Does a football club need a manager?

“Jockey.”

I’ve never understood the word when used in a football context. A player can “jockey” another player, I know that much, but to what effect I could not say. I know a man who does though:

The Manager.

Chief amongst the manager’s roles is deploying words like “Jockey” and – according to Fabio Capello – 99 words which communicate with footballers.

Nevertheless, jockey aside, a full knowledge of this subset lexicon would not seem to be hard to grasp. Most of the manager’s role seems to follow from that, or so it seems, with a four four two here and a craft transfer swoop there the manager’s job seems a bit, well, simple.

We have a man called Major Buckley to thank for phrases like transfer swoop by the way. A ex army man he brought the language of the tactical battlefield to football. He also used to year plus fours -the brassneck of the man – as he managed Blackpool, Wolves and Leeds United

The managers job can be boiled down to such simple elements that it is a wonder that anyone bothers with them at all and – in Bradford City – there seems to be a club which has decided to do away with the idea of a manager altogether.

At least a manager as Major Buckley would understand the term. Nominally City have Peter Jackson now and had Peter Taylor before but they would fulfil the role of trainer more than manager. Buckley’s Trainer got the players ready for the next game – essentially Jackson’s remit – while the Major got on with, well, managing.

Which is to say planning. Planning how to be better – including a flank sweep for a new inside right but for the first time as a manager not exclusively in player captures – and working towards those aims. Planning a new tactic, planning a ground move, planning the name of the local underground station in Herbert Chapman’s case. Back then the manager, with so much to discover, went and discovered it.

Which perhaps explains why most clubs seem to have the same tendency as City to reduce the manager’s job. With football clubs having got to a level of maturity where most would agree on the best way to do things many of the roles of the manager of old are done, and maintaining them is taken inside the boardroom now. One of the problems that the modern manager faces is that most of the things that managers of tore used to do to gain a competitive advantage have been done. From giving a ball each to the players to signing The Three Amigos it is hard to find anything new to do.

So – in the absence of innovation – the manager explains to his players the word “Jockey” and trusts to them that his one hundred words will bring significant improvements. Perhaps club’s will do away with the manager altogether. Indeed there was an attempt in the mid to late nineties for clubs to dub the man in the big chair as Head Coach or something similar.

City are in the process of recruiting someone to sit in that big chair although the role and remit of the successful applicant will likely not be that broad. For now Peter Jackson takes the team to Stevenage for his sixth game.

Looking to turn around a home draw and defeat in two away matches Jackson’s claim for the City job was strengthened with the news that Alan Knill had become Scunthorpe United boss this week and it seems the more Jackson does the job, the more it seems to rest with him.

A first trip to Stevenage for league football presents Jackson with a chance to do a double – City were booed for beating Boro earlier in the season – and to continue his itching towards the entirely modest reward of building City away from relegation.

The call on goalkeepers which has seen Jackson favour Jon McLauglin over Lenny Pidgeley is bound to give a steer on new contracts for next year and, it seems, that call is being made by Jackson.

A word on McLauglin who had a game of highs and lows last week but retains a level of popularity with Bantam fans that seems to go back to the idea that he should gave been given a chance rather than Huddersfield Town loanee Simon Eastwood.

It seems a long time ago now that anything that arrived at Bradford City with a Huddersfield Town connection should be automatically rejected by some fans. How times change.

Midfield pair Jon Worthington – back from suspension – and Michael Flynn are reunited with Gareth Evans on the right hand side. Jackson struggles to find a wide man in the set up he inherited with Kevin Ellison injured and Omar Daley out on loan but Leon Osbourne’s performance in the reserves suggests his name.

Certainly Jackson needs to find someone more effective than Scott Dobie on the left flank. The club are interested in Christian Nanetti who rocked up from QPR via Jamie Lawrence’s football academy and Ashford Town as they look to return to playing wide men.

Planning, Major Buckley would say, is for the war and not just the battle. Alas most decisions on and for managers seem to be made on a battle by battle basis. One has to wonder – in that context – if a manager is needed at all. If his role is reduced to one of trainer while the boardroom retain responsibility for the strategy and planning of the club – and putting that plan into action – then is a manager really needed?

Managers arrives talking about transfer budgets and wage budgets and one gets the feeling that Major Buckley and his ilk would have been certain that they would decide how much of the club’s resources should be employed in different areas and gone about deploying it.

Jackson seems likely to favour the back four of David Syers, Steve Williams, Lewis Hunt and Luke O’Brien although would no doubt been keen to point out that injury has forced his hand in selection in the games where the Bantams have been beaten. Luke Oliver has a chance of being fit.

Up front Jackson has seen his team struggle to score although it would not be true to suggest that City had struggled to create chances. Chib Chilaka showed his abilities with a good haul of five in his last two games and Darren Stephenson showed a willingness last week but Jake Speight was missed when he left the game last weekend and is likely to be partnering James Hanson.

Hanson dominates defenders. He does that because he already knows how to “Jockey”. One wonders who taught him to do that, and if the manager who did had anything much to do after.

Where does one see Bradford?

A view which normally shows Bradford, but is foggy, taken this morning on 8th of October 2010Waking this morning in Bradford and looking out over the City one could not notice – as the photo shows – that something was missing. Indeed Bradford, it seemed, had gone.

From the back window of Clayton you can normally see Lister’s Chimney and the view over BD8 but not Valley Parade which as the name suggests is under the eye line, hidden from view.

One has to wonder what has been going on hidden from view at Valley Parade this week. A defeat to Hartlepool United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy came almost without a blip so expected was it after the woeful 1-0 loss to Morecambe at the weekend. Peter Taylor was linked to a move for Calvin Zola – Calvin Zola is not coming – and TalkSport and the Daily Mirror both noted that this weekend’s game was win or bust for the City manager of six months.

Despite the board of many and the co-ownership it seems that Mark Lawn will be the one to make that decision. Lawn famously said that he “had 2,000,000 more reasons to be frustrated” than other City fans and if one agrees to the idea that the more you have money the more you can care about your football club then one can only imagine how Lawn feels watching the things he has put into place to replace Stuart McCall that should have worked failing so miserably now.

Say what you want about McCall’s exit – and we have all said lots – but Lawn’s recruitment of Peter Taylor was a clear way forward and an outstanding appointment of a manager with a great track record. One might argue the length of the contract has caused problems or that the failure to get training facilities sorted out are restrictive to what the manager can do but few would say they should be the cause of a woeful run of form.

Would City be in any different position now if Lawn had given Taylor a five year contract not a three month one? Perhaps, but as Lawn – we are told – is considering paying out Taylor’s contract then the brevity of it becomes useful in this situation at least.

Taylor’s team take on Barnet who struggle at the foot of League Two also. Jon McLaughlin has kept goal no better and no worse than Simon Eastwood did but is more favoured and perhaps that says much about the nature of support at City. What is an offence one season may not be the next.

Reece Brown is not expected to return from injury to be right back so Zesh Rehman will continue while Oliver Gill is supposedly enforced at left back. Shane Duff is expected to return from injury to partner Steve Williams in the middle of Taylor’s defence. Lee Bullock will sit on top of them with Tommy Doherty expected to return alongside him.

If it is win of bust for Taylor then he should probably play Doherty. A weak midfield will lose the game and thus his job and so it will hardly matter if Doherty misses the first game of Dean Windass, Peter Jackson or whomever’s time in charge.

Michael Flynn’s recovery from injury came to a grinding halt at Hartlepool United where his hernia which was thought cleared turned out not to be after his substitute appearance. Lee Hendrie will fall in as the left hand midfielder – let us not say “wide man” and Omar Daley is expected to play on the right with Taylor adopting a 4411 as strikers appear at a premium.

Luke O’Brien seemingly is out of both the midfield running and left back. It is said that there are players in the dressing room who would not be upset to see the back of Taylor but that O’Brien is not one of them. Such shows great restraint by a player who has been ousted from the City team so often. Tom Ademeyi seems to float in and out of the side with little reference to his performance. Leon Osbourne and Robbie Threlfall both seem to have had time in the team which has come to an end.

Luke Oliver will no doubt lead the forward line and while I would not concur with the idea that he should not do that because he is “out of position” – few would have complained if midfielder Flynn had been fit enough to take the position in the attack – the fact that Oliver struggles to play the role effectively is a problem. Calvin Zola was rumoured to be arriving and did not and as Peter Taylor looked around the world of football for a striker to borrow his vision was as blank as the fogged look over Bradford this morning.

James Hanson edges closer to fitness and perhaps Taylor might be able to risk him, Gareth Evans is out for three months. Taylor”s inability to get the levels of performance out of Evans that they player is capable of minimises the effect of this – he was not playing well – but as a player he can do and the frustration of watching good players play badly under Taylor is epic.

City have gone four games without a goal and Taylor has a selection of strikers for the the role off the main striker. Louis Moult, Jake Speight, Chib Chilaka. Name the striker and he is not scoring enough goals. The net seemingly fogged for Bradford City.

Peter Taylor will hope to cut through that fog, to get the win, to extend his stay at the club which looks increasingly like it will be coming to an end with the next defeat. Should that be the case then Mark Lawn’s view at the future at Valley Parade would be as fogged as the view from it.

Where would we go next?

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.

Trusting your goalkeeper

A day after Jon McLaughlin signed a three year contract at Valley Parade, former Bradford City keeper Simon Eastwood completed a free transfer to League Two newboys Oxford United. For six months last season, the pair were rivals for the number one shirt under Stuart McCall, and hindsight suggests it was a call he got badly wrong.

Eastwood left Valley Parade at the turn of the year after a loan spell from Huddersfield that was decidedly mixed, but his place in City’s history has been quickly written up as a failure. A disastrous debut at Notts County set the tone for a spell where he was fiercely under the spotlight, and his position was debated by fans after every game.

Excellent performances – such as at, Rochale (JPT)Shrewsbury and Morecambe and at home to Chesterfield and Notts County (JPT) were often only begrudgingly acknowledged. Mistakes in other games, most notably the opening goal at Macclesfield, where he was angrily barracked by fans behind his goal, attracting heavy criticism.

Eastwood will celebrate his 21st birthday later this month, and the old adage of goalkeepers only truly realising their potential when they get to 30 suggests he might yet have a bright future in the same. Sure Eastwood displayed weaknesses at City, most notable his reading of crosses, but his shot stopping was sometimes phenomenal and he showed great mental strength to keep going at City under heavy criticism.  

But for the excellent Alex Smithies and the fact Huddersfield are financially well enough off to keep their best players, Eastwood might even have had a future at Huddersfield. It will be interesting to see if the move to Oxford proves to be a short term downwards step or the beginning of a decline, but Eastwood has the raw ability and mental strength to ensure it’s the former path.

At City, Eastwood was the victim of circumstances that saw McCall have too low a budget – £500-600 a week for wages – for a shot stopper and the failure to be able to afford a more experienced keeper on loan. It was far from ideal for City to rely on a youngster who’d played only one senior professional match prior to be the first team keeper for 22 games, but McCall didn’t have the finances to give him much choice.

Though he did have reserve keeper McLaughlin. Two months after McCall’s exit, Peter Taylor gave McLaughlin a chance at Burton and the former Harrogate Railway stopper seized it to produce a breathtaking display that earned him a run in the side and the recently-signed three year contract. McLaughlin will begin next season as City’s first choice keeper, and some fans have being quick to slate McCall and argue that the goalkeeping position was a blind spot for him.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and maybe if McCall could turn back the clock he’d have done it differently too, but the history being written about it isn’t quite as clear cut.

McLaughlin is two years younger than Eastwood, and as impressively as he performed during the final five games, he has not yet had the same level of testing as the 22-game run Eastwood enjoyed mixed results from during the first half of the season. Hopefully the six-game end of season spell will act as the springboard for McLaughlin to make a better fist that Eastwood of performing consistently week in week out next season, but there are no guarantees.

Indeed McCall wasn’t exactly presented with compelling evidence to believe McLaughlin was ready last season. I typically take in one or two reserve games per season and, in the games I saw, McLaughlin did not perform convincingly at all – lacking presence and conceding saveable goals. Regulars of City’s reserve games have indicated this was typical during his first season at City in particular.

Finding your feet is what reserve team football is for, but the point is that while McLaughlin was ready to don the gloves at the Pirelli Stadium in April, it doesn’t mean he was last August, when McCall opted to stick with Eastwood.

But beyond this debate, the goalkeeper position is universally one of trust between player and supporter. If we fans trust a goalkeeper, we just let them get on with it. Cheer their name when they make a save, direct the blame elsewhere when the ball ends up in the back of the net. Unless they make a really obvious mistake, the goalkeeper’s performance won’t be scrutinized. McLaughlin quickly won the fans trust at Burton and at home to Morecambe, so for the moment he is only praised.

In contrast, Eastwood never had our trust. We just didn’t have confidence in his ability, which meant every time a goal was conceded the first reaction was to question whether the young keeper could have done better, rather than if the defence was marking tight enough or if it just simply good opposition play. His heroics were often greeted with surprise, and even after a good game there’d be one or two supporters who’d point to a moment where he almost missed a cross or “got lucky” to prevent the trust reaching adequate levels.

There was once a time we fans confidently talked about our strong recent history of goalkeepers. Mark Schwarzer, Gary Walsh, Matt Clarke, Aidan Davidson, Alan Combe, Steve Banks, Mark Paston, Paul Henderson, Donovon Ricketts. Sure, during the Premier League days and the immediate few years after, we had many problems on and off the field, but aside from injuries a poor keeper between the sticks wasn’t one of them.

Many of the above were far from perfect, mistakes were made; but even if some endured dips in form there was general confidence in the incumbent of the goalkeeper jersey most Saturday afternoons.

Even since Ricketts lost his form in the 2006/07 season, trust in goalkeepers has been lacking. The fantastic Scott Loach, who may be a Premier League keeper next season such is the top flight interest, was heavily criticised by a small minority of fans when at City. Rhys Evans came as close to anyone to gaining the full trust of fans, but few were too sad when he was allowed to leave.

It’s fantastic that McLaughlin has earned the trust of supporters, and the hope is it continues into next season and beyond. But if he does prove himself and the praise is showered down upon him, I hope it can be concentrated on his ability rather than as another reason to slate a City legend.

McCall may have helped the keeper by not picking him before he was ready, but above all else McLaughlin wouldn’t be receiving the recent praise and trust had Stuart “goalkeepers were a blind spot” McCall not discovered and signed him from obscurity in the first place.

Oliver, Threlfall and Saxton sign for City

Peter Taylor has done what many thought would be impossible and recruited on loan Liverpool left back Robbie Threlfall on a two year contract with the Bantams as one of three signings the City manager has made to start off a summer of some recruitment.

Threlfall joined the Bantams after being scouted by Stuart McCall to answer the recurrent problem with delivery his sides had and the Anfield loanee proved his value with a performance and goal at Spotland in City’s 3-1 win over Rochdale that underlined his usefulness. From that point on Threlfall continued to show his talents with a deadball and his signing on a free from Liverpool – which was once thought to be an outlandish aim – is a welcome reality.

Also returning from last season is giant of a defender Luke Oliver who signs on a free from Wycombe Wanderers. Oliver joins the club seemingly as a replacement for the departed Matthew Clarke and while many if not most would concur that the departing defender has better ability than the man who arrives the fact that Taylor has worked with Oliver at three clubs now speaks much about the character of the player and the trust the manager feels he can place in him which – perhaps – was not the case with Clarke.

Oliver also arrives on a two year deal where as as does 20 year old keeper Lloyd Saxton is signed for one who arrives to be understudy to Jon McLaughlin. Saxton has yet to play a football league game despite being named on the bench some thirty times for Plymouth last season. Saxton had indicated that he would prefer a first team role at a non-league club and now finds himself in the position McLaughlin occupied for two seasons on the bench at Valley Parade.

Taylor has indicated that McLaughlin is his number one keeper for next season and one can only hope that not only does the man who showed the virtue of patience seize the opportunity given but that he is protected in the same way Simon Eastwood was when he was wearing the number one jersey for the Bantams.

Eastwood’s critics were plentiful – as were Stuart McCall’s for keeping faith with him – but the saving grace for both and the hope for McLaughlin is that Peter Taylor shares the same views on switching keepers and – in short – will give the gloves to McLaughlin and leave Saxton sitting on the understanding that little good comes of rapid goalkeeper changing. It would seem that Saxton can expect to warm the bench for sometime.

Oliver competes with Zesh Rehman for the place of big centre half alongside Steve Williams or Simon Ramsden – most likely the former – in Taylor’s defence next season as well as having a role as emergency striker which few would relish seeing again. T’was like Andrew Tod has returned to haunt us.

Of the three Threlfall is most likely to be starting the season on the first team with the left back set to continue his role at full back come August 2010.

Good things come to those who wait

Which Bradford City player was never on the losing side during the 2008/2009 season and the 2009/2010 season? I’m sure that plenty of people reading this article will know that the correct answer is Jon McLaughlin.

The former Harrogate Railway Athletic and Harrogate Town goalkeeper was signed by Stuart McCall in the summer of 2008. When he was signed, I imagine that he knew that he wasn’t going to be the first choice keeper. However, at the age of just 17, who wouldn’t take the opportunity to sign for a league club averaging over 11,000 for home games? As the 2008/2009 season drew to a close and it became clearer that Rhys Evans wasn’t going to be a Bradford City player for the 2009/2010 season, McLaughlin was given his league debut at Saltergate. City won the game 2-0 in the Derbyshire sunshine and whilst the City supporters probably knew that day that Rory Boulding wouldn’t become a City legend, McLaughlin gave an assured performance without putting a foot wrong.

Having made a winning start to his Bradford City career and keeping a clean sheet, McLaughlin then played for Great Britain in the World Student Games in Serbia. Although Great Britain didn’t win the tournament, McLaughlin kept three clean sheets in five games. He had now signed another one year deal at Valley Parade but McCall made it clear that McLaughlin wasn’t going to be the first choice keeper again. McCall signed Simon Eastwood on loan from Huddersfield Town and he kept McLaughlin out of the City first team until his loan spell came to an end at the end of 2009. Despite Eastwood being a hero in the JPT victories against Notts County and Port Vale with his heroics in the penalty shoot outs, many City supporters (me included) felt that McCall could have given McLaughlin a chance before Eastwood returned to Huddersfield Town.

McLaughlin had to be patient again and his first start for the 2009/2010 season didn’t arrive until early 2010 when we played Cheltenham Town at home. In a game which we drew 1-1, the Cheltenham goal came from a penalty which McLaughlin almost kept out. City were also down to 10 men in this game after Steve Williams was sent off. Again, McCall raided Huddersfield Town and Matt Glennon arrived on loan. Glennon looked more composed than Eastwood. But again there were mutterings amongst the City supporters asking why we had a goalkeeper on loan when McLaughlin was keeping the substitutes bench very warm.

Fast forward to April 2010, Peter Taylor is now our manager, and imagine my surprise when I arrive at Burton Albion to find Jon McLaughlin starting for City. Burton played very well in that match with their two centre forwards Harrad and Pearson causing the City defence plenty of problems. Indeed, Burton were awarded a penalty in the first half and up steps Pearson. Unlike the Cheltenham game, McLaughlin is able to kept out the penalty and chants of “one Jon McLaughlin” echo from the City supporters stood behind McLaughlin’s goal. The fact that the game finishes 1-1 is largely down to McLaughlin who makes several top class saves.

Peter Taylor shows his faith in the young City stopper and McLaughlin plays again at home to play off chasing Morecambe. Like the away game at Chesterfield last season, City win the game 2-0. However, McLaughlin is busier in this game than the one at Saltergate and more people are asking why didn’t he get his chance earlier on this season when Eastwood appeared to be low on confidence.

McLaughlin ended up playing the final six games of the 2009/2010 season which saw City gain 14 points with four wins and two draws. Like Donovan Ricketts who had to be patient whilst Paul Henderson had his one good season with City, McLaughlin has had to wait for his chance. However, he has grabbed his opportunity with both hands and hopefully will have a long and successful career with Bradford City.

As well as showing all the signs of a good goalkeeper, the one thing that sticks in my mind about McLaughlin is the way that he went up to Simon Eastwood at half time in the away match at Shrewsbury Town back in September 2009. Eastwood had played well in that first half making some notable saves but he was also involved in a nasty collision with the then Shrewsbury player Nathan Elder. At half time, as Eastwood was walking across the pitch at the New Meadow, McLaughlin embraced (in a friendly way) Eastwood. I don’t know what was said by McLaughlin to Eastwood, but to me this shows that McLaughlin is a team player. For a person who is still only 19 years old, he shows great maturity. Let’s hope that the 2010/2011 season is a happy and rewarding season for Jon McLaughlin.

Knowing what you have at Chesterfield

When Barry Conlon unceremoniously left Valley Parade following a fall out with Stuart McCall many were pleased to see the back of the Irish striker.

Conlon had sniggered – or so it is said – at a dressing down that he was given by the manager and thus when the chance came to push him in the direction of Grimsby Town it was taken. His time at Grimsby seemed to have similar results with some goals but an unimpressed manager who shipped him out.

Barry is at Chesterfield now and has scored seven as the Spireites stumble in a chase for the final play-off place with seventh being surrendered after a 2-0 defeat at Macclesfield last week. One doubts the blunderbuss forward has suddenly started to show the skills of Lionel Messi so when seeing Barry for a second time this season City fans can expect more of the same.

Big forward, a lot of effort, maybe a goal. That was what Conlon produced at Grimsby, that was what he showed at City, it is what he does.

The fact he does it well was illustrated by his replacement Paul Mullin – the Accrington Stanley forward who moved to Morecambe after a stint at Valley Parade – and the chasm in effectiveness between the pair. Barry did the business, Mullin did not and as the Bantams slipped from the play-off picture one had to wonder how many people who criticised him would have bought Barry all the booze he wanted in exchange for a goal or two.

So City are once again in a situation of not knowing what they have until it was gone. Conlon joins a list of players who have been Bantams, were pushed through the door and replaced with players who – well – were very little better. One could pull out any number of examples and argue the toss over most of them from Michael Symes – including the Grimsby boss who tried to swap him for Barry and money – who many look longingly at to Danny Forrest who was considered not good enough by club and many fans but – when watching David Wetherall’s side slip to the wretched 2-0 defeat at Huddersfield with wandering loanees up front – would have been much welcomed.

Players come, players go and the replacements come and then go with the expense of replacing or the unevenness of a constantly changing squad never seeming to be questioned. Barry’s replacement was no better and as he came and left within three months Paul Mullin seemed significantly worse.

Mullin’s replacement – however – is better than both and the exceptional thing about James Hanson – injured today at the end of a great first season – is that he represents a player who has come in and improved the squad. Examples of this over the past decade have been rare.

So perhaps the moral of this story is that if improvement is rare then as Peter Taylor looks to start working on his squad in the summer perhaps it is better to stay with what you know rather than change in the idea that the next free transfer to a league two club will be better. A Barry in the hand is worth any number of Paul Mullins in the bush, but a James Hanson is better than all.

Hanson’s absence as given Gareth Evans the role of chasing direct balls from the back and shaped Peter Taylor’s side’s approach seeing more channel balls and more chasing from the widemen of Leon Osbourn and Gavin Grant and the Bantams boss seems likely to repeat the 433 that has started the previous two wins however the return of Michael Flynn – the five o’clock hero last week – give the gaffer the ability to opt for the 4411 which won at Rochdale with Flynn and Evans up front.

