Universal effort needed as City head towards their lowest league position in 44 years

In attending away games, there are certain irritants you get used to regularly experiencing; tedious travelling, getting lost around town centres while struggling to spot floodlights arching over buildings, hideous visiting supporters’ toilets, unwelcoming home fans and hit-and-miss food. In addition the home advantage factor increases the likelihood of seeing your team lose, subsequently making the journey home that much longer.

Yet one thing I’ve always struggled to accept when watching City on the road is lack of effort from the players. If I’m going to travel many miles and spend lots of money to cheer you on – often meaning the entire day has been given up for it – the least I should be able to expect is a minimum level of passion.

With great difficulty, I can accept heavy or unlucky defeats and the pain of questioning my sanity being there, but I’m only ever left to feel stupid for going if the players I’m cheering on are blatantly going through the motions. At least they’re paid to be there, and are being paid to do a job we’d all give our rights arms to be good enough to do.

Saturday’s trip to Burton was largely a brilliant day out – the sunny weather and choice of Bloc Party and Kings of Leon on the stereo meant the car journey flew by; the ground was impossible to miss and very impressive, featuring that rarest of qualities in new stadiums – character; the Burton stewards and staff were over-friendly and the food and away bar facilities inside enjoyable. But once more, the afternoon was let down by suspect passion from those wearing Bantams colours.

It was a strange performance,with a very wide spectrum of respective efforts from each player. If there was a sliding scale illustrating the difference, it would feature Jon McLaughlin and Gareth Evans at the top of the high effort barrier – closely followed by Zesh Rehman – and Gavin Grant right at the opposite end. Other players fell somewhere in the middle, with some efforts to commend and others to question.

When taking over in February, Peter Taylor had been able to harness a team ethic to City’s approach which took much of the good of what Stuart McCall had left behind. Injuries in recent weeks has robbed Taylor of the team’s spine, and many of those who’ve remained available have failed to grasp the mantle. How Michael Flynn, James Hanson and Simon Ramsden in particular have been missed. Many fans have again openly questioned the commitment of Omar Daley in recent weeks, they should have watched the 90 minute performance of Grant at the Perelli Stadium.

City were highly fortunate to take a point from this game, despite taking the lead in the second half. Jon McLaughlin put in arguably the best goalkeeping performance of the season, impressively keeping out numerous Burton attempts at goal which included saving a first half penalty. Matt Glennon has failed to make a notable impact since signing in January, and after this display McLaughlin should keep his place for the remainder of the season. First choice keeper for next season he has the potential to be.

But McLaughlin aside, the resistance was limited. Robbie Threlfall has impressed greatly to date and looks likely to sign during the summer when his Liverpool contract expires, but at Burton he was badly showed up by the outstanding Cleveland Taylor. All afternoon, the Burton winger easily dribbled the ball around the young full back, while Threlfall was repeatedly caught out by a ball played from midfield over his head to unoccupied space Taylor was charging into. It was a poor performance, which made the sight of Luke O’Brien relegated to the bench all the more frustrating.

And though the rest of the defence were generally solid – Zesh Rehman back in good form and Steve Williams enjoying a decent end to what can be considered a memorable season, though Jonathan Bateson struggled at times – the midfield allowed Burton to pass their way through too often. Lee Bullock was among the more committed players, but Adam Bolder and Steve O’Leary were again disappointing as Taylor lined City up in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation.

When Bolder has been on form he’s looked very accomplished – the Millwall loanee’s second half performance at home to Aldershot perhaps his stand out game. But recently that form has dipped and he has struggled to make any impact, at times looking disinterested. It’s been a funny season for Steve O’Leary, who impressed during City’s opening home game against Port Vale before injury ruled him out until the New Year. Despite an encouraging belated second start, away at Rochdale, opportunities have been limited under Taylor.

Although starting the last two games, he is giving the impression he knows he has no chance of an extended deal this summer, and so has nothing to play for. It was no coincidence City began to play better after the more zestful James O’Brien replaced him.

And though Grant and Luke Oliver did well for City’s goal, the rest of their efforts were not good enough. Oliver is a defender playing up front, so allowances have to be made, but he is not good enough to play such a role despite his height and goal return over the last game and a half. There was also something curiously flat about his goal celebrations in front of the City fans, as though it didn’t mean a lot to have put his temporary club into the lead.

His performance was hindered by how isolated he was from Evans and Grant, but, other than his effectiveness in the air, he lacks the hold up or passing ability to make a positive contribution as a frontman. A defender up front is a rare but not unprecedented occurrence at Valley Parade, remember Andy Tod? If the now-recalled Wycombe defender returns next season, it will be solely for his defensive ability.

