The team that taught me football: Part One

Best teams, worst teams.

It is all opinion and opinion is no bad thing but those opinions are formed by our experiences watching teams and players week in, week out each one teaching what could and should be done, what might be avoided.

I went to my first Bradford City game in 1981 on the last day of the season when we played Hereford United and lost 1-0. Since then I’ve seen hundreds of players and about a dozen or so managers and some I could not even recall playing but others have stuck in the mind and the ones which stick in the mind most are the ones who have formed my footballing opinions.

This is my team that taught me football.

Gary Walsh in goal

I’ve seen Paul Tomlinson frustrate strikers who rushed at him one to one because Tomlinson never got beaten one to one.

I’ve seen Matt Clarke bouncing around the goalmouth like a flea seemingly able to change direction in mid-air and had my heart in my mouth.

I know Paul Henderson was a model pro who settled himself down for the season astonishingly quickly and I’ve seen Jon McLaughlin race sixty yards to lump someone who has had a go at his friend and all these keepers have taught me something.

But none of them had what Gary Walsh had.

Gary Walsh taught me that goalkeeping was positioning. That the best keepers were the best not because they were athletic but because any athleticism they did show was second defence.

First was positioning. The ability to read a game and not thing a few moves ahead and then stand where they needed to be. Good goalkeeping is about looking forward, not reactions, and Walsh was able to do that.

So when I hear Match of the Day pundits say “They hit it straight at the keeper” then I raise a smile and think of Walsh, shuffling to the right two steps seemingly for no reason and then two seconds later taking the ball into his palms.

Nick Summerbee on the right wing

No one really liked Nick Summerbee and there were plenty of good reasons for that. His faking injury against City showed poor sportsmanship and his reluctance to join the club suggested that in his time at Valley Parade he would much rather have been anywhere else but what he did have – and what I took from watching him – was the uses of quality delivery.

Of course Peter Beagrie has superb delivery – better than Summerbee but then again everything in Beagrie’s team worked well and hardly anything in Summerbee’s team including Summerbee. He did not track back well enough, did not take control of games well enough, did not get involved enough. In fact all he did well was deliver the ball and he delivered the ball superbly.

And it is that which Summerbee taught me. What to do in a situation of limited talents. Managers would use Summerbee to take corners but seemed to notice that his team struggled to win anything from the delivery no matter how good it was. A great cross headed away and it was left to someone else to try create a second phase of the attack from the edge of the box.

And so Summerbee switched to that role. Rather than trying to deliver a good ball he would be detailed to get ball after it was headed clear and create an effective second phase. To return the corner with interest so to speak. In the football economics of scarcity it was an education. If you have two jobs to do that both require one player than the most obvious job is not necessarily the most productive one.

Summerbee did that for a time and drifted away from Valley Parade and no one really cared by that lesson is there when Garry Thompson tucks inside to form a firmer midfield rather than go to his man when everyone is screaming at him to make a tackle.

In left midfield Shaun Murray

When he was fifteen Shaun Murray was the best prospect in English football. Ten years later and having been through Tottenham, Portsmouth and Scarborough he had become a player for which it was said that he had a great future behind him.

He arrived at City, played a good season or two, and then faded making a decisive contribution in the gap left by Chris Waddle in 1997 before drifting away and joining Notts County on the way down as City went on the way up.

And so it would be easy to forget Shaun Murray were it not for a legacy he left for me which has become the yardstick of any creative player.

Shaun Murray always improved possession.

When he got the ball near the touchline he would either play a pass or win a throw in. When he got the ball near the byline he would either play a cross or win a corner. In the middle of the field he would find a good pass to a man who had space to do something with the ball or he would keep the ball and move it away from trouble.

So it was what he did not do that was educational. He did not try beat a man every time and get tackled, leading to the ball flying back against his team mates who were caught coming forward. He did not waste possession by putting in low percentage crosses. He did not dump the ball onto a teammate unwilling to take responsibility for his performance.

Which was nothing to do with being England’s one time brightest prospect or even from being especially talented it was from understanding the Cardinal virtues of football. That the job of a player in possession is to take responsibility and improve in the situation.

And every creative player since is judged by that yardstick.

Never criticise for making a mistake trying to do the right thing and want them to take responsibility for ensuring that when the ball leaves their feet the team are in a better position than when they got it. A bad pass is a mistake, running into two players you were never going to beat and having your team turned around is not.

The dominative not really a winger, not big enough for a central midfielder Shaun Murray was smart enough to realise that, and in realising that I learned a lot from him.

Devitt with the best and worse of Chris Waddle

We are getting to an age at Bradford City were one can no longer assume that the younger supporters have a knowledge of what has proceeded them – I knew little of the late sixties when I started watching City – and so for those you remember indulge me the recap, those who do not pull up a chair.