So a three in midfield might see James O’Brien dropped for Flynn to partner Adam Bolder and Lee Bullock while a four would see another goalscorer Luke O’Brien recalled on the left with Grant on the right and Bolder and Bullock in the middle. Stephen O’Leary seems to have seen the boat sail on his chance to stay at the Bantams but James O’Brien seems to be well thought of by Taylor.

The back four seems to pick itself. In the absence of Simon Ramsden Jonathan Bateson plays right back and Robbie Threlfall at left back. Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams take central defence.

In goal Jon McLaughlin – who played at Saltergate last season in what was an end of season affair – and suggested himself to many (on what it has to be said was slight evidence) as an able replacement for Rhys Evans. Of course Simon Eastwood was brought in and given the gloves for the start of the next season and McLaughlin had to wait until two weeks ago to get back into the side.

There is something there about knowing what you have.

The unwelcome winter break draws to a close

In footballing circles the closer you get to the Arctic Circle there is talk of a Winter break which would allow the players a mid-season rest while conditions are too bad to play and supporters would appreciate the chance to stay at home in the warmth.

This last month the Bantams have had something similar, and it has not been enjoyable.

The one game in four weeks has been a shock to the system. An unwelcome cold summer holiday leaving one at a loose end on a Saturday afternoon and – snow covering being what it was – robbing the opportunity to keep snug in the snug of The Fighting Cock.

A week of perpetration, the increasingly heard comment to wives and girlfriends of “I’m looking forward to some football this weekend”, the thought about how and who and where City will play and then, nothing.

So a return to football on a Tuesday night in Bury is timely, the winter break having gone on far too long.

This game was due to be played on Boxing Day but failed owing to the snow. The Shakers used the generally static division to move the leagues resting in sixth after Saturday’s win over AFC Bournemouth.

The Bantams return to action with one addition in the form of Matt Glennon who has been signed on a six month deal following the exit of Simon Eastwood. Lee Clark has spoken highly of Eastwood suggesting he is ready to take over from Alex Smithes should that player leave as he expected to do so although having watched Eastwood for five months it is hard to share his opinion.

At times excellent, at times calamitous Eastwood lacks a steadying influence which was the hallmark of – in my humble opinion – the best goalkeeper City have ever fielded Gary Walsh. Eastwood is an fine athlete but has yards to go to become as good a footballer.

At 31 Glennon has been around the leagues and the hope is that that experience will settle a City back line which has better footballers in it than it gets results. Glennon sits behind full backs Simon Ramsden and Luke O’Brien and central pairing Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke who replaces the suspended Steve Williams.

Omar Daley returned to the City squad not match fit a month ago but one can imagine no player in the division is up to speed at the moment following the flurry of cancellations so the winger may get the nod to restarts. Stuart McCall is expected to form a 442 with Daley on the right hand side and James O’Brien on the left around the middle pair of Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn although Stephen O’Leary is expected to be back in contention and should McCall favour a 433 which he seems to be moving away from then he or Chris Brandon may feature.

Should that happen Daley may be pressed into service as one of the two supporting forwards to James Hanson alongside Gareth Evans – who struggled for form before this break – or Michael Boulding.

James Hanson – who it is said is prompting interest from higher up the leagues following his first five months in professional football – is expected to complete the team.

Honest

Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on your point of view – I know I saw it in a movie this Christmas – and so as City trundle into 2010 at home to Cheltenham one is given cause to reflect on the utterances that come from Valley Parade and the relationship they have with that most precious of things: The truth.

Lee Clark – manager of Huddersfield Town – has made it clear that he has recalled goalkeeper Simon Eastwood from his time at Valley Parade after what is charitably described as “an up and down” time at City while Stuart McCall suggests that City let the shot stopper go in favour of bringing in a more experienced man. That one club did not want him to stay and the other wanted him to go seems to say enough about the keeper’s time as VP shot stopper.

Eastwood will be replaced in goal – in all likelihood – by Jon McLaughlin who is not the experienced man McCall is seeking but is well fancied by many fans the majority of whom have not seen him play. Blind faith in City players always heartening though and the months put into Eastwood’s development which could have gone into McLaughlin seem to have been waste but sometimes a gamble pays off and other times it does not and Eastwood is set against the success of three other rookies in Scott Neilson, James Hanson and Steve Williams.

Which manager is telling the truth? Perhaps both are, perhaps both are not. Probably both tell half of it. McCall was unsure about keeping Eastwood until he had someone else lined up, Clark wanted him back for fear for his development which is stunted. The truth depends greatly on your point of view it seems.

Stuart McCall’s point of view after the Shrewsbury Town game last week was that it was referee Peter Quinn who won the game for the visitors and not the side from Shropshire. Certainly the vocal comment on Quinn’s performance would suggest that there was a broad agreement with the City boss although other demanded McCall stop using “excuses”

As a position to be in McCall stood on invidious ground. He faced criticism that had City not missed early chances – Simon Whaley’s pinging a shot off the bar being judged in the same way as Gareth Evans’s fluff – then the Referee’s interjections would have been irrelevant (or so the logic goes) and thus McCall is excuse mongering.

How the City gaffer does not point out that appeasing an official for making two such massive errors – errors unsupported by his non-flagging linesman in the most serious case – on the basis that one of the teams had not already scored is avoidance of a much higher order I do not know. When it comes to excuses the “he got two decisions wrong but it was our fault for not having scored” borders on the masochistic.

McCall was not able to be honest after the game – although he tried with his “Shrewsbury have not won that” comment – and nor were BfB our Rochdale honed sense of what will get us sued preventing us from writing the original article that said “Player X and Player Y are cheats, plain and simple.”

I have sympathy for Peter Quinn for that reason. Some of the Shrewsbury Town players were far better at cheating than they were at football and if someone needs to be giving out excuses it should be Paul Simpson for playing those players at all. An honest man would not. To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand – or so Dr Who says.

Simon Ramsden is expected to return for City at right back displacing Jonathan Bateson – who had his best game in a City shirt against Shrewsbury – with Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams being reunited as Matthew Clarke starts his suspension. Luke O’Brien continues to play the season red cardless one of which will be high on the impressive Louis Horne’s new year wish list.

Omar Daley is expected to be kept on the bench once more as he returns to fitness with a stacked January of rearranged away trips in mind – Daley’s pace is incredibly effective on the road – giving Scott Neilson the right wing place opposite Simon Whaley who also impressed against Shrewsbury. Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn continue in the middle.

James Hanson and Gareth Evans continue up front with Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding injured. Hanson continues to win admirers while Evans struggles to impress all. Personally I can forgive Evans the fluff against Shrewsbury – I recall Benito Carbone doing the same against Southampton – because of the striker’s reaction.

Head up, on to the next chance, honest.

Eastwood returns to Town

Simon Eastwood will return to Hudderfield Town following a curious loan deal at Valley Parade that saw the shot stopper both hero and villain and enhance and tarnish his reputation as a potential replacement for Stoke or Everton bound Alex Smithes in the Terriers goal.

Eastwood’s start and lowest ebb at Valley Parade came in the 5-0 defeat to Notts County while his brightest day was against the same club in the penalty shoot out saves he made to knock the then big spending club out of the JPT.

He has at times been described as a liability but has also kept the scoreline in some games respectable with impressive goalkeeping that points to the reason why Bradford City scouts would have been impressed with him in the first place.

Eastwood – like so many young players – is good at playing football but not yet a good footballer. In the last month of his stay at Valley Parade he was noticeably more vocal than he was in his opening weeks showing that the keeper was learning the necessary skills to go from being good at diving and jumping to being able to command a defence.

In thinking of Eastwood I recall the two goalkeepers who wowed for City in the Premiership. Matt Clarke was like Eastwood – full of springs and leaps – while Gary Walsh commanded a defence and had superior positioning that meant he had no need to dive headlong to palm a ball away, he was standing where it would be and could calmly claim it.

Eastwood is a Matt Clarke goalkeeper but to get on the game one needs to be a Gary Walsh. Managers need reliability from their keepers and Eastwood’s errors robbed McCall of that. His wanderings as the ball came over undermined the confidence of the defence and did nothing to help build the understanding that the triangle between centrebacks and keeper needs. One only find this out with regular week-to-week football and the ability Eastwood has to make some impressive saves justified the risk.

Eastwood has much work to do in the next few years improving the mental side of his game if he is ever going to be more than a goalkeeping acrobat.

Considering the limp that Eastwood continued with following an unnecessary and rather violent challenge from Dave Hibbert towards the end of the last match perhaps a replacement for Eastwood would have been needed anyway. City perhaps continue with Jon McLaughlin in goal or perhaps go into the loan market for another custodian – an experienced man in goal could do much to settle a defence which has talent but not organisation – and should the choice be the latter have only a couple of days to replace Eastwood before Saturday’s game with Cheltenham.

As Seen On TV

I’ve got a bad throat. That means I can’t shout at the referee, which would normally take all the fun out of going to a football match. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

In a game where six goals were scored by five different players, it may seem churlish to spend much time discussing one man, even when that one man comes straight to Valley Parade from the Premier League. So, for a while I shall leave all mention of the referee. But you have been warned.

City were forced into one change from last week, with Steve Williams failing a fitness test, Simon Ramsden moving to centre back and Jonathan Bateson coming in at right back. What looked like a fairly predictable 4-4-2 showed rather more fluidity than might have been expected, albeit frequently at the cost of depriving the team of any width.

Simon Eastwood had a mixed game. As early as the fifth minute he was saving with his legs to send a shot over the bar and two or three other excellent first half stops kept City in touch. The benefit of one of those saves was, however, very short-lived once Kevin Ellison put home the rebound for Rotherham’s equaliser. Lee Bullock had reacted first to an earlier rebound off a Simon Whaley free kick – of which more in a moment – to give City an early lead. But another Ellison goal following some neat, but defendable, build-up play saw the visitors go in at half-time with a 2-1 lead.

Whatever the team talk had been, Luke O’Brien’s surging run and Michael Flynn’s crashing shot in the first minute of the second half looked to have set up an exhilarating pre-Christmas cracker. Andy Warrington in the visitors’ goal (who is nowhere near the superannuable age he may seem) had had little to trouble him in the first half. Now he had to make one save at the foot of his near post to beat out an Evans pile driver; another to tip over Bullock’s shot after an Evans run and cross; and a third, toward the latter stages, when a 30 yard thunderbolt from James O’Brien looked a certain goal.

Meanwhile, at the other end, the now largely unemployed Simon Eastwood was tasked by nothing worse than the occasional back pass to his left foot. That is until the 78th minute when he was beaten by a quickly taken Roberts free kick from just over the half-way line. The lob went over him as he scrambled back to his line, entering the net via the cross bar to put the visitors 3-2 in front. Their fourth goal, two minutes from the end, was a tap in for Drewe Broughton, which brings me back to the start of the game and all the bits I’ve so far missed out – each and every one of them featuring Lee Probert, our star visitor from the Premier League.

Only a few weeks ago everyone at Valley Parade was bemoaning the woeful performance of the referee against Accrington, one Mr Cook. Bad as his display was, City still had only themselves to blame for not sending Stanley home empty handed. Mr Probert showed how it should be done. He’s a Premier League ref and they do things a little differently. They’re on first name or even nickname terms with the players; they know who has a reputation for diving and who pulls shirts all the time; and they are more likely to play the advantage rule, as Mr P did, to his credit, several times.

However, they also like to talk – and talk and talk and talk. Mr Probert illustrated this perfectly in the first five minutes. He adjudged, quite correctly that the aforementioned Drewe Broughton had struck Simon Ramsden with his elbow. Broughton must have considered himself well and truly told off, judging by the length of the lecture. The rest of us judged him extremely fortune not to be shown a card of either colour, despite the early stage of the game. (What difference, by the way, does it make if you commit a bookable offence five or thirty-five minutes into a game? I bet Mr Probert can answer that one.)

Broughton, however, had clearly not been sufficiently well told off, because in the ninth minute he swapped defenders and Matt Clarke felt the power of his elbow. This time even Mr Probert had to produce a yellow card and leave us wondering what might have happened if he had done the job right four minutes earlier. Playing with ten men after nine minutes tends to have its effect on the game.

But within four more minutes Mr Probert set an entirely different standard for what constitutes a bookable offence. Lee Bullock hung a leg out just outside the centre circle. It wasn’t a dangerous tackle and it was his first foul. Perhaps 13 minutes into a game is acceptable for a yellow card to be produced for an innocuous offence. Bullock shrugged his shoulders at the waving referee, while others tried in vain to point to the disparity with the much more serious and dangerous offence which had previously resulted in a telling off.

But, having set the 13 minute standard for innocuous fouls in midfield, Mr P had changed his mind by the 17th minute. Michael Boulding, with his back to goal and the ball at his feet, attempted to turn Pablo Mills. Mr Mills is not noted for his gentility, as the City physio will be able to confirm when Boulding’s injury has been fully assessed. For hacking Boulding to the floor from behind, a few yards outside his own penalty area, Mills’ punishment was a free kick. Not a card; not a lecture of even the shortest duration; not even a firm stare from the ref. It could, in fact, be argued that Mills won his side a distinct advantage for the rest of the game, given that Boulding remained on the pitch for just three more minutes. The standard had changed back again. The only justice was that this free kick gave City the lead.

Lectures, bookings, goals and other stoppages produced just two minutes of added time, but that was enough to see Simon Ramsden flattened again after yet another leap from Broughton. Neither Mr Probert nor his fourth official, who must have been within a very few yards of the incident, saw anything wrong and play was restarted with a throw in, but only after Stuart McCall came on to the pitch and Ronnie Moore troubled the referee with a few words of his own.

Just five minutes into the second half, Gareth Evans was away down the right flank, outpacing Pablo Mills with some ease until, just in front of the assistant referee, Mills took both his legs, ensuring that the threatening run came to an abrupt and illegal end. So, for his second blatant offence of the afternoon, each depriving a striker of a run on goal, Mills had to be punished. And aren’t Mr Probert’s talking-to’s severe? You just ask Mills, because that’s exactly what he got. In another part of the pitch Lee Bullock must surely have been wondering what he had done wrong.

Within five minutes of that Mills lecture, Michael Flynn was late with a sliding tackle and there was a holding of breath from the City faithful. Anything might be about to happen to Flynny, but the actual result, a yellow card, while entirely correct, came as a great relief.

Which brings us back to that third goal from half-way and another difference between League Two and Premier League officials. We are used to ‘the correct blade of grass’ syndrome with our refs; perhaps we should watch more TV to spot how far away from the foul you can take the free kick if you have a Premier League ref. This one was so far away that it brought Stuart McCall on to the pitch again, this time without the excuse of an injured player.

A pretty obvious hand ball, so clear that even the handler, Nicky Law, almost gave himself up, produced nothing and Michael Flynn being pulled back brought only a theatrical wave of the arms from Mr P. Two very decent penalty claims, either of which could have changed the course of the game, were not seen. The additional five minutes, which became six, brought another booking. Matt Clarke must have spoken out of turn, unless, of course, Mr Probert had by now reverted to the Lee Bullock standard for yellow cards.

The game ended in stunned silence from the home crowd. City had not deserved to lose and this time the standard of refereeing really had had a major impact, many times over, on the outcome of the game. I almost (but not quite) could wish for the return of Mr Singh.

But I should end on a positive. There were some splendid displays in claret, with Bullock, Flynn and Ramsden to the fore, but none more so than the man who never missed a header all day and made sure his clearances were definitively cleared. He has his detractors and is not the most cultured of players, but Matt Clarke deserved any Man of the Match award. Not that I heard who was actually given it, so furious was I with our visitor from on high.

A tale of two shopping centres

Five months of working in Sheffield does things to a man, brings revelations if you will, brings considerations.

Rotherham has become a suburb of a bigger City – or so it is commonly held down Sheffield way – but the people of the Steel City do not consider themselves to have swallowed up their neighbour but rather that it has been swallowed. “Rotherham: Suburb of Meadowhall.”

The middle of Rotherham is empty, the civic pride drained and the area that once was to be proud, all far too familiar.

The Millers address that pride in some ways – under Mark Robins at the start of this season and continuing under perennial Bradford City ire target Ronnie Moore – the battle for promotion from League Two. How much this pride can be felt by people in the Town who lost money in the administrations the club have twice suffered is debatable. People who lost out when the Bantams twice sailed the to the edge of bankruptcy have not had to watch the club celebrate big money signings the season after having a begging bowl pushed under their noses and being told that debts must be written off.

Adam Le Fondre – formerly of Rochdale – cost a record fee for the Millers while both Nicky Law Jnr this season and Eugene Bopp and Paul Shaw last were taken out of the clutches of the Bantams after we offered all we could and Rotherham trumped that offer. The increasingly iconic Woman with a B&B in Darlington would find such a sudden surge in cash hard to swallow and considering Moore previous position on clubs in administration but perhaps we underestimate the Millers boss who may flog Le Fondre in the transfer window and go around the area repaying those people who lost money. Probably not.

If Rotherham are defined by Meadowhall then they are certainly not to be viewed as a shop struggling in the credit crunch but are more like those chains that live in constant closing down sales presenting the financial face they feel most beneficial. They are able to flash the cash to land Le Fondre and Law but when the Football League ask about their plans to move back to the location they take the name from they talk about financial pressures that forced them out of Millmoor. The Football League have asked for answers from the Millers and given them a deadline for moving back to Rotherham but at present talks are ongoing about such a move and work is not due to begin until “2010/2011” and a site has yet to be found for such a development.

In the meantime the club play at The Don Valley Stadium, a stone’s throw from Meadowhall.

None of which is presented as schadenfreude nor indeed is hard to sympathise with. If Rotherham’s decline is the story of one shopping centre then Bradford’s is another – the much trumpeted Westfield development which sits as a large hole in the middle of the City Centre that begs for regeneration.

Despite much talk from City Hall and various development agencies the regeneration of Bradford City Centre remains a series of big promises with little or no delivery and the Westfield hole being a cautionary tale told by the people who want to save the Odeon building: “Let them rip this down will you? And replace it with more hollow promises that come to nothing!” would sum up their position.

Off the cuff it has been remarked that the hole should be filled with the very sort of joint community stadium which Rotherham limply seek but such thoughts are never turned to football at City Hall, a curious point because one might suspect that those regenerationists might find some like minds at Valley Parade.

At Valley Parade we have our own section who make vague and hollow promises about things improving in the future if only they can knock something down. The debate on sacking Stuart McCall is active and rich but in reading it one is reminded about the promises of the developers who knocked down Forster Square and before that The Swan Arcade which turned out to be utterly hollow.

In this metaphor Stuart McCall is the Odeon Building and his critics promise that regeneration will start following removal, Colin Todd is the Forster Square site and the big hole in the middle of Bradford is where those fans who promised that getting rid of Todd/Square would benefit us in the long run have left us.

Personally I’m not inclined to believe the promises of those who talk about sacking Stuart McCall and would put the promise they intrinsically make that the next manager will get the club rising up the leagues again alongside those of the people who brought us the hole in the middle of Bradford. They are hollow promises, and following them has led both the City and t’ City to this point.

When these clubs go shopping they test the resources that have previously taken one into the Premiership and the other half way up the league below. City’s marshalling of resources is done with a prudence – what was spent is within what can be afforded – while Rotherham seem either unbridled by such a need to trim that spending or do not believe it will be a problem for them in the future.

Assuming that Rotherham are not robbing both Peter and Paul to pay Adam then their ability to exit Millmoor is perhaps another difference between the clubs. While Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes keep within a budget that includes the price of paying former chairman Gordon Gibb to stay at Valley Parade The Millers fair thumb their noses at the former chairman turned landlord and have opted out of their home City precisely because of the cost of staying.

Imagine City leaving Valley Parade to go play at Farsley Celtic to get around paying expensive Gibb’s rent, or, if you want, imagine Wimbledon deciding they do no want the costs and effects of staying in London and so relocating to Milton Keynes. Trying to think of an FL/FA rule that allows one and not the other is a brain pickler.

Ultimately comparisons between City and Rotherham are enough to pickle the mind too. City fans consider us a far bigger team but men over fifty not connected to either club would probably say both of us are perennial lower leaguers. Rotherham have either survived two administrations and losing their ground in much ruder health than City. They did – of course – exit without a CVA the second time which in 2004 when the Bantams were preparing a second escape was penalised not by a 17 point penalty but by being thrown out of the Football League and being forced to start at the foot of the football pyramid. No two administrations are alike.

The Miller’s start to the season attracted the attentions of Barnsley to manager Mark Robins and so the investment in the likes of Le Fondre and Nicky Law Jnr paid off for him. Stuart McCall spent the summer moving players on missing out on the likes of Steve Jones because of an unwillingness to extend the wage bill without an assurance it would covered by a player exit.

Robins looked impressive to Barnsley and Moore may end up taking his team up. All at City talk about an unwillingness to risk the future of the club. In spending money to out bid us on players while under a Football League Sword of Damocles concerning moving back to their home town which they could do but do not what to it seems fair to say that the same is not true for them.

So Stuart McCall – two wins in three – faces Ronnie Moore – two administrations and a clutch of expensive players the year after – and City face Rotherham United at Valley Parade with the Bantams chasing points and the Millers promotion. Moore’s arrival replacing Mark Robbins saw the Millers stutter but since they have regained footing and sit third having drawn 2-2 with Burton last week after losing to Shrewsbury the game before. Nursing a 3-0 FA Cup drubbing (3-0 defeats now officially being considered drubbings) by Luton Town lats game one must go back to the 24th of November and a 2-0 win over model of managerial change Lincoln City for the visitor’s last win, that game seeing Adam Le Fondre score twice has he has a habit of doing. An intelligent player Le Fondre – like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before – is a reader of the game finding and exploiting weaknesses in defences.

City’s defence go into the game on the back of a clean sheet earnt with Matthew Clarke in the side filling in for the injured Zesh Rehman. Rehman is expected back and Clarke’s reward for his performance at Darlington will probably be the bench – few tears drop at Valley Parade because Clarke does not play – with Steve Williams partnering the returning City skipper. Simon Ramsden and Luke O’Brien take full back roles. Criticism of Luke O’Brien this year baffles me, I think he is performing better now than when he was player of the season and as pointed out he is doing so in the difficult environs of a 433. Simon Eastwood – who looks like he will not be given the goalkeeper gloves at Huddersfield after Christmas with Alex Smithes seemingly set to sign for fun loving Stoke then be loaned back to Legoland – will keep goal.

The 442 deployed at Darlington weighed up against the 433 Stuart McCall normally plays shows the problems City have this year. Not scoring enough goals in a 422 forces the more attacking formation of 433 which ships concessions at the back forcing us to the 442. It loops around and is only broken by players practicing, getting patterns and the continued building a team ethos which was sadly lacking last season. The 433 – which Rochdale dispensed with – will no doubt get a run out against Rotherham and perhaps the decision between which approach to take could win or lose the game in the dressing room.

Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock take two of the places and in the event of a four Scott Neilson and Simon Whaley will take the flanks. In a three James O’Brien could come back in. Stephen O’Leary and Omar Daley are some way off match fitness it is said. Stuart McCall talked up visiting midfielder Nicky Law Jnr who played for the Bantams last term. I do hope that Law shows the same commitment to getting behind the ball as he did at Valley Parade because should he then the Bantams could enjoy an afternoon of midfield freedom.

