City keep their heads as others lose theirs

Peter Taylor was thrust into unemployment by Wycombe Wanderers last October with accusations of dourness to smart over. But in the three short weeks since becoming Bradford City’s interim manager for the rest of the season, the 57-year-old is proving there’s a far greater edge to his methods.

When Rotherham United’s Adam Le Fondre fired home a stoppage time equaliser from the penalty spot, it appeared a well-deserved victory had been snatched from the Bantams’ grasp and what still looked a credible point in a promotion-chaser’s backyard would be all Taylor would take in support of his case for a longer contract. But heads didn’t drop, and Luke O’Brien charged forwards to earn a corner, which Simon Ramsden planted perfectly onto James Hanson’s forehead to fire home a dramatic winner. Dourness we can all get used to.

It was no more than City deserved for an impressive display which had the influence of Taylor stamped all over it. Organisation and shape have been the two biggest areas of improvement in City since the change of managers, and while both qualities could be filed under the dourness category apparently derided at Adams Park, they’ve helped what has looked an exciting team to watch all season become more focused and effective in its exhibiting of flair.

All afternoon at the Don Valley Stadium, the Bantams attacked with a purpose that caused problems for an oddly-nervous backline, largely lacking in the support of its midfield. A purpose that wasn’t about charging down blind alleys or pushing too many men forward, only to then have problems defending a counter attack. The midfield supported the front two of Hanson and Michael Flynn conservatively but dependably. If and when possession was lost, two organised lines of four were quickly in place to shield home attacks.

There is an element of directness about City’s approach; though with half of the Don Valley turf more closely resembling a beach than a football pitch, the conditions compromised passing football. But the mixing up of targeting the two wide players and passing through the engine room of the again hugely-impressive Lee Bullock and debut signing Adam Bolder ensured there was nothing predictable about the approach.

After former Bantam Nicky Law had forced a good early save from Matt Glennon, the territorial advantage and bulk of the chances were won by City in the first half. A defensive mix up almost saw Steve Williams head home, then a few minutes later Hanson blazed over from inside the penalty area when he should have scored. Rotherham almost struck when a goalmouth scramble saw three stabbed efforts somehow not cross the line – two were blocked on it by City players and the middle attempt hit the crossbar.

But City shaded the first half and continued to press after the interval with O’Brien and Flynn going close before City’s number four scored his first goal since Rotherham came to Valley Parade last December, firing home low and hard after Gareth Evans had charged forwards down the right flank and laid the ball into his path. Flynn again had an impressive afternoon in the unfamiliar striker’s role, before dropping into midfield late on. What Taylor’s use of his central midfielder says of the futures of Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne is becoming increasingly clear.

Evans’ role in the goal too deserved credit. Both he and O’Brien must be fearful of their own futures. Long term solutions for the widemen they probably aren’t, but the pair’s attitude towards making it work is admirable. It isn’t always perfect and both were guilty of losing the ball too often, but their obvious attempts to keep hold of it out wide rather than head-down take players on and risk losing possession is helping City’s midfield to support the front two more effectively and it was fitting the opening goal should be provided by one of them.

With Bullock and Bolder easily winning the midfield battle, the frankly woeful Nicky Law was subbed by Ronnie Moore as the home side pushed to come back. The pressure was sporadic, though crosses into the box did cause panic and Flynn and Robbie Therfall made two goalline blocks from one scramble before Mark Lynch headed off target. Minutes later Daryl Harrison fired wide with the goal gaping after Therfall was beaten too easily out wide. It was a let off which had Taylor screaming at his back four in anger over how they’d switched off, but with the clock running down it looked like City were going to hold out.

But a minute into stoppage time the otherwise impressive Williams handled in the box and the referee gave a penalty – a harsh but probably correct decision – and Le Fondre beat Glennon from 12 yards despite City’s stopper guessing which way he’d go. It seemed a crucial goal for Rotherham in their fight for promotion, but despite looking as though they’d got away with an undeserved draw, the celebrations from the home fans was less concerned with their own team’s joy.

