Travelling more in expectation than hope

The Team

Lenny Pidgeley | Lewis Hunt, Lee Bullock, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall | Gareth Evans, David Syers, Jon Worthington, Omar Daley | James Hanson, Jake Speight | Luke O'Brien, Steve Williams, Luke Dean

Thirty years ago if you were a member of St Anthony’s Primary School football team – or the brother of a member who’s Dad drove kids to games – then as a reward for a season of not much return you were given the chance to go watch Bradford City’s last game of the 1980/81 season as the Bantams took on Hereford United.

That was my introduction to Bradford City, and there is a certain symmetry to this afternoon’s entertainment as the Bantams travel to Edgar Street to meet Hereford United. The first game was a scrappy end of season affair – although at the time an impressive watch – where the visitors nicked a 1-0 win. Today a point for both teams would have secured League football for both next season and unsurprisingly a point each was the return.

Unsurprisingly because the home side set out to secure such a return trying to retain possession as far back the field as they could for as long as they could seldom venturing into the Bantams penalty area.

The illusion was a strange one. It seemed like City were penning in Hereford and certainly the Bantams were enjoying playing with a sense of freedom that allowed the likes of David Syers – playing central midfield well – and Gareth Evans to lash at goal following James Hanson’s early attempt which threatened to derail the Bull’s afternoon.

The Bulls afternoon though was taking place miles away at the Crown Ground, Accrington where Barnet played Stanley. The machinations of that game seemed to tilt to this. Barnet level at 1-1 and there was a nervousness in the home side’s play but that nervousness lifted as Accrington took a lead which proved decisive.

That took until the second half and after the first forty five minutes the scorelessness seemed like a fog never to lift. The Bantams were unthreatened – Joe Colbeck was given the reception by the visiting fans one would expect but that seemed to serve to suggest he was more dangerous than he was and while no one especially enjoys hearing themselves abuse the look on Colbeck’s face as he banged a cross into the middle which was attacked by nobody looked more like distraction than upset.

If a winger putting in crosses for no one makes a wonderfully illustrative example of the game then City’s striker with no crosses seems to make another. James Hanson – at times – seems to never lose a ball in the air and one wonders what he could have done with the type of accurate crossing that Colbeck could do, and that the likes of Nick Summerbee and Peter Beagrie did.

Colbeck’s time at City – and his time since he left and the schadenfreude some City fans seemed to follow it with – sends my mind back sprawling to that first game on the 15th of May 1981 and how football has changed since then. Thirty years allows a guy the chance to reflect and that reflection is in the level of hope which used to be the currency and how that has been replaced with an unsavoury expectation.

Reading articles about the Bantams last decade you often read the phrase “ten years of failure” and while this is true from the prevalent point of view that anything other than promotion is failure but watching this last decade they were no different to many of the two which proceeded it.

Consider – if you will – the 1996/97 season of Chris Waddle and Edinho where relegation was avoided on the final day of the season. What we had that year was built on the next. That season of struggle Chris Kamara signed players like Robbie Blake and Jon Dreyer who were on the pitch two years later at Wolves when the Bantams were promoted to the Premiership.

No one ever said that finishing 21st was a roaring success that season but no one ever lambasted all involved as failures either and after that season lessons were learnt that drew a line directly to the successes which followed.

At some point after that failure started to describe anything which not success – this is semantics – and the rhetoric is that the club and supporters demand the best and should have high aims lest they achieve nothing but the practical upshot of throwing the word failure at anything which has not been promotion over the last decade is that Bradford City systematically rip the club apart over the course of every summer, throw things in the air and see where they land.

Failure – finding it wherever it can be hinted at – is the obsession of the current football mindset from top to bottom to such an extent that progress along the path to success is talked of as being it. Those who run football clubs need to be strong and need to stress that if the right things are being done then those things will not be changed because they have not come to fruition yet.

Are Bradford City at present on this path? You will judge for yourself on that, dear reader, just as you will also have a view on the merits and effectiveness of addressing the “failures” of Colin Todd, or Stuart McCall, and how the attempts to deal with those so called “failures” have brought us to the position we are in now.

Would City have been any worse if Colbeck – squarely presented as a problem and the cause of failure – had remained at the club? Would the last few years have been so different had Danny Forrest been up front? Has the season on season change of right backs produced a player more effective than Gareth Edds or has it just given us a series of different players?

Different players who have the same problems and ultimately exit in the same way and we – as a club and as supporters – relinquish our responsibly for the impact of that. The justification for replacing players is that those players seldom go on to a higher level following their time at the club as if the confidence lost, the access to a better standard of coaching lost, the experience of playing league football lost has no impact on the (lack of) progression of those players.

Joe Colbeck wanders up and down the Hereford United wing on one side, Gareth Evans on the City wing on the other, both look like players who seem on the edge of dropping out of professional football not because they are not useful, or skilled, or have potential but just to appease a desire to smash up what is there in the name of not tolerating failure but with the effect of not allowing building.

I think back to Robbie Blake and his goal at Wolves in another final away game of the season and how many times – had the current attitude in football been the way of thinking then – he would have been bounced out of Valley Parade rather than being allowed to be a part of a team which matured.

In thirty years between two games with Hereford United expectation has overcome hope. Everything about Bradford City is about the expectation that better can be demanded. It used to be that better was hoped for, but if that hope failed then it was renewed over the summer. This is only important because in the times of hope, rather than expectations, things improved more often.

What do we have in the summer? Hope or expectation? Or neither?

Peter Jackson took his Bradford City team to Hereford United looking for a point to keep League Two status secure – a modest return – and Hereford’s Jamie Pitman had the same aim which once results started to fall into place bound the teams to a defensive display a little less. Both ended the day safe from relegation with Barnet’s defeat seeing them battle Lincoln City to stay in the division. Stockport County were relegated.

