City walked in a line and beat Rochdale 3-1 at Spotland

The Team

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

Heart and Soul

When Steve Davies arrived at Bradford City the role he would play in the squad seemed straight forward.

As a target man of sorts he would replace James Hanson when James Hanson could not play. City’s number nine is not without the odd strain for sure but as a man who spends Saturday afternoons being bashed around thirty yards of pitch Hanson – we recall – needs a rest.

In fact it was this need that prompted City to bring in Jon Stead on loan twice. The second time Stead wrote his name in the to the club’s folklore but in my estimation did too little else.

Stead could be the smart, give-nothing-up, resourceful target man that City wanted but was not too often – or rather was not when he did not want to be too often – and so he is in the middle of League Two at the Notts County inner circle.

No Love Lost

Alan Sheehan’s rather curious parting shot at City – that he could not get into manager Phil Parkinson’s inner circle of players – was a somewhat heartening thing for a team that seemed to be losing the very core that the left back who rejoined Notts County could not crack. Parkinson’s response – that Sheehan never cracked the core because he never was better than other players in the positions he played in – tells half a story.

Sheehan has shown some ability at his time at the club and one excuses him the drop in form after his mentor/dad died but he was never a player who led by example, and never one who put his heart and soul into a game. A professional for sure and one of the rank and file but no one ever left a match saying that Sheehan had run his legs down the knees, or committed himself to tackles, or any of the other cliché we use when talking about full-hearted players.

The Irishman’s finest moment in City colours had come twelve months ago at Rochdale where his ability with a dead ball from central defence turned the game which is much less than Jon Stead’s performance at Chelsea but if if Stead or Sheehan wanted an illustration of why a player with talent are outside the core of squads at so many clubs he need look no further than Steve Davies’ in the 59th minute at Rochdale chasing down James McNulty until the home defender slipped and Davies squared a ball that after ineffectual swipes all round was in the goal with Devante Cole running away happy.

New Dawn Fades

The enduring problem for Bradford City since the change in the team of 2013 has been a lack of character. The enduring problem for Bradford City fans has been being told this after every defeat only – following victory or a decent draw – to be alerted to the character returning.

I’m guilty of this myself of course and can only apologise in the hope that that buys some credibility back. There is a tendency to use the word “consistent” in the place of “excellent” in football – a team could be “consistent” by losing 10-0 every week – and the character of a team which is lacks character is the kind of lose-a-game/win-a-game runs which City go on.

Every win is assumed to the the start of a consistent run of other victories. A kind of endless Disneyland of football in which defeats never occur, until they do and reading the output of #bcafc on Twitter have the character of all the other Joy Division songs, or the lyrics of the one now oft sung.

When we say want character to end inconsistency we say that we want the team to win more and to lose less which is a statement with almost no content of use in it whatsoever.

Atmosphere

At Spotland where Keith Hill tells us – and I am legally not allowed to argue with him – that there were more Bradford City supporters in the ground than there were Rochdale fans City’s character was hardly tested at all. Perhaps it was the feeling of being tourists at home that robbed Rochdale something today. Andy Cannon chopped Tony McMahon in half on the touchline near the visiting supporters after 29 seconds and one might speculate that the noise was enough to keep the home side quiet for the rest of the afternoon.

Whatever caused it aside from a tidy finish by Peter Vincenti after a shot by Callum Camps has been deflected into his path City had little pressure to cope with. That Camps rans so far with the ball unchallenged was the only black mark on another good afternoon for Lee Evans.

Evans scored an opener for City when a McMahon free kick hit the wall and bounced invitingly to him. He floated a cross which Oliver Lancashire looped over his own keeper in the second half just after Cole’s goal to give the scoreline the entirely correct impression that the visitors won the game with something to spare.

Which is not to suggest that the Bantams faithful roared City to victory – although I’m sure I will read that too somewhere this weekend – just that the supporters like the team were surprised by just how little resistance Rochdale offered.

Leaders of Men

So the problem with the leadership shown by Bradford City’s players is not so much answered as fudged but there are things to reflect on for Phil Parkinson. The midfield was strengthened by Tony McMahon on the right hand side coming in to add to the middle two when needed. The balance of a one-wide/one-tight midfield with a central two players one of whom wins the ball and the other who goes box to box rarely fails.

Does Parkinson seen McMahon in his best eleven? One doubts that he does but without someone else to play that role – and with a need to have a more sturdy midfield more often – one can see McMahon continuing to feature. On the other side Kyel Reid returned from City and had a wonderful afternoon of spiriting with the ball at feet and crossing. This is – in theory – what Paul Anderson should have done but seldom wanted to.

Reid talks about playing with a smile on his face – which he does – but players like a player who has an understanding of how temporary careers can be when outside the higher divisions of English football. That Reid will run all day is the character which we have talked about lacking, as is Davies’ pressure which led to a goal, leading us to a conclusion which Sheehan – and perhaps Stead in a different context – missed: That running in a straight line up and down the left wing as often as you becomes the inner circle.

On how the sending off of goalkeepers is a punishment without proportion

Imagine, if you will dear reader, a different scene on Saturday when Bradford City lost to Rochdale when Jordan Pickford was sent off for denying Matt Done a goal or goal scoring opportunity which had almost certainly gone. Imagine Done more central, no defenders, and Pickford taking the man squarely and cleanly.

Imagine that Pickford had unequivocally denied Rochdale a goal or goal scoring opportunity. The Referee would have sent Pickford off with the same haste and City would have faced the same situation of facing a penalty kick and playing a game with ten men.

Even though in this hypothetical situation Pickford would have been guilty of the offence the punishment given would still have been too harsh. The sending off of a goalkeeper for denying a goal or goal scoring opportunity is a disproportionate punishment for the offence and does not offer recompense for the offended against team.

Cold goalkeepers

In no other situation in football are you required to make a substitution in haste. If a player is injured you can withdraw him and bring on a replacement when that replacement is warmed up. You can take as long as you want to do this.

This includes goalkeeping changes which often result in close to minutes injury time rather than goalkeeper sendings off which are completed with such speed that the replacement keeper does not have the time to prepare and he is not in the flow of the game.

If a defender is sent off for denying a goal or goal scoring opportunity then the goalkeeper is warm when the penalty happens, if the goalkeeper is replaced he is cold. Why is the team punished extra by having a cold goalkeeper because of the identity of the sent off player?

And what about the risks of demanding a cold player come straight into action? What about when the cold goalkeeper pulls a muscle diving for the penalty? Is that to be an additional part of the punishment?

In no other situation is a player expected to play cold.

The ten men

Whilst considering the concept of additional punishment the penalty not considered reward enough for a denial of a goal or goal scoring opportunity offence and so the team must play with ten players for a spell of time which is decided by when the offence occurred.

If we put Pickford’s hypothetical offence in the last minute of a game where then the punishment is a penalty and playing a minute or two with ten men. If we put it in the first minute minute of a game then the penalty is faced but the team have to play with ten men for a full 89 minutes. What about a keeper sent off after fifty eight minutes in a final already lost?

It is impossible to say that those three situations represent the fair punishments. To play without a man for almost a full game is clearly a more harsh punishment to be missing a man for injury time.

