Phil Parkinson and the team of tautology

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

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

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.

2010/2011 Fixtures released

The fixtures for the 2010/2011 season are out and rather stunningly City are playing everyone in League Two twice – once at home and once away – and full luscious details of this can be found at the Bradford City website.

The things that stick out from the list are the opening game trip to Shrewsbury Town which presents City as the first game for Graham Turner’s first proper game in charge while Peter Taylor faces one of his many former clubs as Stevenage Not Borough rock up to Valley Parade a week later for their first ever league away game and – I’m sure all will agree – it is a nice place to break your duck for the former non-leaguers.

Boxing day sees City face Chesterfield at home but new year’s day promises a trip to Lincoln City. The last day of the season City are facing Crewe again although this time it is at Valley Parade and the play off final is still down for the 28th of May at Wembley which – of course – it will not be.

Clarke says Leslie and Quinn have cheated him

City’s central defender Matthew Clarke has branded Steven Leslie a cheat after the Shrewsbury Town midfielder “fell to his knees” to have a penalty awarded in the game with City yesterday.

The Bantams defender said of his lightweight opponent

The first [booking] for the penalty was the most blatant dive I’ve ever seen. He just collapsed to his knees and I thought he was the one getting booked for diving.

Watching from the Kop stand in line with the incident one could only concur with Clarke’s view. The distance between Clarke and Leslie could be measured in feet, not inches, and many shared the City man’s assumption that the player was booked for a simulated fall.

That the Referee Peter Quinn sent him off Clarke continued

I’m absolutely disgusted. I’ve been sent off before with two yellows and felt that only one was justified but I’ve never been 100 per cent cheated like this.

Clarke talked of the second booking saying

I don’t think the referee even saw the other incident. Hibbert just touched me, clipped his own ankle and fell to the floor.

Even should one assume that Clarke fouled “diving” Leslie and later “falling” Hibbert then examples of both offences went unpunished with card or word later in the game leaving Clarke to conclude that Quinn simply cheated him – and by extension the club and the supporters – to give more harsh punishments against him than other players received.

It is hard to argue with Clarke’s opinions. That one player is booked for his every transgressions while a player such as Drew Broughton can be given one yellow card for four elbowing offences boggles the mind and asks serious questions about referees and the motivation of referees in giving their decisions but while Clarke lambastes Quinn I have to admit a level of sympathy for the diminutive official.

Quinn’s job is not made easier by one player who – in the words of Clarke – cheats by blatantly diving – and another who – Clarke’s words again – “falls over his own feet” to get another player sent off. That Quinn is not able to correctly see these ruses for what they are – cheating – does not excuse Steven Leslie and Dave Hibbert for (in the opinion of Clarke) acting in such a way in the first place.

Perhaps Clarke would join in a commonly heard statement on the way out of the game yesterday that if Rochdale were good at football then Shrewsbury Town are good at cheating and that players who behave in the way that Clarke describes are shoddy disgraces to football.

Clarke feels as if he has been cheated. One suspects that were he not wary of an FA charge he could easily name the three people who have cheated him – and by extension – us.

What I wanted

Injury time in the first half and Stuart McCall was furious after Matthew Clarke – who a minute earlier seemed to give away a penalty without making any contact with Steven Leslie the Shrewsbury Town play – was sent off after Dave Hibbert had fallen under no challenge and the defender was given a second yellow card.

I wanted Stuart McCall to take the City team off and damn the consequences.

I’m tired of seeing pathetic Referees and I’m tired of trying to tax my brain on the whole idea of trying to decide if they are bent or bloody rubbish. I’m tired of seeing players cheat and have guileless Referees help them in that with bizarre decisions.

I wanted McCall to say that this game was no longer that. It was a laughable excuse of a football match, not the beautiful game but a runt cousin where the pattern of play and abilities on the field were divorced from one another. Certainly the correlation between City’s performances and the results of games is nowhere near as strong as the correlation between Stuart McCall complaining about the Rotherham referee Lee Probert and red cards and “mistake” decisions that follow from Referees.

I wanted Stuart McCall to take the players off and make a huge stink saying that this will not do. Everyone watching the game has been short changed by poor Refereeing and some players who would rather cheat that try play the game – and it is a game and not a war, winning is not at all costs.

I wanted Stuart to say that enough is enough to bring attention to the disgrace that passes for football and fairness in League Two. I want to write a different match report than this – I have – but there is no way legal action would not follow as a result despite my being utterly convinced of its veracity.

I want someone in football to give a Damn about what is going on in the game but they don’t. Pay your money and shut up is the attitude.

The game is not important. Once again the result did not reflect the match and the scoreline was a reflection of the Referee and how he was able to cope with the attitude to fair play that the teams showed. I wanted Stuart McCall to take the team off to draw a line and say that enough is enough.

It didn’t happen.

Nil-nil, Everton, plus ten

28th of December, 1999 and Bradford City are nursing a 4-0 hangover from Old Trafford and take on Everton at Valley Parade. The game finishes 0-0 and is one of the many odd points that Paul Jewell’s side picked up on the road to a halcyon day in May that saw the Bantams retain top flight status and – it is said by many – bring about the ruination of the club.

A home game with Shrewsbury Town represents a ten years of football which few would have predicted and many who are in control of the game would do well to reflect upon. Football in 1999 was on the crest of a wave with a rich bounty to spend. Since then forty-seven of the clubs one hundred and three who have competed in the four football league in the last decade have had to seek the protection of administration while the top division spends over a billion pounds on wages.

The fall of Bradford City represents – in the opinion of this observer – a mix of poor timing and poor management. The Bantams crime in the Premiership is well know – Six Weeks of Madness – but the punishment of being cast down to the lower reaches is perhaps disproportionate. Leeds United – who also benefited from City’s best day in May 2000 were punished massively for trying to take a step up the footballing ladder.

One could argue all day about Richmond and Risdale and how they went about their respective jobs but when the dust settled many would agree that the fact that those two chairmen, a good number of the forty-five other head honchos and the odd other former Bantams chairman/landlord should have been more rigidly governed when they were in charge of the civic institutions. Yes, if businesses then not just businesses, we have learnt that from the last ten years.

In ten years time will we be reflecting on a revolution in football that has seen what could be considered the souls of clubs protected from those who would exploit them so that the events of the previous decade can not occur? Probably not. If we are still playing at Valley Parade on 28th December 2019 then a victory will have been won to reclaim our ground from the hands of Gordon Gibb who managed to slip it away from us.

In the snowy Bradford that still threatens this game Stuart McCall has recalled a time when City planned a training facility with the riches of the Premiership which never materialised. The story is common throughout the game when clubs spent money on players in an attempt to top the sun from setting rather than reaping the harvest when it shined.

City close off this decade at home to a Shrewsbury team who under the guidance of Paul Simpson – his Uncle John used to teach at St Bedes, you know – managed to spend “huge” resource and not be promoted in the same way that Stuart McCall and the Bantams are oft accused proving perhaps that it takes more than a big pile of money to make a winning team.

Both McCall and Simpson are rejecting calls for them to leave from some elements of the support which are argued with by other elements. The arguments are similar at both clubs despite the Bantams drastic decline. Shrewsbury Town have had six managers in the last ten years, City have had eight, and some fans at The New Gay Meadow think that that is more of a problem than the sale of Grant Holt which mirrored the departures of Graeme Lee and Paul McLaren at the end of last season.

The Bantams go into the game having not played in the league since 12 December 2009 against Rotherham United having gone out of the JPT at Carlisle United three days later. Simon Ramsden – sent off in that defeat – is still waiting to serve a suspension which he should do against the Shrews on the 28th.

Ramsden will be replaced by Jonathan Bateson in a back four that sees Steve Williams fit to return and gives Stuart McCall the chance to pick a pairing from Williams, Zesh Rehman and the resurgent Matthew Clarke. Luke O’Brien plays left back and Simon Eastwood continues in goal with a question over his future as he comes to the end of his loan spell at Valley Parade.

McCall attempts to reformat his side to a 442 as Omar Daley prepares for a return – he lacks match fitness despite playing in the last fifteen minutes of the last game but so do the rest of the squad sat idle – and the Jamaican winger might be featuring on the left hand side with Scott Neilson on the right and Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock in the middle. If Daley is not ready James O’Brien or Chris Brandon may get called into action or McCall may play Simon Whaley although it seems that the loan signing I was excited about seeing will make a brief stay at Valley Parade.

Gareth Evans and James Hanson are guaranteed places up front in either a 442 or a 433 as Michael Boulding continues to recover from hack in the back by Pablo Mills. Neither will hope to match one Gary Shaw’s striking efforts in this tie when the former Villa man scored a hat-trick in two and a half minutes.

That game was two decades ago, the Everton match was one. Today we start more unpredictability.

