Respect / Response

The Football League has a new set of rules to cope with the “unacceptable levels” of “intolerable behaviour” by players and managers in English football.

Ad absurdum these new rules mean that players can be booked for bumping into the Referee but more practically they give the officials the power send players off for swearing at them or insulting them.

Which is unarguable on the surface and few people would suggest that anyone should have to put up with abuse, insults and swearing directed towards them. Of course the Football League is not going to do anything within the context of the laws of the game to prevent players from being the object of this – racist abuse supporters is entirely a Police matter – and when it gets onto the field we they prefer to punish the victim.

The detail is more murky. Reading the list some of the enumerated offences are practically useful to stop match officials from being insulted and abused but, smuggled within those, are offences created to stop players from questioning or disagreeing with decisions.

Take the unclear working “visibly disrespectful behaviour to any match official” and imagine a defender who has seen a forward dive over his withdrawn leg to win a penalty. The double hand swallow dive mime is a direct question to the authority of the Referee who has given the incorrect decision but should it be a yellow card offence? It is now.

As is banging the floor hard when a forward is brought down and believes he should have had a penalty but sees the Referee wave play on. Smash the ground with your fist and of course what you are doing is questioning the Referee’s decision but is that a bad thing?

What is the ethical merit of never questioning Referees? Why is it virtuous for players to accept every decision as correct even when they may know better than the official that it is not? Everyone knows the practical benefits of an unquestioned autocracy but few welcome it in other areas of life.

It is not as if the match officials are never wrong. Ask the better ones and they will tell players they are often wrong but try to be right as often as they can be. Those Referees seem to be the ones which players respect.

Which is, in the end, the root of these new laws. The dual belief that match officials are drowned in a sea of disrespect and a misguided sense of how respect can be forced into players. On the former point one could be excused for thinking that events at Bradford City games are drastically different from the rest of football.

One struggles to remember any significant incidents of abuse of officials worthy of the name at City matches going back years. I’m sure they hear the odd bad word and that some of them are directed at them but nothing that stopped them doing the job as evidenced by the fact that no games descended into chaos or anything similar.

This idea that football is awash with disrespect of officials at the professional level to the point where it is obvious to supporters – and thus that it could make a difference as an example at other levels of football – is not true. Stamp out all disrespect from professional League One football and it would look exactly as it does now, unless you increase the definition of disrespect to include any questioning of a decision.

Which speaks to the idea that respect can be forced into footballers. It cannot.

Questioning a decision – and there are right and wrong ways to do that – is a natural reaction and one that a grown man is allowed to have. Football seems very much concerned with stopping this.

Referees seem very much concerned with stopping this as if stopping anyone showing what they consider to be disrespect means that there is no disrespect and, by extension, that they are respected.

But respect can’t be forced and if anyone in football wants to seriously think about respect as an issue then perhaps they should consider the inherent lack of respect with which football treats the players. They are told not not even think that that the Referee could be wrong.

Referees are not Headmasters. They have the responsibility for enforcing the laws of the game but that is where their role stops. They are not responsible for the behaviour of the players just for enforcing the laws when behaviour transgresses those rules.

From today they can be booked – told off – for banging their fists on the floor in frustration at a wrong decision.

Footballers are treated like children and these new guidelines smuggle in more ways to tell them off for questioning as if they were kids to an demanding father.

Maybe changing that is where respect should start.

A silence

There was a temptation to simply link to the previous four match reports this website has offered and invite you – dear reader – to mentally flip a few names to make your own Cheltenham report.

It is easily done. A referee who once again begged the question “bent or bloody rubbish?” A City defender sent off for two yellow card offences that even after the argument as to if either offence was actually a foul – today for Steve Williams one was, one was not – were offences repeated across the field without punishment being given (Append:) although whatever one things about the challenge Williams certainly did not foul Richards in the penalty area.

Cheltenham striker Justine Richards and City's Steve Williams

Penalties feature heavily of course. Williams was sent off for a dive which frankly was better than Stephen Leslie’s dive Shrewsbury but was still a dive. Justin Richards – today’s woeful sprawler – is a cheat but at least he is better at it than Leslie is, in that he dive looked more convincing.

Once you have mentally created the match report add the odd comment to the bottom. Add one that blames the Bantams for the run of refereeing decisions and another that manages to aim that blame squarely at manager Stuart McCall. It is the masochist opinion but one that is often heard.

Nevertheless long after I had accepted the machinations of another official who was either unfit to Referee or had decided he wanted a specific result (I know what I think) the Bradford City players – told to spend more time playing and less time sulking about the string of corrupt/useless that blights their games by manager McCall – turned in a performance of credit. Down to ten men with a sending off which was at best a mistake/came courtesy of a bottle of whiskey in the referee’s room the players turned in a performance that took control of of the match.

Indeed the first half lead given by James O’Brien’s tidy finish after visiting keeper Brown had flapped at a corner was the least that City deserved and a chunk of luck for Michael Flynn when he drove from long range or James Hanson when he got into the box after a smart move through a packed midfield would have resulted in a more healthy scoreline.

That that midfield was packed caused problems for the game. With Simon Whaley return to Norwich the previous day and Omar Daley not yet fit enough to start a diamond midfield with Lee Bullock at the base – Bullock pretty much neutered the visitor’s midfield single handedly – Flynn and James O’Brien in the middle and Chris Brandon at the tip. It was a tight middle and robbed of flank players compressed the game into what was often a frustrating to watch mass of football.

