Preview / Absurd / Regret

In his preamble to musings on philosophy Danish poet Søren Kierkegaard commented “Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both.”

Debt

Racing Universitaire Algerios goalkeeper Albert Camus remarked “After many years in which the world has afforded me many experiences, what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”

Camus was not much of a goalkeeper and retired early with novelty remembering him as better than he likely would have been. His aphorism about what he owed to the game is as accurate enough for consideration as the first football season to be played behind closed doors kicks off on Saturday.

There is a lip service paid to the idea that the match attending supporter is the heart of football. This is obviously rendered untrue by those who live The Ladbrokes Life, or who watch Soccer Saturday every week, or who support Barcelona while living in Bradford who are capable of having an experience of football supporting that does not rely on attendance.

“What is football without fans?” was the question, and we will get an answer.

Hope

Over the summer Bradford City have rid themselves of around a dozen players who one struggles to find anything positive or celebratory to write about.

Hope Akpan was not as bad as a mass of people would have it but never did anything to suggest he should be missed.

Those players have been replaced with a second collection of players who are on the whole younger, and those player have been added to by a half dozen players from the youth setup which stands as a lingering testament to the planning done by Edin Rahic while he was chairman of Bradford City.

All this recruitment is best judged in retrospect but it seems highly unlikely that Bradford City have traded a group of League Two quality players for a group of League One quality players. Indeed it seems likely that while the players will have different characteristics they will on the whole be of a similar quality.

Absurd

Narratives around football centre on a type of control which the game seems to rarely, if ever, afford.

One player leaves only to become top scorer, another ends up in the semi-professional leagues and you would do well to see the justification in that given their performances for City. City sign the best player in the League and he is awful but the guy who could not get on the bench at Carlisle is great.

What makes a single recruitment successful? How much was Nahki Wells a success because of two huge morale boosting goals in his first few games? Why was the tireless Billy Knott of Chelsea not a player worth keeping? There are answers to all these questions in principle but that answer is so much a compounded of variables as to be unknowable in practice.

We look at these events and mesh them together in an extrapolation trying to establish that grouping unknowables together makes something knowable by the aggregate. We call that a good transfer window because the alternative seems too dark for us to be comfortable with.

By the time he had given up the goalkeeping Camus had started to look how the human condition attempted to create a sense of events and senseless world and dubbed the condition the absurd.

Absurd

Stuart McCall is planning for a season without striker James Vaughan who scored seven goals in free play last term. McCall should not replace Vaughan with another player so much as he must look to recreate Vaughan’s goals in the sum of play.

Twelve months ago Gary Bowyer assigned the task of goal scoring to a subset of the forward players. This tactical approach Hugo Meisl considered old fashioned in the 1930s but is very much the way the English football operated then and has until very recently.

In his second spell as Bradford City manager McCall tried to create a more multifaceted approach to the game in which players are required to contribute to more to the many areas of play than Bowyer’s teams were required to.

Assuming McCall does this again Vaughan’s goals are replaced if this distribution of attacking play brings one more goal from echo other outfield position. This seems a better way of replacing the striker than chasing another name player through the Wasteland.

Likewise a stronger team can be built from distributing defensive play throughout the team. Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United who task Oli McBurnie with breaking up opposition creative play by blocking passing lanes between their defence and midfield. To Wilder McBurnie’s success in doing that is as important as his scoring goals. McBurnie has six in thirty six for Sheffield United but Wilder judges him on the goal difference while he is on the field.

In City’s opening game – a 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers in the League Cup last weekend – McCall showed signs of having a similar broader view of the impact of a player on the field. The City manager borrowed the Sheffield United trick of the central defender overload which saw Anthony O’Connor crossing to Harry Pritchard into space created by the forward players Guthrie and Novak not looking to score but rather moving away and taking defensive players with them.

There has never been a question of McCall’s passion but his tactical acuity has been called into doubt seemingly to provide a counter to that passion. McCall is a tactical facsimilator rather than an innovator and watching his career has shown that.

Absurd

AL: Belief. Motivation. Motivation, motivation, motivation! The three M’s. That’s what football is about. It’s all about motivation.

CA: Motivation, I follow that.

AL: You’ve got to get those boys on the pitch, motivated. It’s no good saying go out and buy some ice cream, go to the pictures. You’ve got to tell them what they’re doing. You’ve got to motivate them onto the pitch. Push them out with forks if you need to, but get them out onto the pitch. And then when the game’s over, get them in again.

CA: Now, you went to Hartlepool, and you had this system of getting them angry. Was that – Rage.

AL: Well, you know rage is very much an adrenaline inducing factor in all sports. I mean Linford Christie wasn’t in a good mood when he won the hundred metres, was he?

CA: Well, he was afterwards.

AL: Yes, but you’ve got to be in a rage to bring out the best in yourself. And what I do to my players, one of the tactics, this was an early tactic, is to kidnap their wives. Or girlfriends! Girlfriends or wives. I’d send them all on a bus up to Grimsby, with no ticket back, and, errm, the lads went mad. They were – One game against Rotherham, my whole team was sent off, almost as soon as they got on.

CA: Yes. Right. The other sort of weird thing you used to use. I’ll not say ‘weird’, but –

AL: Odd.

CA: Odd.

Alan Latchley, by Peter Cook

Absurd

When one looks at the 2020/2021 season to be opened in front of empty stadiums with teams trying to work out how to exist under a very poorly implemented salary cap it seems obtuse to question a club’s ability to create and stick to a long term plan.

It seems entirely obvious to suggest that Bradford City’s planning is limited and limited to subsisting with the hope of promotion but not the expectation. I may not be especially happy about this I am not tempted to direct this ire towards Julian Rhodes, Stefan Rupp, the man who runs the social media or the chap that cuts the grass.

There is an idea that Bradford City should be creating a plan to move upwards in the Football League and that failing to do so convicts the club, the people who run it, and anyone who does not share the Sisyphusan zeal of a lack of ambition.

I am reminded of an episode of South Park where the gang finds out that a group of Gnomes have created a three step plan that explains recent clothing theft. Phase one reads “Collect Underpants”, phase three reads “Profit” and under phase two there is a large question mark.

How one fills that question mark defines how one approaches the 2020/2021 season at Bradford City and perhaps football itself.

Some fill the question mark with blind faith and optimism, some fill it with statistical analysis and talk of tactics, some fill it with a demand that someone else fills it. Ultimately this might be a reflection of each supporter’s locus of control

However there is an answer as to what is in the question mark space but it is not blind faith and clapping harder or the idea that the club is secretly machinating against one’s best interests. It is simple, failing neo-liberal economics.

Neo-Liberalism

The changes in football in the 1980s and early 1990s are best understood as being the impact of neo-liberal economics on the game. In 1985 Tottenham Hotspur FC set up a Holding Company which owned Tottenham Hotspur FC allowing it to sidestep the rules of the Football League at the time which prevented owners from taking money out of a club in any significant way.

As with the privatisation of British Gas, British Telecom and other utilities Football – a hitherto break even activity – had found a way to join the Reagan-Thatcherite consensus that the market should govern activity.

No Bradford City fan needs me to say what football was like in 1985 nor do people need me to help them recall the years between then and Hillsborough. As Adrian Tempany recalls in his essential book having failed to defeat football through policing and identity card regulation the Thatcherites deregulated all that could be and made the game the market’s problem.

The market solved many pressing problems within football like unsafe, crumbling stadia. It increased the quality of the play which it started to call “the product” and began to invest in support infrastructure in a way hitherto unknown.

But while the market created the improvements needed it unsurprisingly began the tendency to monopoly – or in football’s case an oligopoly – which characterises the economic system. Whereas once the football boom was for everyone the capitalistic filtering of wealth to the top began.

Consumption

The successful clubs demand more consumers and cannibalise support. The language of football is the language of the unregulated market. Of assets and of performance, and failures to perform as expected. The language of football supporting is all but colonised by the language of consumption.

Soon after The Football Industry started to recatagorise football as a product that product stopped being the ninety minutes of a game and started to be the victory within that game. Football Clubs sell themselves as Glory Machines and supporters become consumers of that product rather than enablers.

Defeats then are recatagorised not as events in the life of a supporter – as things to be experienced – but as support issues similar to when your Netflix stops working. The clamour for refunds after a poor away performance is no different to the extra month on your package given when you were not able to watch TV for a night, called the customer complaint line, and they need to placated you.

Twenty five years after the deregulation of the football markets and supporters of Bradford City are now inefficiently assigned resources in a system which would prefer us to trade season tickets in for Sky Sports subscriptions.

Dysfunctional

There is no secret as to why Bradford City cannot create and execute a plan for improving Bradford City, just the unspoken realisation that we are living in a failing world created by our neo-liberal choices.

The tendency to monopoly has centralised football into an industry which functions at the top of the game and is increasingly dysfunctional the further down the pyramid one goes.