The three/four in midfield denotes a two/three up front with James Hanson a regular and Michael Boulding failing to impress since his return to the fold culminating in his storm down the tunnel on Saturday. A note here about Dave Pendleton’s excellent article in the current and always grand City Gent about Boulding and the thunderous criticism of him. Excellent points are made about both players and fans.

Gareth Evans is in line for a recall alongside Hanson in either line up. Neilson or Whaley would join in a three.

A muted victory

From a fixture Stuart McCall couldn’t feasibly win, at least the Bradford City manager was able to enjoy the satisfaction of three points.

Against an already doomed home team which has lost its last two games 4-0, only a similarly convincing scoreline for the Bantams would ensure victory would truly be considered a victory. That Steve Williams’ 23rd-minute strike was the sole occasion the ball found the back of the net will have done little to ease the darkened mood triggered by the midweek Rochdale humbling. Indeed the sight of City players’ blatant attempts to time waste long before the final whistle was due offered a clear indication that, while the win ultimately reduces the gap to the play offs, a vast improvement is needed for the season to conclude with a top seven place.

Not that Stuart seemed to be overly-perturbed after the final whistle. A victory is a victory and the points reward for winning 1-0 is the same as winning 4-0. Darlington showed a degree of spirit in the second half – on the evidence of this and City’s recent trip to Blundell Park, there is more hope to be taken from the Quakers’ efforts even if the League Two table makes it implausible to argue they can avoid relegation – and with City wasteful in front of goal for the game’s first two-thirds, the home side might have snatched a late point due to endeavor if not ability. In the end it was an afternoon for getting the three points, climbing back on the coach and moving on.

A more convincing victory still appeared on after a first half easily controlled by the visitors. Back to playing 4-4-2, Matt Clarke took the place of the injured Zesh Rehman, and a more solid performance from the former Darlington centre back alongside Williams was the platform for a 45 minute period where possession was dominated by claret and reasonable chances were readily created.

James Hanson came close early on with a shot deflected over, Simon Whaley almost scored direct from a corner, the recalled and impressive Scott Neilson might have done better after charging into the penalty area and seeing his low drive blocked by home keeper Nick Leversidge.

Lee Bullock, Hanson and Williams continued to go close and soon after Williams was rewarded after popping up at the back post to head home Neilson’s corner. It was a good moment for the former non-league defender after the difficult evening he’d endured midweek, it was also the third away league game in a row he’d netted. City continued to press and Hanson headed just wide.

At the other end Darlington’s efforts to pass the ball around on the deck were admirable but largely impotent. That the half chances they created almost all came on the counter attack said much about their lack of authority on the game.

But it was during the second half where the promotion credentials of the Bantams could again be doubted. City have held a 1-0 lead at half time in eight of their 20 league games this season, but the dilemma of whether to continue in the attacking manner which had earned that advantage or sit back and protect it is one which is leading to uncertainty and awkwardness.

Initially City’s intent was to get that second goal with Hanson again twice going close, but slowly the team began to drop back and ambition became limited. Stuart attempted to encourage fresh impetuous by introducing the dropped Gareth Evans from the bench for Michael Boulding, but the former Macclesfield striker’s confidence has clearly taken a dip of late, and he did little to reignite purpose to the attack.

Though questions must again be pointed at Boulding, who was well shackled all afternoon by former City defender and Quakers captain, Mark Bower. His introduction from the bench against Accrington helped City to pile on late pressure and he almost won the game late on with a shot that hit the post. Boulding can consider himself unfortunate not to have started the next game against Grimsby, but having got his chance at the Darlington Arena his failure to again take it was mystifying.

Often Boulding is excused for anonymity by relative poor service, and while he was provided few sights of goal, he must surely be prepared to work harder. Boulding looked unhappy to be subbed and went straight down the tunnel, where he was followed a few minutes later by Stuart for what may have been a tongue-lashing.

James O’Brien was shortly after brought on for Whaley – the on-loan Norwich midfielder again looking the best player on the park in terms of ability, but often failing to make the most of many opportunities to cross the ball with some poor deliveries.  As the home side finally starting to exert some pressure, Simon Eastwood had to tip one effort round the post and blocked a shot from further out which was straight at him. By then the visitors’ time-wasting got too much for referee Neil Swarbrick, who booked Neilson for unsubtly kicking the ball away. City’s ball retention was poor and will not go unpunished if it continues during the next four league fixtures, all against promotion rivals.

When the final whistle was blown it was met by a faint smattering of boos in the away end, but the overall cheering and chanting of Stuart’s name suggested the general mood was that, while dissatisfied with the performance, at least a difficult week had ended in a positive way.

There are still plenty of issues for Stuart to ponder – the return to playing 4-4-2 may have made City look more solid, but the high work rate the 4-3-3 formation has been built around was curiously lacking. Little confidence can have been taken from the second half display, though the clean sheet is not to be sniffed at.

So a muted victory, and one which may be best judged retrospectively in a few weeks. The hope for Stuart must be that this the game acts as the springboard for a run of good form going into the second half of the season, rather than proving a blip which had more to do with the Darlington formbook. Perhaps, in a week where we at BfB have looked back to the last promotion season and how the team ultimately benefited from losing 3-0 at home to QPR late-autumn, this win will have provided the tweak which makes the difference.

The tweak being the change back to 4-4-2 and return of Clarke, who has surely earned the right to now keep his first team spot. It wasn’t spectacular, but the first game after the tweak in the 1998/99 season, a 1-0 success at struggling Oxford thanks to a header from a set piece in the 23rd minute, offered few clues of what was to come then.

Anything similar this time around, and this will be later judged a fixture Stuart won in more ways than one.

The loop continues at Darlington

There was a depressing predictability about the reaction to the defeat to Rochdale this week which saw the Bantams beaten 3-0 by a League Two team that played a slick, flowing, football beyond their status. For some Rochdale were not given credit for a performance which made them near unplayable while others rubbed eyes with an amazement and wistfully asked when City would play like that.

Perhaps the answer to that goes back a decade to the team that was promoted to the Premiership who played with the same bottomless confidence and belief in each other that Rochdale showed. At one point – and without looking – one Dale defender headed out from a corner to the release valve man who trotted the ball up field for another attack.

It was akin to Peter Beagrie turning a right back and putting the ball to the far post because he knew – he had the confidence that – Lee Mills would be under it to head in and from the stands it looks like telepathy. Perhaps 3-0 Bradford 2009 will be to Spotland what Chelsea 2-0 2000 is to City fan – a high watermark in performance.

City’s job following on – and specifically Stuart McCall’s job – is to minimise the result and move on from it learning what can be taken from the game and rebuilding the confidence of a side who were found to be second best. This season started in this manner with the 5-0 defeat at Notts County requiring a mental rebuild as well as a team reshaping.

Options for moving players around are available but more importantly players like Steve Williams, James O’Brien and James Hanson have had their first taste of that flavour of bitter defeat and McCall needs to work with those players. Part of building a squad based around young players gives these problems of inconsistency perhaps by virtue of the unexpected. Steve Williams will have never played against an attacking line which moved around as much as the Rochdale one did. He can learn from that.

As the dust settles from the Rochdale game the Bantams sit nine points off the automatic promotion places – the same distance as on Tuesday afternoon – but four off the play-offs. Bottom place Darlington represent a chance to close that gap.

Darlington are a club cursed by a stadium far too big for their needs an inability to get the local public interested in filling it. As a club they bought into the dreams of the last decade and a half’s promise of big football and like City they have struggled to make that a sustainable proposition. In the summer they employed Colin Todd and Dean Windass to hammer together a squad from spare parts – including former Bantams Mark Bower and Paul Arnison – and the did a manful job before departing to leave Steve Staunton – a fifth former Bantam in the sentence – who struggles against situations such as his inability to play the excellent Steve Foster again for fear of triggering the offer of a new contract the club can ill afford.

Darlington lived beyond there means – Rochdale’s Chris Dunphy would have them out of the league no doubt – and as usual the supporters are left to pick up the pieces left behind when businessmen/safe crackers have moved on.

The cost of administration and football failure is never better illustrated than the woman in Darlington who saw her B&B business in trouble after the club defaulted on the debt it had run up housing a loanee signed to sit on the bench when the clubs met at Valley Parade back in February chasing promotion in a way they could not afford.

That night Darlington played what could be called “a hard game” and one Kevin Austin challenge on Omar Daley snapped the midfielders leg in half (Hey – I’m no Doctor) and stopped the player form kicking a ball in anger until this week taking the Bantams promotion campaign with it.

Daley’s return for the reserves is a hint at things to come rather than a burst back into the side. Omar played 45 minutes but will be taking the long road back and it seems that Simon Whaley will be filling in for him until his return, perhaps exiting when he is fit.

Whaley and fellow support striker Gareth Evans were neutralised by a canny Rochdale side leaving Stuart McCall with a tactical head swim. The 433 took care of Grimsby – the team one place above Darlington – but was ineffective against Rochdale and the manager must decide which of these two games is reflective of his formation’s effects.

Simon Eastwood will keep the gloves after an athletic display on Tuesday blotted by having the ball placed through his legs for the first goal. The defensive four will probably remain as it was – or at least it would if I were manager – but some would switch Simon Ramdsen into the middle with Steve Williams and put Jonathan Bateson in at right back while others favour Ramsden and Rehman rather than Williams. O’Brien is unchallenged at left back save other young players but has put in a good level of performance this year and certainly is forgiven Tuesday night.

Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock emerged from the mid-week game without criticism – indeed perhaps it is tribute to their strengths that Rochdale played the game on the flanks rather than through the middle – and will keep the middle of field although that could be with one of James O’Brien/Chris Brandon in a three of with Scott Neilson and Whaley/Brandon on the flanks in a four.

Neilson looked lively coming on on Tuesday night – an admirable attitude that deserved more than an ironic cheer for his header at goal in the last minute – but will probably be restricted to the bench. James Hanson will almost certainly start and will match himself against Mark Bower and – as Foster cannot play and Ian Miller is injured – someone from the Quakers youth side. Knowing what we do about Mark Bower one might expect McCall to keep Gareth Evans alongside Hanson – Bower struggled with powerful players – and leave Michael Boulding on the bench. A three would have Whaley/Hanson/Evans along the front.

Darlington – despite the trails – represent a tough game approach the match with nothing to lose and written off before kick off. City start rebuilding confidence once more – stuck in a kind of loop between bad results leading to unbeaten periods interrupted by bad results. It is midtable form and needs a kick start to move it onto being play-off contenders.

Darlington – who attempted a kick start last season living beyond their means – offer a start warning about trying to break that loop.

Reacting to the cold, sifting the good from the bad

Defeats are always worse in the cold.

A miserable night and a miserable result for Bradford City going down 3-0 at home to a Rochdale side that – in a League Two context – redefined ebullience.

As the bitter winter drew into Valley Parade the Bantams were beaten by what was probably the best team to come to the stadium in the two and a half years since relegation.

All had started bright enough for Stuart McCall’s side when the early exchanges saw City pinging a cross over that James Hanson turned just wide of the post and the 433 formation that saw James O’Brien return to a midfield alongside Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock and Gareth Evans and new boy Simon Whaley flank Hanson up front seemed to pile pressure onto the side which had ambitions for the top of the division.

Ambitions they would realise by the end of the evening and with no little help from City – Steve Williams’s attempt to clear a ball and his inability to step up after he had given that ball away saw a ball ended up being fired under Simon Eastwood for Dale’s first goal scored by Chris Dagnall.

The visitors played like a team brimful of confidence and as drilled as any who have been to VP for years with every man pressing at City. The full backs added to the wide men to force City’s two wide strikers to come back and be employed as weak midfielders – almost wing backs at times – resulting in a poor first home start for Whaley and Evans’s worst game since he signed for City.

The two wide played stolen away James Hanson cut a lonely and easily policed figure up front while James O’Brien struggled to get a grip in the midfield – the problem with 19 year old players is that they are, by nature, inconstant and hindsight says that McCall would have been better with the more experianced head of Chris Brandon, not that I would have made that decision at 19:45.

Luke O’Brien and Simon Ramsden – who later switched inside to cover (one assumes) an injured Zesh Rehman leaving Jonathan Bateson on the flank – were exposed by Whaley and Evans’s inability to perform both jobs adequately and the ball inside Ramsden ten scattered minutes after the first goal was centred by 39 minute City loanee Chris O’Grady for Dagnall’s second.

The Bantams players got heads up after but the support on the whole rounded on the players with not one player saved a lashing of tongue (and often worse than lashing, but let us concentrate on the main thrust) and a suggestion of their inability. All teams who are not winning at half time are booed of these days, but is there not a distinction to be made between a team playing badly and another team playing well and – if that is a distinction – was it the case on this evening?

Rochdale played as well as any side who have come to Valley Parade in this league have done and showed signs of belief in each other that the Bantams aim towards. One could spend fifteen minutes at half time reviewing every City player to find a problem in his performance but ultimately the main problem the Bantams had tonight was that they were playing against a side that played brilliantly. Swapping out any of the City squad, switching formations, changing personnel: none of those things would have altered that.

Last season’s 3-0 reversal at Spotland saw Paul Arnison hung out to dry for not being able to cope with Will Atkinson who presented a myriad of problems for Simon Ramsden tonight. When does it stop being the fault of our right back that a cross has come over and start being the credit of their left winger? Did right backs up and down the First Division lose their jobs the week after Peter Beagrie ripped them to shreds in 1999?

The build up of understanding between Dale’s pairings – the two at the back, the midfield pair, wide payers, the forwards who caused problems all night with a running off the ball and movement that border on zealous – was honed and the strength of will in the squad was evident and there as an example – no, as something to aim for – to City and to all sides in League Two and beyond. Well drilled, confident teams will always do well, they should always do well.

Rochdale got a third – O’Grady scoring after some more defensive hi-jinx – but any bad luck the Bantams had in the odd run of the ball was made up by two or three great saves which earned him a man of the match award in a match that City could hardly get into. Scott Neilson arrived late and nudged a headed chance at goal but the result was a long time decided at that point.

Ultimately while supporters will no doubt go into a catatonia of debate over the reasons and machinations behind tonight’s result – and while everyone will have a different take on those elements – it will be Stuart McCall’s decision as to sift out what he considers to be issues which can be addressed and those which came around as the result of an excellent performance by the visitors.

I have said many times in the past that the key to dealing with results good and bad is to minimise and move on and that is McCall’s task now. To isolate the problems which can be addressed and to address them, then ignore the others and not let the fact that another team has played well force his thinking away from the idea that the side – the young side – is learning and improving. Tonight was a lesson, and a spanking, but it is something which is learnt from.

The Rochdale fans asked if they could play City every week – considering the one win each of the season then we might take them up on that – but in all likelihood should they maintain that level of performance it would have to be in a division above. The last time Rochdale were promoted The Beatles were number one (with Get Back, which, oh irony, they did) and Keith Hill’s side have managed to escape promotion twice over the last two years.

City on the other hand take stock, sift the good from the bad and move onto Darlington on Saturday. Seasons are made up of cold winter nights like this and how they are reacted too.

Pre-Christmas gets underway as City welcome Rochdale at the start of a big week

This could be a pivotal week in Bradford City’s season.

A win against Rochdale this evening would place the Bantams on the cusp of the play offs, follow that up with a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of automatic. A defeat against Rochdale this evening would keep City wedged amongst the midtable traffic, follow that up with anything less than a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of manager Stuart McCall’s future.

A couple of weeks ago Joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn likened City’s campaign to a pot of stew – “all the ingredients are in and we are simmering away. But now is the time we have to look to turn up the gas and bring it to the boil.” The temperature began to increase with the 3-0 success at Grimsby a week ago, a further two victories this week would see the vapour begin to rise. After Darlington, City have a week without a game before a busy Christmas period featuring six matches in three weeks. Often a critical phase of a campaign, this week’s target is to go into it in a strong position.

For now though the focus is firmly on Rochdale, who arrive at Valley Parade second in the league and with a string of impressive recent results. Keith Hill’s side has won 4-0 at leaders Bournemouth and triumphed 2-1 at fourth-placed Dagenham, who previously were unbeaten at home. They have defeated current play off occupants Bury and, last time out, Notts County at Spotland. They could go top with a victory tonight and, after two successive play off failures, look a strong bet to make it third time lucky and seal a first promotion since 1969.

As the likes of Accrington, Cheltenham, Burton and in the fact the Bantams can testify, the Dale are from invincible. But the impressive side built by Hill is well respected among City supporters for the attractive style of high tempo football and ability to mix it up with crafty counter attacking when required. Chris Dagnall already has 10 goals, Tom Kennedy is a classy attack-minded full back, Will Buckley a determined winger who tore Paul Arnison to pieces so badly last season the now-Darlington right back’s summer departure became inevitable.

Rochdale’s promise and fact it has wrecked City’s own promotion chances for two seasons in a row – plus the fact Dale’s manager, chairman and supporters appear to dislike the Bantams –  give this encounter the level of anticipation no other League Two club coming to Valley Parade can generate. How good is this Bradford City side? Tonight arguably offers the biggest indicator of the season’s prospects so far.

The line up to undertake the challenge is likely to unchanged side from the one which largely impressed at Blundell Park a week ago. Simon Eastwood’s rehabilitation continues in goal in front of a back four that will feature ex-Rochdale full back Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien. Consistency of selection in defence has been a characteristic of Stuart’s managerial reign, for better or worse, and the fact the present incumbents collectively improved enough to keep a clean sheet at Grimsby will ensure Matt Clarke and Jon Bateson remain on the sidelines for now.

The midfield three will be Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and James O’Brien. The latter’s return at Grimsby made a clear difference and his corner deliveries have improved throughout the season, with the Irishman setting up a number of goals in recent weeks. Chris Brandon and Scott Nielson will be back up, but how we long for the sight of Omar Daley taking a place on the bench. The Jamaican was due to play in the reserves last week before the game was called off, the next second string fixture is later this week. Stuart will be grateful the number of other injuries has reduced, thereby lessening the urgency of Daley’s long-awaited return.

The front three will probably be James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Simon Whaley. Michael Boulding is pushing hard for a start and the close-to-returning Peter Thorne still has a significant part to play, making the competition for striker positions fiercely competitive. Hanson’s strike record of seven goals from 18 starts is highly impressive. Evans is not far behind on five goals from 17, and will hope to rediscover his scoring touch after some recent bad misses. Whaley struck a memorable goal on his debut and, up against a side he was playing for just 17 days ago, has plenty of incentive to build on an impressive start.

As will a certain Rochdale forward. For the third game in a row City are lining up against a former striker and for the third game in a row that former striker has a point to prove. Chris O’Grady’s brief loan spell at Valley Parade last January was a curious one given many City supporters were so quick to turn on him and criticise Stuart for signing him. Many of those same supporters were, around the same time, demanding Stuart bring in a fourth striker to compete with Thorne, Boulding and Barry Conlon.

O’Grady’s scoring record before was impressive, and while he undoubtedly struggled to make an impact in the two sub appearances he made (he was recovering from an injury), I’ve never seen a player given so little time before being universally slagged off. Should O’Grady start and complete the game tonight, he will have more than doubled the time he spent on Valley Parade pitch than when he wore Claret and Amber – a whopping 39 minutes.

No doubt O’Grady will be booed by some, but such is the regularity of former players lining up against the Bantams this season the fear is not so much the law of the ex, but the law of averages which dictates whether he will have the level of influence on the outcome Steve Schumacher and Michael Symes have previously enjoyed, or what Barry Conlon and Graeme Lee endured.

But as Stuart will be telling his players in the dressing room prior to kick off, it’s what City do which counts. Tonight is a tremendous chance to take a step forward from constrained to capable, this week is a tremendous chance to upgrade the season’s hopes from reasonable to realistic.

In other words, it’s time for Stuart to serve up his stew.

Mastering the winning habit

There’s a saying connected to self-improvement. It’s about how everything you can confidently do now, at one stage in your life was considered difficult.

As Bradford City’s campaign of personal development progresses from learning to create chances, to scoring goals, to becoming difficult to beat, to the new challenge of turning draws into three points more often, tentative steps were taken at Blundell Park towards elevating the Bantams to credible promotion candidates. And while it will be hoped last night is looked back on as significant come the end of the campaign, like a kid learning to ride a bike with stabilisers, it was a progression aided by support which won’t always be there.

You see Grimsby Town were just that bad.

It’s seemingly become a tradition for City to arrive at Blundell Park with the home side on a wretched run of form; but the lack of confidence, aptitude and intelligence the Mariners possessed last night suggests relegation from the Football League is no less a formality than that of rock-bottom Darlington. In each of the last three trips to Cleethorpes, City manager Stuart McCall has shook hands with three different managers in the opposite dugout. On Monday Grimsby appointed former City forward Neil Woods despite a winless caretaker stint. This removed the possibility of a short-term lift from a new appointment, though perhaps rather late in the day the Town board has grasped the concept of stability.

Stability for City was the return of the previously-successful 4-3-3 formation and more positionally-solid James O’Brien for an off-form Chris Brandon, with the result a well drilled team versed in the job it needed to carry out. Simon Whaley was handed a full debut ahead of a clearly exhausted Scott Neilson and brought an extra dimension to City’s play. Confident in possession at all times and making some clever on and off the ball runs, if James O’Brien’s hard-working performance put Brandon to shame, the more effective manner in which the on-loan Norwich winger drifted around the pitch will have been noted by Stuart too.

With Lee Bullock carrying out another unassuming but valuable role protecting the back four, the platform was set up for City’s forward players to attack inventively and Whaley’s long range effort sneaked past one-time rumoured Bantams target Nick Colgan to put the visitors 1-0 up on 24 minutes. City had knocked the ball around impressively at times, but the goal was the result of a more direct manner after Simon Eastwood’s long kick and Bullock’s flick on. Stuart has previously made no attempt to apologise for his team mixing up their play and this goal provided a strong argument for incorporating such a style.

Grimsby’s resistance was limited, defender Oliver Lancashire’s header from a corner forcing a stunning save from Eastwood the only time the impressive central defensive partnership of Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams was troubled. And the biggest concern at half time was that surely the home side couldn’t play any worse and of the increasing regularity second half leads have been lost by City this season – Burton, Barnet, Northampton, Port Vale and Accrington. Time for those self-help guides.

Yet with so many doubts to plague the mind, the continued assurance of City after the interval saw the predictable early second half Grimsby urgency dampened with ease. Nicky Featherstone shot wide and there were a couple of throw ins into the box to defend, but it didn’t take long for City to be back into the ascendancy and the determination to finish off the game was obvious.

Whaley and James Hanson both went close before a corner was only half cleared and James O’Brien whipped over a troubling cross which Town defender Paul Linwood bizarrely headed across his own goal, presenting Williams with an opportunity to head the ball into an unguarded net from two yards. As every City outfield player rushed over to congratulate the former non-league defender, the sight of Grimsby players’ heads down, not even bothering to berate each other for conceding so poorly, will surely have troubled every Mariners fan.

From there onwards the game was comfortable with City continuing to carry the greater purpose and intent. Gareth Evans, who’s not quite reaching top form at the moment, should have scored a third after been played through one-and-one and shrugging off a defender, but curled his shot wide. Luke O’Brien, also not quite at his best last night, hit the side netting. Hanson then finally wrapped up the evening after racing onto Evans’ through ball and finishing emphatically. It was the top scorer’s seventh of the season and the superb manner he lead the line all night – winning flick ons and also displaying no little skill with the ball at feet – was a contrast to his target man predecessor and now Grimsby’s number ten, Barry Conlon.

