Phil Parkinson and the team of tautology

The Team

Ben Williams | Stepgen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Josh Cullen, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Filipe Morais | Billy Clarke, Jamie Proctor, Nathan Clarke

It seemed odd twenty minutes later but at half time I waxed lyrical about how good Walsall were.

Walsall were, after all, the first team to put the ball past Ben Williams in over eight games when they scored in what would be their manager Dean Smith’s final game in charge at the Bescot Stadium back in November and they had won that game.

At half time – defending City’s noisy North End – they had gnarled their way through the opening forty five minutes with the type of performance that City’s Phil Parkinson would have been proud of from his players.

Indeed Walsall’s James O’Connor typified the Saddlers approach to gutsy determination to not allow goalkeeper Neil Etheridge’s clean sheet to be dirtied. Away from Valley Parade during the transition period between City’s early season floundering and that eight games without concession it was exactly the sort of determination that O’Connor showed that Rory McArdle was dragging out every game.

But that was then, and this is now.

Transition

Turning this Bradford City team around this season ranks alongside Chelsea, Arsenal and Wembley twice in Phil Parkinson’s achievements as Bradford City manager.

So meek in surrender earlier in the season, and so aimless at times, this was to be a fallow year for Bradford City.

It was a season where signings did not work out – Paul Anderson watches from the bench, Mark Marshall nowhere, Brad Jones elsewhere – and where even the signings that did work didn’t work. How strange does Devante Cole’s decision to join a relegation battle in preference to staying at City look now?

Which is impressive is not just that Parkinson has spun this season into something when it threatened so often to be nothing but how he has done it.

Parkinson has created the team of tautology: A committed group of loan players.

Shut up Wesley!

Josh Cullen, Lee Evans, Reece Burke were a good chunk of the spine of Bradford City in the 4-0 win over Walsall and have been crucial in the transformation of the team. Indeed Cullen’s arrival allowed the much loved Gary Liddle to exit for Chesterfield and another relegation scrap and while one doubts Cullen (or Burke) will be starting next season in the Olympic Stadium with West Ham neither of them are committed to City in the long term.

But in the short term they are? And why is this? Loan players are as Wes Thomas has been. Oddly out of sorts perhaps, and stuck in their ways. Thomas was to the Bradford City support what Jamie Proctor became: The alternative to James Hanson;

Nevertheless Thomas’s unwillingness or inability to play a high pressing game – which resulted in opposition side’s getting an easy route out away from their own goal – has seen the player confronted with two choices: Parkinson’s way or no way at all. Being a loanee and able to ride out the rest of his deal Thomas seemingly did not care for the former and ended up with the latter.

Which has been City’s experience with loan players since their presence went from odd novelty to (apparently) a necessity in the last two decades of the game. If one includes Kyel Reid and Jamie Proctor as loan players (as they initially were) then half of City’s team could not be around next season.

So how are they not a team of Wes Thomas’s?

The fault is not with the stars

The answer to that question probably resides in Rory McArdle and James Hanson, who both returned to the side for the Walsall game, and with other long time servers like Stephen Darby, James Meredith and perhaps the aforementioned Reid.

There is an adage in football – which is attributed to Brian Clough but I’m sure pre-dates him – that a club is as good as its senior players. It seems that Parkinson believes that to be the case. There is a circle of players like Hanson, McArdle, Darby, Meredith, Reid, and perhaps extended to Ben Williams and Tony McMahon who create a tone and an atmosphere at the club which has in its way become a repeatable pattern of success.

To that circle – an inner circle perhaps – Parkinson trust everything. It is to those players who the manager turns when defeat to Coventry City and a draw at Shrewsbury Town has questioned the club’s play off credentials. And with rich reward too. Hanson scores his first professional hat-trick and remains the club’s top goalscorer while McArdle returns the club to clean sheets. The 24th of the season.

For younger players who arrive on loan at the club the message is obvious. Take your cue from that inner circle in how you play, and how you train, and learn the lesson about how far that sort of attitude will take you in football.

What do you learn

One wonders what a young player gets from League One football. Dele Alli – named PFA Young Player of the Year – started last year scoring against City for MK Dons. The intelligentsia have it that it is his blooding as a child in the lower leagues that maketh the man. As if the sort of cold Tuesday night in Crewe that the football media so often sneer at is actually of crucial importance in some way or other.

If it is then Cullen, Evans and Burke have those lessons which are attributed to Alli, and to his partner Harry Kane who wandered the lower leagues as a part of the loan system. Parkinson’s approach to the game involves making sure you are never out of a game – never cast adrift two or three goals behind – and keeping the competitiveness for ninety minutes.

To not lose easily perhaps sums it up best and contrasts with a Walsall side who saw the tide turn away from them on Saturday and did not want to get their feet wet in it. From dogs of war to puppies in the space of fifteen minutes and incapable of stopping the game from going away from them. Parkinson’s approach would have been to close the game down at 0-1, and he has been criticised for that, but only once or twice have City been out of matches all season.

That approach has become the season and there is something about Parkinson’s approach – about following Parkinson’s approach – that is instructive to young footballers. Certainly they show the trappings of players who understand the nature of league football. Burke is committed against Walsall ensuring nothing goes past him. Evans has a poor first half but Cullen carries his team mate through a bad forty five minutes and the pair emerge imperious at the end.

Cullen carries his team mate. A 20 year old loan player prepared to put some of his performance into making sure his team mate’s performance can recover. If that does not tell you the scale of Parkinson’s achievement with this group of players nothing will.

And the achievement is in the approach and the approach relies on the inner circle of players who maintain an attitude throughout the club.

After all these years City have finally got good at loans.

Do you remember the last time?

Just as City start to master loan signings then loan signings disappear. The loan system as we are used to it in the Football League is changing and next season loans are restricted to transfer windows. No emergency bringing in Kyel Reid after an injury to Paul Anderson, no drafting in Lee Evans because things are not going how you want them.

Next season’s summer recruitment has to be more fruitful than this year or the club face a long slog to Christmas but the same was true this season and when Hanson wandered off with the match ball – two headed goals and a powerful right foot finish – one might have wondered if Parkinson were forced to work with the players he had would he have been able to get them to the play-offs this season? If Paul Anderson had not had his leg broken would he be doing what Kyel Reid is now?

In this case retrospect does not have to provide an answer.

The character of Bradford City’s goalscoring problems

To understand the problems Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are having scoring goals at the end of the League One season – a season which has gone far better than one would have thought for much of it – one has to go back to the problems that marked the start of the season.

By August 2015 Parkinson had put the final nail into the coffin of his 4312 playmaker formation by signing Paul Anderson to add to other recruit Mark Marshall to give his team two out and out wingers.

Marshall and Anderson would be Jamie Lawrence and Peter Beagrie for the 2015 generation and City would rampage through the division with an attractiveness which joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes have asked for previously.

