The spirit rises as City refuse to beaten

The Team

Matt Duke | Marcel Seip, Andrew Davies, Luke Oliver, Luke O'Brien | Michael Bryan, Ritchie Jones, Michael Flynn, Kyel Reid | Craig Fagan, James Hanson | Liam Moore

As a general rule, unused substitutes don’t usually need to join in with the team’s warm down after the match. Yet after spending the entire final 30 minutes at The Country Ground stretching and jogging up and down the touchline, at full time Bradford City’s Jack Compton and Ross Hannah might have been tempted to join their 10 heroic team mates on the cool down.

Substitutes Compton and Hannah were on permanent stand-by in case it went wrong. Under clear instructions from their manager, Phil Parkinson – who at one stage ordered them back to their feet when they had returned to sit down on the bench – to be ready for the call to go onto the field at the shortest of notice. Victim to yet another atrocious refereeing decision that had seen central defender Andrew Davies red-carded after 57 minutes, City were left to defend for their lives with Compton and Hannah ready as Plan C, if their goal was breached. The pair’s failure to get on the field illustrated Plan B’s success.

For although the Bantams has parked the bus in the preservation of a point; once a man down they were left with little realistic alternative, considering their high-flying hosts Swindon Town had, since August 16, failed to score in a game only once. It was a truly outstanding, backs to the wall performance in the final half hour, with central defenders Luke Oliver and Marcel Seip particularly courageous and Michael Flynn and Ritchie Jones superbly protecting the back four. A first clean sheet on the road for six months, and a very, very good point.

That it came to hanging on was the game’s major talking point – and how depressing and frankly boring it is to be writing about a referee yet again. City were on the attack deep in Swindon’s half, but the ball suddenly broke for Jake Jervis who was then fouled inside his own half by Davies. A mistimed challenge for sure, a yellow card perhaps. Yet the referee Oliver Langford instantly pulled out a red to send the on-loan Stoke defender off on the day he’d returned from a three match suspension following a previous controversial red card.

There is some talk that Davies was dismissed for being the last man and denying a goal scoring opportunity. While that does seem nonsense in view of the number of City players around – and the fact Jervis was in his own half – it’s even harder to understand how Langford could believe the tackle warranted a red card. Davies took a long time to leave the field, as team mates supported his protest appeals. Liam Moore – unfortunate to have been left out, but who had been poor at Macclesfield – quickly joined the action with Seip moved inside. A 4-4-1 formation was employed to try and see out the game.

It’s ironic that City were forced to hang on for a point, given the criticism – largely unfair – towards Parkinson for supposedly playing too conservatively in the previous two away games. Plan A today involved two wingers and a 4-4-2 formation which showed clear intentions to attack Swindon. Parkinson’s pre-match comments that City are good enough to beat anyone in League Two had felt dubious but – as they evenly matched opponents who began and ended the day in the play off positions – this barometer reading of how the Bantams compare to a top seven side produced encouraging results.

Swindon certainly had the most chances and possession even before Davies was sent off, but the improvement in defence that has been evidenced for a number of weeks now – even if not always reflected by results – was continued. Decent home build up play was often stopped by the hard-working Jones and Flynn, while new full backs Seip and Luke O’Brien both did well neutralising the threat on their wings. Davies was like Oliver, rock solid. When City had possession they didn’t simply hoof it hopefully to James Hanson or Craig Fagan, but passed the ball around patiently and got wingers Kyel Reid and Michael Bryan heavily involved. Both caused problems and created openings.

City did not look and perform like a team 4th bottom of League Two.

Home keeper Wes Foderingham’s mistake in picking up a back pass gave the Bantams an early indirect free kick inside the box, but Flynn’s effort was blocked. Not long after Fagan shot tamely from Hanson’s knock down and sometime after that City’s top scorer couldn’t get power when heading a Seip cross goalwards. The best chance came when Bryan was played clean through on goal but in a wide position, and the young winger couldn’t get a decent ball into the box towards the onrushing Fagan. Swindon had chances too, but Matt Duke’s only save came, once again, from a shot outside the box (on this occasion a free kick) – underlining the robustness of his back four.

Without Davies’ red card the game would probably have continued in that way: Swindon having plenty of the ball and producing some attractive football, City defending well and a strong threat on the counter attack. Langford’s intervention stopped the game as an even contest, and left Swindon with 30 minutes to make their extra man count.

It was easy to fear the worst, as the home side produced some heavy pressure and fired numerous crosses into the box. Not least when it became clear Duke had picked up an injury which meant he could not take goal kicks. Yet Oliver and Seip seemed to have a magnetic effect on the ball, and time and time again it was one of the pair who would get to it first and clear.

Duke had just two second-half saves to make – and one came when it was 11 v 11, after O’Brien’s slip forced the keeper to make an excellent one-on-one block. Other attempts at goal sailed wide or over the bar, but never really close to going under it.

The threat of a goal remained right to the end, yet Swindon seemed to run out of ideas and perhaps took a lead from their attention-seeking, immature manager Paulo Di Canio. He began to get ridiculously wound up by any decision he didn’t get or whenever his players made a mistake. Sure, all managers get like this to a certain extent too, but with 20 or so minutes to go and Swindon well on top one would have expected more coolness and professionalism from a manager – rather than transmitting obvious panic that it wasn’t going to be their day.

Some people think Di Canio is amusing, me I’d take the more reserved but clearly still passionate Parkinson any day.

The full time whistle was met with a huge cheer from us away supporters, and deservedly so. Applying rationale thinking, it is obvious the corner is being turned and City are moving forwards. At the start of this month we had set off to Burton with such little hope and growing fears about the future. But we produced a great performance that day, followed by a memorable cup victory over our neighbours, two home wins and now this point. The two defeats among this run were frustrating for sure, but it is beginning to come together.

October has ended with City in a much better position than when we started it. Progress might still be too slow to inspire hope of joining Swindon in the play off push, but the foundations of developing a side good enough to be up there ability-wise are starting to come through. City have improved greatly at the back, while Parkinson has a range of attacking options available that not too many League Two clubs can better.

That side of the Bantams had to be shelved for the final half hour this afternoon, but the spirit and determination to cling on to the point stands the club in good stead for the winter months to come.

What matters and what shouldn’t

The Team

Matt Duke | Liam Moore, Marcel Seip, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall | Ritchie Jones, Michael Flynn, Adam Reed | Craig Fagan, James Hanson, Kyel Reid | Luke O'Brien, Michael Bryan, Jamie Devitt

Booing from Bradford City fans at the final whistle is hardly a rarity. But as the Macclesfield evening grew ever chillier, the frosty farewell from a decent-size away following was for once not directed at our own players but at the man who had won Macclesfield the game.

Step forward and take a bow, Rob Lewis. Only as the boos and cries of “cheat” reigned down towards him at full time, the referee took a rare moment to hide away from the spotlight. A furious Phil Parkinson joined his players in confronting Lewis over the range of bewildering decisions he had made. It’s hard to recall the last time a referee had such an obvious impact on the scoreline.

For 65 minutes of the evening, Lewis was a minor irritation rather than obvious match winner. Then Macclesfield’s Ross Draper chased a slightly over-hit long ball into the box that was gathered up by Matt Duke, fell over as he ran into the City keeper and Lewis ruled the midfielder had been fouled. Luke Oliver, the nearest defender, could have been adjudged to have nudged Draper, but there seemed to be no contact whatsoever.

By the letter of the law, any foul by Oliver or Duke would have meant they were the last man and so a red card should have been issued. There was no card and so one can’t escape the feeling Lewis was looking for an excuse to even up the fact he’d turned down a much more credible Macclesfield penalty appeal in the first half. There was certainly no hesitation in awarding the second half spot kick that Lewis Chalmers dispatched easily.

Yet there was just the warm up act for Lewis, who spent the final half hour seemingly giving every decision against a City side who pinned Macclesfield in their own half in a desperate search for an equaliser.

Lewis didn’t simply fail to award City free kicks when players looked to have been fouled – he gave Macclesfield free kicks seemingly as punishment for the City player been fouled. On a number of occasions it appeared as though he had spotted what looked to be clear fouls on Bantams’ players and blew his whistle to stop the game, only to trigger indignation from City players and supporters by pointing in the opposite direction to signal a home free kick.

Examples of this bizarre decision-making process were numerous; but when Jamie Devitt was sent crashing to the floor by two Macclesfield players jumping on top of him to head the ball away, only for Lewis to rule City’s substitute had fouled the two players, you wondered if the rules of football had been changed without anyone telling us.

It’s impossible to write an account of what went on in the final half hour without coming across as bitter and biased. All I can say is I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a referee make so many bad decisions and so obviously favour one team when making them. City’s players would be kicked, pushed and hauled to the floor by home players and get nothing, while the slightest bit of contact on a Macclesfield player in possession would see them earn a free kick. Either come down hard on every tackle or (preferably) show some common sense, but to apply a different set of standards towards each team is a referee having far too much influence on the outcome of a football match.

All of which is not to be disrespectful to Macclesfield, who put in an impressive first half performance where they passed the ball around with confidence and came close to taking the lead through a series of decent long range shots – one of which hit the outside of the post. As expected, Parkinson had elected to pick three central midfielders rather than two out-and-out-wingers, but a very poor display from Adam Reed contributed largely to possession being easily squandered.

