Manager / von Neumann / Advantage

A small group of scientists asked a larger group of scientists who would best represent the intelligence of human kind and, with as much of a consensus of scientists every give, the answer was John von Neumann.

American-Hungarian von Neumann was a polymathic figure in science and his contribution to the fields he touched – which were many – were significant. His work on Quantum theory will shape Mathematics for the next 100 years, his work on The Manhattan Project shaped the history of the 20th century, and his work on Game Theory should shape the selection of the next Bradford City manager with his minimax theorem is our case in point.

In my limited way I will summarise it thus: When making a decision in any game theoretic situation a player will consider all options and select the one which minimises the maximum loss. Which is to say – in this instance – that when selecting a football manager players (in this case chairmen) will make the selection of the person who should things go wrong will go least wrong.

It is hard not to see this in action with Bradford City chairman Edin Rahic’s previous two selections. Neither Stuart McCall or Simon Grayson are bad managers and – and this is important – neither could be accused of being poor managers. If McCall were relegated there are some who would have defended him and Simon Grayson did do badly and is defended.  Both were acceptable appointments though and within the remit of what a League One club is expected to do.

This remit is discussed in the work of a slightly less intelligent but significantly more famous Mathematician John Nash.  The main thrust of Nash’s work was that game theoretic situations relied on the participants knowing the range of acceptable and common moves to them, and anticipating the range of acceptable and common moves available to the other players.

The Nash equilibrium also comes into play when considering the game theory of manager selection. There is an idea that the management of football club’s is a settled matter and a decision has been made on how it is done, and that any variation on that is to do it wrong, which means that football is in something like a Nash equilibrium.

Pardew

Except selecting a football manager is not a Nash equilibrium. The role that a manager does changes often. As recently as the 1990s managers used to sell in ground advertising. The Head Coach that Bradford City are looking for would expect that to be done by someone else no doubt, and would find that scouting is done by another person, and one does not have to agree with this breakdown of work that to accept that the role of manager changes.

And should the role change then the demands of the role changes and so does it’s remit as does the profile of a person who would do it well. von Neumann’s minimax theorem is the way which football deals with this.

The desire of chairmen when making the selection of a manager is to make the choice which is least likely to be a very bad choice which very often is the best available of the group of football managers looking for a job at any given time who have experience at the level you are at.

I am not even a tenth as smart as John von Neumann but I feel certain that he, as I, would call this The Alan Pardew Effect.

Unfair

Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp have a list of League One’s Alan Pardews ahead of them and von Neumann theorem would tell them to pick a name from that list. No one person the list will give them an advantage over any other but, at the same time, no one will give them a significant disadvantage. If there are managers who can be found lower down the leagues but who are in effect passing through to find them requires someone to break out of minimax and risk an outcome which does not minimise maximum losses.

So, for example, were the 29 year old Bolton Wanderers player Stephen Darby be offered the role of player manager at Bradford City – and he seems like a qualified man for that role – there is a risk that Darby will manifest zero abilities in the role and the club will loose a dozen games before sacking another club legend. However Darby would seem to have all the indicators that a player can show that he will be a good manager and should he be an Eddie Howe the decision to give him the job will pay far better dividends than appointing any of the League One Pardews.

Two things allow Bradford City to follow this find of approach. Few people seem to expect much of the next management appointment and there is a small but verbal section of fans think that the club is going to be relegated to League Two next season although the chairmen believe that the manager should over-perform and – by definition – expecting one of the League One Pardews to do this is against logic.

Credulity

In selecting a new Bradford City manager Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp a continuum of choice. At the one end they can pick from the list of what we might unflattering call League One Pardews and hope for an uncharacteristic over-performance knowing that an under-performance would not damage the club in a way which is beyond repair. At the other end of the scale is as far away from that list as is possible while still appointing someone who is a credible football manager with the stretch in credulity being the commensurate amount as is justified by the abilities of the target, should such a target be identified.

Which brings us to Nick Cushing.

Cushing is probably not going to be considered by any Football League club this season yet he won the Women’s Super League with Manchester City last season. He is, of course, in possession of an obscene level of resources at Manchester City but his reputation as a coach is very good. He is 33 years old and contracted to Manchester City WFC for sometime but that deal hardly seems necessary. Even the FA seem to believe that you need no ability as a manager at all to manage Women’s football.

If may, or many not, think that women’s football and men’s are non overlapping magisteria and you could believe that were a club like Bradford City to appoint Cushing they could be getting a superb manager or you could think they could get someone who has no relevant experience at all but my point would be that if the club are attempting to get someone who is disproportionately better than the standard of League One they need to find a candidate who has those qualities but is undervalued.

As well as appoint Cushing a club like City could look – and one doubts they would – at Mark Sampson who has experience taking England to a World Cup Final or, should they wish to annoy all the right people, Hope Powell. The level of experience on offer is not going to be matched by someone who got sacked by Scunthorpe Town, unless all that experience is irrelevant.

Instinct

The marketplace for football managers overvalues many irrelevant or partially irrelevant characteristics – such as one’s ability to play the game, or one’s connection to a club – leaving a significant inefficiency that can be exploited. As Arsene Wenger retires is it difficult to recall how hostile the English game was to the idea of overseas managers but Arsenal found they could replaced the entirely unimpressive Bruce Rioch with the Imperious Wenger because Wenger’s Frenchness saw him undervalued by English clubs who were hitherto happy to move around the same talent pool.

Wenger is probably the most celebrated example of a club getting a significant competitive advantage from recruitment. The Frenchman changed the way that footballers behaved at Arsenal, and his legacy is that every other team in the game duplicated the professional, thoughtful, tactical approach and a good number overtook him. This was able to happen because Wenger was undervalued in the marketplace and not just be the xenophobic. His extremely limited career counted against him in his home country as did his demeanor. Famously he was said to resemble a Professor more than a football manager. By ignoring all these points Arsenal were able to create disproportionate benefits.

To find a competitive advantage from recruitment Rahic and Rupp have to identify such areas of value negativity in the market and exploit them. That is exactly what the chairmen of Bradford City should be doing right now.

Preview / Players

It’s just words I assure them. But they will not have it – Simon Armitage

Something unique at Bradford City as one of the goalkeepers is the only player in British Football to have his transfer fee on his back as a squad number. Number one, and costing just one pound, is Colin Doyle arrived from Blackpool and looks to be starting on the first day of the season.

A commanding figure at six foot five Doyle has had the kind of career that seems to engulf goalkeepers who get used to the bench. He is thirty one and has played less than one hundred games.

Steve Banks – who arrived as keeper coach from Blackpool alongside Doyle – has the faith that the Irishman can step up to the duties of a starting keeper and should he fail then Rouven Sattelmaier gets a chance.

Sattelmaier – City’s first European number twelve goalkeeper – has played more first team games than Doyle, albeit at a lower level, and is three years his junior. The German talks confidently about challenging Doyle for his position.

It will be interesting to see at what point Stuart McCall opts for change – if he does – but the relative levels of experience afford an odd unbalance in confidence levels in Sattelmaier’s favour.

Joe Cracknell is third choice. He wears number thirty. The lesson he might learn is to not to get to thirty having been anything other than a first choice goalkeeper.

Of the five candidates for the central defensive roles Stuart McCall is spoilt for choice. Rory McArdle is initially unfit having had an operation in the summer and Matthew Kilgallon has had not pre-season following his release from Blackburn Rovers and so may not figure in the opening games but Nathan Clarke is able enough in the short term and Nathaniel Knight-Percival impressed on previous visits to and from Shrewsbury Town.

Kilgallon seems to be too high profile a signing to be anything other than McCall’s long term choice in one of the two central defensive positions and Knight-Percival has probably not moved to West Yorkshire with now expectations. McArdle has proved himself to be as close to undroppable as a player could be and there is little reason to imagine he will not carry on at such a high standard.

Which leaves McCall with – when fitness comes – the sort of headache any manager might want of having too many good players. There is the option of playing three central defenders which the new manager did experiment with when he was the old manager but failing that it seems that Kilgallon, McArdle and Knight-Percival have got reasons to perform in a fight for their places.

Which damns Nathan Clarke and youngster James King to a season picking up scraps.

On the left side of the two full backs James Meredith has no competition for his position following Gregg Leigh’s departure although there are moves, we are told, to bring in cover for the Australian. Meredith could be employed further forward should McCall play a three man central defence with wing backs. Should Meredith miss out then someone in the squad will be press ganged to left back.

And that someone is probably Tony McMahon who has played in most positions at Bradford City in his one and a half years at the club and after being – some may argue – the best player last season on the right hand side of midfield he has been officially announced as now being a right back.

A stranger move it is hard to imagine considering Stephen Darby’s position not only as right back and captain but consistent performer over the last few years. It is not accident that Darby’s name – as with McArdle – appears alongside the better moments of Bradford City’s recent history. An acid test of McCall’s second/forth spell at Bradford City is his ability to see this.

Again as with McArdle Darby starts the season injured and is two to three months away from full fitness. McMahon has the position for now.

Darby is important – very important – but McMahon’s abilities are not to be underestimated either. He led League One on assists last season and performed the wide midfield role far better than players who were signed with much more flourish. Finding a place for McMahon in the side is important but to replace Darby is to cut out the heart to add an extra hand – or foot – where it should not be.

Daniel Devine can also play right back, but he can do anything, read on.

Stuart McCall’s situation with midfielders is similar to his central defensive proposition in that he has at least three players who one might argue should have places and two places to play them.

Romain Vincelot continues the Brexit baiting European-ness of not only being French but also wearing number six and playing in midfield – does he believe he is Luis Fernández? – and seems assured a place in McCall’s side while Timothée Dieng who wears a more respectable eight jersey has done enough in pre-season to suggest that the two might combine into a dogs of war midfield. Or should that be chiens de guerre or perhaps coeur de guerre which sounds much more romantic.

However Nicky Law Jnr’s return – the first summer signing of what can justifiably be called a new era – suggested that he was likely to be favoured in a central midfield role. The aforementioned McMahon and Filipe Morais can also play the role and Devine has impressed too.

Devine, King and Reece Webb-Foster who we shall come to later have an interesting position in the 2016/2017 Bradford City squad. Where previously injuries in the Football League were on the whole covered by loan players new regulations mean that such moves can only happen within transfer windows.

This sets a requirement for players like Devine to be kept near the first team squad as cover rather than being sent out on loan, or isolated from the first team squad because the intention is to send them out on loan.

As the aim is to have a Devine, or a Webb-Foster, or a King ready to be dropped into first team action in the way that Wes Thomas or Tom Thorpe was last season then there is an opportunity to have those players blended into the first team squad. And in that context should Webb-Foster show day in day out in training that he can score then his path to the first team is highlighted.

This was not the case under Phil Parkinson where young players would complain about a lack of development – there was no reserve team some of the time – and there was an obvious preference to loan signings over development players. News that McCall is interested in Liverpool’s Cameron Brannagan and is trying to bring back Josh Cullen is interesting in this context.

It would seem that Vincelot and Dieng will start the season in the centre of midfield for City and that Law Jnr, and Devine, will cool their heels waiting for an opportunity or for McCall to try a three man midfield that would take Dieng holding and Vincelot and Law alongside him.

It would be odd if McCall – an advocate of the FourFourTwo – abandoned that formation just as its resurgence post Euro 2016 took hold. His willingness to do that perhaps depends on Brannagan or Cullen signing or the performance of the most disappointing group of players last season.

We shall dub these the creators if only because repeating the words “wingers, attacking midfielder and and drop off strikers” over and over will get tiresome. Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall’s failure to fulfil these roles last season deformed City’s season and to expect both to improve is an act of faith.

Anderson’s first season was interrupted by injury but when fit his play was not especially useful. He is fast and able to send a ball into the box at a ninety degree angle to his running path but as previously mentioned crossing is football’s overrated virtue and not only would Anderson have to play better this season to impress he would have to play differently.

Which means that Anderson – who enjoys a seniority at the club and is expected to perform – needs to not take the easier options he so often did in his performances at the start and the end of last season where he went wide hugging the touchline and hit the ball into the box and to nobody. His delivery was poor and considering the lack of numbers City got into the box that was a problem.

Anderson needs a reinvention. He needs to be the player who uses possession much better than he has done previously. He needs to be the player who can effectively cut inside as well as go outside of a full back and when he does he needs to have more presence of mind to find a target more often or to choose to do something else such as a surge into the area.

It might be that Anderson does not have these attributes to his game but if that is the case then he condemns himself as a very easy player to play against and one which will struggle. Even at League One level football has no time for the player who has but one way to achieve his aim and persistence is only admirable when a player carries on doing something effective.

Which brings us to Mark Marshall who has a similar situation albeit one he has shown more capacity to address. Marshall’s delivery is better than Anderson’s and he shows a willingness to vary his play which makes him genuinely difficult to play against but he is troublingly negligent in the defensive side of his game.

Marshall too often could be accused in his appearances last season with exposing the full back behind him and not working well in the defensive unit. A coeur de guerre midfield might give Marshall more licence to idle in this regard but he is simply not a good enough winger to set up a team to carry him if he does not track back.

Unlike Filipe Morais who offers McCall the type of endeavour that the previous manager loved but not the creative output which the team needs. Morais is being considered more of a drop off striker to play in what is now called the number ten position but was the hole although his effectiveness there seems to be a result of his randomness rather than the teams ability to blend him into a style.

Morais, as with Marshall and Anderson, is a creator who does not create enough and this is where the worries about Stuart McCall’s planning for the season start. The back six players provide a superb platform – arguably better than the one that Parkinson’s side had – but there seems to be a dearth of creators to stand on that platform.

Which leads back to McMahon who – like it or not – created a lot last season and should Anderson, Marshall and Morais not step up their contributions significantly then one suspects that McMahon will need to be taken out of whatever hole he would like to fit into and bashed back into one of the wide midfield positions.

Creation, assists, and defensive ability to not leave the team undermanned this should not be a difficult choice to make but one worries that McCall will have to learn this lesson the hard way. As it stands McCall is putting a lot of faith in players who have done little to merit it.

Should McCall favour a three man midfield then one might see Anderson and/or Marshall deployed further forward as part of an attacking three but that does not seem to solve the problems so much as make them less relevant by shifting the creation to the three midfielders. If McCall opts to play Vincelot and Dieng deep and a row of three creators behind a front man then one might worry about the effectiveness of such an approach but still these players would have to step up their performance.

McCall seems to be prepared to put that faith into Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall and one hopes that his faith is rewarded – much depends on it being – and one expects to see both starting against Port Vale for the opening game of the season and hopes to see the two players who were promised twelve months ago.

Which leads us to the subject of Billy Clarke and the strikers. Clarke’s promise at the start of last season evaporated leaving the top scorer of the year before idling towards the end of Parkinson’s time at City.

As with Anderson and Marshall the problem Clarke presents is that he does not scorer enough to be considered a goalscorer nor does he create enough to be thought of in that role and unless there is a drastic change in either of those qualities then there are problems when he is in the team.

One can try play a passing game routed through Clarke the number ten but to do so is to put undue faith in the Irishman’s sporadic ability to unlock a defence. This is a distinct contrast to James Hanson who one can rely on to beat defenders to high passes on a regular basis.

This was always the unsaid – or perhaps unheard – quantity in the debates over how Phil Parkinson’s side played football. Hanson would reliably win high balls, Clarke would not reliably unlock defences through craft. The argument was more pragmatics than cosmetics and the nature of that argument has not changed with the change of manager.

Get the ball to Hanson and there will be flick ons more often then there will be through balls from working the ball through Clarke. The two can play together with Clarke playing off Hanson but to do that Clarke needs to remain close to the man they call Big Unit and not wander off on esoteric crusades for the ball deep in the midfield.

Likewise to play the ball through Clarke and look for craft to open defences Hanson would need to be more mobile than he is and make the sort of runs which have not been a staple of his career.

Which is where Jordy Hiwula and Webb-Foster present options that are valued if only because they are unknown.

The problem that Stuart McCall has is that Bradford City do not score enough goals. I would argue that they do not create enough chances and the reason for that is that the team was set up defensively after a recruitment issue left the team with a goalkeeper and back four who could not deal with crosses.

The solution to not creating enough chances is in the creative players: the Andersons and Marshalls; and in the strikers: Clarke and Hanson; and the onus on them to make more chances to allow a reasonable conversion rate to result in more goals.

It is not impossible that this situation will have been addressed by a general step forward by the entire team – the defensive posture of last season prized not conceding over everything else – but unless it has or unless the players perform then the strikers will spend the season once more trying to convert a high percentage of fewer chances.

One can expect to see Hanson and Clarke start the season and one can expect before August closes the strikers and the creators to have been augmented. At the moment City and Stuart McCall seem to have a team that his half right which at least is not a step backwards.


This preview might get out of date quickly and if it does it will be updated. Just so you know.

Unfamiliar / Preview

Matthew Kilgallon joined Bradford City on a one year deal from Blackburn Rovers bringing a level of excitement to some supporters at the end of a summer where things at Bradford City fell apart and were put back together again.

