The character of Bradford City’s goalscoring problems

To understand the problems Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are having scoring goals at the end of the League One season – a season which has gone far better than one would have thought for much of it – one has to go back to the problems that marked the start of the season.

By August 2015 Parkinson had put the final nail into the coffin of his 4312 playmaker formation by signing Paul Anderson to add to other recruit Mark Marshall to give his team two out and out wingers.

Marshall and Anderson would be Jamie Lawrence and Peter Beagrie for the 2015 generation and City would rampage through the division with an attractiveness which joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes have asked for previously.

However in the opening week trips to Swindon Town and York City, and the game at home to Gillingham, Parkinson’s plans faltered and they faltered because his team were vulnerable to counter-attacks and crosses and these vulnerabilities were caused by a hole in City’s defence.

Joke Hole

That hole was an key. The hole was a gap between goalkeeper Ben Williams and the centre of the defensive line. Whenever a ball would come into the City box Williams and the defenders would struggle with one being too far from the other and as a result opposition strikers being given the freedom of the penalty spot to exploit City again and again.

This coupled with the counter-attacking problem in that Swindon Town exploited ruthlessly. When a City attack broke down the opposition recycled the ball past the wingers and brought the ball into dangerous wide positions challenged by only the City full back, or took it past the central midfielders.

Parkinson’s first solution to this problem did not work.

Brad Jones came and left very quickly and is widely considered to have been a failure at the club. After Jones’ exit a kind of media spin was given to the remaining keeper Ben Williams – that he had “seen off” the more experienced Jones – and so could be considered solid number one material. Williams bought into that and his grown since.

Williams’ record breaking run of clean sheets has written him a paragraph in the history of Bradford City and he deserves credit for it. But how those clean sheets came about is the root of the current goalscoring problem.

Because as Jones left and Williams stayed Parkinson changed City’s approach to games, or their tactics if you will.

Mints

(Brian Clough used to say there is a lot of nonsense talked about tactics by people who could not win a game of dominoes and I’m very aware that I may add to that but I’m not a believer in the reductionist view of tactics which had taken hold at all clubs in modern football where tactics can be boiled down to how the ball is delivered to the final third of the field: long pass or series of short passes; and I’m not a fan of making the word synonymous with the word formation which is also too inexact for our uses. For the word tactics to be of use it has to be nuanced, else it is a nuisance.)

Staying with his philosophies on the game Parkinson changed how City played to stop them conceding goals. His five years at the club have shown us that Parkinson works from a solid defence forward. To this effect the midfielders would take a step back in the course of play and not commit to attacking in forward positions when City had the ball.

Flash your mind back to 1999 and Jamie Lawrence crossing from the right. In the box Lee Mills would be in the six yard box, Robbie Blake would dally at the penalty spot and Peter Beagrie would be just past the far post, just out from the touchline. That season Mills, Blake and Beagrie scored 75% of City’s goals. In addition Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley – one forward one back – would offer short options and there would be a full back in attendance.

attacking-1999

Consider last night at Coventry City when Kyel Reid had the ball and in the box was Jamie Proctor, and that was it.

Billy Clarke offered a short option but staying outside the box and both Josh Cullen and Lee Evans were back down field. The support from the full back was there but on the opposite side of the field Tony McMahon was not in the box looking to add to the forwards, or forward if one were more honest. Instead McMahon is stepped back making sure that if the keeper catches and throws the ball out City are not exposed.

attacking-2015

Reverse the wings and the story is the same. This is not an issue with personnel it is a part of the way that City are playing. Everyone is a step further back than they could be, and the are further back because when they stepped forward at the start of the season they left holes which were exploited and results were terrible.

That Williams and the back four can claim a record number of clean sheets is a function of the fact that they are not fielding as many crosses, or taking on as many shots, because the midfield is balanced towards making sure that defensive holes are plugged.

Being Reice Charles-Cook

zones-on-a-field

When Reice Charles-Cook – the Coventry City goalkeeper – caught the ball on Tuesday night he looked to get play started quickly for the Sky Blue team that make a fetish of possession but the quick throw to a midfielder on the wing or a player in central position in zones 4-6 are not possible because Reid, McMahon and Clarke are already in zones 4-6 getting back to zones 7-9 while – by contrast – Blake, Lawrence and Beagrie would be in zones 1-3.

Likewise when City attack Cullen and Evans do not need to venture to zone 14 – Billy Clarke lives there – so they stay in zones 8 and 11 making sure that any breakdown of play does not leave the defence exposed. No counter attacks through zone 8/11, no wide attacks leading to crosses through 4/7 and 6/9.

This approach has done wonderful things for City in the last few months – the move from struggling in lower mid-table to third in League One is a result of this approach – but were Parkinson to alter it now for more of an attacking focus then the defensive issues that mandated the approach would no doubt reappear, or at least Parkinson might worry they would.

The defence – and specifically the control gap between Williams and the defensive line – has not been solved just been filled up with players sitting back. It is control through numbers. Shrewsbury Town’s equaliser will remind you that that issue between Williams and his defensive line has not gone away.

And Parkinson knows this.

Character and confidence

He knows that if he were to add – for example – Filipe Morais to the right flank over McMahon with instructions to get into zone 17-18 then the team would return to the same concession problem it had at the start of the season. He knows that if he had Billy Clarke (or someone else) press alongside Proctor in zone 17 rather than staying in zone 14 then the result without be that Cullen and Evans came forward, making the entire defensive unit harder to control, and the concession problem would emerge again.

Parkinson might try beat opposition sides in a scoring contest a la Kevin Keegan trying to win games 4-3 but considering the statistic talked about about City’s forwards scoring one goal in thirty shots over the last two games – which I would argue were low quality shots, because of the options in the zone 17 mentioned above – one doubts that the manager will change his approach so drastically.

And why should he? That approach has taken a team which struggled badly at the start of the season into genuine contenders for the play-offs. That prospect did not look likely at Gillingham when the third goal without reply went in back on the 2nd of January. Parkinson has shown that he can build confidence from teams that do not concede, and that is what he has done this time.

The arguments over Billy Clarke’s missed goal at Coventry – it never looks any better – or his goal should have stood goal at Shrewsbury – it never looks offside – can continue but on a longer timeline City’s goalscoring is not about players missing the target but rather about decisions made to patch defensive weaknesses and to give the team the chance to build confidence by not being beaten.

Like it or not that is the character of Bradford City 2015/2016.

The friends of Bradford City welcome back that rarest of thing

Wayne Jacobs and David Wetherall will return to Valley Parade on Thursday 22nd September at 20:00 as the Friends of Bradford City host a forum with the former players and coaches of the club.

Both Wetherall and Jacobs put in sterling service for Bradford City with the pair of them clocking up around thirty years combined service. For Jacobs the service was on the way up the leagues starting as a free transfer from Rotherham United recovering from a season long injury and going on to be a Premier League player. For Wetherall – who scored the famous headed goal which kept City in the top flight – the only way was down and as City slipped down the leagues the former captain’s contribution was to slow that decline.