Up front Craig Fagan and Kyel Reid played just behind James Hanson, but the trio failed to click in the manner it had on its previous two outings.  Fagan’s wide position seemed to be aimed at making the most of Macclesfield’s weakest player, left back Carl Tremarco. Yet Hanson was left far too isolated and Reid had fewer close options to pick out when he came forwards. City’s best first half chance came when Ritchie Jones’ clever charge into the box was eventually picked out by Reid, but the midfielder failed to make a decent connection.

Defensively City looked more assured than on Saturday, with Marcel Seip again impressing if showing a slightly worrying tendency to push out quickly when his fellow defenders sat deeper. A rare mistake by Oliver when under-hitting a back pass allowed Draper in on goal for that strong penalty shout; but as he poked the ball past Duke and fell over the keeper rather than go around him to tap the ball into an empty net, the resultant appeal carried some degree of suspicion that he was looking for it.

It became obvious – shortly after break – that City’s gameplan involved ensuring they were at least level at half time level, before pushing on in the second half. And for the second 45 minutes they pinned Macclesfield back, quickly unmasking frailties in their defence which led to panicky clearances and a struggle just to get out of their own half. Jones twice went close, while full backs Liam Moore and Luke O’Brien – who replaced the injured Robbie Threlfall early in the second half – provided overlapping width and some testing crosses. A goal seemed only a matter of time.

Then came the penalty at the other end, followed by a final 25 minutes that seemed to be 11 vs 12. Michael Bryan came on for the anonymous Reed, and City’s move to 4-4-2 had the home defence stretched further. Yet good build up play and a number of superb crosses in the box went unrewarded. Strong pressure would invariably be punctured by Lewis awarding a home free kick for very little.

Three City players were booked as frustration took over, but only Jones seemed deserving of such a punishment following a wild tackle that revealed his growing frustration. Hanson’s booking for contesting a 50-50 ball was nonsense, while as City prepared to take a corner it appeared home keeper Jose Veiga raised his arms at Fagan with Lewis’ back turned. The result? Fagan was booked. Of course. Makes sense.

Devitt was brought on for Jones and did extremely well, while Reid was a constant terror who made things happen whenever he had the ball. As a winger he is both intelligent and brave; always looking around to assess his options, while not being afraid to take a kick or two from the opposition.

For all the pressure, not enough good chances were created. Hanson had two decent opportunities, but a shot and header lacked power. Reid blasted a free kick over and Flynn wasted a free header from a corner, glancing the ball well over. In the final minute of stoppage time Oliver nodded a Seip cross narrowly wide.

Beaten, but not bettered. Any defeat is a set back, but the evening’s effort and endeavour deserved much better; and for Parkinson the challenge is to get that bit more quality from his players in the final third, so City start returning from trips away from Valley Parade with a point or three. The league table once again does not look great, but slowly the tide of City’s season is turning.

The boos at full time for Lewis were followed by the players receiving a great ovation for their efforts, yet somehow back home in City’s cyberworld people not at the game were starting to demand that Parkinson is sacked and that blaming the referee for this defeat was an “excuse”.

I’m sick of making a huge amount of effort to attend away games, only for people who don’t watch them to jump to their own, misguided conclusions and claim they know better. The idea that any City fan could possibly believe – after years and years of driving managers away in the doomed belief it will improve things – that getting rid of Parkinson is now the answer is simply astonishing. If you are one of these people, take a glance at the Scottish Premier League table.

It seriously is time for a few people to take a long hard look at themselves and to question whether their online actions are helping the club or hindering it. If you don’t go to a game yet believe you can make a qualified opinion on what went wrong, that opinion does not deserve to be listened to be anyone.

Playing Reed was a mistake in hindsight, but no one can convince me that Parkinson’s approach tonight was wrong. Sadly, the amount of effort and preparation that would have gone in was undermined by a shockingly bad refereeing display. Stick to this path, however, and the rewards will surely come.

Parkinson’s free reign to tinker (but not the Tuesday after if City win)

As thoughts turn to Bradford City’s important home game against Northampton Town this weekend, manager Phil Parkinson will be in his rights to make changes to the team that lost 2-0 to Hereford the week before.

Matt Duke can be dropped, Luke Oliver can sit in the stands, Ritchie Jones can warm the bench and Craig Fagan can practice some more on his playstation. And if Parkinson wants to undergo these radical team selections and more, there can be apparently be no complaints from supporters.

Because the Bantams lost their last game, which means the manager has our “permission” to change the team.

Sounds nonsense to drop Oliver? Agreed. But in my opinion so is holding the manager accountable to a daft rule that he is not allowed to change a winning team. After an encouraging win over Torquay United that was badly needed, three changes (one enforced) were made at Hereford and many supporters have since blamed the resultant loss on Phil Parkinson (or Phil Plonkinson, as he was dubbed by one supporter on the Official Message Board) for changing a winning team.

Why is it so bad for him to have done so? Sure, the win over Torquay and the performance by the players was outstanding on the day. But does one victory really mean the previous problems have been fully solved and now all the manager needs to do is pick the same 11 players until the next defeat? Or shouldn’t he be entrusted to make further improvements if – in his qualified judgement – he feels it’s needed?

Let’s look at the two controversial changes. Jack Compton played only 27 minutes against Torquay before he was unfortunately subbed because of Andrew Davies’ red card enforcing a defensive reshuffle. He played his part in the win to a certain extent, but the decision to recall fit again midfielder Adam Reed and move Jones out wide – thus leaving Compton out – seemed reasonable.

Almost all season long – and this includes under Peter Jackson, Colin Cooper and now Parkinson – City’s midfield has been lined up with one out-and-out winger and three central midfielders, one of whom played a wide midfield role. The idea is to enable City greater dominance in the middle of the park, with three midfielders against either an opposition two or three. Over recent years we’ve seen numerous City sides play 4-4-2 with two direct wingers, and rarely has it worked well. Too often they are outgunned and the opposition can claim a draw or win.

Jones – who has played for much of his career as a wide right midfielder – seems a natural choice to take on that wide midfield role. I personally would prefer he stay in the centre with Flynn, and Chris Mitchell recalled wide right, but I can at least see the thinking behind Parkinson’s decision and – in the first half at Burton at least – Reed looked a very clever player. Going into any away game with two out-and-out wingers (which is what Compton and Kyel Reid are) would have left City very open. This approach is more acceptable in home games when the opposition will be more defensive, but not necessarily the best tactic on the road.

I like Compton, but I do think there are better wide players at the club. When he played at Huddersfield, it was notable that his lack of defensive awareness allowed Town’s Daniel Ward the freedom to give Luke Moore a difficult opening 45 minutes. Parkinson eventually swapped Luke O’Brien and Compton – so the left-footed OB played wide right – to nullify this threat. It made a big difference with O’Brien excellent as a right midfielder, and in my view was a negative mark against Compton.

As for the other Hereford change – Stewart for Jamie Devitt – while doubts about his style of play remain, the evidence so far is that Devitt is a quality player at this level who can improve the team. Stewart had a great game against Torquay, but all of his best work came outside the penalty area. So again, there is reason to understand Parkinson’s thinking in making this change, even if you don’t necessarily agree.

Too often there is a compliant in football, heard at City in recent days too, that the manager “doesn’t know his best 11.” Yet in this day and age few  managers ever stick with the same 11 players and football is about squads. Form – at this level especially – fluctuates and the theory a manager can decide his best 11 and stick with them for weeks and months is flawed. I’m glad that Parkinson doesn’t seem to know his best 11, because it gives everyone in the squad the opportunity to stake their claim and keep pushing others. Equally the best 11 to beat one type of opposition (say Dagenham) is not necessarily the best 11 to win against another style of play (e.g. Crewe).

We have a squad of 37 players – the ideal that Parkinson cannot choose the 26 who didn’t start the previous game, because it was won, is a restrictive and outdated view of football management.

A slow revival

The Team

Matt Duke | Liam Moore, Luke Oliver, Andrew Davies, Robbie Threlfall | Ritchie Jones, Michael Flynn, Adam Reed, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Craig Fagan | Ross Hannah, Luke O'Brien, Jack Compton

There is a theory in football that you can score a goal too early. Either because the subsequent psychological effect causes players to falsely believe the match is going to be easier than it proves, or it results in them worrying too much about defending the lead instead of following the pre-agreed game plan. Whichever it was for Bradford City this afternoon, they paid the price for surprising everyone – not least themselves – in how brilliantly they began.

2-0 up inside 15 minutes, the Bantams were in complete control against Burton Albion. But somewhere in the last third of the first half, they took the foot off the gas and switched over to cruise control. Burton had looked beleaguered, but were sufficiently encouraged to make a quick-fire comeback, going into the half time break on equal terms.

Losing a 2-0 advantage never looks clever, but it should not detract from the fact City’s performance was much improved and that the point taken back up the M1 is progress on the three previous defeats. The league table still looks dismal and the run without a win now stretches to six games; but slowly, perhaps, the tide is beginning to turn.

Considering it has been such a slow start to the season, for City to come flying out of the blocks this afternoon was an unexpected pleasure. Only six minutes had been played when Kyel Reid picked up a loose ball midway in the Burton half, raced to the edge of the penalty area and struck a powerful shot into the corner. Colour restored to the players’ cheeks, they continued to knock the ball around with purpose and Craig Fagan – making his full debut – and Liam Moore both came close.