Nevertheless the protection to the back four – and latterly back three – offered by the midfield snuffed out the Cheltenham threat comprehensively and the single goal should have been enough to win the game but Referee Craig Pawson and his intervention in the game that was oh too familiar. The game was perverted and rendered – well – boring as Pawson like the previous four officials at Bradford City matches decided he and his decisions would be centre sage. It is football pantomime, and everyone grows out of pantomime.

What does the club do from now? Stuart McCall told his players to focus more on the game and less on the Referee and so they did but the focus of the game – the reason for the result – was another inept/biased performance by an official. Should the club kick up a stink about the way that the last five games have been tipped in one direction or another by this brand of officiating then it seems to exasperate the problem but saying nothing is unnatural and goes against our need to protect our club.

The Bantams plod on though doing enough to win games but having them turned away from victory and as people turned away from Valley Parade trudging home in the snow on Saturday evening there was not a criticism or players or manager but a silence.

What I wanted

Injury time in the first half and Stuart McCall was furious after Matthew Clarke – who a minute earlier seemed to give away a penalty without making any contact with Steven Leslie the Shrewsbury Town play – was sent off after Dave Hibbert had fallen under no challenge and the defender was given a second yellow card.

I wanted Stuart McCall to take the City team off and damn the consequences.

I’m tired of seeing pathetic Referees and I’m tired of trying to tax my brain on the whole idea of trying to decide if they are bent or bloody rubbish. I’m tired of seeing players cheat and have guileless Referees help them in that with bizarre decisions.

I wanted McCall to say that this game was no longer that. It was a laughable excuse of a football match, not the beautiful game but a runt cousin where the pattern of play and abilities on the field were divorced from one another. Certainly the correlation between City’s performances and the results of games is nowhere near as strong as the correlation between Stuart McCall complaining about the Rotherham referee Lee Probert and red cards and “mistake” decisions that follow from Referees.

I wanted Stuart McCall to take the players off and make a huge stink saying that this will not do. Everyone watching the game has been short changed by poor Refereeing and some players who would rather cheat that try play the game – and it is a game and not a war, winning is not at all costs.

I wanted Stuart to say that enough is enough to bring attention to the disgrace that passes for football and fairness in League Two. I want to write a different match report than this – I have – but there is no way legal action would not follow as a result despite my being utterly convinced of its veracity.

I want someone in football to give a Damn about what is going on in the game but they don’t. Pay your money and shut up is the attitude.

The game is not important. Once again the result did not reflect the match and the scoreline was a reflection of the Referee and how he was able to cope with the attitude to fair play that the teams showed. I wanted Stuart McCall to take the team off to draw a line and say that enough is enough.

It didn’t happen.

As Seen On TV

I’ve got a bad throat. That means I can’t shout at the referee, which would normally take all the fun out of going to a football match. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

In a game where six goals were scored by five different players, it may seem churlish to spend much time discussing one man, even when that one man comes straight to Valley Parade from the Premier League. So, for a while I shall leave all mention of the referee. But you have been warned.

City were forced into one change from last week, with Steve Williams failing a fitness test, Simon Ramsden moving to centre back and Jonathan Bateson coming in at right back. What looked like a fairly predictable 4-4-2 showed rather more fluidity than might have been expected, albeit frequently at the cost of depriving the team of any width.

Simon Eastwood had a mixed game. As early as the fifth minute he was saving with his legs to send a shot over the bar and two or three other excellent first half stops kept City in touch. The benefit of one of those saves was, however, very short-lived once Kevin Ellison put home the rebound for Rotherham’s equaliser. Lee Bullock had reacted first to an earlier rebound off a Simon Whaley free kick – of which more in a moment – to give City an early lead. But another Ellison goal following some neat, but defendable, build-up play saw the visitors go in at half-time with a 2-1 lead.

Whatever the team talk had been, Luke O’Brien’s surging run and Michael Flynn’s crashing shot in the first minute of the second half looked to have set up an exhilarating pre-Christmas cracker. Andy Warrington in the visitors’ goal (who is nowhere near the superannuable age he may seem) had had little to trouble him in the first half. Now he had to make one save at the foot of his near post to beat out an Evans pile driver; another to tip over Bullock’s shot after an Evans run and cross; and a third, toward the latter stages, when a 30 yard thunderbolt from James O’Brien looked a certain goal.

Meanwhile, at the other end, the now largely unemployed Simon Eastwood was tasked by nothing worse than the occasional back pass to his left foot. That is until the 78th minute when he was beaten by a quickly taken Roberts free kick from just over the half-way line. The lob went over him as he scrambled back to his line, entering the net via the cross bar to put the visitors 3-2 in front. Their fourth goal, two minutes from the end, was a tap in for Drewe Broughton, which brings me back to the start of the game and all the bits I’ve so far missed out – each and every one of them featuring Lee Probert, our star visitor from the Premier League.

Only a few weeks ago everyone at Valley Parade was bemoaning the woeful performance of the referee against Accrington, one Mr Cook. Bad as his display was, City still had only themselves to blame for not sending Stanley home empty handed. Mr Probert showed how it should be done. He’s a Premier League ref and they do things a little differently. They’re on first name or even nickname terms with the players; they know who has a reputation for diving and who pulls shirts all the time; and they are more likely to play the advantage rule, as Mr P did, to his credit, several times.

However, they also like to talk – and talk and talk and talk. Mr Probert illustrated this perfectly in the first five minutes. He adjudged, quite correctly that the aforementioned Drewe Broughton had struck Simon Ramsden with his elbow. Broughton must have considered himself well and truly told off, judging by the length of the lecture. The rest of us judged him extremely fortune not to be shown a card of either colour, despite the early stage of the game. (What difference, by the way, does it make if you commit a bookable offence five or thirty-five minutes into a game? I bet Mr Probert can answer that one.)

