Boycott / Loans

I am not going to tell you to not go to tonight’s game with Stoke City u23 but I would like to play with your intuitions around the situation League One clubs find themselves in.

The English Football League Trophy (EFLT) should be boycott because – it is said – allowing teams of under twenty three players from the top two divisions of English football represents a first step towards allowing Reserve Teams/B Teams/u23 Teams into the Football League itself.

(Those top two division are referenced to as “Premier League” for the rest of this article. That would be a taxonomy that included Aston Villa more than Rotherham United.)

This would be inherently devaluing – the argument goes – because it would create a set of teams who were not representing communities but were using the resources of those who do. The upshot of this could be that competitions like League One are devalued by being won by teams which – by definition – are not as interested in them as they are other competitions.

Scunthorpe

Last season Scunthorpe United missed out on a play off place to a Barnsley team which had three loan players – Ashley Fletcher, Ivan Toney and Harry Chapman of West Ham United (now, and Manchester United then), Newcastle United and Middlesbrough respectively – who are the very type of footballer who will be playing for the likes of Stoke City u23.

As a Scunthorpe United supporter you might wonder how much of an impact Barnsley’s bringing in those players had and – considering the gap between Barnsley and Scunthorpe was three goals – you might conclude that without those three players your side would have been sixth not The Tykes.

You could think similar things about Josh Cullen, Reece Burke and Bradford City. What did Bradford or Barnsley do to bring those players in? Are we happy with a League where a decisive factor is the ability to maintain relationships with Premier League Academies?

That players can be borrowed from one club to another is a standard of football but we kid ourselves if we say what we have now is the loan system as we have always known it.

In the 1980s loans were used to cover injury – Liverpool’s Steve Staunton in for City’s Karl Goddard is a good example – and in the 1990s it was used to freshen up squads with an new face for a month or so and for try before you buy deals.

Now loans are a part of squad gathering. Each season a club looks at loans as a way to support the squad they are building. Signing Reece Burke was not to cover injury or because the players in that role were failing it was a cornerstone to Phil Parkinson’s summer recruitment.

So we kid ourselves if we do not notice the changes to how loans are used and we kid ourselves if we do not notice why those changes have been made and what the results are.

In a year Reece Burke went from squad man to valued asset at West Ham. The benefits of loan deals for Premier League clubs are obvious.

It is less clear what League One clubs get out of them.

League One’s clubs are now defined – in some part – by who they bring in on loan. The right contacts at the right Premier League academies would allow four Reece Burkes to be brought in by a team.

These loan signings happen at every club – more or less – and one could argue that they have a cancelling out effect. City only need Reece Burke because Barnsley have Fletcher and Coventry City have Adam Armstrong. If all loan players were to return to all parent clubs all League One clubs would be effected equally.

These loan players represent a cheap option for clubs – some free, some with subsidised wages, all without long term contracts – and loan signings make up three or four players in every squad of twenty two.

To make that explicit the Premier League is funding League One clubs at a rate of (around) 15% of their wage budgets and in return for that they are taking the value of having their players play a full season in League One which provides the experience needed to improve. They get to turn a young Reece Burke into an £8m rated player.

This has had a warping effect on League One squads.

The loan players available to League One clubs from the Premier League are young and because a squad must be balanced League One clubs know that they must build group of senior players. This necessarily stops League One young players progressing.

An example. A League One club wants three central defenders and – because they do not have to pay for him – they take a kid on loan from Premier League allowing them to spend more on the other players.

The manager – knowing he already has one kid at centreback – is not going to be able to progress one of his own team’s youngsters for fear of ended up with a situation where he has two teenagers at the heart of his back four. So he brings in older players to balance his squad.

So the manager makes a team of senior players and any value for progressing young players goes to the Premier League team. If you take a Gladwellian view – as I do – that good footballers are forged by playing games rather than born.

Which means that a Reece Burke is worth £8m to West Ham United while City;s 19 year old professional contracted defender James King has yet to play. With King it is almost impossible to say if he is worth a place in the team but a concern would be would a Dean Richards or an Andrew O’Brien be in the same position as King is now?

The Premier League clubs take all – or a lot of at least – of the value that comes from developing players in League One.

We have a situation in League One where the Premier League make a funding contribution to most of the teams in the division in some way, that the quality of loan players attracted has an unnatural and disproportionate influence on those teams finishing positions, and that the value from this transaction goes to the Premier League at the detriment to the teams in League One.

We worry about the Football League Trophy bringing B Teams into the Football League but I think we worry for no reason and that the problems that that would represent are already with us.