A second goal wasn’t long in coming though, with James Hanson poking home the ball after more superb work by Reid saw him skip past his defender and send a low cross into the tall striker’s path. And suddenly a rout looked entirely possible.

With Adam Reed brought into the centre for his debut – pushing Ritchie Jones to wide right and Chris Mitchell into the stands – the team was back to the attractive passing, zestful style that had gone missing since the unfortunate defeat to Port Vale. Reed impressed in the first half at least with his purposeful forward passing, as Reid and Jones pushed strongly down the flanks and Michael Flynn protected the back four.

City were dominant, Burton poor and ponderous at the back – attracting the ire of home fans, who had booed their former defender Guy Branston as the substitute warmed up pre-match. Yet they found a way back when City switched off. Out of nothing a deflected cross found Billy Kee to fire past Matt Duke, and just as it seemed the visitors had survived through three minutes of first half stoppage time to head back to the dressing room with a slender advantage, Burton won a penalty and Justin Richards levelled the score.

That a penalty was awarded was a contentious point. Jimmy Phillips had seen a low shot palmed away by Duke, and Kee had fired the rebound against the post. Just as it seemed the goalmouth scramble was over, the ball was worked back into the box from out wide and Robbie Threlfall was adjudged to have handled the ball as Adam Bolder shot towards goal. Threlfall has since angrily Tweeted that he did not touch the ball with his hand and the referee was wrong, but if so what is more troubling is the fact that – at the time – none of City’s players appeared to contest the decision.

The second half was more even, but the Bantams undoubtedly shaded it. Andrew Davies headed just wide; Reed forced a good save from Ross Atkins. Plenty of good approach play – with Reid scaring the life out of Burton every time he ran at them and Fagan producing some great touches – but perhaps a lack of cutting edge which saw attacking mores fizzle out. Burton created a few half chances, but the back four was much improved with Davies and Oliver again outstanding.

Manager Phil Parkinson looked to the bench to find the extra something needed to win the game, and during the final quarter of the game Ross Hannah, Luke O’Brien and Jack Compton were introduced. Aside from O’Brien, on this occasion the changes seemed to weaken City and in the closing stages it was Burton who looked more likely.

And that may be telling, for the three players taken off are – it can be reasonably argued – the best three forward players Parkinson has at his disposal. Jones’ move to wide right wasn’t a failure, but his influence on the game was less than it has been and one is left querying why Parkinson has sought to disrupt the promising partnership he was building with Flynn. Jones was replaced instead of Reed and, although on-loan Sunderlandlooks a good player, he faded in the second half and seemed less demanding of the ball than Flynn; even if the Welshman was then guilty of being too wasteful when he did receive it.

With the other two taken off – Reid and Fagan – it’s a matter of lack of match fitness. This can only be developed with games, and once Parkinson can get 90-minute performances from the pair it’s more likely that City will end games as powerfully as they started today.

Over the past two weeks there has been the familiar but still frustrating slating of the manager by a vocal minority of supporters. Parkinson is accused by them of ripping up Peter Jackson’s team by bringing in “old friends” who are of less quality – conveniently ignoring the fact Jackson’s team lost four of their five games.

Yet it’s clear the signings Parkinson has made are an improvement on what we had before, and the squad is stronger as a result. Right now this is not reflected in results, and we could very well look back upon this start to the season in a few months time and bemoan how costly it ultimately proved. But that doesn’t mean there should be as much doom and gloom as exists right now.

The set backs against Crawley and Wimbledon were hard to take, yet before them there have been genuine signs it’s beginning to come together and that encouraging feeling was taken away from the Pirelli Stadium. The speed of progress has so far been painfully slow, yet as today proved football is not always about how well you start.

The pain can’t override the pride – or the concerns

The Team

Matt Duke | Liam Moore, Guy Branston, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall | Chris Mitchell, Ritchie Jones, Michael Flynn, Kyel Reid | Jamie Devitt, James Hanson | Jack Compton, Nahki Wells

Suddenly the weekend bitterness of Bristol Rovers’ Paul Buckle seems more understandable. The pain of conceding a last minute goal never gets more bearable, no matter how many times you endure it. And so the temptation for Buckle-style bluster and to argue the opposition are unjust in scoring can feel overwhelming.

Three minutes of injury time were almost over at Vale Park, when substitute Doug Loft found himself with plenty of time and space on the edge of the area and swung in a superb cross. There at the back post was Tom Pope – twice a scorer against City in this fixture last season, and who has only scored two goals since – to head the ball past Matt Duke. The paltry 4,000 home attendance roars loudly in delight, and as you slump back in your uncomfortable plastic seat there’s a realisation that the pain now engulfing you won’t completely go away for days yet.

Just like Morecambe and Bristol Rovers found against the Bantams in the previous two games, there simply wasn’t any time for the players to make up for conceding so late. The referee blew the final whistle within seconds, the Port Vale fans cheered enthusiastically again.

Outside the ground one Valiants supporter stopped me and my friend to commiserate and bluntly sum up our misery: “You must feel like you’ve been punched in the stomach.” His kindness was a comfort of sorts, perhaps because it revealed even the opposition knew their late joy was not merited. As we had began to file out of the away end seconds earlier, City’s players had received a great reception for their efforts. As though we were all conscious not to let them think we we’re going to turn on them.

And why would we; for this was an evening featuring lots of positives, which now must be built upon rather than hastily written off. On the back of such a promising attacking performance at the weekend, City continued to look dangerous in the final third and are genuinely threatening to flourish over the coming weeks from their new, quick-fire passing approach.

Carrying on where they left off, Phil Parkinson’s two outfield signings Kyel Reid and Jamie Devitt again impressed greatly. The former enjoyed comfortably his best performance in a Bantams shirt to date and was behind so much of his team’s best moves, even working hard defending too. Devitt once more looked a player far above the level he is playing at – and the only negative from enjoying his elegant approach work and deft touches is knowing there is no way he will remain at Valley Parade for too long.

With Michael Flynn and Ritchie Jones linking up effectively in the centre of midfield and James Hanson showing greater work-rate and aggression than on Saturday, City were a joy to watch and had Vale on the ropes at times in the second half. We can only hope such eye-catching tactics prove more successful quickly, before they are compromised for something less appealing.

Because there is no doubt there are also some sizable problems for Parkinson to tackle. It took barely a minute for Port Vale to get in behind City’s backline, with Ben Williamson firing a one-on-one opportunity wide of the post. Soon after the home side took the lead with an outstanding long-distance strike from left back Rob Taylor, yet the time and space he’d been afforded to run at the back four and take aim was hugely worrying.

The opening weeks of the season are seeing City concede far too many soft goals. Opposition teams are not having to work nearly as hard to find the back of the net than they should. In each of the eight league games to date, City have gone 1-0 down. No matter how much good attacking play we see at the other end and whoever Parkinson eventually brings in as an extra striker option, without a solid defensive platform points will continue to be dropped.

It seemed as though City were getting better defensively with the second half display against Barnet, and draws with Sheffield Wednesday and Morecambe. Yet on Saturday and even more so tonight, leaks have sprung again. When Pope headed a sitter wide on seven minutes he should have been putting his side 3-0 up. During the first 45 minutes especially the entire back four looked panicky and unsure every time Vale attacked.

Not that this is an issue that should be blamed fully on the defence. Parkinson’s more expansive style of play is bringing out the best in Flynn and Jones going forwards; but not enough protection is being afforded to the back four, which the opposition are exploiting. Vale’s opener tonight was similar to Bristol Rovers’ second on Saturday in the fact no one was tracking deep runners in possession. Both also featured Flynn and Guy Branston arguing over who was to blame. The problem of how the midfield is set up when they don’t have the ball should be high on Parkinson’s radar.

At least City found their feet eventually; and with Reid causing havoc on both wings, chances began to occur at the other end. On 24 minutes Devitt struck an equally spectacular goal to Taylor’s, following a brilliant run by Reid which opened up the space. Branston’s header from Chris Mitchell’s corner was tipped onto the bar soon after, and a first away win of the campaign seemed more probable.

Yet momentum and spark was ruined by a howler from Duke just before half time. A corner into the box had initially been punched clear by the former Hull stopper, but Taylor’s attempt to float the ball back into the danger area ended up slowly looping in the air before dropping under the crossbar. Realising too late, Duke’s attempt to claw the ball away only speeded up its arrival in the back of the net.

Duke received some disappointingly venomous abuse from some City fans in the immediate aftermath. To date it had been a low-key start to his Bantams career, but although he enjoyed a more solid second half that included been targeted physically by Vale with high balls towards him in the box, this mistake now leaves him under greater scrutiny. Two weeks ago this evening, on-loan Oscar Jansson was performing penalty heroics for City before been sent back to Spurs early. Duke has it all to do, though the thinking behind Parkinson’s decision to swap a loanee for a permanent keeper is laudable.

In difficult conditions, home keeper Chris Martin didn’t enjoy a perfect night either. Five minutes into the second half, he might have done better in his attempt to keep out Jones’ low shot which nestled in the corner, following an excellent burst forward by Devitt. At 2-2 the game was end-to-end with City’s backline looking more solid and their fluent approach play cutting Vale open regularly. Devitt, Flynn and substitute Jack Compton all came close, while Duke made a couple of decent saves.