While if Grant is still at Valley Parade next August, it will surely be due to past form witnessed by Taylor rather than the very fleeting glimpses of ability shown since signing for City on a non-contract basis. He looks tentative and slow to react to situations, and very unwilling to chase lost causes. But for his excellent run which lead to the goal, he offered nothing towards City’s cause and was deservedly subbed.

End of season is perhaps the time to try out players like Grant, rather than signing them up without properly viewing them only to regret it later. But end of season is also the time to try out youth players and, despite Taylor saying he will look to blood some in over the final few games, this was a missed opportunity to try out players who would have been guaranteed to show more commitment. Tuesday’s home game with in-form Morecambe looks less the occasion to risk them and, with City still to face promotion chasers Chesterfield and Northampton, further opportunities are limited.

Of course any player has to earn the right to get into the team, and young players shouldn’t be promoted to the starting line up ahead of more experienced players on the sole criteria they are more likely to try harder. But the lack of effort shown by some of the senior players City are relying on is worrying and there’s a risk of next season’s plans being disrupted if this campaign is allowed to end on the low note it’s heading towards.

Because as this draw saw City drop down another place in the league table, recent from is pushing the Bantams towards a lowest league position since 1966 – 44 years ago. To more than one generation of City supporters, it could be argued this team is the worst we’ve ever seen. In 1976 City finished 17th in Division 4, beating or least equaling that over the final five games of this season will be the smallest of consolations.

But not exactly much to market the season ticket offer on. There are three home games before the £186 offer comes to an end on Sunday 9 May – 11 years to the day City’s last promotion was achieved – but there is little beyond blind faith to suggest the Bantams will be celebrating a rise to League One come next May. Perhaps more than ever bold action is needed to entice supporters who may not go to games often right now but who might be persuaded into buying a season ticket; free entry to the Northampton game?

The players need to do their bit. Whatever their motivation may be, they need to find it or else stay on the sidelines. Certain players are almost carrying the team right now – that City didn’t lose to Burton was due to the commitment of some, but that City didn’t win is due to the lack of commitment from the others.

It caused more damage to the league position, but even more significant is the damage this poor form could cause to realising next season’s forecasted budgets.

Pride in your football club

Like going for a meal at a restaurant as part of a large group, only to be stuck sat next to someone you don’t really know or like; Bradford City and Macclesfield Town laboured through 90 minutes of tedious and repressed interaction – conscious that more fun was been had across the rest of the table and around the room.

35 Football League fixtures took place up and down the country today, only the Championship game between Derby and Ipswich carried as little meaning as this fixture. The easter weekend is traditionally a time for nail-biting, but such drama was absent from the menu of a clash between teams who began the afternoon 16th and 18th. Pride was all that was at stake, the enthusiastic cheers from the visiting fans and players at the final whistle indicated which club found greater pride in winning at Valley Parade.

Instead the clash of the day was between supporters of the same club. When Zesh Rehman allowed himself to be caught in possession on the edge of the area just before half time, former Bantam trainee Emile Sinclair was able to skip through and fire a low shot past Matt Glennon which brought understandable groans of despair from home fans. But when seconds later Rehman’s next subsequent touch was greeted with loud booing from some, it seemed once again Valley Parade had descended into an arena where those who moan the loudest are allowed to represent everyone.

Yet the internal anger at seeing City’s captain booed poured out from the main stand through loud cheering and applauding  when Rehman prepared to take a throw in, and quickly fans from all four sides of the ground were joining in to drown out the boos. It was an uplifting moment triggered by those who so often have to remain silent and allow the volume of anger to dictate subsequent decisions. It was acknowledgement that, while yes Rehman had made a bad mistake and has clearly had a poor season, the undoubtedly high level of effort put in on and off the pitch this season does not warrant such a reaction.

It was about supporters showing pride in their club.

For those who did boo Rehman’s every touch during the final five minutes of the half, what is there to say? Of course they have as much right as anyone to express their views, but booing your own player is putting personal views on team selection ahead of the greater needs of the team and club. It is just as counter-productive as the mistake by Rehman in how much it helps the team.

There’s also a high suspicion it is influenced by some form of resentment about the community efforts Rehman has spear-headed, and mis-guided opinions about why he is even at the club. All season long some fans have half-joked that the Pakistan international only starts games to attract Asian supporters, to the point some even seem to believe it. It is insulting to the player, it is insulting to Stuart McCall and Peter Taylor, it is insulting to the other players, it is insulting to everyone connected with the club.

And so a player who gives his all but struggles for form is singled out for booing in a game where the commitment of many others in Claret could be questioned. City were poor across the pitch, with the lengthening injury list costing Taylor the spine of a team and ripping much of the heart out.