It’s at this point I should really add comment about how disgraceful it was that the majority of away fans booed and sang uncomplimentary songs about the Irish striker. Whatever his failing were in a City shirt, effort was not among them and the great moments he provided us City fans should not be discounted. So I should really add comment about it was a disgrace, but…well, to be honest, I have a sense of humour.

The stick he received was hilarious and the comedy was added too by how badly Conlon played. His big chance to silence the barrackers came shortly before half time when the ball flashed across the box towards his right foot. He ended up kicking fresh air. In response the abuse was interrupted by a mickey-taking chant of “Barry! Barry!” Once sung in affection, but as Conlon was subbed in the second half and Hanson scored a minute later, it was clear we’ve all moved on. Sorry Barry, though given the way you smiled towards us after chasing an over-hit ball which went out of play, I figure you have broad shoulders and a sense of humour too.

A late save from Eastwood preserved the clean sheet – important as it was only City’s second on the road this season. But while City have played better and not won this season, the qualities which delivered the three points stand them in good stead for the tougher battles ahead. In hindsight, that City were only 1-0 up at half time was the best thing which could have happened. A chance to face up to previous fears and play through difficult memories of tentative starts to the second half been punished by conceding.

Every player took responsibility in pushing City on, and by the end of the night every individual battle had been emphatically won. With Michael Flynn and James O’Brien driving the team forward and the movement of Whaley and Evans causing problems, the workmanlike performance was not without its flair.

The win elevates City to 10th and the distance to the play offs has been reduced to two points. After a week off which will allow the fitness of returning players to improve, the self-improvement programme of developing a winning habit continues. From a visit to second bottom of the league to a home game against second top, Rochdale.

This time City will have to do it without the stablisers.

Accrington nearly don’t come to Valley Parade but the happy ending becomes more predictable

The heavy rain of the past few days must place Bradford City’s home fixture with Accrington Stanley in a modicum of doubt, but then the prospect of Saturday 21 November being a blank Saturday for the Bantams seemed very real a few weeks back.

Accrington, the club that wouldn’t die, almost died. Given six weeks to pay a six-figure tax bill, the collection buckets were rattling around the Crown Ground earlier this season as part of rescue efforts which brought out the best in its North West neighbours. Yet not enough money was raised and its claimed officials arrived at the club’s High Court hearing with no plan B and left with the gratitude of a local businessman stepping in to make up the shortfall. Accrington live on, and the prospect of early season results been invalidated – to the joy of those Stanley beat and the despair of those they lost to – and of a 23-team division with only one relegation spot was ended.

As Southend prepare to take on the national media’s attention as club basket case, that Accrington survived may have caused some to indifferently shrug their shoulders and consider how, for every League club that it’s reported is on the brink of financial oblivion, something always turns up and their survival is assured. And while everyone enjoys a happy ending, the reputed predictability is breeding subsequent hostility from some, just ask Darlington. Poor old Accrington, struggling to get by. Hang on, didn’t they spend £85,000 on one player (admittedly later sold for a profit) 18 months ago?

Last Saturday Bournemouth were in town with the strong criticisms of Rochdale Manager Keith Hill still echoing. Ahead of Dale’s 4-0 success at Dean Court, Hill had stated, “They overspend and it is to the detriment to clubs like ours and it is happening too often now…i’m sick of it continually happening.” Having been stuck in the basement league since 1974 and with a largely untroubled recent financial history, Hill and Chairman Chris Dunphy are clearly aggrieved at how their efforts to live within means see them lose out to others who gamble more recklessly with their future. One wonders if Hill’s pre-Bournemouth mood was influenced by his team’s home defeat to Accrington the week before.

For as Accrington seek to climb back onto a more stable financial future after the local community helped to prop it up, what’s the most morally appropriate way to progress? There were stories of a nine-year-old Accrington girl emptying the contents of her piggy bank into a collection bucket last September, would it be right for the club to spend money during the January transfer window? And if not then, when? Hill’s views on Rotherham United, with two recent spells in administration, purchasing his star striker Adam Le Fondre earlier this season probably aren’t printable.

Rochdale and their supporters don’t seem to care much for Bradford City, but the Spotland club may have a small degree of respect for the way joint Chairmen Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn cut the cloth accordingly over the summer after pushing the boat out a year earlier in the quest for promotion. City were the first club to fall into administration following the ITV Digital collapse, but while many others who followed were quickly able to brush off mistakes and get busy in the transfer market again, the self-inflicted scars continue to cause pain for the Bantams. Plenty of people lost out due to the infamous six weeks of madness, but Bradford City and its supporters remain high on that list too. Those financial woes may largely be a thing of the past, but the lesson has not been forgotten.

The conservative but sensible actions of the City Board has seen Manager Stuart McCall’s playing budget reduce by a third  but, though its widely agreed he’s used it admirably, regrettably it appears a small minority of supporters don’t appreciate the ramifications. City’s 1-1 draw with Bournemouth, joint leaders no less, should have generated a greater mood of approval if not satisfaction, but the injury list which hindered efforts was brushed off by some to make way for criticism.

Theres nothing like managers playing people out of position to trigger red rage from a certain breed of football fan, and the circumstances which saw Zesh Rehman in midfield and Michael Flynn up front were slammed in a manner which deliberately ignored the bigger picture. A reduced budget means Stuart simply can’t retain the strength in depth and the same level of quality, so the length of the injury list is likely to prove a more telling factor this season. And when it does, players will be asked to take on unfamiliar roles and performances are going to suffer to a degree. A negative perhaps, but one which has to be tackled positively.

The injury situation clears up slightly this week with James Hanson returning to partner Gareth Evans and Scott Neilson up front, which will allow Flynn to return to the attacking midfield position he is performing so effectively alongside Lee Bullock and either Chris Brandon or James O’Brien. Just one player’s return it able to make that much of a difference, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that competition for places continues to be undermined by the unavailability of Peter Thorne, Michael Boulding, Steve O’Leary, Omar Daley and Leon Osborne. No longer down to the bare bones, but Stuart is hardly flush with options. A loan signing has been suggested, at the time of writing there are no few faces.

At the back the big question concerns whether skipper Zesh Rehman will reclaim his place in the back four or whether Matt Clarke – impressive in the last two games – will retain the role. Rehman has struggled for form of late and Clarke’s general solidness alongside Steve Williams may give him the nod in the way he took Mark Bower’s place in the team two seasons ago after the former defender also vacated the back four to help another area of the team.

At right back Simon Ramsden should also be fit enough for a return, ahead of Jonathan Bateson. The former Blackburn youth player has struggled with his distribution of late, though continues to display a great attitude and a confidence to get forward.  Luke O’Brien is left back – and there are a couple of interesting talking points concerning last season’s player of the year. The first is that O’Brien has been asked to take on more responsibility, as part of the new-look 4-3-3 formation, with strong encouragement to bring the ball forward more.

The other talking point is how, in recent games, the lack of cover afforded to the 21-year-old from midfielders in front  has been targeted by opposition managers. At Macclesfield, for example, Emile Sinclair was instructed to use the space in front of O’Brien to cause problems. It’s for this reason the selection of James O’Brien to play in front of him, rather than Brandon who likes to drift around the pitch, is widely preferred by fans.

Simon Eastwood keeps goal and has shown improvement of late. He will need to be wary of a reasonably strong Accrington line up that will include former City striker Michael Symes. An away win would see Stanley climb above City and give rise to promotion hopes, but such success may not be considered the fairy tale stuff it would have before the tax bill reminder came through the door.

As City try to achieve more from less this season, it could be argued a Bantams’ promotion would be more romantic than a club who’s name is often-proclaimed the most romantic in football.

Money changes everything as AFC Bournemouth come to Valley Parade riding high

Often unable to field a squad of eighteen, crippled by financial problems and with a manager just out of his twenties it is something amazing that AFC Bournemouth are top of the league.

Eddie Howe’s side sit ahead of the likes of Rotherham United and Notts County and while they were panned 4-0 by Rochdale last league game out they lead League Two with supporters and an increasingly excited media looking at Dean Court with admiration talking about the spirit the young manager has built.

The Cherries recorded an impressive win at Valley Parade last season when the Bantams were confident that they expensively assembled squad would roll over the visitors and perhaps it is that spirit carried on that drives Bournemouth.

Perhaps it is the mentality that saw the club escape from a seventeen point deduction gives them the self-belief that puts them top. The theory has it that football matches are won – on the whole – by the team that needs to win most and AFC Bournemouth want to win when they roll up to Northampton, Crewe of Hereford because they are used to needing to win.

Rotherham United and especially Notts County need to win for different reasons. These big money clubs in League Two are a new phenomenon but one which is increasingly reoccurant. Peterborough United where one a couple of seasons ago and Shrewsbury and City were – one supposes – last year. City’s experience was that when the winning mentality slipped away and the change that an injection of cash had made was negligible. Money changed everything, but it changed back.

City face AFC Bournemouth in middling form following a 2-2 penalties win on Tuesday night and a 2-1 reversal at Notts County the match before with a wasted two points in a 2-2 at Macclesfield being the last league game out and a 1-0 win over Hereford being the last league match at VP and the last clean sheet. City’s habit of conceding two a game is making winning hard.

So the news that Simon Ramsden is returning to fitness is heartening. The abilities of Jonathan Bateson were well showcased in the week when he slotted in nicely at right back compared to fellow youngster the unfortunate Luke Sharry who meandered the field for forty five minutes before exiting. Bateson will step down when Ramsden returns but having only been in training for a day the impressive signing from Rochdale is expected to be on the bench.

Similarly Gareth Evans is expected to make a place on the bench following his heel injury last week with Michael Boulding – also pulled off a half time (“Blimey, at Mansfield we only used to a half an orange.”) after a poor forty five minutes. To see why Boulding blows so hot and cold one need think back to Mansfield’s 2-1 win at Valley Parade two years ago in which Boulding stormed from forty yards with pace to get behind David Wetherall and Mark Bower who – as always – defended high up the field.

Watching Boulding struggle against a Port Vale side that played two lines of four and compressed the defensive areas Boulding could not use his pace to get in behind the back four because there was no space behind the back four. Boulding always stuggles in these situations but when one looks at his best displays for City – the two at Gillingham last year – he has room to run into.

AFC Bournemouth – riding high and confident – might be more liable to leave that room than Port Vale were and perhaps forty five minutes for Boulding before Evans’s return is a wise idea.

Elsewhere Lee Bullock returns from suspension and will return to the midfield alongside Michael Flynn and James O’Brien who put in a superb display for his forty five on Tuesday night with his two deliveries from set plays getting the Bantams back into the game. O’Brien’s display on Tuesday seems to have cemented his place in the City side alongside Bullock and Flynn. The emergence of a solid and trustable midfielder set up is something manager Stuart McCall was not able to do last season.

Scott Neilson links up between midfield and the attack of Boulding and James Hanson who scored his sixth goal for the Bantams this week and is the leading scorer.

At the back Ramsden or Bateson feature alongside Zesh Rehman – back in the back four after midfield duties – and Steve Williams with Luke O’Brien at left back.

In goal Simon Eastwood who is back to heroic status after his three penalty saves on Tuesday night. Eastwood had high tribute paid to him by Williams in the week who called him “shot stopper number one”. Williams is a right of course and perhaps the confidence of the visitors will see them punting shots at the reflexes of Simon all afternoon and forego the cross which causes the problems.

We should be so lucky.

Finding out what you are good at

Rather unexpectedly, Bradford City become involved in a cup run.

The 2-2 draw with Port Vale saw the Bantams win on penalties and ended up as one of eight in a competition since 1989’s League Cup all of which seemed unlikely after a first half in which the Bantams seemed to have forgotten any or all of the elements which have made the club enjoyable to watch this season.

After an initial ten minutes against a Vale side who predictably defended deep in which the Bantams showed some fluidity but soon the attempted midfield of Zesh Rehman sitting behind Michael Flynn and Luke Sharry. If the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is for anything it is for blooding young players and it is admirable that Sharry was given a chance but the midfielder did not take the chance with two hands and and with Rehman sitting naturally atop Steve Williams and the recalled Matthew Clarke the midfield triangle became more of a string.

As a result the ball was punted long – punted as opposed to passed – with the ball often going to an out muscled Michael Boulding or Scott Neilson rather than the powerful James Hanson. It was from this that John McCombe gave the visitors the lead with a corner being cleared to Boulding who’s attempt to hold the ball up was lacklustre and so as the Bantams came out the ball pinged back in to the flank and then the centre with McCombe converting.

Micky Adams has Port Vale playing at what they are good at. They sit deep and attack with pace and as City had failed at their endeavours in the first half and Vale had not they deserved the lead. Moreover though Stuart McCall took his team into the dressing room knowing that there was a problem which he set about addressing.

Sharry may not get another 45 minutes to press his case for a contract so it is a shame that he did not grasp this game but his replacement – James O’Brien – floated a corner into the middle which good running by Rehman and a ducked header by Flynn which levelled the game.

Flynn had moved to the forward line to replace Michael Boulding – brought off for Chris Brandon – to give the attack more sticking power against a Vale side who looked to up their muscle with West Yorkshireman Anthony Griffith coming on.

Griffith seems to be a player born without any footballing talent. He can – however – tackle and battle which he does to various degrees giving away a free kick for a foul on James Hanson. Luke O’Brien middled the free kick for Hanson who rose to head in.

Football is sometimes very complex but most other times it is utterly simple. Good delivery to players who are good at heading it. Two goals and that seemed to be that until Robert Taylor his a choice shot across Simon Eastwood and into the the far post to set up another round of penalties after ninety minutes.

Penalties – taken at the Kop end to the eternal credit of someone – started with Marc Richards and Michael Flynn scoring Simon Eastwood saved Louis Dodds, Vale keeper Chris Martin saved from James O’Brien. Eastwood’s on line bouncing gave him the edge over Kris Taylor but Chris Brandon became the only player of sixteen to miss the target.

Lewis Haldane, James Hanson, Tommy Fraser, Luke O’Brien, Robert Taylor and Zesh Rehman scored. Eastwood saved from Adam Yates and Steve Williams won the game.

The credit, the songs, the mobbing of his team mates went to Simon Eastwood who had saved three of eight stop kicks and once again had put the Bantams a step closer to Wembley. Eastwood is the new Barry Conlon. Some get on his back but on nights like tonight – just as Barry would get match winners – he was the difference.

At least we have found something he is good at: saving penalties.

How to get a head

Football matches are won and lost in the players heads. Not James Hanson’s external cranium and the way he batters it against pretty much every ball that comes his way but the insides of the noddle. The brain.

Notts County have won more than the odd game before kick off. They roll up to some backwater and have names that the other side have heard of in the team, “Oh look it is Lee Hughes”, and the hapless sort go onto the team to play County already beaten.

So it doesn’t matter if County have the best players in the league which they probably do because they could turn up with five guys with one leg wearing slippers and they would still win the match.

That is what happened to City on the first day of the season and what didn’t happen in this FA Cup first round exit. We had enough belief to have a battle and that battle was lost to a couple of goals in the minutes around half time but the fact that City ended the game with a shout of a match levelling penalty probably says a lot about how Bradford City have levelled a game with County in the Johnny Paint’s Cup and how we look at them not as the invincible just as a good team.

They are a good team but so are we. We are a more direct team than we have been for sometime and that causes problems for other sides. I think that when Omar Daley is back into the team instead of Scott Neilson who is a great player with a great future (but Omar is a match winner) then we will float up the league and settle somewhere around the third of fourth place.

We hear a lot about the effort that City put in. Graeme Lee wasn’t playing but he could learn a lot from Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman in terms of being at least as bothered about your teammate’s performance as your own. He could however teach that pair a thing or two about defending. City defend as a team but don’t defend brilliantly and are often found chasing a shadow rather than a man with the ball.

Lets not get too upset about this. Rather that than no chasing at all which is where we get back to County and the brain game they play. At the moment they seem scary and they have good players but Lee’s time at City would say that that is not enough and if they can keep the side playing to win and not slip into the mire that the Bantams ended last season in then they will have done well.

Not that I’d miss coming here or the supporters of County who sang without irony “2-0 in your cup final” in a cup competition, when the biggest crowd they will play against this season will probably be at out ground. I don’t know who the most intelligent fans in football are but it sure as Hell is not these people who get all angry because someone wants to know where the money for these players comes from.

In reverse order City should have had a penalty at the end when Michael Boulding was brought down but as Stuart McCall said the referee was behind play by fifty yards and could not give it because of that. Answers on a post card as to why that is not the same as Sir Fergs saying a Ref is unfit.

Simon Eastwood made some great saves but so did Russell Hoult and they had a half dozen players out showing the mental belief which they show in spades is deep running in the squad.

Boulding equalised at close range and City had a 45:55 share of the game. The two goals around half time knocked the Bantams out of the FA Cup at first time of asking but heads back be held high because we lost the game on the pitch, not in the dressing room, and even with the millions and billions of pounds we still have Wembley ’96.

That day City were romping through the division, Kammy’s side seeming fated to get promotion. They had belief. They won that game at Wembley walking out of the tunnel to see 40,000 of us an 10,000 of them. Won it before kick off really.

All in the head you see.

What makes a good loan deal?

The penalty saves Simon Eastwood made against Notts County did a lot for the confidence that City fans had in the young keeper who arrived on loan from Huddersfield Town at the start of the season but seemed to do very little for the confidence of the custodian himself.

Saturday saw another Eastwood performance where he made some impressive saves but enough errors to cost goals. This has been the pattern for the keeper all year with the ten minute spell after half time against Crewe being illustrative of the player. One stunning arm out save from a Steven Schumacher header, one picking the ball out of the net when a long range shot from the same player bounced through him.

Eastwood arrived at City having played a same for Town and a dozen on loan in the non-league and perhaps Stuart McCall was hoping that after three months or so wearing the gloves week in/week out that Luton born keeper would have started to show improvement that comes with being blooded.

The theory is a good one because if Eastwood could cut out the brain-freeze errors that see him wandering around the penalty area like a loose defender then he would be a decent keeper who made brilliant saves. The problem is that such progression has not been seen in Eastwood and he remains now, as he was when he arrived, a player who is good at football rather than a good footballer.

This is not at all unique. Back on the 9th of May 1999 when City were promoted at Wolves the world ball juggling champion entertained City fans with his tricks on the side of the field while the 22 players were not as good with the ball but better footballers got on with deciding who would be in the Premiership next season.

Eastwood – as previous Bradford City keeper William Foulke – could make a living at a goalkeeping stall in Blackpool showing off his shot stopping but he needs to get better at playing the game of football if he is going to make a living in the game.

A poor loan spell at City did not do Boaz Myhill – the Hull City ball-picker-out-of-netter – played twice for City letting in five to Sheffield United one afternoon but after joining the Tigers in the bottom division he has played for them all the way into the top flight and has played over 240 games for them. One assumes that after running under a ball when the Blades bore down on goal Myhill took stock and learnt – certainly his cameo’s on Match of the Day are not litters of errors which suggests he is a better keeper than he was – and so in that way his time at the Bantams was a massive success. At least is was for Boaz Myhill.

Myhill’s Hull team mate Nathan Doyle’s loan time at the Bantams seemed to be great success for City – he was player of the season despite only being at the club until Dean Windass sprung him after Christmas – but for Doyle it seemed to secure him nothing more than a move from one team’s reserves to another from which he is loaned out, in Yorkshire.

Two years on and Doyle seems to be pretty much where he was when he left the Bantams – although perhaps he is on more money than he was at his first club – but perhaps that is a slight return and not really what we should be looking for when we ask what is a good loan deal if only because even with his contribution the Bantams still were relegated.

Other players like Andy Taylor – the Middlesbrough left back who impressed many during his four months with the Bantams – and last season’s midfield pair of Dean Furman and Nicky Law are perhaps a better example for a typical loan deal. These players come to the Bantams as rough young players who can kick a ball well and after a few months or a season of regular play establish themselves as footballers who understand the rigours of the first team game.

The Bantams got something from the players but as with Doyle it is rarely enough to create anything like a promotion campaign from and the work of Michael Flynn, James Hanson and Gareth Evans show the debilitating way that the loan player – with his route out of the club – effect the level of effort put in. The aim for Furman and Law was – perhaps understandably – contracts for next season not promotion this and while there was a convenient eclipse of these aims when backs were to the wall they were not the men to be counted on.

(This is a standing debate between City fans – the end of season collapse and the abilities/attitude of Dean Furman and Nicky Law – and one I suspect will not be resolved here. Suffice to say it while cannot be true that the team lacked drive to maintain a promotion push but the heart of the team excelled there were many causal events in place.)

Should Oldham or Rotherham be faced with similar problems would this be the case? The Myhill scenario suggestions not. Last season’s players were added to with a good half dozen other players of a transient nature which caused its own problems. Taylor’s loan at City saw him put in displays which got him recognised and awarded a first team place at a (relegated) Boro but his level of effort was similarly capped as one might say Furman and Lee’s were.

These were good deals for the players and for the Bantams individually although collectively represented something of a weakness. The players were markedly better when they left the club than they were on arrival – more confident, more drilled into a playing style – and moved onto higher divisions or more money and so perhaps they can be good loan deals.

There remains though the quantity of loans and the effect on the team’s morale – not repeated in Stuart’s battlers of this season – which perhaps offers us the answer that a good loan deal is a scarce one in which the player – especially a young player – is allowed to grow as a team footballer without being relied on.

Eastwood though the exception to that rule – goalkeepers being different and all – because while he is alone in being on loan he is relied on as the keeper to settle the defence – something he has failed to do so far.

So City are stuck in the invidious position of waiting for Eastwood to start to show signs of the progress which all young players make while out on loan while understanding that that lack of progress is costing goals. In ten years time Eastwood might look back on the last few months as the making of his career where he learnt the hard way the way to be a professional footballer – certainly he has the raw ability of a quality goalkeeper – but the longer City wait for the lessons to sink in the longer we will go on conceding unnecessary goals.

Filling the holes to make Bradford City’s promotion bid wholesome

Stuart McCall’s managerial career has so far been characterised by openness and honesty, and the Bradford City boss’ frustration was typically exposed by his body language after watching his team dominate for 90 minutes against Macclesfield Town only come away with a 2-2 draw.

Having walked over to applaud travelling  City supporters following the final whistle, Stuart turned away and began shaking his head in a manner which revealed a lack of satisfaction despite the Bantams recovery from 2-0 behind. The half time advantage enjoyed by the Silkmen had been clawed back within the second half’s first 15 minutes, but despite continuing to press hard for a deserved winner, the ball just wouldn’t cross the line for a third time. City had almost double the shot count and forced double the amount of corners, yet as Stuart shook his head and headed back to the dressing room he must know his team lacked more than just a bit more luck.

Defensive shortcomings continue to undermine City’s cause. Having begun the season conceding eight goals in two matches, the leaks have been somewhat filled but the Bantams remain far from watertight. Four minutes into the afternoon at Moss Rose, a seemingly overhit clearance by home keeper Jon Brain was allowed to run between central defenders Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman and Colin Daniel headed the ball over the onrushing Simon Eastwood and into the net.