Togetherness

The six minutes of injury time at the end of the second half seemed to last forever but when the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the game there was much relief in the away end where about 500 Bradford City supporters had cheered their team on to their fourth consecutive victory. The players and management team approached the City faithful and responded to the applauds from their supporters at the end of the game. Michael Flynn, scorer of City’s second goal even had a kiss for his good lady (I assume it was his wife) who was in the away end.

The key characteristic to this fine 2-1 win was the togetherness shown by the City team. This was especially displayed by substitute goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin who put his arm around current first choice keeper Simon Eastwood as he walked off at half time following a nasty collision with ex-Brentford striker Nathan Elder. Indeed there were chants of “there’s only one Simon Eastwood” from the away supporters which has certainly not been heard at Valley Parade yet following his loan move from Huddersfield Town. However, Eastwood produced a couple of excellent saves in the first half including one in the opening few minutes from an Elder header, when the home team started strongly.

City scored with virtually their first attack of the game on the quarter hour mark and it owed alot to the impressive Flynn who out fought Shrewsbury captain and ex-Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday player Graham Coughlan to the ball. Flynn having won the ball crossed from the right and Gareth Evans was there to produce a clinical finish to put Bradford one up. This goal seemed to settle the Bradford players down with Jamie O’Brien and Lee Bullock playing well in midfield. With about ten minutes of the first half remaining, City doubled their lead thanks to a wonder strike from Flynn. He was about 25 yards out when he unleashed a long range shot which gave the Shrewsbury goalkeeper, Phillips who was making his home debut, no chance with a goal that would have been shown a dozen times on Match of the Day if it had been scored in the top flight. This goal will hopefully banish those memories of the saved penalty kick in the Lincoln home game.

City went in at half time 2-0 up and although we had played some good football, we were probably fortunate to be two goals up. Like the first half, Shrewsbury started the second half stronger although Flynn produced another long range effort which Phillips was equal to this time and tipped the ball over for a corner. Shrewsbury continued to press forward and hit the woodwork. However, just when you thought that it could be City’s day, up popped ex-City loanee striker Hibbert who scored with a glancing header to reduce the arrears. At this point, there were mutterings in the away end and you thought that City might throw away a two goal lead. However, the defence stood firm with Rehman, who was injured in a clash of heads with Hibbert, continuing to develop his partnership with Steve Williams. The former non-league player is getting better with every game that he plays and although it is still very early on in his City career, Williams is looking very assured in his play and reminds me of Dean Richards.

As the game progressed in to the final stages, Simpson saw his shot hit the woodwork as the City goal led a charmed life. However, it would have been harsh on the Bradford players who showed plenty of determination and periods of neat passing to come away with only a point. We’re only six games into this season but who would have predicted that a City team without Thorne, Michael Boulding and Brandon would come away from the New Meadow with three points?

The Bradford City management team deserve a lot of credit for spotting the potential in players such as Ramsden, Williams, Neilson, Flynn, Jamie O’Brien, Hanson and Evans. I’m not getting carried away, indeed I predicted a mid-table finish for us this season before a ball had been kicked, but it’s so good to see these young and hungry players starting to form a strong unit.

City visit Shrewsbury as the start begins to end

If the end of last season started with the 3-0 defeat at Rochdale’s Spotland then the end of City’s promising start came at Shrewsbury’s New Meadow when the Bantams lost 2-0.

The Rochdale ghost was buried in the week when Stuart McCall’s men came back from behind to take victory with a goal from Scott Neilson that took enough of a deflection to be chalked up to luck.

Not that Dale boss Keith Hill would agree with that railing against the referee on the evening as not being fit to officiate. Odd that last season’s man in the middle who seemed to want to gift the game to the home side did not incur Hill’s wrath. That kind of myopia would fit right in at Rotherham if – should rumours be believed – Hill replaces Barnsley bound Mark Robbins.

At Shrewsbury last season Referee Jarnail Singh practically proved he was not up to refereeing by once again allowing goals to be scored while players were down with serious head injuries and the sight of TJ Moncur staggering away collapsing with the home side celebrating is the enduring one. Moncur and Lee Bullock were invalided away from right back that day.

Bullock’s return to the City team this season owes a deal to the injury to Stephen O’Leary who continues to miss games with a toe problem following his impressive debut against Port Vale.

Bullock is far from universally loved by City fans and in this post-Joe Colbeck era we enter is the next player to split fans.

Personally I’m conflicted internally on him not especially enjoying watching him in the way I enjoy the robustness of Michael Flynn but noticing the correlation between his name on the teamsheet and City winning. Call it the inverse Nicky Law effect.

Bullock and Flynn are likely to be rejoined by Steve O’Brien in the midfield following the youngsters benching in the week while those tight three midfielders will notice little difference on the right with the aforementioned Colbeck gone but replacement Scott Neilson impressing and exciting in his opening one hundred minutes for City.

Peter Thorne was robbed of the chance to impress by a hamstring injury on Tuesday night but he would have likely stepped down for James Hanson and Gareth Evans to continue a fruitful partnership.

At the back the four of Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien will return in front of Simon Eastwood.

That Rehman missed the midweek game was officially put down to a thigh strain although in all likelihood he was being given recovery time being in that twilight zone between injured and fit. As City’s squad shrinks the prospect of the player carrying injuries into games emerges. A week of rest becomes a rare thing and a player’s season becomes defined by how they deal with niggling injuries that would be rested at a higher level but are played through in League Two.

The counter to that resting is the benefits of confidence coming from playing games and it is that which Stuart McCall believes will get the best out of keeper Eastwood.

Eastwood had a ropey start to his City career but the start is coming to an end and the Huddersfield loanee is improving.

As are City. A win at Shrewsbury would be an impressive return – the home side have not yet lost a half dozen games at this stadium – but would be a fourth win in a row and set up parallels with Colin Todd’s side that collected fifteen points out of fifteen four years ago. A draw would no doubt be welcomed by the management keen to show the ability to be pragmatic away from home as a table begins to form and City begin to nestle into it.

Where we will feel the pain as the cost cut squad is shaped

Seventy minutes into the friendly with Barnsley looking over the City side the shape of the squad for next season post £700,000 cost cut emerged and with it the nature of the squad and season.

Around the field City had replaced first teamers with younger players and Luke Sharry was making a case for being considered a central midfielder rather than a wide man to be back up to Lee Bullock when the thinness of the squad to come became apparent.

Not that you would see this from looking at the front players. Massive kudos to Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne who have both taken pay cuts to stay and form part of a four man team up front with Gareth Evans and James Hanson.

I confess I miss Barry Conlon’s robust style and the idea that Willy Topp might have been good but individually James Hanson and Gareth Evans offer no less than Topp and Conlon – well – is Hanson puts in the energy that Conlon did as his pre-season performances suggest he might then their is no reason why he can not be equally well thought of (assuming one thought well of Conlon that is).

Likewise out wide Joe Colbeck this season is no worse than Joe Colbeck last when he came into the year as a well thought of player of the season aside from the fact that the wide man is on week to week contracts and has had a half year of “atmosphere” at Valley Parade. Colbeck, like Chris Brandon, is an able footballer and Omar Daley (unloved, again, but his importance was shown in his absence) create a threesome of players who should be at the top of the division but starting with one injured City are already down to bare bones and hoping for the impressiveness of young players.

Luke Sharry – as mentioned – could be great back up for Lee Bullock and could be the player he hints at being in reserve games but hoping that Sharry can perform is not the same as dropping in Nicky Law Jnr to cover an injury. At one point last season we had six midfielders out (Colbeck, Daley, Bullock, Furman, McLaren and Brandon) and put together a team that beat MK Dons whereas this season it would be hard to see us being able to withstand such losses.

The hit of cutting costs is felt not as much in the quality of the squad but the strength of it. Good players but one worries if we got injuries and – two seasons in League Two tell us we will get injuries.

Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Matthew Clarke are covered by Simon Ramsden who is covered at right back by Jonathan Bateson. Luke O’Brien faces competition at left back from Louis Horne but both are young players and we are hoping both will transfer potential – to greater and lesser extents – into performances. Good players, little back up.

The signing of Simon Eastwood came with confirmation that he and Jon McLaughlin will be given the chance to fight over the gloves at Notts County and for the first half of the season.

Two inexperienced keepers is worrying – I have seen few good teams without a settled goalkeeper – as is the gap at number four.

City are closer to finding someone to fill the hole only in seeming to have decided that Grant Smith, Joe Keehan and a few others are not “the man”. Last season Dean Furman only signed at the end of August and perhaps in a month we might all be marvelling at John Fleck running riot in midfield.

Perhaps not though. This morning comes news of a bidding war for Leeds United’s Fabian Delph between Spurs and Aston Villa which City would take 12.5% of and as last season’s other big money side Shrewsbury Town sell Grant Holt at a £100,000 loss while Joe Hart – who they get £500,000 for should he play a full England game – so City are in a position of trimming the cloth today but perhaps being affluent tomorrow. Sign up a rookie keeper now and it we are in the top half at Christmas and find ourselves well off go get someone else perhaps.