The usefulness of Kilgallon’s recruitment will be seen in time. He and Nathaniel Knight-Percival joi in the central defensive position and Nathan Clarke and Rory McArdle remain. This gives Stuart McCall’s Bradford City three or four – depending on your view on Clarke – strong choices to start in the middle of the defence.

At the other end of the pitch things are different and attacking options are thin on the ground. McCall arrived in June to find James Hanson still at the club he had left five years ago but one could argue that Hanson and his colleagues players in attacking positions: Mark Marshall, Paul Anderson, Billy Clarke; need improvements on last season’s performances to be significant.

Teams score goals, not players and while four of those mentioned above could be more creative than converting – the flick down from McArdle’s diagonal ball is an act of creation – none could be said to have created enough.

Tony McMahon’s withdrawal to right back form the right wing – where he spent a season under Phil Parkinson – is a curious move from McCall exactly because it removes the one player in the Bradford City team who excelled in creation last season.

Drop

His name dropped into the preview it is worth acknowledging that Phil Parkinson is going to have more of of an impact on Bradford City 2016/2017 than Stuart McCall will. Parkinson – who of course exited for Bolton Wanderers in June – built as much of a monolith as football allows a manager to create in the modern game at Valley Parade.

Parkinson took his backroom team with him to Bolton and his backroom team – it is reported – took everything they had worked on with them. Once again – just as with the situation a few months prior to Parkinson’s arrival at Valley Parade – the file cabinets that contained scout reports were empty and the structures around a football club were scant.

And it is this way because Parkinson wanted it this way. The former Bradford City manager had had experiences sharing out the power at a football club previously – most notability at Hull City – and found it wanting. Parkinson fought a hard fight against unspecified directors with unspecified roles to make sure that he had some control in every aspect of the footballing side of Valley Parade and he won those fights.

There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop young players and so Stuart McCall arrived to find no young players with first team experience. There was no pressure on Parkinson to create a squad which was sustainable from one season to the next. There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop a squad with resale value until new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp arrived at the club and – within a few weeks – Parkinson was gone.

Rahic and Rupp arrived to replace Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes as Bradford City owners and began to talk about a future in which the squad was shaped around recycling the waste product of Premier League academies.

That last statement sounds needlessly dismissive and should not. If one looks at the example of The Chelsea Academy of the last fifteen years one can only think of a single player – John Terry – who was not waste. Millions are spent on players who are discarded for not reaching and elite standard but are able to be turned around and made into useful footballers.

A production line of turnaround players is as close to a business model as the game at lower levels has ever had and one which Rahic and Rupp believe they can benefit from. Clearly the club they bought was an ill fit to achieve that.

Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes freely admitted that they could see no other way of the club going forward than someone arriving and injecting more money and, as the ultimate result of that paucity of thinking, they were prepared to give Parkinson total control of all football matters.

Which is not to say that Parkinson should not have enjoyed carte blanche to do any or all these things as he sees fit. Parkinson’s methods showed constant year-on-year improvement and perhaps would have continued to do so but without the manager ceding some control they would not have aligned with the owners.

Parkinson used many short term contracts, and Parkinson used many loan signings, and Parkinson was not entirely interested in developing young players, and if the club are now interested in long term permanent signings of young players then it starts from a negative position.

Which is a long way of saying that the 2016/17 season – the first post-Parkinson season – is defined by the decision taken by Rhodes and Lawn to allow Parkinson to be the entire centre of the footballing side of Bradford City. There was no institutional retention of knowledge – the scouting cupboard was bare – and that is the result of choices made before June 2016, not after.

Five

Phil Parkinson’s final finish for Bradford City was fifth in League One and it is that which – rightly or wrongly – Stuart McCall will be measured against in the next twelve months as will Parkinson at Bolton Wanderers.

Both measurements could be unfair. For Parkinson his record of first season success is thin and the Trotters would be better to be prepared to wait.

For McCall he is a manager who started late and without structures which are necessary. McCall has not walked into a Southampton where the manager is an appendage to a well run system. He is at a club which – both rightly and wrongly – allowed itself to be defined by its manager and who has now gone.

There is much work to do to replace Parkinson and while Rahic has an idea of the shape that he would like the club to take in the long term there is no reason at all to believe that any of the work ahead of McCall, Chief Scout Greg Abbott, James Mason or Edin Rahic can be achieved without any negative effect on performance.

That Bradford City that finished fifth last season is gone and progress must now be judged anew.

These are unfamiliar times.

Unbalanced / Vincelot

Shall we begin with the warning, dear reader, that pre-season games are not to be taken too seriously and that not too much should be made of a poor afternoon where Bradford City lost 4-1 to Burnley without much of a whimper.

Burnley are a Premier League side and are built like it and the physical size of the visiting team’s back four against an attacking pair of Billy Clarke and Filipe Morais showed the porosity of options in replacing injured James Hanson. That Hanson when missed cannot be replaced is obvious to all. Play a different way without Big Jim, but do not play as if he is there. Stuart McCall found out today what Phil Parkinson knew in that. There is an obvious need for another forward.

At the back there is a type of order emerging with the Tony McMahon cemented in at right back in the absence of Stephen Darby and Nathan Clarke and Nathaniel Knight-Percival alongside him. They struggled today but signs of a relationship with Colin Doyle in goal were there. Daniel Devine will not be starting at left back but – at seventeen and taking responsibility for the ball that put some of senior professionals to shame – I’d expect to see him starting games this season. Despite playing left back today he was the best midfielder in claret and amber on show.

Which brings us to the afternoon’s issues: one old, one new.

City started the game off brightly but Mark Marshall’s inaction in the defensive third allowed Burnley to score – Marshall gets no credit at all for shouting back at McMahon (his captain, and full back) who balled him out after his mistake, Marshall is too old to be having a strop when his captain tells him what everyone else could see – and within minutes the game was utterly beyond the Bantams. In recent years we have seen Bradford City teams who prided themselves on never being out of games but the McCall standard of over-dramatisation returned and Marshall’s mistake swept through the team as nervousness and before half time Burnley had a 3-0 lead.

McCall’s statement that Marshall could play a key role this season assumed much improvement from the wide player which seems to have no evidential basis. Marshall’s tricks on the wing are impressive but he remains a literal liability. For every two times he does something with his ball skills he allows three chances behind him with he undisciplined performances. This was true last year and was true against Burnley in pre-season. Unless there is a very sudden change to how much he creates, or gives away, then McCall has a problem in the making.

The a different type of the same problem emerges for Paul Anderson. Once again big things are expected from the winger without any suggestion that he will achieve them. Both Anderson and Marshall create a type of possession but by fielding one or both of them McCall foregoes other possession. By telling Anderson to try fly past full backs one is axiomatically foregoing possession in from of the full back. Anderson/Marshall look for zone 16/18 possession and that stretches the midfield.

That midfield today saw a new recruit with Romain Vincelot joining from Coventry City for £80,000 to pre-empt the problem of the afternoon. Timothée Dieng held the middle of the pitch well but Nicky Law – coming forward out of midfield – left Dieng often alone in the middle of the pitch and – without Anderson and Marshall to tuck in – with too much work for one man to do. If McCall is to play Anderson and Marshall – and one would hope the pair would improve in the next two weeks to justify that – then Vincelot and Dieng are in and Law is out in order to create something like a balance.

More balanced would be to play only one of the Anderson/Marshall pairing and allow Law – or McMahon when Darby is fit – to create a tight three in the midfield but some distant worry niggles at my head and leaves me wondering if the changed McCall has changed for the better in learning the virtue of this kind of balanced middle four or if he may have fallen for an idea of attacking players rather than attacking chances.

The season is a long one and when it starts pre-season and its niggling worries are all but forgotten.

Hiwula / Guesswork

There is a school of thought which governs the signing of players like Jordy Hiwula who was recruited on loan by Bradford City from Huddersfield Town having come for “six figures” from the same Manchester City young team that gave us Devante Cole.

That school of thought is to contextualise the single signing as being a poor one because of his lack of success elsewhere – Hiwula has barely played and when he has played has recorded modest goal returns of late – and because any player not wanted by another club has a flaw which would become obvious with more attention.

There is a logic to this second point – managers rarely rid themselves of good dressing room characters first and there is a worry that man who played up front with Devante Cole might have the same attitude – and the first relies on the inexorable gravity of football that concludes that because most seasons are not successful for most clubs in the high standards of promotions and trophies then most signings are successful either.

These are boundaries which players struggle to verbalise their position within. Hiwula said on signing “I think the way that Bradford play will suit the way I play” which – considering that this Bradford City has played but one game – either denotes that Hiwula really likes Rory McArdle’s passing, or that he has not noticed the change of everything since his played against City on loan for Walsall, or like most footballers he just says the thing that seems right at the time.

Which is exactly what the school of thought that damns he does. It is countered by a second school which is more optimistic in presenting previous successes as similarly negative. Did you think that the sixth choice striker from Carlisle United would be worth a punt? Did you think that the skinny Ginger son of a Leeds player was worth a deal?

And the problem with both these schools of thought is that they are largely distraction from the a central truth which became increasingly obvious through Phil Parkinson’s time at Bradford City which was that these judgements on good signings and bad signings are retroactive.

Rory McArdle was a good signing, Gary Jones was a good signing, Stephen Darby was a good signing but those things were not true on the day the signed. Universally Lee Power was seen as a good signing but his debilitation after two games means that very soon that was not the case. See also Gordon Watson.

The quality of a signing is about many things which start after pen is put to paper: work put in on the training pitch is one, avoiding injury is another; The season is unwritten and players are as good as the effort they put in. Devante Cole seemed to avoid putting in the effort to adapt to a system he did not enjoy despite obvious talents. Will his former teammate Hiwula put in the effort? Will Hiwula be a good signing? That is in the hands of Hiwula.

Which is not to say that there is not an indication from a club’s transfer activity of many things but to single out individual transfers and make judgements on prospective performance is largely guesswork, and of little worth, be it in praise or damnation.

Timeline / Reboot

There is a difference between you and me. We both looked into the abyss, but when it looked back at us, you blinked – Bruce Wayne, Crisis

There was a point in the history of Bradford City where the club took one turn, and could have taken another.

To be more accurate these points happen all the time but watching Stuart McCall take a Bradford City through pre-season at Guiseley I ended up thinking back to the days of January and February 2007 when Dean Windass was allowed to leave City and join Hull, and Colin Todd was sacked.

Todd’s contract was up at the end of the season and it was an open secret that Julian Rhodes wanted McCall to replace him. The need for totemic best player Windass seemed to be over with Rhodes convinced that the Bantams had enough points that David Wetherall could not possibly get them relegated in his time as manager (which he did) and had he not Rhodes might have used – not certainly not needed – an investment from then supporter Mark Lawn.

And had Rhodes excersized restraint and kept Todd, or Windass, or both, or taken another option then McCall may well have arrived in June 2007 to the very type of situation he found himself in some nine years later.

But these things happen all the time. Had Notts County’s one yarder in the first round of the League Cup 2011/2012 gone a foot lower then there would not be a Phil Parkinson legacy – such as it is – for McCall to adopt.

That legacy is not to be understated either. Parkinson has left City in rude health. The leanness of the squad in summer which caused so much consternation is purposeful and a feature of the majority of clubs outside the higher reaches of the game where lengthy deals on players are more often liabilities than assets. Only the foundations are secured in League One football these days.

And the foundations off the field are secured.

Parkinson – as far as the story is told – never walked into the boardroom and demanded money the club could not afford for players and given how easily led the boardroom seemed to be that is a good thing. That the squad last season was patched with loan players rather than panic purchases says a lot.

List the players from last season who City owned to still be at the club this season and names like Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby – both absent today and for the start of the season following operations – would be iterated through. Ben Williams and Jamie Proctor would not.

“The owl of Athena spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” – as Hegel should have said – and it seems that dusk has not come yet for Parkinson.

Rather than a reboot of 2007/2008 and McCall’s first time as Bradford City manager in League Two it seemed that the manager was on the road not travelled, and playing in what could have been.

What was was an entertaining encounter. It would be wrong to talk about Guiseley as more than an extended and expensive training session and so to pick out specifics rather than trends seems to miss the point of the exercise.

Those trends though seemed positive.

The young players who stepped up from the lower ranks which Parkinson ignored and played with the élan of The Lisbon Girls allowed out to party for the first time. Daniel Devine’s name suggests itself.

The trialists looked lively in a way that seemed different to those Parkinson brought in. All looked capable and some looked impressive. The wheat from the chaff comes in spending time with the characters and seeing how they fit into a unit which is what games like this are all about.

It was good to see George Green make a long awaited debut. George Green and the subject of paths not taken is interesting assuming you remember the name.

And of the new signings Nathaniel Knight-Percival did not have much to do while Nicky Law Jnr set up an equalising goal for Tom Hateley (trialist) to score from. That moment when Hateley equalised revealed the game for what it was. The Bantams were happy to kick the ball around but would not go home in a defeat. The gears shifted up after falling behind showed a team working fitness rather than working to win.

And all seemed new. Parkinson has left something good at Bradford City but his exit seems to have taken with it some of the stolid tenancies which mired City’s thinking. All that was good seems good and all that was not seems new.

Which is not something that one would have expected.

Transfer / Improvement

If you were to use the words “nothing has happened” in relation to the last two weeks someone might look at you askance.

Prime Minister, Brexit, Iceland, Etc.

If you did said it about Bradford City’s transfer policy you would be able to claim some level of accuracy. The list of transfers in June 2016 grows and the signing club is not Bradford City in any of them.

And that list includes some interesting names too. George Moncur – who joined Championship Barnsley – is the very type of player one might want to see in Stuart McCall’s new Bradford City team. Paul Downing – who joined MK Dons – is reported to have been a target that City missed out on.

No matter. As season ticket sales report to be slower than hoped for there is an idea that were Bradford City to make some impressive signings then bums would go onto seats. This is wishful thinking. While there are players who might sign at League One level who could convert the unconverted they are hard to think of.

If you, dear reader, believe that were we to sign the much lauded Bradley Dack, or Romaine Sawyers of Walsall, or Millwall’s Lee Gregory that the man sitting in his armchair watching Match of the Day will be beating a path to Valley Parade I’d suggest you are engaging in a wilful self-delusion.

There are a number of great targets available for sure but the people who know them are not staying away from Valley Parade for their absence. If you are the sort of person who knows who Mark Beevers is you have probably already got your season ticket sorted out.

If you are waiting for City to sign a big name then I would suggest that there is no name City could sign big enough to stimulate your interest.

So while it is curious that City are a few weeks away from pre-season and have allowed the player pool to be whittled away it is not exactly troubling. New chairman, new owners, new manager, new scouts, new targets. It might be unfortunate than Moncur and Downing have slipped away from City’s grasp but it is hardly surprising.

And it probably beats the alternative which is a scatter signing where you get the best players you can find on paper and nail them into system. If you want to know what scatter signing teams look like you need only cast your mind back to Monday in Nice where a group of very talented players with very expensive price tags were beaten by another group of talented players with much less expensive price tags who had been assembled with a little more care.

Or better still think back to Stuart McCall’s first spell as City manager where players were brought in and shipped out with an indecent frequency causing a team with as brittle a character as one can remember.

Players like Paul McLaren came in and were shipped out and one wonders how much care went into their signings. Three of the best signing in City’s recent: Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, and Stephen Darby; all came with a guarantee of character from assistant boss Steve Parkin.

When signing a player managers want to – need to – know about the character of the individuals they are signing. Skills are obvious – on the whole – but how do you know you are not signing a Jake Speight, or a Leon Osborne?

Take two of McCall’s signings. James Hanson is proved himself as a character and as a player for Bradford City. Steve Williams has proved himself as a barber.

Williams looked like a superbly talented footballer and a classy defender but the two conversation I have had with people who knew Williams said they same thing. He did not have the desire needed to be a footballer. He did not “want it” enough and it showed.

There is a celebrated story of West Yorkshire’s own Frank Worthington – a sublimely talented 1970s footballer – turning up to play for Sir Alf Ramsey’s England wearing leather boots and all over denim.

This was the England team of Bobby Moore and the Shelf Cowboy need not apply. He did not fit in, at all, and which accounted for his few caps in the same way that his move to Liverpool was – according to David Peace’s account and popular folklore – cancelled because his to STDs he picked up in the space of a week.

Shankley, and Ramsey, took one look at Worthington and knew that as good as he was on the field he was not good for the dressing room.

How do you find these things out? How do you get better at recruitment? I’d imagine it has a lot to do with scouting, with knowing the difference between a good footballer and someone who is good at kicking a football, and about having enough contacts to find that information out.

Maybe it can be done ten times in the space of two weeks. Maybe not.

We heard much talk of hoping that Stuart McCall had changed and had learnt as a manager and here it is. It might put a dampener on season ticket sales that City have not brought in ten players in a week (and I would argue that it does not) but it heartens me that no one at Valley Parade is bringing in ten new faces with a week or two preperation.

To me that is the first sign that McCall has changed and, dare one say it, improved.