All three City players appeared culpable with Williams missing the chance to head clear, Rehman’s indecisiveness causing him to move too late towards cutting out the ball – in the process allowing Daniel to run through – and Eastwood seemingly too quick to rush out his goal when staying on his line might have offered him a greater chance of saving the effort. The sun was probably in Eastwood’s eye – someone forgot to bring along a goalkeeper cap – and he had been warned, conceding a similar goal when warming up with Jon McLaughlan. The goal was messy, the goal was feeble and such goals have been conceded too often during the campaign’s first three months.

Macclesfield had only three purposeful attacks during the first half; the second of which required Luke O’Brien to clear off his own line after poor marking from a corner and the third saw another goal conceded after Emile Sinclair crossed low for Hamza Bencherif to bundle home. That was four minutes before the end of a half City had otherwise dominated and if the Bantams are to make the step up from mid-table to promotion contenders the team’s backbone is going to have to become stronger.

Simon Eastwood has played 18 times for Bradford City and Simon Eastwood has conceded 30 goals. The young keeper’s form may not be the sole reason for City’s defensive shortcomings, but his numerous slips ups – punished or otherwise – breed uncertainty across his defensive colleagues. At times he has made superb saves which have earned City points, but in almost every game he seemingly presents an unnecessary opportunity to the opposition and continues to fail in commanding his area. Last week Stuart spoke of retaining the on-loan Huddersfield youngster beyond January but, while it’s clear he is potentially brilliant goalkeeper, the concern is the rate of improvement he’s shown since the start of the season hasn’t been quick enough to suggest he should be trusted to continue it through a whole season. If Stuart has the budget for a replacement now – and that could be a big if – he may consider his options ahead of next Friday’s trip to Meadow Lane.

Meanwhile Rehman endured another difficult 45 minutes and, despite pushing Lee Bullock close for man of the match against Hereford last week, his recent form is erratic. Up against the imposing Ben Wright, who was the focal point to Macclesfield’s route one game plan, Rehman at times allowed himself to be bullied and on other occasions got too tight in trying to prevent Wright from laying off the ball. During one home attack Sinclair was offered the chance to run at Rehman. With little cover behind City’s captain, Rehman dived in to make a challenge which might have seen him win the ball or risked him giving away a free kick, on this occasion he was left on the floor with Sinclair sprinting away. Merely standing his ground and holding up Sinclair seemed the more sensible option. Rehman and Williams are building a promising partnership, but the redemption of Matt Clarke to first team duty may not be the unthinkable option many fans considered it to be at the start of the season.

Defensive failings aside, City carried the game to Macclesfield and spurned numerous first half chances. Scott Neilson shot just wide, James Hanson headed over, Gareth Evans was denied by a good defensive block and the best move of the half saw Michael Flynn superbly play Neilson through one-on-one only to be denied by Brain’s strong reaction save. Macclesfield were reduced to playing like an away side, on the counter attack, with the impressive Sinclair – once a Bantam – enjoying a fascinating battle against Luke O’Brien which the young defender emerged from with plenty of credit.  The boos from some City fans at half time were born out of frustration, but were still inexcusable.

But though the 4-3-3 formation had proved reasonably effective again, Stuart switched to 4-4-2 in the second half introducing Michael Boulding for the flagging – and again unimpressive – Chris Brandon to partner James Hanson and pushing Neilson and Evans into wide positions. If the goal City were now attacking had inadequately been protected by the visiting defence in the first half, the hosts fared little better playing in front of it during the second.

Brain has previous with City after laughably allowing David Brown to score the only goal in the league meeting two seasons ago, and displayed hesitancy in everything he did. His first three involvements in the second half saw him misjudge a long punt forwards which bounced over his head and just wide of the goal, palm a weak Hanson effort back into a dangerous part of his penalty area when he should have scooped the ball up and slice a back pass clearance out for a corner. Each mistake encouraged City further, each mistake added to Macclesfield nerves. It seemed implausible Brain would end the game with a clean sheet.

Sure enough City got back into it after Hanson headed home James O’Brien’s corner and eight minutes later Flynn’s low long range effort was parried by Brain straight into Williams’ path to tap home and spark wild celebrations. The momentum growing, City continued to pile on the pressure and a more dominant City 45 minutes of attacking football has not been seen since City recovered from 2-0 and 3-2 down at Luton last January. James O’Brien saw a free kick sail just wide, the lively Neilson brilliantly cut inside but shot too straight towards Brain, Flynn typically attempted another long range effort which went narrowly past the post, Boulding spun his marker but the resultant strike lacked pace and Rehman saw a scrambled effort cleared off the goal line. In the second half only Luke O’Brien and Jon Bateson failed to muster a shot on goal.

As City pushed on, gaps emerged at the back and Macclesfield enjoyed a five minute spell of pressure which saw Wright head against the post and Ross Draper shoot wide, but the one way traffic soon recommenced and Evans almost managed a headline-stealing winner against his former club when his great run and deflected long range shot bounced off the crossbar. The half time booing was replaced by a standing ovation for the players at the final whistle and it was difficult to recall a more impressive half of football from City all season.

So many positives to take; but although League Two results elsewhere show the leading pack isn’t sprinting away, that the impressiveness of City this season hasn’t placed the Bantams among them can no longer solely be attributed to that slow start. Stuart needs to find a way of shoring up the defensive holes or risks them ultimately sinking the club’s promotion chances.

The chase continues as City welcome Hereford to Valley Parade

As was learned two years ago, the chase is rarely fun in football.

Bradford City’s first season in League Two was defined by a poor start which left too much ground to make up during the campaign’s final two thirds. Good runs of form had led to hopes of a late play off push, but each defeat felt that more significant as the chasing pack remained out in front. A contrast to the emotions of last season where a strong start kept City in the top seven for virtually the entire first three quarters of the campaign, meaning defeats felt more careless then terminal.

The slow start to this season has left City with catching up to do again. Although the eight-game unbeaten run in the league saw the gap close, the last two defeats have seen it widen again. Stronger conclusions can be drawn from the league standings with each passing week, and the 13th position the Bantams currently occupy – albeit only four points off the play offs – make less than enthralling viewing. Saturday’s visit of Hereford offers the chance to kick start the chase.

The two defeats have prompted a slight puncturing to the growing mood of optimism, exposing the fickle nature of some City supporters with a small number re-commencing with questioning the ability of manager Stuart McCall and prematurely writing off the season as another destined to end mid table. It’s easy to have faith when things are going well; the most encouraging outcome of the recent setbacks is that only a minority of supporters have lost theirs.

Nevertheless Stuart will know as well as anyone the grumbles will increase if another weekend goes by without a win and, with no reported new injury concerns, will have spent much of this week contemplating a few dilemmas ahead of picking a team to bounce back. The biggest question raised by supporters’ concerns goalkeeper Simon Eastwood and the slim balance he offers between stunning saves and stunning cock ups. Both goals at Dagenham could be blamed on the Huddersfield loanee, further testing Stuart’s patience.

As is often the case in these situations, the level of criticism has gone somewhere past sensible. While few supporters would be willing to argue Eastwood’s case, he has not been as bad as some are making out. The cries for Jon McLaughlin to take over ignore the reality that barely 1,000 supporters have seen him in competitive action, or that he began this season with the same level of senior professional experience as his young rival and has shipped in more than a few goals for the reserves. He may be a better keeper, but no one can know for sure and his name might as well be Jon McAnyone-else. It’s an all too familiar type of argument in recent years, you could almost rehash some of last year’s debate about Matt Clarke and Mark Bower, replacing their names with Eastwood and McLaughlin where applicable.

The back four too is prompting unease, with Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman impressing at times but struggling to retain their command through a full 90 minutes. The smart money is on Simon Ramsden eventually moving over to centre back for one of the pair as the season progresses, with the promising Jonathan Bateson brought in at right back. Luke O’Brien continues to hold his own at left back.

In midfield Stuart must decide whether to continue employing the three across which works well on the road but less so when City are the home side, or go back to a more traditional 4-4-2. Lee Bullock’s superb performance against Crewe didn’t prompt the level of praise it deserved while Michael Flynn is matching him in the consistency stakes. James O’Brien is a bit more hot and cold, but is surely worthy of a longer deal when his temporary one expires at the end of this month. Chris Brandon may be brought in to make a four man midfield, although has plenty of convincing to do after a woeful showing against Crewe.

Up front Michael Boulding is expected to have shaken off the bug which ruled him out of playing at Dagenham and be back in contention. Conspiracy theory fans were happy to speculate that his late withdrawal from the matchday squad at Victoria Road was due to him being upset at Stuart for relegating him to the bench following three goals in three games, though if even the tiniest grain of truth was found in this rumour it would look worse on Boulding than it would be considered a harsh managerial decision. The fact Stuart stated after the match Boulding would have started if fit also blasts more than a few holes into the unfounded speculation.

Which may mean an instant starting eleven recall for Boulding, but more likely he will be on the bench with James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Scott Neilson up front. After a bright start Neilson has struggled for form of late, though the difference he made when coming on against Crewe and lack of alternatives makes it unlikely he will be benched for now. It’s worth noting Stuart began the season with Joe Colbeck while still waiting for Omar Daley to recover from injury, with Neilson signed up on Joe’s departure but probably expected to be back up when the Jamaican returns. Neilson has another month at least to prove his worth on a more consistent basis.

Visitors Hereford were last here during Christmas 2007 and the questionable refereeing decisions which paved the way for a 3-1 away success that day left City languishing in 16th place with 24 games to play and prompted Stuart to effectively rule out City’s promotion chances. Promoted to League One that season before coming straight back down, Hereford are improving after a slow start but are yet to register an away win.

For both, the league table reveals there is much work to do in climbing among the promotion runners and then staying with them. Defeat may not be a disaster tomorrow, but the chase would seem that little bit tougher.

A defeat to be proud of?

I have never walked away from Valley Parade, having just witnessed a home defeat, with such pride and optimism for the future.

Crewe and City came into this game with starkly contrasting form. City unbeaten in ten games, league and cup, and Crewe having lost five games on the bounce. Nonetheless, the reinstatement of wiley old Dario Gradi ensured that a very different Crewe side would show up to Valley Parade compared with the team that had heavily unperformed so far this season following their relegation from League One.

The game began well for City – forcing a number of early corners. But it was Crewe who stuck first in devastating fashion. From an acute angle from a throw in, the live wire Calvin Zola produced an unbelievable strike that even some of the home fans applauded. It was the best goal produced at Valley Parade for some years – and was reminiscent of Luke Medley’s strike for City against Wrexham in 2007.

Zola, a real handful and danger every time he touched the ball, performed at a very high level in this game. There is no doubt in my mind that he was the best striker that has been on display at Valley Parade for many, many years. I guess that’s what £200,000 buys you at this level.

City fought back from the early set back with some more pressure, but were then let down by some naïve defending. Joel Grant almost doubled the Alex lead as he charged at Zesh Rehman with pace, who backed off and backed off even into his own penalty area without putting a challenge in, where Grant produced a couple of step overs, leaving Rehman on the seat of his pants. Grant drilled a low shot that cannoned off the left hand post. The warning signs of a 2nd Crewe goal were there for all to see.

And the Railwaymen did double their lead courtesy of Zola again. An uncharacteristic mistake by Steve Williams in possession at the back , left the loose ball to Zola, who quickly reacted and hit a fierce shot that stuck the post and curled into the back of the net. 2-0 inside 23 minutes. It was clear that City’s spirit was really going to be tested.

But they never gave up, and didn’t let the scoreline affect their performance. More City pressure ensued , and Micheal Boulding from six yards out was presented with a chance that was harder to miss that score. But he struck the bar, to the despair of the home fans. Boulding was being given some stick in the Midland Road stand right from the word ‘go’ from one fan in particular (“Thunder” as he was known in the days that we were in the Premiership, the predominant Voice of Midland Road) who slated Boulding for not chasing down a heavily mishit long ball from Rehman. Unbelievable.

And it came as a great relief to City and Boulding when a quality piece of attacking play reduced the scoreline to 2-1. Flynn sprayed the ball down the right for James O Brien ( who had an off day ) who produced a first time cross that Boulding headed into the back of the net on the stroke of half time. Game on.

City again pressed early in the 2nd half, but were dealt a killer blow as ex City Midfielder Steve Schumacher’s long range shot bounced awkwardly in from of Simon Eastwood and flew into the back of the net for 3-1. Previous City teams, even last year’s team, would have given up on this one.

But not this season. Scott Neilson was introduced for Chris Brandon and City reverted to a 4-3-3 which again seemed to work so much better than a standard 4-4-2. The absolute domination of periods of the 2nd half in this formation should surely convince McCall that 4-3-3 is the formation to start with home and away. And Micheal Boulding contributed to another City goal as he produced a quality cross that James Hanson volleyed in quite superbly. City continued to dominate, had shots that were cleared off the line, whistled wide, and a very strong penalty shout which was turned down in favour for a free kick just outside the box which was subsequently wasted.

But time ran out for City. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. And the home crowd showed their appreciation for City as the final whistle drew the game to a close.

McCall has assembled a squad that deliver the minimum requirements that the Valley Parade crowd demand. Effort, passion and determination. And we can even forgive the team for losing a game as long as every player has worked their socks off. It was very evident in this game that every player did. Simon Ramsden in particular had a solid game, but what really stood out was his appetite and commitment to get City back into the game even when they were facing adversity and 2 goals down. He had urgency in his play and even the simple things like making sure the ball was put back into play really quickly when it landed into the crowd was so good to watch.

Chris Brandon didn’t have his best game – but his work ethic and commitment could not be questioned. And McCall has got this from his players all over the pitch. There are no passengers or players not willing to put the work in, and that makes me as a City fan really proud. McCall’s ability to combine good seasoned Pro’s like Ramsden, Boulding and Flynn with non League talent like Williams, Neilson and Hanson who never stop working hard and are getting better by the game, has been the key to the recent unbeaten run and reason for optimism this season.

The key thing though, and only worry, is that we need to get into the playoff’s this year as a minimum as that is the only real sign of progression under McCall in this results driven business. Our home form this season has been too mixed – 2 wins, 2 draws, 2 defeats – and we really need to improve that sequence if we want to turn a fully committed team into a successful one.

The stats of the Crewe game (26 shots on goal, 15 on target, 16 corners) show that the players are giving their all to the cause. Whether they can match their effort with points on the board in League Two remains to be seen – and will be the key question come May.

But as far this team being a team who are enjoyable to watch and give their all to the cause, there is no question in my mind that it’s the best City side I have seen this decade. I just hope that success follows them as it is nothing less than they deserve.

The Crewe joke and how not to be the butt of it as the Alex come to Valley Parade

There was a joke in football in the eighties that went along the lines of asking who the strongest team in British football was to which the answer was, hilariously enough, “Crewe, because they hold the rest of them up.”

That such a jest is outmoded is largely down to the opposition manager Dario Gradi who took charge of that laughing stock club and in a near two decades made alterations which changed the public perceptions of the Gresty Road club.

Crewe, the Football League’s shining example of a well run club to writer David Conn in his 2003 book The Beautiful Game, became synonymous with the development of young players with a series of high profile internationals either coming through the ranks or were picked up following release and turned around.

Gareth Whalley, Stuart McCall’s midfield partner in 1999, came from Crewe.

This track record is largely credited to Gradi and his youth development skills but credit is shared by a whole club prepared to rise or fall on the strength of the talent unearthed. A poor crop of youngsters could see a bad season or relegation but that was never considered a failure of the system which brought rewards on and off the field and certainly not a reason to change that system.

Gradi moved upstairs after his sixtieth birthday but has been called back to the job as caretaker following the dismissal of one of his successors. Crewe, it would seem, have staggered from the light of what they did well for twenty years and perhaps that is why they find themselves back near the position of mirth.

City’s attempt at continuity in management seem to be more faltering with manager McCall given a break from the attempts to oust him as his team continue a run of ten games without defeat that was made more impressive by the changes made in the midweek penalties victory over an unamused Notts County who once again employed the technique hence forth known as “If not a win then spin.”

Ian McPartland tells the vast majority of County fans who were not at the game that they were robbed and that Graeme Lee should not have been sent off and it is not true but creating the suggestion takes some pressure off him.

To be clear City got everything they deserved on Tuesday night.

That this was the case came from a squad capable of fluidly filling in roles in a formation and take responsibility for the performance. Leon Osbourne has yet to win me over but he let no one down on Tuesday for the majority of the game and can take pride in his display.

The winger will no doubt be dropped with James Hanson ready to come back from illness but Michael Boulding is becoming increasingly hard to displace in the side and when Gareth Evans returns from suspension – and the Ref who sent off Evans would have had cause to red Graeme Lee three times despite the Magpies manager’s protestations – Stuart McCall might have to pick between Boulding and Scott Neilson on the right hand side providing an interesting pointer to the longed for day that sees Omar Daley back in claret and (reduced amounts of) amber.

Michael Flynn put in an outstanding performance on Tuesday as he continues to be the ball winning and passing midfielder of our dreams while James O’Brien is starting to look equally impressive. Lee Bullock will return pushing Chris Brandon back to the bench.

Jonathan Bateson is unlucky to have to step down following two good displays and a switch for Simon Ramsden to the middle is not out of the question but Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams are likely to return at the expense of Bateson and Matt Clarke.

Luke O’Brien has been a joy to watch of late and one recalls the Crewe idea that a team might rise and fall on the strength of it’s young players.

If Huddersfield Town rise on the back of goalkeeper Simon Eastwood then it is because of Tuesday night’s two penalty saves which galvanize a player who was mobbed coming off the field.

Mobbed with the rest of the players. Slowly building, improving, not losing. Dario would be proud.

Continuity the key as City beat Notts County in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy

The summer that seems so long ago on rain soaked Tuesday night which are made for warming the soul through football was marked by a discussion on Bradford City manager Stuart McCall and the ethos of “Continuity” which his remaining manager represented.

The reasons for that continuity – and for McCall carrying on for a third season and on – was grandly illustrated as The Bantams gained a modicum of payback for the opening day defeat by big spending Notts County.

County fielded a team with a few changes from what would be considered their full strength side as did the Bantams and it was in those changes that the strength of what McCall has built at City was in evidence.

Matthew Clarke stepped in, Leon Osbourne stepped in, Michael Boulding remained in and scored and Simon Ramsden stepped into another position moving from holding midfield to central defence and despite all these stepping City retained a shape, a pattern and a way of playing. That is the continuity City have been crying out for for years.

Not that this progression to the third game of the Northern section of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was any way easier than the scoreline – 2-2 and a victory on penalties – suggests with County’s less than full strength side showing more than enough to suggest the could have won the game clattering the crossbar in the final minute of the game with a pile driver that could have given them a 3-2 success.

That County were not victorious can be attributed to a never say die spirit in City – Chris Brandon stooped in at the start of second half injury time to head an equaliser which the pattern of the previous half hour had scant deserved – but the visitors will be upset that a corner was allowed to travel so far in their box with Kasper Schmeichel getting booked for complaining to anyone who would listen about the last minute aberration that saw the game go straight to penalties.

Five minutes before Delroy Facey had barrelled in front of Clarke to give the Magpies a lead which looked to be conclusive finishing off good work by bar pinger Ricky Ravenhill. County had controlled the game for the twenty minutes following the not at all undeserved sending off of former City skipper Graeme Lee.

Lee’s red card came after perhaps two of the most illustrative tackles Valley Parade had ever seen. Whatever Michael Boulding had done to Lee last season Lee decided to extract his revenge with two blond side hacks at the City forward the first – which came midway through the opening half – could have been excused as clumsy on the slippy pitch but the second just saw Lee hoof Boulding high in the air.

God knows what Lee’s antics tonight say about the dressing room at the end of last season – or about Lee’s professionalism – for there was no turn back, no apology, no remorse from Lee and Sven Goran Eriksson sitting a few rows behind BfB’s Jason Mckeown wore a face of thunder as a result.

Not that Sven had cause to be upset. The shift to ten men and keep ball for County and the Bantams misfiring attempts to make the extra man pay by both Brandon and Osbourne trying to be the one over tore a hole in those pattens that City had built this run of nine games without defeat on and rather than eleven vs ten the game switched to ten vs nine and two wandering about.

The swing to County was as marked as City resurgence that saw Boulding slip onto a finely weighted ball from Michael Flynn over the County central defenders on the twenty minute mark to slip though the visiting keeper’s legs and could have been marked with more as Osbourne – perhaps enjoying his best game for City – and Scott Neilson went close for City while Luke O’Brien continues to look the part on the left hand side. That the Bantams were behind was down to a mistake by Simon Ramsden allowing a ball to run to Simon Eastwood and failing to take into account the decelerating effect of the puddles of rain on the ball.

Eastwood could only grasp at the ball which Craig Westcarr put past him.

Two hours later and Eastwood dove headlong to his right getting two fists onto a Delroy Facey penalty giving City parity in the shoot out that had seen Michael Boulding have his shot saved by Schmeichel and County take a 2-0 lead before sub Peter Thorne slipped a low shot just under the keeper.

Simon Ramsden strode confidently to level the scores at 2-2 with three each taken. Neil Bishop blasted wide, James O’Brien netted, Eastwood went low from keeper Schmeichel’s final kick and a minute later he was mobbed by team mates, then by supporters.

Bradford City fans celebrate Simon Eastwood's penalty save

Stalling

At 2-0 ahead and with only 15 minutes to see out, Bradford City’s players might have been forgiven for considering the hard work to be complete and that their smooth climbing up of the gears to control the game boded well for the season’s journey ahead. But if the cruise control option was slipped into, a late Northampton bump punctured any daydreaming and saw three points demoted to one.

A point which at least stretches City’s unbeaten run to nine – the last time such a feat was achieved came when Lee Mills and Robbie Blake shared 15 goals during the December and January spell of 1998/99 promotion season – but the missed opportunity leaves an increasingly-meaningful early season League Table still displaying City behind the early-season pace setters. Those nine games now include four draws – three of which saw City advantages succumbed after the clock passed the 70-minute mark. But for dropping those six points, the Bantams would be sitting joint second. The conundrum of having enough in the tank to last the distance during matches needs solving, so early season form can advance into promotion-challenging.

It should have been a heartening afternoon’s work for City. Robbed of the services of Gareth Evans, James Hanson and Peter Thorne, manager Stuart McCall was left pushing square pegs into round holes in order to keep faith with the 4-3-3/4-5-1 system which is serving his side well on its travels.  Lee Bullock was moved into the unfamiliar role of target man, with right back Simon Ramsden taking his holding midfield slot.  The opening 15 minutes offered largely negative indications to the yet unanswered question over the squad’s strength in depth, with Northampton forcing pressure and only failing to open the scoring due to lack of composure. But gradually City’s players found their feet and took more of a command as a dull first half came to its conclusion.

Bullock in particular came out with plenty of credit for the level of competence he displayed in holding up the ball and winning knock downs. Of course it wasn’t the same as having Hanson’s extra running all over the final third and greater willingness to track back, but the discipline of holding position in a crucial area, which Bullock does so well in maintaining when undertaking his regular deep midfield role, was something other players could utilise, firing balls towards the part of the pitch they had confidence he would be in. Either side of him were Michael Boulding and Scott Neilsen who both worked hard tracking back and making darting runs down the  flanks. Boulding has arguably not contributed such a level of effort for the team during his previous 40 Bantams career starts.