Of course there is an argument that says that goals earlier in the games are more formative of the match and thus important than goals later in the game and so a player denying a goal or goal scoring should be punished more severely if he does it early in the game than late. Try telling that Asamoah Gyan and his Ghana teammates.

Reducing an opposition team to one fewer men is only sometime a punishment. For City at Wembley against Swansea City Matt Duke’s sending off was neither here nor there – the game was gone – but had the score been been 3-0 to the Bantams then it would have obviously had a different importance and be more of a punishment.

The formation

A football manager’s role on match days is to assess the ebb and flow of games and respond accordingly. When a manager sees a goalkeeper sent off for an incident that results in a penalty kick and he must make a decision on who to remove to bring on a replacement before the penalty is taken.

But he cannot make that decision. He does not have a vital piece of information. He does not know if the game is ebbing or flowing? He does not know what is going to happen from the penalty.

If the game is in the balance – say 0-0 – and he takes off a defensive player he assumes that the penalty will be scored and he will chase the game for an equaliser. If he takes of an attacking player and needs to score he is a man shy in achieving that goal. If the penalty kick is missed then his plans have to be rethought.

Again at no other point in football is punishment so disproportionate. If any other player is sent off the manager is allowed the fullness of time to decide who to remove and how to change his formation in knowledge of the score of the game.

Only in this specific instance does the manager have to make a decision before the game can continue knowing that the next action in the game has a great chance of rendering his decision wrong.

If the game is 0-0, and a player is sent off for a bad tackle in midfield the manager can decide if he will move defensively to try maintain a draw or press on and try win. If a defender is sent off for the denial of a goal or a goal scoring opportunity then the manage is able to make the decision as to a replacement knowing if any resulting penalty has been scored.

Why should the goalkeeper being sent off be given such a special and specifically disproportionate set of punishments which exceed the punishment given to a team when a defender commits the same offence?

What Phil Parkinson should have done against Rochdale

Ten minutes into the game and Matt Done has done what he had done and Jordan Pickford has been sent off. The first thing Phil Parkinson should do is to send Matt Williams to warm up but rather than removing Andy Halliday Parkinson should have given a green shirt to whichever of his players still on the field has even the slightest ability between the sticks.

Jon Stead is tall and agile. Stead gets the gloves and goes in goal while Williams warms up.

Rochdale take the penalty. Penalties are most often scored regardless of the quality of the goalkeeper.

85% of penalties which are on target go into the goal. 94% of the time keepers move one way or the other and when that way is the right way they have a 40% chance of saving the ball hit in that direction but when the ball is hit centrally, and the keeper stays in the middle, they have a 60% chance of saving the ball.

The best strategy for penalties, in other words, is to stand in the middle of the goal and hope the player misses the target. Which is what Parkinson should have told Stead (or whomever) to do. Probably he would not have saved it but probably all penalties go into the goal.

And so after the penalty is scored Parkinson would know that Halliday was the man to remove because there was a game to chance and remove him for a now warmed up Williams with Stead returning up front.

Had the penalty been missed or Stead have saved it Parkinson could remove a different player, probably Stead, and tried to grind out a victory with the eight players in defensive position as he has previously.

But what is to be done, part one

In the case of denial of a goal or a goal scoring opportunity Referees have to understand that they are handing out the single biggest on field punishment in the game – the A-Bomb of football – and perhaps consider if a player running away from goal with covering defenders who is – shall we say – brushed is really the situation that whomever framed the rules envisaged when this ultimate sanction was created.

Those Referees who do feel they have to send a goalkeeper off and that the punishment they are mandated to give is without proportion might want to complain to their superiors and try get the rule changed.

I shall not hold my breath for that.

But what is to be done, part two

Football needs to look again at what the role of Referees is and what he is trying to achieve. Football’s laws have evolved rather than been created and many of them do not achieve the aims we should expect them to.

The redress given for the denial of a goal – as Ghana attest to – is not on a level with a goal scoring opportunity. Consider the Luis Suárez handball in 2010 and the Jordan Pickford sending off on Saturday and reflect that Pickford’s punishment was massively greater than that of Suárez.

My brother and I have talked long into the night on the merits of awarding an unopposed penalty as redress for the denial of a goal. That is a way that the offended against team could have redress.

It is thinking like that which can start to level the injustice which is codified into football’s laws.

What they heard back at Chelsea as Rochdale beat Bradford City

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Alan Sheehan, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Andy Halliday | Billy Knott | James Hanson, Jon Stead | Matt Williams, Mark Yeates, Jason Kennedy

With all due respect to Millwall FC

Dear Mister Mourinho,

Allow me to start, Mister Mourinho, by saying let us be thankful that any fourth round tie between Bradford City and Chelsea will be played at Stamford Bridge.

I arrived in this part of West Yorkshire in biting cold, and watched a game on a wet pitch which cut badly under foot. Mister Mourinho, if you want to avoid the same, you will try beat this Bradford City within one game.

The weather aside I do not envy the man who was sent to watch Blackpool beat Millwall 1-0 for I have much to tell you Mister Mourinho and tell you it I shall.

There is much about this Bradford City which you should know

This Bradford City are a which will not be defeated, even in defeat.

Today Mister Mourinho I saw a football injustice when Bradford City were beaten in the last moment of the game by Rochdale Football Club having performed far better than Rochdale Football Club during the course of the game.

That this Bradford City played the game with only ten players was hardly noticeable Mister Mourinho. Indeed often in the game it seemed that Bradford City had played the game with eleven players and Rochdale Football Club had played it with ten, but that was not the case Mister Mourinho.

A player on loan from Sunderland (prob. not play. Gus is like that) in goal for Bradford City was sent off after ten minutes.

What shall we say about the sending off Mister Mourinho? Shall we just say that you would not have found it acceptable were it Thibaut Courtois dismissed for denying a goalscoring opportunity when the striker had run so wide and did not have control of the ball.

You would say Mister Mourinho that it was not denial of a goalscoring opportunity because the striker had run so with and did not have control of the ball. And you would be right Mister Mourinho, although I suspect you would not continence the possibility of being wrong.

And for the striker who were fouled Mister Mourinho I found myself wishing that he, A player called Matthew Done, was to be playing against John in two weeks time. I found myself wishing as he constantly tackled late on defenders who were clearing the ball on Mister Mourinho that he were to try that on John and found myself imagining what John would do in reply.

A note Mister Mourinho. We should be careful if Gavin Ward referees one of our games. Today he allowed a penalty to be scored from a rebound when the taker was in an offside position as the ball was struck. He made mistakes that compounded mistakes. He is a weak and poor Referee and obviously easily influenced and carried away Mister Mourinho. The beautiful game deserves better Mister Mourinho even at this level.

Character

But when reduced to ten players this Bradford City showed character Mister Mourinho which suggested that they were not a team to be taken lightly even with the obvious gap in quality between our side and theirs because that gap in quality would be seen by this Bradford City as another challenge which they would attempt to overcome.

With ten men this Bradford City played cleverly Mister Mourinho keeping the ball well and using their strength at set plays. James Hanson and Jonathan Stead are bustling centreforwards who upset defenders. Hanson wins most balls played into him and that was the case when a free kick was played too deep. Hanson headed it back and Stead headed in an equaliser. Perhaps Mister Mourinho I might suggest that Gary Cahill and John are a suitable pair to play like on like and I do not want to tell you how to do your job Mister Mourinho but I do worry that they may eat Nathan Ake for breakfast.

