

So in tone and in the minds of supporters and on the balance sheet pre-season seems to be interesting in a way which it was not previously. Pre-season matches happened for sure and occasionally they would be seen in the newspaper (as is my recollection) and talked about in vague terms by very few who seemed to have a mystic view of the new players on the first day of the season.

Steve Gardner turned up as an unknown on the opening day of one year with the words “He looked good in pre-season” offered by a City sage who had seen such things. The sage was considered rare and some what obsessive – like people who go to more than one date on a band’s tour – while extrapolations about Gardner, as with Newcastle, turned out to inaccurate.

At City the change over from a pre-season which was the preserve of the dedicated and the players probably occurred around the time that Chris Kamara was manager and City played Newcastle United in which Peter Beardsley and Tino Asprilla weaved majestically and a high quality Middlesbrough side in a two day period and then went on (again, if I recall) to play Santos of Brazil in a game which saw the only – to date – overhead back heel volley goal.

Compared to that the reality of the season seemed something of a let down. The circus had come to town and then left us with some reality where Norwich and Swindon – not Newcastle and Santos – were the opposition.

Peter Taylor managed Southend at the start of that period and Gillingham around the middle but perhaps it is his experience a England u21 manager which shapes his thoughts on how preparation games should be treated. He talks about how the Bantams could have played some big teams at Valley Parade – Premier League Burnley played at VP last season – but for the newly laid pitch but it is clear that Taylor sees these matches as build up to Shrewsbury Town on the first day, no more or less significant than any other training session and certainly not wasting the fresh grass on for a few extra quid.

So City have no big name on the fixture list – Rochdale are the highest placed side we face – and a swathe of games against low opposition including North Ferriby United who City play at one on Saturday afternoon. Taylor talks about the games in terms of being build up, fitness getters, and while supporters can watch the manager does not see them as being spectacles. His threat to take his team home at half time at Eccleshill says all you need to know about how Taylor prioritises.

Not for him an evening watching Beardsley and Asprilla run rings around his players. Not for him bowing the knee to boys from Brazil.

So a City squad of around twenty-two will be split into two teams of eleven with the aim of fitness not performance. City are without Michael Flynn (Groin), Tommy Doherty (Calf), Luke Dean (Broken leg) and Jake Speight (Broken promises) but Tom Adeyemi will make his debut following his arrival on loan from Norwich City and have Matthew Tipton and Lee Morris looking to earn contracts.

The game kicks off early for those who fancy a trip to Grange Road but one doubts that anyone will be encouraged to slam in an overhead backheel.

Avenue back at Valley Parade for friendly

After an absence of a good few generations Bradford Park Avenue will return to their former ground to play Bradford City for a pre-season friendly.

Avenue played at Valley Parade just before the club lost its battle for survival in the early 1970s with Bradford City extending the hand to their rivals in those tough times.

City have invited Avenue for a pre-season match at Valley Parade on Tuesday, August 3rd 2010 – the Tuesday before the season starts.

On Tuesday July 13th City will play Guiseley at Nethermoor as a part of the transfer deal that brought James Hanson to Valley Parade.

The 47th game

In seven days time City will have faced Notts County in what is game one of the new season but in a rain soaked Valley Parade the Bantams seemed to have started the season early in a 3-3 draw with Carlisle United.

To suggest that the friendly between Stuart McCall’s City and a Carlisle side managed by his former midfield partner Greg Abbott was “competitive” would understate the content that saw the visitors copy their manager’s combative style and at one point boiled over into typical Abbo violence.

Richard Keogh swung for Joe Colbeck and in a proper game would have been sent off no questions asked leaving his team to play with ten men for seventy odd minutes. Keogh missed Colbeck’s square jaw just as Brandon missed with a kick at Michael Evans in the dying minutes which would also have resulted in red and followed on from the sort of tackle by Evans that littered the game. Too physical, too much, and never allowed in the season for real.

So in that way the work out for City was perfect – bad refereeing of the league season being substituted by soft pre-season officialdom and City responded to that work out well.

