The development squad and a plan to improve the club

Blame it on Silvio Berlusconi. Back in the early 1990s the man who would bring the term bunga bunga into common usage was the flamboyant chairman of an AC Milan team which sported Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard as the allowed three non-Italian players.

UEFA and Serie A rules mandated that a club could only have three non-Italians and so the practice was that the Lira went to a chosen trio of outsiders. Clubs were defined by the foreign players they had and Milan were the Dutchmen, across the City Inter were German with Jürgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme. It was a simpler time to watch football, and to be Silvio Berlusconi.

The future Italian PM announced though that Milan would be signing three more World Class non-Italians and – starting with the unfortunate Gianluigi Lentini – eight more Italians to create a second team which would play in European competition in the week. The one would be fresh for the weekend, the other fresh for midweek, and players would swap between the two teams.

And so modern squad football was born.

Bradford City’s own Phil Babb was a part of the emergence of the squad in the English game. in 1994 Babb and John Scales joined a Liverpool side managed by Roy Evans who already had the beloved Neil Ruddock at the heart of the back four and the maths did not match. Was Ruddock for the chop? Would Babb be out at left back (or up front, as he was at City)? What was Evans doing signing more than two top quality central defenders?

“Moving to a back three and wing backs” turned out to be the answer to the question poised by the question itself was illustrative. Growing up in the eighties my brother and myself could name the one to eleven of every team in Division One and that one to eleven was set in stone, seemingly unaffected as today’s line ups are by loss of form, injury and failing super-injunctions.

A team like Liverpool seemingly had no need for a spare defender – one sub, four four two and all – but soon the idea verbalised by Berlusconi would make the sort of questions that Evans face irrelevant. Within two years and in the run up to Euro ’96 Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United were signing Tino Asprilla when they already had Les Ferdinand, Andy Cole, Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer, Super Mac, Wor Jackie Milburn et al.

In 1981 Aston Villa won the League using only fourteen players all season. The modern football squad demands eighteen per match and a host of others to insure that even the League Two player is not required to take the field with the sort of injury which was played through in earlier eras after which players retired at thirty, and could not walk.

So we have a situation where Manchester City have over forty players in their first team squad as an extreme example and most teams could put out something approaching Berlusconi’s two teams a week. If you are on the edges of one of those huge squad – and Bradford City’s is 21 strong at current assessment – then you seem a long way from the first team. Unless you get to do something special from the bench you are a long way from the first team.

So while the dozen and some who regularly feature in the first team focus on getting from game to game the players on the edges – especially the younger ones – should be focusing on improvement. Enter the development squad.

It seems to have come from Archie Christie who came to Bradford with John Still when the Bantams interviewed the entire Dagenham and Redbridge backroom staff for roles at Valley Parade. Something had powered the Essex club’s rise from non-league compound to League One club and it seems that Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes believe that Christie is it.

Chief scout and he brings in some young lads from Falkirk which seems a sensible move but not an unexpected one but as Head of Football Development Christie’s Development Squad offers something new.

Wayne Allison approves and has been recruited to coach “The Developments” as they shall be hamfistedly dubbed with his aim on taking players who have signed professional contracts after their two year apprenticeships but are not in the first team picture week in week out, or who are falling in the limbo between young player and first teamer, and concentrate on improving them as players over getting them ready for matches as the first team squad do.

Squad sizes have increased massively in the last fifteen years, but the focus of training is on preparing a group of players for the next game leaving those who play ready, and those who do not having wasted that time. The Development Squad offers a chance to make better use of those players allowing the first team to focus on preparation, and the fringe on improvement.

Of course the idea could be a failure. Dag & Red’s success might be down to something else entirely, Christie’s ideas might not be relocatable, it all just might not work but for once Bradford City have come up with a plan to improve the quality of the footballers at the club rather than trying the tried and failed method of trying to buy in promotions or assemble squads on a season by season basis.

A plan on improving footballers is a plan to improve the football club and, in effect, the first time since the Premier League that Bradford City have had a plan to improve the club that might work.