Jacobs put in 318 games for City, Wetherall 304 which dwarfs anyone in the current set up and leads one to wonder who – in ten years time – will be being invited back for functions such as this? Who are are heroes of the future when the current player with most appearances for the club – Luke O’Brien – is persona non grata at Valley Parade. Injury to Robbie Threlfall (21 apps) may see O’Brien add to his 122 appearances for City this weekend.

O’Brien and Lee Bullock (120 apps) are the only players at the club in triple figures – a long way behind Ces Podd‘s 502 – but neither seem to be set to add many to that list. Bullock was unwanted by Mark Lawn but kept by Peter Jackson while O’Brien is frozen out of the first team for reasons unknown, or at least unsaid.

Not that O’Brien has ever enjoyed great popularity at Valley Parade. As a player he is better regarded on the bench than he is on the pitch. On the bench he is the world beating Roberto Carlos ready to turn things around but, when on the field, one might wonder if one were hearing the same crowd describe the player where his efforts are met with grumbles and only quiet support.

Often the same can be said for third on the list James Hanson (79 appearances, 21 goals) who proves that he can score when given service but is subject to a level of criticism which would suggest he had picked selected members of the support and punched their dogs.

Hanson’s return is under a goal every 3.76 games – around the same strike rate as Robbie Blake (153, 40) – which puts him above a good few well respected Bantams of the past. Joe Cooke (3.99) played 271 time and scored 68 although he played central defence at times. Ask men of a certain age about Don Hutchins and they go weak at the knee and his return of a goal every 5.5 games (286 appearances, 52 goals) was a good return and secondary to his overall contribution. The lauded Paul Jewell (269 appearances, 56 goals) banged in one every 4.8 games although most of them were before Christmas.

To paraphrase the problem is not in the stars but with ourselves. A mentality has grasped most of football – having taken hold a good many years ago – which suggests that supporters are blissfully happy to be unaware of what they have until it is gone. Sean McCarthy banged in a goal every two games for City – more or less – but was nicknamed “Scud” as a reference to his perceived inaccuracy.

McCarthy won the hearts of City fans when he exited Valley Parade for Oldham on deadline day and turned up wearing a ludicrously high squad number on Match of the Day a few days later playing at Old Trafford. Players who leave the club are well regarded. Wetherall and Jacobs’ defensive team mate Andrew O’Brien was – according to one voice in earshot – “On his way to Halifax Town, if they will have him” following City’s promotion. Two years later and he was “being sold too cheap.”

An exit infers a kind of status on a player, a respect because someone else has recognised the ability, and without that status our own players are generally disregarded. No player racks up hundreds of appearances because they either are snapped up by someone higher or they are slapped down and leave of their own volition.

A Catch 22 situation then. If a player never leave it is – in the eyes of some – because he is not good enough for anyone including City so should not be suffered to be in the side. It is no coincidence that the greats of Bradford City history: Stuart McCall, Bobby Campbell, Peter Beagrie; left the club before coming back.

Not Jacobs or Wetherall though. Both stayed with the club as players and became part of the coaching set up at later Valley Parade. Wetherall left for a development job with the Football League while Jacobs was unceremoniously launched from the club after Peter Taylor’s sacking. There was a verbalised question mark over Jacobs coaching ability and the former number two probably has too much class to point at the current state at the club – the so called “worst team in Bradford City history” – and ask how his departure improved things at Valley Parade.

One wonders if Wetherall and Jacobs are a rare thing. Only fourteen players who topped three hundred games for City and to add to that list Luke O’Brien would have to play pretty much every game for the next four season for a club where he is the only player who has been here for more than four seasons.

Rare things, and worth see. The forum is free to Friends of Bradford City members or a single shiny pound for non-members.

Jackson left scribbling out his midfield options

The Team

Mark Howard | Simon Ramsden, Steve Williams, Guy Branston, Luke O'Brien | Dominic Rowe, Michael Flynn, Chris Mitchell, Jack Compton | Mark Stewart, James Hanson | Naille Rodney, Nakhi Wells, Andrew Burns, Ross Hannah

I imagine that somewhere in the depths of Woodhouse Grove that there are any number of crumpled up pieces of paper with teams sketched out on them which Peter Jackson has produced as he tries to permeate his starting eleven for the first match of the season in thirteen days time and most probably the greatest number of changes come in the midfield positions.

The City team that lost 4-1 to Bolton in a performance which had no disgrace – more on that later – has a settled back four of Simon Ramsden, Steve Williams, Guy Branston and Luke O’Brien and while O’Brien was guilty of messing around rather than getting rid in the last minute to give the ball away cheaply and lead to the fourth goal by the visitors which was nicely finished by Ivan Klasnic the back four is stable and has promise.

Likewise the power of James Hanson up front and the movement of Mark Stewart seem to be the pair in waiting. Nialle Rodney bangs on the door after a superb dribble which took him by a number of Trotters and saw him apply a cool finish but it seems that Rodney and Ross Hannah will be bench sitters against Aldershot Town when the season kicks off.

The effectiveness of Stewart and Hanson remains to be seen. Hanson has the ability to dominate defenders but last season often that was wasted for the want of support. Stewart’s intelligent play seems to be a good match the idea being that if Hanson is winning the ball and Stewart running to where Hanson will nod the ball on to. Rodney and Hannah suggest that if Plan A does not work then there is something else in the locker. Looking over at Robbie Blake – playing for Bolton and warmly applauded by City fans – the mind drifted back to how Blake was the second choice to Isaiah Rankin back in 1998. The ability to make that switch in the season proved to be key.

Blake set up a fine second goal for Bolton running in behind the Bantams backline and picking out Darren Pratley who came out of midfield well all afternoon including a moment in the first half where having bested his marker he tumbled in the box under the sort of changeling from Mark Howard which is a penalty in pre-season at Valley Parade but will be a foul on the keeper at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge.

It was Pratley’s running which will cause Jackson to rip up more paper this week. He and Patrice Mwamba – who for my money should be in the England team – battled tooth and nail against City’s midfield two of Chris Mitchell holding and Michael Flynn attacking the the Bantams pair past muster.

Flynn seems to have gone from being stuck in the stiffs at Silsden and seemingly on his way out of the club to being the best Bantams player on show against the toughest opposition he will face all season.

Flynn’s attitude is obvious and excellent and his play saw him breaking forward and being a threat and he combined well with Chris Mitchell who’s holding abilities are second to his abilities from dead ball situations and one suspects that that second attribute is causing Jackson more scribbles. Mitchell’s corners to Hanson, Williams and Branston were a threat that nearly brought goals in the first half but one wonders if he is strong enough in the holding role to justify his selection.

Flynn too – while looking impressive in his own play – has been over the last two seasons a part of midfields which are soft centred. Was that Flynn’s fault or the fault of those around him, or the previous management, and could Jackson’s deployment of Flynn bring the best out of the player? This is where Jackson earns his money.

Mitchell and Flynn are joined in the mix by David Syers – the criticism of Flynn could be equally applied to Syers – Lee Bullock and Richie Jones. Bullock seems less in the running than the others but one can only imagine the permutations Jackson is running in training to try find an answer to this most pressing of questions. A good team needs a good midfield mix and history tells us that at City a good team needs a good start lest it be dragged down by a chorus of disapproval.