Last season was budgeted as promotion or Delph leaving – this season it is assumed (sensibly) that neither will occur and the cloth is cut accordingly. Delph may stay until Christmas, until next summer, until he retires and City do well to not push out boats on the strength of his transfer status.

Nevertheless it is probable that at some point City will have over half a million coming in to the club and perhaps the season is shaped by staying in and around contention for as long as possible until that occurs. Should Delph leave at Christmas then the Bantams could move through the league in the last four months just as we did last year – only in the other direction. Similarly is we get that windfall on the last day of the Summer transfer window we are left with a squad and money hanging over us Notts County style for months.

There is a school of thought – which I subscribe to – that money in League Two is largely wasted and the teams rise and fall through spirit and morale.

That and keeping fingers crossed than injuries do not hit as hard this year as last.

Hopes and expectations

So here it is, the dreaded promise that pre-season brings and as a result, usually for Bantams anyway, the increased disappointment come May. Already on various message boards, across the web, fans are claiming how promotion is a must this year, as it was last year and what seems like every year since we tasted Premier League football and decided we were a big club.

In fact the last campaign I remember, outside the top flight, where fans weren’t widely expecting a successful season was 11 years ago. That year around this time I was sat in a pub in Wales with my dad and a high profile football magazine had predicted Bradford City would finish 24th out of 24. Being a naive young boy I refused to accept the prediction and the following conversation ensued;

‘They’re wrong dad, I bet you we get promoted’ a bold statement to which my dad replied ‘Unfortunately there’s not a chance’

Ever the optimist I insisted, ‘I bet you we do’.

‘Ok then, if Bradford get promoted this season I will buy us season tickets for the Premier League.’

That season a 3-2 win against Wolves on the final day secured promotion to the Premier League and the most expensive bet of my Dad’s life was lost, but unsurprisingly he didn’t care one bit.

Other than being young and not yet having faced the cruel realities of the footballing world, that year I had no reason to be sure of promotion. What reason have Bradford fans now got to be so sure of promotion this season?

Perhaps it is that the wage budget from a side who failed to win promotion last year has been halved? Or perhaps it is, as I suspect, that Bradford are too ‘big’ for this league. Surely the past few years have taught us, and also our neighbours down the road that this means nothing. I am sure there is very little that the fans can tell us about signings such as the ‘Barber from Bamber Bridge’, Steve Williams, or the possible signing of Guiseley’s James Hanson yet at the same time these two are expected to come from non league football and hit the ground running on the way to promotion to the third tier of English football.

Manager Stuart McCall one of the biggest culprits of this pre-season optimism over the past two years has told the fans to get real. He has told us the funds aren’t there to make dream signings such as Nicky Law, Dean Furman and Lee Hughes, the sort of players that will get you promoted from this division. The sort of players teams such as Notts County and Rotherham have got the funds to secure.

However, on the bright side a word of caution to these clubs and their newly found riches. Money meant nothing to the likes of ourselves and Shrewsbury Town last season as promotion was unable to be secured and little Exeter City – freshly promoted from the non-league – went up in both our places.

This is a reason for the optimistic Bradford fans to keep the faith. It is possible that James Hanson and Steve Williams could prove to be real gems and should we stay clear of injuries to key players such as Peter Thorne and Omar Daley, two of the major reasons for the collapse last year, we should be fighting at the right end of the table once more. Perhaps then come 8th May 2010 we will be sitting pretty in one of the top 7 spots.

I hope that these fans expecting promotion have those hopes fulfilled and like I did 11 years ago and all Bradford fans taste the sweet taste of promotion once more. Hopefully this time, for me, it will be that little bit sweeter because it’s unexpected.

No football for us but plenty for others

On a day when the team who finished in the top 10 of Division 4 with the worst goal difference gets promoted to Division 3, we, the Bradford City supporters can only think of what might have been if our form had been better in March. Well done to Gillingham for beating Shrewsbury Town 1-0 in the play-off final. We can only think back to 1996 and our 2-0 play-off final victory over Notts County.

At this time of the year when we have no Bradford City matches to go and watch, what else is going on in the world of football? Well, I’m sure that many of you who have taken the effort to read this article will know that our club has offered professional contracts to Rory Carson, Luke Dean and Lewis Horne. I must confess that I know very little about this trio of players but it will be interesting to see if any of them make their first team debut during the 2009/2010 season. Most supporters love to see a home-grown player forcing their way into the first team so lets hope that at least one of these three players can follow the like of Dean Richards, Graeme Tomlinson, Andy O’Brien, Joe Colbeck and Luke O’Brien.

An article has already featured on this website about Colin Todd taking charge at Darlington but now a player who could have been securing Hull City’s Division 1 status tomorrow is now been linked with a move to Darlington. Dean Windass could be a player-coach at Darlington next season. We are all aware of Dean’s love of playing football and following his loan spell at Oldham Athletic earlier on this season and now been unable to play for his beloved Hull City, Windass is looking to continue his playing career else where.

Whilst Windass has the relevant qualifications to manage in Divisions 2, 3 and 4, there will be two unqualified managers tomorrow trying to save their teams from relegation into Division 2. Much has been written about Alan Shearer taking over at Newcastle but why was he allowed to when he doesn’t have the relevant qualifications? I also believe that Gareth Southgate will have completed his relevant coaching qualifications but not until after the season has finished. Why do the supposed people who govern our game allow clubs to break the rules?

Speaking of breaking the rules, I’m sure that there are plenty of Sheffield United supporters who haven’t forgot about Carlos Tevez and West Ham. If Sheffield United can overcome Burnley with former Bantam Robbie Blake, on Bank Holiday Monday, I bet that the first fixtures they will be looking out for are the two against West Ham. But don’t count against our neighbours from over the Pennines. Whatever your thoughts are on Burnley, you have to say that for a town with a population of about 73,000, they attract fantastic support. It’s hard to imagine that this famous Lancashire club nearly slipped out of the football league 22 years ago. But Burnley beat Leyton Orient 2-1 and Lincoln City slipped into non-league football.

So as we, the Bradford City supporters can only watch the various play-off finals, find out if Hull City can preserve their top-flight status at the expense of two North-east clubs and see if David Moyes’s Everton can overcome the cash-rich Chelsea in the FA cup final, other supporters have much to look forward to over the next week or so.

The end seems nigh for City at Chester City

The transfer deadline for loan players passed without incident at Valley Parade as the season’s true end game began. Lincoln City prepare for another season in League Two by cutting costs while Wembley is prepared for the end of season flurry of games.

End game, but not yet “must win”.

The words “must win” are used far too often in football and as such have lost relevance and once again City face a game that a win would do a power of good in but defeat while telling would not be fatal to the club’s play-off chances.

There will come a time in the next six, seven, eight, nine or ten games that the Bantams will face a game that if it is not won then League Two football is a certainty next season but it is not this day at Chester City.

It says much about the season that four defeats on the spin have not ruled City out of the chance of a play-off place – never look at the table and add twelve points, it is not good for the mind – but do spare a thought for those bookmakers who lined up two clubs as favourites for automatic promotion: Bradford City and Shrewsbury Town.

It it us and them, and Chesterfield if they win games in hand, who are bashing out for the bottom of the play-off places as things stand and whatever gut wrenching is being done at Valley Parade is probably also taking place at The New Meadow. Grant Holt does not come cheap.

However to restrict the talk to these clubs and this last play-off place is to undersell the essentially random nature of the top of League Two this term. We are time away from “must win”.

“Should win” has been a problem for City this season. Around Christmas time the players seemed to slip from the mindset of digging out victories to expecting better results than earned and I would argue that the turn away from “doing the right things” – the panacea of all things in football – came at Shrewsbury when TJ Moncur and Graeme Lee clashed heads and the home team scored.

Since then it will be better when the right backs are fit, when the midfielders are fit, when the form turns around. Players are excused in a variety of ways and Stuart McCall’s job make sure that City minimise defeats and move on and one suspects that if he had the season to do again he would do things differently. That, dear reader, is the beauty of institutional memory and retention of people.

My take on City at the moment is that the Bantams have a pool of players more than talented enough to be winning games but that those players are not taking responsibility for winning those games. The phrase “players standing around waiting for someone else to win the game” has featured far too often in my thinking and in my estimation this is a problem one gets in modern football where teams at this level boast four or five loanees and a few who have contracts that expire when the season is over.

Long term commitment, significant investment, institutional memory.

All of which undersells the superb form of Dean Furman who has shone out for City this season. Such is the problem at the heart of the debate over the future of City management. It is all in the balances, and it is hard.

Rhys Evans will keep goal but in front of him four of Paul Arnison, Graeme Lee, Matthew Clarke, Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien will play. There are those who would not play Clarke but I am not one of those people and recall the brittle way the Bantams used to be bested before the big former Darlington player came into the side. Could Rehman do the same job? See above.

