The way to the middle

Teams like Aldershot Town provide a stark contrast for Bradford City supporters. Aldershot – as with the Accrington Stanley fans who out sung the 10,000 Bantams fans at Valley Parade – have struggled seen their club cast out of football and brought it back from the bottom. City, on the other hand, have fallen from the top.

The Shots were thrown out of the league Mid-season in the early 1990s following a series of chairman abuses but returned to the league in the last few years having shown the kind of spirit to rebuild the club that City fans did to raise the £250,000 to keep the club in business in its centenary year. In the words of Lester Bangs “Everyone meets again on the way back to the middle.”

Aldershot sit a place behind the play-off positions but are nursing heads from a 6-1 thrashing by Burton Albion last time out. City struggle for results but have shown admirable hearts in the two defeats last week to Rotherham and Carlisle. It is thought that the Bantams are entering a crucial time in the season and a crucial period for manager Stuart McCall but honestly – when is it not a crucial time?

McCall goes into the game without Simon Ramsden – sent off the first half of the Carlisle defeat – but will slot Jonathan Bateson in at right back alongside Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke should Steve Williams not be fit to return in the place of the latter. Luke O’Brien and Simon Eastwood continue at left back and in goal respectively.

The Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock midfield is starting to resemble the pairing of Dean Furman and Nicky Law last season in that all agree with it, all think it is good, but it seems to be the middle of a team which loses too often. Both Flynn and Bullock work hard – certainly they bossed Law’s midfield last week – and offer the best option for the positions.

James O’Brien had a cameo in the JPT game before being taken off as a result of the red card – many feel that without him City lack set piece delivery – but with Simon Whaley having struggled to live up to early form culminating in his annoyingly slow run off in the Rotherham game and Chris Brandon seemingly prepared to meander through a season has highest paid player for his home town club O’Brien could be the best option.

Adding James O’Brien to the left and creating a tight three with a right winger able to provide a link to the forward line which is very much what Scott Neilson has been doing all season from the attacking coming back but with the last sixteen minutes of Carlisle returning Omar Daley to the fold there is a chase the Bantams could field both Daley and Neilson in a pair of attacking widemen.

Gareth Evans and James Hanson carry on up front.

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.

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.

City go to Grimsby waiting in the balance

Michael Flynn put into words the season for City when he said “If we had cut out a few mistakes, we would be higher up the table than we are.”

That Gareth Evans – who has put in much to his first three months at Bradford City and more than deserves the break for this – blasted a last minute penalty wide of the post on Saturday allowing two points to squirm away proved Flynn’s protestation. The Bantams are a team inefficient giving away enough goals to counteract the many good things that go on at the other end of the field but with a balance that when upset may tip one way or another.

Certainly Grimsby Town will have an empathy with such problems after sacking Mike Newell some half dozen or so winless games ago and giving one time Bantam striker Neil Woods the chance to take the team, well, not very far. Woods got the job on a full time basis on Monday afternoon underlining the effect of getting rid of Newell which seems to be that the former manager no longer has to turn up to work but still is paid while the new incumbent goes about the role with the same resources. The attempt to tip the balance of Town’s early season displays having either no effect at all, or a counter effect. Certainly the “new manager/new beginning” which is often hoped for simply had not happened at Blundell Park.

Not that any more than the usual would be of the opinion that the way to tip the season towards success would be a manager replacement but rather the manager himself looks for ways to cut out the mistakes starting with a 442 on Saturday that was – well – duller than the usual 433 but did stop the customary two goals a game concessions. Perhaps the return to two wingers was a preparation of sorts for the return of Omar Daley who would have been backin reserve team action this week were it not for a rearranged juniors match at Valley Parade.

The middle three of Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and one other has worked well – and provided no little excitement at both ends – this season but a pairing of Bullock and Flynn with Omar Daley on the left and new recruit Simon Whaley on the right could be the shape that the Bantams will take into the Christmas period. All of which is long sighted talking and rather harsh on Scott Neilson who has on the whole been excellent since joining the Bantams. It also assumed that Chris Brandon will not continued to be shoe-horned into the side or – if one rumour is to be believed – will be leaving for Greg Abbott’s Carlisle in the transfer window.

Evans and James Hanson are expected to retain the forward places with Michael Boulding restricted to the bench against the team that list him as a favoured old boy. Boulding performed well coming off the bench on Saturday and might get the nod over Scott Neilson in an attacking three but the hard work of the younger pair has been one of the base blocks of City this season and is not something to change.

The back five of Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien in front of Barry Conlon Simon Eastwood is also expected to remain. Ramsden’s return on Saturday showed his quality while Luke O’Brien continues to be an able full back and an attacking force. The middle pairing impress some, but not all, and may have to cope with the attacking prowess of Barry Conlon as the former Bantams hopes to get a start against the club he left last season.

Far for universally loved Barry left City under a cloud of discipline and drink – letting himself down – but in his one and a half years at City his full energy performances showed a way forward that the Bantams have followed – James Hanson and Barry are not dissimilar players although Hanson’s ability to get both headed and kicked balls somewhere near his intended target puts Conlon to shame.

Much of last season was a debate about the merits of Conlon and Omar Daley but in the last three months of the season when one was at Grimsby and the other injured – effectively giving some supporters who used the words “get rid” a little too much for my tastes what they had wanted – the Bantams imploded. The balance upset, tipped the wrong way.

Not repeating this is the task Stuart McCall faces.

McCall swoops for Whaley leaving Rochdale to repent

The Bantams have signed Norwich’s former Preston and Bury midfielder Simon Whaley on a month’s loan taking the player out of the first team at Rochdale where he had spent the last two months.

Whaley comes to Valley Parade as a player in form – a stark contrast to other loan signings such as Chris O’Grady and Paul Mullin – and comes into the squad for the game with Accrington Stanley tomorrow. Whaley – a Boltonian – has struggled to settle in East Anglia after his move in the summer and has been loaned to Spotland and now City.

Rochdale will no doubt have a thing or two to say about Whaley not being able to agree a deal in the North West and then following Simon Ramsden to Valley Parade and will miss the player who scored two in eight and impressed in the now litmus test that is the two minute highlights on the BBC but the second place side’s loss could be very much City’ gain and in Whaley the Bantams have signed a player who arguably should still be in the Preston North End squad but – having been frozen out by manager Alan Irvine – dropped a division to Norwich and then ended up down another league.

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