It is a laudable traditionalism in football that prevents the market’s answer to the problems being realised as clubs fight tooth and nail to retain their status but just because the likes of Bradford City refuse to bow to the market pressure to be subsumed into the higher echelons of football it does not mean that those market forces are not present.

One can have all the blind faith, or all the red faced anger, concerning City’s ability to create and maintain a plan one wants it will not alter the realities of operating in an unregulated and predictory marketplace in which there is no more easy a way for a League Two team to rise up the leagues as there is for the local Greengrocer to withstand the onslaught of Amazon and Tesco.

And lest this be read as a suggestion that no one cares about Bradford City it is not so, it is worse than that. A small group of people care a great deal and a huge group of people care that we and the rest of League One & Two just go away.

Phase Two: “Smash the capitalist system.”

Seems unlikely.

Unlikely

Increasingly, and in my opinion as a misguided attempt to deal with the absurdity characterised by the question mark of phase two, there is an attack on that supporting football as being counterproductive. That engaging in support is an unsophisticated act of blind loyalty, or blind faith, or both.

This attitude is as present as Bradford City as it is elsewhere and holds to itself as if too much optimism, too much loyalty, will let the people in the shadows of the boardroom off the hook for coming up with a direct path from the exclusionary level the club is in now to something better.

The faith that – given everything we know about the system that that Bradford City operates in – the difference between success and failure is the want of creating and sticking to a plan.

This too seems to be an act of naive faith on the par with the false correlation that clapping harder will make players perform better.

Phase Two: “The Rhodes Plan.”

Seems unlikely.

Optimism

Football is optimism.

Football is the optimism that the things a football club does – be they well planned or seemingly random – coalesce into something that wins football matches.

It is the optimism that for one factor that can be controlled and done well the tens of other contributing factors which beyond control will run the right way.

The only sense we can make of a football season is a retrofitted forced narrative in which we convince ourselves we could have had control so we can tell ourselves that we will have control of it in the future. In this way we try tell ourselves we can can control the world around us.

The last six months since 2019/2020 ended early on a Friday afternoon and everyone went home should tell us that the control is beyond us. Optimism is the sine qua non.

It is Camus’ view of The Absurd writ large. To characterise the optimism of football fans as something which football no longer needs is to pathologise the act of football supporting itself while surrendering to the neo-liberal view where football supporters are replaced by consumers of the football product.

Preview

We take all that, do it over nine months, and call it the 2020/2021 season.

I agree with Kierkegaard.

One can involve oneself in the emotional reach of a football season or not, but either way one will regret it.

How Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds

An away trip through South Yorkshire

Chesterfield away is a classic of the genre. A one goal victory that came when Bradford City ground the ambition out of the home side leaving only struggle.

Every pass forward was marshalled and pushed away by an imperious defensive line. Every easy clearance was made hard by strikers and midfielders who chased down what would have been the routine were it not for the attitude that manager Phil Parkinson has drummed into his team.

The goal came when Tony McMahon finished off a mazy run and low cross by Billy Clarke. Clarke enjoyed his best game in claret and amber and tormented the Chesterfield backline dropping into the hole between James Hanson and the midfield and exploiting it.

Chesterfield’s response – to bring on the aging Richie Humphrey – showed a team stepping back on their home turf. McMahon’s goal finished off the home team.

Parkinson would say after the game that City could have had four – indeed the post was pinged a number of times – but really the City manager oversells his policies. A one goal away win excites Parkinson – and excites me – because of the grind that has seen wins come Scunthorpe United, Rochdale, Doncaster Rovers, Oldham Athletic.

Those days are Parkinson at his best.

Playing away to teams that want to win mirrors the visits of Sunderland, or Arsenal, or Aston Villa, or the trip to Chelsea. When the opposition commits to victory Parkinson uses Hanson the battering ram occupying multiple defenders, and soaks up pressure with a mean back four.

The City manager’s problems come at home when teams sit back and defend the Bantams attack which is sporadic as shown by the third fewest goals scored total in League One. When City are forced to make the play in a game then games slip away from Parkinson.

Or sometimes things do not work.

An away trip to South Yorkshire

Text message before the game with Sheffield United: “Upper or lower?”

Reply: “Neither.”

Going to a football match should not cost more than going to the cinema. I’ve said this in the past and I believe it.

I think that Bradford City’s home pricing is a rare oasis of sense in a madness of a game in which this generation sells the game from the next and does so with a great deal of support from those getting fleeced.

Bradford City’s away pricing – and walk up pricing – is equally toxic to the game as a whole. Last time I checked it cost £25 to go to Valley Parade as an away fan. It cost £22 at Chesterfield, it cost similar at Walsall, it cost similar at Doncaster, or at Scunthorpe and so on.

The impact of this aggressive pricing that makes following football a thing that only some can afford is obvious to anyone who sees the aging supporter group and the gentrification which seems to come with it.

£27 to get into Sheffield United is certainly something I can afford but it is not something I will pay. It is a few pounds more than other games and those few pounds are hardly significant to me but I will not pay it.

And I do not know when the hand becomes the wrist nor do I feel like I’ve created a hard and fast rule never to be broken but I would not support this part of football’s attempts to gouge out of my pocket because they assume that because I can pay it they should sell to me, aged 42, for a price that me, aged 21, would never have been able to pay.

The combination of the two

If you enjoy a team that puts in a performance that is part frustration, part opportunism then you would have enjoyed the Chesterfield game.

I would argue that Chesterfield, or Scunthorpe, or Doncaster, or Oldham were little different to the game with Chelsea that defines 2015 for Bradford City: Minimise chances coming at your goal and maximise what one has at the other end.

But I cannot say with all honesty that all people would enjoy all or any of those games. I am cut from a cloth were I am more impressed with hard work and honesty on a field than I am by rabona kicks and 45 man massing moves.

I enjoy seeing a team with limitations which overcome those limitations, some of the time, and the processional football of the Champions League leaves me cold. I’ve no interest in football where the players who walk onto the field against Barcelona believe they are beaten before kick off.

Winning away at Chesterfield from few chances but battling to make sure that the team does not concede a chance let alone a goal is a good Saturday afternoon for me but probably only because of the narrative it creates.

It is enjoyable to watch my team Bradford City attempting to overcome limitations because I know those limitations. There is an overarching story of the emergence of Rory McArdle from understudy to as rock of defence, or about Tony McMahon finding a role having floated anchorless at the start of the season.

(There is also a story about James Hanson being not good enough for a transfer to a professional club, not good enough for the bottom of League Two, not good for the middle of League Two, not good enough for a League Cup semi-final, not good enough for a play-off second leg, not good enough for League One, not good enough for a team chasing the League One play-offs. One day he will not be good enough and I’m sure the phrase “we told you so” will be used regardless of all the times naysayers were proven wrong. Watching Hanson over the last few years is a lesson in the narrative of football.)

These things are seen over the course of months, and years, and not in isolation. Football, for me, is never viewed in isolation. I find the idea of turning on Sky Sports to watch any old game as mystifying as opening a book at a random page, reading twenty pages, and then putting it back on the shelf.

To watch the unfolding narrative of a team one needs to be able to watch often and prices over £20 are no aid to that for me but would have been a substantial problem to me twenty years ago. Is Sheffield United vs Bradford City £27 worth of entertainment when – if one considers it – one could take a friend to watch The Force Awakens in IMAX and still have change for popcorn?

I can’t remember a worst time

Sheffield United away is not Chesterfield. Without a game owing to waterlogging and without the regular training pitches owing to flooding reports return that City lack sharpness and are easily beaten. Football is a multi-polar world and games are hard enough when preparations are ideal.

The supporters – both Bradford City and Sheffield United – are subject to some racist chanting from Sheffield United fans and some chanting that is unpleasant. This will be passed onto The FA – who are perhaps the least able and qualified body in the Universe on this subject – but probably not to the Police.

The FA never seem to tire of their role as prosecutors of – some might say persecutors of – those whom the Law of the Land can find no case against claiming their lower standard of evidence as somehow better than the one that is required by any court which could not be prefixed with the term Kangaroo.

I would not want to have The Racists of Sheffield who were at Bramall Lane to be convicted for what they said or what they think. I’m happy to just consider them to be a collective of idiots and be done with it.

But I did not pay £27 so what can I say?

The focus

To suggest that football needs to understand better its audience is to allow the game – the collective of clubs and organisers – leniency on the charge that they understand full well that they increasingly greying men who populate matches are the ones who will dig deepest for tickets and that they exploit that.

The people who run football always need more money and they know that people aged 35+ in good jobs with good incomes will fund their extravagant demands for more wages paid, more promotions pushes, more mistakes and managerial pay-offs.

These people are the focus of football’s attention. In twenty/thirty years time when those people have retired to Saturday afternoons in more comfortable surroundings there will be no generation to replace them because that attention is so narrowly focused.