There was a footballer called Chris Waddle and he was one of the most able players of his generation. He played for England missing a penalty in the World Cup semi-finals and he played in a European Cup final which went down on record as one of the worst games to have been seen at such a level. At the end of his career Waddle turned up at Valley Parade.

He was signed by Chris Kamara after Kamara sent his chief scout up to Falkirk to find out if the former England man still had the legs – he did – and his months at City are the stuff of legend.

The goal at Everton, the pass at Grimsby, Waddle would do one thing a game which no other player you had ever seen would do. It was a joy to behold for sure but it was a pain too and the pain was of lingering relegation worries. For all Waddle’s personal abilities – and they were significant – the team he was in lost far too often.

Waddle exited and was replaced by Shaun Murray who – despite being a highly touted George Green of a youngster in his day – was hardly a player of Waddle’s stature. Nevertheless it is my belief that Murray saved City that season and that with Waddle we would have been relegated.

It is a contradiction for sure. Very good players are sometimes not able to feature in good teams and – at times – take something from that team.

History over we return to the current Bradford City side and the problems which it faces in the form of Jamie Devitt – the Waddle of our story. Without a doubt Devitt is a confident and able footballer and his runs and control on the ball are great to watch. We used to way that Waddle seemed like he had an extra second on the ball – he did seem to – but Devitt like Waddle took their time in going forward and so the pace of attacking moves slowed down.

Devitt – a link man between the forward and the midfield – has that Waddle habit of hanging onto the ball and taking the sting out of an attacking move. As midfielders advance forward and wide men run towards space Devitt’s holding onto the ball means that midfielders go from being in space to being next to him and wide men check back for fear of running offside.

There is a theory in sports psychology that the longer that one holds onto possession the fewer options there will be – defending players being more able to cover attacking players than attacking players are able to create opportunities – and that problem is illustrated with Devitt.

But it is not illustrated when Devitt surges into the box beating men for fun, nor when he hits an arrow-like shot at goal. This is not some mealy mouthed criticism of a player but rather the way that the player is deployed. At the moment Devitt takes the sting out of City when coming forward, but when forward he presents problems for defenders.

Which sets Phil Parkinson a problem. Keen on his 4411 Parkinson has Devitt as his link man but I believe that that link is negated by its ponderousness. Much better to press Devitt against the defensive line and allow him to get the ball in the second phase of play after the ball arrives in the final third. Much better to have him having the ball delivered to him and much better for City to attack without having to go via a slowing factor. The win over Torquay saw City sacrifice the link man position and look the better for it.

Of course watching City one might worry about the supply not being available but I believe that with Devitt deployed further forward that supply will come from a driving midfield which does not have to check when it feeds the link man. Like Shaun Murray rather than Chris Waddle Devitt could get on with doing what he does rather than being the focus of a fulcrum of expectation that the ball must go through him.

Shaun Murray, the unexpected

Some players are predicted to do better than others. Whether it be the club they came from, the price tag they carried, the league position City finished in last season, or even their mere physical presence – the simple fact is that the weight of expectation lays heavier on the shoulders of some players than others.

When Shaun Murray, who could generously be described as “diminutive” signed for an undisclosed (read: pennies) fee from Scarborough in the pre-season of 1994/95 (after the 6,000 or so that regularly turned up to VP had witnessed a finish three points outside the play-offs in the Third Division the previous term), it is fair to say that he was not viewed as a key signing.

Oh, expectation.

True, the maiden season for Murray was not a good one for the side: Lennie Lawrence steered the club to a mid-table finish, and left by November of 95/96. And, yes, some would cite his unwillingness to shoot and, true, it could be said that he’d have added to his tally of goals had he attempted to do more than pass it into the net once he’d reached the target. But, man, the route he took in reaching that target.

Murray possessed a relentlessness rarely seen before or since at VP when it came to getting the ball into the box. The only difference between his brand of route one and the route one of The Doc was that with Murray, the ball was stuck to his feet – and that’s not to say he was a greedy player: far from it. Murray wouldn’t stick to the wing and run, like, say, Daley. He would be in the middle, at full-back, seemingly devoid of the concept of energy conservation. Every passing triangle there was, Murray formed part of it.

You can imagine the opposition right-back turning up and stifling a snigger as they saw the tiny wee Geordie standing opposite them. By the end of the match, that smirk was well and truly wiped off their faces, as Murray would meander past them with guile and trickery that belied everything he should have been like.