Ultimately – at Edgar Street – James Hanson proved too much of a handful for home defender Stefan Stam and after he was fouled Jake Speight scored a penalty with ten minutes on the clock. Stuart Fleetwood equalised a few minutes later with a great free kick. That shot was the home side’s only attempt on target of the afternoon but it was the draw that everyone seemed happy with.

For the summer though who can tell. Over the last thirty years – and specifically the last decade or so – football’s expectation level has outstripped its ability to bring enjoyment in a great many ways. Supporting was its own reward, but now all rewards are delayed until there is a manifestation of success. Goals are cheered, wins are welcomed, promotions are celebrated but anything other than those things – and including the build up to those things – are drawn out grimly.

Football League safety is assure and the summer yawns out ahead with its own troubles and with that the idea that the unifying mood in August will be one of hope seems very, very far away and utterly old fashioned.

The misery, the ecstacy and the unforgettable goodbye

The Team

Lenny Pidgley | Lewis Hunt, Steve Williams, Luke Oliver, Luke O'Brien | Tom Adeyemi, Lee Bullock, David Syers, Kevin Ellison | Michael Flynn, James Hanson | Jake Speight, Gareth Evans, Robbie Threlfall

How the hell has it come to this? It is half time at Valley Parade and, with matchday companions visiting the toilet or friends elsewhere in the Midland Road stand, I’m stood alone with my thoughts. And they are becoming ever-darker.

Bradford City are 2-1 down to a Stockport County side that began the day six points below them in the relegation places, and we’re staring directly at the trap-door to non-league. “It’s not good news elsewhere” mutters the always-irritating PA announcer as he reveals League Two’s bottom club, Barnet, are 2-0 ahead in their game. The situation is looking increasingly bad, and City’s recent history of fighting relegation battles offers little comfort towards the likelihood of getting out of this mess.

I just don’t understand how this could be happening. I mean the relegations from the Premier League, Championship and League One made sense – we couldn’t compete on and off the pitch – but this time we really should be too good to even be contemplating going down.

And what happens if we are relegated? Mark Lawn told us a month ago that he doesn’t know how City could afford Valley Parade if they dropped into non-league. I don’t want to support some AFC Bradford City playing on a park pitch in the Evo-Stick First Division North next season, I like the way things are. And why do bad things always happen to us? I mean what exactly did we do to deserve this last decade? My gloomy self-pity continues as the players trot out for the second 45 minutes.

One hour later I’m celebrating more wilder than I can remember in years. Gareth Evans has just drilled an unstoppable shot through a crowd of bodies and into the far corner to improbably win the game four minutes into stoppage time. The level of joy inside is being fuelled by the built-up anguish inflicted upon us over the previous hour and a half. We’ve just gone through 90 minutes of utter torture, all of which can now be forgotten as I jump up and down like a five-year-old, only pausing to hug those around me. The players have chosen to run directly to the front of my block in the Midland Road stand to celebrate their euphoric moment. Eventually the cheering subsides, but I’m feeling so good and shaking all over too much to be able to sit down. In no time at all we’re punching the air as the final whistle is blown.

This is why we love Bradford City. This is what makes all the other crap worthwhile.

That Peter Taylor’s final game in charge could have such a climatic ending is hardly in keeping with the monotonous closing weeks of his reign, but it was nice for the outgoing City manager to part ways with the club in such harmonious circumstances. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his early departure, he at least leaves the club in a much more comfortable league position than it appeared at 3.45pm. There is much work to do still, but seven and nine point cushions over Barnet and Stockport respectively offer Taylor’s successor a sturdier platform to preserve the Bantams’ league status from.

For a time it looked like a comfortable final afternoon for Taylor. Finally ditching the ineffective 4-3-3 formation, City started the game strongly with James Hanson and Michael Flynn leading the line of a 4-4-2 set-up and Steve Williams taking advantage of non-existent marking to head the home side into a 14th minute lead from a free kick.

Hanson had already had a goal ruled out for offside and, though Stockport threatened with the impressive Paul Turnbull shooting just wide and having a goal disallowed themselves, a second City goal would have probably caused them to collapse. But on a dreadful playing surface, the ball-playing nature of Williams was to prove costly after the young defender dallied too long and was pick-pocketed by Turnbull, who charged forwards and finished low past Lenny Pidgley to equalise.

City at least continued to attack and two frantic goalmouth scrambles should have been rewarded by a re-taking of the lead. The first scramble saw a Flynn effort saved, the surprise-returner David Syers hit the bar and Williams fire a third attempt that was blocked on the line. The second occasion included Kevin Ellison’s effort being kept out illegally by Hatters defender Adam Griffin’s arm. A red card and a penalty, which an out-of-sorts Hanson wasted when his casual effort was pushed away by former City keeper Matt Glennon.

And when Stockport took a 2-1 lead six minutes later after Ryan Dobie was played through one-on-one and rounded Pidgely to slot home – despite strong suspicions of offside – that feeling of comfort 20 minutes earlier was replaced with despair that grew bleaker during the interval. In many respects City had been unfortunate, they’d had the majority of chances and forced numerous corners; but the combination of conceding two soft goals and missing a spot kick left you feeling that – once again – they had been architects of their own downfall. Williams had looked shaky, Tom Adeyemi ineffective as a wide player and Lee Bullock off the pace in the centre.

Taylor reacted by making two substitutions, with Adeyemi and Bullock giving way to Evans and Jake Speight in a move which saw Flynn pushed back to midfield alongside Syers. Yet as they struggled to get the ball into Stockport’s penalty area – never mind create a chance – during the first third of the second half, it looked a long way back. The bumper home crowd were on the players’ backs and it took all their bravery to keep going and force the tempo. To their credit they began to perform, and were rewarded by some of the most ferociously-positive support heard at Valley Parade in sometime.

The tide began to turn against Stockport – who’d begun time-wasting from the 46th minute – after Dobie’s flying elbow into Luke Oliver’s face gave an erratic referee no option but to issue a second red card. But as City continued to struggle to break down nine-men it still looked like a morale-crushing defeat was on the cards. This was going to be a dismal send off for Taylor.