Oddly enough because of the odd combination of Wembley twice and season ticket pricing Bradford City are one of the clubs who have some protection against this – there is a healthy group of younger City fans who have been allowed a stake in the support – but mingle with the home fans at an away game and appreciate the difference.

Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds.

The longview

Sheffield United away is I am told a bad performance in isolation but not out of keeping with how Bradford City perform. When taken over a longer period City are averaging a point and a half a game away from home, as well as the odd Chelsea if you will.

Often the game plan of Chesterfield works but when it does not the result is as it was in South Yorkshire. Since Phil Parkinson arrived his plans have had a shifting impact on the mentality of the club.

When he arrived the club was congratulating itself for avoiding relegation out of the Football League under the hapless Peter Jackson. Now there is a consideration that the club is not ideally placed to reach the second tier of English football.

But I – and perhaps you – only know this having been fortunate enough to be able to afford to follow the club from that period to this.

I do not see how that will be possible for the coming generations of football.

Bradford City from all angles after the 2-2 draw with Sheffield United

Angles

…and what made Bradford City’s pay so impressive was the number of angles on which they attacked.

When the ball was in the middle of the field Lee Evans was able to use his not inconsiderable passing abilities to play in Mark Marshall on the right, or the much improved Paul Anderson who is starting to look like the player promised when he signed, on the left and to find Devante Cole who ranged around the forward line.

The old standby of the long diagonal pass from Rory McArdle to James Hanson was still a feature – coming as it did with the usual brutalising of Hanson by defenders – but there was much more for the Bantams to do to cause a threat.

The irony being that at the end of the game it was exactly the kind of attacking play – the long ball and the bluster – which ended up denying City victory.

Trajectories

That City should have won the game is to say that during the first half in which the Bantams were on top of the game there should have been more than a one goal lead after forty five minutes. The goal – coming ten minutes before the break – came from James Meredith following a ball which the full back had given up on and dinking the ball over Sheffield United keeper Mark Howard.

It was a break through based on pressure. City had been able to apply pressure many angles and as a result circumnavigated the Blades holding midfielder Louis Reed in a way that they were not against Bradley Dack of Gillingham or Shrewsbury’s Ryan Woods earlier in the season. Sheffield United, on the other hand, seemed to be at a loss for any kind of response.

The Blades wanted Phil Parkinson in the summer but settled for Nigel Atkins. Atkins’ teams try to play their football on the grass, and they try to pass and move, and the fail on the whole. Sheffield United look like a team who have gone backwards since last season while City look better.

Which is not to say that City have eclipsed United but that the trajectory of both clubs seemed obvious.

Obtuse

James Meredith – who it seems is on the brink of joining new goalkeeper Brad Jones in (or around) the Australia national squad – put the ball past the keeper who was making his first appearance following a hurled in Sheffield United throw in.

That City had a second goal came from Devante Cole chasing down another ball that it seemed the defenders would take but did not. Cole’s speed is impressive and so is his presence of mind in his play.

He charged down Howard’s attempt to clear and scored his third goal in four games. One day he will actually kick a ball into the goal at Valley Parade but until then his knees and arse efforts are validated by getting into dangerous position.

Meredith’s goal at each end was unfortunate and the result of the Blades having either run out of ideas in their passing game or abandoning them altogether. Long throw ins, long punts, and the Blades got back into the game but did so by sacrificing whatever principles they have adopted.

City, on the other hand, and under that pressure from Sheffield United’s more direct play fall back more gracefully to the default position of playing into a target man. Steve Davies replaced Cole and headed wide. James Hanson saw Jose Baxter head his powerful attempt from a corner off the line in the last action of the game.

That City were 2-2 at that point. A long pass from defence was picked up by Billy Sharp who race between Rory McArdle and in behind Reece Burke and the striker put in a rebound after Jones had saved well. Sharp took his goal well and Atkins will be pleased with the spirit his side showed in coming back into the game but worried that the way they were able to get back to parity was a long way away from the way they started the game, or want to play it.

I had one, two, three, four shots of happiness

In nineteen ninety-eight Bradford City started slowly. This is not rare. Many seasons have started badly but that is exceptional because it ended with promotion to the Premier League. Eight or so games in City drew 2-2 with Sheffield United – Dean Saunders was exceptional for the Blades that day – and following the game Paul Jewell’s struggling side started to gain admirers.

“I think we will make the play-offs” I observed, and was wrong, because Jewell’s side went better. Watching over recent years has been an extension of that feeling. It seems that Parkinson is building another team, making a another set of people to be better players, getting more and more out of the squad.

We only had one chance to see Paul Jewell do that at City – he only got to build one team – but Parkinson is in his third era now (The Wembley Team, The Chelsea Team, and now this) and his methods of blending the ill fitting Anderson into the useful player we saw today seem to work.

The post-script

Referee Neil Swarbrick would not have been in charge of this game had it not been “treated” to being played on Sunday morning for Sky TV and one cannot imagine the bog standard League One official who would have been there making such a mangling of the game.

Swarbrick presents himself as a man who believes that the Referees job is to be a part of the unfolding story of the game. Phrases like “playing the referee” seem to have ligitimised this type of thinking in officials who revel in their role as deus ex machina of events.

They are not. And when they are – as Swarbrick clearly enjoyed being – they ruin the narrative that a football match creates.

Starbrick has a single role: To enforce a set of rules handed to him dispassionately. Another referee once said “I’ve never sent a player off in my life, players get themselves sent off. I’m just there to make a note of it.”

No one forced the booked Billy Sharp to dive, or continue fouling, or scream at the referee following every decision against him and I’m not saying that I like that those things should result in cautions but they should. Swarbrick decided that it would be the turn of his hand that decided who lived or died, who could play and who could not, as befits his self appointed role beyond his remit.

Which took something from the spectacle.

The obvious quality of Phil Parkinson and how he could be the decisive factor in 2015/16 Promotion

The season starts and one thing is obvious: Bradford City will be promoted.

That is obvious. It is obvious because I’ve read it in FourFourTwo and it is obvious because Bradford City beat Champions Chelsea last season and that must mean that Bradford City can win League One.

It is obvious because City have brought in some real quality in the form of Paul Anderson and Mark Marshy Marshall, and while seeing Andrew Davies go is hard seeing Mark Yeates and Andy Halliday go is not.

And it is obvious because City finished a place off the play offs last season, and every season Phil Parkinson has improved Bradford City’s league finish, and as we all know no one ever gets in the play offs and does not win.

It is obvious and because of that it is a thought that has passed the mind of even the most negative Bradford City supporter.

No matter how many layers of cynicism a person might surround themselves with one cannot escape that feeling on a sunning Tuesday morning that this year is the year that City return to the top two divisions for the first time since May 2004.

But wait…

A Barnsley website who had, one assumed, lost Jason McKeown’s email address asked me to preview the coming season. They asked what my realistic view on the Bradford City season was. I chewed my pen (metaphorically speaking) and considered beating Arsenal, beating Aston Villa, late serge and beating Burton, Wembley again, beating Chelsea, getting to Wembley for a major Cup Final.

It struck me that at Valley Parade of late realism is in short supply.

And perhaps in that context it is excusable if all of us go on a little fantasy safari when considering the prospects for the season that starts at Swindon on Saturday.

The counter to those thoughts are the huge gulf that was obvious between Bradford City and Bristol City in the mauling of last season and the general lack of character in the team around that time. Reality comes in wondering if the Bantams have a Marlon Pack/Luke Freeman pairing as Bristol City had or a back line as strong as the one that took Preston North End up? Or a 25 goals a year striker?

At that point obvious stops being the operative word.

The multi-polar world

The temptation is, of course, to take the team one follows in isolation and to consider that if your team has done well in recruitment, or preparation, then it will improve in absolute terms in League One. League structures are always relative.

You can be better than last year (or worse) but your position will on the whole be decided by the strength of the other teams in the League. Was the Benito Carbone team in the second year of the Premier League worse than the one which finished 17th the year before?

It certainly was at the end of the season but after the other win over Chelsea in August 2000 was the team worse or was the problem that there were no Watford, Wednesday and a woeful Wimbledon dropping like a stone to finish beneath them?

Football is a multi-polar world. Your league achievements are necessarily measured against the other teams around you. It might be obvious that City have improved (or not) but have they improved more than the teams around them in League One?

Looking at the teams in League One this season first day opposition Swindon Town lost in the play off final last season which normally denotes a challenger but they seem to have lost a lot of players and are blooding a new team.

Relegated clubs can be strong but few will fear Millwall considering how easily the were brushed aside eight months ago at Valley Parade. Wigan Athletic have a lot to do to end a losing mentality which has come into the club since it got to an FA Cup final three years ago. As for Blackpool it is very possible they will carry on where they left off last season and finish bottom.