Holes / Fit

Stuart McCall gets to the business of building a squad to compete in League One next season and he does so starting with a compliment of ten outfield players and no goalkeepers.

The goalkeeping situation offers most scope for change. Ben Williams – who is considering a new deal – would not suit McCall’s style of play at all. Williams’ weakness on crosses forced deep sitting defensive lines in Phil Parkinson’s final season. McCall needs a keeper who can control the defensive line, keep it high, and clear out any cross that comes behind it.

And then he needs another of these keepers as back up, and perhaps a third considering the changes to loan rules.

Across the back four Parkinson has left three solid players: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and James Meredith; and certainly Meredith seems to be exactly the type of attacking left back which McCall fielded all through his management career. Darby offers a balance on the right and – unless Parkinson is able to call either of both like some crazed Boltonian head of the herd – McCall would be best advised to keep both in position.

Rory McArdle seems a player to build any defence around and McCall’s fondness for a big central defender was personified in Marius Žali?kas at Rangers a year ago. During his first spell at the club McCall inherited David Wetherall and Mark Bower and ended up struggling to work out what he wanted from his central defensive pairing.

The new City manager often preferred two commanding central defenders and McArdle fits that bill but he has played his best football last season with a faster, clean up player alongside him and McCall might be advised to find one of that type of player as well as cover.

Considering Phil Parkinson’s sit deep team Stuart McCall might be surprised to find he has two wingers in his dressing room. Both Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson need to perform significantly better to be considered League One standard – which for Anderson is a bold statement considering his pedigree and remunerations – but the new manager has shown a commitment to wide play which affords an opportunity.

Filipe Morais and Tony McMahon are not McCall’s definition of a wide player but both could prove useful if in the merits of a better balanced midfield are to the fore. This all assumes that McCall will play the 442 formation he did at Valley Parade in 2010.

McMahon proved last season his ill-fit in a central midfield role being to weak in the tackle to hold the middle of the pitch. McCall needs an entire new engine room for his team. Last time he favoured one robust midfielder and one more attacking player while fielding two who could still be considered box to box players. It will be interesting to see if in the intervening time he has gained any faith in specialist defensive midfielders.

He has four players to bring in for that area. It will be interesting to see who they are and what roles they will take. McCall needs to find character and leadership in those positions and those things are seldom going free in a summer. It is easy to say that McCall needs to find his McCall, and is not untrue.

One midfielder is expected to be returning is Nicky Law Jnr. The Junior being increasingly humorous in a man who, like your author, has inherited his father’s hairline.

Up front McCall finds familiar face James Hanson. Discussion on Hanson will always be split and split along an ideological line. Hanson is the only player City have who could clearly be said to be the best at an aspect of the game in the division. People can cross a ball better, and shoot better, and defend better but no one in League One is as commanding in the air as Hanson.

This has massive implications for the opposition going into game. If a manager ignores Hanson he faces the prospect of watching his team be dominated from corners and crosses. If he takes special measure for Hanson he surrenders more space to other City forwards. That two men are marking Hanson at set plays affords space to someone else.

Ideologically though some are unable, unwilling or uninterested in this sort of dynamic between teams and are of the school of the thought that suggests it is for a team to dominate and dictate their way of playing onto the opposition. McCall was of this mindset too, far more than Phil Parkinson, and it will be interesting to see if he has changed.

The aforementioned Clarke seems very much McCall’s new Michael Boulding and while one can expect the manager to look at bringing in strikers one doubts Clarke will be hurried out of the door. Reece Webb-Foster will probably be given a chance – McCall’s record on untried players is a stark contrast with Parkinson’s – and another rumour reunites McCall with brief Rangers loanee Haris Vu?ki?.

Selection / Manager

First this then what? While the history of BfB remains unwritten if I were to follow our friends at A Post in doing so there would be a large chunk of that about the process of recruiting managers.

Because while Bradford City have not had to appoint a replacement manager for some five years in the five years before the practice was becoming so common as to have started to be tedious.

The transition from Peter Jackson to Parkinson was something of a disorganised fumble with the candidates being interviewed not understanding the remit of the role they were applying for. Colin Cooper is believed to have told Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes that were he to get the job he would sack Chief Scout Archie Christie and Rhodes reply – as reported by Christie – was that Christie’s input on the manager would weigh heavily on the process.

At the time Rhodes and Lawn had wanted John Still the then Dagenham and Redbridge manager (who is now manager of Dagenham and Redbridge again) to take the position but were turned towards Parkinson as a better option.

Jackson’s appointment was a Sunday afternoon nonsense where it seemed that the club had decided that as a former player Jackson could skip an interview process for who would replace Peter Taylor and go straight to the manager’s chair,

Jackson had been working in a care home when he got the call to become a football manager once more. In my view he was barely adequate in his performance and the problems of his appointment were those of his departure. No matter how Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp go about recruiting the new manager for Bradford City one doubts it can be worse than that period of the club’s history.

Peter Taylor had been an outstanding appointment to replace Stuart McCall bringing to the table a seniority which McCall lacked and a proven track record of success. Taylor’s time at the club is rightly not fondly remembered but it is his professionalism rather than the lack of material which stopped him from sticking a few boots in on the way out.

The Shane Duff fish story speaks volumes.

Taylor’s appointment is perhaps the model that Rahic and Rupp – and any other chairman looking – would best follow when looking for a new manager. Selecting a candidate who had achieved success is important but much more important are multiple successes across different situations.

This adaptability is probably what attracted Bolton to Parkinson. Parkinson has worked on a budget at City at first, and at Colchester United, and he has shown an ability to take on big occasions at Chelsea, Arsenal et al.

There is an element of confirmation bias in Parkinson’s appointment.

The news that Chief Scout Tim Breacker is leaving with Parkinson comes as music to the ears as the club badly need to readdress that area. Parkinson’s recruitment was becoming an problem at Bradford City. Of the players he was happy with Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and Kyel Reid were all picked up a long time ago and if there was a faultline between Rahic and Parkinson along the idea of recruitment then one would struggle to suggest that the manager should have been allowed to carry on doing things the same way.

Likewise following the defeat to Millwall I expressed a concern that Parkinson had created a kind of Oakland Athletics in League One (The Oakland A’s being the subject of the book Moneyball) which was able win in the grind of week to week football but were found wanting at the sharp end of the season.

That concern was just that – a minor concern, rather than a fully stated question – and of course is denied by memories of Aston Villa away and Stamford Bridge but while the strength of Parkinson was his team’s ability to grind out results and sneak 1-0 wins that was a weakness when overplayed.

One should never be critical the the days of milk and honey ended but Millwall game illustrates this concern. In one of the forty five minute periods – the first – the Londoners dominated City and in the others the Bantams were arguably the better team but did not repair the damage done.

Perhaps more significantly to the concern is that in those three forty-five minute periods that followed Parkinson’s side did not seem as if it could repair the damage of being 3-1 down. Keeping game’s tight and nicking goals works over a longer period, less so in a two legged tie.

But would overplays this at one’s peril. Parkinson was an exceptional Bradford City manager and as Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp look for his replacement they must hope to keep the best of Parkinson.

Parkinson’s teams were seldom out of games. Rarely were the side over a goal down and always did it look capable of getting something out of an encounter. One of the more compelling reasons to follow Parkinson’s City on the road was the fullness of the ninety minutes of football. Never being out of a game was a watchword of the previous manager, and hopefully will be one of the next.

This was in no small part down to the spirit Parkinson’s side had which was second to none seen at Valley Parade. One could write books about how the players aided each other through bad moments that stopped bad games and probably still not understand exactly how that team spirit worked. Suffice to say whatever it is needs to remain, as to Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle the chief proponents of it.

Finally Parkinson’s pragmatism needs to be a factor in the new manager especially when confronted with the stated iconoclasm of Rahic and Rupp who have a clear idea of how they want the Bantams to play (“High pressing, exciting”) but may have to accept as Parkinson had that tactics are created to suit players and situations. Parkinson’s final season at City was defensive by necessity. The new manager, whomsoever he may be, should hope to make sure that he understands this.

Ultimate / Reasoning

The news that Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle will miss the first month and two months of the season respectively following operations leaves Bradford City in a position of having five players for the opening day of the season.

Of the entire City squad – stripped of those on loan or on contracts that run out at the end of June – Phil Parkinson has James Meredith, Mark Marshall, James Hanson, Josh Morris, Filipe Morais, Paul Anderson and Tony McMahon remaining (see comments below). With recruitment over the summer a problem for the City boss but with investment having arrived one wonders if things were not meant to be this way.

Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp had declared an interest in buying City twelve months ago. One can assume that that interest became more concrete as the season went on. One wonders how much impact the German pair’s arrival had on Parkinson’s winter spending. Had the previous regime known they were selling the club would they have authorised signing players on deals that went beyond the end of the season? Would Parkinson have wanted them to?

Devante Cole – a square peg at Bradford City – left for around £45,000 and a loan deal for Jamie Proctor that became a short term contract. The money – one imagines – went into the books for negotiation making the club look healthier and Parkinson was not saddled with an eighteen month contract for a player (Proctor) who he probably would not want if he had improved resources.

The reported £85,000 for Gary Liddle caused a lot of upset and head scratching at the time but perhaps makes more sense now. The player is sold, the money goes onto the bottom line of the club, and Liddle is replaced with a loan player in Cullen improved the team. Again knowing that the club would be being invested in one might speculate that Parkinson would have been looking to replace Liddle with some Bradley Dack-a-like.

So Parkinson goes into the recruitment phase with a near clean slate which – if the James Hanson to Sheffield United talk come to fruition – could be even cleaner because of the approach to signing players adopted in the last transfer window.

As Alan Sheehan – who departed yesterday to Luton Town – might have been tempted to say. There is just an inner circle left at the club now and that seems to be the way it is supposed to be.

Phil Parkinson and the team of tautology

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

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

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

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

But that was then, and this is now.

Transition

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

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

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

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

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

Shut up Wesley!

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

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

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

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

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

The fault is not with the stars

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

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

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

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

What do you learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you remember the last time?

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

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

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

The Neville Southall problem returns to Bury as City draw a blank in the FA Cup third round

Bradford City fans saw the end of Neville Southall’s career, Bury fans saw the start. Southall – who many regard the best goalkeeper of his era – played 39 games at Gigg Lane and presented manager Jim Iley with a problem.

Southall’s predecessor John Forrest had kept goal for the Shakers for twenty four years but such was the new goalkeepers nascent ability was such that that Iley’s strikers – who included future PFA chairman Gordon Taylor – were struggling to beat the him in training.

So much so that Taylor and his team mates got used to spending training sessions putting their best efforts at Southall and seeing them saved.

They got used to not scoring. And they lost confidence.

The Phil Parkinson era

Southall had been gone seven years, Iley four, when Phil Parkinson made his debut for Bury. City manager Parkinson played 145 games at Gigg Lane most of them as the position of midfield spoiler that he would make his hallmark at Reading.

There is an adage that one can trust a manager to know his own position. The suspension of Nathan Clarke following a sending off at Gillingham that also saw Reece Burke injured and then returned to West Ham United had given Parkinson a problem in the middle of his back four. Rory McArdle needed a partner and while Christopher Routis had returned to fitness Parkinson had previously dropped Gary Liddle back from the holding midfield berth to he him in the role.

And that approach had failed. It had failed at the end of last season and failed at the start of this and – to my estimation – it had failed not because Liddle can not play the position (he spent a season in central defence at Notts County before arriving at Valley Parade) but rather because he was missing from the middle of midfield.

Phil Parkinson decided he would not be without his Phil Parkinson.

The best from the worst

Liddle in central midfield presented the problem of using Christopher Routis in the heart of the defence – a role he has not played since Joe Garner spent fourteen minutes ripping him apart before he was sent off – in front of a keeper in Ben Williams with whom there is a direct correlation between McArdle and Burke being in front of him and him keeping a clean sheet.

One recalls with horror Williams struggling to set the defensive line at the start of the season and the number and type of goals conceded as a result.

Looking over the field and almost half the City players: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Kyel Ried, James Hanson and James Meredith; had joined the club as it struggled in the bottom half of League Two. Bury are a peer at of City in the top half of League One and all those five players are worth their places a league and a half above where they were when they first got on a training pitch with Parkinson.

Which is something to describe in assessing the skills of Phil Parkinson. He picked up the players signed when CIty were (arguably) at their worst and got the best out of them.

And so it proved with Routis, and so it proved with Williams, who both performed superbly. I would have written off Williams as not worth the work to improve but when Andrew Tutte got behind McArdle in the first half and was in a one on one situation with the City keeper my heart was not in my mouth as Williams narrowed angles, made himself large, and ended up pushing the ball away.

Likewise Routis kept le coeur from la bouche most of the afternoon matching McArdle for vigour and showing the physical strength that was missing from his game previously. He went too far and one two footed tackle in the second half should have seen him sent off.

Parkinson had decided that the way to battle Bury was to battle Bury and City were physically robust bullying the Shakers into the playing the game as the away team in the own stadium a fact made easier by the decision to put Bantams fans behind both goals. They do not like it when you suggest away fans outnumbered the home around these parts but that seemed to be the case from my corner of Gigg Lane.

What did John Iley do about that problem?

Having been bullied onto the back foot by a City team pressing high Bury struggled to create a tempo to their play and while they had two chance to snatch a lead it would have been snatched. The Shakers best moment ended with Darby and McArdle taking control of the ball between them in a six yard box scrum and wandering away with it as if it were a training game.

But at the other end of the field the Bantams struggled to convert chances. Tony McMahon hit the post with a free kick, Liddle headed wide when everyone expected him to score, and Hanson scooped over from inside the six yard box in the last minutes of stoppage time. Confidence is obviously low and shows with all City’s players.

Difficult to score against but labouring at the other end with strikers. What did John Iley do about that problem?

The Iley way

Iley effectively banned Southall from training – albeit with a smile – and in doing so allowed the 1981 vintage Bury strikers to get used to scoring in practice again. Southall’s rise was inexorably unaffected.

The Shakers ended the season blasting in fours and sixes, clearly with confidence recovered, and finished above City in the 1981 Division Four table. Southall left for Everton and glory at the end of the 1981 season and so the problem solved itself the next season having been fixed on the training pitch before.

And one suspect that it is on the training pitch that Parkinson will solve his team’s goalscoring problems. The team are defending well, are creating chances, are controlling games. The ball will not go in and confidence has suffered as a result but Parkinson (and I) believe that it is easier to add goals to a team that defends well that stop a free scoring team conceding.

This is Parkinson’s way. He builds teams that are hard to beat and capitalises on what can build the confidence. Sixth choice striker off the bench against Rochdale blasts it in and he becomes Nahki Wells. Middling League Two team beats Arsenal and Parkinson galvanises the club around it. City bob along in League One, beat Chelsea, and end up a a place outside the play-offs.

Parkinson takes a clink of the light of confidence and bathes the players in it. How that is done will probably not become a part of football folklore like Iley and Southall have but everything we have seen from Parkinson in the last five years suggests it will.

The superb and stupendous success of Scunthorpe United

There were probably more Bradford City fans in the stadium applauding off their side than there were supporters of Scunthorpe United following City’s 2-0 victory.

The Bantams had scored a goal in each half with Kyel Reid being fouled after his own shot was saved to allow Tony McMahon to score his second penalty of the week. Greg Leigh scored his second mesmerising run and finish from left back of the week too. Which was good, if you like that sort of thing.

City drafted in Jordan Bowery on loan from Rotherham United to cover Steve Davies in covering James Hanson in the forward line. This caused some upset with some supporters aghast that the Billy Clarke/Deavnte Cole partnership would not be given a chance, others that Bowry’s training would be to have Rory McArdle kick the ball at him very hard, and others that Luke James would be furious. The irony of Parkinson being called out for overlooking long term loan players in favour of short term loan players is not to be lost.

But so it was that Bowery – a willing runner who ran up with cramp towards the end of the game – played target man and Billy Clarke fell deep from the forward line to bolster a midfield which was already bolstered by favouring the more defensively minded Gary Liddle over in form Billy Knott.

City dug in and delivered the ball quickly to the final third. It was the first Wintery day of the season and – at times – one half expected to hear the old stand-by that the ball would come down with snow on it.

Oh to be a Scunthorpe United supporter

By contrasts Scunthorpe United are a joy to watch. Set up with a 433 with one fulcrum midfielder they deployed the insanely talented ballplayer Gary McSheffrey on the left side of a three up front and he drifted between the lines perfectly.

The Iron midfield moved and played short balls well – or tried to – and the forward play of Darius Henderson was all about him dropping deep and trying to turn balls on the floor into him, into passes to supporting players. Henderson ended up isolated and isolated because after a team the belief seemed to seep out of Scunthorpe.

Promiscuous manager Mark Robins has created a Scunthorpe United team who try to – underline on the words try to – play football “the right way” and while the two best chances that the home side created came from raked balls forward on the whole Robins deserves whatever credit swirls around for playing passing football to focus on him.

Yet nobody stayed to applaud his team off.