Wide men are in short supply, resulting in central midfielder Steve O’Leary taking an unfamiliar right wing spot and looking far from comfortable. With left back Luke O’Brien struggling to make an attacking impression on the left wing, a predictable route one approach was taken by both sides – the visitors ridiculously over-reliant on the long throws of Matthew Lowe.

Ryan Kendall and Gareth Evans started up front, but the partnership looked disjointed and awkward, with neither able to effectively read each other’s games. A wonder goal against Dagenham aside, Kendall has barely had a kick in the three home games he’s been involved in so far and was withdrawn at half time.

So with the ball not sticking up front or outwide, it was half of direct balls knocked back and forth, only punctured by Rehman’s mistake which gave Macclesfield the lead. Big changes were needed and Taylor shuffled the pack by withdrawing the left back playing as left winger and pushing back the striker in his place; bringing on a right back and moving the central defender at right back to the centre, so the other central defender could push up front; and bringing on a winger to play up front with the defender.

Players out of position is a fact of football life, but City’s square pegs in round holes approach is as much self-inflicted as it is necessitated by injuries.

But the impact was instant, with the former Silkmen Evans charging down the flank and firing in a low cross that substitute Gavin Grant – the winger moved up front – dummied to enable Luke Oliver – the defender pushed into a striker role – to fire home.

It should have provided the momentum for a third Taylor home victory, but the lack of urgency instead enabled Macclesfield to hit back and inflict a first home defeat. Shaun Brisley was allowed the time to run to the byline by the switched-off Robbie Threlfall and Steve Williams, and fired a low ball across which former Lincoln striker Ben Wright fired home.

City had 29 minutes to find a second equaliser, but failed to dictate the tempo and looked unconcerned by the obvious time-wasting efforts of the Silkmen. Evans, one of the few players to demonstrate the necessary commitment, shot narrowly over from distance, then Adam Bolder had two chances in the area but wasted them both. It was an especially poor second half showing from the on-loan midfielder, who kept taking the wrong option and failed to show enough appetite to drive City forwards. Michael Flynn was badly missed.

And the 11 players which ended the game had an unfamiliar feel when thinking back to just a few short weeks ago. Taylor has been able to bring in his own players and allowed others to leave, but the Bantams look no better for the changes even accepting the lengthy injuries. If the club has saved significant money from allowing Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding to leave early, it may be in the best long-term interests compared to pitching them in this meaningless game. Yet the availability of either might have made things different.

While the lack of wide players makes Taylor’s decision to allow Scott Neilson to spend a second month on loan at Cambridge all the more baffling. What is really been gained from his exile at the Abbey Stadium when City don’t have enough fit wingers to select? 18-year-old Ryan Harrison was awarded a senior debut, but nerves appeared to get the better of him. Overlooked fellow sub Leon Osborne may reflect upon this as the afternoon his Bantams career was effectively over.

And though it doesn’t really make much difference to the season that City lost this game, the loud cheering of those visiting fans at the final whistle was significant. It mattered for a club like Macclesfield to win at a club like Bradford City, it should matter to Bradford City to lose to a club like Macclesfield, or anyone. It should be a privilege to play for this club; but to many of the players who allowed the game to drift away, it looked anything but. This should hurt, but it doesn’t seem to.

So City suffer their first pointless easter since 1998, where caretaker Paul Jewell’s chances of the full time job looked to have been ended by an uncommitted squad drifting along in mid-table. This time around there is no such doubts about Taylor’s future – the contract offer will presumably remain on the table until it’s signed – and the hope is a similar scenario will lead onto the kind of promotion success City were on the brink of achieving by easter 1999. Six games to go and City’s players are allowing the season to drift into nothing, but this club and its supporters deserve better than that.  

There is nothing to play for but pride, but pride in playing for Bradford City should be stronger than this.

Searching for an end to uncertainty as Bradford City travel to Torquay United

After a week in which it had been widely expected Stuart McCall would be given the sack, Bradford City travel deepest South with the immediate future continuing to be clouded by doubt.

The City manager remains; but should the Bantams return from the 600-mile round trip to Torquay pointless, it will surely spell the end. Then again it seemed as though defeat to Lincoln would trigger McCall’s dismissal, and before that the loss to Bury, and before that the draw at home to Cheltenham.

Uncertainty prevails. Visits to the Bantams’ official website have become more regular and tense – such is the expectation of been greeted by a statement announcing McCall has gone. Message board rumours emanated by someone who “knows someone who works at the club, his sacking will be announced tomorrow” become more regular and take added credence. A few times earlier this week, the sound of a text message  arriving has left me wondering if it’s someone letting me know he’s gone. Whether we want a managerial change or not, we’re all waiting for what seems like the inevitable – but it remains all quiet.