The supply to Hanson and Stead comes from Billy Knott and Fillipe Morais. Both have previously played for us in their youth.

Knott is a player of constant motion Mister Mourinho and the energy of Bradford City dissipated as he left the field after being the most influential player on the field for long periods of the game. He will make wrong decisions and expend energy needlessly on occasion but between errors he is the agent provocateur.

We must force Billy Knott into mistakes to cloud his judgement Mister Mourinho, rather than allow his head to be clear. Ignoring him is not an option. He is Bradford City’s finest irritant.

Your friend Fillipe

Fillipe Morais I believe you know. He is not the svelt wide player he was but he has a muscle about him and the ability to play intelligent football that shows your own influence Mister Mourinho. He is a player of discipline and has some strength in the tackle. He has expended his game since first you met and seems comfortable in a number of positions. That a local dubbed him The Man-o-War may please you Mister Mourinho, or it may not.

These players are anchored by Garry Liddle who is serviceable in the pass but not as strong in the tackle as a holding midfielder could be. Today his role was to break any play coming through the middle for Rochdale Football Club and he did break any play coming through the middle for Rochdale Football Club.

The defence is strong although Alan Sheehan, who plays at left back ideally but is covering central defence, is a weak point. All four can play the ball effectively long. Mister Mourinho if we stand away and let them play the ball long then they will pick out forwards with accuracy and while we can call this the dark ages of football we must not mistake it as such.

There is a measured control to this Bradford City Mister Mourinho which I cannot stress enough.

A measured control

With ten players remaining on the field for Bradford City Mister Mourinho Liddle was forced to put in the work rate of two players rather than one player and he did put in that level of work as did the other players of Bradford City. If I could underline one thing Mister Mourinho it would be the level of effort which Bradford City perform with and the character they have in their team.

Mister Mourinho we would beat them if we matched that character, and as with today we could expect to beat them as they will be at a disadvantage (numerical today, perhaps more obvious against Chelsea) but we must match that character.

Because, Mister Mourinho, that is the single most impressive thing about this Bradford City. The character which saw them outplay Rochdale Football Club with ten against eleven will see them come back from defeat today to carry on an unlikely promotion push which seems to have little chance of succeeding just as the team have little chance of beating Chelsea if they beat Millwall.

But if something is made of little chances Mister Mourinho it is made by character.

Yours,
The Scout

Mark Leonard, for one night only

There is a moment etched into the collective memories of Bradford City supporters of a certain age in which City rake a long, high ball forward for a flick on and then for Mark Leonard to out jump his defender and loop a header into the goal. If you were at that game already you have conjured the moment in your mind.

Mark Zico Leonard scores against Everton.

The ball lofted forward was by Peter Jackson – putting a lie to the idea that he did nothing on his return – and Ian Ormondroyd’s flick on to Leonard would be repeated when Sticks headed down at Wembley eight years later. The Everton side featured a recently transferred Stuart McCall on his return to Valley Parade and the goal loops over Neville Southall – at the time considered the best goalkeeper in the country if not the World – who would finish his long, illustrious and brilliant career in that very goalmouth aged 41.

Watching the goal again does not dim the memory although things jar: The bars fencing in supporters for another, The way that Southall picks up and rolls out a back pass, The physical size of the players who to a man are seemingly a stone heavier than their modern day counterparts;

On that night Leonard shone as bright as any player might. Against the league champions, and uncharacteristically for a team starting to decline, that was Mark Leonard’s night.

The story wrote itself of course. Leonard had broken his leg having been hit by a car on the way to sign for Everton and this was his “unfinished business”. He had joined City from Stockport County with a good scoring record at the lower levels but had not been able to fill the not inconsiderable boots of Bobby Campbell competing for a place in City’s forward line with Ron Futcher in the season the Bantams made the Division One play-offs. Leonard scored 29 goals in 157 appearances for City, none of them recalled with the glee of the evening against Everton.

Leonard did not score a goal every other game, his knowledge of the offside law – or his ability to put that knowledge into practice – was massively limited and seldom has a City striker strayed beyond the back line to invite the flag more. His nickname – Zico – was ironic. For all his hard work, honest endeavour and tireless efforts the only flash of brilliance Leonard showed was that header.

Which damns the man with feint praise. Leonard worked hard as a player and that was appreciated by City supporters. Zico was ironic but affectionate. The mood might have wished for Leonard to be putting the goals at the rate that Mark Bright and Ian Wright – Crystal Palace’s deadly strikers that season who were first and second in the top scorers list – but the fact he did not was not for the want of effort. Leonard was one of football’s triers. Everton was his moment in the sun, but he never let anyone down in his years in the shade.

Indeed for a time he played at centreback before his unwept at exit from Valley Parade in 1992. He went on to win a promotion to the Football League for Chester City playing for Preston North End and Rochdale but never moving above City. When he left football became a top class crown green bowler ranking in England’s top ten. Perhaps he really was Zico when aiming at a Jack.

When thinking about Mark Leonard – Lenny to some, Zico to others – I wonder how he would be received by the modern Bradford City. Perhaps he would be a Gareth Evans of a player with as many critics as he had people in his corner, perhaps he would be a Jake Speight with his hard work ignored and eyes fixated on his goal tally, perhaps he would be a Barry Conlon.

Looking at Leonard’s goal scoring record one is struck by how the higher up the divisions he went, the lower his return. Like Chesterfield’s Jack Lester who seemed to work out after his spells at Nottingham Forest that he was more effective the lower down the leagues he was and one might have forgiven Leonard for staying low and being a good scorer in the bottom two divisions. As a rule though footballers though are built from ambition always want the bigger prize, and to play at the highest level, to forgo a good career in the shadows for some time in the light.

And for one night, Mark Leonard achieved that.

Taylor looks for a repeat of his best week

In the immediate wake of such a demoralising weekend defeat – leaving Bradford City anxiously looking over their shoulders at the form of clubs in relegation trouble – it seemed impossible to believe the players could get anything from a Tuesday night tussle with the League Two leaders. But then City stunned everyone to beat table-toppers Rochdale 3-1 on their own patch.

It was a truly special evening – one year ago this week – with the team benefiting from a spine-tingling level of backing from their own fans which helped them to hit the heights after experiencing the lows at Accrington. Robbie Threlfall’s free kick to make it 2-1 prompted wild celebrations that were only bettered after Gareth Evans smacked an unstoppable volley into the roof of the net with three minutes to go. It was totally unexpected, which made the evening all the more special. A few days later bottom-of-the-table Darlington were defeated 1-0 and the clamour to extent new manager Peter Taylor’s contract grew momentum.

How Taylor will be hoping history repeats itself a year on.

The pressure on the City manager was pushed back up a notch after Friday night’s loss to Port Vale, and with tonight’s game against leaders Chesterfield quickly followed by a visit from second-bottom Stockport this could be a defining week for Taylor. Should City fail to accumulate more than a point from these two games, it might prove enough for time to be called on his rein.