Ramsden too looked solid protecting the back four and marked his return from injury by opening the scoring five minutes after the interval when his shot from the edge of the area was deflected over Cobbler’s keeper Chris Dunn’s outstretched hand.  The goal was part of a more purposeful start to the half by the visitors, which continued four minutes later after a free kick was aimed at Bullock to knock down into the path of Boulding, who brilliantly volleyed home. The subsequent celebrations seemed to involve every outfield City player and the obvious happiness they possessed towards Boulding for netting his first goal of the season suggests the strong team spirit on evidence in recent weeks stretches beyond the regular starting eleven. Boulding continued to play in a manner which makes it impossible for Stuart to drop him when others return – now he needs to maintain it.

Further goals might have followed for City, most notably when Boulding was denied a second by a superb low save from Dunn, after his view of the shot from a fair distance had been obscured until the last second. Northampton continued to show spirit, almost getting a goal back after the referee David Phillips bizarrely ruled a sliced clearance by Jonathan Bateson caught by Simon Eastwood was a handled backpass. Awarding Northampton an indirect on the six-yard box line, the 11-man City wall was able to scramble it away. Eastwood also made two brilliant saves to add to his growing collection of notable stops, but continues to look weak when dealing with crosses. Despite some questionable decisions by Phillips, the game was petering out.

Which is when cruise control may have been adopted and when Northampton unexpectedly came back, netting first through substitute Alex Dyer when his effort from the edge of the area flew past Eastwood; then equalising with a minute to play after a hotly disputed free kick was crossed into the box for the oddly-named John Johnson to fire home. As City’s players came over to applaud supporters at the final whistle, the looks of dejection were clear.

A lesson of sorts had been issued to the players. The incredible level of hard work and dedication they exhibit is something which must be maintained throughout because, as Northampton proved, there are other teams who can muster similar levels of determination to challenge them back. And though Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams, Luke O’Brien and Bateson all enjoyed outstanding games at the back and Michael Flynn was as inspirational as ever, the spine of City’s team still needs to get stronger in order for these nine unbeaten games to prove the start, rather than the peak, of something.

Achieve that and City really can put the foot down and accelerate into the distance.

…starring Stuart Attwell

The final scoreline at Christie Park failed to do this fierce encounter justice. Despite the best efforts of the 25 Morecambe and Bradford City players involved over the 90 minutes, it was the guy we’re not supposed to notice who carried the weightiest influence on the outcome.

Referee Stuart Attwell came, blew his whistle frequently and seemingly did his utmost to ensure everyone’s attention stayed firmly focused on the man in blue. Perhaps he was a little peeved off that the ticket stubs had advertised a football match between The Shrimps and The Bantams, rather than his star appearance.

The most telling moment in a truly wretched display of refereeing came 14 minutes from the end when City striker Gareth Evans quickly latched onto home keeper Barry Roche’s failure to grasp hold of a loose ball by challenging for possession. Succeeding in diverting it further from the keeper’s palms, Evans attempted but failed to turn the ball into an empty net as defenders rushed into help clear the ball, Attwell blew his whistle for a foul and raced over to dish a red card to a stunned Evans. Given Roche had failed to securely claim the ball, the decision to rule Evans’ harrying attempts illegal was badly-judged at best. The pathetic subsequent claims of injury from Roche, who began rolling around the floor in apparent agony only to make a miraculous recovery within seconds, should not escape condemnation either.

Attwell’s view of the incident was hardly as good as the 1,000+ City fans behind Roche’s goal, but there can be no excuse for charging in to issue the red card without taking any time to seize up the situation. One can only expect City to be successful in contesting such a ridiculous decision and for Evans to be in action at Northampton on Saturday. If anyone should be serving a suspension, the FA might consider dishing one to a referee with a reputation for high-profile mistakes.

Indeed the validity of Attwell’s ability to referee professional football is highly questionable. A year ago he made headlines as the youngest referee to officiate a Premiership match at a time when the FA’s Respect campaign was in its infancy.  With a national shortage of referees, Attwell’s meteoric rise was a good PR story, but a series of incidents – look here, here and here for just a flavour – have attracted media coverage of a different kind. Through no fault of his own, perhaps, Attwell seems to have become a minor celebrity in a football world of big egos. One can imagine him readily volunteering to appear on the next Celebrity Big Brother so the nation can see what a great guy he really is, all the while telling himself not to issue a red card to Lindsay Lohan.

Certainly the manner in which Attwell strutted around Christie Park offered strong hints of a self-belief we’d turned up only to watch him referee. In a lively contest which both sides enjoyed spells of domination, one of the biggest concerns was the timing between Attwell suddenly awarding every decision to one side and their periods on top. Morecambe started the game brightly, receiving a number of highly-dubious free kicks along the way. City progressively got better and were on top for the final 10 minutes in particular, by which time it was the Morecambe supporters’ turn to be exasperated by the number of decisions which went against their team. Lee Bullock was bizarrely booked for a harmless trip on a home player on the quarter hour mark, but a number of stronger challenges from both sides then went unpunished by way of a card until Wayne Curtis’ awful lunge tackle on 72 minutes. It was a night of  refereeing inconsistencies.

When the whistle wasn’t in Attwell’s mouth, both sides produced some decent football, with the shot and corner count backing up the feeling the Bantams had the better of the game. Phil Jevons rattled the bar early on and their two wingers posed some tough questions of Jonathan Bateson – caught out a little to often but continuing to look dangerous when attacking – and Luke O’Brien. With former Bantam Paul Mullin always a threat in the air and others hungry to latch onto his knock downs, it was a testing night for Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams, who both looked largely assured.

City’s midfield three continued to look effective and managed to control the middle of the park for lengthy periods. Bullock’s performance is especially commendable given the early caution left him walking a thin line, while Michael Flynn bossed proceedings and was the engine behind many attacks. It was in the final third of the field that City were not at their sharpest, with many promising moves spoiled by a poor final pass or a lack of conviction to shoot early which afforded home defenders the time to close down space. James Hanson was not as effective as he can be, but still won more than his share of headers. Evans battled hard and saw a cross-shot bounce off the bar.

After Morecambe had again come quickly out the blocks after the interval, City began to assume control with territorial advantage and corners and free kicks piling up. Scott Neilsen continues to impress and was a useful outlet for quickly turning defence into attack, with some teasing runs threatening to leave defenders tied in knots. The best chance came after a James O’Brien corner was met well by Evans, but his header was fired straight at Roche to make a point blank save he knew little about.

And after Evans and Roche’s clash which saw the Bantams reduced to ten men with a quarter of an hour to play, Roche piled further frustration on City with two brilliant saves to keep out efforts from Luke O’Brien – following an excellent surge forward – and Neilsen, the latter should probably have scored. With his every touched booed by away supporters, the subsequent repeated announcements Roche was the sponsor’s man of the match came across as a somewhat pathetic attempt by Morecambe to ‘send us home in a tantrum‘.

As four minutes of injury time was indicated, painful memories of previous late agony at Christie Park came flooding back; but Simon Eastwood was on hand to make a solid tip over from Mullin’s header to earn a first away clean sheet of the season. It also meant no one had been able to break the deadlock and thus make the morning headlines.

Stuart Attwell will be delighted.

City enjoy being the little bit better

Seven games, five win and two draws and it seems a long time since the Bantams left the two games in the opening four days in Nottingham looking at the season to come with desperation, a desperation further vanished following the 3-0 win over Chesterfield at Valley Parade.

In those days there was talk about Stuart McCall The Player and Stuart McCall The Manager – a distinction between the two – and there was questions about the latter’s selection of captain, captaincy changed by exclusion and injury to Peter Thorne that saw Zesh Rehman take over the armband and culminates today in the sort of display which Stuart McCall The Captain would have been proud.

The Bantams’ win came from a solid and constant display of superiority over the visitors minute by minute being better by increments, grinding down John Sheridan’s Chesterfield with the better performers in claret geeing and improving those around them.

James Hanson will have better games, so will Luke O’Brien but those two players can take huge credit from the way that even in tough situations – and Hanson was up against a fine defender in Robert Page – neither hid from the ball or the game. Players made their mistakes in public, recovered in public and were encouraged and supported by their team mates in public.

All of which is tribute to Zesh Rehman, captain today, who put in one of his best performances for the club and one of the City defensive displays of sometime making a useful Chesterfield side look ordinary. Rehman and Williams marshalled Wade Small, Donal McDermott and towards the end of the game Jack Lester using the Zesh’s power in the air and Williams’s ability to nip in and emerge with the ball to end the game in control of a good set of forwards.

Credit too to the midfield three of James O’Brien, Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn who used the advantage of numbers and an abundance of confidence to win a midfield battle against an impressive Derek Niven who deserves credit for running his legs down to the knees trying to win back control from a City side who were capable of switching from the directness of a ball to Hanson or Gareth Evans to the patient possession.

It was an early, direct ball to an isolated Michael Flynn – lost up field and oddly alone – who meandered into the box and with the away defence expecting a cross bent the ball into the far side of the goal past Keighley born keeper Tommy Lee.

Perhaps there is a way to measure the togetherness of a team – lacking last year but in evidence this – that comes when looking at goal celebrations. Flynn slid on his knees in a cover version of Emmanuel Adebayor enjoying the moment, his team mates enjoying it too.

From then on the game was City’s to lose and Chesterfield enjoyed a spell of fifteen minutes around half time when they tested the Bantams. Lee Bullock deserves credit for his work in this period. Bullock arrived at City as an attacking midfielder but since his move into a containing role he has been a revelation and was my man of the match.

Chesterfield’s best chance caused their defeat. McDermott had a chance which Simon Eastwood did superbly to save from Niven and Darren Currie airshotted. Eight seconds later Scott Neilson was sweeping the ball in for the Bantams’ second goal after Gareth Evans had won an aerial ball, taken it into the box and dragged a shot that was pushed out and popped in.

The celebration. An eye on Zesh Rehman charging back to congratulate Eastwood’s save, Steve Williams joining in. Credit for all, credit deserved.

A third goal came when Chris Brandon – off the bench after a great display by James O’Brien – lashed in a lose ball in the box after Lee had committed himself making a save from Neilson. Another sub – Michael Boulding – could have rounded the keeper for a fourth while Luke Sharry’s cameo saw him set up Neilson who pinged the ball off the post. Four would have flattered and this was a game about taking advantage of being a little better and not thrashing the opposition.

Not ill deserved would have been a red card for Jack Lester who put feet and arm over the ball in a vicious foul on Lee Bullock. Most of the City squad piled in to a push and shove brawl with the game won and no need for further cards.

I guess they just felt the need to show togetherness. Nine games into the season and the table starts to look both relevant and interesting. City nicely positioned, trips of Morecambe and Northampton on the road to come. This season – and City – is up and running.

Denmark, Barnet vs Bradford City

Take apart the falling apart at the end of last season and one can find a plethora of points when in retrospect it is obvious that the writing – such as it was – was on the wall.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark it did not say although it might have done had the effect not been ruined by replacing the Kingdom with the London region of Barnet.

Rotten is was though and the 4-1 reversal that saw 100 year old striker Paul Furlong become a sprightly tormentor and Albert Adomah tear a hole in the curtain of City’s defence.

That was then, this is now and much change has been made since. The general consensus on the Bantams this term to even the brightest days of last is that they are more enjoyable to watch by virtue of the level of effort put in by the players being higher. It is rare to go through a City game at the moment without the words “He puts it in cause he knows what it is like to work at the Co-op/as a plumber/cutting hair and he does not want to go back.” Certainly watching the energy of the over forty Furlong playing every game as if it were his last last season showed that it is not only former non-league players who can have that desire.

Nevertheless it is a given that City did not have it then but do now, and this is to be celebrated rightfully although there was talk in the week as to who came up with the idea of bringing the likes of Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding in the first place.

Considering the money came from joint chairman Mark Lawn’s loan to the club which suggests a logical train of thought that when he brought this pile of cash to the club it was with the express idea of bringing in bigger names which Stuart McCall duly – and gleefully – did. Cash is tight no so who had the idea to find cheaper replacements? File under “Specialist subject: The bleeding obvious“.

So the band of hearty, if cheaper replacements are more enjoyable to watch and if Gareth Evans cost the same as Willy Topp – and we are lead to believe that he did – it is not so much the strategy of recruitment that has brought benefits but the quality.

Quality not having previously been associated with Simon Eastwood until the faffing keeper seemed to be reborn at Shrewsbury with a sterling performance that he took into the game with Burton Albion making two fine one-on-one saves that put supporters of a certain age in mind of the legend of Paul Tomlinson. Tomlinson – who played more between the sticks than any keeper in City history – seemed so good when faces one-on-one with a striker that one felt a little disappointed if a goal resulted from such an attack.

Blame that has been heaped onto Eastwood has roved to Zesh Rehman somewhat unfairly. Odd how often City and Geo-Political machinations align – read Peanut Farmer Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that Obama’s critics are racist – and certainly similar has been said around Zesh at the moment.

For my money Zesh could improve but he is taking on responsibilities for leading the defence and I would rather a player be seen to err in what he does rather than not make a mistake because he does not involve himself in play.

Steve Williams – who will partner Rehman at Barnet – has played hardly a dozen games as a professional footballer and looks accomplished in a way that one could have only hoped for. Simon Ramsden – another recruit – also looks a cut above last season’s new faces despite being “a cost cutting replacement”. Ramsden and Luke O’Brien are the full backs as City settle into a solid and predictable back five.

Predictability is not something one could accuse Chris Brandon’s play of and the lively midfielder still lurches between seemingly like an essential name on the teamsheet and provoking a desire to cast him far from Valley Parade. Ostensibly he is City’s playmaker but sometimes the phrase luxury player seems to fit him more. Without him slotting onto the left City are less inventive with the ball, with him we are less robust in winning it back which is a role that Lee Bullock has warmed to very well. Bullock’s trio with Michael Flynn and Stephen O’Leary was broken up by the latter’s injury – a shame – and Brandon is not able to fill the slot next to the fiery number four so Stuart McCall deploys him opposite Scott Neilson on the flank or brings in James O’Brien.

Last week’s experience in the 1-1 draw with Burton Albion saw City fail to have a strangle hold on the midfield which a trio in the middle rather than two flank players could have given us and one could assume that away from home ball winning would be more important – leading to a suggestion that Brandon should be benched – but with the onus on the home side to attack more a more inventive player could make the most of possession when it comes.

Gosh managing a football club is hard.

Much easier is the forward line which has Peter Thorne out injured and Michael Boulding waiting for the right alignment of planets that would create suitable conditions when he might play well leaving Gareth Evans and James Hanson to lead the line with the possibility of Hanson dropping into the left hand side to allow Brandon to tuck in and perhaps curing both problems creating a robust midfield, having the inventive playmaker in and keeping the hearty players in.

Perhaps that football management is not that tough after all. Then again perhaps one day I’ll be made King of a Scandinavian country.

Waiting for the summer with a confidence as City face Burton Albion

“Well that’s the Summer sorted” I said to the wife with the prospect of the four yearly month off work after England’s 5-1 win secured a place in the World Cup Finals next June.

England’s progression has been remarkable for the rapidity of the turn around from two years ago and the infamous Wally With The Brolly to Wednesday night’s Italian elan and The Man With The Plan.

The management style between the two evenings marks a contrast more than the players involved who by in large are the same bunch and one must be wary to not undersell Cappello’s perfectionist approach but attitude divides the England of two years ago and the team from last night.

Attitude and confidence that started to grow not at Wembley where tabloid journalists unimpressed with the England manager’s aloofness ho-hummed about the appointment but in Croatia when a 4-1 win spoke eloquently for the manager and his players.

It has taken two, four, maybe seven years and Seaman’s swipe in the saucy Swede‘s side to turn opinions around on England but turned they have been and that more even than getting Frank Lampard Jnr and Steve Gerrard into the same side is Cappello’s achievement.

One recalls April 2002 in the months after another 5-1 England win a newspaper story breaking and copy about “the ice cool Swede” who can do no wrong being rewritten. The rise and fall of Roman Empires has precedent.

Far away in a field in Cheltenham not years but weeks ago – club football’s inexorable pace is it’s main difference to the International game – a team ran onto the field with confidence at a lowest ebb to a point where few could see it scoring and not conceding many.

That was Bradford City three weeks ago and four wins ago and while Stuart McCall never sheltered under an umbrella he was a long way from Fabio. Following a 2-1 win at Shrewsbury in which all say that City rode their luck massively the Bantams manager seems to have a turned the same bunch of players into a winning machine that is protected even by fortune.

Four wins on McCall and all – including his supporters in the now muted argument over his abilities – would do well to recall Sir Bobby Robson’s epitaph raised on opening day. You are never as bad or as good as you think you are.

City play with confidence though and McCall has been quick to underline the importance of that throughout his team and especially in young keeper “There’s only one” Simon Eastwood who has begun to rise to his reputation with a string of excellent saves at Shrewsbury despite a heavy whack on the shin that threatens to keep him out and sees Jon McLaughin ready to take the gloves up.

McCall’s faith in Eastwood is being rewarded while his confidence in bringing in Simon Ramsden is reaping benefits with some dubbing the right back brought from Rochdale as Stuart’s Best Signing. He provides a high watermark and good example for Luke O’Brien to follow as the young left back learns about second season and the transition from prospect to player.

Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams are not an unbreakable partnership but are roughly building an understanding.

McCall had – like Cappello – a nominal and a practical formation with a list of players as read out being more of a rough starting point rather than a rigid tactic.

So the midfield will probably read Neilson, J O’Brien, Bullock, Flynn but the make up will see Lee Bullock falling back into a more central, protecting role with James O’Brien and Michael Flynn tasked with traditional box to box play leaving the line up a tad one sided with Flynn tight on the left compared to the width on offer from Scott Neilson who makes his first start at home in the Bantams first game at Valley Parade since the departure of Joe Colbeck.

Steven Gerrard said of Fabio’s England that the players enjoyed the experience more now than they did previously when the crowd was on some player’s backs and so one wonders what the effect of not having Colbeck will be.

I believe the player is talented but the disruptive influence he had by virtue of the schism of opinion was clear for all. That removed will the 11,000 at Valley Parade be more of one voice? It eludes me why any City fan wanted Colbeck to fail but it seems sure that none would want the same for his replacement Neilson and perhaps that positivism will make itself felt on the field.

Neilson is part of a group at City that includes Gareth Evans, James Hanson, Luke O’Brien and Steve Williams who can best be dubbed “the want-to-do-well boys” who see their not inconsiderable work put in rewarded by a matching of longing of supporters. These are young players who have won hearts and minds in a way Colbeck, Tom Penford, Danny Forrest and Craig Bentham did not and rather than question why this is the case let us celebrate the fact it is.

Evans and Hanson will start with Peter Thorne injured and Michael Boulding in a similar state although closer to fitness. Boulding is the picture book opposite to the want to win boys seemingly having talent over effort that see him sidelined and Evans in his role. Hanson leads the line and never loses a header for the want of effort.

Burton Albion are new to the league but not to City who had Gary Robson’s arse to thank for an early rounds of the FA Cup win back in 1996. They were managed by Nigel Clough for nearly a decade before Son of Brain went to Derby County and as such represent a team which has benefited from patience in a manager who has built a structure which new gaffer Paul Pechisolido reaps the rewards from with a good start that includes a 1-1 at Notts County.

Sitting above City a fifth win on the spin for the Bantams would see the clubs flip positions but early season renders that meaningless and McCall and all will be more concerned with rebuilding the hard fought for good home record if six months of last season.

Home form brings confidence and running that confidence through the season is of paramount importance should a promotion bid be staged.

Run that confidence into the summer and who knows what could happen.

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.

The sound of silence as City face Rochdale

The first home win of the season came in a strange silence as City fans walked away from Valley Parade.

The performance was not great but the result was and perhaps because of that there was little to talk about. Two goals in both stoppage times saw City taking three points so there was nothing to complain about which perhaps accounts for the silence. As my Nan never said “If you can’t say something nasty about something, then don’t say anything at all.”

The win was City’s second in a week and start to turn around the season which has Chris Brandon sums up as “The first game obviously left a horrible feeling but, apart from that, we hadn’t played that badly.”

Zesh Rehman has his ideas on what – or who – has kept heads high at City paying tribute to former non-league pair James Hanson and Steve Williams saying “They are both new to professional football and they have been brilliant, their attitude is outstanding, spot on.”

The man with the City armband continues “We’ve said to them, ‘What would you have been doing on a match day?’ One of them would have been cutting hair and the other was working in a Co-op. It reminds you of how lucky you are to be involved in professional football and being able to play in front of big crowds.

All of which contrasts with last season’s side which declined so sharply and markedly with games like the 3-0 defeat at Rochdale in the league.

Tonight City return to Rochdale in the Johnson’s Paint Trophy hinting at fielding a weaker side which – ironically – drops the bloke from the Co-op in favour of Michael Boulding. Boulding and Peter Thorne are expected to partner up front and one looks at the depth of the City side and tries to form an eleven of similar one for one replacement.

Jon McLaughlin might get the gloves in the place of Simon Eastwood – The T&A put Eastwood’s drop on Saturday down to a foul the Referee was about to blow for – while Matthew Clarke might get a chance to return at the back.

Clarke is officially injured and out of the side but it is hard to see him claiming Steve Williams’s spot in the team. Louis Horne and Jon Bateson could come in at full backs but former Rochdale man Simon Ramsden is the only option to switch into the other central defensive position.

Scott Neilson’s debut on Saturday impressed in that he continued to do as Joe Colbeck does – trouble full backs – and he will no doubt start. Chris Brandon can come into the middle with Stephen O’Leary – assuming O’Leary’s toe injury does not break down once more as it did in the warm up on Saturday – or Luke Sharry could press his case for a longer contract. Rory Boulding or Leon Osborne could slot in on the left.

Ultimately though City never come close to troubling the later stages of this Associate Members Trophy and the number of those players mentioned above will reveal how seriously the competition is being taken at Valley Parade – normally it is “not very” – and perhaps Rochdale will be the same with the result being a game where at least one side plays a weakened side and thus probably not worth breaking the silence about.

A professional always gets the job done

The drive from York to Bradford is quite a nice one on a Saturday lunchtime; with Fivelive on in the background it represents the calm before the storm. Today however, I had to find a different route thanks to the Bramham Park music festival and, discovering myself stuck behind a traction engine near Harewood I had an ominous sense of foreboding.

That said, I wouldn’t trade my journey for the trek faced by the reasonable number of Torquay fans who will still be making their way south, with, let’s face it, rather little to talk about.

Today’s match was an interesting, if not always entertaining affair. Torquay did not, like so many before them, come simply for a draw – though despite their open play, never really created anything of notice. This openness afforded both teams the opportunity to play some nice football in patches and when City did, they looked impressive.

For much of the first half City looked nervous, hardly like a team that had scored 5 only seven days prior. But when the ball found Luke O’Brien or Joe Colbeck, and the space and width were exploited City burst into life.

A fantastic move on about the half hour, which saw a delicate chip from the comfortable looking Williams finding the head of Hanson, whose cushioned header was met by a lovely control and volley by Evans – just wide, was probably the highlight of the first 45. On about 45 minutes and 59 seconds however came the breakthrough, which left barely enough time for the ref to restart before he called for half time. The goal, a James Hanson header from a subtly chipped James O’Brien free kick was a well-earned reward for City who had been dominant without being spectacular. It was also a fine reward for those who hadn’t hurried off for their half time pie.