After the 1994/95 season, and being the player of the season by quite some shout (at least in my own personal recollection of events), and the club pushing closer and closer (before making good on the threat) of making the play-offs, new manager Chris Kamara seemed to stop looking at what the player was like, and started to look at what he thought the player should be like. By Wembley in 1996, Murray was not in the team. He was not even on the bench.

In the season afterwards, we had the fun of Chris Waddle and that goal against Everton in the cup. We also had a very close scrape with relegation that was very much staring us in the face as the inevitable, not a mere threat. When Waddle left, the fans were crestfallen – the talisman had gone, and we were going to get relegated. Only João Pinto’s brother could save us now – except that the man from Portugal was finding that Bradford in March was not quite as alluring as his native Porto and, out of options, Murray found himself back in the side. Again, there was no expectation. We were going down, already – what would it matter that we played a bit-part player, most of the time playing on his wrong side?

Again, expectations were wrong.

In the end, City did stay up (on the final day), and Murray excelled in making the unthinkable achievable, again by bucking the trend of expectation. He had another season with City before the class of 1999 who took City up to the Premiership, but, make no bones about it, without Shaun Murray, Bradford City would not have been a Premiership club.

And who could have ever expected that?

The long close season

Okay I admit it, I’m jealous. Two days after watching Burnley gain promotion to the Premier League on the tele I’m beginning to crack. I’m just relieved I didn’t watch Gillingham beat Shrewsbury or Scunthorpe beat Millwall the two days before it as well, or I’d be more glum than Kevin Blackwell upon discovering the referee of his next game.

I know it’s all our own fault and that there are too many what ifs and if onlys for a sane person to contemplate, but it could, and should, have been us. I’m not referring to Burnley taking a place in the Premier League – we’ve been there, done it, be nice to do again someday but no rush. I’m talking about Burnley enjoying a slice of glory, a day out at Wembley, a chance for regular players to become all-time club heroes.

Having lived in the Skipton and Craven area for almost 20 years of my life, the ramifications of Burnley’s glory are more obtrusive. Round our way there’s always being more Leeds and Burnley fans than City, the days of walking to the bus stop in my claret and amber shirt on route to Valley Parade and been mercilessly ridiculed by Burnley fans in the pub opposite are still easily recalled. It means their celebrations don’t begin and end with the TV remote like they can with other clubs, my face feels well and truly rubbed in it.

I quickly hopped over the Lancashire border on Saturday and it seemed every other car had a Burnley flag flapping in the wind. For the last week I’ve overheard numerous conversations between non-football fans about watching the big game. I’ve been bored by people who’ve not been to Turf Moor in years bragging about how great the Clarets are. Too many friend’s Facebook status have read “looking forward to going to Wembley”. At least the open top bus is unlikely to go through Skipton.

And I’ve got no problem with it really, but it just reminds you what you’re missing out on. Round our way a few years back, folk were making the same amount of fuss about Bradford City going up, but since beating Liverpool to stay in the Premier League there’s been no opportunity to get drunk in celebration of City’s achievements, to rush out and buy the commemorative video/DVD, to elevate well-liked players into heroes.

One day our turn will come again, but every close season I think that and it’s always someone else’s players dancing with a trophy a year later. Wembley looked good on the TV on Monday and the Burnley fans looked liked they were having fun. On more than one occasion at work yesterday I caught myself day dreaming of us being there. Of Sky interviewing goal scoring hero Peter Thorne who calls it “one of the best moments of my career”; of Graeme Lee climbing the royal box steps and lifting the trophy; of Stuart McCall having another go at trying to stay on top of a car.

It’s stupid to waste such energy, but I only have myself to blame. I hate the prospect of the close season and of three months without meaningful City games. I’m usually ready for a break from it by the last game and this season was no different; but after all the Premiership, Champions League and FA Cup issues are sorted there’s nothing on and so the weeks before the first pre-season friendly feel bleak.

So I try to soak up as much football while it’s on as I can, this year being a little better than most with the Premier League finishing later. But each team enjoying their slice of success and each set of fans going crazy in celebration only reminds you of what might have been with City and how much ending the next season in glory would mean, given the pain endured during the previous one. Then suddenly you’re looking forward to next season, and it’s still weeks and weeks away.

I’m not a complete freak, at least I don’t think I am. During the season I can be guilty of neglecting friends and it’s nice to have full weekends to make up for that with. The weather is usually better and there’s always other sports to try. Formula One might be good this year, I really should go and try Keighley Cougars at least once…oh, when is the first pre-season friendly?

When there’s no European Championship or World Cup to block up the gap, I find myself setting City-related leisure tasks to make the weeks go by a little quicker. Read every edition of City Gent I own in order, or go through an especially memorable season’s collection of matchday programmes. This year I’m attempting to watch every City video and DVD I own, covering some 15 years of action, in chronological order – sad I know. But I’m enjoying recalling the contributions of some of our less celebrated heroes – Shaun Murray, no one ever talks about him anymore, what a great little player. And if you’ve never heard of Keith Coates, get yourself to the Upfront store right now.