Up front McCall hopes to have Peter Thorne back to partner Michael Boulding but will use Paul Mullin if Thorne needs more rest. McCall’s thinking on rather having Thorne fully fit for six games rather than half fit for seven precludes the play-offs. It was said at the end of last season that keeping Thorne fit for this year was key to success and certainly when the striker started to struggle with injury so did City.

Midfield holds the problems. The embarrassment of riches seems to be a thin seem these days with the likes of Keith Gillespie and Steve Jones hardly inspiring on the flanks last week.

Chris Brandon, Lee Bullock and Joe Colbeck all got a run out for the reserves and with the addition of Dean Furman that could be the Bantams midfield for Saturday. I would throw in Paul McLaren for Bullock in that quartet and others would not think of leaving Nicky Law Jnr out. It is all in the balance, and it is hard.

Chester City is not “must win” and – blame a week off work – there are many permitations and calculations around the end of this season. If one assumes that the rest of the division will continue to score points at the same rate and that the Bantams picked up seven wins then City could expect second place. More realistically the Bantams have to do a couple of wins better than some of Shrewsbury Town, Bury, Exeter and Chesterfield to be in the play-offs.

This seems like a tough call for a team in a slump but with the division’s poorest travellers Shrewsbury heading to Wycombe the Bantams could expect the seventh place team to have 59 points even if we still had 58 at the end of play. In two weeks we play Brentford while they play Grimsby. When we play Morecambe they will be playing Bury.

Not must win. Not yet.

The points adding up as Rehman signs – Bury vs Bradford City – League Two Preview

The Barry Conlon penalty at Luton Town was scant reward for City’s second half endeavours when Stuart McCall unveiled what I’m sure his critics will be calling Plan B.

McCall – sent to the stands for complaining about a decision to award a free kick on an afternoon that saw many a bizarre refereeing decisions – enjoyed the best and worst of times facing criticism for abandoning his FourFourTwo principals for forty-five minutes and then seeing his side utterly dominant in the second half thanks in no small part to the ball winning of Dean Furman.

Furman’s display added to an impressive set of midfielders with Nicky Law spoken of as undroppable, Paul McLaren making significant contributions including the first goal on Saturday and Joe Colbeck returning for the last fifteen minutes adding to the already impressive Omar Daley. McCall struggles to make a best fit of those five names without the additions of Steve Jones, Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock. His selection for the middle is an embarrassment of riches of his own making and should he return to the four in the middle on Tuesday night for the trip go Gigg Lane then one can only guess who will be excluded. For my part Colbeck, Furman, McLaren and Daley would be my four but every City fan will twist that Rubik’s Cube in different ways.

A different sort of puzzle is the reason why the mean defence of City on Saturday suddenly started to leak goals – or a goal rather – a specific cross in and head in which the Bantams have not seemed so venerable to since Gary Shaw and his two and a half minute hat-trick.

What caused the Bantams to go from unit to untied is not known although the presence of Zesh Rehman – a central defender signed on loan from QPR on Monday – in the directors box might not have been the most settling sight for Matthew Clarke to see although in all likelihood the three goals from balls lumped into the box and the absence of Barry Conlon’s clearing head were not unconnected.

Coming out of contract at the end of the year Rehman looks to impress in his loan until the end of the season. The Birmingham born Rehman has played six times for the Pakistani International side and become captain in the 7-0 reversal by Egil Olsen’s Iraq side – if our path since we relegated his Wimbledon side has been winding imagine what road has led the Norwegian to be manager of a nation which in the time since we were in the Premiership tortured its players for poor results.

Rehman – who has played right back but favours the middle has his potential debut at Bury for Bradford City which is interesting in many ways much beyond football, and for that matter politics. Simon Schama would call it the future of the British Empire but – for the moment – we shall call it an interesting signing when one considers how stable the back two have been over the last month.

Mark Bower exits to Luton as Rehman arrives and BfB never favours playing loanees over our own players with one feeling sorry for City’s longest serving player. Rehman’s signing made sense if he plays and does well and makes sense if he adds to the right back berth uncovered since TJ Moncur’s return to Fulham but there is a nervousness that City’s second Asian player and first Pakistani is something of the Beckham of Bradford designed to get bums on seats from the locals of BD8 rather than cheat sheets.

Perhaps it might be nice to do both. Certainly it cannot do much harm and Rehman need only prove as useful as TJ Moncur or Steve Jones to be justified in the context of the season. If he proves to be in the bracket of Nicky Law and Dean Furman then he is available at the end of the season.

One might suspect that City needed not to strengthen at the back but bolstering up front with goals hard to come by over Christmas and January – until the second half on Saturday – but still Peter Thorne struggles to find the net and Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon were left cooling their heels. With chances created will follow goals and considering the options in midfield those chances should be created.

Bury for their part are in reasonable form sneaking to third in the table with the kind of mix of draws and the odd win that City get. The Shakers still possess the highly rated Andy Bishop whom Stuart McCall was impressed by and boss Alan Knill informs all that he has yet to have a firm bid for the player. They sit a point above the Bantams but have a poor record against promotion rivals – recent losses to Shrewsbury and Wycombe and a draw with Darlington – all of which points to an interesting game and a telling one.

Should the Bantams win then we will – at least – slip above Bury and could end the night second while a defeat could leave us tenth but with Rehman’s incoming and Bower departing being – seemingly – the last movement of the transfer window after McCall declared himself happy with striking resources then it would seem that they City manager has the squad in place that he wants – or at least can have at this point – leaving the players to get the results to back up such faith.

The finishing, finishing touch – Bradford City 0 Shrewsbury Town 0 – League Two Match Report

Having suggested that City were lucky to beat his side 4-0 Morecambe manager Sammy McIlroy would have come away from Valley Parade after the 0-0 draw with Shrewsbury with the impression that the Bantams are strangers to fortune.

From start to finish the Bantams bested the visitors from Shropshire all over the field coming within an inch of the post from Barry Conlon’s fierce volley from taking three richly deserved points.

Alas Conlon’s volley on the half hour pinged back and Michael Boulding’s tidy sweep over the shoulder of keeper Luke Daniels proved too close to the custodian and was saved as City looked to cut through the Shrews with tidy, fast paced and inventive play.

The midfield central duo of Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr were busy out of possession and commanding in it with Dean Furman benched and only able to watch a pair of middle men working together and working well. Omar Daley’s battle on the left wing with Darren Moss was the clash of the season thus far with Moss struggling to keep pace with Daley and Daley trying to burst past the right back. In the second half Moss and Daley clashed with the right back lucky not to be booked and Daley leaving an arm in on the defender which saw Stuart McCall fling him to the right hand side to cool down ended the fascinating clash.

Steve Jones on the alternative wing was less enthralling and looks something of a one trick pony. He is dangerous for sure but too often playing his own game leaving Paul Arnison with few options.

Arnison was a part of a flawless five man defence which has not conceded in the four games over Christmas. Graeme Lee was outstanding pocketing Grant Holt – who in typical Grant Holt tried to rip that pocket with kicks and studs – and making enough sturdy interceptions to remind one of David Wetherall at his best. Matt Clarke also get mentioned – the days of City being muscled out by big blokes is over – and Rhys Evans has engaged mouth and commands the back four superbly.

Luke O’Brien’s form has seen him inherit the title “Ohbee” from Andy and today should have been rewarded with a penalty for an enterprising surge past Omar Daley and into the box only to be shoved to the floor. Arnison – on the other side of the field – was left holding his face after an untidy jump saw him hit with a flailing arm. Conlon was lunged at after the ball, Boulding was upended. If these tackles has been in midfield they would have been free kicks. Referee Russel J Booth using the Wild West school of officialdom. Anything that keeps the game flowing is allowed and when Holt lunged through a defender then walked away waving a hand dismissively ignoring the Ref’s call over you had to wonder what happened to that whole “Respect” thing.

None of which is to take anything away from the Shrews who played a part in an exciting game but looked second best and but for a slice of that luck that Sammy McIlroy credits us with or the finish of a Peter Thorne – missing injured and seemingly replaceable – the Bantams would have won.

As it is City sit third again at the top of a pile of clubs who will be fighting out for the play offs and without putting too fine a point on it should the Bantams play as we did today and not go up then football is broken – play like this and we will go up – but the worry remains that despite possessing the leading striker in the division last season, one of the better ones this and Barry who never gives up City do not score enough goals – or rather we score them in gluts of fours and not odd ones and that the six home draws could have been wins with a deadlier finisher. Chris O’Grady held the ball after coming ensuring that the remaining fifteen minutes would be played in the Shrews half but is no one’s finisher.

Shrewsbury spent their lottery win on Holt and he was not able to nick the odd goal today. City look at events at Leeds with Delph and prepare a with and without shopping list looking for the thirty goal finisher who would thrive in a team that plays this well.

The finisher who would be the finishing touch.