The widemen offer options. Jamie Green did not feature today with a potential third Falkirkian in Jack Compton on the left flank and Compton a more out and out winger than Green who could tuck in to provide strength in the middle. Strangely a lot seems to depend on Dominic Rowe who is improving game by game and if that improvement will manifest itself as quality performances in League Two games.

If Rowe can use his pace to effect and continue his habit of simple improvement of possession – when he loses the ball he does so in a better position than when he gathered it and this manifest itself in corners and throw ins – then he could find himself nailing down a place in the starting eleven. On his performance today that is a risk, but it might be a risk worth taking.

Pre-season matches at City are curious affairs. The crispy £10 handed over to watch the game could be the most that any of us pass to a turnstyle operator to watch the Bantams this year with season tickets making the per match price around £6 yet the expectation is often so low. Bolton’s third goal – like their first – was the sort of decision which they would never get in the Premier League and so seems of limit use to give in this game. If Owen Coyle can see his strikers barge Jamie Carragher and John Terry out of the way in the way that Guy Branston was and still be celebrating a goal as he was after Kevin Davies’ tidy lob then he will consider himself very lucky.

Jackson though will be considering his options. The chassis for a team is built, he just needs to figer out the engine.

The mark of progress, or the lack of it

“I’ve got nothing to prove to Liverpool” said young midfielder Jim Magilton when he went back to Anfield as an Southampton player for a Division One game at the start of the Nineties.

Magilton had spent his youth career at the Reds but never made a first team appearance. He went to Oxford United and made 150 appearances, then on to Southampton where his full circle moment happened. After that he ended up at Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich where he was coverted by Paul Jewell’s City but ended his career at Portman Road. A good career no doubt but at no time did he ever eclipse the midfielders who replaced him at Anfield.

He had nothing to prove to those at Liverpool and in a way he proved nothing to them. He did not play at a higher level, he did not end up with a Champions medal, and whoever decided he was not the “good enough” was proved right.

There was a way to mark the progress of Bradford City which worked in the same way. Players come and go from clubs and City were forced to let a number of players go because of financial reasons and watched those players carry on good careers. Robbie Blake, for example, won promotions post-City and played in the Premier League.

Other players though were “got rid of” – to use the vulgarism – by the choice of the club because the club thought that it could do better. Players like Paul Bolland and Scott Kerr were young lads at the Bantams who were released and went on to good careers in the lower leagues but never rose higher than the club. The decision to allow those players – like Magilton – was never questioned.

One could add a whole host of players who the Bantams have disposed of (indeed that most clubs dispose of) who never troubled professional football again. The decision to allow Wayne Benn, Tom Penford, Danny Forrest, Joe Brown, Robert Morgan, Craig Bentham et al has never been questioned because those players have never turned up at a higher level than City.

I should qualify this with the idea that there is an impact in releasing a player on his career. Being released can be the making of a player’s career seeing him buck up his ideas but most often it kills a that career as real life problems and jobs take over.

In the last few years watching events at VP though there has been an increase in the players who were decided to not be able to cut the mustard who not only got their careers back on track but started to do well, better than the Bantams.

Michael Symes represents the best example of this. The Bantams were not impressed (nor was I especially) but turfing up at Accrington Stanley he ended up doing enough to earn a move to AFC Bournemouth where he plays his football a division above the Bantams. Perhaps one could put that down to the startling effect of being released, and perhaps one might conclude that he is only the player he is now because of our releasing him, but it is hard not to wonder why the Bantams were not able to unlock his potential.

Symes was a far more popular player than Gareth Edds who was jeered away from Valley Parade but Edds won promotion (after switching to a holding midfield role) with MK Dons and moved onto another League One club Tranmere Rovers as City idled in League Two. Not only are the players we cannot afford playing at a higher level but the ones we did not think were good enough are now too. Jake Wright’s red card at when Oxford United came to Valley Parade might have been an amusing moment in the season but the fact his current team ended the season a half dozen places over his previous one gave him the last laugh.

Gareth Evans – a part of the so called “worst team ever” – exited Valley Parade in the summer with the club deciding that they could do better. Evans rocked up at Rotherham United who finished higher than the Bantams and are preparing for another promotion push. Evans’ play in the last month of the season suggested that – perhaps – he knew he had something to go to next term but the spin from Valley Parade was most definitely that Evans was out because the club was going to improve.

I would underline that I believe that there are many players who left City and were never heard of again – one of them did the electrics for my boiler – who had the club given them the first team slot rather than someone like Luke Cornwall or Robert Wolleaston then they could have achieved something but when dealing with the likes of Symes, Edds, (perhaps) Evans and a number of others it seems that the club’s judgement on players in the longer term has become questionable. That players who we would like to have we are getting rid of.

The rapid turn around, the one year contract, the often changing manager, the levels of patience in the stands, the comparative quality of facilities here and elsewhere. All these things have contributed to the club which is letting players go who could do a job. We end up with this “worst team ever” but some of the off cuts of it are doing well for themselves.

James Hanson is being linked to Crewe, Omar Daley has gone from the club, Gareth Evans will come back wearing Rotherham United red. I’m not sure if the losing culture needs to be broken so much as a consistent plan to improve the squad is required.

Who’s better

I want Bradford City to be better.

A glib statement of the obvious? To some, probably. But for me it’s a genuine, earnest desire. I mean I really want Bradford City to be better. A lot.

The statement isn’t a direct reaction to the club finishing in it’s lowest league position for 45 years this season, the winning of a mere 15 league games in a season that averaged less than a goal a game, or even the wrangling over rent and where we are to make home. I have, and will always, want Bradford City to be better.

As they walked out at Wembley. As Wetherall belly-slid across the Valley Parade turf. As we greeted a grinning Carbone and a beaming Geoffrey. I looked forward to getting better.

It’s a want that all connected to Bradford City share, from the boardroom to those in the cut-priced seats. The truth is, however, we seem to have forgotten how to get better. And as we have seen in the last ten years if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

In our four seasons and counting in the basement of English football, permanent and interim managers alike have bemoaned a lack of consistency from one week to the next. I find consistency an odd concept to embrace or value. I’m a believer that you’re either on the gain or on the wane.

Whilst sporadic fluctuations in the quality of human performance can be expected, and excused, more important is the general movement towards ‘better’ from the collective or any individual contained within it.

Great sportsmen and women will see a steep and long upward curve in ability and performance. They will then, at some point (and probably unknown to them) hit a peak, followed by a decent, which they will try to make as gentle and elongated as possible.

Tiger Woods will never eclipse the near golfing perfection he achieved at the start of the century. His challenge now is to minimise the rate of his decline and hope his still immense ability sees him to future victories as his powers diminish.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been the master at putting together team after team that have improved as a unit, then dispensing with those individuals that have peaked whilst retaining those with the longer curves of improvement.

We used to have knack for improving players. Remember that young, skinny lad McCall and his ragbag teammates in 1985 that grew individually and became more than the sum of their parts? Dean Richards oozing pure class from his debut to his departure and beyond. Sean McCarthy smashing up Norwich City in the Coca-Cola Cup before going on to score at Old Trafford for Oldham?