A draw seemed a fair result. But as the game headed towards stoppage time and City won a series of corners and throw in chances for Liam Moore, we were greedy for more. Instead, then came Pope’s punch in the stomach.

Much work needed defensively, and in the longer-term the increasing reliance on Reid and Devitt could prove a problem too. Both continue to struggle for match fitness and the threat from the visitors reduced considerably after Parkinson subbed them, with no one else in the team able to offer such pace. City’s style of play requires speed of thought in passing but also speed in movement, and while Devitt is able to offer that until at least the end of November there remains a troubling question of what happens next. Build the team around him now and worry about what to do after he leaves? A question for another time, perhaps.

Ultimately City left Vale Park as they arrived it – a work in progress. But while efforts to bolster the forward line are a visible priority for Parkinson, it may be the other end of the pitch where the most pressing work is required.

The show of solidarity

The Team

Matt Duke | Liam Moore, Luke Oliver, Guy Branston, Robbie Threlfall | Chris Mitchell, Ritchie Jones, Michael Flynn, Kyel Reid | Jamie Devitt, James Hanson | Ross Hannah, Jack Compton, Mark Stewart

To an outsider at least, Bradford City’s start to the season must appear to be on the brink of being labelled catastrophic. Yet within the four sides of Valley Parade this afternoon and over the past few weeks, it’s hard to recall the last time we felt so giddy with excitement.

Michael Flynn’s successful stoppage time penalty means City have struck a late equaliser two weeks running and stretches the unbeaten run to four games, though only once in this season’s nine league and cup matches to date have the Bantams won outright over the 90 minutes. Yet while in the past such form would prompt moaning, instead there is optimism. We’re not looking at the future with glass-half-empty despair, but with relish. No panic, just patience.

When at half time the players trooped back to the dressing room a goal down to a decent Bristol Rovers side they did so with the boost of a standing ovation from just under 10,000 home supporters. How many times has this scenario happened over the past decade? Typically when losing at the break, the only question is how loud in volume the boos would be; yet today there was a defiant and powerful message delivered to players – we’re genuinely right behind you.

And how richly deserved that standing ovation was. Lining up in a 4-4-1-1 formation which allowed loan signing Jamie Devitt to operate in a free role behind James Hanson, City dictated the tempo right from kick off and produced a display of attacking, passing football that was remarkable to watch. The ball was passed back and forth with great accuracy and some dazzling attacking moves were only thwarted by a strong visiting defence or eventual slight inaccuracy in possession.

For the last four seasons in League Two, we’ve largely become used to a more direct style of football which has proved effective at times but at others was dismal to watch. Today City looked as if they’d spent the week watching DVDs of Arsenal and – dare I say it – Barcelona. Quick fire, one-touch football with the ball knocked across from wing to wing and ending up in the penalty area having remained on the turf on route, rather than hit high. On another day and against weaker opposition City could easily have been three or four goals up.

Devitt is skilful in possession and proved hugely effective in his free role, while fellow home debutant Kyel Reid looked a constant menace on the left wing and regularly had the beating of Pirates’ right back Adam Virgo. With Chris Mitchell again providing that mixture of width and central support alongside the again impressive Ritchie Jones and Flynn, the Bantams dominated the first half through their stylish approach.

Goalscoring opportunities were less frequent, though Devitt was unfortunate to see an overhead kick attempt sail over, Flynn could have gone better with an effort from the edge of the area and Devitt again came close with an excellent run but weak shot. The best opportunity of all fell to Jones, whose late charge into the box saw him meet Reid’s superb cross brilliantly with head and the gangling Scott Bevan pulled off a world class tip over. Aside from a moment of confusion where Bristol Rovers thought they had scored – only for the dismal referee Nigel Miller to eventually realise his linesman had flagged for a foul rather than goal – it was one-way traffic.

So when Matt Harrold got free of Luke Oliver to send a looping header over Matt Duke and into the net, following a superb pass from Stuart Campbell, there was no justice at all. City continued to press, but the downside of Phil Parkinson’s formation – which had been hinted before the goal – came into focus when two brilliant crosses into the box were missed by home players. There just weren’t enough people getting into the box and, as wonderful as the build up in the final third was at times, City lacked options when it came to finishing them.

Hanson bore the brunt of this frustration from supporters. Understandable at times as his work rate seemed to be lacking his usual high standards, but once again it seems a question of feeding him the ball in areas where he can hurt the opposition. Perhaps this new style of play means selecting a target man like Hanson isn’t going to be the most effective approach. But equally more runs into the box from midfield are needed to support him or whoever is selected up front instead, and as the half came to an end with that uplifting standing ovation the question to ponder was whether we are lacking a striker or just missing David Syers.

The quality of City’s play wasn’t as exceptional in the second half – partly because of Rovers’ manager Paul Buckle’s decision to place a deep-sitting midfielder right in front of his back four in an effort to curb Devitt’s influence – but enough of a head of steam was built up to find an equaliser on the hour.

Hanson’s header from a corner struck the post and Devitt’s rebound attempt was blocked by a defender, but as the Hull City youngster looked set to hit another shot at goal he was hauled down for a penalty. Flynn – second-choice penalty taker behind the benched Jack Compton – side footed it casually into the right corner and the strong backing from fans increased further in volume as substitute Ross Hannah forced Bevan into another outstanding save.

Disappointingly the Bantams sat back and Bristol Rovers re-took the lead when Eliot Richards was allowed too much space to send a powerful shot past Duke. It is a source of worry that a back four which looks solid for the most part of games can then switch off and is so often punished for doing so. Guy Branston, Oliver, Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall couldn’t be faulted during the match, but Parkinson needs to find a way of tightening them up further.

City pressed hard in the closing stages, but just like last week you couldn’t see an equaliser occurring. But then, half way through the four minutes of injury time, a great piece of skill by Devitt lead to him being tripped in the box for another penalty. Compton – who again impressed when coming on – pressed his claim to take the spot kick, but Flynn was given the responsibility a second time, firing into the opposite corner despite Bevan’s best attempts to keep it out.

Another draw doesn’t do much for City’s league position, but there’s no doubt an upwards direction is being taken. From being unlucky to lose games at the start of the season, the Bantams are now somewhat unfortunate to be drawing matches. Parkinson’s ongoing search for a striker might prove to be the final piece in the jigsaw, but if the current standards of performance are maintained the victories will surely come.

And when they do, the joy is everyone’s to share. The atmosphere inside Valley Parade today was superb and while it might not intimidate the opposition it certainly makes a difference to our players. Everyone can see how much they care and are trying for this club, and only an incredibly heartless person wouldn’t appreciate their commitment.

Peter Jackson, Colin Cooper, Archie Christie and Parkinson have or are building a team that we can truly feel proud of, and the half time standing ovation proved how much we care about – and feel inspired by – our players.

Cooper Provides Perfect Platform for Parkinson to Launch From

The Team

Oscar Jansson | Liam Moore, Luke Oliver, Guy Branston, Robbie Threlfall | Chris Mitchell, Richie Jones, Michael Flynn, Jack Compton | James Hanson, Mark Stewart | Ross Hannah, Michael Bryan, Luke O'Brien

Tomorrow morning City’s new boss Phil Parkinson is due to discuss the futures of the backroom staff and that namely of Colin Cooper. Cooper took the helm to guide City to a second impressive display in four days, that saw the Bantams go through to the second round of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, via penalties, at the expense of League 1 opposition. On this evidence it must surely be highly tempting for Parkinson to keep him on as his number two.

That is to say if Cooper wishes to remain in the role, because on the back of these two games he has done himself no harm if he was to go looking for a number one spot elsewhere.

His mantra seems to be to get the team passing, using the flanks effectively and pressing teams into their own half. It would be nice to see this ethos continued under the new boss as not only is it pleasing to watch, it has also yielded two positive results in as many games.

Whilst the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy offers an unhelpful distraction from the league to some, it offers others the chance of a cup run with a trip to Wembley at the end of it. City set up with the latter in mind and named an unchanged starting line-up from Saturday’s victory against Barnet. Megson’s team selection seemed to apply to the former, choosing to blood a sixteen year-old centre back, but nonetheless offered the Owls a chance to pick up their first away victory of the season.

Megson’s clear scepticism towards the tournament was further confirmed only minutes into the game when first choice Wednesday keeper, Nicky Weaver, was replaced by second choice stopper Richard O’Donnell. A slight bending of the rules perhaps, which stipulate that six first team players must be included in the starting line-up, and not, one would argue, in the spirit of the game or competition.

To add to this early surprise, after only fifteen minutes Megson made more changes, sacrificing former Leeds midfielder David Prutton and defender Jose Vitor Semedo. The sentiment that you can only beat who is put in front of you seemed to echo around Valley Parade and did not deter City, but surely spurred them on sensing a higher opposition scalp.

With these distractions aside, Bradford started the game brightly and looked to play a passing game through the midfield, feeding the wide men Compton and Mitchell. Compton particularly looked dangerous and increasingly demonstrated the confidence to go beyond his full back, this led to an early pull back for Mark Stewart who had the ball nicked off his toes just before connecting with his shot.

Continuity in selection seemed to be paying off for City as Michael Flynn and Ritchie Jones struck up a decent understanding that saw Flynn playing the aggressor, whilst Jones showed finesse to find a yard of space to push the Bantams forward. Indeed this was a refreshing sight following the midfield being by-passed far too often in recent memory.