However in the opening week trips to Swindon Town and York City, and the game at home to Gillingham, Parkinson’s plans faltered and they faltered because his team were vulnerable to counter-attacks and crosses and these vulnerabilities were caused by a hole in City’s defence.

Joke Hole

That hole was an key. The hole was a gap between goalkeeper Ben Williams and the centre of the defensive line. Whenever a ball would come into the City box Williams and the defenders would struggle with one being too far from the other and as a result opposition strikers being given the freedom of the penalty spot to exploit City again and again.

This coupled with the counter-attacking problem in that Swindon Town exploited ruthlessly. When a City attack broke down the opposition recycled the ball past the wingers and brought the ball into dangerous wide positions challenged by only the City full back, or took it past the central midfielders.

Parkinson’s first solution to this problem did not work.

Brad Jones came and left very quickly and is widely considered to have been a failure at the club. After Jones’ exit a kind of media spin was given to the remaining keeper Ben Williams – that he had “seen off” the more experienced Jones – and so could be considered solid number one material. Williams bought into that and his grown since.

Williams’ record breaking run of clean sheets has written him a paragraph in the history of Bradford City and he deserves credit for it. But how those clean sheets came about is the root of the current goalscoring problem.

Because as Jones left and Williams stayed Parkinson changed City’s approach to games, or their tactics if you will.

Mints

(Brian Clough used to say there is a lot of nonsense talked about tactics by people who could not win a game of dominoes and I’m very aware that I may add to that but I’m not a believer in the reductionist view of tactics which had taken hold at all clubs in modern football where tactics can be boiled down to how the ball is delivered to the final third of the field: long pass or series of short passes; and I’m not a fan of making the word synonymous with the word formation which is also too inexact for our uses. For the word tactics to be of use it has to be nuanced, else it is a nuisance.)

Staying with his philosophies on the game Parkinson changed how City played to stop them conceding goals. His five years at the club have shown us that Parkinson works from a solid defence forward. To this effect the midfielders would take a step back in the course of play and not commit to attacking in forward positions when City had the ball.

Flash your mind back to 1999 and Jamie Lawrence crossing from the right. In the box Lee Mills would be in the six yard box, Robbie Blake would dally at the penalty spot and Peter Beagrie would be just past the far post, just out from the touchline. That season Mills, Blake and Beagrie scored 75% of City’s goals. In addition Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley – one forward one back – would offer short options and there would be a full back in attendance.

attacking-1999

Consider last night at Coventry City when Kyel Reid had the ball and in the box was Jamie Proctor, and that was it.

Billy Clarke offered a short option but staying outside the box and both Josh Cullen and Lee Evans were back down field. The support from the full back was there but on the opposite side of the field Tony McMahon was not in the box looking to add to the forwards, or forward if one were more honest. Instead McMahon is stepped back making sure that if the keeper catches and throws the ball out City are not exposed.

attacking-2015

Reverse the wings and the story is the same. This is not an issue with personnel it is a part of the way that City are playing. Everyone is a step further back than they could be, and the are further back because when they stepped forward at the start of the season they left holes which were exploited and results were terrible.

That Williams and the back four can claim a record number of clean sheets is a function of the fact that they are not fielding as many crosses, or taking on as many shots, because the midfield is balanced towards making sure that defensive holes are plugged.

Being Reice Charles-Cook

zones-on-a-field

When Reice Charles-Cook – the Coventry City goalkeeper – caught the ball on Tuesday night he looked to get play started quickly for the Sky Blue team that make a fetish of possession but the quick throw to a midfielder on the wing or a player in central position in zones 4-6 are not possible because Reid, McMahon and Clarke are already in zones 4-6 getting back to zones 7-9 while – by contrast – Blake, Lawrence and Beagrie would be in zones 1-3.

Likewise when City attack Cullen and Evans do not need to venture to zone 14 – Billy Clarke lives there – so they stay in zones 8 and 11 making sure that any breakdown of play does not leave the defence exposed. No counter attacks through zone 8/11, no wide attacks leading to crosses through 4/7 and 6/9.

This approach has done wonderful things for City in the last few months – the move from struggling in lower mid-table to third in League One is a result of this approach – but were Parkinson to alter it now for more of an attacking focus then the defensive issues that mandated the approach would no doubt reappear, or at least Parkinson might worry they would.

The defence – and specifically the control gap between Williams and the defensive line – has not been solved just been filled up with players sitting back. It is control through numbers. Shrewsbury Town’s equaliser will remind you that that issue between Williams and his defensive line has not gone away.

And Parkinson knows this.

Character and confidence

He knows that if he were to add – for example – Filipe Morais to the right flank over McMahon with instructions to get into zone 17-18 then the team would return to the same concession problem it had at the start of the season. He knows that if he had Billy Clarke (or someone else) press alongside Proctor in zone 17 rather than staying in zone 14 then the result without be that Cullen and Evans came forward, making the entire defensive unit harder to control, and the concession problem would emerge again.

Parkinson might try beat opposition sides in a scoring contest a la Kevin Keegan trying to win games 4-3 but considering the statistic talked about about City’s forwards scoring one goal in thirty shots over the last two games – which I would argue were low quality shots, because of the options in the zone 17 mentioned above – one doubts that the manager will change his approach so drastically.

And why should he? That approach has taken a team which struggled badly at the start of the season into genuine contenders for the play-offs. That prospect did not look likely at Gillingham when the third goal without reply went in back on the 2nd of January. Parkinson has shown that he can build confidence from teams that do not concede, and that is what he has done this time.

The arguments over Billy Clarke’s missed goal at Coventry – it never looks any better – or his goal should have stood goal at Shrewsbury – it never looks offside – can continue but on a longer timeline City’s goalscoring is not about players missing the target but rather about decisions made to patch defensive weaknesses and to give the team the chance to build confidence by not being beaten.

Like it or not that is the character of Bradford City 2015/2016.

The welcome to Bradford City moment as the Bantams draw 1-1 with Shrewsbury Town

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Alan Sheehan, James Meredith | Christopher Routis, Gary Liddle, Josh Morris | Billy Clarke | James Hanson, Steve Davies | Paul Anderson, Mark Marshall, Billy Knott

For those who were new at Valley Parade in this the first home game of the season one got a sense of an early baptism. The Bradford City who beat Arsenal and Chelsea are also, and very much, the Bradford City of a 1-1 draw with Shrewsbury Town.

With morale low and a team to build Phil Parkinson would have liked to win, would accept a draw, and did not want to lose and everything about this first home game said that. Playing his playmaker formation with James Hanson and Steve Davies in the forward line Parkinson’s City matches Micky Mellon’s Shrewsbury Town man for man with Billy Clarke occupying the impressive Ryan Woods who sat in the spoiling role in front of the huge Jermaine Grandison
and the coveted Connor Goldson.