One last throw of the dice – Robbie Threlfall for the bloodied Oliver – and never before have City gone so gung ho under Taylor. It appeared the Bantams were playing 3-3-4 – hey, it might even have been 3-2-5. Evans and the outstanding Luke O’Brien were playing as wideman and enjoyed loads of space against an over-loaded Stockport side; Lewis Hunt was also getting forward well. Numerous corners, endless balls pumped into the box, plenty of throw ins too. Speight hit the post, the crowd roared the players on even louder. The clock must have been ticking down ever-slower to the blue shirts.

Finally, salvation. A corner isn’t defended well and Syers does an outstanding job of keeping it in play by heading it across. Williams is at the backpost, his effort at goal hits a Stockport body but crosses the line. Unbridled joy, followed by a huge collective sigh of relief.

The urgency wasn’t as great in the final 15 minutes, but still City continued to press forwards and come agonisingly close through Speight (twice), O’Brien, Ellison and Syers. Five minutes of injury time almost up and, after Ellison appears to be hauled down in the box only for the referee to wave play on, the disappointment of only getting a draw is palpable. But then so is the relief at the fact you are no longer facing up to the despair of loss that was so painfully real 15 minutes ago. This is better than nothing.

And then there’s one last attack. And after superb work again by O’Brien the ball eventually runs free to Evans. And he shoots. And he scores. And for the next few minutes you scream at the top of the voice. And the level of exhilaration causes tingles all over your body. And for the rest of your weekend that feeling will stay inside, causing you to involuntarily smile at regular intervals.

And you can console yourself with the fact that, whatever we did do to deserve this last decade of hardship for Bradford City, it justifies going absolutely mental when celebrating scraping a win against a nine-men team bottom of the entire Football League.

Taylor gets a final chance to write his history

Peter Taylor exits Bradford City after Saturday’s game with Stockport County which is described by joint chairman Julian Rhodes as “possibly one of the biggest in the club’s history” but the judgement on his time at the club will not follow until the end of the season.

Taylor’s time at City has been marked with upset over negative play and managerial mistakes as well as the manager criticising supporters who he revealed today were the cause of his decision to leave but his position in City’s history will be written in May when he is either written off as an experiment gone wrong or written in stone as the man who had Bradford City relegated out of the Football League after 106.

An assessment which would be harsh for sure – you do not go from the Premiership to the Football Conference in just over a decade because of the guy who got the job twelve months ago – but one which will no doubt be made. Taylor’s only input into this writing of history is the tone he sets in his final game.

The final game with Stockport who – in something of a minor irony – have helped to seal the manager’s early exit. Mark Lawn and Rhodes talked about their requirements for the medium and long term when thinking about the next appointment but it cannot have escaped their notice that by changing manager Lincoln City and Saturday’s opponents have turned seemingly moribund seasons around with revivals.

There is something to be said for that approach too. It is football in the ludicrously short term – the financial position being what it is and relegation hovering City may only have a short term left – but increasingly it seemed as if the players had lost belief in Taylor and that they might benefit from another voice in the dressing room.

Be it David Syers and Tom Ademeyi being given the midfield roles against five Lincoln players, Scott Dobie being given the job of chasing high balls or Luke O’Brien and Lewis Hunt playing full back without anyone supporting them when they are doubled up on the players are coming under criticism for decisions made by Taylor, and on occasion that criticism comes from Taylor.

That they stop thinking that following the manager will lead to success is a problem addressed by Taylor’s exit, although after that one suspects the problems will begin and that chief amongst those problems will be finding a new manager who has the same effect on City which Steve Tilson has had on Lincoln to some degree or another.

If the benefit of Taylor’s exit is a change of voice in the dressing room then there seems little benefit in appointing Wayne Jacobs until the end of the season but the assistant manager has twice taken control of the club as caretaker in the past. The two week gap that follows the Stockport game suggests City will have time to bring in short-term appointment and that a caretaker taker will probably not be needed.

Names suggest themselves: Phil Parkinson and Brian Laws mentioned in one breath, Dean Windass and Terry Dolan in another. Martin Allen has previously impresses Mark Lawn and could get a chance to do again but those problems are for Monday. Saturday is more pressing.

The effect of Taylor’s departure on that game is hard to measure. The City players responded to Stuart McCall’s departure with a loathsome display at Accrington Stanley in Peter Taylor first game. In his last one might expect the squad to be equally nervous although perhaps they will feel they have something to prove to the outgoing manager. If they spot a trenchcoat in the main stand they may feel they have something to prove to the incoming manager too.

Taylor is likely to stand by the players who have figured in the majority of his squad although there is a sneaking feeling that he may employ a 235 1911 style in a final flash of “attacking football.”

Assuming he does not Lenny Pidgeley will keep goal behind Lewis Hunt, Steve Williams, Luke Oliver who more than most will be effected by Taylor’s departure one suspects and Luke O’Brien. A middle three of Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and Tom Adeyemi seems set to continue – one has to wonder why Jon Worthington was brought in – while the forward three could feature a return for James Hanson alongside one of Scott Dobie or Gareth Evans, and Kevin Ellison.

These players are tasked with winning the game – an everyone in for a pound offer which sadly was not extended to the visitors should see a few more bums on seats – and starting writing what could prove to the the last chapter in the 58 year old manager’s career.

A win and graceful retirement to Newcastle United’s backroom awaits, a defeat and he starts to become the man who killed a club.

Macclesfield Town game off

City’s trip to Macclesfield Town has been called off owing to a waterlogged pitch which is captured by this photograph from Shane Duff who tweeted “Can’t believe they made us travel. Back to Bradford for training.”

The Moss Rose Ground has been subject to heavy rain over night which has left the pitch unplayable.

Silkmen chairman Mike Rance hit a disappointed note saying

We’ve been pumping water from the corners for the best part of two hours, but the water levels are so high that is was always going to be a losing battle. I understand Bury and Altrincham are also off and such has been the downpour I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more matches get called off.