What about the lazy lad Blake we signed from Darlington? Wayne Jacobs seeing off an almost annual replacement left-back? Lee Mills? Jamie Lawrence? You’ll no doubt have your own favourite, dear reader, but what we saw were players getting better and our club benefitting from it greatly.

Bradford City players don’t seem to get better anymore. Last August the squad were pre-season promotion favourites, now, despite Jacko’s “everything must go” approach to the retained list, City would be forgiven for thinking the new telephone lines aren’t working properly . We witnessed the incredibly hard-working Gareth Evans seemingly give up on his City career with two months of the season left, and last week even the ever-positive Michael Flynn conceding that Bradford City is “a negative place to be“.

It’s telling that the last four Player of the Year recipients were all enjoying their first full season within the professional game, and as such, we cannot apply any metric of improvement:

  • 2008: Joe Colbeck. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and direct play. 16 disappointing months after his award he moved to Oldham, and then Hereford.
  • 2009: Luke O’Brien. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and direct play. Last seen sat next to Leon Osbourne on the substitutes bench as City were dismantled by Crewe.
  • 2010: James Hanson. Burst on the scene, all strength and no shortage of finishing ability. A second term disjointed by injury and questionable priorities.
  • 2011: David Syers. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and an eye for goal.

Time will tell if Syers can buck the trend, but the preceding three represented our most exciting and talented young prospects and all have failed to improve after their first season.

Jackson has signed the exciting prospect Ross Hannah, and the enthusiasm leaping from his twitter feed should hopefully see his first season in professional football be filed alongside that of Hanson, Syers and Steve Williams rather than that of Scott Neilson. But, in many ways, getting a good season out of Hannah isn’t the most pressing issue or biggest challenge for the next permanent manager of Bradford City.

Whether the board reluctantly appoint Jackson, or, as rumoured, continue to wait for John Coleman and subsequently expect him to repeat a decade’s growth and endeavour at Accrington in a 12 to 15 month period, the major challenge will be to get individual and collective development out of more established and experienced players. Creating a culture of improvement which is both inspiring and contagious within a dressing room.

There’s seems little point in throwing more of the precious wage budget at talents like Paul McLaren, Tommy Doherty, Michael Boulding, Graeme Lee et al when we continually fail to get the best from them, and then discard them without examining why. League Two has never been about having the best players, it’s about getting more from your players.

Off the field there is a lot of work to do, but lots of opportunities to get better. For all the criticism and scepticism aimed at the board recently, it’s worth remembering that they too want things to be better.
David Baldwin’s announcement about the new training facilities deal with Woodhouse Grove is incredibly welcomed. Negotiations with our landlords continue with the hope that a deal can be worked out that’s better for Bradford City.

We, as fans, can help make things better. Rival managers and players talk often of how the impatience of our large crowds can play into their hands. It seems odd that the greatest strength of our opponents is something we control. Let’s make that better.

Where Bradford City will be in 12 months time, in terms of both league position and physical location, is pure speculation at the time of writing. My only hope is that we all feel that we’re moving closer to where we want to be, and, as much as possible, enjoying the process of getting there.

As the rebuilding begins, let’s not immediately concern ourselves with being the best. Let’s focus on getting better.

In praise of Bradford City 1998/99

This article first appeared in the excellent football website The Two Unfortunates in February 2011.

The Crumbling Terrace: Pre-amble One
Towards the end of the 2008/9 season

There we are, on the crumbling terrace of Morecambe’s old Christie Park ground,, watching Bradford City and wondering how it all came to this.

It turns out in the game that City will be robbed a winning goal when Peter Thorne bundles in from close range and that a line’s flag twitch – the doubt going to Morecombe’s on loan Rene Howe – will bring defeat and more so bring to an end Stuart McCall’s expensively assembled side’s promotion push. Those things are for the future though because the more pressing problem is that the police are taping up a barrier in front of us telling us that we can’t lean on it because “a bit or pressure and it will be over.”

How did it come to this? Why did it come to this?

The Man Who Would Not Walk Again Takes Flight: Pre-amble Two
Late 1998

Ashley Ward has scored for Barnsley – recently of the Premier League – and they are going to sneak a 1-0 win at Valley Parade despite having only ten men but something in the Bantams psyche seems to struggle. Let us not kid ourselves, we have watched Bradford City team edged out of games, losing 1-0 and being a dash unlucky about it, for decades now.

There is something in Paul Jewell’s side which seems to denounce that idea. Jewell is a rookie, younger than his captain McCall at 32, but he seems to have built a team which has the character and desire that was sadly lacking from the man as a player.

Two goals were scored in injury time, both by Gordon Watson a player who 18 months early had almost lost his leg after a tackle described as “The worst I have ever seen in football” by Chris Waddle. This is his comeback game.

Watson had been taken from the pitch to hospital where he had almost lost his leg to a tackled six minutes into a local derby with Huddersfield Town. Kevin Grey’s “tackle” came when City were already one down and while an equaliser was scored the whole game was overshadowed by an horrific injury. Then manager Chris Kamara had burst onto the field in anger, his face turning sickly on seeing the wound. Everything was overshadowed.

Now he was back and in five minutes Gordon Watson scored two goals and turned a blank return into two points. Moreover though he maintained the belief that seemed to have dripped into the club under Paul Jewell. The manager from nowhere brought a belief from somewhere, and it had changed the club.

Two goals in five minutes. It seemed fated, everything seemed fated.

The Promise

May 1999

On the 9th of May at around 2:17 on a bright May afternoon Bradford City were promoted to the Premier Division of English football as runners up to Sunderland following a season which had threatened nothing at all.

The opening day – a defeat to Stockport – saw returning club legend Stuart McCall injured and was followed by two points in six games and suddenly it seemed that the team that cost a staggering £3.5m to build and included City’s first two £1m plus signings in Issiah Rankin and Lee Mills was going to achieve very little.

Hope came after a 2-2 draw with Sheffield United where the Bantams looked more than capable and belief came from that, or so it seemed, and that belief was cemented by the return of skipper McCall and a gradual climb up the table that included Barnsley, 2-1, and Gordon Watson.

Watson’s story seemed to typify the playing squad who had all come back from some kind of injury or – in the case of McCall – exile. A key figure in the club’s failed push for promotion in 1988 McCall always had “unfinished business” with City and so as he anchored the side using the wealth of experience that comes from an FA Cup final, World Cup goals, multiple titles with Rangers he made good on that promise.

When City were promoted – a 3-2 win at Wolves on the final day of the season securing it – it was very much McCall’s promise manifest. Certainly a season of performances represents something precious to any football supporter. We know, as supporters, that players are more mercenary than we would like to admit and when a player seems to match us for how much he cares we cherish that player.

And that group of players, in this case. Players who seemed invested in the outcome of the season which offered a deliverance for many. Watson from injury and the ghost that haunted him, McCall from the previous failure.

Peter Beargie had arrived a summer before under allegations – and later convictions – to do with a sexual assault while he was at Manchester City. Beagrie faced prison when he arrived in his first, ineffectual, season but the change of manager from Kamara to Jewell seemed to have focused the mind. Everything Beagrie did seemed to have a point to it, every cross made to perfection, hanging impressively for Lee Mills to arrive onto. At the end of the season three quarters of the club’s goals came from Beagrie, Mills or fellow striker Robbie Blake.