Despite early amounts of possession and positive play, the Bantams rarely tested the Wednesday keeper and as the half wore on the Owls seemed to settle into the game and gain more possession themselves, but likewise, without every really threatening Oscar Jansson’s goal.

As the half drew to a close, the tenacity of Mark Stewart carved half a chance for the Scottish striker, his shot ballooned up into the air and straight into the path of James Hanson who could only managed to knock his header into the ground and agonisingly wide of the far post.

Despite the miss the near chance seemed to send the Bantams into the break with positive intent and left Wednesday looking vulnerable at the back.

Vulnerability that nearly proved costly only seconds into the second half, when a loose pass back to his keeper by sixteen year old Ayo Obileye, was nearly seized upon by the alert Compton, who saw his effort deflected wide by the keeper’s legs.

The City forwards continued to hustle the inexperienced Owls backline, Hanson using his brute strength and Stewart his guile to carve out more chances; Stewart’s best effort was pushed wide by keeper O’Donnell, whilst Hanson dragged his late effort wide.

Midway through the second half, City introduced boyhood Wednesday fan Ross Hannah who continued where Stewart left off and continued to pressurise the Wednesday defence. Mitchell was then also replaced by winger Michael Bryan, who again looked a little lightweight when up against opposition fullbacks.

Wednesday continued to pass the ball effectively through the midfield carving few chances on goal and never really testing Jansson, but as the half went on, it was City who finished the stronger.

Firstly, a Luke Oliver header that was cleared on the line (following a watch of the replay on TV it certainly looked over the line), the resultant clearance came to Flynn who volleyed an effort that was effectively saved once more by O’Donnell. Then Compton curled a vicious free kick just wide of the far post; Hannah tried to scramble a shot in on the turn following a Hanson knock down and Jones also had a powerful volleyed effort saved.

With the game drawing towards the last five minutes City introduced prodigal son Luke O’Brien for Compton. Early link up between O’B and Robbie Threlfall saw the Bantams force a free kick on the left flank; the ball was swung across into a dangerous area by Threlfall and was met again by the consistently impressive Oliver, whose header struck the bar and bounced to safety.

It seemed that it was going to be one of those nights for the Bantams, who’s endeavours went unrewarded. With the game finishing level, the lottery of penalties ensued and saw City keeper Jansson come into his own.

Sheffield Wednesday started the spot kick proceedings at the Bradford End, Clinton Morrison blasting his effort way over the bar. Ritchie Jones then stepped up and made it 1-0 with a coolly taken spot-kick. The Owls’ second penalty saw Jansson dive athletically to his right to push the effort wide, then Flynn doubled City’s lead with another well taken effort. Wednesday’s third effort saw the visitors get on the board, only for Ross Hannah to smash City’s third into the top corner. As Wednesday’s fourth taker stepped up, it felt amongst the crowd that the superior City performance was about to be rewarded and duly it was as Jansson dived low to his left to push the shot around the post.

If this is seen as a lesser competition then nobody told the Bantams’ players whose reaction was one of delirium as the arm-linked Claret and Amber stripes stampeded towards Jansson for a good old-fashioned pile on, topped off by a Guy Branston Swan dive (Ouch!). The team spirit was clear to see and it is hoped that Parkinson will now look to continue this in order to build on the confidence gained in the last two games.

The two victories represent a massive step forward for the squad and Cooper’s influence cannot be ignored. So it is hoped that Phil Parkinson’s observatory role tonight has shown him enough to know a good thing when he sees it and does all within his power to keep Cooper on. This will surely aid the transition and maintain continuity, whilst hopefully demonstrating to the new boss, cited in previous articles for favouring a tight 451 formation, that playing an attacking 442 formation can merit its own rewards and do it in style.

It will be interesting now to see how many new recruits Parkinson decides to bring in, as it would be a shame to oust the promising talent that has been on show in the last two games, without first giving it a chance. An experienced striker is still an attractive prospect, but the players handed over by Cooper must at least leave the new man thinking hard before spending Mark Lawn’s newly available funds.

Implosion avoided as the young Bantams come of age

The Team

Oscar Jansson | Liam Moore, Guy Branston, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall | Chris Mitchell, Ritchie Jones, Michael Flynn, Jack Compton | James Hanson, Mark Stewart | Nahki Wells

Perhaps Mark Lawn is being economical with the truth over the degree of influence and pressure he and his Boardroom colleagues placed upon Peter Jackson. But as it became obvious it was entirely the departed manager’s decision to quit, uneasy questions began to surface over the squad building he has overseen.

Just how bad were these players, to prompt someone apparently proud to manage them to quit after just five games in charge? Had he detected the ship is sinking and so clambered aboard the first lifeboat available before anyone seriously questions his leadership? When Barnet disrupted 15 minutes of promising home play by taking the lead this afternoon, the despair that flooded across Valley Parade weighed heavily.

Although at least the gloom didn’t last long, because James Hanson headed home an immediate equaliser that – in time – could be looked back upon as the crucial moment in City’s campaign. However, even during such a short period of time losing, the cracks of implosion could be heard. Barnet’s opener was almost an exact replica of Aldershot’s first in the opening day 2-1 defeat of the Bantams, with Guy Branston inexplicably allowing Ricky Holmes time and space to charge into the box and send a low cross that Izale McLeod couldn’t miss from. As the game restarted Branston’s next touch was greeted by a smattering of boos. The team was being turned upon by the loud minority. Yet again. Sigh.

Hanson’s goal halted the boos and frustration in the stands, while on the pitch it breathed belated confidence into a young side that in the past five games had simply been on the wrong side of narrow margins rather than humiliated. It was a goal of genuine quality, with Mark Stewart receiving the ball in the final third and expertly laying the ball off to wide man Chris Mitchell. His cross was superb, allowing Hanson to glance the ball into the net. From seemingly on the brink of panic, the corner was being turned.

In a match up between two teams better going forward then defending, City gradually began to take control with so many of the new faces in particular enjoying a season’s best performance. Stewart looked easily-bullied and weak in his two previous league starts; today he ran Barnet ragged with intelligent running and far greater strength on the ball. Liam Moore recovered from a poor start to enjoy a storming second half at right back. Ritchie Jones linked defence and attack up nicely, while Jack Compton was always a threat on the ball.

Ironically this was the same team set up and almost identical line up to the one which begun the season losing to Aldershot. Mitchell looked lost as wide right midfielder that day, but on his recall gave City the balance in midfield needed to allow them to increasingly dominate. He tucked in alongside Jones and the energetic Michael Flynn when an extra body was needed in the centre, and tracked back well to support Moore at moments Barnet tried going down the flanks. When City attacked, he popped up in different areas that included providing width on the right hand side. On this form he is the answer to a midfield conundrum that has plagued the club since dropping into League Two.

And there were his deliveries. His cross for Hanson’s equaliser was breathtaking. Early in the second half, Hanson’s excellent persistence earned City a free kick out wide which Mitchell delivered perfectly onto Branston’s head for 2-1. (And at this point let us say those who booed Branston had no right to cheer this goal.) Five minutes later Mitchell pick pocketed the full back for possession before firing across another glorious cross that Hanson tapped home for 3-1. It was a genuine surprise he wasn’t involved in the fourth goal that occurred early in stoppage time.

But Hanson was. All four of the goals included him. Substitute Nahki Wells may have robbed a defender, dribbled past another and slammed the ball home for a mightily impressive first senior goal, but Hanson’s bullying of his marker enabled it to happen. It was the kind of low-key contribution many fail to recognise the importance of as they slate target men like Hanson.

It’s hard to remember the last time the former shelf-stacker played as brilliantly as he did this afternoon. Yet still, at 3-1 up, numerous fans continued to get on his back and slag him off in the most derogatory of terms. It should leave every right-minded City fan angry enough to march over to the booers and rip their season tickets out their hand.

If you thought Hanson was poor today and so criticised him – you are a moron. End of. If you don’t like being labelled a moron, don’t read this site. I’m sick of people like you ruining the matchday experience and confidence of players for no obvious reasons other than selfish. The people who booed Branston today – who admittedly was at fault for both Barnet goals, that’s hardly the point – deserve to feel very stupid tonight too.

Back on the pitch, the difference in the players from kick off to full time was colossal. The Leeds game had showed the potential offered by the new-look squad, but doubts over where it really matters were finally eased by the way everyone grew in stature and confidence. Against such a turbulent backdrop in the immediate build up, caretaker manager Colin Cooper deserves immense credit for maintaining the players focus and should now figure in the Board’s thoughts if they haven’t already decided who will be next manager. In Jackson’s final two games he was apparently losing his way in team selection and tactics, Cooper brought back a level of organisation that laid the groundwork to an excellent performance.

A performance that could easily have included more goals. In the first half Compton, Stewart and Mitchell both came close with decent shots that flew just wide, while Hanson should have scored (boo!) from a looping Compton cross. Once 3-1 up in the second half City sat back more, but before Wells’ fourth Mitchell forced a smart save from long distance. The inside of the post was also rattled by Wells a minute after his goal.

Defensively there remain concerns with crosses into the box not dealt with well, though even in this area there was improvement as the game went on. Oscar Jansson made a solid home debut that included three excellent saves, but he was beaten by Mcleod for a second time deep in stoppage time to put a slight dampener on the afternoon.