The first acid test – Bradford City vs Shrewsbury Town preview

Let’s put Sunday’s thumping 4-0 win over Morecambe into perspective – the last time the Bantams won a league game at Valley Parade more convincingly Benito Carbone was playing a starring role and David Wetherall, Wayne Jacobs and Stuart McCall were all important first team players.

The 5-1 thrashing of Gillingham on Friday 14 September was preceded by a rendition of stars and stripes, given it was just days after the 9/11 attacks. The vast majority of the 14,101 at the game that evening would probably have been struggled to competently answer what ‘Administration’ meant and around the pitch were adverts for something called ‘ITV Digital’.

Much has changed – at Valley Parade, in English football and across the wider world itself – and though City have played better on many occasions since, the emphatic success over Morecambe which signalled the end of 2008 deserved more appreciation and credit than it received from some quarters.

I must admit I didn’t enjoy the game as much as I should have, though the reason why was because of the spectators who sit near me. I suddenly seemed to have been lumbered with a ‘McCall out’ bunch of people far more interested in looking for fault on the pitch than offering praise. Another 90 minutes was spent berating everything Paul Arnison and Barry Conlon tried, as though they know what makes a good full back and target man better than the man paid to select them. Without fail the opening few minutes of the second half are spent screaming for a substitution to be made before another bout of criticising Stuart for not been able to change games. Booing when the ball is passed backwards, when minutes earlier they’d complained City play too much direct football. And though I was pleased when most left before the whistle I was also angry that these boo boys – many of who normally stay until the end – couldn’t bring themselves to wait for full time to offer the players and management their applause.

Of course it doesn’t matter, City won easily and the support around the rest of the ground was good I’m sure. The acid test when come in harder games when City won’t be able to dominate in the way many expect and will need the crowd’s support to earn the three points. The first of a series of promotion ‘six-pointer’ games at Valley Parade in 2009 sees Shrewsbury in town tomorrow for a game which, though we have only just passed the half way stage of the season, could prove significant when the table is finalised in May.

The Shrews, who let us not forget spent more money than anyone else during the summer, will arrive without a win on their travels since August 16 but very much in the promotion race because of a formidable home record – City one of their conquests. The majority of manager Paul Simpson’s budget went on Grant Holt and the £170k man has already netted 20 goals – 12 in the league. Other than midfielder Ben Davies, however, the rest of the team have struggled to find the net. They are sure to be provide tough test, though after recent weeks Stuart will probably be pleased to be facing opposition unlikely to keep men behind the ball and play for a draw.

In the home dressing room the evolution of a squad good enough to at least stay in the 3rd automatic promotion spot it currently resides is reaching a crucial phase with the January transfer window opening up. Willy Topp and TJ Moncur have departed, freeing up wages and while Dean Furman – impressive on his return against Morecambe on Sunday – is on board for the rest of the season question marks remain over other loanees Nicky Law and Steve Jones.

The latter seems set to stay for January at least, after which it would be questionable whether he will be needed given Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon should be fit, although rumours linking Omar Daley with a move away may make him worth hanging onto. Another striker is Stuart’s top target and with names like Andy Bishop, Chris O’Grady and Karl Hawley linked, not to mention a certain out of favour Hull forward, it’s a case of watching this space with interest.

For now Conlon and Michael Boulding will lead the line with Peter Thorne rested up to get over another niggling injury. The pair’s understanding was much-improved against Morecambe and, were it another player, Conlon’s delightful through ball to set Boulding on his way to 2-0 would have been drooled over. Like against Morecambe, there may be a third striker with Jones employed further up the park, the 4-3-3 formation working reasonably well but omitting Daley. A switch back to 4-4-2 would see one of Jones, Law, Furman and Paul McLaren moved out of midfield onto the bench to make way for the Jamaican. Such dilemmas will be welcomed by Stuart given the lack of options he had during November and December.

City’s defence has not been breached for 270 minutes of football which, given the amount of criticism they’ve endured from some fans, deserves much credit. Matt Clarke is a great example of why managers don’t simply “get rid” when performances dip, but shouldn’t be relaxing just yet. Graeme Lee has been outstanding lately while Arnison and Luke O’Brien continue to impress. Rhys Evans had little to do against Morecambe because of the form of those ahead of him.

The 23 points City have picked up at home so far this season may not be as impressive as the 28 the Shrews have recorded at New Meadow, but with only one defeat it’s mightily improved on recent seasons. Darlington and Wycombe are also due in the next few weeks and if a decent points haul can be achieved from these fixtures the prospect of promotion will move ever closer.

To do that everyone will need to be on their game and give it everything they’ve got, and that includes those supporters who seemingly want to indulge in petty criticism while ignoring the positives.

Only the usual conclusion can be made

Just like video goalline technology, winter breaks and the declining tradition of the FA Cup – the opinion “it’s a poor league” is one uttered on an annual basis.

In City’s case, it doesn’t seem to matter which division we are in – even during our second season of the Premiership the national media spent a few concentrated weeks deriding the standard of the top flight – or how well we are doing, the opposition are always poor and City firmly part of such mediocrity. It’s a viewpoint the vast majority of supporters also hold no matter who their team is, every league is always poor.

When looking at this season’s League Two table it can be tempting to trot out such well-worn phrases. Discount the points deductions of Luton, Bournemouth and Rotherham and the gap between top and bottom would be a measly 22 points after a third of the season. Everyone can beat everyone and, while that makes for an exciting and unpredictable league, it also leaves the playing standards open to accusations of poorness.

It’s been said that, unlike last season, there are no outstanding teams going to runaway with it like MK Dons and Peterborough; though a look at the League Two table this time last year offers few clues that was going to be the case. MK Dons had its noses in front, but Peterborough was back among traffic. This year Darlington and Wycombe hold the same advantage of the Dons, though the chasing pack remain closely on their tails. The six-point advantage both enjoy over ninth-place Bury is in contrast to a year ago where fifth-place Peterborough was seven behind MK Dons. Meanwhile the eventual Play Off Finalists, Stockport and Rochdale, were 15th and 17th respectively, a fact which will give Aldershot, Port Vale and Notts County inspiration this season.

Above those three are 12 clubs which retain credible aspirations of promotion, which illustrates just how competitive a league it is. That Wycombe remain unbeaten is a great achievement and the Buckinghamshire club will be hoping to turn a few more draws into wins to build on its impressive start. It remains to be seen how they will react to that eventual first defeat, but Peter Taylor has clearly been able to take the club forward after the good work of Paul Lambert last season.

Like Wycombe, Darlington lost in the play off semi finals last year but have responded strongly. Dave Penney is rumoured to be interesting Huddersfield and isn’t universally popular with Quakers fans, but on the evidence of games against the Bantams they look stronger this season. Much depends on if they can keep the impressive on-loan Billy Clarke, who’s Ipswich contract expires in January and is seemingly surplus to requirements.

Currently top of the of the six clubs on 27 points is Shrewsbury. Having spent big money on Grant Holt during the summer the Shrews are looking particularly strong at home and have a manager experienced enough to guide the club in lasting the distance. Rochdale has climbed after a slow start, though don’t quite appear as strong as last season. Brentford’s Andy Scott is cementing a reputation as one of the game’s bright young managers and Gillingham, relegated last season, are improving. The biggest surprise is Exeter still being up there, though the newly-promoted Grecians have suffered heavy defeats to City and Chesterfield suggesting they aren’t strong enough to last the pace.

Doubts which were also raised at Bury and Dagenham, which seem to be coming true as both fade away following impressive starts. Chesterfield and Lincoln, who both started slowly, are closing in and have the expectation and quality to force themselves into the top seven above.

Which just leaves the Bantams. Predictably Saturday’s defeat has lead to some fans writing off our chances of achieving anything better than a play off spot, but the injury situation which Stuart McCall is currently contending with is clearly going to slow things. Omar Daley is the only out-and-out winger fit and, while the Jamaican’s performances are remaining highly consistent, the lack of a similar threat on the other flank for a team which bases much of its style of play on the widemen is reducing chances for the forwards.

There are question marks still over the defence but, in general, the team has been able to respond to weakness at the back with potency going forward. The next few games may be a battle and not wield as higher a number of points as we’d like, but if City can approach Christmas in a similar position to now, with Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon due to come back, the prospects of a good run of form at the turn of the year are good.

It would take a brave man to bet on who will finish in the top three spots come May right now, but clearly the next segment of the season will be vital in reducing the number of possibilities. Next Saturday Lincoln entertain Shrewsbury; the Tuesday after Gillingham face Rochdale, who’s game after is Darlington away; City travel to Brentford the following Saturday; the Saturday after sees Shrewsbury host Wycombe. With the Christmas fixtures including Rochdale v Shrewsbury, Darlington v Chesterfield and Gillingham v Wycombe, the chances of anyone running away with it seem unlikely.

It’s a league where you don’t want to take your eyes off anyone, even if we are all ‘poor’.

Now it begins for McCall as the Bantams look to rebound

Thomas Moncur does not remember much of the Shrewsbury match and frankly neither do we.