If Beagrie had faced prison then fellow winger Jamie Lawrence had been there. A convicted bank robber Lawrence had been something of a novelty on his release signing for Sunderland and then Leicester City but that novelty had faded and Lawrence wound his way to Valley Parade which seemed to be another step in a career of wandering but once again Jewell seemed to focus the mind, tell the player that his achievements were limited only by his belief.

This became Jewell’s hallmark with Bradford City and was a trick he repeated at Wigan Athletic. His ability to take a player and make him perform seemed to border on the magical and no more was this true than with idling forward Robbie Blake.

Blake was a bit part player transfer listed for being pulled over for drink driving in the week Diana died and incapable of nailing down a place in the starting line up despite the odd impressive performance. He was a slow right winger, able to show tricks but without the traction to stick in the team, until Jewell’s intervention.

Jewell got under Blake’s skin – famously they used to have bust ups with Jewell offering him nowhere to hide and dubbing him a “sulker” – but whatever the means the ends were impressive. Direct, skilful and cunning Blake formed a partnership with Lee Mills which tormented the division.

Blake’s anticipation allowed him to feed off the £1m costing target man Mills and grow into the type of player the manager himself felt he could have been had he had the application. The man who used to lay out Kenny Dalglish’s shorts Jewell’s playing career was a cautionary tale used to motivate the strikers he managed.

As a signing Mills – sadly – turned out to be a one season wonder after problems with drink cost him his place in the Premier League but for that season he represented some canny business for the club. Chris Kamara had been keen on Mills while the player was at Port Vale but it took Jewell’s determination to put in the £1m bid and secure the player. Belief, it seemed, was the watchword.

Another player who suggested much for some season and was anointed by Jewell’s belief was midfielder Gareth Whalley. Whalley, a £650,000 recruit from Crewe, became a midfield partner for McCall adding a sly pass to the captains driving heart. Darren Moore seemed too big, too cumbersome, to be a Premiership player but Jewell made him the defensive rock partnering him with one of Jon Dreyer, Andy O’Brien or Ashley Westwood on the basis of the opposition.

Gary Walsh, veteran of the Manchester United bench was as sure as one could imagine between the posts. He had a calm confidence about him that seemed to exude throughout the team. Walsh had left Old Trafford after collecting a lot of medals while hardly getting his kit dirty and ended up at Middlesbrough where he had been a small part of Bryan Robson’s Teeside revolution but in Bradford City he seemed to have found a place where his achievements would be recognised on the merit they had.

As a keeper Walsh was something to behold. Possessed of an unerring sense of positioning Walsh was the type of goalkeeper who seemed to suck the ball into his hands. Not for Walsh the need for acrobatics but rather a calm sense of seeming to play the next few second of an attack out and conclude where the best place to be to gather the ball at the end of it would be. A belief, if you will.

Late on in the season £1m brought Dean Windass to the club – a perfect match or player and team – but Windass’s contribution was minor although not insignificant. One bank holiday Monday at Bury with the team running on empty it was Windass who – like Watson before him – pulled three points out of seemingly nowhere.

Not that every signing Jewell made worked well. Full back Lee Todd was signed to replace club man Wayne Jacobs but Jacobs – as he would do all his career – saw off the challenge to win back his place. More obvious though was the £1.3m spent on Arsenal’s young prospect Issiah Rankin – a player of whom Jim Jefferies remarked “could not finish a bowl of cornflakes”- which proved profligate in excess.

A player with lighting quickness Rankin struggled for goals and after a fruitless pair of games at Huddersfield and at home to QPR was dropped for Blake to shift from the right hand side and Lawrence to join the team. Rankin never looked forward again.

Belief, it seemed, was lacking.

And It Was About Belief, Of Course
May 1999 and onwards

All these things eclipsed: The players, the manager, the belief; and they eclipsed in a game at Wolves that lead to two seasons in the Premiership, Benito Carbone, Stan Collymore and the story which is too often told. The first season in the top flight continued much of what had been good about promotion but the sense of hunger that Jewell used to feed the belief had gone. Within a month Watson was gone, Blake and Moore on the transfer list, and slowly things fell apart.

Those years continue to define the club – the financial fallout ruins the club to this day, we are the footnote in discussions about a Paul Scholes wonder goal – but seldom is the making of those days, how we got to a point where we could throw it all away, considered.

So a crumbling terrace in Morecambe and the failing of a promotion campaign and everything seems so far away now. Much further than the positions in the league and the comparison of Christie Park to Old Trafford or Anfield.

The reality of football is that most Autumns turn into hard Winters and joyless Springs. Most players want to achieve but fall short, most teams lack collective belief. This is not the game’s tragedy, the tragedy are those years having seen such a thing, and the wanderer waiting for its return.

What to want from the time remaining as City lose to Chesterfield

The Team

Lenny Pidgley | Lewis Hunt, Steve Williams, Luke Oliver, Luke O'Brien | Gareth Evans, Tom Ademeyi, Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn, Kevin Ellison | Scott Dobie | Jake Speight, James Hanson, Leon Osborne

Two thought tracks banded around in my mind as I was walking away from Valley Parade. One was a feeling of optimism, that if we show a similar second half spirit in the full 90 minutes against supposedly lesser opposition, Stockport, on Saturday then surely we’ll come away with a positive result. The other, more concerning thought, was whether Peter Taylor would be willing to set the team up the way he did in the second half (442), from the beginning, in the hope that playing positive football may in turn breathe some confidence and belief into players clearly lacking in these areas.

After having watched the Port Vale game on Friday night on the box it was obvious that City’s ambition and effectiveness was lacking with the 451/433 system that employed a front line of Dobie, Evans and Ellison. On that occasion, when 2-0 down, City switched to a 442 that included a lively Jake Speight and immediately seemed more likely to create goal scoring opportunities.

You would think then that after having a positive effect that this would be something that Taylor would employ from the start against table-toppers Chesterfield, in a bid to go toe-to-toe with League Two’s pace setters? Not the case. Back to 451. Speight back on the bench. The only change being the added steel of Lee Bullock for Leon Osbourne, which allowed Michael Flynn to push up in a midfield three.

In the first half City seemed to struggle with themselves, again looking confused as to what they were asked to do by their manager. At times they would hoof the ball aimlessly at an inter-changable front three in the hope that the one furthest up the field could hold up the ball and release either of the other front men. This proved ineffective and posed little threat to the Spireites, who were more than happy to play on the counter attack and force City to make the play.

On fifteen minutes, after another City punt forward had been collected by the opposition, it gave the away side the opportunity to break away down the left flank. A precise cross-field ball by Chesterfield midfielder Kieran Djilali, left Luke O’Brien indecisive as to whether to slide in or close down the on rushing winger Deane Smalley. O’Brien did neither leaving Smalley clear to smash the ball into the roof of Pidgley’s net.