And in doing so the two sides, more or less, cancelled each other out. A mistake by Martin Woods in midfield allowed Billy Clarke to burst forward and scored following a returned pass by Davies. Tyrone Barnett equalised after half time getting credit for chasing a very long ball forward and perhaps earning the luck that came as his shot cannoned back off Rory McArdle and then over Ben Williams. Nothing Williams could do about that which seems to be a phrase said a little too often for comfort.

Those goals sandwiched half time and from that part on it was a very typical Parkinson performance. Not wanting to throw players forward and risk losing the game City did try Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson as wingers to pull the play out of a packed middle but the middle two of Shrewsbury were firm.

Goldson was rated highly and is composed on the ball. Alan Sheehan has not been rated so highly this week after his penalty miss starting as central defender in the place of Nathan Clarke he put in a very good display. He seems prepared to offer Parkinson an option in that position and I believe is worth considering for the role.

Gary Liddle’s return strengthened the midfield immeasurably and Josh Morris showed his ability to play the side role in a three man midfield. I shall not pretend to Parkinson’s preference for Christopher Routis but will note that Routis had a serviceable game but if he wants to be a midfielder he needs to stop wasting possession on silly passes and ludicrous shots. If we are to persist with Routis then he needs to be judged on the same standards as other players in the team.

There were shouts for penalties as the game wore on and Stephen Darby’s shot at the end of a well worked move was blocked when it looked like it would win the game.

But this was a game not to be lost, and it was not, and at every step in the accent of Bradford City under Phil Parkinson there have been games like this where one wishes that City were more adventurous and not be so content with a point.

But such is Parkinson’s way and it is that way which has brought all these people to Valley Parade in the first place.

2011/2012 IV/IV: The teams

Following last season’s disappointment a new air of optimism currently surrounds the much changed, younger City squad compiled by Peter Jackson, but what can we expect from those who the Bantams will line up against in the new season?

With the loss of Bury, Chesterfield, Stockport and Lincoln from League 2 last time out, the division this year has taken on a very Southern feel with the addition to the League of Plymouth, Bristol Rovers, AFC Wimbledon, Crawley Town, Swindon and Dagenham & Redbridge. It seems that away day dedication will be pushed even further this year, with City set to clock up the miles – where are the Peter Taylor over night stays when you need them!?

The Favourites

For the first time since City were relegated to League 2 they have not been tipped for automatic promotion, that acclaim has gone to the league’s big spending new boys Crawley Town. Following last season’s romp to the Conference title and lucrative FA Cup run, only ended by the champions of England, Crawley have flexed their financial muscles once again signing the likes of Wes Thomas (Cheltenham) and Tyrone Barnett (Macclesfield) on huge salaries. Although popularity amongst other teams and fans will be in short supply, this is unlikely to phase Steve Evans who appears to have unlimited funds to see that the Red Devils make it back to back promotions. And with the likes of Dagenham and Stevenage proving that it is not impossible to make that immediate leap, it is unsurprising that the club have been highly backed at the bookies. Former Bantam Scott Nielson is still on the books and will no doubt be on the end of a ‘warm’ welcome when returning to VP, following comments he made after his City exit.

Hot on the promotional heels of Crawley are fellow league new boys Swindon Town. Over the summer they have introduced some Italian flair on the touchline following the appointment of Paolo Di Canio. Expect much gesticulation and passion when the Bantams meet The Robins in the final game of the season (and that’s just from Jackson!). In the close season Di Canio has signed the relatively unknown Oliver Risser and appointed him the club’s captain as well as several established League 1 players. Also don’t be surprised if a few hot prospects from the Premier League turn up on loan over the coming weeks – I’m sure Paolo will still have Mr. Redknapp’s phone number!

Former Torquay boss Paul Buckle will be hoping that he can use his League 2 experience to guide league newcomers Bristol Rovers back into League 1 at the first attempt. Signing the likes of Chris Zebroski (you may remember him drop kicking Matt Clarke in the face!) and Joe Ayinsah (Charlton), expect attacking football from The Pirates who visit VP in September.

As well as the new boys, League 2’s bridesmaids Shrewsbury Town have also been tipped to go well again this year. Following play-off disappointment for the past three seasons “Salop” will be hoping they can go one better and achieve automatic promotion this year. In the close season Graham Turner has signed proven League 2 players such as: Marvin Morgan (Aldershot); Andy Gornell and Joe Jacobson (Accrington) and will be hoping that these will provide the extra ammunition to get The Shrews over the line.

“Local” Rivals

With the loss of so many Northern teams from the division, local rivalries are few and far between for the Bantams this year. Nearest geographically are Rotherham United, who despite the loss of player maker Nicky Law to McGod’s Motherwell, will be hoping for a strong season under relatively new boss Andy Scott. Scott’s first priority will be to keep hold of the much coveted Adam Le Fondre, whilst quickly hoping he can get the best out of hard-working City reject Gareth Evans (‘The goal is that way Gareth…’). The Millers will be trying to make sure that they don’t fall away as they have in previous years despite promising starts. City host Rotherham in November, with the away leg early in the New Year.

One time City managerial target John Coleman, will be hoping that Accrington Stanley will be able to maintain their strong form of last year despite losing their best players to other teams (Ryan, McConville, Gornell). Coleman will have to manage once again on a shoe-string budget and has so far snapped up the likes of defender Danny Coid (Blackpool) and young striker Kurtis Guthrie, whilst former Bantam Rory Boulding still features in the squad. Expect Stanley to finish mid-table this year as the loss of quality players will surely take its toll.

Morecambe (Bradford-on-sea) are entering the new campaign with a rallying cry in the hope to recapture the ‘fortress’ mentality of Christie Park at their new home ‘The Globe Arena’ (incidentally it’s not an arena, it has 3 sides!). Shrimps boss Jim Bentley will be hoping the combative style of former Bantam loanee Kevin Ellison will help them improve on a disappointing 20th position, achieved last time out. A big City following will once again will flock to Morecambe in early September, with the return fixture at VP in mid-January.

Conference Call

Gary Simpson’s Macclesfield Town have been made favourites for relegation to the Conference this year. Despite a comfortable 15th place finish last season The Silkmen are tipped to struggle, with bookmakers offering them at 2/1 to drop into non-league. The Moss Rose outfit will be hoping that new signings Waide Fairhust (Doncaster), former Bantam Jonathan Bateson (Accrington), along with others like the quick forward Emile Sinclair, will be enough to steer them clear of trouble.

Second favourites to face the drop are Cheltenham Town, following their disappointing second half to last season, which left them with a 17th place finish – one place above the Bantams. This is not a sentiment shared by the Robins new signing Sido Jombati, who claims the club should be aiming for promotion. Cheltenham have invested mainly in non-league players, much the same as City, with the hope of bringing success to Whaddon Road next season.

Once again Barnet have been backed to struggle this term, despite retaining the majority of their top performers from last year. Lawrie Sanchez continues as boss as the Bees aim to gain compensation for the move of last year’s demi-saviour, Martin Allen, to Notts County. With plenty of forward options in the form of Izale McLeod, Sam Deering, Steve Kabba and Mark Marshall (remember him embarrassing City last year?), Barnet will be hoping that they can sort out their defence which saw them leak 77 goals last season.