The likes of Peterborough United, Doncaster Rovers, and Barnsley would all argue that they have as much of a right to be considered promotion contenders as anyone. Scunthorpe United, Bury and Fleetwood Town have spent money to get where they are but not Bristol City levels of money and even if they had sometimes when you spend money you get Aaron McLean.

I have a belief that Burton Albion are worth considering as having an interest in the play off places. They are a club that seem able to transcend managerial changes and maintain steady progress. Coventry City have potential and in Tony Mowbray they have a pragmatic manager.

All of which leaves Sheffield United as being everyone’s favourite for promotion. They reach semi-finals, they bubble under in League One, they have a strong fan base and get great noisy crowds. They seem to have everything that a club that is trying to get out of League One wants.

Except for the manager.

They have their second choice as manager.

Nigel Atkins manages Sheffield United now but they wanted to take Phil Parkinson to South Yorkshire. It seems that the Blades boardroom came to the same conclusion that echoes around the City manager.

Parkinson: Special One

If all league football is relative then perhaps management is absolute.

Perhaps a manager who improves a team always improves a team. Perhaps when Parkinson is given the chance to manage – a chance Hull City did not give him in his brief time at that club but did at Colchester United – he will always improve a club as he has Bradford City.

It is hard to draw a conclusion but Parkinson’s admirers are many and growing with every achievement.

From the outside when looking at the twenty four teams lining up in League One some teams have spent more, and some teams have more season ticket holders than others, but no team has a better manager in a better position to manage his club than Phil Parkinson at Bradford City.

Parkinson has carved a space out for himself. He arrived at a club where Mark Lawn was accusing the players of not passing to a prospective signing, that had had a manager who (reportedly) felt bullied out of the club, and where the dysfunctions at the club had become endemic.

The success Parkinson earned on the field gave him the scope to create the role he wants off it. Parkinson is as powerful a manager as Bradford City have had but still had challenges to his role. One could worry about how success would be maintained should he exit if one wanted but more important would be ensuring that he is allowed to do his job and shapes the club around that.

We are, perhaps, lucky that the Sheffield United approach and the moment Parkinson had to bend the knee to the boardroom were separated by six months. Imagine starting this season without Parkinson. Where would thoughts of promotion be then?

When looking at which teams will be promoted what is most often the decisive factor? It is not in the quality of players but rather the quality of manager. The thing that unites the clubs that went up was that they had experienced managers who are spoken of in terms of their quality.

What Steve Cotterill, Karl Robinson and Simon Grayson offered last season is the thing that Phil Parkinson offers this. Likewise when José Mourinho got over his defeat at City by winning the Premier League it was – we are told – because he was the best manager. Success – the theory goes – goes to the best manager.

That, at least, is obvious.

The reasons Phil Parkinson might join Sheffield United

Sheffield United want Phil Parkinson to be their manager having made an approach for the services of the City boss yesterday which was rebuffed. Rumours are rife in these matters – the Blades are also said to be keen to talk to Nigel Atkins – but it seems that the South Yorkshire side will return with the promise of more money as a managerial transfer fee to sweeten the deal for the seemingly outgoing chairmen pair of Rhodes and Lawn.

Aside from the obviously open nature of the Blades approach the promise of money always being a reason why bad footballing decisions are made at Valley Parade it seems sure that at some point as he picks up an award for his work at Valley Parade this season at half time in the FA Cup final Parkinson will be considering if his future is in West or South Yorkshire.

We all know why Parkinson should stay.

He has assembled a squad with the character he believes is necessary for success. He has the prospect of a wealthy set of backers. He has been in the situation of jumping ship for a seemingly more sturdy vessel before when he joined Hull City from Colchester United only to be shipwrecked before.

If anyone knows the impact of moving clubs on a career heading on an upward trajectory it is Phil Parkinson. We do not recognise it at Bradford City but Bradford City were Parkinson’s last chance saloon. If Parkinson had failed at City there was not another job for him elsewhere in professional football management. He would be wary of returning to that situation should a trip to Bramall Lane be successful.

We know these points by heart now. The heart of Bradford City wants Phil Parkinson to stay so why would he leave?

Why indeed. We know this list in the darker places of our heart too. That Bradford City have a limit which Mr Lawn and Mr Rhodes have set a little too readily and that limit is not a significant distance from where City are now.

When Parkinson talks to his board they talk about getting to the middle of The Championship. Sheffield United will talk to him about the middle of the Premier League. Such overweened ambition may be best avoided for any manager but ambition is not easily ignored for the ambitious as we remember from the last time one of the Steel City two came asking for a gaffer.

Then there is the prospect of a Director of Football arriving at Valley Parade in the shape of Neil Warnock. Warnock – a Sheffield United supporter – is reported to be incoming chairman Gianni Paladini’s choice for a role supporting Parkinson. Some suggest that Parkinson will see this as a negative. He has said previously that is is happy to work in such a structure noting in a conversation about Director of Football elect Archie Christie “everything club needs someone who can get a deal over the line.”

I am of the belief that a Director of Football at City is badly needed to support Parkinson and that a manager who wants to run a modern club single handed is condemning that club to an existence of slight returns but the usefulness of someone in an overseeing role is not the subject of this discussion. If Parkinson moved to Sheffield United he would be welcomed by Scott McCabe who holds the title Director (Football Club) and John Stephenson who is Head of Football Operations.

There is no choice to be made between the two roles that leaves Parkinson in singular control of the club except – perhaps – in a Bradford City without Paladini and with the current board.

But therein is the problem. The current board who forced Parkinson to bend a knee this season and who have a perfunctory relationship with the manager. The boardroom which is – by nature of having co-chairmen – schizophrenic and has on a couple of occasions have seemingly been so ready to boot the manager out of the club that former players say that have been sounded out about an interim role.

One can see the outline of shapes but it is hard to get the detail about Parkinson’s relationship with the board from distance but that relationship – should Paladini not arrives – could be the key to the manager’s future of the club.

Bradford City contemplating becoming what they are after beating Oldham 2-0 at Valley Parade

The month of attrition

Before Billy Clarke turned to scramble into the goal a ball that was bouncing around the Oldham Athletic penalty area it would have taken a brave man to suggest that Bradford City would definitely win the game and that the Latics would definitely lose it.

When Clarke slowly rolled a ball into the corner of the same goal twenty minutes later Oldham Athletic had sunk to 13th in League One with seven left to play leaving them – to all but the brave – with no chance of securing a place in the play-offs.

Without the odd goal in the opening hour – the Latics were on top for twenty minutes – it seems that the visitors are all but eliminated from promotion.

So we come to the defining part of the season. The month of attrition.

Duck week

Bradford City’s victory was as hard fought as any this season and all the better for it.

On the surface City spent a week in Portugal as reward for endeavours to date and perhaps away from the distractions at Valley Parade – and there were significant – the collective mind had been focused. Every game from now seems to hold the prospect of ending the season. Promotion places then are like the statue carved from marble. Bit by bit teams are chiselled away until it is complete.

The sight of Andrew Davies beating the ground in frustration after pulling up following a burst of speed to follow Conor Wilkinson worried. City with Davies are more likely to win and everyone in Valley Parade knows it. His replacement Gary MacKenzie looks assured and calm, authoritative even.

Oldham press early and Wilkinson looks useful up front although is often isolated. The early exchanged are for the Latics and City seem lost in the midfield. Mark Yeates and Christopher Routis are a pair alongside Gary Liddle who is prepared to push himself to a performance despite an obvious, creeping fatigue. Liddle is being talked about as Bradford City’s player of the season because of performances such as this.

Yeates struggles to get into the game and Routis’ positioning is poor while Billy Clarke shows both faults. It is a common feature of Bradford City teams under Phil Parkinson that players are faced with problems like these and, when faced with them, find a minimum performance. Keep going, and keep giving what you can, and see what happens.

As good as you are

Bradford City vs Oldham in March 2015 is what I go to football for. The game stands on a knife edge and until Clarke’s injury time goal it could have gone either way. The game is won not necessarily by the best team – because the difference between the sides is not significant – but by the team which takes the chance, that runs when tired, that puts in the head where it hurts.

The best thing about Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City is that they are a team who realise that they are as good as they are. The sum of the parts. The equal of the endeavour.

The reward, and the reason for the reward.

Billy, Billy

Billy Knott replaced Yeates and brought his high intensity pressing to the game as City pushed onto Oldham Athletic. It was a corner that both James Hanson and Jon Stead has attempts at heading that fell to Clarke’s left foot. From that City controlled the game by attacking and pressing the visitors.

A smart piece of fakery where Knott sold the dummy of time wasting to set up Stead, who rolled to Clarke, who scored put a gloss on the game. Half an hour before and it was hard to say who would win and Oldham deserve credit in defeat, but the defeat is probably terminal to their play off aspirations.

City go into the rearranged Chesterfield game on Tuesday night knowing a win will put City in sixth position, but the same can be said of Chesterfield, and with City looking to nudge ahead of a pack of peers one can only look forward to the game with some relish. Doncaster Rovers, Sheffield United and Barnsley all follow.