Indecision seemed to be the theme of the half as City had the majority of possession but were often in two minds as to whether they should pass their way forward (a ploy mainly backed by the home support), or opt to by-pass the midfield in the hope that the forwards would hold up the ball for knock downs for the midfield. In the end neither tactic proved useful, leaving the half to meander to a close that was met with a chorus of boos from some City ‘fans’.

After a half time break of penny dropping, Speight was introduced and the formation switched to 442, one that oddly employed Speight up front with Flynn and Ellison and Evans on the flanks.

Speight looked a handful from the word go and caused the Chesterfield defenders problems that they had not had to face in the first 45 minutes. A number of Bantams’ chances were pushed upon the away team’s goal: Evans worked the keeper from the edge of the box; Speight turned on a few shots that went narrowly over the bar and when City introduced the Hanson in the 63rd minute, the partnership he made of providing knock downs for Speight to latch onto seemed to have City pushing for what would be a deserved equaliser.

Whilst City were looking brighter it was hard not to think that Chesterfield were playing comfortably in 3rd gear and if it were required then they could have raised their level a notch to cope with what City could throw at them. This being best exemplified by some neat play in the midfield followed by an accurate, powerful cross that dissected Pidgley and his defenders and only needed a tap in to put the game beyond doubt. A similar move resulted for City later on only to see the left foot cross of Flynn slice out into the Kop end.

City persisted to the final whistle and were vocally backed by all sides of the ground in search of an elusive equaliser. The best chance again fell to Speight, who wriggled his way past two defenders, feeding off a Hanson knock down, only to shoot on the turn and slice his effort over the top of the bar. It looked as if a little more match sharpness may have seen one or two or Speight’s efforts work the keeper more often.

His partnership with Hanson looked good, and for me personally, has been one I have been vying for all season as big man – little man combinations have proven successful in the past – cf. (Mills and Blake: 1998-2000).

For this reason I hope that Taylor takes note of the positives and attacking ambition shown in the second half and on Saturday, in a seemingly must-win game, I hope he opts not to cut off his own nose, but show the guts to play some positive football. It’s what the fans want, it seems to be what the players want and now we’ll see what Taylor wants from the remaining few months in charge of Bradford City.

Vintage Claret (and Amber)

After sitting inside Ewood Park for 30 minutes before kick off and witnessing the singing efforts of Blackburn Rovers’ supporters getting louder and louder, the temporary stunned silence former Bradford City striker Robbie Blake has just triggered left me wondering where to look.

Blake had just received the ball out wide, darted inside and unleashed a stunning curling shot which flew into the corner past former England keeper Paul Robinson to put Burnley 1-0 up over Blackburn Rovers in an East Lancashire derby they would go on to lose. I’m sat in the perfect position to appreciate the distance of Blake’s effort (I’m at Ewood Park thanks to a freebie, not a change of alligence) and as all around me Blackburn supporters are on their feet yelling abuse towards ecstatic Burnley fans at the other end of the field, I’m relieved no one has noticed my smile.

Robbie Blake, is it really eight years since you departed City? What are you doing here, scoring brilliant goals in the Premier League? When he departed Valley Parade, the move across the Lancashire border to Burnley felt like a sideways step, or even a move downwards.

Robbie Blake, the guy signed by Chris Kamara and then almost instantly placed on the transfer list for off-the-field misbehaviour. I remember meeting you a few weeks later when you and Craig Midgely attended a community programme which was also my poorly-paid summer job.  You joked with my then-boss about how Craig had to drive you about because you were banned, but I was too awestruck at meeting two City players to cringe or laugh along.

Robbie Blake, the guy who Chris Kamara belatedly put in the team mid-way through the next campaign as an early season promotion bid started to hit the buffers. Too bad it was too late to save him from the chop. Chris, what were you thinking persisting with John McGinlay? All he did was complain to the referee and stand by the opposition keeper as he tried to kick the ball forwards. Robbie came in and scored against Huddersfield, but after defeat to Man City the week after Kamara was gone. I used to appreciate Paul Jewell employing Robbie and Edinho together subsequently, shame you couldn’t sustain your form. Sent off on the last day of the season against Portsmouth, by the time you could play the following season there were two £1 million strikers in front of you.

Robbie Blake, part of the dream double act with Lee Mills. After winning your place, initially on the right wing, you helped the team recover from a bad start to join the promotion-chasing pack. We all liked Issy Rankin for a bit, but he kept missing chances even that fat guy who used to start anti-Peter Jackson chants on the Kop behind me could have scored. Then Jagger dropped him and Mills and Blake was formed. Each week it was Mills and Blake, or Blake and Mills, banging in the goals. That wonder strike you scored against Crewe, that double against Sheff United on the tele. You got the winning goal against Wolves on the final day after earlier setting up Mills’ effort which put us 2-1 up. As the person sat next to me at Molineux remarked near the end, it was the only two things you did that day. Still it got us promoted to the Premier League, so not bad going.

Robbie Blake, the star in waiting for our Premier League who threw it away. What were you doing handing in a transfer request on the eve of the season, Robbie? We were going to shock those pundits who said we’d be relegated by Christmas, and at the end of the season, after finishing comfortably mid-table, you’d be leading England at Euro 2000 as the next Peter Beardsley.  Two Premier League goals was all you managed that season. Mind you, Millsy wasn’t the most reliable guy when the chips were down either. Thank heavens for Dean Windass.

Robbie Blake, back to form in Division One. The second Premier League season was marginally better for you but not very good for City. Back in the Football League, you were the main man after Benito Carbone was loaned here and there, but the financial catastrophe was around the corner and £1 million from Burnley looked good business from the Bantams point of view. We quietly chuckled when you didn’t manage a goal for Burnley during the rest of that campaign. It was less amusing when you returned to Valley Parade and netted the following season, though.

Robbie Blake, adding to the heartbreak. In hindsight we were always doomed to relegation in 2003-04 season, but you didn’t need to add to our woes with three goals in the two games against us. I’ve rarely felt as heartbroken as the day you, your mate Brian Jensen and Ian Moore poured untold misery on us in the flukiest 2-1 away win you’ll ever see, with the winner from Moore deep in injury time. That was the day we were down and a part of this club died, which we’ve not yet been able to resuscitate. How did you sleep that night, Robbie?

Robbie Blake, back in the Premier League. I remember reading comments from then-Birmingham boss Steve Bruce when he signed you, which suggested he wasn’t convinced you’d prove to be a Premier League player. Two league starts and nine sub appearances later you were heading back to the Football League. I guess you never were Premier league class really, eh Robbie?

Robbie Blake, in a Leeds shirt. Less said the better I suppose, though you were part of the team which got relegated to League One. Thanks for giving us a chuckle.

Robbie Blake, back at Valley Parade summer after summer. Having re-joined Burnley we’ve seen you on the Valley Parade turf three pre-seasons in a row. Like with your previous returns for league games, there’s been a mixed response from City fans with some choosing to boo and others applaud. Me I’ve always been the applauding type, remembering that for how much you messed us about over that contract dispute and how disappointing it was you failed to find your best form in the top flight, you remain one of the most entertaining players to have worn claret and amber that I’ve had the pleasure to watch. I will always remember you for your mazy runs, your powerful drives at goal and your clever tricks and passes.