Another number four got a run out for the Bantams with former Luton and Hereford midfielder Stephen O’Leary wasting no time in pressing his case for a contract by finishing tidily a headed cut back by Michael Boulding who got on the end of a superb Joe Colbeck cross deep on the right.

Carlisle reacted poorly with Keogh swinging at Colbeck who spent the first half tormenting former Leeds man Ian Harte and looked distinctly second best. City’s second goal came from another Colbeck cross – a corner – which headbanded Matthew Clarke jumped for and may have connected with but landed at the feet of Peter Thorne who finished easily from close range. It was – at that stage – comprehensive.

Nevertheless twenty minutes later City were losing. Firstly Graham Kavanagh was allowed to turn on the edge of the box dropped away from the central defenders and not being picked up by the midfield – one of Stephen O’Leary and Lee Bullock should have been there – and was allowed time and space to fire in impressively from thirty yards.

Secondly the rain became torrential taking away Zesh Rehman’s legs as Joe Anyinsah played the ball to Matty Robson and was shown enough of the goal by Clarke to be tempted to shoot and duly did giving a second goal in two minutes. It was unimpressive defending and seemed to snap City right back into last season’s lower moments.

The spine of the team was found wanting, and the heart. Things went against the Bantams and the Bantams responded by sulking. It was Morecambe at Easter or Barnet away all over again and City visibly wilted.

The third goal came eight minutes later when a corner headed in by Joe Anyinsah with Simon Eastwood left flapping at the ball.

Eastwood has yet to impress and will need to communicate more with his backline to become a better keeper while his judgement at coming out to try collect this corner was curious to say the least. At the moment all he offers over Jon McLaughlin is that he is someone else.

So the black shirted Bantams trudged in at half time having been the best for thirty minutes but mostly through errors ended up losing. So far, so last season.

Nevertheless something that Stuart McCall said at half time reminded the team that they had been comfortable in the game for a long time because what one would hope is normal service was resumed with Bullock and O’Leary combining well with the attacking pair of Thorne and Boulding and Colbeck and Brandon coming inside and working the ball forward well with sudden, tight controlled football. Eastwood’s first half display may have been duplicated in the second had Carlisle mustered a shot worthy of the name in the second half but aside from a shot that flashed across the goal they threatened rarely.

City on the other hand revealed an alternative to the 442 which McCall favours with a 4231 that saw two holding midfielders in Bullock and O’Leary, Gareth Evans lead the line ahead of Colbeck, Brandon and James Hanson who lot a header today – a thing that is notable only for its infrequency such is the impressive abilities of the Idle Working Man.

Before the change in formation Michael Boulding had flashed a Peter Thorne chest down wide and Colbeck did similar following an impressive nutmegging of the referee but it was a breakaway from Evans which won a corner that when slung in the former Macclesfield man tucked away from close range despite a heavy first touch in a crowded penalty area.

Three all it finished and while Keogh would never have finished a league game and some of the tackling used the weakness of pre-season refereeing to avoid bookings and neutering giving both teams a good work out but causing worry for City.

Abbott’s side too easily bullied City – especially in that fifteen minute spell before half time – and the Bantams were not able to counter that physical play or that sudden burst of (for want of a better phrase) “wanting it” which undermined a performance that was worthy of a win.

O’Leary looked no better or no worse than other number fours we have tried but one of he or James O’Brien would seem to be about to be offered a contract this week and making a debut next but the Bantams need someone to sit in the midfield and someone to prompt and inspire in the way that McCall did when he rejoined City in ’98 galvanising a team that had lead the league in ’97 but faded into a genuine promotion side.

One would hope that City could find this type of leader from within the club – Peter Thorne seems to be captain apparent – and Zesh Rehman and Lee Bullock also hinting that they could emerge as characters but leadership is lacking and when City trudged back to the centre circle after the second and third goals there was no geeing up, no encouraging, no leadership pulling up everyone else’s game as McCall The Player did.