Broughton, however, had clearly not been sufficiently well told off, because in the ninth minute he swapped defenders and Matt Clarke felt the power of his elbow. This time even Mr Probert had to produce a yellow card and leave us wondering what might have happened if he had done the job right four minutes earlier. Playing with ten men after nine minutes tends to have its effect on the game.

But within four more minutes Mr Probert set an entirely different standard for what constitutes a bookable offence. Lee Bullock hung a leg out just outside the centre circle. It wasn’t a dangerous tackle and it was his first foul. Perhaps 13 minutes into a game is acceptable for a yellow card to be produced for an innocuous offence. Bullock shrugged his shoulders at the waving referee, while others tried in vain to point to the disparity with the much more serious and dangerous offence which had previously resulted in a telling off.

But, having set the 13 minute standard for innocuous fouls in midfield, Mr P had changed his mind by the 17th minute. Michael Boulding, with his back to goal and the ball at his feet, attempted to turn Pablo Mills. Mr Mills is not noted for his gentility, as the City physio will be able to confirm when Boulding’s injury has been fully assessed. For hacking Boulding to the floor from behind, a few yards outside his own penalty area, Mills’ punishment was a free kick. Not a card; not a lecture of even the shortest duration; not even a firm stare from the ref. It could, in fact, be argued that Mills won his side a distinct advantage for the rest of the game, given that Boulding remained on the pitch for just three more minutes. The standard had changed back again. The only justice was that this free kick gave City the lead.

Lectures, bookings, goals and other stoppages produced just two minutes of added time, but that was enough to see Simon Ramsden flattened again after yet another leap from Broughton. Neither Mr Probert nor his fourth official, who must have been within a very few yards of the incident, saw anything wrong and play was restarted with a throw in, but only after Stuart McCall came on to the pitch and Ronnie Moore troubled the referee with a few words of his own.

Just five minutes into the second half, Gareth Evans was away down the right flank, outpacing Pablo Mills with some ease until, just in front of the assistant referee, Mills took both his legs, ensuring that the threatening run came to an abrupt and illegal end. So, for his second blatant offence of the afternoon, each depriving a striker of a run on goal, Mills had to be punished. And aren’t Mr Probert’s talking-to’s severe? You just ask Mills, because that’s exactly what he got. In another part of the pitch Lee Bullock must surely have been wondering what he had done wrong.

Within five minutes of that Mills lecture, Michael Flynn was late with a sliding tackle and there was a holding of breath from the City faithful. Anything might be about to happen to Flynny, but the actual result, a yellow card, while entirely correct, came as a great relief.

Which brings us back to that third goal from half-way and another difference between League Two and Premier League officials. We are used to ‘the correct blade of grass’ syndrome with our refs; perhaps we should watch more TV to spot how far away from the foul you can take the free kick if you have a Premier League ref. This one was so far away that it brought Stuart McCall on to the pitch again, this time without the excuse of an injured player.

A pretty obvious hand ball, so clear that even the handler, Nicky Law, almost gave himself up, produced nothing and Michael Flynn being pulled back brought only a theatrical wave of the arms from Mr P. Two very decent penalty claims, either of which could have changed the course of the game, were not seen. The additional five minutes, which became six, brought another booking. Matt Clarke must have spoken out of turn, unless, of course, Mr Probert had by now reverted to the Lee Bullock standard for yellow cards.

The game ended in stunned silence from the home crowd. City had not deserved to lose and this time the standard of refereeing really had had a major impact, many times over, on the outcome of the game. I almost (but not quite) could wish for the return of Mr Singh.

But I should end on a positive. There were some splendid displays in claret, with Bullock, Flynn and Ramsden to the fore, but none more so than the man who never missed a header all day and made sure his clearances were definitively cleared. He has his detractors and is not the most cultured of players, but Matt Clarke deserved any Man of the Match award. Not that I heard who was actually given it, so furious was I with our visitor from on high.

Too many bad days

The rain tipped down at Valley Parade, it never stopped. It was always going to be a hard game, not a pretty game and a series of bad days saw to it that it was not a good game.

Stuart McCall’s selection of a 442 pulling Scott Neilson into a right wing role opposite Chris Brandon on the left was the City manager’s bad day. All formations have a tendency to veer back to a 442 given time and it seemed that the City boss thought that he could plug the odd hole at the back with two lines of two rather than the 433 he moved back to after Accrington Stanley equalised in this game.

Accrington’s equaliser came from Michael Symes, a former City player who had more than his share of bad days while a Bantams and his goal aside looked not at all impressive. Symes will have empathy with Gareth Evans who missed a penalty in the dying minutes smacking a child behind the goal with the ball rather than ending the game in glory. Symes had done the same thing at the opening of his City career.

Not that that should have been an end to the glory for Evans who lashed a ball chested – or one assumes the officials must have judged handled – down by Michael Boulding. Evans and is strike partner James Hanson struggled on a blustery day but both kept going giving the Bantams a plethora of late chances to win the game. The last half hour should convince McCall to stick with his 433 formation if only because the game was far more entertaining after that point.

The Bantams had taken the lead when Michael Flynn – who had what was for him a poor game – had centred the ball and Phil Edwards put in his own net. Nothing else Flynn did seemed to come off but the mark of the man – and the City team – was that even when playing poorly the players kept playing.

Flynn, Luke O’Brien, Neilson, Evans, Brandon and James Hanson. None of them enjoyed great games but all of them played hard and ensured that personal negatives would not be carried over and contributed to a positive team performance. There are dozens of City players in the ten years since the slide from the Premiership who could not say the same and when they put in poor performances they let the team suffer.