Undoubtedly the Board are in a difficult position at the moment. There was some speculation – not for the first time – that the Wycombe game 10 days ago would have been his last had the team not delivered a much-needed win. It seems highly unlikely Taylor will be offered a new contract in May, but in the short-term the Board needs him to get some results so they aren’t forced to take action sooner – causing financial ramifications for next season’s budgets. Taylor shows no inclination to resign any time soon, so it would cost the club to sack him and find a replacement.

The Board clearly want Taylor to remain in charge for now, but ongoing poor results put them in a difficult position in that they have to balance the budgets against the possibility of the five-time promotion winner looking increasingly less capable of keeping the Bantams in the Football League. Stockport don’t play again until Saturday, so if City lose tonight and then to the Hatters the gap to the relegation zone will be just three points. Panic would ensue.

So Taylor and his employees need this to be a good week, and though the prospects of this evening defeating a side which has lost only twice on the road all season look slim, events a year ago this week underline how quickly it can change. Taylor at least has to believe City can win, and then his next job is to convince the players.

Of course it was only three weeks ago that the Bantams almost did defeat Chesterfield, when they were just 30 seconds of injury time away from a notable victory inside the Spireites’ new stadium. Despite the joy of equalising so late, that draw seemed to trigger a mini-wobble in Chesterfield’s outstanding season as they drew three and lost one of their next four; but a comfortable win at in-form Lincoln on Saturday has re-asserted their dominance and they lead the rest of the division by eight points. They have only lost one of their last 13 games.

The continuing rate of change and injuries seen at Valley Parade all season means that only six of the starting line-up at the B2Net stadium for that 2-2 draw are likely to be in the 11 that kick off the game tonight. Jon McLaughlin has again been consigned to number two behind the more experienced – and certainly more vocal – Lenny Pidgley, A year ago McLaughlin was also watching on from the bench with the more senior but not exactly notable Matt Glennon between the sticks. McLaughlin can look back with pride at the last 12 months, but his progress has not been as spectacular as it appeared it would be when Taylor turned to him over Glennon at the end of last season.

At the back it is disappointing that Simon Ramsden has managed to get injured so quickly again, and one worries if he was rushed back too early to play the full 90 minutes against Wycombe. Beyond that though, and given how many injuries he picked up last season too, one worries that Ramsden’s contract will not be renewed this summer because the manager – whoever that is – needs greater reliability at right back than the 29-year-old’s body will enable him. Lewis Hunt will continue to deputise on the right with Luke O’Brien at left back.

In the centre Steve Williams and Luke Oliver both made mistakes on Friday that may leave Taylor contemplating restoring Shane Duff to the starting line up. Oliver has featured in all but two of City’s league games to date but remains unconvincing at times. Williams’ return to match fitness – results were improving until he was injured at Colchester last November – could make a difference to a defence which has under-performed all season.

Whether Taylor opts for 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 in the wake of the Port Vale failings is yet to be seen, but whichever he decides it’s to be hoped he selects the right players to suit his system rather than the questionable midfield choices of recent weeks. Michael Flynn’s presence is massive, but despite decent performances in his last two outings there is more to come from him. Jon Worthington was quietly impressing up to the Wycombe game and, if his removal from the first XI continues, it will say much about Taylor’s high player turnover approach. Tom Adeyemi will feature somewhere from the start, Leon Osborne possibly not.

Up front Scott Dobie has shown some good things in his two games to date, but at other times has looked off the pace and in need of improved fitness. Kevin Ellison couldn’t make the same level of impact at Vale Park compared to his memorable debut, but will be a key player tonight. Jake Speight made a big impression on Friday and many will expect him to start, but Taylor may opt to keep the hard-working Evans in the starting eleven ahead of him.

How to approach this week? In a sense tonight is a game to get out of the way. A defeat is widely expected and, looking at the league table, it will be difficult to be too critical of Taylor if it goes the way of the form guide. Yet a second defeat on the bounce would really crank up the pressure on him and the team ahead of Saturday’s game, which is unlikely to prove ideal preparation.

So Taylor looks for some sort of positive result tonight in order to build some forwards momentum or – at least – slow the backwards impetus that is threatening to suck City into non-league. It can be argued that this period a year ago was the best of Taylor’s rein at City. He badly needs a repeat, because otherwise this week could prove to be his last in charge.

Thinking in three months blocks as City face Hartlepool

A lot can happen in three months at a football club.

Three months ago Luke O’Brien faced an uncertain future at Valley Parade when – three months previous – Peter Taylor had arrived at the club and signed a player who had been scouted by Stuart McCall in Robbie Threlfall and the former Liverpool loanee had won his place in the Bradford City team.

The local left back was given a standing ovation for warming up on Saturday – an acknowledgement from supporters who thought his being dropped for Manchester United loanee Oliver Gill – which is a far cry from the criticism that the player was given when Threlfall arrived. O’Brien had – some supporters attested to – been embarrassed by the new signing, probably wished he has a contract and had a future at Guiseley perhaps.

How times have changed.

Indeed three months of loan play at Bradford City and Threlfall was coveted in the Summer but with the rider that City would never be able to land the player from Liverpool. His signing – three months ago – was a part of a series of arrivals that saw City supporters and the wider football public start tagging Peter Taylor’s Bradford City as favourites for League Two.

The past three months have seen Taylor’s stock diminish in a way that few would have thought possible on his arrival but that some worried it would after his initial three months at the club. Taylor’s football at the end of last season was dour but carried on along the same average points achievement as the previous manager had struggled to better and it was assumed that those were the seeds out of which an oak of promotion would grow.

Three months ago Taylor gave Bradford City’s board a list of requirements which could see the club improve on the field. Taylor wanted a flatter pitch, a more professional attitude and new training facilities and while the ground is flat and the players are now wearing very nice suits the plan to move to Weetwood fell through. Three months of the dog poo uneven pitch of Apperley Bridge has perhaps shown that Taylor’s judgement was correct – City did need to sort out the training facilities if they were going to progress.

So perhaps three months down the line of working in a situation which he did not to – Taylor, it is believed, would not have joined City were his demands not met – perhaps the manager will turn to the board in any one of the rumoured “emergency summits” at the club and tell that that he cannot be held liable for failures that he has given the solution for, but that solution has not been put into practice.

What Taylor can be held responsible for is the way that the Bradford City team have been playing which after three months is grinding on the eye. If the first three months at the end of last season seemed like a long time it did – at least – end with decent run that avoided the worst finish for the club since 1966. The fact that this last three months has seen City amass only eight points from ten games with a won one, lost one cup record has caused the time to drag.

The season has seemed a very long time indeed. Taylor was brought into the club not to play pretty football or to be friendly with the players – indeed these were cited as negatives about the previous manager – but to get results.

When people talk about the attractiveness of the football then people speak out of place (although one might agree with them) because the winning side in the argument over Stuart McCall established an idea that “you can’t keep a manager because of sentiment”. That those people will not stand up for Taylor and tell people who go dewy eyed for watching a City team under McCall which tried to play football and did so with vigour and energy is (on the whole) a character flaw on their part but should not count against the manager who has a single remit: promotion; and until that remit it unachievable should carry on with the full backing of all.

You, or indeed I, might not like that idea but such is the non-sentimental view that was allowed to take hold at Valley Parade when some fans and some people in the boardroom decided that they wanted to oust Stuart McCall as manager. They won the day (if not the argument) and to them the spoils.