Hereford United will be hoping to make things a little more comfortable this year following their close shave for survival last season. Former ‘physio’ boss, Jamie Pitman, has signed the likes of Delroy Facey (Lincoln) and Stefan Stam (Yeovil) in the hope of playing attacking, entertaining football next term. The Bantams travel to Edgar Street in late October, with the Bulls coming to VP in February.

League Newcomers

Cash-strapped Plymouth Argyle will face a race against time to assemble a squad before the big kick-off on the 6th of August. With the likely take over by Peter Risdale not yet finalised and the club selling off the ground and its land to a third party: ‘Bishop International’ (sound familiar!?) it will be a success just to put a team out for the Pilgrims next season. Already potential signings have swerved away from the financially stricken club, Antony Elding (Rochdale) opted to sign for non-league Grimsby despite initially agreeing to sign for Plymouth. Survival will have to be their first priority and it is hoped that with the re-signing of influential defender Stephane Zubar, others will follow to sign up for Peter Reid’s cause.

The Crazy Gang return to Valley Parade next season and it is expected that they will bring more than 53 fans when they visit Bradford in late-September. Following five promotions in nine years, since their formation in 2002, AFC Wimbledon will take their place in the football league once again. They will start the campaign without last season’s top goalscorer Danny Kedwell, who has signed for Gillingham, but have retained the services of their player of the season Sam Hatton. Boss Terry Brown has signed up several new recruits: Jack Midson (Oxford); Mat Mitchell-King (Crewe); Chris Bush (Brentford) and Charles Ademeno (Grimsby) in hope of maintaining the club’s position in League 2 next year.

John Still’s Dagenham & Redbridge return to League 2 following only one season in League 1. The one-time City managerial target has managed to maintain the majority of his squad, but has lost key man, and former Bantams’ target, Ramon Vincelot to Championship new-boys Brighton. The Daggers are expected to finish mid-table this time out and will face the Bantams at VP in August, with the return fixture at Victoria Road in March.

Familiar Faces

Burton Albion boss Paul Peschisolido has signed several attacking options over the close season with the intention of pushing the Brewers further up the table than their 19th place finish last season. The Nottinghamshire club will be hoping to avoid the fixture congestion that plagued them last year. New signing Justin Richards (Port Vale) should be the main attacking threat and City play Albion away in October, with the home fixture in January.

Dario Gradi will take charge of Crewe for his 26th season at the helm. With the loss of Clayton Donaldson over the summer, Alex striker Shaun Miller will be hoping to fill the former Bradford youngster’s boots and build on his own 19 goal haul last season. Crewe have been internally backing themselves for promotion this year and will aim to get there playing attractive, technical football, the likes of which the Bantams experienced on the last day of the season.

Gary Johnson’s Northampton Town will once again carry high expectations into the coming season, with their expectant fans insisting that they improve on their disappointing 16th place last season. With a glut of new signings, including big striker Adebayo Akinfenwa, the Cobblers will enter the 2011/2012 season with aspirations of reaching the play-offs. City face Northampton at VP in late October and travel to the Sixfields Stadium in April.

Former City man Chris Wilder will be entering the new season in the hope that his Oxford United team can build on their promising first season back in the football league. Ex-City flop Paul McLaren will take his place for the U’s next season and will hope for more consistency in League 2 this time out. Experience seems to be the order of the day for Wilder who has also recruited former Leeds player Michael Dubbery and ex-Bury goal keeper Wayne Brown.

In a repeat of last season, Micky Adams will lead out Port Vale and will want to finish the job he started before leaving for a forgettable stay at boyhood club Sheffield United. Marc Richards remains the main danger man for the Stoke club and will hope that he can find sufficient support from new signings Gary Roberts (scorer for Rotherham from halfway at VP) and fellow striker Louis Dodds. Vale face the Bantams at Vale Park in September and at VP on Valentine’s day.

On the Buses…(or coaches)

Industrious Aldershot will be hoping to build on their solid 14th place finish last time out. The Bantams play host to the Shots on the opening day and will have to be wary of the goal-threat of defender Antony Charles who had success against the Bantams last year. Dean Holdsworth will be hoping that the recent loan deal for Reading’s attacking midfielder Jake Taylor will help get the Shots off to a flier… obviously after losing to City!

Gillingham have made several signings over the summer and diminutive boss Andy Hessenthaler will be hoping that by signing non-league success stories like Danny Ked well (AFC Wimbledon) will be enough to push the Gills one step further than their play-off spot last year. Hot striking prospect Adam Birchall, signed from Hessenthaler’s former club Dover, is already facing a 6 month lay off with knee ligament damage, which will leave the Priestfield club on the look out for another ‘Cody MacDonald’ type player from the loan market.

Southend will enter the new season hoping to gain the consistency that saw the play-offs elude them last year. Shrimpers boss Paul Sturrock has made several signings to complement last seasons top performers Antony Grant and Barry Corr. City will once again travel to Roots Hall on a Friday night (Decemeber) and will host the Essex club, again on a Friday night, in April.

Torquay boss Martin Ling will want his side to go one better this year to soar into League 1. In order to replace target man Chris Zebroski the Gulls have signed former Morecambe hitman Rene Howe, and have strengthened their midfield with the signing of left-sided trickster Ian Morris (Scunthorpe). City travel to the English Riviera in mid-February (Brrrr…) and host the Gulls at VP in early October.

The boy done good

There are few things in professional football that bring me as much joy as watching the progression of young players.

They arrive into the team, these proto-footballers, with energy and verve which lasts for exactly one clattering tackle. A tackle that welcomes them to the harsh realities of the game.

From then on the live a life of constant testing. Most young players were by some way the best at football in the majority of games they played up. The late Dean Richards is talked of in glowing terms by the lads who played alongside him with Rhodesway because in a season in which they lost but a single game, he was the best player.

Progress in youth football is about that. The best move on to the next level which they are the best at, the others are moved on. The chances are that the vast majority of players who every get a pro contract were the best in their school by some distance, the best at other Junior levels too as they make the cut every step of the way.

And then comes first team professional football.

No longer the best, no longer protected by the confidence of being the best, before that first crunch of a tackle has stopped throbbing the player has gone from peerless performer to bottom of the pile.

Which is when things get really interesting.

How does one get up from that clattering, or the next, or from screwing a ball wide, or from hitting one top corner and being expected to do it again. Character, not the notion of talent, becomes the definition of the footballer.

Darren Stephenson’s debut on Saturday was not the stuff of dreams. His main contribution – bothering the keeper – has to be excluded as not being significant enough to be a foul leaving the much vaunted striker with little to recall on his first game but watching another young player Tom Bradshaw of Shrewsbury Town claiming two goals. One run down the wing while City were a goal up saw Stephenson win a throw in rather than try beat his man – a good move from the point of view of playing the percentages – but with City on the break perhaps the idea that he might have gone at his man will have played on his mind.