The subject of the fall from the Premiership was recalled by the visiting Accrington fans in a song “Premier League, you fucked it up” or at least I assume that was what it was because it might have been the sound of the Stanley fans with buckets trying to raise money to keep their club going. I would rather than the sang the word “thank you” over and over as credit to people who came to their aid when they needed it so recently rather than behaved so gracelessly. Accrington Stanley had bad days, everyone rallied round, but those supporters made you wonder why?

Hanson toiled unsuccessfully although he would point to a head at goal which was pushed away by Andrew Proctor – a player who had already been booked – to give a penalty. Proctor seemed to hide in the box but he seemed to be no danger of a red card. Indeed he had got into a pushing match with Chris Brandon that could have resulted in a second yellow card but probably the fact that Referee had booked before probably saved him a card.

It did not – however – do his team any harm. Brandon had held onto the ball to complain about an obvious yet not given penalty when Steve Williams’s shirt was pulled a yard or so away from him in the box. Within seconds of Proctor not being booked Lee Bullock was, for something he said to the referee, following Symes’s goal.

It seemed to be a common tactic for a Referee to struggled all game. He dodged decisions – the penalty was given by his linesman – and ducked his responsibilities fudging calls so he was not required to use his red card but of the seven bookings that he issued five of them were to players for “dissent” – for which read “questioning the Referee’s decisions.”

No one has an idea as to why the goal Evans struck which was ruled out was ruled out but some mentioned handball by Boulding. A question of handball by a player who set up a goal? Really? This week in which a Referee was “100% certain” that Thierry Henry did not do the same.

I am tired of high handed Referees who cannot control a football match dealing with any questions with yellow cards. Stuart McCall, Michael Flynn, Gareth Evans and others had bad days but they did not have cards to silence critics. They applied themselves and deal with the results.

As Referee Steve Cook pointed to his watch a minute into injury time to tell new signing Simon Whaley that the three minutes to be added were under a stopped watch and then blew the whistle some fifteen seconds after the restart one could not say the same about the official. No control over the game save the threat of sending off, more bothered about telling off the players for talking out of turn like naughty school boys that trying to be a part of the game.

It was a poor game in poor conditions in a poor league with some players putting in poor performances but it deserved a better referee than that and it is hard to imagine it having a worse one.

City visit Shrewsbury as the start begins to end

If the end of last season started with the 3-0 defeat at Rochdale’s Spotland then the end of City’s promising start came at Shrewsbury’s New Meadow when the Bantams lost 2-0.

The Rochdale ghost was buried in the week when Stuart McCall’s men came back from behind to take victory with a goal from Scott Neilson that took enough of a deflection to be chalked up to luck.

Not that Dale boss Keith Hill would agree with that railing against the referee on the evening as not being fit to officiate. Odd that last season’s man in the middle who seemed to want to gift the game to the home side did not incur Hill’s wrath. That kind of myopia would fit right in at Rotherham if – should rumours be believed – Hill replaces Barnsley bound Mark Robbins.

At Shrewsbury last season Referee Jarnail Singh practically proved he was not up to refereeing by once again allowing goals to be scored while players were down with serious head injuries and the sight of TJ Moncur staggering away collapsing with the home side celebrating is the enduring one. Moncur and Lee Bullock were invalided away from right back that day.

Bullock’s return to the City team this season owes a deal to the injury to Stephen O’Leary who continues to miss games with a toe problem following his impressive debut against Port Vale.

Bullock is far from universally loved by City fans and in this post-Joe Colbeck era we enter is the next player to split fans.

Personally I’m conflicted internally on him not especially enjoying watching him in the way I enjoy the robustness of Michael Flynn but noticing the correlation between his name on the teamsheet and City winning. Call it the inverse Nicky Law effect.

Bullock and Flynn are likely to be rejoined by Steve O’Brien in the midfield following the youngsters benching in the week while those tight three midfielders will notice little difference on the right with the aforementioned Colbeck gone but replacement Scott Neilson impressing and exciting in his opening one hundred minutes for City.

Peter Thorne was robbed of the chance to impress by a hamstring injury on Tuesday night but he would have likely stepped down for James Hanson and Gareth Evans to continue a fruitful partnership.

At the back the four of Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien will return in front of Simon Eastwood.

That Rehman missed the midweek game was officially put down to a thigh strain although in all likelihood he was being given recovery time being in that twilight zone between injured and fit. As City’s squad shrinks the prospect of the player carrying injuries into games emerges. A week of rest becomes a rare thing and a player’s season becomes defined by how they deal with niggling injuries that would be rested at a higher level but are played through in League Two.

The counter to that resting is the benefits of confidence coming from playing games and it is that which Stuart McCall believes will get the best out of keeper Eastwood.

Eastwood had a ropey start to his City career but the start is coming to an end and the Huddersfield loanee is improving.

As are City. A win at Shrewsbury would be an impressive return – the home side have not yet lost a half dozen games at this stadium – but would be a fourth win in a row and set up parallels with Colin Todd’s side that collected fifteen points out of fifteen four years ago. A draw would no doubt be welcomed by the management keen to show the ability to be pragmatic away from home as a table begins to form and City begin to nestle into it.

Everything changes after City gorge in nine goals

The nine goals that City and Cheltenham enjoyed on Saturday changed the context of the debate on the Bantams as rapidly as they hit the back of the net at Wealden Road.