Thanks for allowing me to admire your brilliance again at Ewood Park today, even though I had to pretend to tell you to ‘eff off.

No football for us but plenty for others

On a day when the team who finished in the top 10 of Division 4 with the worst goal difference gets promoted to Division 3, we, the Bradford City supporters can only think of what might have been if our form had been better in March. Well done to Gillingham for beating Shrewsbury Town 1-0 in the play-off final. We can only think back to 1996 and our 2-0 play-off final victory over Notts County.

At this time of the year when we have no Bradford City matches to go and watch, what else is going on in the world of football? Well, I’m sure that many of you who have taken the effort to read this article will know that our club has offered professional contracts to Rory Carson, Luke Dean and Lewis Horne. I must confess that I know very little about this trio of players but it will be interesting to see if any of them make their first team debut during the 2009/2010 season. Most supporters love to see a home-grown player forcing their way into the first team so lets hope that at least one of these three players can follow the like of Dean Richards, Graeme Tomlinson, Andy O’Brien, Joe Colbeck and Luke O’Brien.

An article has already featured on this website about Colin Todd taking charge at Darlington but now a player who could have been securing Hull City’s Division 1 status tomorrow is now been linked with a move to Darlington. Dean Windass could be a player-coach at Darlington next season. We are all aware of Dean’s love of playing football and following his loan spell at Oldham Athletic earlier on this season and now been unable to play for his beloved Hull City, Windass is looking to continue his playing career else where.

Whilst Windass has the relevant qualifications to manage in Divisions 2, 3 and 4, there will be two unqualified managers tomorrow trying to save their teams from relegation into Division 2. Much has been written about Alan Shearer taking over at Newcastle but why was he allowed to when he doesn’t have the relevant qualifications? I also believe that Gareth Southgate will have completed his relevant coaching qualifications but not until after the season has finished. Why do the supposed people who govern our game allow clubs to break the rules?

Speaking of breaking the rules, I’m sure that there are plenty of Sheffield United supporters who haven’t forgot about Carlos Tevez and West Ham. If Sheffield United can overcome Burnley with former Bantam Robbie Blake, on Bank Holiday Monday, I bet that the first fixtures they will be looking out for are the two against West Ham. But don’t count against our neighbours from over the Pennines. Whatever your thoughts are on Burnley, you have to say that for a town with a population of about 73,000, they attract fantastic support. It’s hard to imagine that this famous Lancashire club nearly slipped out of the football league 22 years ago. But Burnley beat Leyton Orient 2-1 and Lincoln City slipped into non-league football.

So as we, the Bradford City supporters can only watch the various play-off finals, find out if Hull City can preserve their top-flight status at the expense of two North-east clubs and see if David Moyes’s Everton can overcome the cash-rich Chelsea in the FA cup final, other supporters have much to look forward to over the next week or so.

A Question of Belief

In many primitive cultures any type of bad fortune, from earthquake to stomach ache, was explained by saying that “the gods are angry”. This was due to a lack of knowledge and understanding that, in many cases, science and reason now fills.

But the past doesn’t quite go away. The language of primitive belief is still with us in many aspects of popular culture and none more so than football.

The news that Stuart McCall is staying at Bradford City will be welcomed by many (not all) as a victory for reasoned thought over primitive belief.

When Stuart arrived in the manager’s office he brought with him the level of adoration often afforded to a deity based on his reputation as a player and his well-known love for the club. Such was the level of expectation from so many that the status of “messiah” was, unfairly, thrust upon him and we all know the pressures that kind of responsibility can bring.

Hopes started off high and remained so for most of the two seasons he has been in the job. Support both, vocal and financial, was there so all he had to do was “achieve”.

The signs and omens were so good for so long but then came the crisis of confidence that saw the dreams of so many destroyed. Some turned against him as the team and therefore, by association, the manager “failed.” The automatic promotion dream was replaced by the self-imposed target of the play-offs .But that too faded quickly as the promise of the Aldershot victory was followed by a series of results that was devastatingly unpredictable and, more worrying to the City faithful, unexplainable.

The adoration that Stuart carried with him seemed all but lost only to be rekindled in the final home game when the realism of “nothing to play for” became a show of belief in the manager that looked set to leave us.

Whatever the reasons, Stuart changed his mind and remains with us. Science and logic may provide some explanation but, for many fans, Saturday’s show on and off the field appeased their deity. With this came celebration and joy but there was a much greater realisation – the gods were not angry, they were human!

Whatever his status among fans now, Stuart the manager (and by the way how many clubs sing their manager’s praises using his first name?) is now with us in the real world, a world that deals with the contracts and budgets of a 4th. Division football club. Reality has definitely bitten and the expectations for the future should now also be real. Yes we will still be among the favourites for promotion next season but whatever is achieved it will be in a climate of constraint that exists in so many clubs.

Many fans will still choose to live in the world of unconditional belief but reality is no bad thing. I for one still have “idols” but I prefer my idols to be on the pitch.
The Gemini-like twin partnership of Lee Mills and Robbie Blake is gone and the like of it not seen since at V.P.. The former faded fast from view, the latter forced to spend time in the “Underworld” – Ellandworld? – before re-emergence in claret if not amber. Add to these the legendary Bobby Campbell, the iconic Dean Windass, even the totemic Barry Conlon, they are the ones that have been out there on the pitch expected to perform the miracles we have all craved.

Stuart as a player will always be revered. But Stuart the manager has chosen to stay and live among us in the world of men (and women).For that I am thankful. He may have arrived in a blaze of glory but I feared that his loss and the inevitable period of chaos that would follow would have been epitomised in his departure in a big yellow taxi. (Forgive the mixed metaphor.)

The legend on the pitch remains but surely we all now see the man in the manager – not a superior being. I am glad we still have Stuart McCall as manager, even if he has now lost his divinity!

Topp exits Valley Parade

Willy Topp was not the player we thought he was when he signed. Being fair he was never going to be.

Aside from the obvious difference when he arrived he changed his name from Billy because, well, because he though Willy Topp and Dick Head were a little too close together the Chilean who promised goals delivered none.

Topp was to be the new Robbie Blake. He was to be the tricks and the flicks that lifted Stuart McCall’s first generation of Bradford City out of League Two. One good turn against Shrewsbury Town deserved another but did not get one and an impressive goal in the reserves apart Topp hardly even registered on the Bantams radar.

Nevertheless he figured in the minds of many. Topp should be given a chance – we heard and in some cases said – but reports of injuries, returns to his homeland for rumoured curious reasons and poor training seemed to add up to one thing. When put in the squad at Bradford City Topp could not match the efforts of others.

In many ways Topp should be where Barry Conlon is now – Topp started the season as City’s cult hero and Conlon as a boo figure – but the application of the Irishman on the field puts his rival into the shade.

Stuart McCall watches Barry and Billy, Leon Osbourne and The Bouldings and Peter Thorne every day in training and the Chilean has started to figure bottom of that list. Without wanting to suggest a blind faith in McCall’s judgement one has to assume the Topp offered nothing in excess even of the younger players in the squad like Rory Boulding who figured above the Chile man on the bench on Saturday.