What you say you want

What Scunthorpe United do is what you (and it should be obvious who the “you” referred to is) say you want. You say you want to see Bradford City play passing football. You say you want City to stop playing long balls to a target man and play through the midfield. You draw little pictures of formations with Devante Cole on one side of attack and no Tony McMahon.

This is what you say you want. Players with deft touches trying to create the perfect chance. The passing game. If you are brave enough to match the courage of your conviction and utter the phrase “I’d rather see City lose than play like this.”

This is what you say you want.

And I wonder if you would stay behind and applaud off a team that lost 2-0 and lost heart when the deft touch was bitten down and the team fell short in effort as well as quality despite the desire to do the right thing.

The evidence of the home supporters suggests that the superb and stupendous success of Scunthorpe United is not all it is cracked up to be.

And perhaps you should stop saying it is.

And onwards

There was a sense of hopelessness in the air when Phil Parkinson brought back Kyel Reid and put McMahon on the right at Rochdale but City have not lost a league game since.

McMahon talks about a team meeting that turned the season around and brought the squad together. That togetherness is – to me – what is worth watching in football. Seeing players enjoying working hard for each other, and enjoying the rewards.

It is what elevates the game from twenty two grown men running around a bit of grass taking everything too seriously.

Stern tests await. Coventry City are top of the League One table and arrived at Valley Parade on Tuesday night. They used to have McSheffrey and now have Joe Cole in his position.

One can not imagine that if reading that all the Bradford City players would smile and note that McSheffrey’s position is somewhere deep in Stephen Darby’s pocket.

The Ben Williams season continues with City facing Aldershot Town in the FA Cup

Williams from Williams

The first time Ben Williams became known to Bradford City supporters was during the first round of the FA Cup when – minutes into the game with Halifax Town – he was picking the ball out of the back of his own goal.

An inauspicious start to a campaign that would see Williams keeping goal at Stamford Bridge but his afternoon at The Shay better when Phil Parkinson switched formation and Filipe Morais and Billy Clarke turned the match and the season around.

Jon Stead scored – he always scored in the FA Cup – and Williams’ role was largely forgotten but he did make a very good save from a Williams’ close range header. I’d describe it as memorable but it seems that not a lot of people remember it.

Ben Williams save from Steve Williams. Steve Williams is a former Bantam who exited Valley Parade around the time of the change from Peter Taylor, to Peter Jackson, to Phil Parkinson . In the words for former Chief Scout Archie Christie when asked why the talented Williams had left said that the player “did not want it enough.”

Wanting it enough was big for Christie, and is big for Phil Parkinson.

Wanting it

The last three weeks of Bradford City have been the definition of “wanting it”. A trip to Millwall, a visit from Blackpool, a trip to Aldershot for the 0-0 draw that brings about this reply, and a 2-0 win over Crewe Parkinson’s team had dug in hard to turn a few good wins into an impressive unbeaten run.

Parkinson’s has taken his Bradford City back to the most simple of building blocks creating a team which fetishises not conceding in the same way Barcelona lust for possession. Parkinson’s City will not concede – so the thought goes – and as a result the result will take after itself.

One has to go back to 24th of October when Wigan Athletic took the lead past Ben Williams for City’s last concession. Williams could have done better with that strike, and he got lucky with a shot from Crewe on Saturday that slipped greasy off his body and flew back into play but Williams has earned his luck with his graft.

My issue with Williams’ goalkeeping style – that he allows too much of a gap between the defensive line and himself – is addressed by Parkinson compressing his defensive unit at the expense of his forward line leaving the forward line lacking numbers. It is meat and potatoes and City are criticised for a negative approach to the game.

Criticism is always relative though, and relative to the criticism one gets for losing.

The work

The work which Phil Parkinson’s team have put into the last two months is transformative. Players have developed pairings where previously there was confusion. Stephen Darby has found an unlikely partner in Tony McMahon while James Meredith probably thought reuniting with Kyel Ried was unlikely too.

The central midfield pair are of two of Lee Evans, Gary Liddle and the much improved Billy Knott are a product of days at Apperley Bridge. Knott would be the poster boy for improvement with his push back from the Ghetto of being an “attacking midfielder” into a genuinely useful box to box player.

Would be if it were not for the backline of Rory McArdle, Reece Burke and Williams himself. Calm has replaced barked blasts. Control has replaced scrambles. Stern has replaced soft when running at the heart of the Bantams team.

There is a significant need for a collective improvement. It has happened.

A Ben Williams sort of season

Bradford City’s season has become a Ben Williams sort of season. Capable of slips, and at times doing things wrong, but improved with hard work and no better/no worse as is shown on the field.

I’ve always found this aspect of football as – perhaps – the most understated joy in football.

To support a Liverpool in the 1980s, a Manchester United in the 1990s, a Manchester City now is to experience football top down where expectation is winning and winning is everything. Bristol City supporters last season – with a team outspending its league – expected the same. It is rare to have that in football, I’m sure most at City never will have had it.

For the rest the drama is in watching teams which are – and I struggle to find a better description – only as good as they are on the field. City are in a morass of teams in League One who are in a similar situation. The FA Cup against Aldershot Town offers the kind of assumption which the Bantams seldom get, and can never enjoy.

Aldershot Town are struggling for form in the National League but so were City when City rolled up at Chelsea last year – everything in the FA Cup is set in the Chelsea context for a while at least – and while the Bantams should win they will only do so with the same hard graft that has turned the season around.

Hard work, and hoping the mistakes go unpunished. A year on from his debut and we are all having a Ben Williams sort of season.

The first day, the fourth year, and Bradford City beating Doncaster Rovers 1-0

Day one

There is a much mangled by often said phrase which mumbles around the words that time will make strangers of us all. It is is a gnomic observation and one which has little denoted meaning. “Death” is sometimes substituted for “Time”, “Angels” for “Strangers”

But it is not perhaps unfair to suggest that if the phrase can be applied to mean anything it means that people change over time. I am not the man I was four years ago, dear reader, and probably neither are you.

And nor is Phil Parkinson who has been Bradford City manager for a shade longer than that period.

The friend who is a new manager

The talk before this game is about the new manager. The new manager of Liverpool Jurgen Klopp has taken the national headlines. At Doncaster Rovers Darren Ferguson arrived on Friday to take charge of the home side.

Doncaster Rovers and Liverpool are not often united in expectations but both are united in a sense that pervades that both feel as if they should be higher up in football without any real justification for that. Klopp’s arrival at Liverpool will not make Manchester City any poorer, or Arsene Wenger any less keen to focus on finishing third or forth without risk of second of fifth.

Likewise there is little about Doncaster Rovers that suggests they have a natural place in The Championship and plenty to suggest that – as with a few other club in this level – they do some things right and others not. Standing around the Keepmoat Stadium looking at the pitches for juniors, the modern facilities, the ample parking one cannot help but be half impressed and half underwhelmed.

For all that impresses in the environment there is a sense that as Ferguson arrives the manager is an afterthought in a club doing all the right things to be an impressive 40-60 ranked side. They have created a setup for a team at this level. I contrasts sharply to City who are a club built in the image of the manager, and entirely dependent on that manager.

Ferguson might change that at Doncaster. He could take Doncaster to “the next level” that I’m sure has been mentioned in his recruitment. He, and Klopp, are welcome friends. Time has not made them strangers yet.

Phil Parkinson the Stranger

Which is the excitement of a new manager and the contrast with having a manager for as long as City have had Phil Parkinson. Ferguson, and Klopp, are dealing in potential. Today could be the start of the Ferguson-Era at Doncaster – in two years they could have been at Wembley twice – but it probably will not be. What is most odd about considering four years of Phil Parkinson is that most managerial appointments do not work out but Parkinson has.

Nevertheless there is a growing conflict within the Bradford City support that divides along an analytical style of Phil Parkinson’s style of play.

That style of play has always been pragmatic more than pretty and the defence for it – if a defence is needed which I would say it is not – is that the directness brought about success. “Would you rather be playing pretty football in League Two?” comes the retort, as if that sort of weighing of options were ever offered.

It has been noted that City are not progressing up League One – although the league position finished suggest otherwise – and that results at home are not good – especially if one excludes Sunderland and Millwall which in this argument one does – and so if results are not what one would want why suffer a manager playing a style of football which is not pleasing on the eye?

And of course it is never phrased that way – no one suggests Parkinson should leave Bradford City – rather it is phrased that things would be better if Parkinson were to adopt a different style of play. That if Parkinson cannot bring progress (and that is some assumption, considering he is doing) then he could at least have the decency to stagnate in an attractive way.

To wish for the end of things

Time makes strangers of us all, but Parkinson is no so strange.

When he arrived at Hull City – a larger club than Colchester United where he had made his name – Phil Parkinson was offered the opportunity to change his methods. I am told that he believed he flexed too much, and that senior Hull City players believed he flexed too little, and after an indecently short length of time Parkinson was sacked.

That Parkinson walked away from that experience – and from his time at Charlton Athletic – with the belief that he needed to be more committed to his approach rather than more flexible to change as he accuses himself of being in the past says much about why the manager is not about to begin Tiki-taka football now.

(An aside on Tiki-taka)

(It is worth noting that Tiki-taka – lauded as the most attractive way of playing the game that speaks of Spanish passion and flair – is at its heart a statistical reductionism of football tactics based on the correlation between the amount of possession a team has an its frequency of victory.)

(It is a Moneyball tactic that objectives the number of goals scored as a function of possession and thus makes possession the most important aim within a game. Possession in Tiki-taka is more important than scoring goals because retaining possession minimises the oppositions opportunity to score goals. It is, at its heart, a defensive approach.)

Not changing

To wish for Phil Parkinson the Bradford City manager to take a different approach to the game is to wish for another manager of Bradford City.

When after thirty seconds of the game with Doncaster a throw in cleared the first defenders and ended up in the middle of the penalty area one wished for City to have the sort of player who poked the ball in in such positions and there was Devante Cole to do just that.

One goal in less than a minute and to hope that Phil Parkinson would use the early goal as a platform for more is to not understand the manager who it was said of that he made teams which could defend. Recall Parkinson’s coming out party as City manager against Wigan Athletic, or the follow up against Arsenal, and Parkinson played a team of pragmatism and pressing.

The management of players working hard to constantly defend is what Parkinson brought to City and what he will hope to return to. With eighty nine minutes left to play were the situation reversed and who in Doncaster knows what new manager Ferguson would have done?

How does a Doncaster Rovers fan know how a new manager will react 45 seconds into his first game? Every City fan with an attention span know what Parkinson would do.

What Parkinson did

The performance, as it arrived, was in the spirit of 2012/2013.

The midfield pair of Lee Evans and Gary Liddle sat on top of the Rory McArdle and Reece Burke back line, and Steve Davies (and then James Hanson) defended the midfield. Tony McMahon came inside to bolster and Kyel Reid and Devante Cole stretched the home side to prevent them coming too far forward, and to stop them adding pressure to pressure.

Attack sporadic, and pushed wide it was the Parkinson we had become familiar with and perhaps forgotten. The feeling that if Nahki Wells can nick a goal then the defence could see any game out was the stuff of that season that ended at Wembley.

The best laid plans…

Which is not to suggest that there were not chances for Doncaster to get back into the game – indeed they will still be smarting over a chance that hit the bar, came down and was not ruled to be in before it was punched in by a Keshi Anderson – but the chances were minimised, and they were pushed out wide then soaked up by the central defensive pair.

Up front Devante Cole scored – he seems to do that often – but most important ran his legs off chasing down clearances and putting defenders under pressure damaging the delivery forward for Doncaster.

Like Ferguson Devante is another Manchester “son of” and that will take a line in a report despite Darren not taking the job officially until Monday. Whatever Ferguson attempts to do with Doncaster Rovers it would be easier with a striker like Cole to do it with. It is easy to forget after five Cole goals in eight games that had Parkinson had his way then Doncaster forward Andy Williams would have been leading the line for City.

We have got to know much about Parkinson. We know that he is not the greatest recruiter in football – and no one’s idea of a wheeler-dealer – and struggles to replace players he has made on the training field. Wells was replaced by Cole after eighteen months of looking at players like Williams but City still wait to see a new Gary Jones, a new Andrew Davies.

Cole fits more and more into Parkinson’s plans and Parkinson’s plans continue unchanged. Today those plans came good while often of late City have looked incapable of seeing out a lead. Parkinson makes his players, and his teams, on the training field. Improvement happens slowly but is permanent when it does.

The poster boy for this is is James Hanson. There is a school of thought that Hanson – working hard off the bench today – is “not good enough”. The people saying this flatter themselves having said that Hanson was not good enough for the bottom of League Two, and then for the top of League Two, and then to fight relegation in League One, and then to play in team fighting for promotion from League One.

The retort writes itself of course but the more salient point is that under Parkinson players like Hanson, like Rory McArdle, like James Meredith who could have spent careers in League Two are continuing to improve. “Hanson is not good enough” will eventually be right, because time will make a stranger of us all.

Parkinson is at City – Parkinson is in football management – because he believes that a team that plays as City did today defending, pressing, working with each other, will be successful.

After four years that is no different than it was on his first day at the club.

Directing Traffik at Boundary Park as City beat Oldham Athletic 2-1

There was a time in one of the easier away victories Phil Parkinson will have claimed as a manager when it seemed that the direction of the traffic of Bradford City’s would be constantly one way.

Devante Cole had scored his second goal in two games latching onto a smart through ball by Billy Knott with a run behind the home side’s back line and the Bantams – then playing against ten men – were enjoying the luxury of being able to be profligate with chances.

Mark Marshall, Luke Morris, and James Hanson all enjoyed lashes wide or over and one could easily say that that was the result of a confidence that comes from having a goalscorer in the team. Such are the thoughts when leads are comfortable.

That it was comfortable was the result of a high tempo start where City applied pressure up field which Oldham struggled to cope with. The Latics midfield was centred around the thirty six year old David Dunn who had some class on the ball but needed others to get stuck in for him in midfield. That following the sending off for Jonathan Forte for heading Stephen Darby one of his midfield-mates was Mark Yeates explains City’s dominance.

Gary Liddle took most of the midfield duties for City allowing Knott the space and remit to have one of his best games at the club. Knott drove from midfield past Dunn who could not keep pace and Yeates who never kept pace and Danny Philliskirk who might have kept pace but was dragged wide as – finally – City’s wide players understood their purpose off the ball.

Reece Burke scored the opening goal for City after a Mark Marshall pull back when a deep free kick was flapped at by Joel Coleman in the home goal. There is a gap between where defenders stand and where goalkeepers can get to which Coleman is still working out.

My contention is that Ben Williams has not worked this out and as he keeps goal for City at the expense of Brad Jones – a reward for consecutive clean sheets – he does so despite this fact. Oldham’s goal came from Mark Yeates pitching a ball over the zone between defenders and keeper perhaps knowing that Williams would not come – he did not – and seeing Joe Mills score to make the last ten minutes more tense than they might have been.

The goal had a sobering effect.

Parkinson may have told his City players that they need to be more clinical in front of goal – plenty of wasted chances today – and he might use the concession as a reason to put Jones over Williams which seems as inevitable as Cole over Luke James who made a spirited by fruitless cameo today but mostly he will use the game as a signal of things improving.

Seven points from two away and one home game is impressive enough to justify City’s position as second favourites for the division.

Parkinson wandered up to the City fans after the game – mutual applause and all – and both fans and manager can be glad of how convincingly the form has turned around.

It was one way traffic, but deservedly so.

The aside about the K in the title

I once met Clint Boon of The Inspiral Carpets – the Madchester band who were Oldham fans – at Kendal Calling festival and I went up to him to talk about Oldham as I bought a brownie his wife was selling. I said Hi and he said Hi and as an ice breaker before I started talking about how icy cold it is at Oldham – although was not today – I thought I’d tell Clint how much I enjoyed the Devil Hopping album that the Carpets put out as they declined in the mid-90s. Clint was pleased – very pleased – and enthused that he liked the album too raising the idea in my mind that people in bands might release albums they do not like. I suppose they must. I told Clint that I thought that Devil Hopping was the Inspiral Carpet’s attempt to be “The British R.E.M.” and his face lit up. As it happens that was exactly what Clint was aiming for with the album and to have that recognised – and recognised by someone buying one of the brownies he was selling – seemed to have given him unexpected recognition of a sort. He looked around perhaps for someone to share this with and his eyes fixed on a man wandering up to the brownie stall. It was Tom Hinkley – lead singer of the Inspiral Carpets. “Tom, this guy liked Devil Hopping. He thinks its British R.E.M.”, Tom was less enthused but it did not matter to Clint who was smiling broadly adding “You can have that brownie for free.”

Taking back control of the result as Bradford City draw 0-0 at Barnsley

When talking this week about the need for Bradford City’s players to put in a Bradford City performance manager Phil Parkinson engaged in a little modesty, and a little evasion.