Brandon’s ill tempter kick certainly was not it and he needs to wear his status as City’s senior player with more conscientiousness and sobriety.

Ultimately though football is a game of balance in flux. In a match which was competitive this game was the 1st of 47th in a season that starts next week and may be no different to last with the collapse before half time so reminiscent of last year but perhaps it will be the 47th of 2008/2009 and in a week when the season kicks off City will be a team a year older, more experienced and able to drag a draw out of a game in which a lead was surrendered in contrast to last season.

One can but hope. Either way the phoney war is over and the season – nine months of elation and agony, anguish and exhilaration – starts now.

Alright on the night as City prepare for the end of pre-season

Pre-season is nearly over, and we can all breath a collective sigh of relief.

It’s been nice to attend these friendly games, catch a glimpse of new signings and review the trailists; but the novelty soon wears off and every half heartedly-cheered City goal and shrug of the shoulders at conceding leaves an increasingly unsatisfied feeling that can only be replaced by the real thing. As manager Stuart McCall summed it all up after beating York three weeks ago, “this needs to be done.”

Come 5pm on Saturday things will suddenly start to matter a whole lot more. The countdown to the big kick off at Meadow Lane can begin and once again we prepare ourselves for 10 months fretting over City’s fortunes, where weekend moods balance on the fate of 11 men (plus seven subs) and engagement in social activities is disrupted by numerous journeys down the M1. The great goals we’ll cheer, the gut-wrenching pain of last minute defeats we’ll no doubt expose ourselves too ,the sight of Lenny dancing, the shabby treatment by the police – 14 weeks after the season ended at Chesterfield, it’s almost time to go through it all again.

But there’s one last rehearsal to complete before debates over who Stuart might start with at Notts County are anything but premature, with former City midfielder Greg Abbott’s Carlisle United in town to offer that final test. It already feels like a long time since the opening pre-season win against Burnley, and the subsequent six warm up games have aided Stuart’s efforts to shape his strongest-looking side which is expected to start tomorrow. Simon Eastwood is between the sticks – after favourable reports following his performance at Alfreton Town – in front of a back four of Simon Ramsden, Matt Clarke, Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien. With new recruits James Bateson and Steve Williams impressing and Louis Horne enjoying a promising pre-season, there is plenty of strength at the back for the coming battles.

Midfield, as has been well documented, still features the black hole of a number four position in need of filling. Grant Smith and James O’Brien have emerged as the likeliest to get the chance to take on the role from the clutch of trialists, though rumours persist that Stuart is about to sign one if not two central midfielders from elsewhere. Lee Bullock is likely to play and quietly impresses in the usual manner, with Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon taking the flanks. The expectation is that Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding will begin the season as first choice strike pairing, though Gareth Evans and James Hanson have excited in pre-season and will be pushing them closely.

Carlisle are rare visitors to Valley Parade over the last few decades, but will bring some familiarity in the shape of former City midfielder Marc Bridge-Wilkinson. Abbott’s pre-season has been disrupted by Watford’s attempts to sign striker Danny Graham and subsequent battle to agree a transfer fee – it’s going to a tribunal – which hinders his plans to sign new players. Beaten 3-1 at home to Blackpool on Wednesday, Abbott talks about a lack of “devilment” in attack and defence which leaves one pondering the idea of putting City’s midfield between them to see how badly they’d struggle or adding Carlisle’s midfield to the Bantams’ attack and defence to create some kind of mutant superforce lower league club.

Thank goodness we can shortly begin occupying our minds with more meaningful football matters again.

Good early habits

It’s typically the earlier rather than latter stages of pre-season friendlies where the stronger conclusions can be made, and so it was at the Kit Kat Crescent where Bradford City’s encouraging 45 minutes of dominance was followed by a half played at the sort of pedestrian pace commonly displayed by the thousands of tourists York’s city centre is witness to.