Three months ago saying these thoughts would have provoked the ire of the club. David Baldwin interceded on a Telegraph and Argus message board argument, The City Gent’s Mike Harrison was hauled over the coals for suggesting that the Bantams would finish 8th in the table (one wonders how many in the Valley Parade boardroom would take Mike up on his offer if it could be made so right now) and should you believe the rumours City’s Football in the Community Officer and weekend wireless pundit Ian Ormondroyd was given a forty five minute grilling by his superiors because he was not enthusiastic enough on his radio commentary.

One can imagine Mark Lawn’s frustrations at Ormondroyd, Harrison et al and he is left looking foolish at his insistence that City followers be positive about the football which has seen City in the lowest position many, if not all, can recall and he might ask how was he to know that Taylor’s team would be performing so poorly three months into the season.

Indeed three months previously the appointment of Taylor was heralded by many (including me) as “outstanding.” Indeed were one to line up the runners and riders for the Bradford City job post-Stuart McCall then the pragmatic, experienced Taylor who had significantly achieved success and repeated that success. Would still be the best choice.

Lawn gave Taylor a three month contract and then – after that initial three months – a one year deal which represented promotion or bust for the manager and much has been talked about that in the situation that City currently find themselves in but perhaps it might be worth considering those first three months.

Taylor’s side did not excel at the end of last year and the football was seldom good to watch. The manager was abrasive then and had the same way with the media as he does now. After three months of working with Peter Taylor Mark Lawn decided that he was worth a one year contract.

Consider that for the moment.

Lawn had the longest trial period for a manager in Bradford City’s history on which to judge the replacement for a manager he spend half a season seething about and planning to replace. It was – perhaps – the most considered managerial change the club has ever had and ten league games later we are where we are and – it is said – that “the board” have given Taylor two games/a month to improve or face the sack.

Having had three months working with him, and a good few months thinking about who he would replace Stuart McCall with, sacking Peter Taylor would be the single greatest statement of failure Mark Lawn could make. It would make the most significant act of his joint chairmanship an utter failure, and absolute failure and one which would totally question any qualifications he has to make another similar decision in the future.

If after working with Taylor for three months Lawn offered him a contract (and that is the way it appears externally) and now wants to rip up that contract then how can he be trusted by the rest of the board to be involved in a similar recruitment process again? In three months time if Bradford City do have a new manager then one has to hope that someone else has made the appointment.

However in three months time things might have turned around totally.

Taylor is on the low ebb of a ten game bad run but bad runs are not uncommon in football and had he had won over eighty points and then in the last ten games limped over the line to promotion after eight points in the last ten games then few would suggest he should be sacked (although some, no doubt, would) which is in effect what happened to Keith Hill at Rochdale last season.

Hill’s wheels falling off the wagon at the end of last term was as unexpected as Taylor’s side suddenly getting two points a game or more for the rest of the season but if such a thing happened then both teams would have had losing runs – one at the start of the season and one at the end.

So should the club turn around then perhaps it should do it tonight in the Associate Members Trophy at Hartlepool United where Peter Taylor is expected to field a side which differs from the eleven who started on Saturday – one would struggle to dub that “the first team” – and could give any number of players chances to win back favour.

O’Brien and Threlfall may both hope to be fielded although word has it that Oliver Gill has been guaranteed a place as a part of his loan deal from Manchester United. The same could be true of Reece Brown at right back.

Michael Flynn looks set to play some part although Tommy Doherty – injured but on the bench on Saturday – is not expected to play. Chib Chilaka might hope to replace Luke Oliver in the forward line, one wonders if Oliver’s favours stretch to this competition.

On the whole though City’s problem is not one of personnel – there are very few that would agree with the assessment two sets of three months ago that Stuart McCall’s legacy was a group of poor players when players like Gareth Evans have gone from bulldog exciting to stolid woe under Taylor – but of attitude. Players like Louis Moult are in the running for a place although the Stoke striker is said to be counting the days until he can go home.

The entire squad is peopled with players who could perform better but are not doing. Three months ago I suggested that the mark of Taylor as a manager was in how much of a performance he got from Zesh Rehman. A player with pedigree he represented raw materials which I expected the manager to sculpt in a way that his predecessor could not. To smooth edges and motivate, to bring back to the path of progress and to get the best out of.

Rehman is benched for a Manchester United reserve despite two other right back injuries. Tonight he is the very type of player who might get a chance to show Taylor what he can do and in doing so preserve Taylor’s job and reputation.

Three months ago few would have thought that.

The start of the most interesting season

This season will be fascinating. Every move will be analysed, every game mark a position, ever result considered as a proof of a concept about building slowly and in a determined fashioned. One can only guess at the outcome too – a team that takes change as part of progress, that sees development as a thing done over years, not over a summer.

It will be a very interesting League One season for Rochdale.

After the best part of four decades in the basement division Rochdale have gained an upward mobility which saw them promoted last season despite having sold – to a club who plead poverty for a figure they did not disclose – their best player in Adam Le Fondre but prospered because of the strength of the unit. Defender Craig Dawson is looking to move on this summer with the club waiting for someone to match the £1m valuation they put on him and – once again – Keith Hill will look to his side’s whole being able to withstand the withdrawal of one of the parts.

Rochdale are an object lesson in the idea of retention. Keith Hill has been at the club since his retirement being in charge of the youth side, then the assistant manager and finally as manager. The squad has long service – captain Gary Jones has played 229 games for the club – and with that has come a resilience.

One could take issue with other things about Spotland but on the field there is much to admire about Rochdale and their progress this term represents a test of their ideals.

Bradford City represent something of a contrast being a club that has firm and fast plans off the field which have seen the club be rightfully proud of being one of only two professional football clubs in the black as well as taking firm action against troublemakers. The commercial side of operations at Valley Parade come on a pace we are told and off the field – despite the legacy of huge debts ten years ago – the club are in rude health.

It just goes wrong when kicking a football come into the equation. It would not be true to say City do not have a plan on how to go forward – they have lots of plans – and they change on a regular basis.

Over the summer Peter Taylor has gone about augmenting what he inherited when he moved into Valley Parade while keeping some things in place. Wayne Jacobs, Michael Flynn, James Hanson, Steve Williams and Jon McLaughlin have all benefited from this as the manager recognises that all retention builds institutional knowledge. Nevertheless Hanson and Williams both arrived as part of the club’s plan of harvesting the lower leagues. That came after the club’s plan of spending £600,000 on talent. Remember City’s Mexican academy? City had a plan that included with Royal Racing FC Montegnee and the development of young players? A side note here is that the Bantams Belgian partners picked up Willy Topp on January three years after City took him from them RRFCM’s grasp.

While Rochdale have been pursuing a single approach, City have had many and perhaps they would have all failed in the long term but having not been given that time who could say?

Taylor’s one year contract evidences this – clearly the best man for the job – with the club hedging bets so that another plan can be sprung into place to replace the current one which at the moment is “the right thing.” If you buy enough lottery tickets then one day you will win, maybe.

Taylor has something of an injury crisis on his hands with James Hanson – who is expected to lead the line for the season – struggling to be fit for the first day with Gareth Evans and a new mystery striker who the manager hopes to sign today – replacing him in the forward one of a 433.