At the end of season of Stamford Bridge football and giant killing City are in a burly, knock down brawl. The next few weeks could be very enjoyable indeed.

The journey to Ithaca

I

“Did not Odysseus beside the ships of the Argives offer thee sacrifice without stint in the broad land of Troy? Wherefore then didst thou conceive such wrath against him, O Zeus?”

Within minutes of the kick off of Bradford City’s defeat at Reading the game was written out. Before the first goal – a header at a corner from Hal Robson-Kanu – the Bantams players looked leaden footed, and heavy, and no good could come of this.

This game was the conclusion of a run of three games in six days that travelled 850 miles with a squad of around twenty players. When an innocuous shot hit Andrew Halliday and looped over Ben Williams to make the game 2-0 Reading had won before ten minutes were out.

It was not that Bradford City had not made a game of the game, it was that they could not.

II

“Cyclops, if any one of mortal men shall ask thee about the shameful blinding of thine eye, say that Odysseus, the sacker of cities, blinded it, even the son of Laertes, whose home is in Ithaca.”

Tuesday night in Coventry.

The locals had offered a 2 for 1 Valentine’s day offer with the assumption that Bradford City – away at Chelsea on the weekend the offer was announced – would not stand them up on the date.

By the time the Bantams did go to Coventry City Steven Pressley had been sacked from the Sky Blues. As his time came to an end Phil Parkinson was basking in the glow of besting Jose Mourinho. “The other special one”, or “dark ages football” as Pressley had said.

As it was City ground out the first half at The Ricoh Arena only to go behind to a goal at the end of the first half by Frank Nouble. Parkinson asked his side for more in the second half and got it. James Hanson ended the game forcing a header across and low to get past Lee Burge but Burge pushed the ball away.

The win would have been just reward for the effort but the effort seldom brings the reward you would want so much as the consolation along the way. Mark Yeates approached a free kick from twenty five yards and drill-curved the ball around the wall and low into the goal.

Yeates celebrated by kicking an advertising board in half. Perhaps he would have renamed the ground had Hanson’s header gone in but the point was a good result.

For Parkinson though his eye must have gone to the level of effort put in by his team which is in a race for promotion in League One which is often as much attrition than it is about ability. Every effort to recover a game is a resource which cannot be tapped again.

That at the end of the season City had beaten Coventry City at Valley Parade and drawn at The Ricoh would be a riposte to Pressley’s view about City and the dark ages, but Pressley was blinded now anyway.

III

And City moved on. Jordan Pickford exited to the blind at Sunderland to be replaced by Jak Alnwick from Newcastle United. Jason Kennedy joined Oliver McBurnie and Aaron Mclean out on loan.

The squad thinner and thinner, the demands on it more and more.

IV

And on the fifth the beautiful Calypso sent him on his way from the island after she had bathed him and clothed him in fragrant raiment. On the raft the goddess put a skin of dark wine, and another, a great one, of water, and provisions, too … Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze;

The sight of Gary Jones comforts the heart.

Notts County at on Saturday and City have patched a team together to face Jones’ midfield that features Christopher Routis and Matthew Dolan. Gary Liddle played every moment of a season for Notts County but his legs looked heavy on his return to Meadow Lane.

He is not alone.

Filipe Morais has returned to the side following injury but the energy levels that follow him to in the position to do what he should do while allowing him the licence to do what he wants is missing. Andrew Davies’ resting continues and it starts to become clear that the injury that sidelined him at Coventry City is more than a trick of the light.

Jones’ energy levels are the stuff of legend at Bradford City but the heavy winter has taken its toll on him. The game is more a struggle than a battle.

Still City are in the ascendancy.

Jon Stead scored after good work from François Zoko but County always looked capable of replying and Mike Edwards equalised. A point away is a good return and County are slowly ticking towards safety but with a game with Reading kicking off in 51 hours Parkinson could only worry.

Elsewhere Reading have dropped nine of the ten outfield players that make up their starting team. They are beaten four goals to one by Watford in The Championship. The sacrifice is obvious and available because Reading have concluded that they will not be promoted, while Bradford City fight on multiple fronts..

Gary Jones – and Garry Thompson – wished Bradford City players good luck on the way off the field and one could have spent a lifetime in the wash of nostalgia. The days when Jones and Thompson took on a challenge like Reading and emerged victorious, and took the spoils of victory, and all was golden and good.

V

Think for a moment, dear reader, and consider my offer. I would give you one moment at a football ground to stretch out for all time and to be all the moments at football. Pick the second that Hanson scored against Villa, or the sight of Arsenal’s fifth penalty coming back of the post, or Mark Yeates giving the world and the fireworks at Chelsea, or Wolves away or Liverpool at home.

Pick one and it is forever stretched before you as an endless sea, and you forever adrift on that sea, never to see land again but in the most blissful of ignorance.

The moment when Gary Jones pumped his fist at Wembley as promotion was sealed stretched out until the horizon and over.

And you would reject the offer?

You would.

VI

“Achilles, no man aforetime was more blessed nor shall ever be hereafter. For of old, when thou wast alive, we Argives honored thee even as the gods, and now that thou art here, thou rulest mightily among the dead. Wherefore grieve not at all that thou art dead, Achilles.”

“Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.”

Two goals in the first ten minutes and Bradford City are suffering not just the effects of two games in three days but the cumulative effects of the constant attrition of playing in League One. It is not that a player rested three days ago might be expected to be fresher than one who has rested for six it is that the inexorable navigation of games takes something which all.

The difference is not the binary state of being fresh or not. It is a team at 75% playing one at 60% (or fill your own figures in here) and the rest Reading gave up a game for is put into a whirlpool of effects which have left City incapable of putting in a performance to make a game.

Second to set off, second to the ball, and second best one would struggle to fault the City player’s effort. They gave all they could offer, but there was nothing to give. Jamie Mackie scored a third after Filipe Morais was sent off for a high foot on the once again superb Nathaniel Chalobah and one was left to conclude that City had lost the chance of a semi-final not after the odyssey that followed the 0-0 draw at Valley Parade but on the rough, unplayable field at Valley Parade that has begun to characterise Bradford City’s season.

One wonders if this game represents what The FA want from the Cup. Bradford City’s reward for progressing further in the competition is to be put into a position where the club is handicapped as the quality of the opposition increases.

A League One club plays Halifax Town after a third of the season. Millwall after a busy Christmas but every game after the third round brings a postponement which has to be played mid-week. By the time Reading at home came along City had been playing weekend-midweek every week for over a month.

And all the time the possible opposition gets harder and harder. That Reading were not Chelsea ignores the fact that they were the fourth side City had faced from a higher division. As the games get harder, the ability to play those games gets less and less.

And I do not say this as a complaint or to propose a solution but just to underline the absurdity of the situation and perhaps to illustrate how impressive it is that any club outside of the top 44 of the Premier League and Championship should get this far in The FA Cup. Last year’s beaten semi-finalists Sheffield United won more FA Cup games than the losing finalists Hull City, and as many as winners Arsenal.

VII

“Come, I pray thee, goddess, tell me this thing truly, if in any wise I might escape from fell Charybids, and ward off that other, when she works harm to my comrades.”

People on the pitch.

A sea of people perhaps becoming the sea of moments to stretch out as Reading reach Wembley for the first time since 1927. A sea of people ebbing and flowing in front of the Bradford City fans looking for trouble but not knowing what trouble really is.

A sea of people and through it walks Steven Darby. Fearless, heroic, in failure and in success. Steven Darby and Rory McArdle cutting through a sea of people fearless, heroic, in failure and in success.

A sea of people and through it walks Steven Darby.

Eleven games remain. The next three are at Valley Parade before the end of March.

And so then on to Ithaca.

Thin slicing and how it asks and answers questions about Christopher Routis

Preamble

Three weeks ago a tennis coach called Vic Braden died.

Author of a half dozen books that constitute the bible on how to play the game Braden would scare himself when watching professional tournaments. “I got so good at calling double faults, I never got one wrong, and not just on big name players but I could do it with Russian fifteen year old girls no one had ever heard of.”

As soon as the second service ball was thrown from the hand Braden could call a double fault every time. After watching thousands of matches for tens of years, Braden’s brain was programmed to look at a lot of information – the action of a player serving – and take from that the necessary smaller information – the precursors to a double fault – and give a result on the basis of that.

The name for this technique is “thin slicing“.

The two goals on Saturday evening

Sitting in the Oakwell away end as City struggled to contain Barnsley two weeks ago I heard a shout in criticism of Andrew Davies. “We’ve a better defender than you on the bench.”

It referenced Christopher Routis.

The Swiss defender has a growing popularity at Valley Parade and while those who would place him above Davies are in a minority his advocates seem to be growing and growing despite obvious mistakes like his failure to clear a nothing cross in Saturday’s defeat to Sheffield United which, because of the Swiss’ weak header, set up the first visitors goal.