City were comfortably in control throughout. We’re told the outcome of friendlies means nothing, but it’s worth noting Leeds United only managed a 3-3 with York the previous week and, for the first half at least, there was a competitive spirit to the match that offers heart for the season ahead given the outcome. Purpose and determination were behind a performance that could have seen more goals than the early strikes by Steve Williams and Michael Boulding. If, as we saw with the end of season collapse last year, losing quickly becomes habit; the level of professionalism displayed in clocking up three wins from three friendlies is a worthwhile addiction to develop ahead of the big kick off.

As with the previous two wins, for manager Stuart McCall one of the main tasks was judging whether a clutch of trialists could cut it in the competitive environment of League Two football and it was fitting that Williams, the first deemed good enough for a contract, fired City in front after heading home still-trialist Andy Holdsworth’s corner. There have been numerous central midfielders in particular auditioning for the number 4 shirt this pre-season and the former Town midfielder, who looked intelligent and industrious for the 63 minutes he played, would get my vote for a deal. Shortly afterwards Luke O’Brien again set up Boulding to slot home his third goal in three. Tucking away chances so regularly can only aid Boulding’s confidence and his success this season may be judged by how reliant City are on the ageing but still classy Peter Thorne.

Boulding linked up well with summer signing Gareth Evans, who looked sharp and might have opened his City account but for two good saves by York keeper Josh Mimms and a wasteful effort wide of goal following a promising counter attack. Evans is quietly impressing and looks able to take on the target man role Barry Conlon was inconsistently effective at. He probably won’t score the number of goals Thorne and Boulding will, but both are likely to prefer playing alongside a player who can do much of the uglier stuff for them.

City could have had more with the back four accomplished – Williams slotted in well alongside Zesh Rehman and Simon Ramsden looks impressive at right back – and the midfield comfortably in command. Joe Colbeck continued to receive abuse from a minority of fans, but by pre-season standards his performance was electric.

Alongside Holdsworth was Estonian trialist Jevegeni Novikov, who built on a slow start by showing some useful touches and passing the ball around confidently, he was also not afraid to go in for a tackle. As promising as he looked, a longer examination is surely needed as the pace of competitive football means he would have less time on the ball than he appeared to need at times. Something about his display reminded me of Robert Wolleston and a run out against Barnsley next week will offer more conclusive evidence of whether a contract should be offered.

For those trialists given time in the second half – Jack Pelter, James O’Brien, Joe Keehan and James Hanson – the opportunity for Stuart to make a solid judgement was less. The game became slow and low key with only a flurry of York corners headed well over to count as noteworthy action. Alan Mannus was kept in City’s goal for the full 90 minutes and Stuart must have been keen for him to be truly tested in order to assess him better. He was finally called into action when York substitute Simon Russell’s long range curler required a tip over and generally commanded his penalty area reasonably well. Whether he is good enough to be City’s number 1 remains a question to be answered.

But after a summer of much uncertainty, questions about City’s chances this season can be answered more positively on the evidence of pre-season. Of course winning at York means nothing compared to winning at Notts County, but there’s been a quiet level of professionalism about City so far that suggests the focus for the battles ahead is already building up nicely. Compare to last year’s pre-season that was littered with defeats, which preceded a campaign where good work was too often undermined by how casually City would allow themselves to be beaten. Or contrast it to three years ago, where a number of heavy losses to teams in a division below led to a campaign that would end with City joining them.

Whether the route back can be made this season will be better answered in the opening weeks of the season proper, but as we filed out of the Bootham Crescent into streets filled with tourists taking pictures while Stuart talked to his players about the game in the centre circle it increasingly feels as though City are not taking this period of the year lightly and are making the most of what pre-season can provide.

Some roles in the team are still to be decided, but those that take them will need to exhibit the same good habits the rest of the team is starting to regularly show.

The inverse proportion

The measure of the significance, or lack thereof, of a pre-season friendly would seem to be only measurable retroactively and by inverse proportion to how many people express the sentiment that the match was unimportant.

It began quickly in the hours past following City’s win over Burnley on Saturday with the odd Facebook update timed around five and declaring a distance from other City fans who may have been excited.