The excuse

Michael Flynn has spoken about how he believes that the new Bradford City manager needs to put some rockets up backsides at the club. Flynn said

We need somebody with a big character who won’t take any messing. Some of the lads might feel a bit too comfortable and a few need a rocket up their backside.

Comfortable is a curious thing at a football club. One the one hand one wants the players to feel relaxed and at ease to allow themselves the freedom to express, to make mistakes without being pilloried, to be able to minimise defeats and move on from them however when the players slide too far along this scale of comfortability then they become complacent and defeats are not felt as keenly as they should be. If the blame for a loss can be put elsewhere – Referees, pitches, the quality of the opposition, injures – then it allows the players who retain self-belief but should that blame be constantly deflected then the players will no longer behave as if they are responsible for the performances.

Certainly Stuart McCall favoured the pattern of giving his players he room to breathe and could oft be heard criticising officials for the plight of his players. For what it is worth I agree with McCall that it was – in no small way – the fault of Referees making a string of atrocious decisions the apologies for which must have rung in Stuart’s ears when he heard them from men in the middle the Monday he left the club but I doubt that were I Bradford City manager I would have allowed the players to be left off the hook so easily.

Paul Buckle – the manager of Torquay United – would have the same thought. After his side had out-played City but lost two two late and unlucky goals from the Bantams he offered his players no place to hide saying that they should have done more to win the game. Since then results have not improved – one draw and three defeats from four – and Buckle’s position at the club is questioned. The response he was looking for from his players in not engaging in what could be called “excuse culture” he has not had.

A trip up to Cardiff sees Dave Jones and his team sitting in fifth place in the Championship despite a trip to Newcastle’s St James Park which saw the Bluebird beat 5-1. After the game Jones would hear not a word against his players talking about long trips, injuries and suspensions having taken a chunk out of his side who lost to a great Magpie’s performance. Jones would not allow his players to take any responsibility and a few days later they were back to winning ways 2-0 over Peterborough United.

Two managers, two approaches and the converse which one might expect with Jones’s side doggedly in the promotion hunt and Buckle under pressure. If City were in the position Jones’s has Cardiff in would excuses be a problem? We are in the position Buckle’s side is in, would we accept his strident denials of any external responsibilities? Would Michael Flynn’s kick up the arse aimed at Torquay not be seen just as kicking the players when they are down? Perhaps.

Famously after Wigan Athletic’s opening day defeat to one squeaked goal to nil against Chelsea Jose Mourinho shook Paul Jewell’s hand and said to him “I hope you stay up.” Jewell firmly returned the shake and replied “Yeah, I hope you do too.”

Jewell would not allow his Wigan players to consider themselves on a different level to any of the other teams in the top flight but when Arsenal stole a win from the Latics Jewell was quick to blame the officials. Jewell understood that “excuse culture” is nothing of the sort. Excusing the players – or not doing – is a tool to keep the pressure off the squad when one wants it to be and not in other times.

Sven Goran Erikkson revitalised Ruud Gullit’s career by accusing the midfielder of having “glass knees” during their time together at Sampdoria. Gullit’s parting shot at Sven as he left to return to AC Milan went along the lines of “I showed you” to which the Swede explained his admiration of the Dutchman and his desires to be showed up by eight superb months of football. Excuses are a way of balancing the responsibilities a player takes and good manager’s know when to use them and when not to.

Who knows what approach the next manager of Bradford City will take towards the linguist tools of his role. Perhaps he will be like Buckle in reaction to Stuart’s excessive excuses and perhaps he will get the same results as the Torquay boss or perhaps he will strike a perfect balance letting his players feel they can control their football destinies but shielding them from outrageous misfortune.

Either way it is worth remembering that these “excuses” are tools of the manager and when employed by a Jewell giving his players the belief that they can compete with anyone or a Jones telling his players to move onto the next game without worry are at least as much about the mentality inside the club as outside it.

Recent Posts