Perhaps done more. Perhaps there have been nights when he has wondered what would have happened had he moved to the left of Ian Sharps when Sharps slipped, got closer to Shane Cansdell-Sherriff when he missed his headed clearance. Such thoughts could drive a man mad.

Which is where the character of Stephenson comes to test. What can he learn from his first experience of League football and how can it improve him as a player? How can he think about what he could have done better without obsessing on things he had done wrong.

Every player goes through the same process. The successful ones are able to master this process of learning from mistakes, but not dwelling on them, while the less successful lose confidence on the one hand or never learn on the other.

Over the last few days Darren Stephenson will have had these thoughts on his mind, his response will go a way to telling us what sort of a player he will be. As it is the boy done good to get this far, how he reacts to successes and failures like last Saturday will define how he does from now on.

Radio times

A Manchester United-supporting friend came along with me to the recent Northampton game. Having been to very few live football matches over his life and used to following his team via a Sky subscription, he joked after Bradford City had come close that he “keeps expecting to see a replay”. I chuckled back, “aye, and where are the commentators?”

Yet now that the club has reversed last season’s controversial decision to have no live radio coverage of home games, there are two sets of commentators broadcasting live from Valley Parade to the rest of West Yorkshire on matchdays. And with a strong desire to follow how the Wales v England game was progressing on Saturday, but not wanting to listen to Radio 5 Live commentary of it while watching City v Shrewsbury, I had a go at listening to BBC Radio Leeds while at the match.

Such practice of listening to the radio commentary of a game you’re watching live is not unheard of among football supporters, and a quick glance around me before kick off suggested there were plenty of other people tuning in to keep up to date with the big international. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable experience to have my regular view of a City game be accompanied by the voice of Derm Tanner – not least because it drowned out the usual moaners.

I’m used to Derm’s excellent commentaries of course, as when I can’t make a City away game I usually tune into his station’s coverage. Nevertheless there was something peculiar about seeing for myself the action he was describing. As David Syers charged forwards down the right wing, Derm was telling me and thousands of others that Syers was on the attack. We’re all used to commentators from watching football on TV, but in a live environment it took some getting used too as the chanting from the Bradford End could be heard to my left and through my earphones.

Most enjoyable of all though was getting to hear the views of City legend John Hendrie, who co-commentates with Derm for home games and the occasional local away game. I’d never heard him in this capacity myself, and his considered views added some depth to my following of the match.

Perhaps the biggest surprise though was his less than positive views on his former team mate and current City manager, Peter Jackson. Speaking just as the match was about to start, Hendrie declared that he thought City “could do better for a manager than Jackson.” When midway through the first half Jackson got into a heated argument with the 4th official that saw him creep onto the pitch, a disapproving Hendrie groaned “what does Jackson think he’s doing acting like that?”

Hendrie was especially unimpressed with Jackson’s team selection and, at full time, suggested it had contributed to the defeat. “So you think Jackson picked the wrong team?” asked Derm. “Well I certainly wouldn’t have chosen the one he has.”

His points – that Scott Dobie should be given an opportunity up front and that Syers is wasted in a right back position – were difficult to argue against. It is easy to criticise from the stands or the comfort of the press box of course; but with Hendrie’s vast experience playing and a short stint managing Barnsley,  his views carried some weight and were interesting to hear. It was certainly more insightful than the bloke who sits near me, who spent the whole 90 minutes alternating his target for abuse between Jake Speight, Gareth Evans, Luke O’Brien and Michael Flynn.

Ultimately it was a novel experience, listening to live radio coverage of a typical afternoon at Valley Parade. As supporters many of us rely on local radio to follow the Bantams when they’re on the road, but the furore over the home commentaries last season suggests they’re plenty of people in the region who follow the Bantams via the radio when they’re playing at Valley Parade too, rather than go to the game.

With some doubt over the future of local radio and its football coverage in particular, the service Radio Leeds provides is something we should be grateful to have.

I’ll be earphone-less as normal in future, trying to ignore the moaners and getting behind the team. But I’d certainly be more willing to get plugged in again on occasions; enjoying the game in the company of professionals who have insightful opinions to offer and who are genuinely on our side.

Now all Derm needs to do is sort out those action replays.

Jackson’s hopes hang in the balance as the feel-good factor recedes

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | David Syers, Lewis Hunt, Steve Williams, Luke O'Brien | Gareth Evans, Tom Adeyemi, Michael Flynn, Scott Dobie | Jake Speight, James Hanson | Darren Stephenson, Leon Osborne

Suddenly the unifying feel-good factor witnessed at the Globe Arena two weeks ago seems like a distant memory. 180 minutes of subsequently apathetic football have loosened Peter Jackson’s grip on pole position for the manager’s job full time. It may be wrong for his chances to fluctuate game-to-game like this, but this afternoon and last week have hardly offered compelling evidence in support of the interim manager’s cause.

Speaking ahead of this disappointing defeat, joint-Chairman Mark Lawn revealed it is likely Bradford City will make a final decision on the next manager around Easter time. Therefore Jackson probably has at least another four games in the hotseat to build a stronger case than his first five games provide. Few would doubt he has made an impact as he reaches his one month milestone in charge on Sunday, but seven points from 15 is hardly a significant improvement on the six points Peter Taylor collected during his final five games.

And therein lies his major issue to date. There just isn’t enough of a difference to the way City are performing with Jackson at the helm when looking at the widening picture. Initially the Bantams were playing a much more appealing passing style of football compared to efforts under Taylor. Yet both today and last week there has been a frustrating reverting back to direct football that sees the ball punted aimlessly in the direction of Jake Speight and James Hanson. Jackson can argue he doesn’t want his players to perform in this way, but this would hardly generate confidence over his leadership abilities.

Amazingly in a game where they were so clearly second best, City took the lead and for 10 minutes looked on course to sneak an undeserved victory. But a very impressive Shrewsbury side demonstrated why they are in the promotion shake-up by coming back to earn a valuable win. Rarely do dropped points look acceptable when you’ve held a lead in a match; and, although Shrewsbury’s winner came with six minutes left on the clock, the fact City had been unable to curtail their opponents’ dominance from kick off reflected badly on everyone.

Sure there were mitigating circumstances. Much of the pre-match focus was on how Jackson would compensate for the injured Luke Oliver at the back, but ultimately the absence of the suspended Jon Worthington was more crucially felt. City’s midfield four were badly out-gunned for much of the game and lacked the energy and drive to function as an effective attacking force. They lacked a David Syers.

Syers himself was thrust into a right back role he at least looked more comfortable performing compared to his efforts in this position against Northampton a week ago. With Lewis Hunt moved over to centre back to cover Oliver and putting in an extremely strong display, Jackson could argue he’d made the right call. But as the midfield already featured two strikers as widemen, there remained a suspicion all afternoon that there were just too many players lining up out of their best position, tipping the balance in Shrewsbury’s favour.