Should Barnet win at Northampton and Stockport win at Torquay then Macclesfield would drop into the bottom two with Burton Albion – due to play Bury – put at the bottom of the division having played eight fewer games than Stockport. That is 17% of the season – including a game at City – which Burton have to play.

City will drop below either Lincoln City or Hereford United depending on the result of the game between those teams who play today but no further leaving the Bantams 19th going into next week’s home game with Peter Taylor’s former club Wycombe Wanderers.

The mood that cannot be shifted

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Lewis Hunt, Shane Duff, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall | David Syers, Lee Bullock, Tommy Doherty, Luke O'Brien | Jake Speight, Gareth Evans | Louis Moult (for Evans), Leon Osborne (for Threlfall)

It lasted a few short seconds, its ramifications will be felt for at least another week.

There were just 12 minutes left to play and Bradford City, leading 1-0, conceded a corner. Then, crucially, they switched off for a few seconds as they slowly ambled back, and quick-thinking from two Stockport players saw the corner played short and hurriedly whipped into the box. The Bantams had now woken up to the danger and were racing back to mark players, but it was too late. George Donnelly was able to meet the ball unchallenged and head it emphatically beyond Jon McLaughlin.

Two points criminally thrown away, after little more than a couple of seconds of madness.

That Donnelly’s goal clinched a draw his side more than deserved was no consolation. Draws where you lose the lead are always much less satisfying, and the frustration at surrendering a hard-earned winning position will now contribute to another week of misery and self-pity. The message boards will be full of abuse for certain players, the manager and the chairmen. It matters little this draw stopped the rot of four straight defeats, patience is in far too short a supply.

This was neither an especially good or bad performance from City – but it was a team display chronically bereft of confidence. Balls too often launched long from the back, a lack of creativeness in the final third. Arguments raged between players on several occasions, no one seemed capable or willing to show leadership and take the game by the scruff of the neck. No one wanted to be the one who messed up, when instead they should have been looking to be the hero. Not a fun game to play in, not a fun game to watch.

City’s first half performance was particularly poor and more quality from Stockport would have seen City’s edginess punished. County enjoyed plenty of possession and worked the ball around outside City’s penalty area sprightly. But tellingly in the box, they were as toothless as the Bantams have been all season. Barry Conlon, booed as usual, had one of his off days we remember all to vividly. McLaughlin was kept occupied by easily catchable crosses and a couple of tame shots.

But as we City fans endured a black humour-inducing drenching in the roofless away end during half time – where, unlike two years ago, common sense eventually prevailed and we were allowed to move to an empty stand with a roof – manager Peter Taylor’s words in the dressing room seemed to inspire a reaction from his players, who emerged with far greater urgency.

Half time at Stockport

Getting soaked at half time. Click on photo to view enlarged version.

On 56 minutes, Jake Speight brilliantly turned his marker and charged into the box, got back to his feet – after seemingly been kicked from behind – and rolled the ball into the path of the onrushing David Syers, who tapped City into the lead. Only the third league goal all season, and after his Notts Forest cup strike it makes the young midfielder the Bantams’ top scorer.

It was a goal undeserved on the balance of play, but then Southend and Port Vale’s opening goals in the last two games hadn’t been deserved at the point they crossed the line. City were defending reasonably well – Lewis Hunt and Shane Duff having their best games to date – and there was every reason to believe they could hold on for an ugly win. Though an underbelly of uncertainty led them to players dropping further and further back, without showing any intellect towards hitting County on the break.

But still as long as they continue to concentrate we’ll be okay, right?

After Donnelly’s equaliser City actually showed greater application and attacked with more frequency, even if ex-Bantam Matt Glennon was only troubled by a long range effort from Tommy Doherty. Speight continued to look lively, though City’s two star performers were wide midfielders Syers and Luke O’Brien. The latter in particular was excellent going forwards and embarked on several promising dribbles. The best moment where he beat three players and raced into the box, before what looked set to be a stunning winner was foiled by a last ditch block as he pulled the trigger.

But neither O’Brien or any teammate was able to snatch a second goal that would have lifted the mood, and instead the gloom remains and the pressure going into the home game with Gillingham on Saturday will be that much higher. There are slow signs of progress, and to at least come off the Edgeley Park unbeaten is something to build on. But even though it’s early days, time is running out.

Rumours have already reached BfB’s ears that certain people are eying up a potential managerial vacancy at Valley Parade, but to make a change now risks writing off the season far too early given how often recent history shows a change of manager makes very little short-term difference. And as attendances continue to drop and self-pity among remaining supporters is allowed to be indulged, the club can’t afford another season of nothingness.

The last two games may have only provided small things to build on, but that doesn’t mean we should kick it all down.

Instead, we must remember what’s missing. Stockport were the better team today, simply because their impressive number 4 Paul Turnbull was able to run the midfield and ensure his team enjoyed far greater possession. City’s number 4 is some two weeks away, and Michael Flynn’s return will make a huge difference to a central midfield which still came up short – largely due to a poor performance from Lee Bullock.

Jake Speight is looking an excellent prospect, but his game would benefit greatly from a stronger striker alongside him. James Hanson is further away from fitness and Taylor can’t afford to wait; his planned loan signing for this week has to be someone who can hold up the ball and bring the best out of Speight. Gareth Evans struggled again, but if you want to criticise Taylor today his decision to replace him with the ineffective Louis Moult should be the place to start. When City needed to hold onto the ball, the inexperienced Moult was not the player the team needed.

And as the defence continues to carry at least one mistake in them, the eventual return of Simon Ramsden will prove a massive boost.

These are three big players for City. And if Man City’s Roberto Mancini and Tottenham’s Harry Redknapp can appear on national radio and blame poor results on missing a few key players when they have both spent massive amounts building a squad – as they both did minutes after full time at Edgeley Park – why should City’s injury list be discounted?

Sadly for Taylor, City’s top three performers from last season won’t be fit in time for Gillingham. The last two games have featured as close to a settled side as he has put out so far this campaign. It is largely they who must turn around this increasingly desperate situation – and it needs be a challenge they relish rather than dread.