Though the atmosphere – which grew positive from the moment Hanson equalised – remained stirring to the end. The minority digs at Flynn, Branston and Hanson drowned out by enthusiastic chanting. I can only speak for myself, but after the Leeds game and the brave way the players had attacked our bitter rivals I fell in love with this team. I struggle to recall a more honest, hard-working group of players since those halcyon days of 1998/99. For sure ability wise they are not the best, but for effort and determination I am desperate to see them succeed. We’ve had too many false dawns to get excited yet, but this really could be the start of something special.

Which makes the decision of Jackson to walk out all the more baffling. One wonders how he spent this afternoon and if he now regrets not giving it one more week. But most of all – as we enjoyed Stewart, Mitchell and others prosper instead of being replaced in the team by loan signings – one wonders whether Jackson falling on his sword might prove to be a blessing in disguise.

2011/2012 II/IV: The players

They can hardly lose – the players of Bradford City 2011/2012 coming in the season after the team were booed, jeered and dubbed “the worst in Bradford City’s history.”

Set against that the currently players – as a whole – can hardly do worse but with the club stopping focusing on promotion as the only aim and starting looking at Development as the means that end in a higher division then the players are individually charged with achieving personal aims.

So if the City players need to end the season having improved what should each player consider a success for the season, and what standard should they be held against?

Goalkeepers

A good season for Jon McLaughlin is a busy one. The keeper has kept his place in the squad while all around him have been released and retains the favour of supporters but thus far the former Harrogate shot stopper needs to be authoritative in his goalkeeping and commanding of a back four that too often looked nervous in front of him last season.

A good season is to keep the gloves all year, a bad one sees someone come in on loan and leaves McLaughlin looking for a new club after the season.

Martin Hansen‘s dream season is a first month – and then two more perhaps – where he is a brick wall for Bradford City and returns to Liverpool with Pepe Reina allowed to leave and the Danish custodian allowed to take over. That probably will not happen but a good display against Leeds United in the League Cup would help raise his profile and his season is all about showing he can perform in League football.

Defenders

Bradford City are Guy Branston‘s grand project. The defender looks at Valley Parade as his opportunity to add a final achievement to his promotions and play off wins and that achievement is to stamp authority on a team which badly lacked leadership last year. Branston’s sights are set higher than any other player for the Bantams this season and anything less than playing near every game (eighteen red cards in his career suggests that one might expect a suspension of two) and making sure that the men around him put in good performances and win clean sheets.

One of those men is Steve Williams who has two years left on his contract so perhaps this is not the “big year” that is being talked about for the defender but Williams needs to bring a more constant high level of performance. A good season for Williams is few mistakes at the back which tend to interrupt excellent displays, and it is nailing a place alongside Branston at the heart of the back four.

A good season for Simon Ramsden is one without injury. Since arriving at City Ramsden has put in infrequent but excellent performances at right back and central defence owing to injury and it seems that should he stay fit that Rambo will do well. A good season for Simon Ramsden is living up to the promise of his fleeting appearances so far.

For Luke O’Brien this season is about giving up childish things and graduating from being a good young player to being a reliable good player. For this year to be a success O’Brien has to go past his last season of being given the pass which young players to not needing such excuses and putting in mature displays most often.

For the forgotten man Luke Oliver it is hard to imagine how he can break into the side with Branston in his way but – eighteen red cards remember – a good season for Luke Oliver is to be the able replacement to be drafted in when needed. Whenever called on Oliver has played with enthusiasm and
professionalism. Not the best player in the world a good season for Luke Oliver is to not let anyone down when he is called on and – despite the moaning of the malcontent – he never has so far.

For right back Andrew Burns the season is all about development. City are looking for a loan deal for the young right back to give him a few months of experience. If the season is a success for him he will come back and put pressure on the first team. If he ends with a dozen appearances he will have done very well, half a dozen might be more realistic and is a good aim for the youngster.

Similarly Adam Robinson – who seems set to back up for Steve Williams in the role of mobile defender – needs experience and might hope to get a few months playing in the non-league but a successful season is winning a new deal after his initial first six month contract expires and perhaps getting a half dozen appearances in by the end of the season.

For Lewis Hunt and Robbie Threlfall a good season seems to be finding a new club. How Threlfall fell from the player who people thought was too good for us to one who is thrown out of “the worst team in Bradford City’s history” is saddening and the fact that the club seemed to keep him in preference to signing Jamie Green promises something for the left back from Liverpool but all in all a good season for both is to end it as a professional footballer, and good luck to them both.

Midfielders

No player shows the potential of a successful season better than Dominic Rowe. Rowe is in the team in the absence of Omar Daley and mirrors the winger’s style of play charging at defenders with pace but differs in his type of delivery. While Omar went for the cut inside and attack the centre Rowmar goes around the outside to the byline and delivers.

A good season for a first year professional is to play a half dozen or more games but the likes of Burns and Robinson have players in their way. Rowe has the opportunity to get into the team and make Peter Jackson stop the search for a replacement. A good season for Dominic Rowe is to play a dozen games, get a few assists and a couple of goals but Bradford City – it seems – need more from the young winger.

In other words City need Rowe to have a David Syers season where his first proper year sees him establish himself as a first team player quickly. Syers’ challenge this year is not only to avoid the often talked about “second season syndrome” but to advance his game. As good as he was in his first year when given the opportunity to boss the midfield himself Syers was found wanting. A good season for David Syers is not measured in how many games he plays or goals he scores so much as how many midfield battles he wins. He needs to be everywhere on the pitch, as often as he can be.

Exactly the same can be said about Michael Flynn. Seemingly unloved by Peter Jackson Flynn’s performances have put him back into contention but Flynn has been in the heart of City teams which had soft centres. The decision for the manager is on if those teams failed because of Flynn, or inspite of him, a successful season for City’s number four is to make that decision for Jackson. Like Syers it is not just games played but midfields won which will be decisive for the midfielder in the year, the final year of his City contract.

At the other end of his Bantams career is Ritchie Jones who signed a potential four year deal with the club and has been brought in – aged 24 – to be a big player. Having slipped down from Manchester United to Hartlepool United to Oldham Athletic Jones has reached a place where he needs to stop the decline. League Two offers the base ground for footballers. If one does not make it at this level, one is not a professional footballer for much longer.

For Jones there is a need to make this season the one where he cements a regular first team place putting him in direct competition with Flynn and Syers. A good season for Jones taking the opportunity of being a new face at a new club and making himself undroppable.

Chris Mitchell may end up undroppable because of his delivery from set plays. A fine crosser of a ball Mitchell seems to offer City the sort of delivery which has been missing since – perhaps – Nick Summerbee left the club but arriving as a full back come central midfielder it seems that the young Scot will have had a successful season if at the end of it no one is saying that he is only in the team because of his delivery.

Jack Compton‘s season will have been a success if there is a battle for his services in January. His loan expires in the Winter and should the Bantams be trying to prise him away from Falkirk who have seen something they want back from the left winger then he will have done well. A traditional winger, and very one footed, there are worries about how Compton will fit into a team and a division in which every player has to work hard to get results but a partnership between O’Brien and Compton could have something of the Wayne Jacobs/Peter Beagries about it.

If he can be a regular between now and Christmas, and if he can provide the ammunition for James Hanson and his former Falkirk team mate Mark Stewart then he will have had a good half season.

A successful season for Lee Bullock is filling in. Peter Jackson has said that he wants to keep the midfielder because of his versatility. Bullock has played right back, centre back, holding and attacking midfield and perhaps for Bullock success is not judged in how many games he plays but in how many positions he plays them in. Not only that but how many loan players are forced to come in to cover injuries. If at the end of the year Bullock has filled whatever hole appears in the team he – and Jackson – will have justified his place in the squad.

For Luke Dean‘s place in the squad to be justified the midfielder who lost much last season to injury needs to start establishing himself as a member of the match day sixteen which – looking at the options available – could be tough. One gets the feeling that unless Dean gets a very lucky he will spend the season frustrated. A good season for Luke Dean sees him push ahead of the likes of Mitchell, Bullock and Flynn in the pecking order.

The likes of Alex Flett and Patrick Lacey have more time. They need experience on loan and a fist full of first team games but the onus on those players is to prove that they are worth another deal. Flett’s contract is up at Christmas and so has to impress quickly, Lacey has until then end of the season.

The same should be said about Scott Brown but to do so would be to ignore the anticipation around the young Scot who has a buzz about his early appearances and abilities. It is said that after watching Brown for fifty minutes Jackson got on the phone to get a contract drawn up for the sixteen year old so impressed was he and while it would be far too simplistic to say that the player needs to break into the first team he – more than any other brought into Archie Christie’s Development Squad – needs to start pushing for a place in the first team squad. He needs to make himself the default option when the manager starts looking for options. A dozen appearances would be excellent, but the proof of Brown and the Development Squad is in the number of loan players brought to the club to plug gaps perceived in the squad.

Forwards

Of all the players at Bradford City James Hanson has the longest current commitment to the club. Hanson is signed up for City until the middle of 2013 regardless of performance (Brown and Jones have longer options at the club’s discretion) such is the faith which three managers have had in the forward. Hanson divides opinion in City fans and there is debate about the player but – for me – there are two schools of thought on the player: Those who see him as a superb forward capable of winning battles against almost every player he comes up against and possessing a powerful, able strikers arsenal, and those who are wrong.