Particularly as Tom Adeyemi was asked to perform a defensive midfield position which appears more naturally suited to Syers and certainly isn’t ideal for the on-loan Norwich midfielder. For the first 45 minutes especially the midfield four were on the back foot and struggled to find time and space to attack, with Michael Flynn very average again. Shrewsbury hunted in packs down the flanks, forcing Gareth Evans and a much more willing Scott Dobie to defend for much of the half. But with so many players forced deep, the front two of Hanson and Speight were left badly isolated.

In other words, it was the same balance conundrum that Taylor had failed so badly to solve.

Were it not for an outstanding display from Jon McLaughlin, Shrewsbury’s dominance would have been rewarded with a 2 or even 3-0 half time scoreline. After getting away with making a hash of a low cross into the box, McLaughlin maintained his confidence and made a terrific double block from the dangerous Matt Harrold and Mark Wright. Just before half time Nicky Wroe was played clear on goal, but McLaughlin stood up well to make a brilliant one-on-one block. At half time all four sides of the crowd afforded the keeper a standing ovation.

City did begin to improve in the second half, with Jackson pushing Adeyemi further forwards so he could link up with Speight and Hanson. Though McLaughlin was still busy, having to tip over David Davis’ long-range shot and later on keep out Wright’s header. Darren Stephenson was handed a senior debut in place of the woeful Speight, and the crowd’s positive reception to his arrival helped the players to temporarily stem the tide.

Midway through the second half Adeyemi took advantage of a woeful punch downwards from Shrewsbury keeper Ben Smith to volley the ball into the roof of the net from the edge of the area; and for Jackson and City it was looking like a good day after all. Yet the wily Graham Turner made two inspirational substitutions – bringing on Tom Bradshaw and opening-day-of-the-season-City-tormentor Lionel Ainsworth – that re-shifted the momentum again.

City switched off from a throw-in, and Bradshaw struck with venom from distance to beat McLaughlin at his near post with 13 minutes to go. The substitute then won the game on 84 minutes after Jon Taylor had got free of Syers on the left – despite a strong suspicion of fouling the makeshift right back – and crossed for him to tap in.

In between City had effectively played upon Smith’s hesitancy in goal by swinging in some decent crosses that left him flapping. The best chance saw Hanson’s excellent run and cross for Dobie to head home thwarted by a defender on the line. On another day and with a bit more luck City could have won it instead of going on to lose, but then again they had benefited from some good fortune in defeating Rotherham and Morecambe.

In the end the day lacked conclusions. City are just about safe from relegation, but another few points are still required. Jackson could have been packing up his desk at full time, but Lawn’s pre-match comments revealed the assessment will go on a while longer. Lawn also claimed that results are what matter, and one has to wonder whether Jackson’s chances are little more advanced than a game of musical chairs. Will his latest result be win, draw and lose when the music stops – and will that determine the outcome?

Almost every manager I’ve known is popular at first – and there’s always that period where we almost believe they’ll be a superhero in what they are capable of achieving, before over time they prove themselves to be human with flaws that drive their popularity downwards. So while the six other managerial candidates can still hide behind their cape and remain superhero in their potential, Jackson – with some questionable team selections, iffy tactics and average performances – is left to reveal his defects that all the while reduce his chances.

Two weeks after looking a shoe-in for the job – for Jackson, you begin to suspect this story isn’t going to have a happy ending.

The question we all struggle to answer

In the immediate aftermath of Bradford City’s underwhelming draw with Northampton Town last Saturday, Pulse Sport’s Tim Thornton asking of interim manager Peter Jackson if he could explain why his team had performed so poorly prompted the response: “erm, no, not really”. After a season of under-achievement Jackson’s predecessor, Peter Taylor, might have broke into a wry smile had he been listening; but given Jackson is effectively undertaking a practical interview for the permanent job, his answer was far from reassuring.

Whether Mark Lawn was listening is a moot point, but this week the joint-Chairman has publicly uttered lukewarm comments about the job Jackson has done so far which suggests his full time appointment is not the formality it was beginning to appear two weeks ago. Not only did Lawn criticise the team’s display against Northampton, but the performance in beating Morecambe at the Globe Arena the week before.

Lawn told the Telegraph & Argus, “The results…have been steady so far without setting the world alight…We were flat on Saturday and need more out of them than that.” Above all else, that last comment can be assumed to be directed solely at Jackson. The message that the bar needs lifting much higher.

It’s a strange assessment period for Jackson. While five other managerial hopefuls brush up their interview skills or wait for a call, Jackson’s chances of getting the job are poised so finely on the results each week. The wins over Rotherham and Morecambe prompted loud calls for him to win the recruitment battle, but after Northampton the support towards him has become more muted.

As it stands, tomorrow could be his last game in charge – though it seems highly likely he will be given another month in charge at least. While the fate of other candidates may lie in the ability to answer the right questions, Jackson must place his in the players he inherited.

What more can he do? Well blooding youngsters is one election strategy that could win him extra votes. After plenty of youth players impressed while playing for the reserves in midweek, it seems probable that Jackson will award at least one senior debut from the bench on Saturday; with a couple at least poised to make the matchday 18. Leading the case is midweek scorer Darren Stephenson, who has been publicly praised by Jackson, while the much-hyped Dominic Rowe is also in contention.

With the Northampton draw firmly quashing talk of a late of play off charge, City’s final 10 games have largely become meaningless. It’s therefore an ideal opportunity to introduce youngsters into the first team and few people would view Jackson in anything but a positive light for doing so, unless results were adversely affected. If Stephenson, Rowe or Adam Robinson were to have an impact, Jackson – who had a fine record of introducing youngsters at Huddersfield – would find his stock would considerably climb. It is a gamble of sorts, but one suspects it is one Jackson needs to take if he wishes to remain the front-runner.

Expect the starting eleven at least to be full of senior players tomorrow. Jon McLaughlin keeps goal despite Lenny Pidgley’s return to fitness, but the back four will see changes with Luke Oliver suffering a rare injury. Last week his early departure prompted a reshuffle that saw David Syers play right back and struggle to adapt. Lee Bullock’s impressive performance as centre back for the reserves offers Jackson the opportunity to partner the midfielder with Steve Williams and keep Lewis Hunt at right back, with Luke O’Brien at left back.

In midfield an injury to Kevin Ellison and the suspension of Jon Worthington throws open opportunities for others. Syers will want to play in the centre alongside an off-colour Michael Flynn, while Tom Adeyemi, Leon Osborne and Scott Dobie will be in contention for Ellison’s wide midfield position. Gareth Evans, who continues to polarise opinion, is perhaps the only certain midfield starter. Had Worthington been available, one wonders whether Jackson would have been forced to leave out Flynn as he struggles to find form following a long lay-off.