In an excellent Stockport pub before kick off, a Manchester United supporter reminisced with me about the time he watched his beloved Red Devils play at Valley Parade 10 years ago, where City were 18 minutes and a Gary Walsh miss-kick away from securing a credible draw. But let’s stop looking at the past and shaking our heads at how bad we’ve had it since. Let’s stop believing our heritage deserves us higher status.

Today’s goal was a joy because it was crafted two players who’d overcome considerable setbacks to be playing professional football, Speight and Syers. They have triumphed where millions of us have failed, after it looked as though they had failed too, largely through hard work and overcoming  set backs.

So let’s follow Speight and Syer’s example and not just deliberate how low we’ve sunk, but consider how far we can climb.

League Two 2009/10 review – Rochdale, Notts County and Bournemouth’s scrap for promotion and the moral high ground

Even during Keith Hill’s finest hour, the Rochdale manager couldn’t resist taking a swipe.

As Dale celebrated sealing their first promotion since 1969 by defeating Northampton in mid-April, Hill looked ahead to his side’s up-coming Tuesday night visit to title rivals Notts County – which represented their last realistic chance to overturn the Magpies leadership – and declared, “If we can’t catch them, I’m sure the tax man will.”

The Meadow Lane club’s own promotion celebrations had been somewhat tempered by their Board having to fight back against critics’ claiming County had cheated their way to promotion, and Hill received an angry reception from Magpies fans during his team’s subsequent 1-0 loss. But as County attempted to defer the blame for signing players on wages they couldn’t afford onto the previous Munto Finance regime, Hill had a point.

Rochdale’s promotion was more than just the triumph of a small club finally experiencing their day in the sun; Chairman Chris Dunphy and Hill believe it was an achievement for doing things properly. League Two has long being a home to basket case clubs on the brink of financial ruin, often playing up to the nation’s media to attract sympathy about the unbalanced nature of English football. But for clubs who are more prudent in managing budgets and paying the bills, such tales of woe are becoming increasingly wearisome.

For Rochdale there is some gleeful irony in swapping divisions with neighbours Stockport this summer. In Hill’s first full season in charge at Spotland the two clubs reached the League Two play off final, with Stockport triumphing at Wembley. Less than 12 months later, Stockport entered administration after over-stretching themselves financially in recent years. Given that over-stretching had led to promotion at Dale’s expense, the perceived injustice was easy to understand.

Not that Dunphy and Hill are alone in feeling angry. Earlier in the season Macclesfield chairman Mike Rance, who’s club get by on the smallest gates in the division, talked about the unlevel playing field which sees others overspend to the detriment of the Cheshire club’s chances. “Last year, in August, Darlington came here and beat us heavily with a team we couldn’t afford, turns out they couldn’t either.” he told the BBC’s Football League Show. “And this year Notts County came here first game of the season with Sven and beat us heavily with a team we couldn’t afford, clearly they couldn’t either.

“Until the game sorts that out then it’s not going to have any integrity. I think it’s very important we play on a level playing field and some sides just don’t, and we find that disappointing.”

Though no League Two club has gone into administration this season, the emergence of other clubs from difficult times to enjoy some success has left others feeling bitter. While the media has heaped praise on the rebirth of Bournemouth, Rotherham and Accrington, Dunphy and Hill kept up their indignation which had previously led to them calling for clubs who go into administration to booted out the Football League.

Rotherham may have lost their stadium and failed to pay all their creditors during three consecutive seasons of points deductions, but this campaign put financial problems behind them and spent relatively big. This included signing Dale’s star striker Adam le Fondre for an undisclosed fee. Hill’s thoughts on this matter were kept private, but ahead of a trip to Bournemouth last October he hit out at the South-coast club over how unfair he felt it would be if they were promoted. The attack failed to spur on Bournemouth, who lost the game 4-0, though ultimately they did finish above Rochdale.

Meanwhile Accrington faced a winding up order last autumn and had to rely on their local community to donate money into collection buckets. Two months after that crisis was averted, relegation-bound Grimsby reportedly had a six-figure transfer bid for Stanley’s top scorer Michael Symes turned down. It’s hoped the nine-year-old girl who emptied her savings into a bucket to help Accrington last autumn understands the reasoning of “faint play off hopes”.

But while Notts County have pulled back from the brink of administration earlier this year, the wolves may still be at the door. Rumours of having to soon go into administration keep cropping up, and at best County will surely need to ship out their high earners who will still command a wage bill too large for League One. Tough times may lie ahead; Sven’s ‘project’ was yesterday’s dream.

And though Rochdale – who themselves may not be whiter than white – ultimately triumphed alongside in-debt County and Bournemouth, in time others who did not gain promotion this season may eventually look back on Nott’s triumph and begin to feel aggrieved, should the Magpies go on to enter administration.

Dale have shown that more conservative principles of balancing the books and slowly building can eventually succeed; but for more to be encouraged to follow their lead, there must be greater deterrents from taking shortcuts and gambling on success.

Brave Gannon shows the management of old

As far back as I remember I wanted to be a football manager.

Perhaps it was Kevin Toms that gave me the taste for it, perhaps it was the sight of people like Bob Paisley winning with charm or Bobby Robson managing with dignity but to me being a football manager would have been better than being President of the United States.

Managers ran the clubs that we lucky to have them and they ran them how they pleased. They didn’t take on players who board decided they should have and they didn’t play spin games around the truth they wanted to say. Alan Durban said that his job was to win football matches and the media could lump it. Brian Clough was not the manager of Nottingham Forest – he was Nottingham Forest.

And now it is all over.

Clough’s heir – Roy Keane – has spoken out on the attitude of fans and players at Sunderland and will not have the abuse thrown at him. Keane’s talk of late has impressed me but he is so often an isolated voice. He says he will not have Sunderland fans abusing him but he must envy Clough who would not have been abused by Forest supporters who would fear a thick ear.