I don’t think there was enough out there in terms of the Bradford spirit and determination we’ve known – and that didn’t sit easy with me – Phil Parkinson

Four years ago on Tuesday saw the Bradford City manager who proceeded Parkinson go into a broad room meeting trying to justify a lifeless performance against Dagenham & Redbridge and failing. He resigned and within a week Parkinson came to the club after the cameo of a Colin Cooper 4-2 against Barnet.

Many wanted Cooper to have the job and Parkinson, less obviously attacking in his approach than Cooper, was criticised as he went about a process that made City more predictable and by virtue of that less interesting.

Jackson’s last side was as lifeless as one could imagine but it was not criticised for that having come after Peter Taylor’s weak outfits and Stuart McCall’s sides who famously could take an offside decision going against them in a win and sulk it up into a six game losing run.

This has been the way Bradford City have been perhaps since Paul Jewell left the club in the Summer of 2000. For those ten years we were a club often at the whim of external forces be they financial or on the field. To a greater or lesser extent until Parkinson arrived City were a club who seemed unable to control its own fortunes.

Unless one wants to journey back decades then it would be more accurate to say that it is not a “Bradford City performance” that Bradford City failed to show in the 2-1 defeat to Gillingham it was a Phil Parkinson performance.

Modus operandi

Having watched Phil Parkinson’s teams over the last four years it strikes one that first and foremost the City boss demands the level of effort which was lacking from his players on Tuesday night. For much of Parkinson’s time at the club he has been able to select a team from a squad who all were able to reach that level required.

That that situation was coming to an end has been obvious for some time. If one believes that the Gillingham performance would not have happened had Jon Stead been in the forward line, or had Andy Halliday been in the team, then one convicts oneself of the most idealised thinking.

On Tuesday night – and over the week – it became obvious that he did not have eleven who put in what Parkinson requires and so new faces were called in: Reece Burke on loan from West Ham United, Lee Evans from Wolves.

In the past four years Parkinson’s loan signings – as opposed to his loan to purchase deals – have largely been to decorate the fringes of his team. Burke and Evans came straight into the side recalling Parkinson’s first month at the club when the likes of Matt Duke, Jamie Devitt, and Andrew Davies were signed and put into the side.

Loan signings disrupt the flow of a team, but when the team is not flowing what is to lose?

Replacements in South Yorkshire

In the event Lee Evans turned in a fine performance in central midfield as the Bantams had more control of the central area than they had in any game previously this season. It should not be said that Christopher Routis is the sum of the problems at Bradford City but with him injured, and Tony McMahon ill, the middle two of Evans and Gary Liddle looked to have the kind of solidity which has been lacking of late.

Evans will be at the club for five months at least. He is young and has some ability. His signing on loan suggest is is an after thought but one finds it hard to believe that Parkinson can have thought that he could go into the season with such poor resources in central midfield and perhaps Evans’ two weeks sitting out games at Wolves focused his mind on how to progress his career at another club.

Only here for a month Reece Burke – 19 years old and having only played five games previously – slotted into the defence alongside Rory McArdle and never looked out of place. Burke put in a calm, assured performance as one might expect from a player on his debut but he seems to be a short term solution to the problem of replacing Andrew Davies.

Alan Sheehan – who has performed the role better than anyone else this term – was on the bench and is thought to be about to leave the club. Millwall defender Mark Beevers has had talks over a move but those talks came to nothing. Nathan Clarke is on the bench until such a time as Parkinson redeems him.

Redemption/reconstruction

While there were chances for Bradford City to win at Oakwell against Barnsley Parkinson’s City were not seeking a redemption so much as reconstruction.

Burke slotted into a back four which was supported by a central midfield who did not stray too far up field and most of the afternoon the full backs were supported by the corresponding wingers Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall.

Parkinson has made it clear that we are at a stage in the season were we can judge all the players (except for Brad Jones, once again absent having missed training all summer) but judgements on those two wide players – and a third Josh Morris – are not kind.

Anderson has – thus far – failed to live up to the hefty reputation he arrived with. His performance against Gillingham was risible and while he was defensively better at Oakwell he showed only very occasional abilities to go beyond the forward line and link onto what could be won by James Hanson.

There is much to do for Anderson.

Josh Morris – who replaced Anderson after just over an hour – has shown more in terms of the ability but is frustratingly easy to knock off the ball for a player with pretensions to take a central midfield role as well as a wide one. For defenders playing against Morris is about playing on the line of fouling and hoping that the Referee has no sympathy for the player who concludes every challenge looking back at the official and appealing.

More curious is Mark Marshall who has very good delivery of a ball when he happens upon the right position to deliver it from but getting Marshall into those positions seems to be a random process. Defensively he issues vague and wrong instructions to the full back behind him but such things are worked on in training and that could improve with time.

Going forward Marshall needs to position himself to take on defenders and go forward rather than to dribble past central midfielders and move sideways. A man who can beat a player is useful when attacking but dribbling through central midfield is dangerous at worse, and fairly pointless at best.

One understands Marshall’s frustrations even without agreeing with his way of venting them.

City’s trip to Barnsley was about keeping a clean sheet and in keeping a clean sheer starting building belief in the squad that it is master of its own destiny. The balance was in favour of defending and none of the wide players was given much of a remit to attack. Parkinson wanted to see if Anderson, Marshall, and Morris were prepared to dig in, that the team were prepared to do as told, and to be responsive for achieving an outcome, and the answer was a qualified yes.

In this context Steve Davies and James Hanson toiled up front with the latter often isolated and the former missing a great chance when one on one with Adam Davies in the Barnsley goal.

One doubts Parkinson will lose much sleep over that. He goes into training for the first time this season – and I would say the first time since Reading – with a team that can be said to have had control over the outcome of the game rather than been buffeted on the winds of occasion.

That was the first thing Phil Parkinson achieved when he arrived at City four years ago. He hopes to have won it back on Saturday.

Parkinson under pressure after City lose 2-1 at home to Gillingham

One wonders how quickly the pressure that swirls around football managers will start to swarm on Phil Parkinson after Bradford City lost a one goal lead to be beaten by Gillingham.

Pressure from results should be irrelevant. Results in football are both the most and least important thing in the game.

They are the most important because they are what the entire football club is geared towards achieving but the least for the same reason. As the sum of all the efforts of a club they aggregate out accurately in most cases. When those efforts are lacking then it is not important that the results are so much as it is an obvious effect.

Which was the case tonight as City’s early season crystallised.

Once again Phil Parkinson favoured the three man midfield with a playmaker but tonight the reason for that choice was not so much the dogged determination to force Christopher Routis into a position so much as the manager addressing the problems that were on the field against Gillingham, and probably seen in training for weeks.

And those problems were distributed around the field, and those problems were largely to do with the level of effort which the players applied and the amount of commitment which those players had.

The level of effort was not enough generally and it was not enough specifically in the case of Parkinson’s two wide players Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson.

“There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them there.”

If there is an experience in football which fills me with dread its the winger who screams for the ball while hugging the touchline. They are the Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin of football. If only the ball could be got to them in whatever position suits them then they would use their influence to turn the game around.

The onus on the other players to serve them. It is the antithesis of the way of thinking and of playing which has seen Bradford City rise from League Two via Wembley and Chelsea.

And Parkinson – in August 2015 – has two of these players.

Marshall demanding the ball in his own half so he can run into the crowded midfield beating men but not making progress. Anderson getting the ball, turning from goal, and laying it off. Both of these players could be great in the future but if they are they need to make games like tonight far away exceptions to their common performances.

I have no truck with the idea that the other players on the field owed these touchline-huggers the ball.

Players get the ball when they are in good positions. When wingers run towards full backs effectively compressing their own team they are worse than useless. When wingers stand behind covering players they are worse than useless. When wingers watch the central midfield struggle from a distance they are worse than useless.

And it was obvious to me while watching Parkinson unleash his two wide men kept under wraps since signing that he must have noticed this tendency in both at the moment and that has forced him to pick narrow formations that exclude them.

There are two ways to play football: To make things happen, or to be a part of things that happen.

The last few years we have been spoilt with players who made things happen: Gary Jones, Andrew Davies et al; and out history as a club idolises them: Stuart McCall, Peter Beagrie et al; and the way those players was contagious.

And they spread their ethos of taking responsibility for the performance around the team. The culture at City in the last few years and at our best has been one of players taking responsibility for performances.

Tonight we had wingers standing with arms in the air. An illustration of the exact opposition of what brings results.

I refuse to write off careers on the basis of a few games but as far as I have seen of both Marshall and Anderson they have not even begun to show the character that success demands. This requirement comes into play before one considers the ability they may or may not have.

The questions marks

Wingers was not the sum of the problem.

We have a group of players who present with question marks over their character who have come into a group of players who had question marks over their character.

This is the team that surrendered to Bristol City, this is the team that were found wanting in the last third of last season following Andrew Davies’ injury, and those problems have not been addressed in the summer recruitment.

There is no pirouette to perform which says that it is the fault of the new players for polluting the old or the old players for not unleashing the new. There is a significant lack of character and willingness to take responsibility for performances that manifests in different ways and to different extents around the team and the squad.

And while some players are more guilty than others all players – and the manager – have to improve the collective. It is hideous in its cliché but the tide needs to rise, to float all the boats.

There is the continuing mystery of Gary Liddle who played a good performance in central defence rather than the much needed role in midfield. There was the problem with Tony McMahon who when put in central midfield represents the softest centre. I consider the role that McMahon plays in front of the back four as being the most important on the field and McMahon has not shown the capabilities to play that role thus far.

Again I do not seek to Damn him. He may be very good at that position but his very good performances will be a long way from this one not just in terms of the effect he has but in terms of how committed he is to the rest of the team and the performance. If he has a role in winning teams it will be shown character not present tonight.

The wrong side of history

This is the pressure on Parkinson. The parts he has brought together for this Bradford City team do not fit easily. He may try take responsibility for the defeat – as he did – but he can not take the players responsibility for the (lack of) effort away from them.

The players who did put in a shift tonight – and there were some – need to do more than just concern themselves with their own game. James Hanson, Rory McArdle, Alan Sheehan who put in good personal performances need to pull up the performances of those around then. That is what Gary Jones would do, and it is what Stuart McCall would do, and it is what Phil Parkinson needs from his senior squad members.

From a tactical point of view Parkinson needs to etch-a-sketch his team and start again.

Central midfield is the most important position in the team and out best player for that role should be there, so put Gary Liddle there. Hanson up front, Darby at right back, McArdle in the middle. All players you can trust to get a team out of a slump.

A shape emerges from that process and I don’t pretend to know what it is. I’ve banged on all season about Christopher Routis but watching Routis involve himself in play contrasted with Anderson hiding when the ball came forward, putting defender between him and the ball, it becomes obvious why Parkinson is picking the Swiss/French.

The pressure on Phil Parkinson comes from the squad he has assembled and making it work. I’m no fan of cliché like “Big Time Charlie” put unpacking that term is useful in analysis of Gillingham at home. Some players on the field felt that is was not their responsibility to win the game.

The wingers, McMahon perhaps, Ben Williams seemingly, Josh Morris, Billy Knott in parts (although his performance is a confusing one) and perhaps one, some or all those players think that they have made a bad move coming to Valley Parade, or that they are somehow apart from the performance of the team.

It is a long way from the Championship Play-offs to the bottom of League One but the blow of that distance needs to hit home hard – if it applies – and players need to make sure they do all they can to be a part of the a successful team.

Or they sulk, on the wing, or in midfield, or in goal, making out that it’s someone else’s job to get you the ball, or stop the man, or organise the defence.

And they fail, and we all fail.

Certainly I’m not going to be part of any criticism of the players who do show the characteristics in favour of new faces who meander the field.

There is no improvement in giving the ball to disinterested players and hoping that that sparks them into life. Anyone seeking to say that things would be better if only the players who has the bottle to win the ball shovelled it to those who did not have the weight of a history of Bobby Petta, Harpel Singh, Tim Steele et al to argue with.

Peter Beagrie did not stand on the wing with his arms in the air sulking because he could not get a pass. He rolled up his sleeves, hunted the ball, and supported his team mates.

The pressure on Phil Parkinson

Parkinson is under pressure but that pressure should be self applied.

It should be to make both his new signings and the players currently in the squad understand that there is a baseline of effort which they have to commit to win matches and that did not commit in the 2-1 defeat to Gillingham.

On the night James Hanson scored from a fine Billy Knott centre but weak attempts to control the midfield against an able and mobile Bradley Dack led to second half pressure from the visitors which too easily overwhelmed City’s rearguard and the game was lost through a Hanson own goal following a long range effort that went through Ben Williams as if he were not there.

The day after Parkinson needs to work out which of his players he can rely on to show character, and to put in effort, and turn performance around. He needs to deputise those players into forming the mentally weaker players – the followers if you will – to create an effective squad.

He needs to find or make a few Gary Jones/Andrew Davies in the current group and have them lead. The names which suggest themselves have been suggesting themselves for months: Rory, Stephen, Jim, Lids; but the team built around those men drifts.

I think that finding those leaders with the current squad might be the most difficult task that Parkinson has had as Bradford City manager.

I know that there is no other manager I’d want doing it.

Six months time

In six months time this article might be absurd.

Team building is a snowball rolling down a hill. It starts often in defeat and the response to that. Paul Jewell famously used the two points from seven in 1998 to build 1999’s promotion.

In six months time Paul Anderson might be everything we are told he is.

Mark Marshall might rip defences apart, Tony McMahon might be solid in central midfield, Stephen Darby might be improving the players around him, the defensive unit might be organised and on and on.

If all those things are the case are it will not be an extrapolation of the performance in this 2-1 defeat to Gillingham, or the (lack of) character shown in it, or the contempt for the effort that is required to win matches on display.

It will be the reaction to that. That reaction is the raw material which Parkinson has to shape his future from.

Post script

James Hanson played well.

The alternatives to how Premier League football runs the game

How could it be any other way?

The Thierry Henry campaign to launch the return of the Premier League on Sky Television was predictably a hit. A video showing the Frenchman wandering through moments in the last 23 years of football history like some kind of Gallic Forrest Gump has been watched millions of times.

And right now there are sponsorship deals being made which will see logos for betting companies or pay-day lenders – or airlines and insurers – emblazoned on shirts.

Soon football will be returning from a Summer break that hardly seems to have happened. Which is wonderful.

Because we all love football. I know I do, but I know I do not love all football, and increasingly I recognise that there is a lot about football that I do not like at all.

It’s all about the money, Dick

This is not the prelude to a moan about money in football. I have no problem with a player earning the salaries they do.

In the most general terms the money in football comes from footballer supporters subscribing to the game through season tickets and television rights, from a pie at the game to a pint in a beach bar under the omnipresent sight of Premier League football on a screen suspended from a rattan roof.

Most of the money which comes into football goes out to players. This is often the source of consternation but it is probably not the case that if as money did not go to players it would result in cheaper shirts and lower admission. It would go to Directors and Owners.

I enjoy watching players play, I don’t enjoy watching Directors direct nor spend their dividend payments. If I had the choice of how money flows through a club, if I have a choice between Players and Directors, it would flow with the players.

Encapsulated in that choice is the perception problem we have with our football. We set the game in the tone of excess. What to do with the massive amounts of money that the game generates?

What are the ethics of a £100m transfer fee? Or a player who earns £1m a week? Should clubs use money to reduce admission prices? Who should be allowed to own a club? Should the owners of a club be allowed to relocate the club to another City? Should they be allowed to rename or recolour a club? Or to fund club to success at the expense of other clubs who have not been given huge financial injections? Or to strip out assets as someone might do with any other business?

These are the debates in football over the last few years, and they will be the debates we have for the few years to come. These debates are all framed around one central theme: the massive amounts of money generated by football, and what should be done with it.

Dead Irish Writers

Standing on the roof of Croke Park and looking out to Dublin Bay you can see Howth Head. It is the spot where Leopold Bloom asks wife Molly to marry him as recalled in her soliloquy which closes Joyce’s Ulysses.

The roof of Croke Park is a horse-shoe shape leaving one end uncovered. It seats 73,500 people which along with the 8,800 on the terrace create the third largest stadium in Europe.

It is a towering structure and one which is used almost exclusively for Gaelic Games and specifically Gaelic Football and Hurling.

The Gaelic Games are amateur sports. When more than 82,000 people go to Croke Park – and they do – they go to watch players who do not get paid anything more than expenses to play for the county of their birth. The teams in the Gaelic Games are regional and there is no transferring between them. Of course you can find example of players who get paid in some way, and who have managed to find a way to switch clubs, because abuses exist in every system, but standing looking over the expanse of Croke Park the contrast to the oncoming rush of Premier League football is stark.

And it is stark in this way. We have been told – as football supporters – that there is only one way that a sport can operate and it is the way of the Premier League.

Since the launch of the Premier League in the early 1990s all football has been mutated around it, becoming focused on what is more or less the same approach to a game at every club.

There is a circular model which operates at every club which is about trying to achieve as a high placed league finish in order to generate money through sponsorship and advertising which is put into trying to achieve a high league finish.

Its is important to make a distinction between this model and trying to win a league. Newcastle United are our model in this analysis. They aim to finish as high as they can but know that that will not be able to win the Premier League. The aim is to maintain position.