The wave continued through message boards and the like crossing the Pennines as it went with web sites not unlike this one quick to point out that it was only a cobweb blower and could be ignored.

Our own Jason Mckeown stuck a sensible note suggesting that looking from a Bradford City point of view the game might mean things are not as bad as the worst predictions would have it but as that BfB article went live The Sun were dancing a jig on the Claret’s Premier League grave.

Owen Coyle joined the chorus and one Turf Moor website summed up the day as “Burnley Lose To Bradford So What?

What indeed. The results of pre-season games are on the whole an irrelevance but performances are not and one suspects that the dismissal of the result is much easier to do than dismissing the significance of seeing two central defenders who could be facing Torres getting out paced and looking flat footed compared to the Boulding brothers.

Likewise from a Bradford City point of view positives drawn from the game are muted by the haphazard nature of the two teams thrown onto the field. Finding a winning team from kids and those on trial is more alchemy than chemistry.

Nevertheless as last season’s reversal by the Clarets was heralded as a reality check for the enthusiastic Bantams this one should probably be seen in the same way detailing the reality that nothing is ever as bad or as good as some would have you believe.

Burnley move on and one suspects that as with Bradford City in the Premier League their battles will be done on bank holidays at Sunderland and when picking oneself up following 5-4 defeats to West Ham. Be ready for those fights and this game will be irrelevant, lose them and it will have been a warning.

Likewise should better things be seen for the Bantams this season than last then the turn around started that early July afternoon. If not then it will have been meaningless.

However on a Monday morning there is a story to tell and a pride to be had of sorts. The meaning is in the lift and perhaps not just for supporters but within Valley Parade.

After months of slipping form and disappointment, or cash cutting and players leaving, there is some good news.

Result, performance, the effect when viewed in retrospect and any upsets that may come included at this point in time this is, in whatever way, meaningful.

Pre-season begin with new faces but no McLaren

City returned to the rigours of pre-season training with Paul McLaren conspicuous by his absence poorly and three trialists including Macclesfield’s Jordan Hadfield whom is targeted as a holding midfielder in the Dean Furman stylee. Winger Grant Smith and defender Steve Williams also join training.

New signing Simon Ramsden articulated the attitude towards the season suggesting that at his former club Rochdale promotion might have been fun but at City it was expected. Attempts to defuse such feelings after the famed slashed wage bill obviously having little effect.

Ramsden is right though most will expect a challenge for League One and rightly so. City have gone down to the financial notch everyone else in the league was at last year but not below and as such even the uncharitable would conclude we stand at least the same chance as everyone apart from Notts County and they stand a good chance of being this year’s Bradford City or Shrewsbury.

Much however depends on McLaren, Hadfield or whoever ends up in that fulcrum role in the side.

What if it all goes right? Pre-season 2008/2009 [I]

Take an average of the odds you can get on Bradford City being in League Two and the Bantams are 2/1 to go up. To put that in context the bookies think that City are more likely to go up than Manchester United are to win the Premiership.

We are dealing with that level of expectation. We have that level of assured thinking around City as Stuart McCall – in second full year as the manager at Valley Parade – awaits the results of a summer rebuilding which has seen new, impressive signings come in and talk of double promotions heard.

The signing of Michael Boulding seemed to top off the rebuilding. His rejection of League One Cheltenham to come to Valley Parade was probably as geographical as it was ambition based for the player but for the club it showed the intention. To get a group of players of League One standard and trust in gravity to take us up.

Boulding is expected to partner Peter Thorne in City’s first string eleven. Thorne’s 14 goals in 31(+2) games did much to raise both City’s league finish last year and the expectations for this and the thoughtful forward seems a good foil for the speedy, tricky Boulding.

In back up Barry Conlon is able and willing and Willy Topp is promising much after flashes of skillful and smart play. If everything goes to plan then the main two strikers will be kept fresh by the others – Rory Boulding and Omar Daley also qualify – and will be notching 20+ plus each.