The manager is a lesser figure now sharing his club with chairmen and chief executives, with directors of football and heads of football development and these may all but good things for the long term future of clubs, the stability of the game and the wellness of managers themselves but without a doubt he is a neutered figure.

He takes what is given to him. Taking what is given to him and smiling sweetly as he gets it is practically Gianfranco Zola’s job description.

Enter Jim Gannon.

Gannon is manager of Stockport County – not a club to raise excitement normally – but what he has done in issuing a statement accusing Referees of bias is exciting. It is exciting for all the reasons that the old managers – so unwilling to allow anything to harm their clubs – were exciting. It is a manager not worried about his future CV and how he will get the job after this one but just furious at seeing an unjustice time and time again and wanting to do something about it.

I agree with Jim Gannon. I agreed with him when Hereford won 3-1 in a game that every football watching instinct in my body tells me was fixed and I agree with him after watching Blackpool steal a win at Valley Parade by the same score.

Gannon’s claim is that because he has criticised some Referees in the past other Referees are victimising his club. He details untrue allegations which are accepted by the authorities as being made up by Referees and a list of incorrect and improper sendings off for his players. He says he has lost faith in the Referees.

When City were beaten by a Luton Town team – who have seen been convicted of improper behaviour – Colin Todd and Dean Windass were furious after Referee Joe Ross mocked them for the result (which now, it turns out, was gained on less of a level playing field as we were told at the time)

From that day on some say City have not had an even break from Referees. Todd – who no matter how much or how little one thought of him was almost by definition a jobbing manager – did not have the courage of his convictions that Gannon has.

Is Gannon right? Are Stockport County being victimised? Perhaps, perhaps not but every football fan who has ever seen a dodgy offside and wondered if the officials have made a mistake or perhaps something more should back him to the hilt in his attempts to get an investigation.

If Gannon is found to be wrong and referees have not been punishing him and his team then they are proved to be innocent and while they have no requirement for that in a game built on the core trust that the man in the middle is impartial – and when that trust is so obviously and openly questioned – exoneration would do much to move the game forward. Perhaps though – as Gannon believes – that exoneration would not come.

Regardless the audaciousness of Gannon brings back thoughts of old. Who would be a football manager?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Customer Disservice

I guess that it can be difficult to adjust to life in the fourth division when your team has had a brief spell, two seasons around the turn of the millennium, in the Premiership. The eight consecutive seasons spent in the top two divisions saw so many changes to Bradford City’s stadium in particular and professional football in general that for those who had become supporters only after the promotion of 1996 the surroundings of League Two must be quite a shock.

Some of us, of course, had spent most of our lives watching third and fourth division football at Valley Parade and at away grounds of similar standard. The 1985 fire may well have brought about the biggest structural changes to the old ground, but there have been plenty more since. When we had played for so very many years in a ground with only 4,000 wooden seats and plenty of vast open terracing, the development of an all-seater, 25,000 capacity stadium with modern facilities suggested to the old hands that football really was changing for the better.

For those of us who watched our football back in the sixties at decrepit grounds, where toilets were, shall we say, basic and corporate boxes were about as real as the Tardis, the changes throughout the eighties and nineties seemed to befit the new era. We wanted to be treated as ‘customers’, not just as turnstile fodder. We wanted to bring our children along, knowing that they would be safe and comfortable. The nostalgic days when the youngest spectators were lifted over the heads of the almost exclusively male adult fans, so that they could sit at the edge of the pitch and see what was going on, were dead long before Mr Justice Popplewell and Lord Taylor were publishing their reports into safety at football grounds.

Those of us who had been young supporters in the sixties and seventies had lived through the escalating violence at and around football. If we had thought so far ahead as to wonder whether we would allow our own children to come with us to games, we would surely have shuddered at the prospect of bringing them into such an atmosphere. Much as we wanted to encourage them to be the next generation of supporters for our local team, we could not have risked bringing them to Valley Parade or any other ground.

I hope my fellow-survivors of the fire will forgive me for saying that perhaps we were fortunate to be Bradford City supporters from the late eighties onwards. We had already paid in advance a very high price for the progress that came in the next twenty years and are still paying a rather different, purely financial price for the promotions of the nineties. Victories on the field were watched from ever-improving stands; from more and more seats; and even after three-course lunches from in-house caterers.

The outsider would probably argue that the lurch back to the bottom division was attributable to the way the club was managed after the Premiership years, to the previous chairman’s ‘six weeks of madness’, to the two spells in administration and, generally, to that familiar malaise of modern football, overspending. We deserved what we got and shouldn’t complain about watching fourth division football.

Most of us don’t complain, although we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t compare the facilities at Valley Parade with those at grounds we haven’t visited for a few years. Not all lower league grounds are still rooted in the 1980’s. Some clubs have excellent modern stadiums, even though their teams are playing in Leagues One and Two. Others have at least a partial excuse for poorer facilities, having just come up from The Conference and with very limited finances to develop their grounds.

But it’s not just about seats and prawn sandwiches. What has really changed for the better in professional football is the attitude towards spectators. Directors have realised that they have to run their clubs on commercial lines. They have to treat their supporters more as customers. Safety is still an issue, so visiting fans are kept apart from home supporters. Stewards are not there just to show people to the right seat. It isn’t quite like working in a theatre. But then the Romeo supporters at the Old Vic don’t hurl insults at the Juliet fans, do they?

Bradford City supporters should be the last people to argue that other clubs should spend more on improving their grounds. Those who live in glass stadiums, etc. But attitude costs very little. I was quite getting the hang of being a ‘customer’. Some of the grounds where I have been spending my money of late have not had the facilities I had been accustomed to. But the clubs in question usually had genuine explanations and almost always gave advance warning. If I hadn’t been prepared to risk the uncovered terracing at Accrington, I needn’t have gone. They told us in advance, our club printed that warning in the programme and I went with my eyes open.