The method is to recruit a team from all over the world without any specific connection to the team or the area it plays in, or the people who support it. That team is paid for by advertising almost anything that can be advertised. There is no ethical, or interest, test employed other than the commercial one.

Barcelona – a team who said that no sponsor would dirty the shirt – accepted one in order to compete in UEFA’s world as defined by Financial Fair Play. The rules that football is played under demand that income is maximised by any means. That is the way that football is.

There is little which is not sacrificed in pursuit of the circular model. Cardiff City change the colour of the team’s shirt, Hull City try to change the name. Manchester City seem to have been prepared to change everything about the club other than those two things. Newcastle United will change the name of the stadium, West Ham United will change the stadium, Coventry City will sell the stadium. All in order to turn the wheel faster on the circular model.

Which makes sense if the circular model is the only model – the only way to run a football club – but is it?

FC Romania v Sporting Bengal United

FC Romania play in the Essex Senior League and have a place in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round this month. They are a team set up to give a place where Romanian community can play football together. Sporting Bengal United who were formed to encourage more London Asians to play the game and play in the same league.

FC United of Manchester have opened a community stadium. AFC Wimbledon seemingly exist to show that community football is viable.

To greater and lesser extents these clubs operate away from the circular model in that they have priorities other than success be that financial success or success on the field. AFC Wimbledon, for example, could make more money to spend on the team should be agree to the many attempts to create a kind of WWE style Smackdown rivalry with MK Dons but they prefer to stay quiet and dignified.

These have things which they consider more important than being successful, and which they would maintain at the cost of success. They would rather be “a thing” than be successful in the way that football measures success.

They create their own terms for success which are tightly weaved into their clubs.

Hill 16

Hill 16 is the standing area not covered by the Croke Park roof. “Why isn’t the stadium finished?” asked a tourist, “That’s sacred ground.” replied the tour guide.

On 21st November 1920 the stadium was the scene of a massacre by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Thirteen supporters and one of the players were killed by gunfire described as indiscriminate. It was a reprisal attack on a day which is known as Bloody Sunday.

Hill 16 is set as the location of the attack and as such is the focal point for the mood of defiance that surrounds the Gaelic Games. That defiance is not just nationalistic (if it is nationalistic at all) it is also anti-establishment, or at least anti-corporate.

Recently Dublin has had to contend with the news that the Irish FA, smarting from being knocked out of the World Cup by a Thierry Henry handball, were paid and accepted hush money. The Henry advert for Sky is probably not as popular in Dublin. Football and Rugby Union are popular and are part of Global sporting movements.

It is not hard to see how the Gaelic Games stands apart from that. In the bowels of the massive stadium is a small museum dedicated to the history of the games, and of what the games represent in Irish independence, which talks of a community pride and tradition.

Again the contrast to the “whole new ball game” of the Premier League is marked.

Hill 16 stands as a part of that tradition. To continue the roof of Croke Park around would be to intrude on what is sacred ground to some. It would also be to miss the point of what Croke Park is and how it is a focus of a feeling that is at the heart of the Games played there.

Hill 16 is not sold as a part of the brand of Gaelic Football. It is intrinsic to that game itself.

Reading, writing and arithmetic

I go back in my mind to that week when Bradford City played three distant away games in six days culminating in one of the biggest games in the club’s history, an FA Cup Quarter Final.

The heavy legs, the weary players, and the sense of unfairness that had come from what was the luck of the draw of fixtures on one hand, and the fixed nature of the replay date because of the demands of Television and European Champions League football.

Had I been watching that game as a neutral I would have wondered how it could be that such a handicap would be applied to one of the teams. Alan Greene said as much during his Five Live coverage of the game.

The answer is as depressing as it is predictable. The money which fuels the circular model comes from the same sources that have created the environment where that game was considered to be an acceptable part of a top level football competition in this country.

And that poises obvious questions as to who decisions are being made for in football, and made by.

The Duke

At Bradford City we have enjoyed and endured a narrative over decades which (in some contexts) sets the club apart. In the Fire of 1985 we have out Hill 16, conceptually at least, and there is a sense of priorities which does differ from other clubs.

On most occasions those priorities are folded into the fabric of the wider game seamlessly enough. When it clashes such as in the Diadora advert for example a kind of reparation is made quickly and everyone moves on.

There are serious people who have reservations about how clubs like Bradford City, or Liverpool with Hillsborough, Spartak Moscow at Luzhniki, or Torino with The Superga Air Disaster have the tragedy build onto their sporting brand often without the permission of the club or its community, and sometimes against the will of supporters involved.

There are times when it is apt to talk about 1985 at Bradford City and times when it is not.

Bradford City the football club and Bradford City the community of supporters do not always overlap. Asking a player under twenty eight years old at the 2013 League Cup final if they are (para) “doing it for the victims of the fire” is one of those times.

Matt Duke, who played in that 2013 final, having survived cancer earlier in his life and saw his achievement on the field set entire in the context of his illness. The tone was not quite that had Duke not made a major final his recovery would have been lesser but the nature of the coverages showed the inability of the football media to consider matters out of a sporting context.

When, in the build up to the 2013 League Cup Final, Liverpool born pair Gary Jones and Steven Darby were asked what their thoughts on City accepting coverage sponsorship from The Sun and replied that they would rather it did not happen and the club (to the credit of all) respected those wishes.

The media ignored that story and still do perhaps because there was no way to set that in the context of “the boys doing good”.

The Chelsea Museum

If you arrive at Stamford Bridge early on that glorious day you could have walked around The Chelsea Museum. It is as far from Croke Park which has a delight in history and the amateur codes as you would ever see.

A celebration of Chelsea, and Chelsea winning things, and the fact that Chelsea had won things largely (but not only) because of massive amounts of money which were questioningly amassed by Roman Abramovich and lavished on the club.

Perhaps there should be a corner of the Chelsea Museum donated to Dubliner Mark Yeates wheeling away after he scores the fourth goal in City’s 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge?

The Shed End full and bouncing celebrating a team of hard working players scoring a massive upset. It contrasts sharply with what Chelsea have become since Abramovich’s arrival but it seems to speak to something at the heart of the football experience for supporters.

This might seem a comic idea – and it is presented tongue in cheek – but to a person who pre-dates the Premier League standing in the Chelsea Museum celebrating someone’s success because it happened at Stamford Bridge is very much what the club is about.

The phrase “easy to rig and was in fact rigged” is the heart of the Chelsea story. It does not feature in the Chelsea Museum, nor does it feature in the advertising for “23rd Year of The Best League In The World” which is bombarding out media this week.

Who does English football serve?

Who does English football serve? We have a simple question which quickly diverges into complexities.

Is English football here to serve the season ticketed rank and file supporter? Is it to serve the wider nation that flags up every two years and consumes the game passively? Is it to serve the overseas audiences who we are told are “increasingly important markets”? Is it to serve Oligarchs and Billionaires who own clubs? Or the Millionaires who play for them?

And when we get to an answer to those questions do we think that English football serves its aims well and for the good of the people it claims to serve.

It is nothing new for a season ticket holder at a club like Bradford City to suggest that the game is expensive to follow and does not seem to have his interests at heart and this sense is not lessened the higher up football one goes. Newcastle United supporters have been given a 12:45 kick off in Bournemouth in a move “by TV” which used to cause more outrage but now is just part of the fabric of the game.

We just assume – as supporters look on – that someone else’s interests will always trump our own. If we were at Croke Park we would just assume that Hill 16 would be demolished because someone else wanted it to be, or could make money from it.

And in that we assume that the someone else benefits appropriately but are we that convinced that the overseas audience the Premier League loves so much is best served by watch it? Would football energy not be best spent making better local leagues? The one hundred year plan in Japan, and the progress of the MLS, have shown what a country that is able to get the space to create its own league can progress.

Think about the ramifications of this football Imperialism the next time you see a Real Madrid shirt in Bradford City Centre. The people at FC Romania v Sporting Bengal United are building real communities around football. How does having to compete with Real Madrid help with that?

And how is it less obvious how the expansion of the Premier League to overseas markets is not equally counter-productive for other communities?

How is it not obvious the damage being done to us all?

How Bradford City mastered calm seas beating Carlisle United 2-0 in pre-season

And the day continued well. Phil Parkinson and his entire back room staff are in talks over new contracts and that was the discussion as fans mingled with players following the 2-0 pre-season win over Carlisle United. The drizzle gave way to a pleasant sun the early evening and all seemed to bode well.

Parkinson’s team had been in full race trim for the only Valley Parade friendly of pre-season and while Carlisle United had a moment or two they seemed a keen poorly set up by manager Keith Curle and set to struggle.

Curle approach centres around switched on midfielders who can dynamically move from the holding role to forward positions and he gives that responsibility to Jason Kennedy as if Jason Kennedy were able to be Steven Gerrard if Curle wants him to. I doubt he will last the year.

Parkinson’s approach is as contrasting as one can get. James Hanson is target man, Billy Clarke plays off him and with two banks of four behind them. For forty five minutes City play meat and potatoes football and they play it well grinding Carlisle in the first half and scoring two in the second.

The second saw Parkinson’s playmaker return but rather than trying to play through the man behind the front two the role was more space hunting third striker looking for the ball that came from Hanson’s head or – later – Steve Davies.

Davies was an inch away from scoring with his first kick but rather was next to Gary Liddle as he tapped in a flick down. Josh Morris had scored the first after switching to the right wing following a productive first hour on the left hand side.

Morris was impressive on the day, as was Liddle who played next to Rory McArdle in the back four, but all impressive performances were set in a context of how little trouble the visitors caused.

And there are things to write about the squad. Things to write about how Josh Morris provides a better supply of crosses than Mark Yeates in that he will cross from the byline. There are things to right about how when Gary Liddle moves out of central midfield there is no cover for him. Things to write about how Parkinson has a better first team but a weaker squad.

But all those things are conjecture based on a weak sample. Most pre-season tells one little, this one has said virtually nothing. Leyton Orient’s Nathan Clarke watched the game from the stands an looks set to sign during the coming week which will replace Andrew Davies.

One wonders if Parkinson hopes that he can maintain a small squad with players able to cover more than one position rather than bring in poor characters. Tony McMahon seems to cover one half of the defence and Alan Sheehan the other while Parkinson would rather play Christopher Routis in whatever hole the team presents than he would bring in players he does not know, who might not have the character he wants, who might not fit into his dressing room.

At the end of August Phil Parkinson will have managed more Bradford City games than Trevor Cherry did which we can broadly define as being the longest serving manager in the modern era. At the end of the season he will be the third on the list of most games managed.

This, it seems, is what stability looks like. Parkinson has players he trusts in the dressing room – players like McArdle, and Stephen Darby, and James Hanson – and he understands that those players have bought into an ethos. With that comes the tacit understanding that that ethos will be maintained.

That puts the onus on Parkinson to only bring in the right sort of character. Football is replete with players who can kick a ball well but are bad characters and it is those people who Parkinson has spent the summer avoiding. Judging a players ability to kick a ball can be seen in a friendly game, seeing how well a player fits into the dressing room will only be obvious as the season goes on.

The definitive redefined as Bradford City beat Chelsea 4-2

The war on cliché

I went to to write an article in Czechoslovakia under the old Communist regime one day in the ’80s. I thought to myself whatever I do, whatever happens to me in Prague I’m not going to use the name Kafka. So I went to this meeting and someone must have given us away because it wasn’t long before the door fell in and in come police dogs and guys in leather coats who said, ‘You’re under arrest and you’ve got to come with us.’ And I said, ‘What’s the charge?’ And they said, ‘We don’t have to tell you the charge’. And I thought “fuck”. Now I do have to mention Kafka.

Christopher Hitchens, 2009 North Korea: no liberty

The magic of the FA Cup

There is a moment when one stops taking breaths.

The ball down the wing crossed by Filipe Morais that goes to Jon Stead and at the point where it arrives at Stead the breath has left one’s body. Watching Stead holding the ball there are thoughts in one’s mind about how well Stead holds the ball, about how Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma are used to playing a game where standing off is more common than tackling, about Stead’s options.

Around this point one passes the normal amount of time which one leaves between exhalations. Stead has a claret and amber shirt near him and could pick out a pass but at this point your eyes are darting everywhere. Malcolm Gladwell suggests at moments like this: tense, excitement, literal breathlessness; a person takes on the characteristics of an autistic person and everything is literal and for a second nothing connotes as it should.

This is not a team about to fall out of the League One play-offs playing the best team in the country. It is not an unexpected two-all with minutes left on the clock. It is not really even in the wider context of a football match where this passage of play with give way to another passage of play.

It is just a man with a ball and he is going to kick it. You have not taken a breath.

Then from a deep position – so deep – runs Andy Halliday. A man who’s most remarkable attribute in his Bradford City career to date has been his unremarkable steady performances. The man who is the definition of seven out of ten. Who has run into an acre of space in the space between the Chelsea backline and midfield.

(Later I would think of writing that this is the hole where John Obi Mikel should be, but really it is the hole where Claude Makélélé should be. It was certainly the hole where Cesc Fàbregas should have been but was not. At the time though I was not thinking that. I had just literal comprehension of the moment. The ball. So close to the goal. The tightening of the throat that breathlessness brings.)

Who better than Andy Halliday?

As the air in front of 6,000 travelling Bradford City supporters went unbreathable and as Jon Stead saw his run from deep and played the ball into him who better than the player who has defined the term steady performance to calm hit the ball beyond Petr Cech.

86th minute, from two goals down to three-two and against a team which is populated with Premier League icons, and the man who puts in seven out of ten every week has just put the ball into the goal as if he were playing in training.

And then context floods back in.

This is The FA Cup fourth round at Stamford Bridge against the best team in England managed by the best manager in football at the moment bar none who were leading by two goals when the sun shone across the field but under floodlights in the second half Bradford City have gone into the lead with minutes left to play.

Chelsea manager José Mourinho has said that to lose this game for Chelsea would be a disgrace and as Andy Halliday put his hands to his face and slid to his knees that defeat went from possibility to probability. The come back of all come backs, the giant killing of giant killings was happening.

The football match of football matches. Was happening.

And exhale.

That Mark Yeates moment

Imagine having been standing at the side of Edger Street watching Newcastle United beat Hereford United 1-0 when Ronnie Radford picked up the ball in a muddy midfield. Imagine having watched Lawrie Sanchez make his Wimbledon début in 1984 and then four years later seen him score in the FA Cup final.

Jon Stead pointing at where he wants Mark Yeates to play the ball as Yeates breaks down the left. Yeates playing the ball into Jon Stead who stands strong and plays it back to Yeates where he wants it. Yeates past the defender and playing the ball past Cech’s left hand and then running away with his arms outstretched. They will play that clip forever.

Yeates’ goal could be the definitive moment of Bradford City supporting. It was the coup de grâce that was missing at Wolves, or when beating Liverpool 1-0, or against Arsenal and Villa. It was the underline. It was the world, and the fireworks.

Burnt forever into the mind however it came to mind.

I saw it from behind the left post with Robert to my left and Nick to my right. The guy who was three seats to my left probably heard it over his shoulder as he left early to catch a flight. The fans in the top tier literally over my head making the roar. Back in Bradford listening to the Radio. Watching Jeff Stelling going back to Stamford Bridge one more time. Walking around Ikea looking at Twitter having agreed to go when it went 2-0. The diaspora of Bradfordians all over the world. Everyone.

This was the new moment of supporting Bradford City.

With apologies to John Dewhirst (and his superb A History of Bradford City in Objects which you should buy) if you have a history book at home take it out and throw it in the bin, its worthless.

Chelsea 2 Bradford City 4 (Four*)

Chelsea’s side showed a number of changes from the League Cup semi-final draw with Liverpool on Tuesday night but so did Bradford City’s side that lost to Oxford United after our League Cup first leg two years ago. We expected to beat Oxford that day and there are posters of Petr Cech and Didier Drogba outside in the gallery of icons of the club. The manager has decided that he needed a freshness to his side’s play and rotated.

Not rotated was the manager: Mourinho. The only football manager to achieve the Garbofication of being known by a single name. The best manager in the world, or so it is attested, has decided that he can manage his resources to win this game. Who am I to question Mourinho?

Mourinho is right. As the game plays out it plays out as he wants it to. Drogba is a powerhouse capable of moments of sublime skill and possessed with the strength of a bear. He only goes over when he wants to – which is too often for my taste – and he wins all that comes forward forcing a save from Ben Williams which the stand in keeper can be proud of diving down to his left after the Ivorian bent the ball with the outside of his boot.

Chelsea’s methods are as they would be in the Premier League. The tendency is to hold the ball in the forward midfield and play diagonal fading passes that go through the path where central defenders and full backs overlap to cause confusion pulling one player into another and making space. It worked in the 5-0 demolition of Swansea City and it worked against Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby.

City then being dragged around the field by a team who claim to have perfected football. The first goal came from a corner with Gary Cahill dodging McArdle and flicking in with his right boot. It was a soft goal – the kind of goal Southend score against you – and Chelsea did not have to work hard enough to get it.