The right back was left sparked out before a goal that sent City to a second defeat on the bounce but while the AFC Bournemouth defeat hung around in the air for the week the loss at Shrewsbury Town was quickly folded into debates on Referees and head injuries.

Moncur is not allowed to play for two weeks as a result of the knockout blow and the Football League are not up for answering any questions about Jarnail Singh’s performance that day of his abilities going forward – I know because I’ve asked them – leaving City fans to talk about the man in the middle and not the men on the other end of a two goal deficit.

No one had much of a positive thing to say about the Bantams in Shropshire until Dean Furman – hoping to cement a role in midfield at the expense of long term injured Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon – chipped in with the idea that City could take something form the game that while over shadowed saw good exchanges in the second half.

Furman did not talk about collapsing probability matrices or Schrodinger’s Cat but perhaps the mood in the dressing room is that without losing Moncur and then Bullock the Bantams might have been able to give the home side more of a game.

Certainly there is much talk now of rebounding and a look at the table shows that at five on Saturday the Bantams could be back top of League Two but even if results did not go our way following a win the confidence that is so brittle amongst supporters would return.

Some believe that the nervousness of the Valley Parade crowd gets to the players – certainly Nicky Law believed so – but the truest test of a team I’ve ever seen came when all were silent and the supporters had all but given up. I talk about Wolves in 1999 and the fact that after the home side’s early goal it seemed to me that only the player’s believed and it was that core of belief in the players that saw us promoted.

Building a similar core – unshakable and solid – in the current side is Stuart McCall’s task and it is his test this weekend.

How respect is lost through a lack of understanding about football

Let me begin with two important statements. The first is that referees hardly ever lose games; much more often players lose games or opposition players win games. Referees’ decisions can have immense bearings on the outcome of games, especially late on and in close contests. But those situations are quite rare. Jarnail Singh’s decision to play on after the obviously serious injuries to Lee and Moncur almost certainly cost City a goal, but they had 84 playing minutes to catch up. They were lucky it was only 1-0 at half time.

The second thing I have to say is that I really did start the new season in the spirit of Respect. I thought the trappings (walking out together, shaking hands and the like) were all about style and nothing to do with substance. As such, they represented very accurately the times we live in, which is a pity for our great game. But there we are, still looking for the substance and hoping to find genuine respect in our game.

So, with the statements over, let me express my grave disappointment after less than two months into the new season. Sadly the Respect campaign has, as I feared it might, already been found out for what it is. The totality of the campaign is that the players and managers are expected to give their unquestioning respect to referees automatically and at all times.

Real respect may be granted at the outset, but then has to be earned. I have always compared the status of the referee with my old job as a judge, while conceding that I had time to make decisions and referees may have to act very quickly. (An argument in support of technology, but we’ll leave that for another time.) There is, however, at least one perfectly valid comparison with my old job. Whenever I first sat in a new area, I may have had the initial respect of the professionals in front of me. I hoped that, as they listened to my decisions and the reasons behind them, the regular professionals would continue to respect me, without necessarily agreeing with every decision I made. We all make mistakes and with many decisions there must be a sinner and a sinned against; a winner and a loser.

Respect for referees, it seems to me, should work the same way. It should be granted as a starting point, but it may not last forever. If the referee is plainly not up to the job – I shall come back to that phrase in a moment – he will lose the respect initially given. And he will rightly lose that respect, just as judge or a policeman or head teacher or a manager who is not up to the job will also lose the respect of those over whom he has authority.

So, having said that retaining respect (as opposed to the initial granting) requires that the referee act in a manner that does not destroy what he started with, I must go on to a second point; respect works two ways. Many readers of this will spend much of their time in a workplace where either they supervise or manage others and/or those others supervise or manage them. When a new manager arrives, we all wonder what he or she will be like and we may well take time to get to know his or her particular methods and personality. We may not always agree with our new boss, but we will surely respect sound ideas, especially if they outnumber the dodgy moments.

But we have all had bosses who, for one reason or another, have lost our respect. I once had one who couldn’t face awkward truths and consequently told me what I can only describe as a right cock and bull story about my career prospects. All respect was lost once I worked out the truth and, having been lost, it was never recovered because she kept on avoiding the truth, thereby continually repeating the very reason for losing respect.

So what of a referee who loses the respect of the players, not because of a decision or two they don’t agree with, which might or might not be a mistake, but because of the general manner of his refereeing? Are the players and coaches seriously intended to remain genuinely respectful to such a person, despite the fact, as the crowd’s chant might put it, that he’s not fit to referee?

All of this has been brought to a head by two particular referees in the last week. What I believe they have in common causes me real concern for the way our game is refereed and for the future prospects for genuine respect. I question whether these referees (and probably several others who referee in similar styles – no, I don’t necessarily mean you, Mr Styles) understand how football should be played. More fundamentally, I question whether they, like the worst managers we’ve worked for, have any understanding of the people over whom they have authority. They may not even feel the need for such an understanding, so long as they know the rules and get the respect they think they deserve by virtue of their status.

A lot has been said about the first of these two referees. Mr Atwell, at 25, used to be famous for being the youngest referee in the Premier League. He is now more famous for allowing the goal that never was at Watford. Much as I was troubled by that goal and what the referee and his assistant thought they had seen, I was more concerned by how the referee reacted to the players. And I don’t mean just the Watford players. The Reading players were equally baffled. The only difference was that one team was laughing and the other arguing. Nobody but the officials thought there had been a goal.

What this suggests to me is that either the officials weren’t watching the players or they didn’t feel the need to observe and understand those over whom they had authority. Anyone with a basic understanding of football observing the Reading players would have spotted immediately that not one of them had thought for even the briefest moment that there might even just possibly have been a goal scored. Now what does that tell us? It tells me that there wasn’t a goal.

But what did it tell Mr Atwell? Nothing at all, it seems. I don’t know where he was looking at the time, but it can’t have been at the ball. If he had been watching the ball, he would surely have seen that it never went anywhere near the goal posts. He must, then, have been watching the players nearest to the incident. But what did he actually see? Not enough to suggest to him that there was something very wrong indeed here, when both teams were playing on, when not one Reading player was appealing for anything at all, when no fans were shouting for a goal and when the only person in the entire stadium who thought he had seen a goal scored was his assistant.

Let me go back to Mr Singh and what he has in common with Mr Atwell. A minor incident it may have been in the context of TJ’s injury, but in the last few minutes Grant Holt hit a shot yards wide, cursed himself and turned to trot away for the goal kick. Rhys Evans went to retrieve the ball for the same reason. Mr Singh gave a corner. What was he watching? What had he seen that no one else on the pitch or in the crowd had spotted? Why was his eyesight so much better than everyone else – including Grant Holt? And didn’t the unanimous reaction of the players on both sides tell him he might just have got it wrong? Apparently not.

The Moncur-Lee incident is in my eyes a much more serious symptom of the same problem. According to Stuart McCall, Mr Singh says he saw the clash of heads ‘and felt they were both okay.’ I might be inclined, with another referee, to put it down to just one single human error, albeit one with potentially the most devastating consequences. The resulting goal was a mere nothing compared to what might have happened. Even from the stands it was immediately obvious that this was very serious. Listen to the commentary. Listen to anyone who saw the incident and understands football or has even a rudimentary knowledge of falls. But Mr Singh ‘felt they were both okay.’ He, of course, has form for this sort of mistake, as City fans know only too well. I think Steven Schumacher will also remember more of his head injury than TJ can recall.

In the second half at Shrewsbury there was another head injury. From my seat some 80 yards away I was sure the Shrewsbury defender was the victim of a foul by Omar Daley, an arm or a hand to his face, as Omar took the ball away from him. Where the ref was looking is another little mystery. The defender went down, play carried on and, so alarmed was she by what she saw of her player and what she knew of the referee’s earlier failure, the Shrewsbury physio ran on to the pitch while play continued for quite some time. OK, she broke the rules and the ever efficient Mr Singh told her off. But she acted on a genuine human concern for a man obviously suffering from a head/facial injury. She was up to her job.

Later in the game two Shrewsbury players collided, both going to the ground, although not in the same bone-crunching fashion as Lee and Moncur. Mr Singh had finally learned his lesson and stopped the game. Neither was, as it happened, all that badly injured and both carried on after the briefest treatment and the mandatory leaving of the field for five seconds.

Now what concerns me about these two referees and those others like them is not that they make mistakes; not that they make important and possibly dangerous mistakes; not even that they make lots of mistakes; but that they do not understand what football and footballers are all about. In that sense they are plainly not up to the job. They have other and wrong priorities. They want to demonstrate their knowledge of the rules, rather than their ability to evaluate. They feel the need to satisfy the assessor or, in the Premier League, the TV cameras.

In the old job I always had to give a public explanation for each decision, which could be used on any appeal. There was always someone who didn’t agree with the decision, but at least we all knew how it been reached. Referees explain very little and most of their decisions are immune from appeal.