Much of this depends on the midfield and Paul McLaren especially who is tagged as some as the signing of the season in this league and it is started to be taken as read that he will end the year with the most assists – Thorne’s head or sharp one touch finishes and Michael Boulding’s runs being his prime routes – and be the force that takes City to promotion.

In an ideal world McLaren is what we dare to dream he is. A player with the foot in defensive abilities of Stuart McCall who passes like Peter Beagrie but no one is that good even when scaled down to League Two levels.

McLaren’s partner in the midfield will be found from Lee Bullock, Kyle Nix, and Luke Sharry and should things be going to plan the three of them will battle it out until one emerges as a perfect partner. Bullock is likely to be the first starter but both the youngsters are showing well.

Bullock was highly thought of at Hartlepool for his attacking abilities while at Bradford – well, at BfB – Nix is a favourite for his skillful and energetic displays. Sharry – young that he is – roared into pre-season and looks set for a place in the squad. He has power and a calm head.

Youngster showing well was a description of Joe Colbeck until he became player of the season and the great hope of Valley Parade. If everything goes right Colbeck will pick up where he left off at the end of last season and start giving the drive that he did at the start of 2008. He has what every young player needs – quality around him – and can find more outlets for his passing and better players to work close interplay with.

Chris Brandon is expected to be the first choice for the left wing. Huddersfield Town supporters called him a nearly man – “nearly scored with that shot, nearly did something great” – and perhaps the extra push he would need to be the exact man will come from his passion for the club. He is a City fan playing – at last – for his club.

Not playing for his club would seem to be Mark Bower who looks like he may lose out to Matthew Clarke in the contest to play alongside new skipper Graeme Lee. If we are getting promoted the two from three will develop a partnership. League Two is a division of big forwards and in Clarke and Lee we have two superb players in the air. Bower is better in possession and marks well. Clarke his a mountain of power and Lee is collected while strong.

Pauls Heckingbottom and Arnison have a remit to get down the flanks. In a great season these two will be passing their wingers often and notching assists.

Also, in a great season Rhys Evans – a late signing to the cause – will have little to do.

Finally the manager Stuart McCall use the tools of his squad to maintain constiency of the majority of the eleven while dropping in approriate changes where needed. Certainly more than any City manager since Paul Jewell his squad is their to be picked rather than having the eleven players pick themselves.

The rest of League Two – Preseason 2008/2009 [II]

The numerous season preview supplements produced at this time of year act as a reminder, if it were needed, that the hopes and expectations we City supporters have for the coming season are not dissimilar to the majority of League Two fans.

Much has been made locally about how last season’s promotion of the MK Dons and Peterborough has left a more levelled playing field, but we aren’t the only ones thinking such sentiments. Some clubs will look to Hereford’s unexpected promotion last season and be confident they can emulate it, others may be hoping it’s emerging young talent can push them forward in the manner of Stockport and Rochdale, while others are upping the wage budget in a bid to go for it. League Two may look weaker without the presence of the Dons and the Posh, but it’s likely to be just as competitive.

When considering who might be in the promotion shake up it’s typical to start with the clubs who have spent money, those who lost out in last year’s plays offs and those relegated into the division last season. The club record £170,000 that Shrewsbury Town has spent on Nottingham Forest striker Grant Holt stands out like a sore thumb compared to everyone else’s summer recruitment. Last season was one of underachievement for the 2007 Play Off Finalists but manager Paul Simpson will begin his first full season with expectations not much lower than at Valley Parade.

Holt made his name at last season’s play off finalists Rochdale, who are likelier to be up there come May. Keith Hill has worked wonders at Spotland and their counter attacking approach impressed last season. Arguably lacking a decent striker, the Dale will hope Halifax’s Jon Shaw can make the step up; especially as midfield playmaker David Perkins, twice the thorn in the side of City last season, has left.

Wycombe Wanderers parted company with manager Paul Lambert at the end of last season and welcome Peter Taylor – with more than a point to prove following a difficult couple of years. They will probably do better than the other semi-finalists of last season, Darlington, who have lost star players David Stockdale and, while not confirmed yet, Tommy Wright. Dave Penney spent big last summer but doesn’t appear to have significant funds this time around.