Other suggest that Topp was hamstrung by a manager unwilling to try out a formation that would suit him supposing that a 433 would have benefited Topp allowing him more room to show off his skills and this may be true but at what cost to the rest of the squad? Chris Kamara played a team to fit in Chris Waddle but faced relegation until the star man left and he was replaced with more down to Earth football. All of which assumes that if unleashed with a formation change Topp would have been worth the effort. His impressive flashes numbered fewer than those that Kyle Nix produced last season.

On Topp’s exit City are second in League Two and nothing has suggested that that extra place could be earned by bending the team to fit in the Chilean. On the contrary the moral of City’s season to date has been the triumph of effort, believe and the rewards of doing the right things most often rather than hopefully employed low percentage solutions.

In a way that is the lesson that Topp gives us as he leaves. While eyes look at Billy with hope and optimism Michael Boulding – who’s arrival at City was met in places with a grimace rather than the smile of Toppy – was scoring goals and running himself into the ground and has a half dozen goals to his name.

It is impossible to form an argument that Topp should feature above Michael Boulding, Conlon or Thorne and in the end – distressingly – all the man from South America offers is tricks and mirrors while three strikers deliver goals.

Topp may go on to great things – few will wish him bad on the way out – but City have learnt another lesson on going for solid, consistent ability rather than unknown and perhaps talent.

Of course there will persist in the mind the Topp – when “given a chance” – would have been as sublime as Benito Carbone or Peter Beagrie but the reality is the player sitting on his hands while others strive and succeed.

Willy Topp joins a list with Jorge Cadete and Bruno Rodriguez. The players who we thought were going to be.

Stuart looks outwards for answers but may have his Beagrie and Blake within

The PA announcer predictably played Bob Marley to welcome him to Valley Parade and sporadically among the crowd were Jamaican flags. For half a season we’d been entertained by a speedy and exciting winger from the same country and now we were welcoming someone who’d been described as twice as fast and regularly kept his new teammate out of the national side. There was a sense of anticipation in the air that had been lacking when welcoming new signings in recent years.

His name was Omar Daley and the day was Saturday 27 January, with Yeovil Town the visitors at Valley Parade. Colin Todd had already introduced us to three Jamaican internationals who City fans had taken to their hearts, and now here was number four ready to go.

Damion Stewart had only enjoyed a brief stay, quickly earning a move to the Championship, while the Main Stand at Valley Parade that day included one particularly interested onlooker who would sign Jermaine Johnson a few days later. Bob Marley finished singing ‘no woman and no cry’ and Daley was cheered onto the pitch by his new fans. With City also on a three match unbeaten run, expectation hung in the air.

As is typical of City the occasion fell flat. Five minutes into the game Johnson dallied on the ball too long and Yeovil broke forward to score. A second goal followed soon after the interval as the original Jamaican, Donovan Ricketts, took up a woeful position to collect a low cross. Any hopes of a fightback were extinguished after Eddie Johnson had a goal incorrectly ruled out for offside, a decision that so enraged Jermaine he was sent off for arguing with the officials. Daley had a quiet debut and was barely noticed.

18 months on and Ricketts’ contract expiry means only Daley remains at City of the Jamaican quartet, though his popularity has dipped lower than his country’s FIFA world ranking. Three games into his City career the manager who brought him back to England was sacked and Daley struggled to find form during a failed relegation battle. Last season bigger things were expected of him but form remained patchy. A good run of form before and after Christmas was rewarded with a new contract, but performances dipped again and he ended the season widely unpopular among supporters.

There’s no question Daley has some ability in his locker, as observed during some of his better games last season when he was a match winner. Yet for every performance like Lincoln, Accrington and Bury away there was Rochdale, Dagenham and Barnet at home.

Confidence appeared to be fragile and the laid back manner interpreted as lazy, with bucket loads of abuse flying in his direction from the stands clearly counter-productive. The line up and result will remain unclear for the opening game against Notts County, but what can be predicted is some fans will be ready to heap more abuse on anything City’s number 7 does wrong.

This sort of reaction is one Billy Topp is yet to be suffer. If Daley’s arrival was a big occasion, the full debut of the first player in six years to cost City a transfer fee was an evening soaked with excitement. Almost a year to the day of Daley’s first game, Topp took six minutes of his first start, against Shrewsbury, to show City fans what they had been waiting for since news a young Chilean was on trial broke the previous September.

Expertly controlling a long ball played towards him, Topp produced a great touch to twist past the defender and charge into the area before laying the ball into the path of the advancing Kyle Nix to score the opening goal of the night. Lack of fitness, which would become a common theme, saw him taken off shortly after half time but the potential was there.

Potential which has also yet to be realised. That night remains the high water mark of Topp’s time in England as performances failed to sparkle. There were some flashes of brilliance, but too often Topp looked a player still finding his feet and uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. His continuing battle with a muscular problem clearly didn’t help and his season was cut early so he could have an operation. Such problems haven’t stopped fans already writing him off and this week the club had to deny rumours Topp wouldn’t be coming back from a break in Chile.

In what is shaping up to be a big season for City, the contributions of Daley and Topp may prove more significant than anticipated. As the wait for new signings continues and supporters debate what next season’s first choice eleven should be, the names of City’s two overseas players rarely seem to appear. With Stuart known to be after another striker and new signing Chris Brandon classed as a midfielder/winger, this may initially be the case; but past history suggests neither will necessarily be consigned to a life in the reserves either.

As he builds a team he believes to be capable of delivering promotion Stuart will no doubt take a bit of everything he has learned during his playing and coaching career, and the events at Valley Parade 10 years ago will almost certainly feature in that thinking when City, of course, won promotion to the Premiership with a well-organised and talented bunch of players.

Two of its biggest stars were Peter Beagrie and Robbie Blake, but few supporters would have believed that would be the case the summer before. Both were considered enigmas – talented but inconsistent. Their popularity was generaly low going into that memorable season; with most supporters fed up with Beagrie in particular after a disappointing first season. His popularity was a bit like Daley now.

When we supporters fondly look back on events 10 years ago the memories are not that success came because manager Paul Jewell was given millions to spend in the transfer market, but the way he moulded his team and got the best out of so many. This particularly included Beagrie and Blake and, as Stuart scratches his head about how to bring out the best of Daley and Topp right now, a similar approach of good coaching, extra training and confidence building may just do the trick.

Playing with better players should also help as it did for Beagrie and Blake a decade ago. We know Daley can beat players and give full backs a headache, and by his own admission he prefers playing in front of a full back who’ll get forward. A strong midfield pair in the shape of a Gareth Whalley and Stuart will also help to get Daley the ball in the areas he can really hurt the opposition.

Stuart has already made the Topp-Blake comparison and the promising glimpses of Topp we’ve seen suggest he could be the tricky forward running at defenders and popping up all over the final third that Blake was that year. A pre-season of building up a good partnership with Peter Thorne could even see a replication of the Mills-Blake combination.

Improved fitness for both will also play a part and, as we impatiently wait for new signings and look forward to their big debuts, it’s hoped they will not just be better than those departed, but can bring out the best in those who can do better.

Recent Posts