As I reflected during the break the word that came to mind was professional. Nowt fancy I’ll grant, but a professional performance from City over all, professional from Simon Eastwood whose ears must burning from all the jeers that were desperate to leave the mouths of City’s boo boys.

Professional also from a back four that attended to their defensive duties before surging forward. Professional from Colbeck, who despite not having his best match, seemed to be at the centre of anything positive that hadn’t come from Luke O’Brien. Professional from Gareth Evans who chased every ball regardless of whether he had much chance of catching it. My only gripes at the interval where that we still seem to lack pace and though James O’B played rather well, he is not a natural wide player.

The second period was something like a childhood trip to Morecambe; we were always going to get there in the end so there was no real need to rush and once you got there, there was very little to write home about anyway.

City were always in control of a match they were always expected to win. And, despite neat passages of play involving the O’Briens, or Colbeck, or Evans, Or Hanson, with the ball failing to hit the net, I feared that those natives with shorter attention spans would become restless.

Fortunately for all, the last quarter of an hour saw the introduction of the much-anticipated Scott Neilson. The former Lilywhite instantly lifted both the team and the fans with a couple of quick, direct, enthusiastic, and relatively successful surging runs. He reminded me of an ‘on-song’ Colbeck, though the fans seemed much happier to forgive Neilson’s couple of slips than they ever have with Colbeck.

Neilson was positive and he was fast. Quite frankly it served as a reminder of just how effective Omar Daley can be and the thought of both playing on the flanks really does fill me with a sense of excitement. I’d just finished telling my mate that I thought Stuart McCall could have possibly tried Neilson and Colbeck together for that bit of extra pace rather than bring Chris Brandon on, when the number eleven sprinted onto a through-ball and applied a cool finish to end the game.

Again, a nice reward for a professional, if not spectacular City performance and a nice reward for Brandon who I felt brought a bit more balance to the left side when he was introduced.

I started by saying that this match was interesting if not always entertaining and it was; McCall’s collection of youngsters, rookies, basement-bargains and until recently, amateurs, turned in a thoroughly professional performance and look like they’re starting to gel.

Torquay comes to Valley Parade for the minor debut of Scott Neilson

Scott Neilson will hardly get a mention in the news of League Two signings this week.

The right winger has joined The Bantams from Cambridge City and is expected to start on the bench and make his debut against Torquay United as Stuart McCall’s team looks to build on the first win of the season last week at Cheltenham but one doubts that the coverage of our division will concern itself with that.

Rather eyes will be set for Barnet and Sol Campbell’s debut for Notts County as football looks to see what a player who gets £40,000 a week in League Two looks like.

The contrast could not be more sharp. City spent a week haggling with the Lillywhites over the price of Neilson coming up with a fee thought to be around £7,500, a friendly and some more cash should City make the play offs. Campbell agreed a deal worth over £10m and one is left to wonder why such a deal was necessary. The Magpies already seemed to be able to win handsomely most weeks and concede only penalties. Campbell will perhaps plug that tiny hole and is expected to come into the side to replace injured former City skipper Graeme Lee.

So two debuts in the same division but as far apart as – well – as City are from Torquay geographically perhaps as the Devon side visit a Valley Parade which is flush with comparative optimism following the characterful 5-4 win last week.

Having had more than his fair share of criticism this season Stuart McCall took credit for the victory with all five of the goals the Bantams scored (Simon Ramsden having a deflected shot) chalked up by a player he has brought in this summer as he looked to rebuild the side without the sort of big money, low character players which one assumes County will have to avoid.

James Hanson claimed a first goal for City leading the line in a 451 formation with Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding pushed down to the bench. Hanson’s play this season has been honest and impressive and he is expected to reprise his role up front although McCall must decide if he is to keep the same side and deploy Gareth Evans and Joe Colbeck as wide men or play a more traditional 442 pushing Evans alongside Hanson. Evans celebrated his first goal for the Bantams while Colbeck was recognised for his performance with a place in the League Two team of the week.

It is rare for McCall to opt for anything that could resemble defensiveness at Valley Parade and so one might suspect he will push both wide men into a three man forward line perhaps leaving Colbeck out for Boulding or Thorne.

The midfield three of Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and James O’Brien are a curious set with O’Brien especially prompting much attacking play last week but fairly obviously failing to control and close down the game when City took the lead. Midfields need time and games to blend together and this is best done by picking a set and sticking with it which proves difficult at the moment and that area is very much a work in progress.

The back line of Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien with Simon Eastwood behind is causing sleepless nights. Eastwood struggles to get any control over his back four not talking enough and – when he does – talking to the wrong people while Zesh Rehman has yet to grasp the organisational part of his role as senior central defender.

Williams is learning the game and coming along as is Luke O’Brien. Both are bright but eclipsed by Simon Ramsden who is that rarest of things – a popular Bradford City right back. Of the defenders few would suggest Matthew Clarke should be put in as a solution to any problems but Eastwood will know that he needs to get better quickly and build a rapport with his back line.

Torquay come to City with two wins and two defeats since returning to the League in August losing last week to Barnet. No one was really interested in Torquay vs Barnet game last week but a debut should change that this.

Probably won’t be Scott Neilson’s.

Everything changes after City gorge in nine goals

The nine goals that City and Cheltenham enjoyed on Saturday changed the context of the debate on the Bantams as rapidly as they hit the back of the net at Wealden Road.

Within eight minutes when Gareth Evans powerfully ran from the left to slot in suddenly suggestions of how best to use Michael Boulding and what to do with Peter Thorne were cast far from the mind and as equalisers followed goal the discussion switched to the defence and how to stop it leaking goals. With Bradford City – it seems – there is one glass worth of water and two glasses. One is always going to be half full.

Nevertheless without want to pre-empt or even join either of these discussions one recalls City’s two recent odd wins in nine goal thrillers and how they effected things at Valley Parade hoping to get a pointer as to what the upshot of this match maybe.

Colin Todd’s men who went to Tranmere Rovers on the back of three straight wins won 5-4 thanks to a late David Wetherall goal. That 5-4 win at Prenton Park became the stuff of short term legend with the gate – then a more mutable figure – rising as a result as the Bantams made some news for a display full of character and in that say Stuart McCall’s side may be similar to that of Todd. The Bantams are opt characterised as being a spineless team who are too ready to use adversity as a chance to put heads down.

However three times City were dragged back to level terms and three times the players established a lead once more. Also tellingly every lead was given by a player Stuart McCall had brought into the club following the collapses of the end of last season. James O’Brien, James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Steve Williams all were brought in in the summer by the manager and all gave City the lead at some point.

The 5-4 at Prenton Park saw troubled top spot in the league for a while until encountering Luton Town and Joe Ross who combined to inflict a 4-0 defeat which Todd’s side – in retrospect – never recovered from and perhaps it was precinct that the defence at Tranmere was breached by the Hatters and their many account paid players and of which the utterly impartial Ross said “You need to sort your defending out.”

How true – and utterly inappropriate – the Referee was and so McCall will think the same. One never likes to trust the Press Association stats that are produced (and reproduced on the BBC Website) but over the course of the last two games with Lincoln and Cheltenham the opposition has mustered as many shots on target as they have scored goals with the homes side at the weekend (recordedly) having four at Simon Eastwood’s goal and me struggling to recall Lincoln having to make the City keeper do more work than pick the ball out of his net twice.

All of which will worry McCall but he may cast his mind back to the other 5-4 when the Bantams were beaten by West Ham United in the Premiership in one of the games dubbed as the best the top flight has ever seen.

McCall famously chewed out Dean Saunders for not squaring a chance for City to get a fifth in that game but will reflect that the Bantams backline and goalkeeper that day were hardly a settled unit with Aidan Davison the third of City’s three keepers that year not really getting to grips with sitting behind David Wetherall and Andrew O’Brien.

Defensive units are hard things to gel for sure and anyone who is ready to put all the blame for concessions two the goalkeeper – and Simon Eastwood has been criticised from the second he took to the field for City for not being a bigger name keeper – is naive but it will have escaped the notice of none that the triangle of Zesh Rehman, Eastwood and Williams has not been enjoying the greatest of births.

The West Ham game though – while taken in some quarters as a nail in the coffin for the Premiership City – was used by Paul Jewell to bring heart to his players suggesting that the game was proof that while they lost the game they were involved in the scrap and that he would ask of them only that – that the brought the effort needed to compete.

A lesson which McCall will draw for his players in the coming week. When heads are up the far forward becomes so much clearer.

Next: Cheltenham

The disorder of the day is a question of Peter Thorne.

Thorne took a pay cut to sign an extension to his City contract and was lauded for it. He has a fantastic scoring record for the Bantams which – Dean Windass aside – is probably not matched since Lee Mills ten years ago but that was four games ago and the whispers against the City captain have started.

“Why don’t you do us all a favour and hang up your boots Thorne!” said someone on the kop – how dare he assume to speak for me I angered – and sure enough the short termness of football thinking is brought to bear on our centre forward who slogged though a tired game on Tuesday night ineffectually.

Thorne will score again. You know it. I know it. Peter Thorne knows it. Stuart McCall knows it.

Nevertheless much of the criticism of Thorne comes from the fact that not only has he yet to score – no one else in six hours of football has either – but from the fact that he is the captain.

I’ve never approved of a striker as skipper – or a full back, keeper or winger for that matter – preferring a player who is more in the heart of the side in central midfield or defence just as McCall the player was for the Bantams. Alan Shearer skippered Newcastle United from the front line as did Kevin Keegan but for every example of a half decent non-middle man skipper in the for column Bobby Moore, Alan Hansen and John McGovern are on the other side. Strikers don’t often make good skippers.

However when recalling the teams of Moore, Hansen and McGovern casting eyes around the field would have shown four or five other able men who could have taken the armband while looking around the City team one sees Zesh Rehman and… erm… that is about it.

Rehman, Chris Brandon, Michael Flynn are all names banded about but as Lincoln put in their second goal on Tuesday night no City player was suggesting great leadership. David Wetherall was an obvious choice to replace Stuart McCall who was himself an obvious choice to replace Peter Jackson when he headed to Newcastle in 1987.

No player is suggesting that they would be a better captain than Thorne no matter how well or badly the striker is managing to do the job and frankly if there is a player in the City side watching his team mate’s long faces and thinking that if he tried gee anyone up then he would face some kind of PFA demarcation dispute then he is not that man to captain my club.

Seriously. If someone in the current City side is a great captain just waiting for the armband then they are hiding it bloody well.

Zesh Rehman though is likely to have the armband as Thorne feels the effects of four games and is rested. Rehman’s partner Steve Williams is likely to keep his place despite his tumble on Tuesday even with Matthew Clarke fit again. Simon Ramsden looks good at right back and Luke O’Brien is in at left back.

Simon Eastwood is going to spend four months being criticised at City and may as well get used to it now. Five, two, three, none it matters not. When he plays badly he gets it in the neck, when he plays well he gets it in the neck.

Stephen O’Leary took part in Tuesday night’s warm up but not the game leaving Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn to pass the ball around Lincoln until such a time when (according to Simon, a Lincoln fan in line with Ramsden’s tackle) that never a penalty happened. The pair are likely to continue although O’Leary and Flynn would seem more suited to battling away against a newly relegated side.

City’s forward line is likely to be where Stuart McCall makes changes. Michael Boulding turned down Cheltenham to join City and his pace may be used to do to the home side what Lincoln did to us. James Hanson and/or Gareth Evans might be employed as target men and McCall may opt to play with a lone striker with Joe Colbeck far right, Hanson on the left with Evans up front.

Or Thorne might play.

Bradford City prepare to face Lincoln City in a modern football match

Back in the day when newspapers were typeset by hand, Jimmy Hill’s chin presented Match of the Day and Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine had yet to be applied to the job of applying three points for one win and sorting such a collection of results into an ordered lists League tables after two games simply did not exist.

Not that it was impossible for the scholars of 1974 to work out that a 3-0 defeat on the opening day of the season put Cloughie’s Leeds bottom of the First Division or that a win, a couple of draw and a few defeat in said man’s first six games only gave his side four points but with the effort that had to go into totting up columns, creating news print and video overlays for Television to roughly project onto brightly coloured pictures there seemed very little point in bothering.

The table at that stage did not mean anything after all, and if it did you could be sure that Shankley’s Liverpool would be top of it. Tables tended to turn up in newspapers and magazines in September after about ten games and then they were accompanied by football managers of the day warning that said table could not be read until everyone has played everyone else at least once – except for Jimmy Sirrel who insisted it did not lie.

The modern football table – the sort that sits all summer with naught in every column – is more of a database waiting to happen and has given rise to an obsession with starting counting league position by the minute of each game. In fact ten years ago City were forth in the Premiership for the 22 hours until Manchester United won moving us and everyone else down a place.

Match of the Day made a return this weekend and had the top four places of the top division coloured golden to indicate Champions League slots – somewhere Platini fumes – with the aforementioned United excluded, lagging down in eighth position with zero points in zero games.

Back in my day in March a half blind man would draw a dotted line somewhere approximating the promotions places – and he were always wrong – if you were lucky.

All of which is preamble to saying that aside from the fact that Notts County are top and everyone else isn’t the League Two table means – frankly – “nowt” which is just as well because if it were to mean something City would be third bottom.

The opening point of the season came with the weekend 0-0 draw with Port Vale which presented a Bantams side that – rather surprisingly considering the previous week – had very little wrong with it.

The back four did not put a foot wrong with Steve Williams starting to impress in that way that suggests he is taking to professional football better than Matthew Clarke – who he replaces in the side again tonight – would take to cutting hair in Bamber Bridge. He is partnered by Zesh Rehman and is in front of Simon Eastwood who are both a clean sheet further away from Notts County.

City’s full backs against Vale probably had more pitch to play in than they will in most games this season with the Valiants anything but. Simon Ramsden – it would be amiss of me not to point out after a number of discussions with “our Rovert” on the subject – could have done with more support in front of him when he came forward with the ball while Luke O’Brien could do with putting a bit more air into his crosses with the hope of beating the first man. If not air then variety as the promising young left back’s play became a little easy to read on Saturday.

Promising young left backs though are not in short supply at Valley Parade with Louis Horne ready to replace O’Brien who was sliced in half by Anthony Griffith at the weekend and may not play. Horne – for the uninitiated – is the son of Peter Horne the man in charge of youth development at VP but those who have seen him put in a few games ensue suggestions of nepotism with phrases like “he looks a bit good.”

Horne is a bit good although which bit is not yet clear. He can use the ball, tackle, and has a good head on him and while that is deployed at left back often he does take the left wing and – in the humble opinion of this writer – might want to try his hand in the centre of midfield.

Not that City need any more number fours with Michael Flynn and Stephen O’Leary finding a way of keeping the back door closed and O’Leary especially useful in taking the ball from the central defenders and moving it on with minimum fuss. The pair look set to anchor behind the roving Chris Brandon – who will face up against his former Town boss Lincoln manager Peter Jackson – who comes inside and left flank man James Hanson who loses nothing in the air and comes in from the flanks to add to the attack.

All of which leaves City a little thin out wide but we should not mind the width if we can feel the quality and the quality of City’s approach play impressed on Saturday.

Approach play good and the strikers were not able to profit with Boulding seeing the best of the chances saved. Peter Thorne struggles with four games in eleven days and so may sit out to allow Gareth Evans to lead the line. Michael Boulding is expected to partner.

A decision is made, a result is reached, and City move on

If the season started here in the third match following the week in Nottingham then it started slowly with a 0-0 draw with Port Vale which saw the visitors get the point they came to West Yorkshire for and City stop conceding after eight goals had been lifted out of Simon Eastwood’s net since the season started.

Indeed so clear was Stuart McCall’s desire to ensure that the Bantams would not be looking at a hefty concession rate that the changes had been rung and the solution was found in a full midfield that saw two number fours – Michael Flynn and Stephen O’Leary – hold and Chris Brandon nominally given the right hand side but spread himself over the middle of the pitch in the kind of performance that his status called for.

The industry of the Flynn and O’Leary pairing allowed Brandon to enjoy his roving role – James Hanson was also nominally left flank but spent more time at the far post assisting the strike pair of Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne – and linked the midfield to the forward two effectually or as effectively as the Valiants would allow with their deep sat five and midfield on top.

As such the pattern of the game was set. Vale’s ambition was limited and City’s measured with the Bantams controlling play in the first half to such an extent that at one point a twenty pass move probed either side of the visitors backline without finding a way through. City’s best chance came when Hanson – powerful in the air – won the ball for Brandon to take into the box and Michael Boulding to try finish only to find Chris Martin standing tall to make a save. I tried so hard to come up with a joke about Coldplay’s lead singer but as with City just lacked that touch of inspiration.

Vale on the otherhand failed to convert a few crosses that flashed past the City box for the want of men in the box and some good defending from – especially – Simon Williams who made his home debut with a performance of genuine quality calmly showing a class to slot alongside Zesh Rehman and a physicality to cope with the ageing late sub Geoff Horsfield.

Williams and Rehman kept Marc Richards in pockets save an stinking shot from an actuate that Eastwood took confidently. Second half and City had James Hanson go close cutting in with a shot and could have won the game late on when a cross from Simon Ramsden – who did a grand job down the right with an acre in front of him and little support with Brandon playing more inside – hung deliciously but Hanson rising at the wrong time.

Hanson impressed too although seemed to fade in the last quarter of the match. Gareth Evans came off the bench and hit a dipping shot over the bar. Michael Flynn tested the keeper from range, Luke O’Brien did the same.

Flynn and O’Leary responded to some aggressive play by Vale with a series of lively challenges as the Bantams seemed to find a pairing that looked interested in joining a League Two battle. Vale’s four Anthony Griffith was lucky not to see a red card after a string of feet off the floor tackles ended in Luke O’Brien getting spun and limping through the rest of the match. Born in Huddersfield perhaps he was an excitable Town fan. Regardless he was lucky to stay on the field long enough to be substituted.

Flynn showed a willingness to battle but O’Leary was something of a minor revelation making himself available in midfield for passes, getting stuck in and using the ball well it was a mighty promising display and one that might keep Lee Bullock cooling his heels on the bench. Late in the game Vale put on former City favourite Claus Jorgensen who was roundly and warmly applauded but in the last five minutes that despite some bluster both clubs were happy to see out goalless.

The men on the bench – the management that is – made the point today with a team that joined the battle for League Two. Tuesday night Lincoln City come to Valley Parade and City will look to build on this match but as with the team of Paul Jewell’s eleven years ago – who drew early on with Sheffield United and Bolton Wanderers making the two points from seven games – the shakedown of the start of the season was brought into context later in the season.

Today City did not let anything past – or look like letting anything past – and anything that comes later comes from that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No apology needed

There will have been much to occupy Bradford City manager Stuart McCall’s thoughts as he made his second return journey up the M1 in days on the back of a heavy defeat. A degree of pride was restored on route to yet another early exit from the League Cup, but the aggregate 8-0 score from the two trips to Nottingham tell of a shocking start to the season that sees pressure building ahead of its first home game. At the final whistle Stuart told his players “the season starts here”, but the fear remains that the last few days are a taste of what’s to come.

City were much better at The City Ground compared to the general feebleness evident less than a mile away at Meadow Lane on Saturday. Mindful of playing too open again, which had contributed to the heavy opening day defeat, Stuart opted for a 5-4-1 formation with James Hanson taking the left wing spot when City were on the defensive and fellow debut signing Gareth Evans asked to take on a lone assignment that was supported by Hanson when City were on the attack.

The objective was to frustrate a talented Nottingham Forest side, who passed the ball around quickly and accurately only to be frustrated – for 47 minutes at least – by a well organised Bantams backline which was able to plug gaps. In a dull first half the only chances of note were a Lewis McGugan free kick Simon Eastwood did well to tip wide and a Lee Bullock header over after some promising City build up play.

Essentially, it wasn’t pretty from City. The notion of playing defensive football and only one striker is something which upsets a number of City fans, who will happily roll off the number of times it hasn’t worked and tell you they’d rather watch City go for it and lose. But, considering the gulf in the two sides, there was plenty of encouragement to be taken from how well City contained their Championship counterparts and a feeling that, with more practice, such an approach can pay dividends in some away fixtures this season.

Steve Williams made a very impressive full debut and Simon Ramsden, switched to the centre, demonstrated his versatility and made one crucial first half tackle when it appeared Forest might score. Zesh Rehman – captain for the night – recovered from a torrid afternoon on Saturday to look more assured and debut full back Jonathan Bateson got forward well when he could. In midfield Michael Flynn looked promising covering the back four, though the formation didn’t seem to suit Joe Colbeck who was anonymous for much of the night.

It’s up front that will have given Stuart some of the strongest encouragement for playing this way on the road again, with Evans performing a brilliant job holding up the ball and allowing others to get forward. Stuart’s previous attempts to play with a lone striker have been hampered by the lack of striker who could adequately play such a role, but Evans’ effectiveness and work rate suggests he now has that striker. The downside of City’s tactics was that, predictably, they were less of an attacking force in the final third, with the number of black shirts getting into the box when on the attack too few for possession to be fashioned into decent chances. Still as Evans battled hard and Hanson showed some good dribbling skills, Stuart may have been tempted to glance ruefully over to Meadow Lane on his left and wonder what he might have done differently last Saturday.

The other problem with defensive tactics is when the opposition score and the urge to find a plan B, though how well City did in almost coming back at Elland Road last season when sticking to 4-5-1 shows it’s far from game over. Two minutes into the second half Forest claimed the lead when Nathan Tyson found space on the left and crossed for Paul Anderson to head home. City might have equalised after Evans brilliantly held up the ball and picked Hanson out, but his burst through one-on-one with Paul Smith was cut short by a late flag for offside.

Any encouragement sought from the move was extinguished by Forest instantly going 2-0 up after Tyson again provided a brilliant cross which was tapped home by Dextor Blackstock. The impressive McGugan added a third after another flowing move and the night ended with further misery after Bateson’s none-to-clever lunge on Tyson was rewarded by a red card and the Forest striker having to be stretchered off.

So beaten, but it was difficult to fault the players’ efforts if not their quality. A Forest-supporting friend told me afterwards that his side’s second half performance had been their best for some time and the consolation for Stuart is that City won’t be facing opposition of this calibre in the league. Yet still these are worrying times, pre-season optimism is ebbing away and City go into two successive home games without yet having managed a goal.

But while others can lose their heads with worry – a visit to City’s official message board finds one fan demanding Stuart be sacked should City lose to Port Vale Saturday – the man in charge must not lose his. As Stuart’s thoughts of the defeat occupied his mind travelling back up the M1, the so-far positive stance he’s adopted in defeat is far preferable to the miserable persona of the end of last season. The only worry when hearing he was planning to play more defensively-minded at The City Ground was how much he talked of it upsetting supporters in the past – as though he’s previously stopped himself doing it for fear of upsetting some geek on a message board.

No matter what, Stuart is still widely-loved for his close relationship with this club, but a certain detachment is needed from him in order to worry less about letting people down and focus solely on doing the right thing. City may be out the cup, but against higher division opposition on top form it’s difficult to muster any meaningful reasons to criticise Stuart for that. Instead, like Stuart, the focus should be on the next game and the much work needed ahead of it towards getting the season belatedly going.

Not a great night in City’s history, but the biggest positive may prove to be that Stuart is not attempting to apologise for it.