Elsewhere big things are expected of Lincoln City, who prospered last year under Peter Jackson before his time off through illness. New keeper Rob Burch was sought after by others, including City, while Frank Sinclair could prove a clever buy if he still has the legs. Chesterfield fans seem to dislike their manager Lee Richardson but have one of the best strikers in the division in Jack Lester, Alan Knill will be looking to continue his rejuvenation of Bury and they could be dark horses, while Grimsby has strengthened defensively and will hope young striker Danny North can fulfill his potential.

It’s a sad state of the continuing financial problems many clubs in the lower reaches of the Football League are suffering from that this year’s League Two relegation battle could be determined by point deductions. Three seasons ago Luton finished 10th in the Championship, but the odds are heavily stacked in favour of a third successive relegation and drop into non-league following the 30 points taken off them. Play off form will be needed just to stay up and, with the club still in a mess, that seems unrealistic.

Bournemouth and Rotherham’s hopes of merely beginning this season are still in the balance and respective 15 and 17 point deductions look like a best scenario. That may allow other clubs to breath easier but Chester City, another club with money problems, won’t be counting their chickens as they remember how last season’s dramatic collapse in form almost cost them their league status. Some of the division’s smaller clubs, such as Macclesfield, Accrington and Dagenham, will also be targeting the 50 point mark rather than any loftier ambitions.

Gillingham’s recent financial difficulties make it difficult to imagine they can achieve much beyond midtable but Port Vale, under former City defender Lee Sinnott, will be a better bet for an instant return to League One. The league’s new boys, Aldershot and Exeter, arrive with romantic stories of rebirth and should both be good enough for midtable, where they will surely be joined by Notts County, Barnet, Brentford and Morecambe.

The quality of League Two is derided by some, while others trumpet it as featuring real football and real fans. Last season many clubs enjoyed better form on the road but the ones who did make it to the division above were strong at home, too. This season’s League Two promises to be unpredictable, ugly and beautiful; and those successful in realising their pre-season expectations next Spring will probably be all three.

New season, new excitement – Pre-season 2008/2009 [III]

So the wait is nearly over and the 2008/2009 season is nearly ready to begin. Thousands of football supporters up and down the country are looking forward to the start of a new season. August 9th for a football supporter is like January 1st to a non-football supporter with many hopes waiting to be either realised or dashed. Forget the Premiership and the latest WAG getting photographed and appearing in a newspaper or magazine, the real football stories are going to come from Division 4 (not League 2) this season.

We, the Bradford City faithful, are expecting big things this season with many seeing a top 7 finish as a minimum. I for one would love to see us get promoted for one man and one man alone and that is David Wetherall. The loyalty that David showed to our club is a rare commodity experienced in football today. Stuart has made alot of signings this summer bringing in the likes of Rhys Evans, Michael Boulding, Chris Brandon and Graeme Lee. It will certainly be a different looking starting 11 this Saturday when compared with the team that started against Macclesfield on the opening day last season. Gone are the likes of Ricketts, Williams, Evans, Johnson and Ndumbu-Nsungu.

Once again we should average the highest home attendances in our division but big crowds doesn’t automatically equate to success on the pitch. For example, take Accrington Stanley who averaged less than 1,700 for their home games last season and came to Valley Parade in early October last season supported by 149 people in a crowd of 13,346 and thrashed us 3-0. We are one of the favourites to gain promotion this season but after nearly a decade without experiencing a promotion I’m taking nothing for granted. Call me a pessimist or a realist.

Make no mistake there are plenty of other teams in the same division as us this season who believe that they’ve a good chance of promotion. Aldershot and Exeter City, both promoted from non-league, will be looking to maintain their upwardly momentum. Wycombe with Peter Taylor, Lincoln City with our former captain Peter Jackson and Shrewsbury with Paul Simpson all have managers with a proven track record in the lower divisions. Rochdale and Darlington will both be looking to repeat their play off form from last season too.