Evans would be deployed as a wider player alongside the likes of Scott Neilson, Jake Speight, Leon Osborne who is injured, Omar Daley who is suspended for the opening day of the season and perhaps Ryan Harrison and Norwich loanee Tom Adeyemi who are midfielders who may move forward.

For Speight the chance to play in front of his new fans and start to build bridges after a summer of sentences and suggestions will be welcome. If every a player needed a good start to his City career it is Speight.

City’s idea midfield three are Flynn, Lee Bullock and Tommy Doherty but the bearded maestro is injured suggesting that Adeyemi may be used in the middle although Luke O’Brien may slot onto the left hand side of a three as he did last year. With James O’Brien leaving this week City seem light in the midfield area with those three, the Norwich loan player and youngsters Luke Dean and Ryan Harrison and perhaps Taylor will be looking to replace the exiting Irishman.

At the back the Bantams have some strength and the names write themselves on a team sheet: Simon Ramsden, Steve Williams, new recruit Shaun Duff and Robbie Threlfall; Luke Oliver may yet end up pressed into attack once more – that is a pudding that is only for the eating – and Zesh Rehman would seem to be marked to provide cover for Ramsden and the central players.

If Taylor has one aim this year it should be to get Rehman – who has a pedigree of playing Premiership football – to perform appropriately consistency. Rehman put in a half dozen excellent performances towards the end of the last season under Taylor and if the manager is the manager everyone (seemingly including Fabio Capello) thinks he is then it will be in getting performances out of the likes of Rehman which will evidence that.

In goal Jon McLaughlin is expected to get the number one shirt with Lloyd Saxton to wait for his chance as McLaughlin did.

City face Rochdale and then entertain Bradford Park Avenue at Valley Parade on Tuesday before starting the season on Saturday at Shrewsbury. At least that is the plan.

League Two 2009/10 review – Rochdale, Notts County and Bournemouth’s scrap for promotion and the moral high ground

Even during Keith Hill’s finest hour, the Rochdale manager couldn’t resist taking a swipe.

As Dale celebrated sealing their first promotion since 1969 by defeating Northampton in mid-April, Hill looked ahead to his side’s up-coming Tuesday night visit to title rivals Notts County – which represented their last realistic chance to overturn the Magpies leadership – and declared, “If we can’t catch them, I’m sure the tax man will.”

The Meadow Lane club’s own promotion celebrations had been somewhat tempered by their Board having to fight back against critics’ claiming County had cheated their way to promotion, and Hill received an angry reception from Magpies fans during his team’s subsequent 1-0 loss. But as County attempted to defer the blame for signing players on wages they couldn’t afford onto the previous Munto Finance regime, Hill had a point.

Rochdale’s promotion was more than just the triumph of a small club finally experiencing their day in the sun; Chairman Chris Dunphy and Hill believe it was an achievement for doing things properly. League Two has long being a home to basket case clubs on the brink of financial ruin, often playing up to the nation’s media to attract sympathy about the unbalanced nature of English football. But for clubs who are more prudent in managing budgets and paying the bills, such tales of woe are becoming increasingly wearisome.

For Rochdale there is some gleeful irony in swapping divisions with neighbours Stockport this summer. In Hill’s first full season in charge at Spotland the two clubs reached the League Two play off final, with Stockport triumphing at Wembley. Less than 12 months later, Stockport entered administration after over-stretching themselves financially in recent years. Given that over-stretching had led to promotion at Dale’s expense, the perceived injustice was easy to understand.

Not that Dunphy and Hill are alone in feeling angry. Earlier in the season Macclesfield chairman Mike Rance, who’s club get by on the smallest gates in the division, talked about the unlevel playing field which sees others overspend to the detriment of the Cheshire club’s chances. “Last year, in August, Darlington came here and beat us heavily with a team we couldn’t afford, turns out they couldn’t either.” he told the BBC’s Football League Show. “And this year Notts County came here first game of the season with Sven and beat us heavily with a team we couldn’t afford, clearly they couldn’t either.

“Until the game sorts that out then it’s not going to have any integrity. I think it’s very important we play on a level playing field and some sides just don’t, and we find that disappointing.”

Though no League Two club has gone into administration this season, the emergence of other clubs from difficult times to enjoy some success has left others feeling bitter. While the media has heaped praise on the rebirth of Bournemouth, Rotherham and Accrington, Dunphy and Hill kept up their indignation which had previously led to them calling for clubs who go into administration to booted out the Football League.

Rotherham may have lost their stadium and failed to pay all their creditors during three consecutive seasons of points deductions, but this campaign put financial problems behind them and spent relatively big. This included signing Dale’s star striker Adam le Fondre for an undisclosed fee. Hill’s thoughts on this matter were kept private, but ahead of a trip to Bournemouth last October he hit out at the South-coast club over how unfair he felt it would be if they were promoted. The attack failed to spur on Bournemouth, who lost the game 4-0, though ultimately they did finish above Rochdale.

Meanwhile Accrington faced a winding up order last autumn and had to rely on their local community to donate money into collection buckets. Two months after that crisis was averted, relegation-bound Grimsby reportedly had a six-figure transfer bid for Stanley’s top scorer Michael Symes turned down. It’s hoped the nine-year-old girl who emptied her savings into a bucket to help Accrington last autumn understands the reasoning of “faint play off hopes”.

But while Notts County have pulled back from the brink of administration earlier this year, the wolves may still be at the door. Rumours of having to soon go into administration keep cropping up, and at best County will surely need to ship out their high earners who will still command a wage bill too large for League One. Tough times may lie ahead; Sven’s ‘project’ was yesterday’s dream.

And though Rochdale – who themselves may not be whiter than white – ultimately triumphed alongside in-debt County and Bournemouth, in time others who did not gain promotion this season may eventually look back on Nott’s triumph and begin to feel aggrieved, should the Magpies go on to enter administration.

Dale have shown that more conservative principles of balancing the books and slowly building can eventually succeed; but for more to be encouraged to follow their lead, there must be greater deterrents from taking shortcuts and gambling on success.

Rochdale, attendance figures, really?

I’m not one to talk about the reported attendance from Rochdale vs Bradford City games that the club from Spotland give out but I’m pretty sure that the figure on the website that is currently reported is not reflective of the number of people at the game.

Rochdale's website as seen on Wednesday 3rd March, 2010

Rochdale's website circa Wednesday 3rd March, 2010

Before Darlington City consider what is a good footballer?

After last Saturday’s game at Accrington Stanley Bradford City’s players were “simply not good enough” and Peter Taylor had to get rid of them. After the win at Rochdale on Tuesday night they were “brilliant and capable” and had beaten a team five points top of the league.

This weekend the same players face moribund Darlington. So which is the real reflection of the current set of Bradford City players?

The season has seen them wend a way to the lower mid-table for sure but also create a club record of games unbeaten. Rochdale made them looked hapless, they returned the favour and beat them when Dale’s lads were brimming with confidence. How good, or how bad, are the City players?

Certainly following the game Peter Taylor was clear about what he thought had transformed the team saying that the return to a 442 on Tuesday night with Michael Flynn up front alongside James Hanson – a function Taylor credits Wayne Jacobs for passing on to him – and an evening of hard work.