I’d suggest that if you consider the above you’d conclude that all the benefits of B Teams have been given to Premier League clubs and are already in League One today.

Inefficient / Attitude / Passing

The Team

Colin Doyle | Daniel Devine, Romain Vincelot, Nathaniel Knight-Percival, James Meredith | Mark Marshall, Josh Cullen, Timothée Dieng, Nicky Law | Billy Clarke, Jordy Hiwula-Mayifuila | Vincent Rabiega

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.

Soft / August

Jordy Hiwula’s single goal in Bradford City’s 1-0 win over Peterborough United changed the tone of the conversation around the club from a general worry that no goals would ever be scored to more of a consideration of what a fully fit Bantams would look like.

Hiwula’s goal is the only return for a first week of over seventy chances in three games and the hunt for a striker continues despite Vincent Rabiega joining on a one year deal this week.

With everyone at Valley Parade slowly admitting that the club is weeks behind in recruitment from where it would like to be Bradford City are not alone in being unprepared for the new season – Everton are only 70% ready it seems – and the five league games in August start to resemble a soft launch rather than a start with squads being assembled up to the end of August.

Take – as an example – City’s Matthew Kilgallon who for reasons personal arrived at City not fit enough to play even in a situation where only one central defender was fit. That Romain Vincelot fits so well into the position is pleasing for many reasons but all those reasons mask how acceptable being ready for September rather than August has become.

Because of this there is reason to believe that Chief Scout Greg Abbott may be able to find the striker City are looking for – Abbott, McCall, and most of Bradford seem to want a proven goalscorer – in the last weeks of the month.

Take – for example – Sheffield Wednesday’s Gary Hooper who is a proven goalscorer across four divisions, Scotland and Europe but is currently sharing time at the owls and not getting the lion’s share of that time.

With Steven Fletcher having arrived in South Yorkshire and Fernando Forestieri edging his way out Hooper has a good chance of playing. If Forestieri can be convinced to stay then Hooper is considering spending his twenty ninth year making cameo appearances from the bench.

Of course Hooper is probably out of City’s range – I doubt he is a target – but in the next two weeks it could become obvious to Hooper if he is going to get game time or not and if he is not he might decide that he would rather move on to somewhere where he gets it.

Another example is the oft talked about Adam le Fondre who has yet to feature for Cardiff City this season despite some pressing for his inclusion.

At the moment le Fondre is being well paid to go out on loan – Wolves and Bolton had him in the last few years – but as the end of the transfer window now means an inability to play for another club until the start of January the likes of le Fondre are facing a long time watching football happening around them without getting involved.

Of course this is not a new phenomenon just one with different timing. It was that players would turn up to pre-season and cast glances around the training field and play in a few friendlies to decide that New Face One and Young Kid Two were probably going to get into the team over them. Rather than bench warm for a year they looked for a move before the season started in August.

That still happened but it happens in this first month of the season. August is pre-season with fifteen points available. Last year the soft launch August pre-season told Phil Parkinson that Nathan Clarke and Rory McArdle needed a more mobile player alongside them and so Reece Burke was signed.

One shows one’s age when one wistfully recalls when a team was ready for the second Saturday in August.

So Matt Taylor of Bristol Rovers is “tired” three games into the season with the ink not yet dry on his new contract but rumours starting immediately that he is having second thoughts. Jay Simpson does not appear on the Leyton Orient team photo and speculation rises.

Which is perhaps where Abbott and McCall are poised ready for a player who shake loose who previously seems cemented into position.

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.

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.

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

The Team

Ben Williams | Stepgen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Josh Cullen, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Filipe Morais | Billy Clarke, Jamie Proctor, Nathan Clarke

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 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

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Billy Knott, Lee Evans, Kyel Reid | (James Hanson || Steve Davies), Devante Cole | James Hanson, Mark Marshall, Luke James

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

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Gary Liddle, Kyel Reid | Steve Davies, Devante Cole | James Hanson, Mark Marshall

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.

Bradford City from all angles after the 2-2 draw with Sheffield United

The Team

Brad Jones | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Mark Marshall, Lee Evans, Gary Liddle, Paul Anderson | James Hanson, Devante Cole | Billy Knott, Steve Davies, Luke James

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.

Directing Traffik at Boundary Park as City beat Oldham Athletic 2-1

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Mark Marshall, Billy Knott, Gary Liddle, Luke Morris | James Hanson, Devante Cole | Luke James, Paul Anderson, Tony McMahon

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.”

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