But if referees don’t understand what they’re doing and why some of them are doing it so wrongly, not just making human errors, then the respect will soon be lost, never to be regained. Long before Saturday I’d lost respect for Mr Singh, not just because of the Schumacher injury, but because he failed to send off Darren Holloway at Yeovil for a waist-high scythe. I would have been furious if he’d been an opponent. The yellow card, while a relief from the team’s point of view, finally convinced me that Mr Singh doesn’t understand football.

How many more referees come into the same category? And does the FA really expect fans, players and coaches to forget what they see and dutifully respect them? If that is the FA’s expectation, they too do not understand those of us who care about this game and its future.

How would players react to injury in an ideal world?

Without wanting to do something as dull as look at the rules of the game of football after the controversial goal that set Shrewsbury on the way to the 2-0 win over City Law 5: The Referee in the section Injured Players the first two laws are:

  • Play is allowed to continue until the ball is out of play if a player is, in the opinion of the referee, only slightly injured.
  • Play is stopped if, in the opinion of the referee, a player is seriously injured.

As Bradford City fans have seen Mr Singh deal with five head injuries in two games, yesterday and three years ago when he allowed Oldham to score against the Bantams while Steven Schumacher was injured.

Mr Singh once stopped the game for Grant Holt and Kevin Mcintyre and neither were injured meaning that his assumption that – under the rules above – at least one was seriously injured. He did not stop it for Schumacher and should have as the player needed treatment and was seriously injured – he missed games after – nor did he stop it for for Lee and Moncur when one of them needed to be replaced and collapsed again on his way off the field. All of which suggests that his judgement of the seriousness of an injury is not to be trusted not least of which by himself.

The idea that it is probably better to be safe than sorry when dealing with head injuries perhaps Mr Singh should blow his whistle and risk stopping the game for no reason rather than “letting the game flow” while a player is injured when he is incapable of judging the seriousness of that injury.

Of course last week we talked about if players can be trusted to do the right thing. What can you say about the Oldham players who scored while Schumacher was down or Grant Holt and Ben Davies who tried to score while Lee and Moncur was down?

Certainly if I were a professional footballer I’d probably not want either on my team and would probably be careful around them in training.

As a supporter I have a fairly low opinion of both. I’m often calling for footballers to be given more trust and to be treated as adults but incidents like this where players continue not in spite of but because a team has men down thus increasing the chances of scoring.

Given the choice I’d rather footballers thought like Miguel Llera who gave away a penalty yesterday handling the ball because his goalkeeper was hurt rather than looked at injuries as an opportunity for goals but more so I’d rather Referees and players considered scoring when players were down was inherently worth less and – for want of a better phrase – “was just not cricket.”

I’d rather that after ten minutes watching TJ Moncur needing treatment Shrewsbury whacked the ball into their own net and said to us “See that, 1-1 – We can beat Bradford City without favours.” I’m an idealist and that is an ideal.

Perhaps it is the stunning lack of empathy of a Ben Davies when he seems two guys pole-axed and rather than thinking “I hope these guys are ok cause if that had happened to me I would want someone to give me treatment as soon as possible” one assumes he thought “Wow, a massive gap in the defence has been caused by those two guys laying about there, I can use that to get a goal” or perhaps it is the idea that winning in such circumstances is more hollow but incidents like this sour football because they bring home some ugly facts about the game:

That referees are barely capable of understanding the issues in the game and that players – certainly more than those at Oldham and Shrewsbury – are more concerned with goals than safety.

We can all agree on one thing

So what plan is this?

This week all we’ve talked is is Plan Bs and tactics and about fans and other fans and in about ten minutes everything that had been talked about had come to a head.

I was worried that Stuart McCall had listened to the moaners and because he had no Peter Thorne who I guess is injured went for a packed midfield with Dean Furman in it and Barry Conlon leading the line with Michael Boulding on the bench. It was Stuart doing something to counter a team that had scored seven at home I hoped and not Stuart trying to prove that he did know his tactical arse from his elbow.

Barry Conlon is more loved away from home where you get to watch him chasing balls all afternoon long trying to make feasts of scraps. I’m not saying that everyone who goes away loves Barry but they seem to appricaite him a bit more than the VP crowd who look at goal tallies more than effort. When you’ve come all this way as most of us do week in week out then you like the fact that someone is going to run around.

The Barry buzz was still going and people were still talking about it when Shrewsbury scored although after that the week was totally forgotten. The ball came in and Rhys Evans seemed to punch it but as he did Graeme Lee and TJ Moncur went up for it and both went down after having smashed heads against each other. The referee was the same guy who allowed Oldham to carry on when Steve Schumacher was poleaxed three years ago and the result was the same as Shrewbury’s Ben Davies whacked the ball in.

Great game this football. Davies was wheeling away cheering while our guys were on the floor injured. Moncur stood up and went down again and people said he had a fit but soon he was off for Kyle Nix and Lee Bullock was at right back.

So no leading forward, goals going in when players are fitting, a lot of possession for the start of the game and a good shot by Furman that troubled the keeper. I have to wonder what non-niave tactics should Macca use now and what the Hell plan letter are we supposed to be on now?

The game settled into a pattern but the City players and fans seemed a bit quiet and someone aid that Moncur was off to hospital and it didn’t look good but we hd no idea what that meant. Grant Holt buzzed through and had a shot that dribbled wide. By half time Nix and Paul McLaren were dipping crosses around the keeper and just as half time was supposed to come City were on top but we played minutes added on my J. Singh to allow Shrewsbury to score while our player was down. Omar Daley had one cleared off the line and we were still playing at four when everyone else was kicking off and at half time we had been robbed cause while I’m sure that we will hear that Davies didn’t know about the injury and that Singh should have blown his whistle again but seems to be getting closer and close to his aim of seeing a goal scored when their are dead bodies on the field. We felt robbed by someone and maybe the Stockport manager can tell us who.

And down was the word. Everyone was down but everyone was together in being a bit worried about TJ Moncur and less about what was going on on the field. Even in the second half when Joe Colbeck slammed his custom right foot blast from the wing across the keeper which went over and Lee and Grant Holt battled away. Bullock moved back to right back but came off injured agian with Michael Boulding coming on and went up front with three at the back or was it four and this was Plan D or perhaps it was Little PLan Zee and after that comes Vroom? Boulding joined the forward line and we all wondered who was going to be left to play Luton next week but this week seemed lost with Shrewsbury basically keeping the ball from us and Paul McLaren ending up at right back.

The game got scrappy with an stupidly named midfielder going close for them and the much tidier Kyle Nix having a shot for us but from that scrappiness City started to get something together and started to control the ball a bit better. By the time five o’clock came City were giving as good as we got from the team that will use today as some kind of indication that they are more promotion bound than us but to be honest the difference between the teams came when we had two down and as it happened one badly hurt and I guess we will never know if the home team would have got a goal against City without the injuries but the rest of the game where Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke pocked Grant Holt while the rest of the plan, the tactics, the sodding game was in chaos says to me that they would not.

But like the guy said if you moan about a Ref they come back to haunt you and you have to wonder what sort of stink City kicked up about J. Singh last time and how much that played on today. Barry lashed one wide in stoppage time before they took a second goal while we were trying for an equaliser and that was that.

But in a week about plans this was City without one. It was freak football and the most important man on the field was an Referee who I think we can all agree at BfB and on the OMB and on the terraces at VP and in the hushed tones around pubs in Bradford should not be allowed to Referee football matches because of his dangerous policy of letting games carry on when players are hurt.

Probably won’t agree for the same reasons though.

The rest of League Two – Preseason 2008/2009 [II]

The numerous season preview supplements produced at this time of year act as a reminder, if it were needed, that the hopes and expectations we City supporters have for the coming season are not dissimilar to the majority of League Two fans.

Much has been made locally about how last season’s promotion of the MK Dons and Peterborough has left a more levelled playing field, but we aren’t the only ones thinking such sentiments. Some clubs will look to Hereford’s unexpected promotion last season and be confident they can emulate it, others may be hoping it’s emerging young talent can push them forward in the manner of Stockport and Rochdale, while others are upping the wage budget in a bid to go for it. League Two may look weaker without the presence of the Dons and the Posh, but it’s likely to be just as competitive.

When considering who might be in the promotion shake up it’s typical to start with the clubs who have spent money, those who lost out in last year’s plays offs and those relegated into the division last season. The club record £170,000 that Shrewsbury Town has spent on Nottingham Forest striker Grant Holt stands out like a sore thumb compared to everyone else’s summer recruitment. Last season was one of underachievement for the 2007 Play Off Finalists but manager Paul Simpson will begin his first full season with expectations not much lower than at Valley Parade.

Holt made his name at last season’s play off finalists Rochdale, who are likelier to be up there come May. Keith Hill has worked wonders at Spotland and their counter attacking approach impressed last season. Arguably lacking a decent striker, the Dale will hope Halifax’s Jon Shaw can make the step up; especially as midfield playmaker David Perkins, twice the thorn in the side of City last season, has left.