Hundreds of Millers’ supporters swarmed to the front of their stand to taunt the City fans nearby, seemingly having no interest with events on the pitch. Their pathetic reaction was more bizarre for how feeble they had been supporting their own players during the game. It was almost near silence, apart from faint booing of their team’s disjointed play. They also had the humiliation of what looked like a bear mascot banging on a drum at the front of the stand in an attempt to get them chanting. While most Rotherham fans are undoubtedly decent people, one has to wonder about the small-time mentality of those who choose to react to their team’s last gasp equaliser at home to a team in 16th by simply goading opposition fans. Maybe we should be flattered.

But with a rising sense of injustice at the way afternoon was to end, just like Alan Partridge needless to say we had the last laugh. A corner was quickly forced and with the match long past the three allocated minutes of stoppage time and with hundreds of Rotherham fans still watching us and not the game, Hanson powerfully headed home his 10th goal of the season to spark scenes of delirium. For the second season in a row, celebrations spilled out onto the running track between the stands and pitch. It was a goal which hurt Rotherham more than it will alter City’s season, oh the faces of their fans.

And despite what must have felt like a huge kick in the teeth when Rotherham scored and the subsequent obvious madness taking place in the stands which saw police rushing to the front to prevent the possibility of trouble, the players kept their heads and made sure they left the pitch with everything they deserved.

That, above everything else, is what Taylor has brought to City. Under Stuart McCall this season the Bantams were playing some exciting football which was great to watch as the players gave everything to the cause, but the results ultimately illustrated its effectiveness. The football isn’t quite as edgy, but the energy is being used in the right way and City look hard to beat, determined and know what their roles are. There is an air of calmness which is transmitting into confidence and belief. Taylor is instigating that calmness.

It’s felt all season long that the Bantams had a good enough squad to challenge for promotion, results like this and at Rochdale are proving that. It’s surely come too late this campaign, but McCall’s legacy is leaving behind tools which Taylor could effectively use to mount a promotion challenge, if given the chance, next season.

Sounds dour.

League Two preview – what’s the right way to get promoted?

There was something symbolic about the transfers of Ben Davies from Shrewsbury Town to Notts County and Nicky Law from Bradford City – indirectly – to Rotherham United.

The Magpies and The Millers have taken on the mantle of possessing the division’s biggest playing budgets from The Shrews and The Bantams, coming with it the expectations of League Two domination. The balance sheets point to both County and United celebrating promotion come May, though the fact City and Town were unable to press home such advantages, while apparent lesser teams succeeded instead, should as a cautionary tale.

Typically for a division which saw four of its 24 participants the subject of points deductions last season, matters in League Two are far from clear. Just like the Premier League’s so-called big four, who have each managed to rack up huge debts despite the advantage of Champions League revenue year-on-year, the good news stories that emanated from teams who finished at the top of League Two last season were in limited supply.

Exeter and Gillingham’s elevation aside – the former stunned everyone including probably themselves by taking the third automatic promotion spot – and behind each manager’s words of praise for “a great set of lads” was a bank balance in the red. Andy Scott rightly received plenty of plaudits for leading Brentford to the title, but the growing debts acquired along the way suggest it came at a price that must surely slow progress eventually.

Then there was runners up Wycombe, a club previously well-regarded as one of the pioneering supporter-owned clubs, who changed their rules a few years ago to allow businessman Steve Hayes to loan significant money in return for running the club as managing director. Wycombe have subsequently run up a £7 million debt, owed to Hayes, by seemingly spending beyond their means. Hayes graciously agreed to write off £3 million of it in return for 100% ownership of the club, ground and training facilities. He is also the owner of London Wasps and has announced plans to build a new 20,000 capacity stadium for both clubs, moving them out of the 11,000-capacity Adams Park which neither can fill. Somehow it seems unlikely Hayes will ultimately end up out of pocket from writing off that debt.