Within eight minutes when Gareth Evans powerfully ran from the left to slot in suddenly suggestions of how best to use Michael Boulding and what to do with Peter Thorne were cast far from the mind and as equalisers followed goal the discussion switched to the defence and how to stop it leaking goals. With Bradford City – it seems – there is one glass worth of water and two glasses. One is always going to be half full.

Nevertheless without want to pre-empt or even join either of these discussions one recalls City’s two recent odd wins in nine goal thrillers and how they effected things at Valley Parade hoping to get a pointer as to what the upshot of this match maybe.

Colin Todd’s men who went to Tranmere Rovers on the back of three straight wins won 5-4 thanks to a late David Wetherall goal. That 5-4 win at Prenton Park became the stuff of short term legend with the gate – then a more mutable figure – rising as a result as the Bantams made some news for a display full of character and in that say Stuart McCall’s side may be similar to that of Todd. The Bantams are opt characterised as being a spineless team who are too ready to use adversity as a chance to put heads down.

However three times City were dragged back to level terms and three times the players established a lead once more. Also tellingly every lead was given by a player Stuart McCall had brought into the club following the collapses of the end of last season. James O’Brien, James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Steve Williams all were brought in in the summer by the manager and all gave City the lead at some point.

The 5-4 at Prenton Park saw troubled top spot in the league for a while until encountering Luton Town and Joe Ross who combined to inflict a 4-0 defeat which Todd’s side – in retrospect – never recovered from and perhaps it was precinct that the defence at Tranmere was breached by the Hatters and their many account paid players and of which the utterly impartial Ross said “You need to sort your defending out.”

How true – and utterly inappropriate – the Referee was and so McCall will think the same. One never likes to trust the Press Association stats that are produced (and reproduced on the BBC Website) but over the course of the last two games with Lincoln and Cheltenham the opposition has mustered as many shots on target as they have scored goals with the homes side at the weekend (recordedly) having four at Simon Eastwood’s goal and me struggling to recall Lincoln having to make the City keeper do more work than pick the ball out of his net twice.

All of which will worry McCall but he may cast his mind back to the other 5-4 when the Bantams were beaten by West Ham United in the Premiership in one of the games dubbed as the best the top flight has ever seen.

McCall famously chewed out Dean Saunders for not squaring a chance for City to get a fifth in that game but will reflect that the Bantams backline and goalkeeper that day were hardly a settled unit with Aidan Davison the third of City’s three keepers that year not really getting to grips with sitting behind David Wetherall and Andrew O’Brien.

Defensive units are hard things to gel for sure and anyone who is ready to put all the blame for concessions two the goalkeeper – and Simon Eastwood has been criticised from the second he took to the field for City for not being a bigger name keeper – is naive but it will have escaped the notice of none that the triangle of Zesh Rehman, Eastwood and Williams has not been enjoying the greatest of births.

The West Ham game though – while taken in some quarters as a nail in the coffin for the Premiership City – was used by Paul Jewell to bring heart to his players suggesting that the game was proof that while they lost the game they were involved in the scrap and that he would ask of them only that – that the brought the effort needed to compete.

A lesson which McCall will draw for his players in the coming week. When heads are up the far forward becomes so much clearer.

Former England manager gives City a lesson

The opening day of every season is about learning lessons after three months of playing football in a hypothetical context give way to ninety minutes of reality and sometimes that reality is cold and sobering.

Bradford City’s lessons today were sobering. The afternoon started with a minute’s applause for the late Sir Bobby Robson. Robson had a lesson which he passed on to another manager who like Magpies boss Ian McPartland had seemingly endless riches to spend – a young Jose Mourinho – who relates the story as “One of the most important things I learnt from Bobby Robson is that when you win, you shouldn’t assume you are the team, and when you lose, you shouldn’t think you are rubbish.”

The World’s media came to watch Sven Goran Erikkson and the millions which are being pumped into Meadow Lane and went away purring about the home side caring hardly at all for the visitors who were but ballast in the story.

When Brendan Moloney pushed forward from full back leaving Lee Bullock to simply not track him back and allow him to score. Bullock’s head was down with the Bantams 4-0 down but he should have done more, put in more effort.

That he did not came after a grinding ninety minutes. City began brighter than their visitors with Stuart McCall having opted to send his side out to try upset the home team with a high line and a pressing forward line. The theory that McCall employed was – one assumes – that being at home and under scrutiny County would play similarly but alas they did not preferring to approach the game almost as an away match and sat back to play on the counter-attack.

So City pressed and as the season with fifteen minutes old Joe Colbeck had been unlucky to see his header saved after some great approach play and Peter Thorne look menacing on the far post with the ball under City’s control and City looking easy on the ball. County’s responses seemed to be entirely physical with Moloney especially guilty of some fearsome challenges with studs showing. City faced a midfield battle and bit by bit were edged out.

Edged out perhaps because while Bullock and new signing Michael Flynn looked tidy in possession and decent in the scrap they often found the ball pumped over their heads and when it was pumped in between Matthew Clarke and Luke O’Brien City were incapable of dealing with the ball across and expensive import from Shrewsbury Ben Davies finished on the far post.

It was not especially deserved and City should have kicked themselves with Clarke and O’Brien – not for the only time today – incapable of stopping the ball getting across the face of the box. New keeper Simon Eastwood hardly showered himself in glory with his control of the backline – very little – but collectively this was the beginning of errors that continued all afternoon.

That said City should have been level – or had the chance to be level – when Peter Thorne was shoved with two hands from behind by keeper Russell Hoult at a corner minutes later but the referee was curiously unmoved. The game was littered with pushes and free kicks many of which were given for much more malignant offences and not giving a penalty there was pre-season refereeing.