One thing is for sure this coming season, there will be highs and there will be lows and it will be interesting to see if Michael Boulding can replicate his goal scoring record from last season with a team that got relegated too. Matt Hamshaw was probably the provider of many a cross for Boulding to latch on to last season so let’s hope that the likes of Colbeck, Nix and Daley can supply plenty of quality crosses this season (although let’s remember that Colbeck is suspended for the first 2 games). What about Evans, our new goalkeeper. He played 4 games on loan last season with us and although we didn’t win any of those games, he certainly played steadily against Darlington at home, Morecambe away and Grimsby away before being forced to retire at Blundell Park.

What could possibly go wrong? Pre-season 2008/2009 [IV]

When Arsene’s Arsenal went for 49 games without defeat they seemed imperious but the end of that run – losing at Old Trafford – sent them into a spiral of negative results which cost the a chance of winning a second consecutive Premiership. The same team that could not lose then could not win – for a while at least – before even keel was regained.

The moral of that story was that in football failure is inevitable and the control that managers have is not in avoiding defeat – everyone gets beaten sometimes – but in how defeat and other failure is dealt with.

So last season when City started a losing run around October Stuart McCall struggled to turn that streak around. One failure rolled into another in a string of results that could have cost any manager his job. McCall lived and learned it.

City started last season on a bubble of optimism which once pricked burst. This year Stuart McCall is building on more firm foundations but for sure the mood of the club is that City’s side will be a step above everyone else. At some point though the Bantams will lose, will be out played, will get robbed, will fail.

It is at that point when things can go wrong and that point where Stuart McCall has to start testing his management skills. As a coach one can be confident that he has the right stuff – many players at Sheffield United and City have praised him – but any question marks that remain are around this untested attribute.

When failure comes will McCall be able to arrest that and turn it around as effectively as an Alex Ferguson or will defeats snowball as they did for Wenger that year and Stuart in his first season?

Such a loss of confidence can come in many ways – losing can seep into being a habit – but most often it is brought about by players finding excuses. Last season too many loan players like Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu and Nicky Law Jnr were at walking pace as the Bantams went down to defeats because as loan players one could not blame them for losses. It is noticeable that Stuart has no loans in his squad so far.

Injury gives players excuses too and as Rochdale websites call him the signing of the season Paul McLaren grows a totemistic importance for City with the belief of supporters resting on his shoulders. For sure keeping McLaren fit is a bit part of City’s season but not allowing too much store to be placed on the midfielder is also important when he is absent.

One remembers how on the final day of the 1987/1988 the Bantams without John Hendrie lacked the belief and how the team minus Dean Windass simply did not believe the goals would come. McCall has to balance McLaren’s usefulness with not over playing his importance should he be lost.

However McLaren’s form cannot be worse than the previous incumbent of that shirt – Paul Evans – who was a superb player who played so many wretched performances that he had a wretched season. Evans was talented – perhaps not as talented as McLaren – but totally failed to bring that talent to City last season leaving a huge hole in the side.

City this season are stronger and have more top quality players. Should one of Graeme Lee, Michael Boulding, Chris Brandon, Peter Thorne or any of the other players who one could put in the top bracket of players in this division not perform then others are there to back them up. Money in football gives the the chance to make more mistakes. To fail more often.

Failure is not on the agenda at Valley Parade this year and confidence is high with Mark Lawn bullish and bold. With boldness he needs strength. Failure at some point is assured and the reaction to that failure needs to be consistent and measured. Three defeats on the trot are not the time for the either chairman to start talking in worried voices.

Confidence is fragile and cold heads – cold heads in the heat of a promotion battle – are required to retain it. One need only as Carlisle United about that with their off field troubles derailing a promotion bid last season.

Failure is the only inevitable thing in football. Every run of wins will eventually end. Every team will lose games. Every player will have a bad game at some point. Dealing with that failure and moving back to success is the key to a winning team, a winning season and to promotion.

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