Other clubs have given me a choice of standing in the open or sitting under cover. Macclesfield, for example, told us in advance that there would be a limited number of seats available, so we got there in good time to make sure we were not left out in the open. They realise that not all visiting fans want to stand outside. Some do, but we less young ones have become accustomed to covered seating. So, within their understandably limited resources, well done to Macclesfield for giving us a choice.

And so it was that my travels around the fourth division had persuaded me that even the lower league teams had accepted the need to look after the fans, as far as finances permitted, and that they didn’t assume we were all teenage hooligans. But all that confidence in the better, more customer-friendly game came to an abrupt end at Edgeley Park, the home of Stockport County.

I’d been there as an away fan not that long ago. Three years back, on an early season sunny Saturday, we had had the ‘Macclesfield’ choice, except that the open area was seating, because Stockport had spent some time in what was then called the First Division, where all-seater stadiums were compulsory. This time around it was early March and the weather forecast was for strong winds and driving rain. So, once again I wanted to make sure I got a seat in the covered area. There’s nothing quite as bad as sitting in the pouring rain. If you are uncovered, somehow it feels better to stand up and get wet.

What a disappointment, then, to discover that, contrary to previous recent experience and in the absence of any pre-match advice, we were not allowed into the covered seats. They were to be kept empty. There wasn’t even the old explanation about keeping the fans apart. As I said, three seasons back we could sit in there, with the home fans much further down the touchline and well away from the visitors. But this time those covered seats were just empty, as if to taunt those of the visiting fans who really would have liked the opportunity to sit under cover.

A few tried to shelter from the driving rain by walking to the corner nearest to the empty seats, where the stand provided some protection from the strong wind and rain. The reports of the stewards’ reaction to that harmless and understandable movement do not make happy reading in the context of customer care. The situation was exacerbated for me by the news from a friend that he had been to the same ground earlier in the season and seen visiting supporters, admittedly in much lower numbers, in those same empty seats.

I thought all of football had long since cottoned on to the notion that for every young lad who was prepared to stand in the pouring rain with his shirt off there were three or four couples who wanted to bring their children into a comfortable environment. It’s called customer choice and, while football cannot safely give the fullest range of such choice, in most cases it costs very little and in all cases it encourages the very supporters professional sport needs to attract.

At the start of the week when 700 Bradford City fans turned up at Edgeley Park their club had just won a Football League award for a revolutionary ticket pricing scheme aimed entirely at making football affordable in one of the best appointed grounds in the lower leagues. Maybe we have got too accustomed to safety, comfort and affordability, all in one package. I know that if I’d been seeking to make a good impression and achieve a higher income for Stockport County, I would have taken heed of that weather forecast and given the visiting fans the option of paying the same price the Stockport fans paid at Valley Parade to sit in covered seats. Maybe the Football League could think about how it wants its clubs to treat their fans and advise on minimum standards (finance permitting) of customer care.

Just not good enough

This weekend was the first anniversary of one of the more painful moments in Bradford City’s recent history. It was this time last year that nearly 4,000 of us travelled to the Galpharm Stadium for an incredibly important local derby against Huddersfield Town. With the battle against relegation becoming increasingly desperate, a good result was vital.

We were ‘rewarded’ with a feeble and pathetic performance, going down 2-0 to a mediocre Town side. Falling behind inside two minutes, there was just one woeful effort from Steven Schumacher which could be counted as a City shot on goal. The players showed a shocking lack of commitment and, considering it was a derby and we were fighting for our lives, it was unforgiveable.

12 months on and, while the bigger picture has undoubtedly got worse, thankfully we’ve not seen a performance as poor from City since. There will no chewing of the nails and worrying about relegation during the final 12 matches of this campaign, although Saturday’s defeat to Stockport has ensured we won’t be feeling any butterflies at the prospect of promotion either. And as the season drifts away it might be worth showing the current players the video nasty of that Town defeat to help them contemplate whether they’re currently doing enough to remain a City player beyond this summer.

If the players were to look in the mirror and ask that question following the Edgeley Park defeat, the majority of responses are unlikely to be positive. Yes Stockport showed they were a decent side and the conditions were difficult to play in; but with 700 or so City fans singing non-stop to spur you on, even through the half time break, and the knowledge that a new contract this summer is far from certain for many of them, you’d expect them to show a lot more than this. Stockport now lie sixth in the division, a place where we’d expect City to at least be this time next year. It was an opportunity for the players to demonstrate they are good enough to reach this standard by competing against a side with a decent chance of playing League One football next season. Sadly too many fell short.

Omar Daley and Kyle Nix were punished for bad performances the previous week by losing their spots to Eddie Johnson and Paul Evans as Stuart lined City up in the 4-5-1 formation which has caused heated debate amongst supporters this season. Whilst criticisms about its negativity may be valid, this tactic relies on runners from midfield supporting lone striker Peter Thorne. Unfortunately City failed to find any rhythm going forward and, considering we had five in midfield, it was concerning how easy Stockport passed the ball through us as they enjoyed territorial advantage.

Joe Colbeck and Alex Rhodes were too isolated, though at least Colbeck showed willingness to come central for the ball and worked hard defending. The same can’t be said of Rhodes, one player desperate for a new deal this summer. Rhodes recently returned to the side with two impressive performances against Notts County and Rotherham, but we need more than two good games followed by two below average efforts and Rhodes has a lot to do in the final weeks to convince he should be part of next season’s plans.

Stockport, with Shaleum Logan and Liam Dickinson looking lively, dominated the first half and only Scott Loach prevented them going in front with a string of impressive saves. Defensively City played reasonably well with Darren Williams, recalled after Ben Starosta was ruled out through illness, looking solid on his return. There were some impressive blocks and defensive headers which showed commitment was not a quality lacking at the back at least. A couple of wild shots from distance were the only attacking response from City and the half time whistle was a relief.