Former England manager gives City a lesson

The opening day of every season is about learning lessons after three months of playing football in a hypothetical context give way to ninety minutes of reality and sometimes that reality is cold and sobering.

Bradford City’s lessons today were sobering. The afternoon started with a minute’s applause for the late Sir Bobby Robson. Robson had a lesson which he passed on to another manager who like Magpies boss Ian McPartland had seemingly endless riches to spend – a young Jose Mourinho – who relates the story as “One of the most important things I learnt from Bobby Robson is that when you win, you shouldn’t assume you are the team, and when you lose, you shouldn’t think you are rubbish.”

The World’s media came to watch Sven Goran Erikkson and the millions which are being pumped into Meadow Lane and went away purring about the home side caring hardly at all for the visitors who were but ballast in the story.

When Brendan Moloney pushed forward from full back leaving Lee Bullock to simply not track him back and allow him to score. Bullock’s head was down with the Bantams 4-0 down but he should have done more, put in more effort.

That he did not came after a grinding ninety minutes. City began brighter than their visitors with Stuart McCall having opted to send his side out to try upset the home team with a high line and a pressing forward line. The theory that McCall employed was – one assumes – that being at home and under scrutiny County would play similarly but alas they did not preferring to approach the game almost as an away match and sat back to play on the counter-attack.

So City pressed and as the season with fifteen minutes old Joe Colbeck had been unlucky to see his header saved after some great approach play and Peter Thorne look menacing on the far post with the ball under City’s control and City looking easy on the ball. County’s responses seemed to be entirely physical with Moloney especially guilty of some fearsome challenges with studs showing. City faced a midfield battle and bit by bit were edged out.

Edged out perhaps because while Bullock and new signing Michael Flynn looked tidy in possession and decent in the scrap they often found the ball pumped over their heads and when it was pumped in between Matthew Clarke and Luke O’Brien City were incapable of dealing with the ball across and expensive import from Shrewsbury Ben Davies finished on the far post.

It was not especially deserved and City should have kicked themselves with Clarke and O’Brien – not for the only time today – incapable of stopping the ball getting across the face of the box. New keeper Simon Eastwood hardly showered himself in glory with his control of the backline – very little – but collectively this was the beginning of errors that continued all afternoon.

That said City should have been level – or had the chance to be level – when Peter Thorne was shoved with two hands from behind by keeper Russell Hoult at a corner minutes later but the referee was curiously unmoved. The game was littered with pushes and free kicks many of which were given for much more malignant offences and not giving a penalty there was pre-season refereeing.

One had thought that the studs showing challenges were the results of being rusty – rather than a desire to be rustic – but they continued throughout the game with Graeme Lee engaging on any number of lunges h simply did not do for the Bantams last year. Anyone who wondered what Lee used to do at City and thought he would not be missed will not have hung their head when another long punt bounced in front of and over Zesh Rehman – who had a poor afternoon – and fell into the path of Lee Hughes who rounded the keeper and scored.

On to Lee Hughes now who rejoiced in his goal celebrating in front of the City fans who were taunting him with chides about his conviction for Causing Death by Dangerous Driving four years ago. Hughes faced the boos and on scoring pranced in front of City fans with delight.

There is a misunderstanding around Hughes when he is booed and responds to that jeering with his self-congratulatory dancing which would eventually get him booked in this game. Hughes is not booed as a former player like Graeme Lee or because he has long hair and is dubbed “Gypo” or because he has dived in a previous game. Many, if not most, people find Lee Hughes and his actions when arrested as being despicable and have the opinion that his playing cheapens the game of football. I think a man has a right to earn a living and Hughes does so but what is he trying to say when he goes to away fans and taunts them?

He has not proved fans wrong as a former player putting one over his old team mates would or silenced the people giggling at his hair yet he acts like Dean Windass returning for Sheffield United did. Frank Leboeuf said “He might be a good but footballer but he is a shit man” and no matter how many goals Hughes scores in this or any other season he has not proved anybody wrong. His prancing leaves a bad taste in the mouth as do the County fans who praise him. One can only hope that Sven and the Munto Group asks why their centre-forward is being called a murder and is as repulsed by the behaviour as I am.

Hughes got his second goal through another failure by Luke O’Brien to cut out a cross from the right. His third from a shameful dive from Luke Rodgers prompting the question of if County are going to be so good do they have to cheat? Seemingly so but the fourth goal killed City’s hopes off.

Steve Williams, James Hanson and Gareth Evans all made debuts off the bench and performed well with Williams looking mobile at the back coming on for Clarke who had had a better game than Rehman but had been replaced anyway. Evans and Hanson took the flanks coming on for Colbeck who had looked good in the first half and for Chris Brandon. Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding combined well with Brandon to see Boulding flash a shot wide.

The fifth goal came as the game dragged to an end leaving City looking back at ninety minutes of a defensive performance littered with individual mistakes – although Simon Ramsden looked good and pocketed Jamie Clapham – and a choice of approach from McCall that got it wrong and flew in the face of the manager’s talk of the Bantams learning to go away from home and play ugly, shutting up shop and being hard to beat.

County seem to be going onto bigger and better and perhaps their is no better illustration of the future for the Magpies than Hughes. Sneering success, at at any price, no matter what.

For City’s part though the short hop over the Trent to Nottingham Forest for the League Cup – bizarrely we parked next to the Brian Clough stand this Saturday afternoon – and then to Port Vale in League Two on Saturday looking to start the 45 game season anew.

The media beyond League Two are calling Hughes sparkling and toasting Sven’s perfect start but rather than the Swede one recalls the other former England manager and the lesson he would give for both teams today “When you win, you shouldn’t assume you are the team, and when you lose, you shouldn’t think you are rubbish.”

It’s Here

The League Two season is back with a bang on Saturday as Bradford travel to Meadow Lane in a reverse of the opening fixture of last campaign. And for Bradford faithful still reeling from last season’s disappointment, this is all that matters. Forget the long running saga at Newcastle United with an untold number of messiahs. Forget Leeds United’s third season in the third flight of English football. And please, forget last season.

Stuart McCall decided to stay with the club this summer despite suggesting otherwise last term. Managing at a young age is always a learning curve and there isn’t a manager out there that hasn’t made mistakes at some time in their career. But in my opinion, this club and it’s fans would rather have somebody with a loved for the club at the helm taking it one step at a time, than a manager with no passion who will come and go within two seasons at the most. The fans have cried out and it appears that stability is the way forward.

McCall has been busy this summer with his dealings in the transfer market, with no less than twelve players departing, not including Dean Furman, Steve Jones and Nicky Law, and nine coming in. Only goalkeeper Simon Eastwood has so far come in on loan as McCall plays the waiting game with the clubs in higher divisions to see who is available following pre-season. Eastwood’s arrival at the club shocked many, with an experienced keeper expected to come in alongside Jonathan McLaughlin. Only time will tell if this turns out to be a bad decision, but it is telling that Eastwood’s contract is only until January rather than a full season, with McCall preparing himself should the opportunity to bring in somebody different arise. Quite who will be playing between the sticks for City also remains a mystery with Eastwood not doing himself any favours with a nervous display in the final pre-season game against Carlisle.

Zesh Rehman has made his move to Bradford permanent and has been rewarded with the club captaincy. Much has been made of Rehman’s work in the community following his loan move last season and it appears that the club see Rehman as the ideal role model for youngsters in the local area. At a time when club finances are tight and extra revenue is a priority, it will be a challenge for Rehman, along with Omar Khan, to influence the Asian population to make Valley Parade their second home.

Jonathan Bateson, Simon Ramsden and Steve Williams join Rehman as new signings in Stuart McCall’s new look back line. Ramsden in particular looks like he could be the solid right back that has been missing at Bradford for a while now, though Paul Arnison will feel disheartened that his efforts last season resulted in his exit from the club. When Arnison played last season, City tended to fair better defensively. The facts don’t lie. However, it was apparent that McCall was unsure about him with Tom Moncur and Zesh Rehman preferred at times in what was evidently not their strongest position. Ramsden looks composed, strong in the tackle and fairly good in the air. Add to this that he can also play in the centre and has featured regularly for Rochdale in three successful seasons by their standards and you can understand why McCall has brought him to the club.

Gareth Evans and James Hanson, dubbed The Co-op Kid (I prefer The Idle Working Man – Ed), have bolstered McCall’s striking options. Both are young and play with a real desire which is a joy to see. McCall has high hopes for both and this is supported by the clubs willingness to pay a fee to Macclesfield for Evans services. Hanson looks like he can offer height in the attack, in the absence of Barry Conlon, and comes to the club with a decent scoring record in the last two seasons. Experienced duo Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne are still with the club and both agreed to cut their wage bills accordingly, with Thorne rewarded for his loyalty by becoming team captain. Up front, City look a lot stronger this season and it may be a weight off Peter Thorne’s shoulders. Michael Boulding openly admitted his disappointment at his goal tally last season and will be expected to do better this time around.

Following a fluster of activity in the days before the season opener, Stuart McCall has brought in three central midfielders, an area which he was keen to improve on. The signs are that Michael Flynn, City’s second signing from Huddersfield this summer, will slot in alongside Lee Bullock to form what looks like a solid pairing. Flynn ranks alongside Simon Ramsden as McCall’s best signing in my opinion and his ability to score and create goals from midfield will fill the void left by Nicky Law. Michael O’Leary and energetic James O’Brien have also signed, albeit on short term contracts. Luke Sharry missed the chance this pre-season to stake his claim for a place in the team and may now find himself the odd man out with many feeling Chris Brandon is also above him in the pecking order.

Omar Daley’s absence may be missed, with City only having the aforementioned Chris Brandon, Joe Colbeck and Leon Osbourne to turn to on the wings. Arguably Rory Boulding, Gareth Evans, Michael O’Leary and Luke Sharry can all play in this position too, but City do look thin in this department. Rumours of a loan move for a winger from an unnamed SPL club allay fears somewhat though undoubtedly Daley’s comeback will be in the back of everyone’s mind. Osbourne has looked impressive this pre-season and looks ready to make the step up to first team duties. Chris Brandon will be looking to make up for a torrid season last time round and will be a very important player for City should he stay free from injury.

When you thought things couldn’t get anymore unpredictable, Sven-Goran Eriksson appeared at Notts County and shook the football world to the core (or League Two at least). His arrival at Meadow Lane marks one of the most bizarre appointments in history and mounts the expectation on County to achieve things in the short term. Ian MacParland’s job will be under scrutiny with the media circus that unmistakably follows such a high profile appointment. In the last few days, Stuart McCall has claimed he is not envious of the position County find themselves in, words which as a fan I cannot help but agree with. Clubs in the situation Notts County now find themselves have the potential for success, but also dramatic failure. Should County fail to gain promotion this season, they will probably find themselves starting from scratch with a new manager and possibly a whole new team next term. It is once again easy to see why fans at this club, who have suffered the repercussions of bad decision making by the money men in the past, strive for stability and a realistic approach.

Last season’s skipper Graeme Lee will probably be coming toe to toe with former team mates and, unfortunately, may receive a hostile reception. The culture of booing ex-players and managers is one that I’ve never understood, though there are factors in some cases. It is understandable that a Crystal Palace fan would be annoyed at the sight of Iain Dowie, not for the obvious reason, but for the way in which he departed the club to become manager of Crystal Palace. Lee, however, put in some solid displays last season, though he did have a dip of form which coincided with the teams inability to win games and keep clean sheets. Nevertheless, any players that represents our club should have our support and his departure was not turbulent and instead was a financial decision. It must be hoped that his exit from the club will suit both parties, with Lee himself wishing the team luck in the coming season. I will leave the defence of Lee Hughes to somebody braver than myself.

How the tables have turned from this time last season when County came to Valley Parade and suffered at the hands of a superb solo performance from Peter Thorne. The City captain has a tendency to score against County, something Graeme Lee may be given the duty of preventing happening on Saturday. I would be happy with an opening day draw in all honesty, but the optimism of the travelling Bradford fans says otherwise. City are out to ruin the party celebrations for Sven’s men are will make themselves heard – win, lose or draw.

The new season is here.

The route to success for Notts County or Bradford City

When last we kicked a ball in anger there was anger after the Bantams promotion push had fizzled out and beating Chesterfield was an inglorious end to a year of promise.

Three months later and while it seems that much has changed the Bantams start the season with six players who would have featured in the team which kicked off last year with Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding leading the attack a good example of how Stuart McCall has been able to cut costs while retaining the integrity of the squad.

The five forwards this year swap James Hanson and Gareth Evans for Barry Conlon and Willy Topp which is easily argued to be no worse and perhaps better with Barry’s rambunctions being matched by Hanson’s vigour, at least in theory.

If such claims of parity could be made for the strikers then they would not be applied to the two keepers who combined are not as old as Neville Southall was when he kept goal for City and the worries over that inexperience are rumbling.

Simon Eastwood seems favourite to start as he battles Jon McLaughin for the gloves and I am forced to say that I have never seen competition for the number one shirt bring about anything but uncertainty in the past.

One can only hope that one of the two claims the spot which Rhys Evans grew to suit. Evans exit remains a mystery with the obvious hole left behind by his exit but last season’s failure has been attributed to poor morale and one can assume that some of those who exit do so because of what might be known as “off the field reasons”.

Paul Arnison’s exit was down to such and Simon Ramsden is considered a more than adequate replacement playing right back more like a central defender than a winger. Again McCall has cut while not losing quality, although the people at Rochdale take issue with the statements that Ramsden has joined the Bantams on comparable terms to those he was on at Spotland.

Zesh Rehman has joined the club full time and replaces Graeme Lee – who may very well take the field for Notts County after his summer move – and it is hard to see that exchange as worse for City. Rehman has played at a higher level than Lee and on the evidence of last season is no worse a player and much more of a talker. Good player Graeme Lee but not the lynchpin we hoped for. Rehman could be.

Matthew Clarke is still Matthew Clarke although this year faces competition for his place from Steve Williams who impressed more than any in pre-season. Expect Williams to grow in ability over the opening months at City has he gets used to the ways of professional football. He promises a mix of Clarke’s physical play and the mobility of a Dean Richards or Andrew O’Brien.

At left back Luke O’Brien has a one deal and little immediate competition for the role however cover is provided by Louis Horne who is making similar progress to last season’s player of the season.

The midfield has been talked about at length over the summer. Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock are the two senior men with James O’Brien, Stephen O’Leary and Luke Sharry offering a much shallower depth of quality that last season’s midfield which of course assumes that one believes that last season’s midfield had quality.

Objectively the choice of Nicky Law, Dean Furman, Paul McLaren and Bullock is incredibility strong however wise man say that team with a strong midfield get promoted and obviously we did not. Stuart McCall has to make changes to move the team on from that and so he has.

On the flanks Omar Daley will be missed – he is “out until Christmas” but rumoured to be on course to join the squad before that – but Chris Brandon comes into the season fit and looking useful. Joe Colbeck is on week to week contracts but as long as he plays well this week, and then next week, few will have a problem with him. Cover on the flanks is thin on the ground although Rory Boulding and Leon Osborne are available.

City’s summer of cost cutting has been far from mirror at Notts County. Sven – of course – has arrived but it is said has spent much of the week talking to lawyers about a story that concerns a blonde which reminded me of another story about when Eriksson left England but I’m far too in fear of legal action to even mention that…

So we shall move past him onto a squad that has been bolstered by the signing of Lee midfielder Ben Davies from Shrewsbury and – more notably – forward pair Lee Hughes and Karl Hawley following a significant investment from a consortium of mystery which could not be held in more suspicion in the football world outside of Meadow Lane if they were gruff looking sortd who owned disused Theme Parks in episodes of Scooby Doo.

It is said that at some point they will be signing Dietmar Hamann and Sol Campbell. Let us hope that is after the weekend.

What will be at Notts County will be and there is very little that football fans can do to stand against the cavalier attitudes taken to ownership in the modern game.

City tried spending to get out of the division and failed. Notts County’s owners are unlikely to balance risk and prudence as Mark Lawn says City have which may see The Magpies to achieve what City could not last season.

The long term effects on County will be seen in time – the other Magpies though that they were going places when they got big investment – but City start out the season with a mix of players: some young lads, some old heads, some local lads made good; and if that is not the recipe for success then success is not worth having.

Now though football starts again. Great.

The 47th game

In seven days time City will have faced Notts County in what is game one of the new season but in a rain soaked Valley Parade the Bantams seemed to have started the season early in a 3-3 draw with Carlisle United.

To suggest that the friendly between Stuart McCall’s City and a Carlisle side managed by his former midfield partner Greg Abbott was “competitive” would understate the content that saw the visitors copy their manager’s combative style and at one point boiled over into typical Abbo violence.

Richard Keogh swung for Joe Colbeck and in a proper game would have been sent off no questions asked leaving his team to play with ten men for seventy odd minutes. Keogh missed Colbeck’s square jaw just as Brandon missed with a kick at Michael Evans in the dying minutes which would also have resulted in red and followed on from the sort of tackle by Evans that littered the game. Too physical, too much, and never allowed in the season for real.

So in that way the work out for City was perfect – bad refereeing of the league season being substituted by soft pre-season officialdom and City responded to that work out well.

Another number four got a run out for the Bantams with former Luton and Hereford midfielder Stephen O’Leary wasting no time in pressing his case for a contract by finishing tidily a headed cut back by Michael Boulding who got on the end of a superb Joe Colbeck cross deep on the right.

Carlisle reacted poorly with Keogh swinging at Colbeck who spent the first half tormenting former Leeds man Ian Harte and looked distinctly second best. City’s second goal came from another Colbeck cross – a corner – which headbanded Matthew Clarke jumped for and may have connected with but landed at the feet of Peter Thorne who finished easily from close range. It was – at that stage – comprehensive.

Nevertheless twenty minutes later City were losing. Firstly Graham Kavanagh was allowed to turn on the edge of the box dropped away from the central defenders and not being picked up by the midfield – one of Stephen O’Leary and Lee Bullock should have been there – and was allowed time and space to fire in impressively from thirty yards.

Secondly the rain became torrential taking away Zesh Rehman’s legs as Joe Anyinsah played the ball to Matty Robson and was shown enough of the goal by Clarke to be tempted to shoot and duly did giving a second goal in two minutes. It was unimpressive defending and seemed to snap City right back into last season’s lower moments.

The spine of the team was found wanting, and the heart. Things went against the Bantams and the Bantams responded by sulking. It was Morecambe at Easter or Barnet away all over again and City visibly wilted.

The third goal came eight minutes later when a corner headed in by Joe Anyinsah with Simon Eastwood left flapping at the ball.

Eastwood has yet to impress and will need to communicate more with his backline to become a better keeper while his judgement at coming out to try collect this corner was curious to say the least. At the moment all he offers over Jon McLaughlin is that he is someone else.

So the black shirted Bantams trudged in at half time having been the best for thirty minutes but mostly through errors ended up losing. So far, so last season.

Nevertheless something that Stuart McCall said at half time reminded the team that they had been comfortable in the game for a long time because what one would hope is normal service was resumed with Bullock and O’Leary combining well with the attacking pair of Thorne and Boulding and Colbeck and Brandon coming inside and working the ball forward well with sudden, tight controlled football. Eastwood’s first half display may have been duplicated in the second had Carlisle mustered a shot worthy of the name in the second half but aside from a shot that flashed across the goal they threatened rarely.

City on the other hand revealed an alternative to the 442 which McCall favours with a 4231 that saw two holding midfielders in Bullock and O’Leary, Gareth Evans lead the line ahead of Colbeck, Brandon and James Hanson who lot a header today – a thing that is notable only for its infrequency such is the impressive abilities of the Idle Working Man.

Before the change in formation Michael Boulding had flashed a Peter Thorne chest down wide and Colbeck did similar following an impressive nutmegging of the referee but it was a breakaway from Evans which won a corner that when slung in the former Macclesfield man tucked away from close range despite a heavy first touch in a crowded penalty area.

Three all it finished and while Keogh would never have finished a league game and some of the tackling used the weakness of pre-season refereeing to avoid bookings and neutering giving both teams a good work out but causing worry for City.

Abbott’s side too easily bullied City – especially in that fifteen minute spell before half time – and the Bantams were not able to counter that physical play or that sudden burst of (for want of a better phrase) “wanting it” which undermined a performance that was worthy of a win.

O’Leary looked no better or no worse than other number fours we have tried but one of he or James O’Brien would seem to be about to be offered a contract this week and making a debut next but the Bantams need someone to sit in the midfield and someone to prompt and inspire in the way that McCall did when he rejoined City in ’98 galvanising a team that had lead the league in ’97 but faded into a genuine promotion side.

One would hope that City could find this type of leader from within the club – Peter Thorne seems to be captain apparent – and Zesh Rehman and Lee Bullock also hinting that they could emerge as characters but leadership is lacking and when City trudged back to the centre circle after the second and third goals there was no geeing up, no encouraging, no leadership pulling up everyone else’s game as McCall The Player did.

Brandon’s ill tempter kick certainly was not it and he needs to wear his status as City’s senior player with more conscientiousness and sobriety.

Ultimately though football is a game of balance in flux. In a match which was competitive this game was the 1st of 47th in a season that starts next week and may be no different to last with the collapse before half time so reminiscent of last year but perhaps it will be the 47th of 2008/2009 and in a week when the season kicks off City will be a team a year older, more experienced and able to drag a draw out of a game in which a lead was surrendered in contrast to last season.

One can but hope. Either way the phoney war is over and the season – nine months of elation and agony, anguish and exhilaration – starts now.

Pondering Nicky Law as City visit Alfreton Town

It is the source of some bafflement to this writer why it is thought in football clubs both high and low from terrace to table of boardroom that the solution to all ills is merely a change of manager away.

Moving aside from issues regarding Stuart McCall for a second Alfreton Town, tonight’s opponents, are managed by former City boss Nicky Law who was never massively popular at Valley Parade and was fired to bring about that much longed for improvement.

Law was replaced by Bryan Robson and relegation followed although perhaps Robson would blame Law and Law, Robson for that.

Either way since being fired from City Law has not managed another league club save less than a year at Grimsby Town that ended badly but one doubts he could have done a worse job at Sheffield United than Robbo and the moral of the story seems to be that changing manager in itself is not a cure but a cause of problems. That and don’t piss off the Father’s of kids who might become midfielders you want to sign. Or they will go to Rotherham. This lesson may yet prove worth learning with Law’s second son spending half a year at Alfreton’s grandly named Impact Arena last season on loan from Chesterfield.

City’s side at Alfreton is unknown. Fringe players may get a run out considering the proximity of the season start and the level of opposition but as discussed City are light on fringe players.

Expect though appearance from new keeper Simon Eastwood, Steve Williams as he bids to be last man uninjured in the central defence, a host of would be number fours and James Hanson and Gareth Evans who play with Peter Thorne’s tributes ringing in their ears.

The senior City hit man is excited about the two youngsters pressing for his place and with a seven subs allowed on a bench next year all four forwards can expect to be in action, or watching action from close, next season.

That is eleven days away though and tonight is a winsome evening, a calm before storm, where one wonders and ponders.

What would have City been like had Law not been fired? Why do a club with as much money as Notts County feel it is appropriate to charge £20 for a League Two game? Is Josh Law any good? Will City have a different Evans next season following single years for Paul and Rhys?

I’m ready to find out. Roll on the season.

Recent Posts