Davies, aforementioned, made an error which led to the second. His self-focused tantrum after conceding was in contrast to Routis who is quick to point fingers around but seemingly not at himself.

All of which hints at my assessment of the newest Bradford City golden boy. So far, so so for Routis who has yet to show enough to set my heart racing.

“There is just something about him…”

This is unlike summer signing from Sunderland Billy Knott. Talk to many City fans about the midfielder and they will summon up the specific second of the goal he scored against Leeds – a fine lash from outside the box that turned around a local derby – and going beyond that they will start to be much more vague.

“There is something about him”, “He has something”, “He is always there”, “He has a great engine.” Probably every aspect is covered but not by any one person. You can sort these phrases into a life size drawing of the young midfielder’s game.

For me it took six minutes at Guiseley to be won over and everything I have seen from him since has underlined what those first six minutes of the second half at Nethermoor told me. I’m no better at putting into words what that was than Braden was at saying why he could call a fault on a tennis player he had never seen before.

The thin slice

Some City fans look at Billy Knott and – without consciously being aware of it – they see in him patterns that match other players who have gone on to be very good players. In six minutes of a friendly at Guiseley in which he enjoyed a few touches my mind looked at Billy Knott and pattern matched sub-consciously in some way to players like to Dean Richards, Peter Beagrie, and Gareth Whalley. Something in those six minutes – before I could consciously say he had done anything – suggested that he could and would prove a good signing for Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City.

Three months later he has and his recent time on the bench bemuses me. Watch the break-through goal against Crewe again then and it is Knott who edged the ball onto Mark Yeates before the cross that Aaron McLean scores from.

If you are convinced by Knott then it might be a moment like that – not allowing an attack to die for want of a loose ball – or it could have been that lash against Leeds or any other point of that “thick slice” of watching football but the concept of thin slicing says that you knew it subconsciously before.

The key word being “sub-conscious”. After weeks, months or years a person will be able to give a fulsome account of what made a player good but right now it is hard to put into full sentences what Knott offered other than “there is just something about him”.

“He is going to be good, you can tell from his central line.”

You will probably not have heard of Paul Travillion but if you are of a certain age you will know his work. His pen lines gave life to Roy of the Rovers and he is arguably the greatest sequential artist of football there has ever been.

Other artists can draw, but few can draw football as well as Travillion. His panels explode in a potential of movement and action. His players suggest dynamism and a burst of pace about to carry the golden haired Roy past a man or two.

At the heart of Travillion’s work was his drawing of the footballer in motion as this image of Bobby Charlton shows. That separated him from his peers. Travillion’s players took the form of real footballers hunched over the ball rather than poster art pictures of bodies near balls.

Travillion could watch a player, draw him, and from doing that know if he would dribble well. “You can tell from his central line,” Travillion would say, “and how he hangs his body over the ball.”

Chris Waddle had it and when asked about Ryan Giggs in the early part of the young Manchester United player’s career Travillion replied that he was the best dribbler of a ball he had ever drawn. As soon as Travillion drew a player he know where his balance was centred, and so he knew how good a dribbler he was.

When drawing a seventeen year old kid Travillion knew that Giggs would be – or possessed the assets to be – a great footballer. Travillion thin sliced Giggs on a single factor – his centre of balance – and extrapolated correctly about a player who is the most successful in the history of the English game.

A cultured defender

Perhaps with thin slicing in mind it is not difficult to see how some people have looked at Christopher Routis and been impressed enough to praise him above Andrew Davies.

On Saturday one ball Routis flighted to James Hanson verged on the sublime. He is calm on the ball and can make strikers look foolish as he flicks that ball over them and moves away. He looks like – which is to say he thin slices as – a cultured defender albeit one at League One level.

A thin slice of Christopher Routis is that he is the sort of defender who looks to play his way out of trouble rather than lump the ball into row Z. That he is more about timing than tackling and would rather intercept a ball than let the striker take possession and then take the striker. That he is not the sort of player who will put his head in where boots are flying because he plays the type of game popular on the continent where defending is about anticipation.

What need do Bradford City have of a cultured defender? Watching the more successful Bradford City teams of recent years has created a set of patterns – at least under Phil Parkinson – for successful players which one can compare against thin slices.

Which is not to pass judgement on if Routis is a good footballer or not. It is to look at his style of play. Nor is it to say that one style of defending is better or worse than another in the game in general. It is a comment on the aptness of a style of play at Bradford City, in League One, in Yorkshire derby games, in Phil Parkinson’s team.

And back to thin slicing

Vic Braden got to know tennis so well he could watch a fifteen year old he had never seen before and know if she was going to make a mistake before she did. Paul Travillion could tell by drawing Ryan Giggs that he would be a great footballer. I think I’ve seen enough midfielders for Bradford City to see that Billy Knott has the raw materials to be a success.

We’ve all watched Bradford City’s promotion campaigns, and those campaigns which falter and come to nothing. In that time have we ever concluded that the type of defender that Christopher Routis is the stuff of League One promotion campaigns?

Post script

Further reading on thin slicing: Thin Slice of Expressive Behavor as Predictors of Interpersonal Conseqences: A Meta-Analysis, Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal. Blink, Malcolm Gladwell.

McLean’s debut continues City’s story of the season

With the kick of off his first Bradford City game a minute away Aaron McLean wandered backwards from middle of the field and started to bump fist and slap hands with his new team-mates. He drifted to left back and bumped Carl McHugh, he slapped Gary Jones, and walked forward with purpose to start his this new part of his career.

A player is rarely under more scrutiny than on his debut and McLean was the focus of attention for the three thousand plus Bradford City supporters. His first touch was the kick off, his first in play was a contested ball with Blades defender Harry McGuire which the defender won but McLean put his body into in a way which was not at all reminiscent of the previous occupant of the number twenty one shirt which the new recruit wore.

Phil Parkinson made no bones about wanting to bring McLean to Bradford City and immediately favoured him over seventeen year old Oli McBurnie. As McLean won his first win of the ball from the towering McGuire it was obvious that Parkinson saw this as a physical encounter. A battle, and one which City lost in the opening forty five minutes.

Jamie Murphy was the first recipient of two goals in the first half which will were to prompt action from the City manager at half time as Carl McHugh’s failings at left back were exposed by winger Ryan Flynn. McHugh was an island adrift in the City team not connected to Kyel Reid or Mark Yeates in front of him, adrift from Matthew Bates to his right Flynn first combined with Tony McMahon who whipped a ball low in to Murphy to finish from inside the six yard box and later forced a corner which McGuire headed a second from.

And City struggled. Struggled to find a plan when Kyel Reid went off on a stretcher after turning his back onto a Hospital ball and having a defender tackle through the back of his legs. Struggled to find a way around McGuire and at the heart of the Blades defends. Struggled to find a blend of the midfield in which Gary Jones and Jason Kennedy not only look similarly but seem far to keen to take up the same position.

Kennedy could be so much more than he is at City and hopefully will be. Games pass him by and he seems to do neither part of his role well. He is not the best player of City’s season so far by a long way but he is the story of the season: unable to get out of low gear but not for the want of trying.

The second half and McHugh was switched with Bates to the central defensive position he was more comfortable with but more over performances were stepped up and for a time City were able to take the game to the home side. Kennedy and Jones were at their most useful in that period after half time which brought two goals and it was Jones who got the first – a massive deflection taking the ball past George Long in the home goal.

Jones’ shot, not a well hit one nor would which was going in before the deflection, came after McLean had won the ball and played in the midfielder. Parkinson deployed McLean behind Hanson as he had McBurnie the week before but often with Nahki Wells in the side the faster forward would be on the backline and Hanson withdrawn.

As Jones slapped McLean as a friendly credit for the assist one might wonder if Parkinson is not unhappy with the outcome of January so far. Wells forced a way of playing – big man/little man – and he would have been foolish to ignore the potential of that but big man/big man with both working hard is more in keeping with the manager’s promotion side at Colchester United.

The second goal was an untidy finish by James Hanson and a note goes to the maligned Garry Thompson who made enough poor decisions to keep his detractors happy but did involve himself when it mattered.

From that point on United laid something of a weak siege to City’s goal. They had chances to retake the lead but City had returned to some stability and strength. 2-2 came and City were happier. Away draws are always good results.

And some might feel that Aaron McLean should have had a penalty late on when a bouncing ball bested McGuire and the City man almost got to the ball but McGuire stayed strong and McLean bounced off him. McGuire may be leaving Bramall Lane this winter with talk of £4m bids. He seems to lack a level of mobility for top flight football but he was very impressive.

As was McLean. He worked hard – his virtue we are told – and in offering strength and hold up play as well as some pace he gives Parkinson an option he seems comfortable with. His part in the comeback was no more nor less than his teammates and that will no doubt suit Parkinson who prizes effort over all else.