Many of City’s away games this season have featured dull first halves, so it wasn’t a complete surprise when we took the lead seven minutes into the second. A long ball forward was cleverly controlled by Thorne, who then did well to lay it into the path of Colbeck. The in-form winger charged into the area before been tripped by County keeper John Ruddy, leaving the referee with no choice but to award a penalty. With Barry Conlon on the bench and most City fans desperate for Thorne to take over duties, City’s top scorer looked nervous as he placed the ball on the spot. He duly despatched his 11th goal of the season to set up the platform for a fortuitous win.

Yet City still couldn’t get going and continued to invite County to apply heavy pressure. Loach made a string of impressive saves and Stuart brought on Daley for the ineffective Rhodes. The Jamaican has previously shown he’s a useful player to give the ball to when City are in a narrow winning position and the opposition are throwing players forward, unfortunately the defensive side to his game is still inadequate. Daley half-heartedly tracked back but failed to deny Logan space and his low cross was fired home by Anthony Dickinson.

Ten minutes later County edged in front through Michael Rose’s superb free kick from the edge of the box. It was rough on Loach, who seconds earlier had made his best save of the afternoon by denying Dickinson when through one-on-one, yet no more than his team mates deserved. Surely City now had to start forcing some pressure to get back into the game? Yet attacks in the final stages remained sporadic. Colbeck, who put in another decent performance, sent over a superb cross after Daley’s charged down shot had fallen to him and David Wetherall, thrown up front in desperation, had a free header and the whole goal to aim at. Incredibly he put it wide.

As we trooped out of the ground while listening to the odd City fan muttering that Stuart “hasn’t got a clue”, I couldn’t help but feel jealous of County. The final whistle was greeted with huge cheers from home fans and their players and manager Jim Gannon savoured the moment by staying on the pitch for a few minutes to soak up the applause of an important win. I wasn’t just envious that they can still dream of an extended end to the season, but of the spirit around the place which was evident. They had some decent players and their determination in battling on even after they had fallen behind impressed. They kept playing the right way and were ultimately rewarded. It’s a spirit which is sadly missing with City at the moment.

It’s easy and predictable to blame all of this on Stuart, but where’s the personal responsibility from those paid to play for Bradford City? The reality is that Stuart is stuck with this bunch of players until the summer, only then can he bring in better players. Sounding characteristically downbeat in defeat, an honest Stuart took responsibility for the tactical switch of bringing on Daley which failed to work. It’s another hard lesson to take on board; but if Stuart is going to make mistakes he’d be as well to do so now and learn from them for next season, which is surely the time to judge him. The manager left no doubt he will be making changes for next season and those players who wish to remain part of his plans will need to prove themselves in these final 12 games.

Not just prove they are committed, but that they have the ability to take this club forward. As Barry Conlon came on with ten minutes remaining to be met with a chorus of boos from some fans in the away end, there was a timely reminder that 100% commitment, woefully missing a year ago at the Galpharm, is only the minimum requirement. There are big question marks hanging over whether a number of current players are good enough to help City to a better shot at promotion next year, they’d be advised not to start dreaming of their summer holidays yet.

McCall or McClaren?

Our home game verses Stockport County came at the end of a footballing week that most England supporters will want to forget. If you are reading this piece of editorial and you don’t know that England lost to Croatia by 3 goals to 2, you must have been on the moon for the past week. England’s failure to qualify for the Euro 2008 finals has got football supporters up and down the land contemplating what went wrong for Steve McClaren and the England football team. Whilst I am disappointed that England haven’t qualified for next years finals, I was more concerned about the outcome of Bradford City’s home game verses Stockport County. Prior to kick off we were sitting in 18th position in Division 4 with 18 points; only 8 points above the trap door to non league obscurity. Yes, we went into the Stockport game having won our previous 3 games but we should remember that there is still a long way to go until the end of the season and we could still get dragged into a relegation scrap.

McCall made one change to the team which won 4-1 at Dagenham and Redbridge last Saturday by recalling Ndumbu-Nsungu following his one match suspension and placing Daley on the substitutes bench after his goal scoring appearance for Jamaica against Guatemala in mid week. The first half was a tight affair, but neither side created a goal scoring opportunity. There were no corners in the first half which indicates that the first 45 minutes were rather void of goal mouth action. Indeed, the pre-match talk in the Bantams Past museum outlining Bradford City’s triumphant 1911 FA Cup story in the presence of Jimmy Spiers great grandson was far more incident packed as Dave Pendleton and John Ashton decided to re-start their interesting presentation owing to Spiers great grandson and family’s delayed appearance.

Surely the second half would be more incident packed. I had queued during half time for a cup of tea and actually missed the first couple of minutes action of the second half but was informed by Messer’s Ashcroft and Onions that I’d only missed a good save by Ricketts. City started to pass the ball a bit more which is always good to see and this was partly due to the fact that we had more width with Daley replacing Phelan at half time. However, for the second consecutive home game we had a man sent off for a second yellow card; this time it was Heckingbottom early into the second half. Could City hold out like they did verses Chester City in the FA Cup? McCall decided to employ the hard working Nix at left back and kept two up front with Thorne and Ndumbu-Nsungu. As the clock ticked away the City supporters found their voices more and we played better with only 10 men. Evans was effective in midfield whilst Clarke continued to improve alongside Wetherall.

With only 20 minutes remaining, Evans played a neat pass into Ndumbu-Nsungu, who strongly held off a couple of challenges before unleashing a low right foot drive past Logan in the Stockport County goal. City continued to play the better football although Ricketts did make one excellent finger tip save. With time running out, the 4th official displayed 5 minutes of injury time. Grumbles from within the home sections of supporters could be heard and as the ball bobbled around in the City box, Poole stroked the ball past Ricketts for a late equaliser.

Talk at the final whistle centred around the fact that City had annoyingly conceded a late equaliser whilst others stated that they would have accepted a point when Heckingbottom was dismissed. As I walked away from Valley Parade I kept thinking about Nicky Law’s response when asked who should be the next England manager? His answer to the Radio Leeds presenter the day before the Stockport County game was Stuart McCall. Now then, which team would you rather follow; one managed by McCall or one by McClaren?

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