And Chelsea are working hard. The home side had cleared a lash from Gary Liddle and Andrew Davies had seen Cech push an impressive header away minutes earlier. The strength of Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City side in wins over Arsenal, Aston Villa et al has been how difficult The Bantams made it for the opposition to do – well – anything. There was an ease to how quickly the ball was in the Bradford City goal after Filipe Morais ran the ball into a blue shirt in midfield.

An ease that should not be mistaken for easy. The cutting attack of Ramires was everything that Chelsea promise. Ramires sprinted ball at feet half the length of the field to – after a one-two with Salah – slide the ball past Williams. Heads and hearts were heavy. Phil Parkinson had options he could utilise. He had deployed James Hanson in a role that saw him roam wide left and track back to full back on a number of occasions which seemed to have been an unnecessary rampart against an infrequent source of attack. Jon Stead was leading the line and while he battled well with Cahill, Cahill was claiming the upperhand even after a long Filipe Morais free kick had been recycled to Stead by Billy Knott deep in the box.

Knott fed the ball to Stead who lashed home from just inside the box. It was an impressive strike and at half time it seemed like it would be the spoils of the game. The performance – lauded in the Sunday morning papers – had sagged too low in the first half. Filipe Morais was struggling in midfield with his Roy of the Rovers moment not happening and Knott was struggling to make an impact in the game. Halliday had a decent first half though, a kind of seven out of ten.

(If I look at my phone I note that at half time I send a message home saying that I thought we would create a chance or two and would score in the second half, but that Chelsea looked like they would score more.)

Filipe Morais in bullet time

In the run of football a trailing team has a tendency of having five or six minutes of pressure at the start of the second half – rockets having been firmly inserted into arses – before the leading team reasserts the dominance that gave them the lead in the first place. If a team can ride out that storm it can win a game.

This was the context that City’s early second half attacks were in. A foray or two before one of the players who played in the World Cup asserts himself and the game is out of City’s reach. Perhaps watching from the Chelsea end the lack of pressure between forty-five and seventy-five minutes is damning. As City’s chances were created at some point the home side started to find it difficult to play inn contrast to the first half where things were easier.

Midfield passes were intercepted with Gary Liddle outstanding. At some point Mourinho had started standing up to join Parkinson in prowling the touchline. At some point Drogba started to spend more time clutching imagined injuries than he did standing up to Davies. At some point Ramires stopped being able to find a pass in midfield as he was crowded out. The solution: to bring on one of the most decorated players in football Cesc Fàbregas for John Obi Mikel becomes an irony in football history.

Long throw on the left by James Meredith which James Hanson flicked on and Billy Knott hass got onto the goal side of his man to bend low and blast to goal from inside the six yard box. Cech pushes away and the ball is four yards out at the feet of (former Chelsea youth/part of José’s first team/released from Stamford Bridge) Filipe Morais.

The next second plays out over a lifetime.

Morais’ face is a picturebook as he addresses the ball with an open goal before him. It is determination as he runs into position without harassment by Chelsea defenders. It is focus as he moves hie right foot towards the ball to strike it. It is unbroken as he watches the ball pass the goal line before even registering that he has done anything more than a five yard pass. And then it is an explosion of joy.

It was Catch-22 for Morais. In the first half Morais had tried to create a Roy of the Rovers moment for himself and in doing so seemed to make sure it would allude him. Allowing that moment to float away as he fitted into the Bradford City unit allowed the moment to arrive, and to be engorged on. His chest not a mortar, his heart not a shell, but a part of something bigger, a team. And by serving the team that Filipe Morais was given deliverance and in doing so created the purest moment I have seen in football since first I walked into a stadium in 1981.

Halliday followed, and Yeates followed, and that was that really.

A special one

“The Special One” is a misquotation of José Mourinho from his first Press Conference at Stamford Bridge. I am not one of the bottle, I think I am a special one. “A” special one considering the ability for multiplicity not “The special one” suggesting the singular.

Even José Mourinho thinks that that he is not the only special one.

Football’s love of fitness

At the moment English football is in love with the idea of fitness. Players must be as fresh as possible every game and every game players are rotated out and into sides to ensure that the team on the field are at the peak of fitness.

You can see how this idea has been imported as a part of Sports Science. A tennis player may miss one tournament to be at his peak for Wimbledon. A sprinter may plan his next four years in order to be at his peak for the Olympics. Being at 100% – not 99.9% – makes all the difference in those situations and it is a factor in football but it is not the only factor.

Being a team game much of football is based around collective abilities rather than individual ones and collective abilities are gained collectively. For a team to create patterns of play between players then the players involved need to be the same in training and in the game, more or less. You can swap a player in and a player out here and there but too many changes stop these patterns from working.

For the want of a better phrase we shall call this “blend”. It is the sum of how well drilled the players are for set pieces, and how when Rory McArdle has the ball at right centre back James Hanson at left forward is ready for a long diagonal pass which he will look to head on to either Kyel Reid running in behind him or Nakhi Wells in front of him. When the names changed, the blend was damaged, and 2014 was a year of getting that blend back.

And blend is, I would argue, at least as important as fitness. There is a level where players are so tired that they do not perform for sure, but there is also a level where players are so unblended that they do not perform and then there are games in which there is a play between those two factors.

José Mourinho opted to win the game through fitness. His players were fresher and had the advantage in the first half very obviously but as the game wore on that fitness advantage waned but Chelsea’s players did not have the fluidity that they had had in their previous games because of the changes made. Phil Parkinson opted for blend. He kept established patterns learned his small squad knowing that they would never be at the peak of fitness as their opposition were.

Blend, again I would argue, becomes more important when fitness becomes less important within a match. At seventy five minutes when legs are heavy and not covering as much ground it is the fact that players have a set of patterns of play to rely on rather than that they can cover ground quickly that makes for the difference in games.

The interplay was fitnesses’s attempt to destroy the belief of blend before blend could take effect. Belief is the third leg of this stool.

The Premier League especially has an obsession with changing teams to maintain peak fitness but this comes at the expense of having small groups of players who have played together often (peak blend) and one wonders – and seemingly Sean Dyche at Burnley is experimenting with the idea of – how a team would perform in the Premier League if it focused on blend not fitness and if a team of fewer players more used to each other could excel in League football over the course of a season

Because José Mourinho’s side were not conclusive victors at seventy minutes when the fitness of players is equal – everyone is tired – there was a chance for Phil Parkinson side who were more used to playing with each other, to where to pass to find each other, to where runs off the ball would be made and so on, to have opportunities to in the game.

Parkinson’s side took those opportunities, and we are now living in the time where the rest is history.

The illusion of The FA Cup

Fairy tales have a habit of being more about hard work than magic or anything like that and magic itself is an illusion.

Football itself is full of illusions. That big always beats small, or that the gap between the top of the bottom is an ocean of despair and not a river to be crossed.

If a team, a manager, and perhaps a set of supporters believe that illusions are just that then incredible things happen.

And perhaps that is the magic of The FA Cup.

City beating Dartford in dressing rooms, manager’s offices and boardrooms

Bradford City beat Conference side Dartford 4-1 in the second round of The FA Cup with an ease which would suggest that the Bantams were old hands deposing of lower teams in knockout football.

It was hard to remember that three years ago around half the number of people here tonight saw City beat Burton 3-2 AET in the League Cup that concluded at Wembley in a game which less than half the first team played. Or so it seemed at the time when Gary Jones, James Hanson and Nahki Wells sat out the match.

If one were to look at the litany of failure than was Bradford City in knockout competition in the 2000s one would recall half teams being half interested playing in front of half full grounds.

The very obvious result of 2013’s run to the League Cup final and the transformative effect it had on the club has been convincing Bradford City that using games like this to rest players is a poor idea. Whatever one gains in freshness one loses – or perhaps just fails to gain – in the positive effects of playing teams in knockout football.

Winning games brings confidence. Confidence is what makes groups of footballers in football teams. One recalls how Phil Parkinson’s side found itself after Aston Villa and Arsenal, or indeed after Burton, and one cannot help but think that if anything is to come from this season over and above the middle of League One then it will come from a similar path.

So Parkinson prepares the team properly and sets out the team properly and one can expect that in the dressing room the team was told to take Dartford as seriously as any League One side faced and one also expects that that message has been repeated in at the training pitch. One also doubts that the chairmen will have questioned Parkinson’s decision to push the club forward in Cup competitions. The days of vague mumblings about the cost of progression either on legs or bank balances are over.

The club is changed. When walking onto the field the City team was noticeably unnoticeably changed from last week. Jon Stead was favoured over James Hanson who made a late appearance that would see him cup tied. Billy Knott and Gary Liddle were given the opportunity to continue what looks to be a fruitful partnership in central midfield and Filipe Morais was given the chance to replicate on the right what Mark Yeates does on the left.

Watching Phil Parkinson’s return to 442 the most obvious deficiency is a lack of pace in the side and the most obvious place to add that pace is on the right wing or in the player who plays off the front man. Which is to say where Kyel Reid or Nahki Wells played.

This creates a situation in which Filipe Morais and Billy Clarke approach games attempting to show how useful both can be almost to point to the other as being where the change should be made.

In fact today when City were leading by three or four goals Billy Clarke was upset with Morais for not finding him in the penalty area when Morais bulled away on the flank. The criticism of Clarke is that he does not threaten the goal enough – good approach play in Mark Stewart was the first thing that Parkinson was not satisfied with at Valley Parade – and so the striker looks to add to his tally wherever he can.

Today he did, a close finish after a scramble on ten minutes that set the tone for an afternoon where City would be largely untroubled. Jon Stead got a second twenty minutes later after turning in a low left hand cross from Yeates and all was going well at half time.

Morais’ third took a deflection to take it past Jason Brown in the visitors goal and Yeates finished off which a curled finish after delighting and tearing into a right back Tom Bradbrook who was never able to cope with the Irishman’s direct running and control of the ball. Lee Noble tucked in a nice back heel for the visitors who deserved something for their trouble and approached the game with a good spirit.

City’s back four of Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies and James Meredith coped with a new keeper Ben Williams sitting in for Jordan Pickford who Sunderland would not allow to play. The back four have joined together strongly and Andrew Davies is the keystone. There are rewards for progressing in this competition and Davies’ contract needs renewing. One hopes the one begets the other.

Bradford City go into a third round draw as a reward for the approach to knockout football which seems to have taken root at the club, at least in The League Cup and The FA Cup.

Dartford were treated with respect and respectfully beaten. There will be hope of what we might call “another Arsenal” to follow of course but seeing the club having learned something from the last few years one might thing we might settle for another Dartford.

Phil Parkinson understanding the peaks and troughs of managing Bradford City

Fatuous wisdom in football has it that the only way to get out of bad form is hard work. The statement is not incorrect, just tautologous. The only way to achieve anything (or anything good) in football is through hard work.

Hard work is a prerequisite and is in turn both the most and least impressive thing about any player. If the best one can say about a player is that he works hard then he obviously offers little else, if a player does not work hard then he has little else to offer.

And so to Jason Kennedy, obviously, who is damned by the preceding comment. The tall, bald former Rochdale midfielder has become the poster boy for Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City this term. Not massively gifted and suffers in comparison to what preceded but capable in limited ways.

Those limits – the landscape of City’s abilities – have become obvious as the weeks progressed. Phil Parkinson can take the credit that comes from a 2-1 win at Preston North End for understanding them better than most.

In fact Parkinson deserves credit for – what Orwell was credited with – his “power of facing” the unpleasant truths about the Bradford City squad and its limits. Seldom has a Bradford City team been so clearly defined by its limitations and rarely have those limitation been circumnavigated so well.

Parkinson sent a back four out with Jason Kennedy and Andy Halliday sitting in front to shield Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies and the midfield pair did not even battle for possession with the Preston middle so much as make it their business to make sure that possession was dissipated to the flanks.

The two midfielders are not creators but will shield, the two central defenders can defend crosses, the two fulls back (Stephen Darby and James Meredith) with the support of wide men in front of them can put pressure on wide men to reduce the quality of that delivery.

Likewise those widemen, Filipe Moraris and Mark Yeates, have no pace to speak of and so no time was wasted trying to play the ball in behind the home side’s backline. Everything was worked carefully in front of the defence and converted to set plays because Parkinson also knows that if he side can generate enough set pieces then one of will be converted and so it proved when Rory McArdle got his head to a corner and that header found the goal via a post.

It was not really deserved but then again with City dug deep and Preston North End failing to break the Bantams down then why would they deserve more? At least that is what Parkinson will have drummed into his players at half-time. If they carried on doing what they were good at right, and avoided being tested on what they were not good at, then they would win.

And so it proved for the majority of the second half. Preston’s Joe Garner was flimsy between McArdle and Davies and so Kevin Davies was introduced and proved equally at arm’s length of the two defenders who stuck to their remit perfectly. Which is not to say that the pair were never breached – Garner had one header cleared off the line before his goal with five minutes left which seemed to share the points – just that they looked as robust a pair as they had done two years ago.

If Preston’s equaliser was the result of the home side’s pressure the goal which won the game for City was for the want of pressure applied to Mark Yeates. Deepdale was hoping for a winner sixty seconds after the equaliser and perhaps right back Jack King was absent mindedly hoping for that too as he allowed Yeates to take control of a long cross field ball and have all the time he wanted to pick out and place a low shot around the goalkeeper and into the net.

Yeates celebrated with gusto. The turnaround in the effort Yeates has put in are in keeping with the importance Parkinson places on him. It has been said before that Yeates will create one thing a game and today he created the moment of the season, Leeds aside.

And let no one take the credit for the win away from Phil Parkinson who was the author of victory. It is difficult for a manager to look at his team and not romanticise. It is difficult to look at the limitations you’ve ended up with and have your pattern of play defined by that.

There is a frustration for all at Valley Parade that 2014’s signings have – on the whole – not moved the team on (Why should they? Why should we assume that Gary Jones would be replaced by a better player?) and Parkinson’s ability to recognise that and build a team appropriately – a team which won – allows him time and confidence to take on the task of improving players.

It seems that Parkinson, who has sampled the peaks of his job as City manager, understood the trough and planned accordingly.

Beating Halifax Town by returning to a Phil Parkinson team

Two years ago Giantkiller. Now giant. Brought down to size. Three minutes and everyone was getting what they wanted.

Bradford City’s trip to Halifax was a defeat waiting to happen and when Lois Maynard ploughed in from close range following a series of corners needlessly conceded defeat seemed to be worryingly unavoidable. It was what the BBC, BT Sport, and a lot of the local media coverage had sharpened pencil for.

The team that conquered Arsenal, have themselves been giant killed.

The overdog role with a depressing ease

A cliche like that proves irresistible even to the subjects of it.

Halifax Town – OK, FC Halifax Town if we must – took the role of the underdog with a lot of the gusto which City took showed in the cup run of 2013. Town made things were difficult for the Bantams. Throw ins were launched long and were hard to head out. Midfielder’s were chased down. Wide men were pushed wider.

The home side made the most of set plays which led to the goal after three minutes and to the general sense that Halifax took their role in a way Phil Parkinson would have been proud of. Parkinson’s City took the overdog role with a depressing ease.

Starting out with a flat four with two in front of them, then a three sitting behind a single front man were disparate and far too easy to play against. Filipe Morais, Billy Knott and Mark Yeates were a line behind Jon Stead but ineffectual and quickly parted, separated, and not difficult to counter. The onus was then put on holding two midfielders Jason Kennedy and Andy Halliday but they failed to provide that and both seemed to be guilty of waiting for someone else to make something happen.

There was a moment – following City’s cup keeper Ben Williams’ save from former City defender Steve Williams’ close range header – where another narrative wrote itself. It was about the decline of a manager in Phil Parkinson and how in the future we would talk about how one could tell that things were over for the City boss when he played that Andy Halliday in central midfield in a 4231.

The rapid switching between formations, picking players in ill-suited positions, and lifeless performances or cup exits are the stuff of the last days of a manager’s time at any club. What happened to the Phil Parkinson who used to so love his 442?

It may have been that that thought occurred to Phil Parkinson at the same time as it did to me. His Bradford City team were not playing very poorly – chances were being created – but the story of the season has been sporadically creating chances without patterns in the play.

Former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi said of Mario Balotelli that is was “not a player, because a player moves as part of a team. He’s just a footballer.”

City had a lot of footballers, just as Arsenal had, but Halifax had a team.

Giantkiller/giantkilled

Perhaps that realisation stung Parkinson.

City had so easily fallen into the giantkiller/giantkilled narrative and responded accordingly. I like to think that the City manager thought that if this game at Halifax was going to be the start of the final days of his time at the club then he would go out on his own terms.

Parkinson of old. Four Four Two and the big man/little man combination of substitute Billy Clarke alongside Stead. Billy Knott – wandering in the first half – was given a place in the midfield engine and the full backs Stephen Darby and James Meredith were given the support of wide men in front of them.