Wycombe Wanderers parted company with manager Paul Lambert at the end of last season and welcome Peter Taylor – with more than a point to prove following a difficult couple of years. They will probably do better than the other semi-finalists of last season, Darlington, who have lost star players David Stockdale and, while not confirmed yet, Tommy Wright. Dave Penney spent big last summer but doesn’t appear to have significant funds this time around.

Elsewhere big things are expected of Lincoln City, who prospered last year under Peter Jackson before his time off through illness. New keeper Rob Burch was sought after by others, including City, while Frank Sinclair could prove a clever buy if he still has the legs. Chesterfield fans seem to dislike their manager Lee Richardson but have one of the best strikers in the division in Jack Lester, Alan Knill will be looking to continue his rejuvenation of Bury and they could be dark horses, while Grimsby has strengthened defensively and will hope young striker Danny North can fulfill his potential.

It’s a sad state of the continuing financial problems many clubs in the lower reaches of the Football League are suffering from that this year’s League Two relegation battle could be determined by point deductions. Three seasons ago Luton finished 10th in the Championship, but the odds are heavily stacked in favour of a third successive relegation and drop into non-league following the 30 points taken off them. Play off form will be needed just to stay up and, with the club still in a mess, that seems unrealistic.

Bournemouth and Rotherham’s hopes of merely beginning this season are still in the balance and respective 15 and 17 point deductions look like a best scenario. That may allow other clubs to breath easier but Chester City, another club with money problems, won’t be counting their chickens as they remember how last season’s dramatic collapse in form almost cost them their league status. Some of the division’s smaller clubs, such as Macclesfield, Accrington and Dagenham, will also be targeting the 50 point mark rather than any loftier ambitions.

Gillingham’s recent financial difficulties make it difficult to imagine they can achieve much beyond midtable but Port Vale, under former City defender Lee Sinnott, will be a better bet for an instant return to League One. The league’s new boys, Aldershot and Exeter, arrive with romantic stories of rebirth and should both be good enough for midtable, where they will surely be joined by Notts County, Barnet, Brentford and Morecambe.

The quality of League Two is derided by some, while others trumpet it as featuring real football and real fans. Last season many clubs enjoyed better form on the road but the ones who did make it to the division above were strong at home, too. This season’s League Two promises to be unpredictable, ugly and beautiful; and those successful in realising their pre-season expectations next Spring will probably be all three.

New season, new excitement – Pre-season 2008/2009 [III]

So the wait is nearly over and the 2008/2009 season is nearly ready to begin. Thousands of football supporters up and down the country are looking forward to the start of a new season. August 9th for a football supporter is like January 1st to a non-football supporter with many hopes waiting to be either realised or dashed. Forget the Premiership and the latest WAG getting photographed and appearing in a newspaper or magazine, the real football stories are going to come from Division 4 (not League 2) this season.

We, the Bradford City faithful, are expecting big things this season with many seeing a top 7 finish as a minimum. I for one would love to see us get promoted for one man and one man alone and that is David Wetherall. The loyalty that David showed to our club is a rare commodity experienced in football today. Stuart has made alot of signings this summer bringing in the likes of Rhys Evans, Michael Boulding, Chris Brandon and Graeme Lee. It will certainly be a different looking starting 11 this Saturday when compared with the team that started against Macclesfield on the opening day last season. Gone are the likes of Ricketts, Williams, Evans, Johnson and Ndumbu-Nsungu.

Once again we should average the highest home attendances in our division but big crowds doesn’t automatically equate to success on the pitch. For example, take Accrington Stanley who averaged less than 1,700 for their home games last season and came to Valley Parade in early October last season supported by 149 people in a crowd of 13,346 and thrashed us 3-0. We are one of the favourites to gain promotion this season but after nearly a decade without experiencing a promotion I’m taking nothing for granted. Call me a pessimist or a realist.

Make no mistake there are plenty of other teams in the same division as us this season who believe that they’ve a good chance of promotion. Aldershot and Exeter City, both promoted from non-league, will be looking to maintain their upwardly momentum. Wycombe with Peter Taylor, Lincoln City with our former captain Peter Jackson and Shrewsbury with Paul Simpson all have managers with a proven track record in the lower divisions. Rochdale and Darlington will both be looking to repeat their play off form from last season too.

One thing is for sure this coming season, there will be highs and there will be lows and it will be interesting to see if Michael Boulding can replicate his goal scoring record from last season with a team that got relegated too. Matt Hamshaw was probably the provider of many a cross for Boulding to latch on to last season so let’s hope that the likes of Colbeck, Nix and Daley can supply plenty of quality crosses this season (although let’s remember that Colbeck is suspended for the first 2 games). What about Evans, our new goalkeeper. He played 4 games on loan last season with us and although we didn’t win any of those games, he certainly played steadily against Darlington at home, Morecambe away and Grimsby away before being forced to retire at Blundell Park.

Probably Something Like Big Willy Style

He is a stocky character – this Barry Conlon – and his has broad shoulders.

Those broad shoulders carried a lot of weight after his signing from Mansfield at the start of this City’s supposed promotion season and when his “fight in an empty room” style of bustling forward play lacked it’s foil in the then injured Peter Thorne he needed those shoulders to carry the criticism he was loaded with.

He worked hard – this Barry Conlon – after missing a penalty on his debut and his reward is ours. His name is sung loud after he – this Barry Conlon – shoulders the responsibility of a penalty that made sure a game that should have been sure five minutes from time.

This Barry Conlon chips low his penalty given after Darren Kempson had stopped David Wetherall scoring and the win is as sealed as it is deserved. This Barry Conlon hears his name sung loud.

That Conlon’s spot kick had to make the game sure was a criminal offence of a decision by the latest in a long line of appalling officials with a linesman allowing a goal for Marc Pugh after his headed was rather randomly powered into the hands of City’s latest on loan goalkeeper Scott Loach but Paul Heckingbottom. The ball was nothing less than a foot on the right side of the line and moving forward.

That the appalling and newest “worst decision ever” was made pulled the blinkers over an excellent save from Loach who has joined from Watford to replace QPR bound Donovan Ricketts. Loach performed well in goal for sure but his mouth open fearless style that saw the 19 year old shouting the sort of instructions that mad Gary Walsh a better keeper than Matt Clarke was more noticeable. He signed as many autographs as he could after the game too. Good kid.

Ricketts is no doubt getting his feet under the table in West London – good luck and thanks for the memories to him – although had he been at Valley Parade he might have wondered how the Referee could see troublesome striker Guy Madjo “make a gesture” to the home supporters and not be called to book on it. Ricketts might have wondered why he was sent off for such an offence at Southend and Madjo was not. He might wonder if Madjo had the same provocation. He might wonder many things and he will probably hope that at his new club the rules are applied more even handily.

In the end that is all I, dear reader, want from officials. Evenhandedness.

Peter Thorne played for QPR – they paid £2,990,000 for for him than they have Ricketts – and it is not hard to see why people thought highly of the striker who from the tail end of his career looks like he should have made more of himself. Sharp, he was, as he finished off a deflection following a pacey run up the field from Omar Daley as City pushed out from a corner which came too soon after a former Bantam Dave Hibbert’s header that put the visitors back into the game after half time.

Hibbert took his header well looping it past Loach but Matthew Clarke will hope to make his aerial clearances more decisive in future. City’s upturn in performances – all but undefeated since Christmas – coincides with Clarke displacing Mark Bower in the side. In the last month City have grown in confidence and now the side can assimilate changes and maintain direction. Tom Penford arrived in the place of Paul Evans in McCall’s holding role and performed well all evening.

City’s upturn also has much to do with Stuart McCall getting the best out of Omar Daley who has moved from central figure to a more suitability less involved player in the Bantams side. McCall has given Daley a remit of using pace and sticking to the flank and then the solo Reggae boy cut past the left back and across the box firing a shot that took a huge deflection to go in from it struck one that Omar is play finisher and not playmaker.

Playmaker.

Let the word float in the air. Think about what it means. Savour it like wine around the mouth. The playmaker.

Seven minutes in and it is the strength of the man, the turn that left three – four maybe – blue shirted defenders chasing shadows. Willy Topp skipped to the box and found Kyle Nix to allow the Aussie to finish superbly and while Nix deserves every plaudit thrown his way it was Topp’s show.

This Willy Topp – who played 55 minutes before being replaced by Barry Conlon as the Chilean builds match fitness – has a clutch of attributes that picked him out at this level. His touch is superb giving him time and space which he uses well so far and his strength is impressive. This Willy Topp knows how to use his body to keep the ball and when he has it he knows what to do with the ball.

And he wants to make play and he has he scope to be the most exciting player at Valley Parade since Benito Carbone and he can go far – further probably than Bradford City and he can hear his name sung loud as long as he follows the example of the balding Irishman with the broad shoulders.

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