Which is the story of City’s season so far. There is hard work and there is reward, sometimes, and the way to increase those rewards is to work and work harder.

Sheffield United away in the JPT

Bradford City have been drawn away at Sheffield Unitied in the Associate Members cup giving the Bantams their thrid League One opposition in the competition following Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday.

The game will take place in week start 7th November, 2011. Phil Parkinson has talked about playing Scott Brown in the game.

Revisiting the Sheffield United moment as Bradford City look to maintain upwards improvement at Port Vale

13 years ago yesterday, a struggling Bradford City side drew 2-2 with Sheffield United while offering the first genuine evidence that they could go onto enjoy a glorious season. The goals from Lee Mills and Robbie Blake that September 1998 afternoon sparked the beginning of an eight-match unbeaten run that laid the foundations for the Bantams’ promotion to the Premier League, which was joyfully confirmed against Wolves at Molineux the following May.

We didn’t believe such a feat could have been achieved during a dismal start to the season, at least not until we witnessed that attacking display against the Blades.

Back in the present day, City’s 2-2 draw with Bristol Rovers bore many similarities to that tussle with Sheffield United in more than just scoreline. On both occasions more was deserved from a display of attacking dynamism that repeatedly came close to ripping apart the opposition, but at the other end defensive frailties were ruthlessly punished to deny City the rightful three points. Whether history repeats itself in what happens next is highly questionable, but suddenly that prospect is not as far-fetched as it might have appeared a few weeks back.

So far, no one is really talking about our promotion hopes this campaign. The “building season” mantra declared by joint-Chairman Mark Lawn has been widely adopted and in general expectation is little above hoping for a top half finish. But after City produced their best attacking performance of the season on Saturday and continue to improve game-on-game, the question of how strong our promotion hopes are is one that could be pondered louder over the coming weeks.

The team is developing nicely, even though calls for a striker have got louder in the aftermath of the Bristol Rovers match. Defensively City are still shipping poor goals but are becoming more solid, in midfield there is great strength in depth – especially when injured players return – and even without this much coveted experienced forward there are plenty of options in attack. Does this squad compare favourably to the top teams in this division? Probably not right now. But with the emphasis on improvement and nurturing players, there is plenty of reasons to believe it could be amongst the strongest in a few months time.

The 1998/99 promotion was famous for the season’s poor start. Mills struggling to make his presence felt; Darren Moore not always taking the right option; Gareth Whalley needing time to settle in; Peter Beagrie trying to beat the same man too often. But with each game – just like this season – progression could be seen. Gradually it began to click, particularly when Robbie Blake was brought back in from the cold. Results suddenly took off and the team looked fantastic, especially after the confidence boost of the Sheffield United performance.

We’ve had too many false dawns since to get carried away with the potential shown by the present day City. But if not this season, promotion in the next one with this squad seems to be a realistic objective. That doesn’t mean a top seven place shouldn’t be targeted between now and May, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it wasn’t achieved. The rate of progress may encounter some bumps and at times be less speedy than we’d hope, but early indicators are that it’s a path well worth sticking too.

Perhaps one day the Bristol Rovers performance will be looked back upon in a similar manner to the Sheffield United moment. It was certainly a notable step up from what has been seen to date, and for Phil Parkinson – who arrived at Valley Parade with a reputation for dour football which cast an image of Peter Taylor in all our minds – it was an interesting statement of intent.

His two outfield player signings to date have added flair and invention to the squad, rather than ordinary conventionality. As City passed the ball around so attractively on Saturday, you could see why Parkinson was coveted by Arsene Wenger.

Style is important, but results ultimately matter and City head to the Potteries and a game with Port Vale this evening for what should promise a useful yardstick of how far they are off the better teams. Vale currently lie in the play offs after a decent start, but more importantly and – in spite of huge upheaval off the field over the past 12 months – they are a relatively settled team used to winning more often than losing and well versed in challenging for the top seven. Micky Adams, who a year ago was Valiants manager before an unsuccessful spell at Sheffield United, is back at Vale Park and boosts a decent promotion record.

Perhaps more so than early season pace setters Morecambe and last year’s play off finalists Accrington, this is City’s first genuine away test against a promotion challenger.

With another tricky game to come against big-spending Crawley Town on Saturday, the option to chop and change players to maintain fitness is one Parkinson might choose to take this evening. Jamie Devitt had an effective game in a free role behind James Hanson up front on Saturday and may get the nod again, though he does seem short of fitness and may either be left on the bench or taken off during the second half, so he can also figure in Saturday’s plans.

Hanson, who had an average game on Saturday, performs a target man role that could become redundant in Parkinson’s new-look approach, but for now you feel he will probably remain in the first eleven. It’s clearly a challenging period in Hanson’s career, as criticism from supporters appears to intensify and his new manager talks repeatedly of signing another forward. Mark Stewart and Ross Hannah sit impatiently on the bench.

In midfield Kyel Reid – who went off with cramp on Saturday – will probably be benched and Jack Compton recalled. Chris Mitchell is proving very effective on the right but does appear to be slightly Whalley-esqe in the fact he will seemingly always be sacrificed when the team is losing and needs to go more direct. Ritchie Jones and Michael Flynn are building a strong partnership in the centre.

The back five will remain unchanged, though competition may become fiercer. Luke O’Brien continues to sit on the sidelines but you fancy he will get a chance at some point; Lewis Hunt is an injury to either Liam Moore, Luke Oliver or Guy Branston away from the chance to reignite his Bantams career. Steve Williams is approaching full fitness but will find Oliver and Branston tough to budge when he does. Simon Ramsden’s future looks bleak but shouldn’t be written off.

Matt Duke keeps goal with Jon McLaughlin under Parkinson’s orders to challenge him. To date Duke has had little to do but has conceded three times in two games.

The two away games that followed City’s 2-2 draw with Sheffield United 13 years ago featured a surprise victory in the Midlands (West Brom) and credible draw against the pre-season promotion favourites (Sunderland). Were this piece of history to repeat itself this week, the prospects for the season ahead will appear even more exciting.

Will things go as expected? City play Port Vale looking to put the week behind them

When it comes to first weeks of the season they have never come any worse than this one for City.

Ten years ago we were sitting fourth in the embryonic Premiership table after a win against Middlesbrough. A decade on and we are at the foot of an equally new League Two table smarting from a 5-0 defeat and out of the League Cup. That was the week that wasn’t.

Wasn’t very enjoyable that is – unless you like the City of Nottingham – but probably not unexpected. When Championship side (and lest we forget, twice European Cup winners) Nottingham Forest came out of the hat for the first round of the League Cup – away to boot – not a single City fan would have said that the Bantams were anything other than rank outsiders.

Likewise when Notts County started spending money in the summer culminating in recruiting Sven Goran Errikson the majority of Bantams fans would have thought it a surprise if the Bantams had come back from the Lower League all-stars who are assembling at Meadow Lane with a point.

That both things came to pass is the way they did – scoreless and remorseless – has distorted those original assumptions that when City kicked off against Port Vale in the first home game at Valley Parade they would probably have no points and be looking at a few midweeks off after a cruel draw.

Stuart McCall has had little but food for thought in the last five days having played perhaps five different formations during the two matches and used sixteen players one of whom – Jonathan Bateson started his City career in the worst possible way with a red card for slicing Nathan Tyson in half for what seemed like little or no reason. Bateson could not have impressed less.

Steve Williams could have impressed more – it was not a week of full throttle – but he has most probably done enough to secure a debut alongside Zesh Rehman and in favour of Matthew Clarke who seems to be fall guy for the five goals that Notts County put past City despite – whisper it – having a better game than Rehman that afternoon.

Simon Ramsden has started his City career well and slots back to right back after a sojourn at centre back and Luke O’Brien is left back.

The midfield should revert to the four in the middle with Joe Colbeck, Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon although James O’Brien played on Wednesday night with Brandon cooling his heels. As a boyhood City fan robbed of his first year as a Bantam Brandon should be bursting to impress and one hopes he puts in a performance that suggests the desire than comes from playing for your own club. So far such as been lacking from the left midfielder but tomorrow can be his Alpha, should O’Brien not get the nod over him.

In the forward line Gareth Evans impressed on Wednesday but is expected to step down to allow Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding back into the line.

Having draw with Rochdale on the opening day Port Vale got arguably a more testing League Cup trip than City – to Sheffield United – and won it although that was more down to comedic goalkeepering which one hopes Simon Eastwood – the City stopper who makes his home debut – will not follow.

The season is young – baby young – and already City are thrashing around but in football everything becomes right with a win and at Valley Parade – under McCall at least following years of home defeats – wins have become expected and City are doing as expected thus far.

Fourteen days of difference between Bradford City and Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town line up for a League Cup second round game against Sheffield United looking at a break from the league to give them the same kind of boost they had when they beat Bradford City 4-0 two weeks ago.