Up front will be James Hanson and Jake Speight. On paper it is a little and large partnership that offers great potential, but the lack of understanding between the pair last week was troubling and must improve. Despite scoring City’s last two goals, question marks remain over their ability to find the net regularly and Dobie and Stephenson will be pushing to provide competition.

Shrewsbury – thrashed 5-0 in their last away match, rock up to Valley Parade firmly in the thick of the promotion battle. On the opening day Graham Turner’s out-thinking of Taylor set the tone for a dreadful Bantams campaign which has led us to yet another meaningless run-in and managerial head-hunting. The thinking that these times are opportune moments to plan early for next season and ensure the team hits the ground running was quickly undermined on that warm August afternoon at the New Meadow, though no one there to endure it could have imagined this season would have gone this bad.

An outstanding manager with a superb track record, a strong playing budget that saw some quality arrivals during the summer, a weaker-looking division that the bookies predicted the Bantams would be masters of. Jackson struggling to explain last week’s under-performance is something we should all be able to relate to – all season long it seems we’ve been equally lost for words.

Not feeling welcome

Who else made the trip to the Weston Homes Community Stadium last Saturday for the FA Cup 1st round game against Colchester United?

I imagine that a large proportion of the people in the away section were southern based Bradford City supporters. Did any of you feel unwelcome at this game? I certainly did. It wasn’t the behaviour of the home supporters or the stewards though.

It was the fact that this newish stadium which was opened in 2008 is very isolated on the northern edge of Colchester. The options that you have are to pre-book a car parking space at the ground for which you pay £6, or you can use a park and ride scheme.

My friend and I arrived in plenty of time and having done our homework on the location of the ground and the facilities. This was essential as we ended up having a 25 minute walk from where we parked the car to get to the ground. I don’t mind walking but it was as we approached the stadium that I felt uneasy and not welcome.

Stewards and notices were located at the end of roads near to the ground making me feel like we shouldn’t have made the long journey from Yorkshire. I can understand the local residents not wanting people parking at the end of their driveways and thus blocking access to their house but the “tactics” used weren’t very hospitable. This 25 minute walk made the walk to the New Meadow in Shrewsbury on the opening day of the season feel like a hop, skip and a jump. (People who have been to the New Meadow will understand what I mean.)

Once at the ground we were then greeted with a barcode operating system to enter the ground; no turnstile operator although the steward on the other side of the turnstile was friendly enough. However, even this faceless barcode entry system niggled me. It reminded me of the self scan checkouts that you now find in a supermarket.

I suppose this is a sign of our ever changing society but what has happened to good old face to face communication? (Do I sound like a grumpy old man?)

Maybe Colchester United should have stayed at their old site at Layer Road? At least you could get a good pint at the nearby CAMRA award winning Donkey & Buskins. As for these new grounds, they just feel lifeless and in some cases unwelcoming.

The defeat that proves the favourite tag

Bradford City were – and in some cases still are – the favourites to win League Two although the 3-1 defeat at Shrewsbury Town has dampened expectations.

Football supporters have a love of “the odds” which denies their purpose. Odds are a commercial thing designed to attract bets and are driven by financial concerns. If every Bradford City fan were to go to the bookies and put £10 on Accrington Stanley winning League Two then the 100/1 offered now would plummet as bookmakers looked to cover the liabilities resulting from such an Accy win. Those falling odds – however – would not mean the Lancashire club were any more likely to win the league.

Odds are not probability and while there is a correlation of sorts between the two odds are financially driven and rise and fall on the basis of the money bet. In short – and on the whole – City were favourites because people bet on them.

So one must ask why this is the case. Why did the Bantams attract a chunk of the money in League Two along with the relegated clubs and play-off losers like Rotherham United? Has the signing of a few players called Tom and Tommy and Lewis and Louis really turned the squad around that much?

Certainly the crowd size – and an assumption that it comes with increased resources – attracts some interest in the club and the name has resonance but on the whole – and looking at the betting previews – then one name crops up in the previews and that name is Peter Taylor.

The City manager is the headline on Betfair saying “For a team that finished below halfway last season to be at the head of the market to win League Two this term shows just how highly Bradford manager Peter Taylor is rated.”

Taylor causes the bets, so the odds fall and City become favourites.

Watching his City side concede two in six minutes which took the draw and made it a defeat on Saturday Taylor could not hide his disappointment nor did he feel the need to avoid pointing fingers. Taylor was clear that when a five seven striker wins a header in the box it is the job of the “big men who are there to get it away” to have cleared – scorer Jake Robinson is a foot shorter than Luke Oliver – and when Robinson ran between an ocean liner sized gap Oliver and Steve Williams the manager made it clear that the defenders should have played better.

For a man who has been coaching clubs for over two decades the problems were obvious – indeed they were obvious to most – and they were down to performance and specifically the performance in the second half which fell short of the achievements of the first. Taylor in unequivocal in his approach to fixing the problem: The players have to play consistently well.

Which is why Taylor brings bets and why City became favourites. As a manager it is perceived he has been around enough to know how to win games and why they are lost. If your defenders leave gaps that big between them then you will be beaten and the fact that he is able to be unwavering in that analysis so early in the season is part of the abilities which impress people.

While City fans might knash the teeth and fret about the future Taylor will take City on to the next forty-five games with the same approach as he took then to Shrewsbury. Do it properly and you will do well, switch off at half time and you will get beat.

So when City lose 3-1 and Taylor comes out after the game to give his frank (and accurate) assessment of why the game was lost and how it could have been won it does not put off the gambling man but rather reaffirms the reason he put his money on Taylor in the first place.

So now then

When last we convened for serious business, dear reader, Peter Taylor’s Bradford City had gone a half dozen games wining four and drawing two guiding the club away from the lowest finish since 1966 towards a middle of the league end point.

As we saw in the summer, a lot has changed since 1966.

These four wins: Crewe away and Northampton Town, Barnet and Morecambe at home; form the basis for the optimism with which City come into the season. In the match before the six game run – a 2-1 home defeat to Macclesfield Townthe situation was described thus: “PT seems to be doing at the moment is losing the confidence of the paying customer and relying purely on a reputation.”

Taylor was – it was said – “achieving (results) with Stuart’s squad not his own” and some four months on little in the personnel has changed but one doubts that when Taylor saw the squad he thought there was a problem with the ability of the side and recalling the Bury games before he arrived one would agree.

Nevertheless the attitude at and around the club has changed. Optimism – however founded – is in the core of beliefs on which performance is based and Taylor’s robust team is built on the idea of a long term belief in the success of the season rather than an obsession on individual games. Taylor – as with Paul Jewell – is keen for his side to shake off the hangovers or elation which rolled over from McCall’s side’s games.

So on opening day of the season as City go to Shrewsbury Town Taylor will be thinking not of the discreet entity but rather the forty six game whole.

