The friends of Bradford City welcome back that rarest of thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s better

I want Bradford City to be better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackson the Odysseus

The ability to shoot with accuracy was never one of Peter Jackson’s better qualities. As a player I struggle to recall any occasion where Jackson – who celebrated his first win at City’s manager in waiting by appointing Colin Cooper as his assistant this week – hit a ball towards goal as cleanly as Tom Adeyemi’s powerful lash at the Rotherham goal frame on Tuesday night.

When Jackson did unleash he picked his moment though – a part of a 3-3 draw at Elland Road against Leeds United which was the highlight of his second spell as a player at Valley Parade – but perhaps not as well as Adeyemi picked his.

Back in the early 1990s Jackson’s powerful lash found its way deftly into the goal with far more certainty than the strike which seems to have cemented his place in the Bradford City job.

In truth though while I wax lyrical about Jackson’s effort back at Elland Road I struggle to marry up the man and the moment. My memory recalls Jackson’s hand in that game, in that strike, but there is a blurring that comes with time to the mind – especially for events at the far end of Elland Road at that time where watching football vied with assuring one’s personal safety for one’s attentions.

Time becomes judge to us all and as Jackson takes over at Valley Parade there is only the certainty that at some point in the future, one game, one month, one year, one era later that he will leave and the kind of blurring of history will have its say.

Will Jackson’s running onto the field to celebrate with his players after Tuesday night’s phantom goal be regarded as the desperate Jackson celebrating outrageous fortune which promotes him above his abilities or as a turning of the tide in favour of the club by the man finally seizing control of his own destiny?

The theme of destiny plays strong in Jackson as he talks on his return to Valley Parade. If he once bled blue and white then he did so for a team which now – we are to assume – are defined as not being “a proper football club” as is the praise lavished on Bradford City this week.

Jackson the opportunist seizes his opportunity well. He has become Odysseus. Heroic in the siege of Troy he sets about returning home but the years of journey strip the man of all the trappings which defined him. Odysseus returns to a house run down and – with the unerring accuracy of Ademeyi’s strike – proves himself.

Like Odysseus, Jackson drifted but employs cunning and guile to make best of the situation ahead of him. Like Odysseus he fell into the thrall of temptation. For seven years forsaking his beloved Penelope he spent in the arms of Calypso.

There is an edge of the epic about Jackson, a touch of the pantomime, and time will tell if his story is the stuff of legend or passes into being a footnote.

Certainly it seems that anything less than a firm pasting at Morecambe will see Jackson carry on in the City job on Monday but as relegation fears still linger the would be manager would like to beat a rival and lay down a marker.

The manager will hope to have Lenny Pidgeley fit for Saturday’s trip to The Shrimper’s new stadium the goalkeeper injuring both thigh and thumb keeping Rotherham at bay on Tuesday. Jon McLauglin stands by to replace.

Lewis Hunt and Luke O’Brien seem to be enjoying the life of a full back more in Jackson’s 442 while central defenders Steve Williams and Luke Oliver look set to cement places as the regular starting pair. Oliver and Hunt represent curiosities. Loyal to Taylor thus far one wonders if they are waiting for the former manager’s next call.

One wonders too how Bradford City history will recall Luke Oliver. His critics have little impact on the player who shakes off mistakes to put in a consistently committed, if not consistently high, performance.

Jon Worthington’s 82 minutes was the longest the player had put in for the Bantams since joining the club and the best any player has put in all season. His partnership with Michael Flynn bodes well. Kevin Ellison will have no problems pushing Scott Dobie out of the way for a recall while Gareth Evans continues on the right hand side.

James Hanson seems to be enjoying playing alongside Jake Speight who in turn seems to enjoy a starting place in the side. Speight’s profligacy in Jackson’s first two games has bordered on the comical at times – his falling slow poke to goal risked being stopped by blades of grass – but his effort is apparent for all to see and makes a contrast to Dobie.

Indeed Speight’s effort recalls former Jackson team mate Sean McCarthy – history remembers him fondly – who went through a long period where he and the goal frame seemed utterly unfamiliar. The Welshman was shunted onto the right wing perhaps as a recognition of the fact that his aggressive commitment never failed, even if his eye for goal did.

In time McCarthy found the net again and went on a remarkable scoring run that ended with his exit to Oldham and the Premier League and wrote him a minor place in City’s folklore. History forgets his wilderness times.

For Speight to learn the lessons of Sean he need only keep up his being a nuisance and he will be useful. Goals will follow but only as a result of effort and commitment.

Speight, like Jackson, hopes for the blurring effect of memory.

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