Said Taylor

There were so many good things but most importantly they realised that they got the result through hard work and togetherness.

So if the players are together and work hard then they are “good” divided – as they were following the departure of Stuart McCall and the communal lip out sulk – they are “bad”. So are they good or bad?

Perhaps the question is framed wrong.

The terms of good and bad in football have always been around but have come into a sharper focus in the digital era where games like Championship Manager and FIFA demand that players be rated and assessed. If you, dear reader, ever played one of the LMA series of management games you did so (in some years) with a Bradford City team assessed and rated by yours truly.

I recall opening the spreadsheet and being given a range – Bradford City players could not be rated over 59% or under 44% – and were scored in categories like shooting and passing. I wondered how one rated players like Bobby Petta in those stats. For sure the man could hit a ball, but only when he could be bothered and why award him the higher fifties because he once leathered a ball in against Huddersfield when Steven Schumacher scored more – albeit less impressive – goals?

The question asked in that instance really was one of “good” and “bad” but that is the world of clicks and buttons and the reality of football offers more depth. Robbie Blake – for example – was considered for long periods of his career a player who would be good enough for the Premiership if only he had the pace suggesting that his abilities would be spread between percentages, if they could be encoded at all.

The way that the good people at Codemasters created their game allowed an even spread of abilities up and down the game. There were as many players with the ability levels suited for the Premiership as for the League Two – linear distribution – and as City slipped down the leagues having risen up in double quick time the previous decade it struck me that that notion was wrong.

As the skill level of players at, and visiting, Valley Parade decreased from the days of Paul Scholes volleying in a David Beckham corner it became clear that there was a level of ability which rose and fell up and down the leagues but that as we fell down the leagues this quality did not drop off to the same extent. The difference between the second and third tiers of football were not as great as the drop between the top of the top flight and the clubs at the bottom.

The exponential growth of players able to play at a level as one descends the league means that while only one English footballer might have the abilities of David Beckham and ten are good enough for the Champions but a hundred Englishmen are good enough for the Premiership on the whole and thousand able to play at the next level down which encompasses an area I’d say is roughly the half way down the top of the Championship to the middle of League Two.

It is crude analysis for sure but it explains how a Paul Jewell or a Peter Taylor can take clubs like Wigan and Hull and take them through the leagues to the edge of the Premiership play-offs. The players who were idling either at those clubs or to be bought up from rivals of a similar standing did not improve in natural ability – the did not become “good” having been “bad” but they certainly improved.

Improvement that is put down to coaching and to motivation. The latter being shown in Paul Jewell’s ability to build a mental toughness in his players in which they believed they were capable of beating any team at any level and the former being in team drilling and understanding of the roles and responsibilities on the field and the pattens built up.

The average player in League One when promoted would be expected to get on in the division above, when relegated to be able to play in the one below. The same group of players who seem hopeless at one point can seem brilliant at others when they have the right approach to the game and to each other.

Which brings us back to Bradford City and the difference of three days between Accrington and Rochdale. Assuming the players have not simply “become good” over the space of three days and that Taylor requires more than a couple of sleeps to have the players won over to his tactical approach or his mental position how have the Bantams improved?

Probably the change has much to do with the depressed mood at the club that came as a result of sacking Stuart McCall being superseded as a worry by the idea that if a team cannot complete with Accrington then it is likely that that club would be relegated. The players had a sulk, they were upset, but professional pride – or perhaps the mental toughness they have – kicked in and they raised the game in keeping with the raised noise from the away end.

Add to that Taylor looked at simple basics of the team and noted that – since Paul McLaren left – we have had no quality delivery. That problem has been fixed by loanee Robbie Threlfall. Threlfall’s delivery played a part in all three goals against Rochdale. A small practical fix which allowed Luke O’Brien to move forward to balance the left flank and set City for victory.

Threlfall makes his Valley Parade début against a Darlingtonnnn side managed by Steve Staunton who was himself a Liverpool left back loaned to City and is set to be joined as a temporary transfer at the club by Gillingham’s Mark McCammon,physicalcal striker.

McCammon seems likely to partner James Hanson up front as the club praised The City Gent for raising £5,000 to pay two thirds of the transfer fee for the player. The last two weeks has seen much debate over the club and the owners of that club and acknowledgement is given to the joint chairmen for the investment they have made but The City Gent’s – in effect – buying a player is another of many examples of the supporters of Bradford City funding the business of Bradford City and when calls are made to the joint chairmen for clarity it is done in the knowledge that frankly amazing actions such as Jeremy White’s fund raising is done by people who should be considered more than consumers of the Bradford City product.

The McCammon/Hanson combination sees Peter Taylor go about the business of making the no nonsense attack that his Wycombe side had and will allow Michael Flynn to slot back alongside Lee Bullock in the midfield alongside O’Brien on the left and Gareth Evans on the right although a return for Omar Daley or the inclusion of Scott Neilson is possible, but would be harsh on Evans who is returning to form.

The back four of Simon Ramsden, Matthew Clarke, Steve Williams and Threlfall will continue in front of Matt Glennon.

Good players, to a man.

On the beaches, with growing confidence and growing strength

Gareth Evans has just been kicked in the head by Rochdale’s on-loan winger Temitope Obadeyi. The referee, typically useless all night, tries to let the game go on as Rochdale charge forwards, but as the linesman nearby waves his flag frantically for the foul, he belatedly blows the whistle. The City players nearby rush over to check Evans is okay and say a few things to Obadeyi. The City fans, housed in the lengthways stand and right next to of the incident, loudly call for the issuing of a red card. It’s only yellow, so attention turns to a woozy Evans, being helped off the pitch by the physio.

As Evans stands on the touchline in front of us, waiting for the referee to allow him back on, we chant his name loudly and continuously. City’s number nine turns round to us to show his appreciation by applauding, before emphatically waving his arms in the style of a conductor leading an orchestra, urging us to keep going. With the chanting from away fans having being kept up since well before kick off, it’s his nod of approval for the support and the difference we are making.

And in response, we roar even louder.

On an evening of so many positives for City – terrific Wayne Jacobs-influenced tactics, colossal individual performances and outstanding goals – it was the connectivity between the players and fans which stood out to me as the highlight. This was unconditional, positive backing for the players – the level of which has not been seen since the memorable night at Lincoln City in 2007. The singing didn’t stop until the players trooped off the pitch, having all come over to jubilantly thank the fans at the final whistle. There will have been some City fans with hoarse voices the following day, mine certainly was.

And the reward for such backing was a performance of incredible commitment and quality. This was no fluke result, achieved by sticking 10 men behind the ball and grabbing a goal on the break. This was no long ball hit and hope, duck and let someone else take responsibility approach from the team. They played some brilliant football, they ran their socks off closing down the opposition, they deserved the three points and the winning margin.

Who quite knows where it came from? But it felt so good. When Robbie Threlfall netted that stunning free kick to put City 2-1 up, the celebrations were wild. Strangers hugged me, my hat went flying off, my glasses fell to the floor, at one stage I fell to the floor. And it was only after the adrenaline starting to wear off as we headed back to the car that I realised I must have twisted my knee in the process. I was suddenly hobbling, with a grin that couldn’t be shifted.