Success for Hanson is to be injury free of course – he will not like a season like last year – but it is also to carry on his weekly battles with the defenders of League Two and to create for his team mates. A dozen goals would be a good return but the same number and more of direct assists would illustrate the worth that he should be having in a team.

Benefactor of those assists should be new recruit from Falkirk Mark Stewart who comes to the club with a reputation as an intelligent player with the ability to link up with his fellow forward. A good season for Stewart is eighteen goals, a poor one and people will be making jokes that he is only playing because Jackson needs a Mar… Stewart up front. Perhaps realistically if the club are hoping for promotion in two or three years rather than one then a good season for Stewart is preparing for a second year promotion push rather than being judged on what he does in the next twelve months.

If Stewart fails then waiting is Ross Hannah. The chances of the former Matlock man improving on his 53 goals last season are slim but the striker will look not only to be getting into double figures for goals but will also hope to give Peter Jackson a selection headache. Hannah has to make it difficult for Jackson to decide which of his strikers he should be partnering James Hanson with. A successful season for Hannah is a good goal tally and a enough starts to suggest that Mark Stewart was not the default choice and to earn the extension to his contract for next season.

All of which is also true for Nialle Rodney and more. Rodney has only a one year deal and needs to suggest that he deserves another professional deal. A half dozen goals would suggest that the young man is delivering on his promise but games will be tough for Rodney if City are doing well, unless of course he is the man scoring the goals which bring good results.

Nakhi Wells is in a similar situation. A player who shown impressive touches in his early City career but will struggle to get games if the Bantams are doing well, and if the Bantams are doing poorly may struggle when he was in the team. A good season would be around twenty appearances and a half dozen goals but opportunities are limited.

More limited though seem to be the future for Leon Osbourne and Darren Stephenson. The former seems to have lost his place as the bright young thing and is now a very average player who has not been able to nail down a position and perhaps a good season for him is to establish himself with enough games to have proved a usefulness. The latter – Stephenson – has seen four players join the club ahead of him and will hope to get a loan move to give him experience and perhaps a half dozen games in the first team by the end of the season and the odd goal.

Following the prevailing narrative

Pre-season allows a different view on football.

Nestled at the side of the pitch the players – who will be seen from the height of stands and the back of terraces – are up close and personal in front of a few hundred supporters. Players who look almost like a fleshly blur when at the far end of Valley Parade are right in front of you. Live and loud.

Very loud in some cases. Guy Branston’s “discussion” with the Referee at Nethermoor was the sort of language which very much would be both foul and abusive but not only did the officials do nothing about it they did not even break stride or blink, nor did the players. Par for the course perhaps, and not something one appreciates when watching from the stands.

Football is a sweary game up close and the players have nicknames, and they all end with “y” or “o”.

One thing one might notice about the players this season – not those on the field so much as those watching their team mates – is the fact that they are not wearing suits.

This time last year there was much talk about suits. The problem with Bradford City circa Stuart McCall was that the players were a shabby mess of leisure wear and lounging around and the solution in the new, sensible, and obviously better regime of Peter Taylor was to get the players dressing professionally. To this end Roger Owen provide the money to kit out the Bantams in a nice yard of cloth.

That was the narrative of last summer. The rise of professionalism under Peter Taylor and the need for things like overnight stays which would not see the season out and culminating with the clumsily named Make-Tommy-Doherty-Ride-A-Bus-All-Night-Gate.

Those things are not important now, or so the prevailing narrative of Bradford City tells us, because the key the success is the Twitter team and the Development squad.

The Twitter team aptly describing the trend started by Ross Hannah to use the social networking site to talk about the Bantam in a really, really, really positive way.

Hannah, Branston, Nialle Rodney. They beat the drum proudly for Bradford City and this is a good thing. You can buy the PR and good mood which has derived from reading the daily musings of the assembling City squad but it is safe to say that the people who brought you Santa Dave would not have invested in it.

The Twitter team strikes one as indicative of a good squad dynamic. Of young lads getting on well together and enjoying being footballers. It is many things good, and nothing at all to do with the need for suits which was so important a year ago.

Likewise The Development Squad and the rise of “Woodhouse Grove” as the training facility – a far cry but not a long way from “Apperley Bridge” which this time past year we were being told was suitable – are the essentials in the current story of the reconstruction of Bradford City.

Not that one wants to complain about these things. Almost everything that has happened at City this Summer has been a progressive step which will have improved the club at the end of the season regardless of promotion but the worry is that this time next year if promotion has not been reached will the Development squad be hanging up at the forgotten back of someone’s cupboard next to Roger Owen’s suit?

Will City players be banned from Twitter as their peers at Leeds United and would that move be trumpeted as increased professionalism needed to sort out something shabby. There is a cycle of what we are told is salvation one season being shoved out the door the next.

These things would seem dependant on the prevailing narrative of the club, and that is not a good thing.

The prevailing narrative is a powerful thing and one which governs how we view the club in terms of its progress and how the club view us.

City spun from being on our uppers to putting upwards of six figure bids in for players while Peter Jackson has moved from being the man who does not always say what he means when he swears that he bleeds blue and white to being the arbiter of truth when he says that Omar Daley has not been offered a deal by the Bradford City team he now manages. If it is the case that there is no deal then someone might want to tell Omar Daley that. Regardless this shows how Jackson has changed in perception at the demand of the narrative the club creates.

Like Taylor and his professionalism, and like McCall the Messiah, Peter Jackson as City manager is subject to his own narrative arc. He is cast as Saul, converted by the blinding light to the one true path and ready to make good for the faith not in spite of his wrongdoing but because of it.

So the Development Squad goes to Bradford Park Avenue while the seniors will entertain Premier League Bolton Wanderers in the first game at Valley Parade of the season.

Jackson is seeking a gatekeeper and will use both games to try out someone to perhaps replace the ill Jon McLauglin for the first game of the season. Mark Howards’ attempt to impress on Tuesday night was not impressive and so Iain Turner – a wanted man – will be given the chance to keep goal if he wants it against Bradford Park Avenue, or Bolton Wanderers, or both. McLaughlin’s illness keeps him out of both games. Goalkeeping coach Tim Dittmer has been given a squad number.

Simon Ramsden is expected to make a long awaited return against Park Avenue for a team which is thought to be mostly the development squad and Ramsden will feature at and he is expected to partner Luke Oliver in the middle of a back four with Lewis Hunt next to him on one side and Robbie Threlfall on the other. At times last season that back four could have started games for City. Andrew Burns and Adam Robinson could feature in either game but it seems that Peter Jackson is moving towards Chris Mitchell, Steve Williams, Guy Branston and Luke O’Brien as his first choice backline. Expect those to get a run out against the Trotters.

Jackson’s attempts to pair new signing Richie Jones and player of the season for the season where there was no player of the season David Syers met with mixed returns on Tuesday night and the Bantams looked a sterner outfit with Michael Flynn alongside Jones. Flynn seems to be being edged away from the Bantams first eleven but has responded in what seems to be typical fashion for the Welshman with some gutsy performances suggesting he will not go quietly into the night.

Should he play on the Friday night the future for Flynn may have been decided, if not then he has a chance of staking a claim. The development squad against Avenue is expected to feature Patrick Lacey, Alex Flett, Luke Dean and perhaps Lee Bullock while Bolton will face a midfield of Jones in the middle, the impressive Jamie Green on the left, Dominic Rowe on the right and one of the Flynn/Syers/Bullock mix in the middle.

Leon Osbourne is looking too developed for the development squad but not enough for the starting eleven. Scott Brown could play in either squad. Scott Brown is the future.

Up front Jackson is expected to give Nialle Rodney and Nakhi Wells a chance for go at Park Avenue as he tries to get a deal for Wells with Mark Stewart and James Hanson looking favoured for the Bolton game. Ross Hannah is in the middle, a decent place for a forward. Darren Stephenson, already, is starting to look like like he will struggle to get a chance.

Hannah, of course, is not for playing now. He is to be thrown on with twenty minutes left of the Leeds game in the first week of the season and to snatch a goal. That is his narrative, and deviation from it will cause some upset.

Searching for answers

Following a short journey from Chesterfield to Matlock with my wife’s uncle, I parked the car and was greeted by a friend who I’d agreed to meet up with for this pre-season friendly game. The three of us walked through a tranquil park towards a fish and chip shop that my friend had spotted. As myself and my wife’s uncle had eaten before we’d set off, we watched my friend tuck into Britain’s favourite takeaway meal of white flaky fish and chunky potato chips.

Upon entering the three-sided Causeway Lane ground, I was greeted by an elderly gentleman selling programmes. The programme which I purchased contained some interesting information including the fact that Matlock Town are due to play either Huchnall (although I think they mean Hucknall), Holbeach or Lincoln Moorlands Railway at home on 17 September in the first qualifying round of the FA Cup. My wife’s uncle also spotted the name of Vince Adams in the Looking Back article. Adams joined Matlock Town from Worksop 44 years ago. Apparently the significance of this is the fact that my wife’s uncle went to school with Vince Adams.