One had thought that the studs showing challenges were the results of being rusty – rather than a desire to be rustic – but they continued throughout the game with Graeme Lee engaging on any number of lunges h simply did not do for the Bantams last year. Anyone who wondered what Lee used to do at City and thought he would not be missed will not have hung their head when another long punt bounced in front of and over Zesh Rehman – who had a poor afternoon – and fell into the path of Lee Hughes who rounded the keeper and scored.

On to Lee Hughes now who rejoiced in his goal celebrating in front of the City fans who were taunting him with chides about his conviction for Causing Death by Dangerous Driving four years ago. Hughes faced the boos and on scoring pranced in front of City fans with delight.

There is a misunderstanding around Hughes when he is booed and responds to that jeering with his self-congratulatory dancing which would eventually get him booked in this game. Hughes is not booed as a former player like Graeme Lee or because he has long hair and is dubbed “Gypo” or because he has dived in a previous game. Many, if not most, people find Lee Hughes and his actions when arrested as being despicable and have the opinion that his playing cheapens the game of football. I think a man has a right to earn a living and Hughes does so but what is he trying to say when he goes to away fans and taunts them?

He has not proved fans wrong as a former player putting one over his old team mates would or silenced the people giggling at his hair yet he acts like Dean Windass returning for Sheffield United did. Frank Leboeuf said “He might be a good but footballer but he is a shit man” and no matter how many goals Hughes scores in this or any other season he has not proved anybody wrong. His prancing leaves a bad taste in the mouth as do the County fans who praise him. One can only hope that Sven and the Munto Group asks why their centre-forward is being called a murder and is as repulsed by the behaviour as I am.

Hughes got his second goal through another failure by Luke O’Brien to cut out a cross from the right. His third from a shameful dive from Luke Rodgers prompting the question of if County are going to be so good do they have to cheat? Seemingly so but the fourth goal killed City’s hopes off.

Steve Williams, James Hanson and Gareth Evans all made debuts off the bench and performed well with Williams looking mobile at the back coming on for Clarke who had had a better game than Rehman but had been replaced anyway. Evans and Hanson took the flanks coming on for Colbeck who had looked good in the first half and for Chris Brandon. Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding combined well with Brandon to see Boulding flash a shot wide.

The fifth goal came as the game dragged to an end leaving City looking back at ninety minutes of a defensive performance littered with individual mistakes – although Simon Ramsden looked good and pocketed Jamie Clapham – and a choice of approach from McCall that got it wrong and flew in the face of the manager’s talk of the Bantams learning to go away from home and play ugly, shutting up shop and being hard to beat.

County seem to be going onto bigger and better and perhaps their is no better illustration of the future for the Magpies than Hughes. Sneering success, at at any price, no matter what.

For City’s part though the short hop over the Trent to Nottingham Forest for the League Cup – bizarrely we parked next to the Brian Clough stand this Saturday afternoon – and then to Port Vale in League Two on Saturday looking to start the 45 game season anew.

The media beyond League Two are calling Hughes sparkling and toasting Sven’s perfect start but rather than the Swede one recalls the other former England manager and the lesson he would give for both teams today “When you win, you shouldn’t assume you are the team, and when you lose, you shouldn’t think you are rubbish.”

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.

The Most Important Man

Stuart McCall and Peter Jackson – two big figures in the recovery from the fire of 1985 in a game between these two teams – joined the silence honouring the departed.

McCall manages Bradford City taking the opportunity to when offered two years ago while Jackson is in charge of Lincoln City having knocked back the job at Valley Parade on Boxing Day 2001 having agreed to be our on Christmas Day. McCall would spend this anniversary or sorts with boos directed at him by some.

Some would have Jackson as Bradford City manager rather than McCall and others would not. Those in the latter camp could point to McCall’s match changing substitutions which brought about the aforementioned jeers at the time but were vindicated. Are these two thus the most important men?

The jeering for McCall came after substituting Michael Boulding and Joe Colbeck. Boulding had a game not atypical for him running into channels and working hard while never gelling with strike partner Peter Thorne. One could not fault Boulding’s work rate but would could take issue on how much of that hard work goes into the squad and how much goes into making sure that Michael Boulding has a good game? His impressive goal tally for Mansfield Town which made him League Two top scorer last season came when The Stags were relegated.

None of which is to say that Boulding is not a good player but rather than he is not foremost a good team player and – frankly – Bradford City are not foremost a good football team but rather a collection of good footballers. Does this make the job of managing the side into the job of getting Michael Boulding to play in a more knitted up way? Is Michael Boulding the most important man?

That City are good footballers would be debated only by dullards and that Joe Colbeck is a talented footballer would equally only be opposed by those who lacked wits. Colbeck has managed to return to being the target of Valley Parade’s defining characteristic – the vitriol heaped onto individuals – after being last season’s Player of the Season.

I have no respect for someone who will stay silent when a Colbeck is being cheered laying in wait for an opportunity to continue a campaign against him. Colbeck this season has cut defences apart yet he is booed today not for not making effort but for those efforts not having results. There is no doubt in my mind that Colbeck will go on to be a very good player at this level and at levels above but there is significant doubt that he will do that at Valley Parade.

After being player of the season Joe Colbeck is not the most important man.

One would think for all the attention given to Matthew Clarke that he was the most important man – one would think that Peace in the Middle East would emerge on the news he was dropped so dedicated are some against him – but it was telling that as some City fans sung “One Mark Bower” to criticise Clarke following Andrew Hutchinson opener for Lincoln.