Jon McLaughlin – who did not play a part against Bradford (Park Avenue) in the week – is expected to start the season as number one keeper. One hopes the young custodian makes no mistakes all season but should he – and one remembers the World Cup again – then one has to wonder if the clamour for his understudy to be given a chance will be as vocal as it was when McLaughlin played second fiddle to a faltering Simon Eastwood.

Should McLaughlin not play then Lloyd Saxton stands by but one doubts he will enjoy the same pressure for his inclusion as McLaughlin enjoyed twelve months ago. Junior Chris Elliott is the Bantams’ first choice.

Simon Eastwood Ramsden is captain and comes into the season as right back with Zesh Rehman and Lewis Hunt available as cover for the position, and for central defensive roles. Similarly Robbie Threlfall is left back elect with Luke O’Brien – his cover – considered by Taylor as much as a midfielder as a full back the very capable young Louis Horne also serves a left back cover.

Many may debate who is expected to start in the middle of the back four. Steve Williams is thought to be highly thought of by Taylor while new arrival Shaun Duff probably has not moved after a decade at Cheltenham to sit on the bench but Duff’s decade in the lower leagues does not suggest that pedigree of Zesh Rehman while Luke Oliver is – well – really big.

If Taylor has a job this season then it is to get the best out of a player like Zesh Rehman who no few people will tell you is a poor footballer – a concept alien to me – but has obvious talents which were the cornerstone of the six game run at the end of last term which the confidence for this year is built from. Likewise Steve Williams’s abilities are not to be squandered although were I to be a betting man I would suspect that the former barber will not be making the cut and Duff will make his City debut alongside Rehman.

You, dear reader, may have different views.

The midfield three picks itself when fit – or so we expect – with Lee Bullock, Tommy Doherty and Michael Flynn presenting an impressive engine room but Doherty is not expected to make the game with Tom Adeyemi filling in in that way that might prove hard to dislodge. Michael Flynn is hopeful of playing but Luke O’Brien stands by to fill in for the Welshman. Ryan Harrison and Luke Dean enjoyed wretched pre-seasons with Dean breaking a leg and Harrison struggling to partake in the robust midfield battle.

Gareth Evans is likely to be leading the line in the absence of James Hanson who is suffering a back problem that will most likely restrict him to the bench keeping the former Manchester United and Macclesfield man out of a chance of playing in one of the wide berths. Louis Moult has not looked the same kind of battering ram as Hanson but could be used in the middle striker’s role to hang off the shoulder of a high defence.

It is hard to understand the significance of the two wider roles in Peter Taylor’s mind this season. 433 is a notoriously hard to play formation with a requirement for these two wide players to be able to either track back with on coming full backs or fall into the midfield to create a five while always being aware that should they fall too deep, not break quick enough, and isolate the central striker the formation becomes not only defensive but also utterly ineffectual.

Away from Valley Parade Taylor will no doubt hope to create a bolstered midfield and his selections in these two positions can flex to accommodate that.

Taylor is without the injured Leon Osborne and the suspended Omar Daley for this game but does have Jake Speight, Scott Neilson and Moult. Taylor has seen more of Moult than most others and will know how well equipped the Stoke striker who scored two in his first two pre-season games is to the wide role. Should the gaffer believe Moult can play a wide left role then it seems that he will most likely get that role with Neilson on the right otherwise Speight will make a debut.

As with Taylor bringing an optimistic side into this season there was a time when that looked highly unlikely.

When pre-season became interesting

At some point after the middle of the 1990s pre-season became a thing of interest.

Perhaps it is the rise of Sky Sports and the need for constant football, perhaps it is the public’s thirst for the close season to end as quickly as possible, perhaps it is clubs trying to spin out two or three extra big money games in a season but whatever has caused it pre-season in modern football has become much more of a big deal.

Looking at the likes of Guiseley who had Bradford City on the pre-season fixture list until recently the games against league opposition offer a chance of a pay day in excess of most league matches. Kendal Town play Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic and walking around the Westmoorland town one would struggle to miss this fact – that and the fact that Chas Hodges is playing in town soon – which is a marked contrast to the games within the regular season which pass without note in that part of the Lake District.

Certainly City’s return to action against Eccleshill United was eagerly anticipated with a good number of Bantams fans looking at pre-season as a welcome return to normality.

Turn on the ubiquitous Sky Sports News today and you will see highlights from pre-season matches up and down the land. Last year when Newcastle United lost 6-1 in pre-season to Leyton Orient then Sky’s talking heads damned the Magpies to a season of struggle in The Championship. They won it.

So in tone and in the minds of supporters and on the balance sheet pre-season seems to be interesting in a way which it was not previously. Pre-season matches happened for sure and occasionally they would be seen in the newspaper (as is my recollection) and talked about in vague terms by very few who seemed to have a mystic view of the new players on the first day of the season.

Steve Gardner turned up as an unknown on the opening day of one year with the words “He looked good in pre-season” offered by a City sage who had seen such things. The sage was considered rare and some what obsessive – like people who go to more than one date on a band’s tour – while extrapolations about Gardner, as with Newcastle, turned out to inaccurate.

At City the change over from a pre-season which was the preserve of the dedicated and the players probably occurred around the time that Chris Kamara was manager and City played Newcastle United in which Peter Beardsley and Tino Asprilla weaved majestically and a high quality Middlesbrough side in a two day period and then went on (again, if I recall) to play Santos of Brazil in a game which saw the only – to date – overhead back heel volley goal.

Compared to that the reality of the season seemed something of a let down. The circus had come to town and then left us with some reality where Norwich and Swindon – not Newcastle and Santos – were the opposition.

Peter Taylor managed Southend at the start of that period and Gillingham around the middle but perhaps it is his experience a England u21 manager which shapes his thoughts on how preparation games should be treated. He talks about how the Bantams could have played some big teams at Valley Parade – Premier League Burnley played at VP last season – but for the newly laid pitch but it is clear that Taylor sees these matches as build up to Shrewsbury Town on the first day, no more or less significant than any other training session and certainly not wasting the fresh grass on for a few extra quid.

So City have no big name on the fixture list – Rochdale are the highest placed side we face – and a swathe of games against low opposition including North Ferriby United who City play at one on Saturday afternoon. Taylor talks about the games in terms of being build up, fitness getters, and while supporters can watch the manager does not see them as being spectacles. His threat to take his team home at half time at Eccleshill says all you need to know about how Taylor prioritises.

Not for him an evening watching Beardsley and Asprilla run rings around his players. Not for him bowing the knee to boys from Brazil.

So a City squad of around twenty-two will be split into two teams of eleven with the aim of fitness not performance. City are without Michael Flynn (Groin), Tommy Doherty (Calf), Luke Dean (Broken leg) and Jake Speight (Broken promises) but Tom Adeyemi will make his debut following his arrival on loan from Norwich City and have Matthew Tipton and Lee Morris looking to earn contracts.

The game kicks off early for those who fancy a trip to Grange Road but one doubts that anyone will be encouraged to slam in an overhead backheel.

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