Clarke threatened goal within a minute pulling a good save from Matt Glennon and carried on his direct, provocateur play by pulling the Halifax backline wide and creating a hole that Jon Stead appeared in when Morais had played a fine ball forward. Stead walked the ball around the keeper to equalise.

And two minutes later Morais had been found by Clarke and blasted across Glennon to score.

More dangerous, more determined and stronger at the back Parkinson’s team started to look like a Phil Parkinson team. Halifax huffed and puffed but City looked like a solid unit again and for the first time this season – maybe this year – seemed like they would score more goals. Pressure, directness and confidence. I do not know if it is what the boardroom call attacking football but it was Phil Parkinson football.

Reshaping the squad

City go into the second round, and have beaten a second West Yorkshire club of the season, and move on to face Preston North End next week with Parkinson mulling over which way he takes the City squad.

By returning to his favourite formation Parkinson seemed to free his City players from thinking in terms of their personal displays and enable them to focus on a team performance. The English footballer’s DNA is 442 and as soon as Parkinson switched to it the players seemed to switch to inbuilt positional play.

Morais – lost on one flank in the first half and playing the sort of game Sacchi would comment on – was more effective in a right wing role not only because he knew where to go (Note to pedants: his football education is that of the English footballer) but because every other player knew where he would be. When Billy Clarke flicked the ball forward to him for his goal it was in expectation. It is not that Morais found Clarke in a good position for the first goal or that Clarke found Morais for the second it is that both knew where to expect to find each other which will have pointed a way for Parkinson.

All of which questions the shape of the City squad. Next week Phil Parkinson takes his team to Preston and Kyel Reid who’s pace is lacking from the Bantams squad and seems to prevent City returning to 442. Perhaps when the transfer window opens Parkinson needs to find someone who can add the pace if he wants to return to his way of playing.

Because after avoiding the obvious narrative at Halifax Town Parkinson will probably be afforded the chance to reshape the squad once more.

The first time Bradford City reconsider being the overdog as Halifax Town look for a giantkilling

Of the 79 other balls in the FA Cup First Round draw, few would have been as warmly met as the ball that signified a potential trip to FC Halifax Town – after comprehensively vanquishing Chorley in a replay – for the Bradford City supporter and, indeed, the wider TV audience: but there is more than geographical proximity that adds import to this fixture. This is the first time since the cup run of 2013 that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are forced to bring the mirror to themselves and see what gazes back at them.

First, dear reader, let me make no apologies for referring comprehensively to “that season” – any article anyone at all could write about Bradford City in 2014 and beyond has the potential to lazily fall back on using that cup run as reference: but in this case, I feel it is truly the first time introspection has a real reason to be made.

The diversion of cup competition while City are in poor league form a welcome one for Bantam fan, player and manager alike: it is fair to say that in the forest of League One trees, not many are being pulled up by anyone in a claret and amber shirt this term. Nor, to stretch the metaphor to the point of abuse, are they lost in the woods.

The team remain resolutely mid-table, overall neither excelling nor failing, and this in itself is cause for the mist of doom and gloom to become increasingly lower. The natives are restless, and they demand satisfaction.

With the FC Halifax Town game, the opportunity is rife – Sunday’s opponents are two divisions beneath in the pyramid: their team is partially made up of players who never made the grade at ours – and would never get in our current side, and add to that, the cameras will be watching as our bumper crowd shifts a further 20 minutes down the A58 (or A647 if you like your air thinner and your weather more extreme). Foregone conclusion: rub your hands together and wander off into the sunset.

At the risk of pointing out the clearly obvious: apart from the slight distance between our ground and The Shay, this is what Arsenal and Aston Villa both thought – and Watford and Wigan must have both thought it was even more of a relatively closed-door formality.

We are no longer the independent coffee shop outselling the Starbucks next door: in this particular dynamic, it is us who is the Tesco looking to flatten a third-generation cornershop. No neutrals will be looking to cheer us on from their sofa – our Cinderella story is very much over.

The great cup run of 2012/13 was built on standing against adversity, on steel, on being greater than the sum of our parts, and on steadfast terrace support. On Sunday, the likelihood of any of these things being present is slender: even if the fans do sell out the allocation – which, at the time of writing, is not being projected – what is the atmosphere amongst fans going to be? It is not, “We are here through thick and thin and Oh my we’ve done it”, it is, “If we do not score within the opening five minutes we will make our ire known”.

Only three players, and the manager, remain present from the team that started Capital One Cup Final – the same number of ex-City men in the opposing squad. It is going to be as much, if not more so, of a challenge of their mental strength as it is for newer cohort members. They have tasted success because they had belief in themselves as a unit against the odds: how can Phil Parkinson, who told Rory McArdle, Stephen Darby and Andrew Davies in the dressing rooms of Vicarage Road, the DW Stadium, Valley Parade, Villa Park and ultimately, Wembley, that if they galvanise and believe in themselves as a unit, they can accomplish great things – and then principally delivered on that promise – now turn around and make those same players believe that others who are now in the equivalent position cannot easily do the same?

As much as these three and the rest of the team will utterly embrace the diversion from the frustrations of the league campaign; will they be as excited, as invigorated, as out-and-out ready for the proposition of facing FC Halifax Town as the players of FC Halifax Town will be of facing Bradford City? The three players who have been rejected at Valley Parade will have, no doubt, watched the 2013 Cup Final and thought, “I could have had that moment” and whereas the stage on Sunday is very different, their motivation will be clear.

19 years ago was the last time Bradford City faced non-league opposition against a then- relatively-unknown Burton Albion and only the rear-end of Gary Robson could save our blushes, awkwardly bundling in with a part of the body few have ever scored a goal with, much less a midfielder who would usually have struggled to tell you the general area of the goalmouth, to sneak a 4-3 win. I have no doubt that the team of 1995/96 did not conceive they were going to be so closely-ran – in May that year, they were celebrating promotion to the Championship-equivalent at the Old Wembley.

Two years prior to that, Old Halifax Town of the Conference were beating Championship-equivalent West Brom in a televised match in the First round of the FA Cup, and I likewise have no doubt that that team of 1993/94 did not conceive that such a thing was possible, no matter how hard they believed.

Of course, the Bradford City of 2014/15 are not the Bradford City of 2012/13 or even 1995/96 any more than the FC Halifax Town of 2014/15 are the Halifax Town FC of 1993/94, and on Sunday none of these histories should matter. Whether the squad of 2014/15 use the parallels of 2012/13 as a curse, or a warning, remains to be seen.

A win over Peterborough United has City looking at the costs of survival

If the adage holds true that football matches are won by the team which needs to win most then Bradford City can feel some pride in besting a Peterborough United who needed to win far more than the Bantams did.

This time last season City were not far from the position which Darren Ferguson’s side occupy in League One. The last play off place and looking over the shoulder at those who would take it. And just as City battled at Chesterfield last term on Good Friday for a 2-2 draw so The Posh put up a fight against Phil Parkinson’s side who nearly mathematically assured survival in League One.

It is a survival that has come at some cost. At the end of last season Parkinson was unimpeachable in his position as Bradford City manager having taken the club to Wembley twice. This term there has been a misguided but concerted effort to unseat him from some people who follow the club.

The inerudite attack on Parkinson is that he has “no tactics” which is to say that he favours a 442 and often is over concerned to ensuring the opposition do not progress rather than that his team does. The manager favoured a 4312 with Adam Reach playing behind Jon Stead and James Hanson and added Raffaele De Vita to the right side of a middle three alongside Gary Jones and the also returning Nathan Doyle.

Parkinson’s midfield offered a survival chance for Jones and Doyle who have not shirked from responsibility this season but have struggled. Reach ahead of the midfield give Jones a smaller zone to play in and allows him to focus his energy. Doyle too, dipped back into a ball winning midfield zone, had perhaps his best game of the season. Add to that a De Vita looking more comfortable and a shape for next season that ensures that two of the players who excelled in 2013 might feature in 2015.

All of which comes from the failure for Kyel Reid to survive. As Adam Reach dropped between the lines in Parkinson’s 4312 City forwent wingers and so the team finally found a way to cope without the pacy wideman who – it is worried and it seems – will not play for City again. Perhaps while Parkinson watched a fluidity to the first half of the Bantams performance which had been missing since sometime before the turn of the year he may be convinced that the 442 with wingers would not survive either.

Reach was impressive in the playmaking role behind the front too. His runs invited fouls and from one by Jack Payne the on loan Middlesbrough player lofted a fine free kick over the wall and into Joe Day’s goal. From another Sean Brisley earned his second yellow card in two minutes.

Brisley had been booked for pulling down Stead on 38 minutes, Reach on 40, and while from a Bantams point of view Reach’s sliding interception was impressive Peterborough fans might have been surprised by the high line the visitors played for the first half. In the second, with ten on the field, things were different.

The play off chasing side had to drop back and pull back players from the forward line and worked hard in doing that. Their second half display was a model of football efficiency rarely wasting the ball but the Bantams backline covered the attacks well with pressure put on the ball in the Peterborough half and cover in the City half very secure.

Four of the back five of 2014’s play off final have survived and while Adam Drury is an able deputy it seems sure that James Meredith will return to make the five. Parkinson has a decision to make on if he has faith with the five assuming he can keep all at the club. It has seemed apparent that Parkinson believes that should his side take the lead then Jon McLaughlin behind Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies and James Meredith are solid enough to see a game out. Parkinson’s case is made by City’s defence having conceded fewer goals than Peterborough’s this season.

Which suggests the problem – if retaining a place in League One could ever be said to be a problem – is at the other end of the field. While Peterborough attacked in the second half the Bantams took a step back and were balanced towards defending. One can hardly expect Parkinson to change in his next season and so if James Hanson and Aaron McLean – a second half substitute who came on to applause from both sets of fans – are to improve on this season’s returns then they either need to become more efficient in front of goal or they need to get more chances.

Which points to the decision Parkinson has to make in the close season. If he is to carry on with a 4312 – which has yet to last a full game – then he needs to find someone to play in the role Adam Reach took today. If he is to use the 442 then he needs to find a more apt set of widemen.

He should though get to make those decisions. After months without a win, after losing his centreforward, after losing Reid, after the chairman who could not keep his face off television last season going entirely silent on him, it seems that Parkinson has survived too.

It never shimmers but it shines

Bring me lucky Generals.” Napoleon.
People said I was a lucky golfer but I found the more I practiced the luckier I got.” Gary Player.

If there was the shimmering of a change in luck in Carl McHugh’s last minute winner on Tuesday night then James Hanson’s winner after seventy eight minutes was a shine through the clouds.

Hanson followed in a ball back to Milton Keynes Dons keeper David Martin expecting little but was rewarded as the custodian performed a pratfall leaving the City striker to put the ball into an unguarded goal.

It was lucky. A fluke. Good fortune.

And it came after nearly eighty minutes of football in which both sides committed little forward seemingly for fear of losing. City drove more of the match but not enough of it to apply pressure on the visitors goal.

Other than an enterprising effort from Hanson that came after the striker had got the ball from one of very few crosses and taken it under control well and apart from the visitors getting a great one handed save out of Jon McLaughlin there were few threats at goal. Stephen Darby – brilliant today – cleared a ball off the line which was City’s Martinian mistake.

It was difficult to see where a breakthrough would come for City – or for the Dons – until that error but Parkinson will take credit for the solid rearguard defence. His maxim that games are won by clean sheets and punishing mistakes was never truer.

City’s effort earned the reward but had that misfortune befallen rather than benefited the Bantams the visitors would be able to say the same. It was the shine of luck

Luck though Parkinson’s change to a 433 when Chris Atkinson joined a three in the midfield just before the goal allowed him to seize any initiative that was there. Its hard to know if that has the decisive impact but fortune favoured the brave.

Both Parkinson and opposite number Karl Robinson drilled in the need for application on the field and both will feel that they have got it. As a side note Robinson’s fulsome praise for City in the week is respectful enough to not be an application but does suggest that should they have won the game and Parkinson be “in trouble” then the club might look at the MK Dons boss as a replacement.

That was the case though and Parkinson strengthens his place at Valley Parade with two 1-0 wins going into a third home match on the bounce when struggling Stevenage visit next week.

In the last week Parkinson had returned to his original managerial philosophies of a solid team and a clean sheet above all else – Colin Todd called him “the enemy of football” for it – and today the attack suffered for it. Hanson and Aaron McLean showed signs of an understanding but mostly working from long punts and not often enough in the game.

Adam Reach needs to forget any good things he read about himself this week and start doing what he did to gain those reviews again. Kyle Bennett looks increasingly like a player which too much work needs doing with to make him useful. As soon as Garry Thompson arrived on the field City improved.

Both Bennett and Reach were problems today. Parkinson needed creativity from his wide players and neither offered it. Bennett came short when he should have been looking for passes from Gary Jones behind the full back and when he did get the ball his control let him down. Reach did not do enough right on the left and needs to get back to being harder to play against.

This is a problem and – without creativity from the flanks – Parkinson’s game plan is left looking for luck and misfortune.

Today he got both.

Bradford City left considering credit where credit is due

Carl HcHugh already has scored more important goals for Bradford City than his last minute looper from a corner over Port Vale which gave Phil Parkinson’s side a first home win in months but weight lifted off shoulders at Valley Parade has seldom been greater.

McHugh got his head to a corner put into the box by Gary Jones which seemed to have gone beyond the young Irishman but had not and then was describing an arc Chris Neal into the back of the Vale goal. It denoted similarly to the goal which was decisive against Aston Villa in the League Cup semi finals last season but connotations were massively different.

This was relief, it was all relief.

City had looked like being frustrated again. Frustrated by a team which played strongly but has only won once in twenty one fixtures. Frustrated by a by a Vale side who played for a draw save the odd enterprise forward that Jon McLaughlin can be pleased keeping at bay. Frustrated by a referee Mark Brown who seemed to have decided that he would keep bookings and controversy to a minimum by ignoring what deserved one and would have caused the other.

And that frustration came to an end when McHugh’s goal went into the goal which itself came some had been convinced that the Bantams did not look like scoring. They streamed away into the dark Bradford night frustrated at City’s inability to score.

And while those people were ultimately wrong it was not hard to see how the conclusion formed.

As strong as the back two of Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies looked and as well as Stephen Darby at right back and McHugh returning to the left after his cruel exposure at Sheffield United played the Bantams did not threaten goal enough.

James Hanson is Sir Bobby Robson‘s one in three man and does all he needs to but Aaron McLean is struggling to play off him.

McLean seems to need more room than is available when a solid defence close to a deep midfield is deployed as it did today with the risible Anthony Griffith playing a holding role for the visitors. Still McLean’s endeavour does not falter and that earns him his chance to play in a City side swelled by victory.

In midfield Nathan Doyle seems not to be as he was while Gary Jones retains a level of energy and application which one cannot help but be impressed by but Jones’ work rate would be impressive for an eighteen year old.

The two wide men offer contrast. Adam Reach asks a question of a defender almost every time he gets the ball and sometimes the answer is simple – you can’t go past me but you can have a throw in – other it is not and every time he makes the defender work. Kyle Bennett is too easy to defend against and while one feels that there will be occasions where things go right for him in a spectacular and impressive way those occasions will be fleeting. Reach does more than Bennett but one gets the feeling Bennett will one day do something Reach could never do.

Bennett is a frustrating figure – an un-Parkinson like player – but he has the benefit of being defensively disciplined. Reach is a much harder player to play against for defenders and Bennett still has to show that he can be useful to the team on a consistent basis.

Nevertheless Bennett was one of the last off the field at the end of the game after Jones had led the applause for the supporters who had not gone for the early bus. They make an impressive noise, these City fans, and they do it regardless of wins or goals.

And they seem linked by symbiosis to the Bradford City team who seem refuse to give up on games, or on the spirit in the club, or on the manager that must have come close to the sack.

The players must have known that had spirited defeats become meek surrenders then the manager Parkinson would have struggled to keep his job and its to their credit that they did not let that happen. One hope that they continue to not let it happen at home to Milton Keynes Dons on Saturday.

Its credit too the boardroom at Bradford City that they have watched three months or more of games with only a single win but did not flinch. No articles distancing themselves from Parkinson, no whispers that the boardroom might be unhappy, no suggestions that things “had to turn around soon”. Just support for Parkinson and what he carries on trying to do. Credit is due to Messrs Lawn and Rhodes for resisting baser urges.

Urges which would have said – correctly – that the way a chairman wins over support is to be seen to be doing something even though that the best course of action was to do nothing other than support Parkinson in what he continues to do.

And will continue to do on Saturday taking what he can from the last few months. I confess I’ve no idea what Parkinson did when McHugh scored – goal celebrations I do alone – but I imagine he allowed himself a moment of relief before looking soberly at the team, and where improvement is needed, and how to get that improvement from the players.

A year this week Parkinson was preparing his team for Wembley in the League Cup final. The team was beaten that day but that defeat became a tool of motivation for the rest of the season.

Having looked the end so squarely in the eye in the last months one waits breath bated to see what Parkinson will make of this opportunity.


And if you, dear reader, want to know more about Port Vale then BfB points you to One Vale Fan which is a site older than this one.

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