All of which beats waiting for City transfer news, which is largely unrewarding and frustrating. You want to be greeted by news of an exciting signing when you load up the Telegraph & Argus website in the morning, not yet another interview about an underperforming player hoping to do better next season. The message boards used to be a great source of rumours, these days it’s full of unrealistic tales of Championship players apparently considering dropping down the ladder or non-league hot shots Stuart would be stupid to overlook.

Of course I should be grateful, because we get nine months of the year filled with going to watch City and at least we can feel stress-free for those three months it’s not with us. It’s just I don’t think I’ll be able to fully enjoy a summer again until I’ve ended the previous season with something to celebrate.

For now Burnley fans, please stay out of my way. I’m starting to forget how you feel.

The Boulding brothers settle for Valley Parade

Michael Boulding has an impressive goal tally for sure and he has been tagged as a target for City for a long time this summer but in terms of alarm bells there is very few that the 32 year old has not clanged.

Boulding joins City after the sort of on off chase which never has brought us much joy in the past. His father insists that the decision to join City has nothing to do with cash but one cannot help but be reminded of the transfers of Ashley Ward, of Lee Power, of Benito Carbone when thinking of this deal.

City’s best signings grasped at the chance to come to Valley Parade with both hands.

Then there is the injury picked up in training with minutes to go of a training session before a game which saw him able to go home rather than to Farsley. In itself not a problem – an injured player should rest – but hardly that desire to settle in to City.

Nevertheless Rory Boulding played that night. What are we to make of Rory and the deal that brings him in his brother’s pocket? How much elevation does the younger get to please the elder? How does McCall deal with Michael if if offers the opinion that Rory deserves a starting run out?

We are to hope that Michael is just pushing for his kid brother not pushing him into places he should not be. These are alarm bells but in a world where Christiano Ronaldo is a slave perhaps this is just Michael using player power and making his own decisions.

The biggest alarm though sounds when one recalls Mansfield’s brilliant, spirited display at Valley Parade last season after which I commented that the team would not be relegated should they play like that more often.

Boulding scored in that game. His 25 goals in a relegated side that can play so well but often did not makes one wonder how the striker fits into that or any of the many teams he has played for? Is the one of those players who while impressive gets more out of a team than he puts in?

Chris Waddle’s time at City was brilliant to watch but Shaun Murray got us out of the bottom two. Wayne Rooney’s second season at Everton was much worse then the year after he left and Tim Cahill took his place. These were good players who for whatever reason did not fit.

Let us this is not the case with Boulding. Let us hope that there worries are unfounded and that the alarm bells are pre-season tension playing on the mind. After all all indications are that this reason is very much make or break.

We welcome both Boulding brothers with the same – if not more considering Michael’s three clubs in the last month – enthusiasm they join us with.

In 12 months time though this double signing and how the relationship between the two is handled could very much decide Stuart McCall’s future.

Ben Back As Wetherall Looks For the Answer In The Most Obvious Place

The answer to all football’s problems is the next manager away.

Either that or it is the guy on the bench, or the guy coming back from injury, from suspension or – in the case of Bradford City at the moment – the guy coming back from loan.

Ben Muirhead is returning from Rochdale to cover the suspended Joe Colbeck and immediately the hopes of a City – well 1% of a City – are heaped on his shoulders.

I find Muirhead a curious player. Initially his brand of blind alley run with no end product drove me mad but everyone else seemed to love Ben!!. When Bryan Robson and Colin Todd had had a word with the former Manchester United winger he seemed to rid his game of some of the more wasteful parts and began to realise that charging at the full back and losing the ball might look good but winning a throw seventy yards from goal with infinitely preferable and so he did that.
Ben Muirhead got some end product to his game and was all the better for it but at this time Ben!! was replaced to Grrr Ben and finally Muirhead and his popularity wained. Loan at Rochdale was assumed to be the last we would see of the quiet Doncaster lad.

But now he is back and charged with the job of contending with the hot and cold blowing Omar Daley for the right wing role in four games that could shape the future of the club. Absence has made the heart grow fonder of Muirhead and big things are expected.

And at once one recalls the player ripping through defences a league above and looking oh so impressive. When Chris Waddle left Valley Parade City were in relegation trouble despite his entertaining play but it was Shaun Murray – the oft forgotten mid-1990s midfielder – who took the role that Waddle enjoyed and made it matter to the team. Sometimes – and David Wetherall will hope this time – it is about the shape of the peg rather than quality.

Recent Posts