At least Brentford and Wycombe succeeded through less-than-prudent financial planning, the same can’t be said of Darlington. While most football fans will have sympathy for a club saddled with a white elephant of a stadium which is compromising their existence, the mood locally is less charitable. As with many clubs who go into administration, like City, the local community is suffering from the Quakers’ latest spell in financial limbo. The St Johns Ambulance charity is reportededly again left out of pocket – by £2,500– while one local hotel owner claimed she could go out of business as a result of the club failing to pay money owed for accommodating loan striker Liam Hatch.

All of which leaves the question of what price promotion into League One at the end of this season is worth? While we can all cast envious glances at Meadow Lane and the Arab-based consortium now in charge, few Notts County fans will surely believe the new owners’ motivation is anything less than a healthy return for the investment within five-ten years. The media glare will fall on City’s visit to County this Saturday with Sven Goran Eriksson appointed as Director of Football, but he and County’s success will be judged by how long he holds that role. Will the new owners take the approach Man City have so far in backing the manager, or will it be more like at QPR? It’s not difficult to envisage Eriksson in the away dug out when County come to Valley Parade in January, a scenario which would suggest things weren’t going to plan. As Stuart McCall can testify, it takes time to learn what it takes to succeed in League Two.

County have made some decent summer signings, but finished 19th last season – 10 points above relegation, 22 points from the play offs and 38 points off the title. A huge improvement is needed to live up the pre-season hype and this season looks set to be more of a transitional one.

A far better shout for promotion is Rotherham. But for their 17 point deduction, the Millers would have finished fifth. Mark Robins is proving himself to be a determined and talented manager and has a great chance to bring the title to South Yorkshire. As valued as that would be for the supporters, there is still much long term work needed for a club which has been on the financial brink too often in recent years. The Don Valley stadium’s un-football friendly set up is a good home advantage to have, but a horrible place to watch football. As important as money on the playing squad is, the new owners may need to find money to build a new stadium back in Rotherham as part of the council’s plans to build a community stadium.

Two clubs expected to be in the hunt again with no such off the field concerns are Rochdale and Bury. Both were beaten in the play off semi finals, but have good managers who can ensure they bounce back from such disappointments. Bury continue to hold onto the talented Andy Bishop while Dale striker Adam Le Fondre is blossoming into the sort of striker Keith Hill’s talented side of two seasons ago lacked. Other contenders will probably include Chesterfield, now managed by John Sheridan, and Bournemouth who picked up so well at the end of last season to avoid the drop.

Newly promoted Torquay will hope to replicate their Devonshire rivals Exeter in sailing through the division, while of those who were relegated from League One last season, Cheltenham may be in the best position to bounce back. Northampton are struggling financially, while Crewe no longer appear to be the stable club others aspired to be of a few years ago. City and Shrewsbury may have had to cut budgets, but should both still be strong enough to feature in the promotion-hunting pack.

Last season’s relegation battle was something of a non-event, with points deductions allowing many to sail through a nothing season in the comfort of mid-table. It might have been a great opportunity for some of the division’s traditional strugglers to build and move away from the dangers of non-league, and some may soon be kicking themselves should they be sucked back into such trouble this season. Accrington, Macclesfield, Aldershot and Barnet all appear likely contenders to be scrapping it out at the bottom, though newly promoted Burton’s momentum from previous manager Nigel Clough may continue to slow as it did towards the end of last season, ensuring their league status is short lived.

Hoping to be free of such matters and in the safety of mid table, with more than an eye on the play offs, are Lincoln, Hereford, Colin Todd’s Darlington, Grimsby, Port Vale and Morecambe. Dagenham were close to a play off spot last season, but have lost some of their star players and may struggle to hit such heights again.

Selling players – one of the traditional ways lower league clubs thrive. With two of last season’s four promoted teams succeeding by spending beyond their means, the question of who has the largest playing budget isn’t perhaps the most applicable when predicting the division’s promotion winners. Hereford were promoted two seasons ago largely due to bringing in loan players that they could never otherwise afford, but last season spent nothing and were relegated while Stockport, who spent beyond their means and ended up in administration, stayed up.

The ones celebrating promotion next May might prove to be the ones prepared to take the biggest gambles, though the same might apply to anyone who ends the campaign with points deductions or an uncertain future.

Recent Posts