Clarke was wrestled by Geoff Horsfield as a nothing ball that was hastily cleared by relieved Imps defenders who had worried that a clip of Boulding’s heels would result in a free kick and near 21 players on the field stopped – indeed when Hutchinson put the ball in it seemed to be more an act of time wasting than goalscoring – but the game continued and the visitors had their goal.

Five minutes into the second half “One Mark Bower” sang some City fans to chastise Clarke. “1-0 to The Referee” retorted the Lincoln fans to make some things clear.

City’s equaliser came when Peter Thorne was able to stand strong in the penalty area and work a ball on to Lee Bullock who finished from close range. Peter Thorne and Lee Bullock could be the most important men. Keeping Thorne fit all season has proved to be impossible and sure enough City have suffered when the switched on striker was not playing but Bullock – my man of the match today – has been a mystery in and out of the team all season and hardly ever allowed to continue the relationship he started with Paul McLaren at the start of the season.

As an engine room Bullock and McLaren are useful only if they have outlets for their possession and too often they do not. Steve Jones had a lively display – especially following McCall’s switch to a 433 which put him in the forward line alongside Paul Mullin who simply never loses an aerial ball – but this team has not been the same since an injury on a Tuesday night two months ago.

Omar Daley – in the stands and out until Christmas – is not the most important man but sometimes when City huff and puff and want for his creativity it is difficult to remember that.

Daley though – like McCall with his substitutions, Colbeck showing the nerve to difficult things even if they might make him look foolish rather than shovelling the ball off sideways and saving any blushes, Clarke in the side to stand up to a Horsfield who would have eaten Mark Bower for breakfast – split opinion with those against jeering.

Perhaps those who jeer are the most important men. They certainly seem to hold the power at Valley Parade grumbling away to get their way they are the exiled Cubans of Bradford City and Mark Lawn needs to convince Stuart McCall, and himself, that their is a future for a club when with twenty minutes left of a game at 1-1 three games off the play-offs which even after this draw there to be scrapped for the loudest sounds at City are the negatives and the jeers.

Which is not to say that they are the only sound, that they are the only fans, that they are people who need to be pleased but the voice that comes from Valley Parade is an overtly negative one and until this issue is tackled and resolved then the club is hobbled.

Certainly that negativity has taken chunks out of the club. Dean Windass – here today to watch the game after reports that he would bend transfer deadlines and return to the field – suffered untold abuse and his exit and the clubs relegation to this level were not unlinked. Windass is at Valley Parade and Paul Jewell has started to crop up in the media more and more.

Maybe they are the next most important men but they are not today.

For today this is League Two football and at the end of the game with three very clear incidents when crosses or shots hit hands of Lincoln City defenders in the penalty area and a goal caused by being the only man in the stadium who did not see the foul of course the most important man was Fred Graham the referee.

Depressingly, in League Two the most important man is always the Referee.

McCall will hope City can start the way they finish

In eleven days – and three away games – time the promotion hopes for Bradford City will be much clearer but as a signal of intent and a send off on that decisive Odyssey the Bantams could hardly have been more emphatic.

Indeed it seemed 75 second after kick off when Peter Thorne was wheeling away following the opening goal of the game that the seven days since the defeat at Notts County could have been a lifetime of a span.

Thorne reclaimed his scoring touch darting into a hole that Michael Boulding had made in the defence to get on the end of an excellent low cross from the left by the increasingly useful Steve Jones and pushing the ball past a hapless Nicky Bull who would not get near any of the five goals he picked out of his net this afternoon.

Following on from Thorne’s goal City never wobbled. A minor incident involving Rhys Evans coming out of his goal as City failed to follow stay up centre back Anthony Charles which resulted in a not that threatening snubbed out shot at goal.

This was as much of a chance as the visitors had to get back and within minutes Bull once again picked the ball out of his goal following Dean Furman’s deflected strike which was just return following a corner which saw Matthew Clarke shoved unceremoniously from under the ball in what was an obvious penalty denied.

That it was denied was no surprise with Referee Graham Salisbury in charge. Salisbury had once denied City a goal against Yeovil following a defender pass back and sent off Jermaine Johnson in the same game in what was the wingers last game for the Bantams. Salisbury makes a habit of sending off City players but today restricted himself to ignoring that penalty and allowing Marvin Morgan to get away with the kind of loose arm across the face on Clarke which is exactly the sort of thing that he sends City players off for.

Nevertheless – and to paraphrase Sean Connery – losers moan about the Referee and winner go home with the match ball. Or the prom queen. Dean Furman deserves both for another superb display controlling central midfield. Much of how City do in the forthcoming games at Rochdale, Bournemouth and Exeter will depend on how much Furman can break up play as he did so well at Valley Parade today.

With his club Rangers making people redundant and looking for ways to save a bob or two I would not be at all surprised to see Furman starting SPL games next season – nor do I think he would look out of place – but in the years since Stuart McCall the player left the club and Stuart McCall the manager returned we have (any club would) been crying out for a replacement and in Furman we have one.

My erstwhile colleague Jason sings the praises of Nicky Law Jnr who delivered the perfect corner for Peter Thorne to glide through the air to head in the Bantams third, again Charles – conspicuous with his Afro – stood still as his man reeled away in celebration.

Rochdale’s defeat to Bury at midday had seen the Shakers go third and Rochdale drop to fourth. A 5-0 win would put City fourth and at the start of the day the task was to keep fifth as the Bantams supremacy continued it looked feasible.

A note at this point to the school who had turned up with a banner in support of “Bradford City and Zesh Rehman” and a country flag in tribute to the defender who unfortunately for the kids spent ninety minutes on the bench watching another excellent display by Paul Arnison at right back.