In the two matches after that, Town have recorded a single point and go into the game against the Championship side on the back of a 3-1 home defeat to MK Dons after which Stan Ternant admitted he had “picked the wrong team“. This, coupled with the single point on the opening day leaves Town – retroactively many people’s favourites for promotion – struggling with two points.

Meanwhile, back at Valley Parade, not a goal has passed Rhys Evans since the fourth strike from Huddersfield and two Bantam goals in each game have put City in a commanding position in League Two’s embryonic table.

All of which contrasts sharply with the mood and the nerves after the Town defeat. The thought now that City might not have enough in the locker for a promotion campaign – “Its not nice watching your team getting beat, but i am sure you will get plenty of practice this season (sic)” as one Town fan who commented to BfB said – has been put to bed by Saturday’s impressive win over Rochdale.

Much is talked about Stuart McCall’s abilities as a manager but this is – on the whole – in the context of his recruitment abilities and the results his teams get which to date have been mixed but the first gold star in the golden haired manager’s portfolio comes from his minimise-and-move-on that followed the thrashing at Legoland. “It happened”, McCall’s manner said after, “Get over it.”

So City’s midweek is taken up watching Barry Conlon put five past Grimsby’s kids and casting an eye over the newboy from Brazil Italo Maciel while Town line up against McCall’s former side looking for a victory but knowing that the league form must take precedence. A slow start can be navigated around – City won promotion after two points in seven games in 1998/99 – but the League Cup is an unwelcome distraction from getting the campaign on track.

The gulf that separated the teams fifteen days ago could – at the weekend should Millwall and Hereford win and Aldershot Town lose – be reduced to a single space spanning from the bottom of one division to the top of another.

Now who would have thought that fourteen days ago?

Good Things Happen At Last

It’s five years since Stuart McCall was shown the door by Bradford City. Considered too old, too expensive and a little disruptive, his contract was not renewed and his number four shirt handed to someone else.

The impending financial meltdown that would come to light weeks later was the true reason behind showing a City legend the door. Yet as a near full house waved goodbye to Stuart during his testimonial game with former club Rangers, it appeared his best days were behind him.

Stuart hooked up with Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United and enjoyed a new leash of life by playing a significant part in the Blades reaching the League and FA Cup semi-finals and losing the Play Off final. Not bad for a player who Jim Jefferies, less than a year earlier, famously wrote off by saying his legs had gone. When those legs did eventually go, his coaching career took off. Rising to Warnock’s assistant, the sight of Stuart stood behind the Blades boss in the dugout has become a regular sight on Match Of The Day this season.

As for his first love Bradford City, it’s not been pretty. Administration, administration again, relegation, relegation again. Six years ago City were the butt of people’s jokes as they exited the Premiership, relegation to League Two was deemed barely worth a mention. The fall from grace may not have been as quick as the club formerly known as Wimbledon, but it’s still startling.

But just as we wondered if good things would ever happen to City again, Stuart comes over the hill as the proverbial knight in shining armour. City shocked the footballing world by signing Benito Carbone seven years ago and some will again be left scratching their heads in disbelief at Stuart’s decision to take the reigns at Valley Parade. Chiefly among them will be us City supporters and the staff, probably even Julian Rhodes himself.

When Colin Todd was dismissed last February, Stuart became number one target. There was nothing doing at the time, so Rhodes entrusted David Wetherall to look after the team and saw it relegated in feeble fashion. The wait continued and, after a turbulent week for the Blades, Rhodes incredibly got his man.

Through all of the waiting and debate of who should be manager, most supporters wanted Stuart in charge. We hoped he’d take the job, but who really believed he would? This is a club that has sunk to its lowest position in quarter of a century, become saddled with debts and played increasingly poor football. Decent players were replaced by average players – and then they were replaced by even poorer ones.

What have we achieved, other than continuing survival, since Stuart left? Staying up in 2002-03, but losing relegation battles in 2003-04 and 2006-07. Signing some decent players like Paul Henderson, Damion Stewart and Andy Gray, but only receiving a fraction of their value back. Attracting a world class big name manager, but discovering he was not a world class manager. Winning some memorable games, but losing more often and when it really mattered.

Good things haven’t happened to Bradford City for a long time. So who would have been surprised if Stuart had of landed the Sheffield United position and turned us down? Of course part of the reason we have got him was because the Blades decided he wasn’t right. But it hardly matters a jot.

A manager to finally unite the fans, attract more interest in the club and breed genuine optimism. A Bradford City man to inspire those who work under him, emphasise with the fans and demonstrate the long sought after ‘passion’ that some supporters believed was lacking in previous managers. A hungry individual with a point to prove to those who rejected him, ambitious for a good career and determined to succeed.

A man to help us remember happier times and look to the future with new belief. Good things haven’t happened to Bradford City for a long time, Stuart’s arrival will hopefully herald a change.

Pinches of Salt

One pinch of salt needed:
Stuart McCall will agree to be City manager today (Wednesday 16th of May 2007) or the job will be offered elsewhere.

Another pinch of salt needed:
Stuart McCall will agree to be City manager today.

McCall has spoken to BBC Radio Sheffield today and talked about the contract offer to Neil Warnock and how it is not acceptable to the Blades manager. Following that McCall intimated that should Warnock go he would leave also.

It would seem that McCall is split between head that tells him to see what falls down at Sheffield United and heart that pushes him back to Bradford. Significantly Mrs McCall favours the heart.

More salt:
City are believe to have investment – proper investment that comes with support as Peter Etherington once promised but most definitely not Etherington – coming in the not at all distant future and that investment is offering something more to McCall than League Two and an empty bank account. City are not looking at having cash to splash but – as BfB understands it and considering the income streams the club has built – enough to stop the reliance on Julian Rhodes’s handouts for survival and perhaps some squad building cash.

Still more salt:
McCall has been in informal talks. McCall knows about the investment. McCall is looking at both City and Sheffield United and it is not cut and dried.

On the day that one ginger midfielder said he would love to come back – Paul Bolland of Grimsby wants to rejoin the Bantams and rumour has it that Huddersfield’s Chris Brandon is keen to have a word too – the other one has a decision to make about his future.

Failing McCall there is a list of names: Peter Beagrie, Lee Sinnott of now Conference side Farsley Celtic, Roy McFarland, Peter Jackson and on and on. Failing McCall there is a list of names but McCall has never failed us in the past.

Giving goals where there are no goals – Why Windass should not have walked

Dean Windass’s late lunge that got a red card at Valley Parade on Saturday against Sheffield United was many things – stupidly timed, ill judged and cynical – but it was not a red card offence.

The rules on automatic dismissals, a relatively modern concept in football, are clear. A player can be given a straight red card for two offences: violent conduct or a tackle that denies the opposition of a clear goal scoring opportunity.

The latter first: Windass’s trip was a good seventy yards away from the City goalmouth and in no way could be said to have robbed the Blade’s of a goal scoring chance. I’m not suggesting that they could not have build a decent move out of the fact that almost every Bantam was in their box and they were on the break but I am saying that that chance was a few good passes away and that when Windass intervened it was not a chance. The analogy is Leg Before Wicket in cricket which my understanding is cannot be given on a ball that may have swung back to the stumps. It has to be in line and heading at the stumps when it hits the batsman’s pad. The so-called professional foul rule works in a similar way.

So Windass could not have seen red for that.

Nor could his trip, albeit from a distance and totally stupid, be said to be violent conduct. Violent conduct governs punches and kicks like Kevin Phillips’s ill conceived boot to the backside off Franck Queudrue on Saturday. In the context of tackles it governs two footed lunges and waist high feet, which has nothing to do with Windass on Saturday.

You may have sat appalled by the fact that Windass’s trip robbed the game of open play that could have raised excitement levels or you may have been angered by Windass being so stupid as to put a tackle in in that position that late in the game that could have had this outcome. You may think that a tackle that trips a guy on the break is worth a red card or you may think that Windass lost his head against his former team but none of these points matter.

The rules are stated in black and white, there are no interpretations. Referee’s are not enfranchised to may poetic decisions to round off the story of Dean Windass and Sheffield United nor is he there to decide that Windass has killed a beautiful move that could have been so exciting had it got out of it’s infancy.

He is there to enforce the rules, not make his own. Which of the two infringements for an automatic red card did Dean Windass commit? He may be morally worth a red card and it may be apt punishment for his stupidity but those calls are not for the Referee to make.

What we saw on Saturday was the Referee overreacting to an on field incident and forgetting the rules he is there to enforce. To put it in context it was the Ref deciding on the outcome of an event based not on the event itself and how it should be dealt with in the rules but on the strength of his gut reaction to it.

It’s the equivalent of him seeing a great passing move that resulted in a shot just wide of the post and giving a goal because – hey – it would have been a great goal.

We would not accept that, we should not accept this.

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