The silence, from the boardroom, is deafening. We’ve been in this situation four years ago with Colin Todd – who’s then-unpopularity still far exceeds the growing levels of discontent towards McCall – where growing pressure to make a change was met with no public comment from the club.

It’s clear that Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes can’t really win if they say something now – as any statement would increase the pressure on McCall regardless of what it contained, even public support would be dubbed the “dreaded vote of confidence”.  Yet the lack of comment can also be viewed as a lack of leadership and, with the local media typically falling in line, City supporters remain completely in the dark about the future of the manager.

A defeat on Saturday and it all starts over again. The continued checking of the website, the message board rumours, the bleep bleep of the phone. Perhaps this time it really would be it, but then perhaps McCall will be in the dugout at Valley Parade at least one more time, with Bury at home next. We can say with confidence that Torquay away is a must-win game for City’s already unlikely promotion hopes, but we have little idea if Torquay away is a must-win game for McCall.

Yet the significance of the result at Plainmoor cannot be understated. This week McCall has talked more than once about the importance of winning, no matter how it’s achieved, and the long-awaited delivery of three points would be the perfect tonic for the January blues afflicting everyone connected with City.

A midweek of inaction might have seen the Bantams slip as low as 19th, but instead results elsewhere left the club firmly stuck in 16th. City make their furthest away trip of the campaign with the play offs the longest distance away they’ve been all season, but the 10-point gap isn’t unbridgeable if a revival can begin quickly.

Who will be charged with beginning such an upturn is less clear, after McCall spoke earlier this week about rooting out the faint-hearted and dropping players who couldn’t handle the pressure. If the early substitutions made at Sincil Bank are any indication, that may include Zesh Rehman. The City captain has endured a tough season and may have only retained his place in recent weeks due to the raft of suspensions involving his defensive colleagues. He was badly at fault for both Lincoln goals, in almost exactly the same manner, and, though his half time replacement Steve Williams also looked a bit unsteady, the former hairdresser may take Rehman’s place.

Matt Clarke, left on the sidelines for much of the season, had a very strong second half at Lincoln and is arguably the most in-form of the three natural centre backs. The standout central defensive performance of the season to me remains Simon Ramsden in the JPT at Rochdale, and McCall may consider switching him into the middle and continue playing the promising Jonathan Bateson – subbed at half time too against Lincoln, but more than likely for tactical reasons – at right back. The only certain starter of the back four at Plainmoor will be Luke O’Brien. Matt Glennon keeps goal.

In midfield Omar Daley impressed against Bury and Lincoln and is becoming more effective with each returning game. The Jamaican was used on the right at Sincil Bank, and Chris Brandon may be moved to a more orthodox left wing position to provide balance after a somewhat disastrous first half at Lincoln in the free role. Brandon’s failure to make an impact was the fault of others as much as his, but the slight upwards curve in recent form needs to continue for him to sustain what for him is a regular run in the starting eleven. Scott Neilson is also in contention against opposition he made his City debut against last August.

Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn should take the central midfield spots with Steve O’Leary finally nearing full fitness and expected to be ready to provide competition from the bench. The usually-consistent Bullock was poor last week, while Flynn is struggling to hit the early-season heights. Former Leeds midfielder Bruno Riberio, now 34, has been linked with a move to Valley Parade, due to a long-standing friendship with goalkeeper coach Nigel Martyn.

Up front, Peter Thorne is surprisingly set for a place on the bench after scoring in his return to action for the reserves in midweek. With goals drying up of late, City are desperate for the sort of striking prowess Thorne possesses. Just remember his record at City – 69 starts 32 goals. How different might City’s season have so far been if they could have called upon Thorne more than a mere five times up to now.

Gareth Evans – who looked out-of-sorts at Lincoln and badly needs a rest – will partner Michael Boulding – who has shown decent recent form – in attack. James Hanson – his transfer fee finally agreed – is still injured.

Torquay’s return to the Football League may not be reaching the same heights as their Devon counterparts Exeter last season, but they are reasonably positioned to avoid relegation. Last week they blew a 2-0 home lead to Burton and ended up beaten. On Tuesday Barnet’s Paul Furlong netted for them to earn a 1-1 draw at Underhill. They’ve not won in five games, one less than City’s current dismal run.

Ideal opposition for City to get going again? Nothing is certain with the Bantams right now, although surely City’s winter of discontent and McCall’s reign as manager cannot both continue for much longer.

Can they?

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