Arnison has not enjoyed universal support from City fans but it seems that when he plays the Bantams have another dimension and the support that Arnison offers to right winger Joe Colbeck is important.

Colbeck is getting back into the swing of things and looked dangerous in the second half rampaging forward getting a reward with two minutes to go putting in another low cross that skimmed past Charles and to sub Barry Conlon who touched the ball past Nicky Bull from seven yards out (Edit: The cross was by Nicky Law Jnr). Target man Barry using his head to stay on side by coming onto a ball which seemed to elude Shots left back Anthony Straker who chewed the linesman out all second half and never was spoken to about it unlike JJ three years ago.

Spoken about but never seen was Chris Brandon who – some two thousand years after signing for City and getting injured – made his début coming on for Michael Boulding seconds after the hard working striker had been unlucky not to add the fourth that Conlon got and would have had the fifth with what would have been his first kick for his home club following Colbeck’s low cross but Rhys Day stuck out a leg and Aldershot’s afternoon was all over, as was the game.

The Bantams up to fourth and on to the road to far off places on the South Coast following a short trip to the team we jumped over in Rochdale. When City return to Valley Parade in two weeks time the reminder of the season will have been shaped.

Realists would say that to expect more than a point away from home is too high an expectation and should City get three from three or less then it would seem that scrapping for play off places is the order of the day.

If we can score at a rate near two points a game – two wins, a win and two draws, one of each even perhaps – then we would be looking at the ability to challenge for the automatic promotion places and the play offs would be fall back.

The criticisms of City’s manager – as with the defeats – seem a long time ago with proposed successor Peter Jackson spending the afternoon watching his Lincoln City get pounded by Grimsby. McCall has got City into a position where the finish to the season defines the season.

Last year the Bantams approached the last months looking to find form and a run, the last promotion side the Bantams had were looking to hold onto faltering form. McCall’s City are well placed and pick up points at a consistent rate on the whole. The season enters end game with the Bantams firmly in the position where should we perform well then we can manufacture our own destiny.

He will hope that the finish the season as we started this game and that the start of that finish is as complete as the finishing today. As a signal of intent this – the tenth home win of the season – is as telling as they come.

The finishing, finishing touch – Bradford City 0 Shrewsbury Town 0 – League Two Match Report

Having suggested that City were lucky to beat his side 4-0 Morecambe manager Sammy McIlroy would have come away from Valley Parade after the 0-0 draw with Shrewsbury with the impression that the Bantams are strangers to fortune.

From start to finish the Bantams bested the visitors from Shropshire all over the field coming within an inch of the post from Barry Conlon’s fierce volley from taking three richly deserved points.

Alas Conlon’s volley on the half hour pinged back and Michael Boulding’s tidy sweep over the shoulder of keeper Luke Daniels proved too close to the custodian and was saved as City looked to cut through the Shrews with tidy, fast paced and inventive play.

The midfield central duo of Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr were busy out of possession and commanding in it with Dean Furman benched and only able to watch a pair of middle men working together and working well. Omar Daley’s battle on the left wing with Darren Moss was the clash of the season thus far with Moss struggling to keep pace with Daley and Daley trying to burst past the right back. In the second half Moss and Daley clashed with the right back lucky not to be booked and Daley leaving an arm in on the defender which saw Stuart McCall fling him to the right hand side to cool down ended the fascinating clash.

Steve Jones on the alternative wing was less enthralling and looks something of a one trick pony. He is dangerous for sure but too often playing his own game leaving Paul Arnison with few options.

Arnison was a part of a flawless five man defence which has not conceded in the four games over Christmas. Graeme Lee was outstanding pocketing Grant Holt – who in typical Grant Holt tried to rip that pocket with kicks and studs – and making enough sturdy interceptions to remind one of David Wetherall at his best. Matt Clarke also get mentioned – the days of City being muscled out by big blokes is over – and Rhys Evans has engaged mouth and commands the back four superbly.

Luke O’Brien’s form has seen him inherit the title “Ohbee” from Andy and today should have been rewarded with a penalty for an enterprising surge past Omar Daley and into the box only to be shoved to the floor. Arnison – on the other side of the field – was left holding his face after an untidy jump saw him hit with a flailing arm. Conlon was lunged at after the ball, Boulding was upended. If these tackles has been in midfield they would have been free kicks. Referee Russel J Booth using the Wild West school of officialdom. Anything that keeps the game flowing is allowed and when Holt lunged through a defender then walked away waving a hand dismissively ignoring the Ref’s call over you had to wonder what happened to that whole “Respect” thing.

None of which is to take anything away from the Shrews who played a part in an exciting game but looked second best and but for a slice of that luck that Sammy McIlroy credits us with or the finish of a Peter Thorne – missing injured and seemingly replaceable – the Bantams would have won.

As it is City sit third again at the top of a pile of clubs who will be fighting out for the play offs and without putting too fine a point on it should the Bantams play as we did today and not go up then football is broken – play like this and we will go up – but the worry remains that despite possessing the leading striker in the division last season, one of the better ones this and Barry who never gives up City do not score enough goals – or rather we score them in gluts of fours and not odd ones and that the six home draws could have been wins with a deadlier finisher. Chris O’Grady held the ball after coming ensuring that the remaining fifteen minutes would be played in the Shrews half but is no one’s finisher.

Shrewsbury spent their lottery win on Holt and he was not able to nick the odd goal today. City look at events at Leeds with Delph and prepare a with and without shopping list looking for the thirty goal finisher who would thrive in a team that plays this well.

The finisher who would be the finishing touch.

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