And the singing. The singing was as beautiful as a group of football fans chanting mainly out of tune can be. There was no time for rest and catching breath. One chant over, the next one begins. A new range of songs to enjoy and keep repeating in future games, the usual numbers sung more heartfelt than we’ve being able to for months.

We were one team – the players, the management, the supporters. When Rochdale attacked we cheered every time a successful tackle was made. When City possession broke down we seemed to collectively mutter “unlucky” and urge them to keep going. When the referee gave a decision against us we snarled and barracked him angrily in the hope he’d not dare be so foolish next time. When Rochdale fans finally bothered to sing, we took the mick out of how many years it has been since they were last promoted.

At Spotland the fans and players felt closer than they’ve been for a long time. Let’s do it again soon, more often, please.

From Despair to Delight

Following Saturday’s desperate loss at Accrington not too many would’ve predicted the events of last night at Spotland. Prior to the last night’s game BfB’s Jason ‘Winston’ McKeown had issued a rallying cry for supporters to find their voice and really get behind the team.

The message had definitely sunk in. Prior to kick-off their seemed to be a sense amongst the fans that City might just cause a bit of an upset. Another strong away following made the short trip over the Pennines to Rochdale however this time they had brought with them their full singing voices.

The atmosphere was fantastic and the acoustics allowed the chanting to echo around the ground, no doubt creating an intimidating environment for the home players.

As the snow poured down City, who had reverted to 4-4-2, started fantastically. They came absolutely flying out of the blocks and pressed Rochdale forcing them into early mistakes and adding pressure to their defence.

Michael Flynn had been moved up front to play with James Hanson and his direct approach, battling and strength really put the Rochdale back-line under strain. It also allowed James Hanson to become more involved in the play and the role of target man interchanged between the two players.

Gareth Evans, who started on the right side of midfield, began brightly showing real determination and pace to cause Dale’s left-back Kennedy a lot of problems. Luke O’Brien took the role on the left-side of midfield that allowed new signing Robbie Threlfall to slot in at left-back.

Threlfall, who has signed on an initial one month deal from Liverpool, offered a bit more height, strength and positional awareness than O’Brien and looked composed throughout. He also offered fantastic delivery from dead-ball situations and this came to the fore in the tenth minute.

City’s high-tempo start put the home side under early pressure from which City won a corner. New signing Threlfall whipped in the corner only for Dale keeper Fielding (who was dressed in bright fluorescent orange in a bin man/lollypop stylee) to flap at the cross; the ball dropped to Matt Clarke 4 yards out and the big centre-back made no mistake in thumping the ball home for City’s first goal since the Torquay game. Cue wild scenes of celebration from the City faithful which was a just reward for their excellent early backing and City’s excellent start.

City continued to press following the goal which resulted in Flynn going close from long-range forcing a good save from Fielding although strangely no corner was given. Despite City’s excellent play Rochdale still looked composed and passed the ball well through the midfield. Their strikers, Chrises Dagnall and O’Grady linked well but their attacks were often snuffed out by the resilient City backline with all four defenders impressing.

O’Grady frequently tussled with Clarke throughout the half and often won soft free-kicks when it appeared, to the majority of City fans, that the former loanee was constantly backing in.

Rochdale continued to press towards the end of the half with efforts from Jones and O’Grady although City keeper Glennon watched both go harmlessly over. As City showed signs of tiring from their early tempo Rochdale began to find more space in the midfield often through Dale midfielder Taylor who had so clinically exposed City at Valley Parade. More passes were strung together as pressure built on the away side which resulted in Dale pulling a goal back just before half-time. O’Grady managed to battle his way past Williams and fire a low ball across the face of goal for Chris Dagnall to apply a finish that squirmed under Glennon’s body at the near post. In previous weeks heads would’ve dropped and a feeling of inevitability would have set in however, buoyed by their brilliant start and vocal support, City battled on against an increasingly dangerous Dale and made it to half-time for a well earned breather.

Suitably refreshed from their half-time oranges and no doubt words of praise from their new manager, the players returned to the field for the second period. Once again the support for the players and manager rang throughout the ground.

City started with a similar intensity to press and shut down the Dale players but seemed to be increasingly getting pushed back deeper and deeper as Dale enjoyed the early possession. After having a moan to the referee as the players walked off for half-time, Chris O’Grady seemed to have convinced the ref that the City defenders were constantly fouling him, and not vice versa, resulting in the man in blue giving the striker a floury of early second half free-kicks around the City box.

Once again City’s resilient defence managed to keep Dale at bay, snuffing out several attacks. The desire to prevent the home side from attacking was typified by Gareth Evans who, after requiring treatment twice in the first half, never stopped running and tracking back (and forward) and arguably enjoyed his best performance in a City shirt. He not only worked tirelessly but showed signs of skill and composure going forward that have been lacking in recent weeks; he even managed to act as mascot to gee the City fans up after receiving a nasty boot to the face in the first half.

City’s never-say-die attitude resulted in the home side making two attacking changes to find the break through. During this period of pressure City looked to break on the counter attack using Hanson as an outlet but the former shelf-stacker looked increasingly shattered as the game went on.

With 15 minutes left Michael Boulding came on for the solid Stephen O’Leary where Flynn pushed back into central midfield. Boulding’s fresher legs put more pressure on Dale as City looked to steal all three points. As City attacked left-back Threlfall found himself on halfway and played a quick one-two with Luke O’Brien, getting the ball back Threlfall powered his way past two Dale defenders and was up-ended by what appeared to be the last man right on the edge of the box.

The away fans screamed for a penalty and a sending off but the referee took lesser actions instead giving a free-kick and a yellow card to the guilty Dale player. City lined up the free-kick with Flynn waiting to drill an effort goalwards, instead Threlfall stepped up to curl a beautiful strike over the wall that appeared to go off the bar and in off the keeper’s back (Not entirely sure as I haven’t seen the replay). The away fan’s erupted with delight with noise that nearly tore the roof of the stadium off.

The home side looked to hit straight back and a close range effort from Dagnall was well saved by Glennon. City again played on the break and a floated ball from mid-way inside the Dale half by Threlfall was nodded down by James Hanson to an on-rushing Evans, the shot was suitably smashed home by his left boot from the edge of the box giving the player a much deserved reward for his awesome, tireless performance.

Jubilation again amongst the City fans who could not believe the transformation from their side of a few days ago to now. The fans stayed standing until the full-time whistle as choruses of ‘City till I Die’ pulsed around Spotland.

At full-time, most notably, Michael Flynn ran over to City fans to celebrate this was in stark contrast to the disgusting abuse he had unduly received at Acrrington. Simon Ramsden also joined in as did the rest of the team in the celebrations so that the City players and manager left the field buzzing.

I couldn’t help but walk out of the ground with a massive grin on my face, shared with other fans, with a reminder that this is the reason why we put up with all the upset and the heartache for days and occasions just like this.

So now we look to Saturday and Darlington coming to VP. With a bit of luck, word of mouth should spread to those that didn’t make it to Spotland about the fantastic display and the renewed confidence. I hope now that we can really build on this and carry on the excellent work come the weekend. It just goes to show that as a City fan you can go from despair to delight in just a few short days.

What we can all take with us on Saturday is the desire to get right behind the team and push them on to more great performances like this one. Then who knows where we might be come what May?

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