We make our way to the main stand and took our seats as the players warmed up in front of us. As I’m trying to make out who our new signings and trialists are, Peter Jackson and David Baldwin are deep in conversation by the dugouts. Who knows what they are chatting about? The tannoy announcer presents the two teams to us although it’s difficult to hear what he is saying. However we make out the name of Nathan Joynes in the Matlock Town side who played a couple of games for Bradford City a few seasons ago, whilst on loan from Barnsley. In the starting side for Bradford City is ex-Matlock Town player Ross Hannah who is also our captain for the evening.

The game kicks off and Hannah produces an early left foot right wing cross which unfortunately doesn’t reach Hanson in the six yard box. Hanson is then found in his own penalty area heading clear an early Matlock corner. The Matlock Town supporter sat next to my wife’s uncle informs us that Ian Holmes, the Matlock Town number 9, has re-joined them from Glapwell FC and is the one to watch in the Matlock side. Holmes is soon in the thick of the action and is brought down by Guy Branston. However, the resulting free kick is cleared by Steve Williams.

After the early exchanges City come more into the game with Lee Bullock passing to Hanson who shoots high and wide of the target. Luke O’Brien and young Dominic Rowe link up well down the left flank and from Rowe’s cross David Syers heads the ball into the back of a Matlock player. Holmes then shoots from long range but his shot goes wide of Rhys Evans’ goal. Evans is on trial looking to earn himself a contract with the club who he played for during the 2008-09 season. However, it’s not long before Holmes is on the score sheet as he thumps a header past him from a Bettney cross.

The first half continues with Joynes attempting a lob which goes over the cross bar. This proves to be his last action in the game as he is substituted shortly afterwards. Hanson then goes foraging down City’s left flank and shrugs off the attentions of Featherstone to create a shooting opportunity which hits a post and bounces out too quickly for Hannah to convert into a goal. It is then Branston’s turn to attack at the central defender goes on one of those runs that excite supporters. His left wing cross goes just over Hannah’s head.

With City gaining more possession, Chris Mitchell crosses from the right for Hanson to head City’s equaliser. That’s a headed goal for each number nine. Shortly afterwards, Matlock are presented with a chance to take the lead following a wayward pass from Branston. However, Ryan Mallon shoots wide. As the first half draws to a conclusion Branston, for reasons unknown to me, hurls some verbal abuse to O’Brien. Branston then sprays a forward pass which is nowhere near to a Bradford City player. O’Brien. The ultimate professional, however, doesn’t retaliate and tell Branston what he thinks of that pass.

The second half commences with Mark Stewart replacing Hanson. Stewart is soon into the action as he shoots just wide after collecting a pass from O’Brien. Rowe then pulls the ball back for Stewart but his side footed shot is saved by Kennedy in the Matlock goal. Mitchell produces another telling cross which Syers heads over the crossbar. City are dominating the early exchanges of the second half and Stewart shoots again, but this time Kennedy palms the shot away. Matlock then make a plethora of substitutions and have their first corner of the second half. Thankfully, Rowe is stood by one post and is able to prevent Matlock from taking the lead again. This shows the importance of having men by each post when defending a corner.

Midway through the second half Jackson decides it time for a few substitutions. Recent signing Ritchie Jones makes a surprise, but welcome, appearance following his transfer from Oldham Athletic. Jones slots into central midfield with Bullock reverting to centre back as Branston leaves the field. Trialist Nahki Wells replaces local hero Ross Hannah, who receives warm applause from the home supporters. City have another corner which Williams heads over before Jones tries his luck from distance with a long range effort which narrowly flies wide of Kennedy’s right hand post.

Recent signing Andrew Burns joins the action replacing Lewis Hunt and shortly afterwards Luke Dean and Scott Brown replace Syers and Mitchell. Wells then shoots from distance but fails to alter the score line. Hanson can now be seen sat in the main stand with fellow players Flynn and Osborne, who are both rested tonight following their appearances at Silsden two days earlier. With the game approaching the final few minutes, both teams have a chance to win the game. First a Matlock substitute drags his right foot shot wide, then in the final minute Wells is played in by Jones but Kennedy makes another smart save. The game finishes 1-1.

As we make our way towards the exit, Branston is seen having his photograph taken with a City supporter whilst Matlock’s forthcoming fixtures appear on a chalk board on a wall behind one of the goals. Another chalk board next to the turnstiles notes that the attendance was 364. These quirky little things are what I love about pre-season friendly games at non-league grounds.

Whilst Matlock Town gave City a good work out and looked like a team that will do well in this season’s Evo-Stik Premier League, Peter Jackson was left searching for answers as to how Bradford City will be able to break down teams in the forthcoming Division 4 campaign.

It all begins with the broadest of smiles

The Team

Jon Brain | Andrew Burns, Adam Robinson, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall | Leon Osborne, Scott Brown, Michael Flynn, Jamie Green | Nialle Rodney, Nhaki Wells | Danny Kerr, Luke Dean, Mole Kes, Darren Stephenson, Patrick Lacey, Dominic Rowe.

This felt weird. As someone who has lived within the Craven area for the majority of his 29 years on this planet, this evening’s short journey to Silsden’s Asda Foundation Stadium to watch Bradford City play Silsden AFC  seemed like two very different aspects of life crossing over, surprisingly smoothly.

Bradford City and Valley Parade is hardly a million miles away from Craven, but the escapism it provides on a Saturday afternoon is far removed from the familiar, everyday life the likes of Silsden are associated with in my mind. On the PA system tonight apparently boomed the voice of my old Geography teacher; among the sizeable crowd were non-City supporter friends I often share a pint with, plus other characters you see out and about and who provide the backdrop to evenings out.

They’re stood next to City supporters I know by sight if not to speak to following years of attending games far more meaningful than this. Where I live it still feels a surprise, if not a novelty, to see people wearing Bradford City clothing; yet tonight Silsden is full of claret and amber. The crowd inside the compact stadium feels like it could be bigger – though the attendance is over 1,100 – and, as the game takes place in front of the picturesque Aire Valley landscape I’ve called home for so many years, it all seemed to come together rather beautifully.

And coming together for the first time publically was the much-vaunted Development Squad, plus a handful of trialists and senior pros in Michael Flynn, Robbie Threlfall and Luke Oliver. Perhaps James Hanson and Guy Branston had been in manager Peter Jackson’s plans too – but if not kudos to the pair for turning up to watch. The three prominent players in the team aside, it was an evening of struggling to recognise unfamiliar faces for whom this friendly was about much more than building fitness.

Straight from kick off there was a focused rhythm to the approach of the City team. The ball was worked back and forth from defence, with midfielders Flynn and Scott Brown taking it in turns to drop deep and receive possession in order to bring it forwards. On the flanks trialist Jamie Green and Leon Osborne looked to provide movement, while recently signed forward Nialle Rodney immediately found favour for his willingness to track back.

The goals quickly began to pour in. First Rodney was played through and confidently rounded the keeper, before slotting home from a tight angle. Next Flynn ran and ran before unleashing a low drive into the corner. From another Flynn shot, Bermudist trialist Nahki Wells was able to tap home a rebound effort. Green headed a fourth and there was still seven minutes until half time.

But games like this aren’t really about the goals, and the attention was all on who was impressing and who wasn’t quite measuring up. The 16-year-old Brown – and it is hard to believe he really is that young – was first in line for accolades. His running, on and off the ball, caught the eye as he made good use of space; while his passing demonstrated remarkable skill and composure. His best moment during his 45-minute run out was probably an inch-perfect pass from deep that set Green away down the flank.

Rodney and Wells linked up well as a front two, while at the back emerging youth team prospect Adam Robinson measured up well in the centre, especially considering he has been playing as a right back for the reserves. As changes were made at half time that had no effect on momentum, another trialist Danny Kerr showed promise on the wing. It was also good to see Luke Dean in action; a year ago his season was effectively ruined after suffering a dreadful injury in the opening pre-season friendly.

The goals continued with Darren Stephenson racing through and nutmegging the beleaguered Silsden keeper, before Wells grabbed a second with a lob and Kerr latched onto a cross to slide the ball home for 7-0. At this stage Silsden hadn’t managed a single meaningful attack, but did improve towards the end and grabbed a consolation through Jim Bradley.

There’s only so much you can read into games like this, and on the day City confirmed the capture of Oldham midfielder Ritchie Jones and look set to blow the Leeds United cup windfall on one player, what opportunities will be available to those contracted or on trial and who played tonight is unclear. But while Jackson and his coaching staff were offered plenty of food for thought, for us supporters we headed home with a satisfied grin.

I love the intimacy of occasions such as these. It’s not that we’re especially any nearer to the players compared to a normal league game, but the more hushed tones and fact players and management mix more freely with fans makes it seem more personal. Stood behind the goal City defended in the first half, I was suddenly conscious that my conversation with this site’s esteemed editor regarding Jon Brain’s past humiliations against City was within earshot of the trialist keeper, and so had to ssh myself from saying David Brown.

Of course there was no edge to the evening; and each goal was cheered without a semblance of the passion and the elation we exuberate when the real stuff kicks off. But then there was also no nerves and risk of misery that so often overrides everything about following City. I’m not ready to get back on the emotional rollercoaster just yet, so the tranquillity of it all seemed perfect on a warm July evening.

Tonight was simply about enjoying a football match, and about remembering how much we love Bradford City. It’s sad how quickly both of these facts can become lost when the important stuff begins.

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