The bus ride to Kent as Bradford City face Gillingham

If there is a place to want to be this weekend it is apparently on the Bradford City team bus that will be taking the players to and from the Priestfield Stadium for the Bantams’ important League Two clash with Gillingham.

Interim manager Peter Jackson has been quick to point out that there are a lot of southern players in the bulging squad he has inherited. He’s not saying there’s a North-South divide, just that no longer will players, who have friends and family close by the Southern excursions that form part of the League Two fixture programme, be allowed to get off the bus early. A statement that has attracted strong approval from some impressed supporters.

With such a strong keenness to get the full time job, it is perhaps understandable that Jackson is keen to differentiate himself from the previous regime and drop not-so subtle hints that he believes the more relaxed stance the last guy took was wrong. However a few media soundbites to curry favour with supporters willing to embrace new reasons for why Peter Taylor was a poor manager deserve to be taken with large a pinch of salt.

For much of this week, every word uttered by Jackson has seemingly been met with strong approval by some supporters – and there is already some clamour to sign him up before he has even taken charge of a game. But the simple, overlooked reality is that every new manager over the years is the recipient of warm approval for what they initially say, and the idea that Jackson forcing the players to eat breakfast together is a meaningful reason towards why he’d be the right man for the job is somewhat over-simplistic.

Just one year ago, Peter Taylor was receiving exactly the same treatment from some supporters. Every public utterance was not only considered over-whelming evidence of his brilliance – it was another opportunity to slate the last guy. So if Jackson feels the need to talk down Taylor’s approach – and he is entitled to do that if he believes it will earn him the job – he should do so knowing full well that, should he succeed in getting a contract, in one or two years time his successor will making similar statements about why his different methods will be more effective  – which will be leapt upon by some as evidence Jackson was a terrible manager.

It’s happened before, countless times.

City Director Roger Owen was last year quick to ensure we all knew that Taylor – unlike his scruffy, ill-disciplined predecessor Stuart McCall – was making the players wear suits on matchdays. ‘Brilliant’ was the general reaction, but it hardly boosted results. David Wetherall was quick to deride the players’ lack of fitness after taking over from Colin Todd in 2007, but his efforts to introduce a high-intense approach coincided with some of the worst performances of the season. Bryan Robson and Todd claimed they would play attractive passing football “unlike the previous manager who preferred direct football”, even though Nicky Law hadn’t actually played in this way.

And this need for a new manager to provide tedious reasons for they are different to the last man – in order to earn praise and encourage favourable comparisons to the outgoing guy – isn’t exclusive to City. Witness the always positive welcome new England managers receive. Sven Goran Eriksson supposedly failed at the 2006 World Cup because he let the WAGS stay in the same hotel; under Steve McLaren the squad didn’t eat their meals together. So Fabio Capello was praised for banning the WAGS and for not allowing players to leave the dinner table until the last man had finished, but England’s fortunes failed to improve.

All of this is not supposed to be intended as an attack on Jackson. BfB has been criticised in recent days for not being positive enough on his interim arrival; but, for me at least, it’s more a weariness about this reoccurring situation than anything personal.

The club continues to under-perform, and somehow all the blame for it ends its way solely on the manager’s shoulders, and he is got rid of. Then a huge wave of positivity greets the next man and he is initially praised for nothing more than a couple of nice comments in the press, before in time it all becomes his fault all over again.

Maybe Jackson is the right man; but after so many failed managerial appointments over the last decade, it seems foolish to dive into falling head over heels for him so willingly and so quickly.

Is he right to keep Southern-based players on the team bus all the way back to Bradford? Who knows, but the insinuation that Taylor failed because he made certain allowances for people who have family and friends hundreds of miles away from Bradford is misguided and somewhat trivial. Paul Jewell was known to make similar allowances to his players during the last promotion season, and team spirit wasn’t a problem then. At worst, Taylor stands accused of treating adults like adults.

Let us, for example, imagine the negotiations for signing Tommy Doherty last summer – someone who has previously played all his career in the South. Doherty might not have been keen to move so far North, away from loved ones, so Taylor may have offered a concession that he can go home at weekends after the match, including not travelling back to Bradford after a game in the South. As a result City can sign a talented player who would have proved more effective had an injury not hampered his efforts.

More realistically what Jackson offers the club is someone who will do things different to Taylor. There will be some methods he’d employ that would work better than Taylor’s equivalent approach, but other ideas which won’t. However we come to view Taylor’s time in charge, the facts are his strategy has delivered outstanding success at certain clubs but didn’t work at Valley Parade. That doesn’t mean those methods are wrong, more that we need a manager who’ll be able to flourish in the Bantams’ environment.

Jackson gets his first true outward opportunity to stake a claim for the job with the long trip to Priestfield tomorrow. The Gills have always been strong at home – even last season when they were relegated from League One – and though City have been able to enjoy success in Kent, most notably in the last meeting two years ago, it is the kind of place they often return from pointless. An interesting first test for Jacko.

It seems a waste of time to predict his team, other than to expect a 4-4-2 formation that will include some of the players who clearly impressed him during the reserves 6-2 hiding of Port Vale on Tuesday. So expect Scott Dobie, Gareth Evans and Jake Speight to be knocking on the door to partner James Hanson. In addition Jon Worthington, who played under Jackson at Town, will be hopeful of a recall.

Whoever makes the cut, it’s to be hoped the coach journey doesn’t prove to be the day’s only highlight.

Things start to fall apart at County

The 5-0 defeat to Notts County at the start of the season seemed like the first steps in a new Empire of football at Meadow Lane with the home team – Sven, Sol et al – inexorably rising through the leagues starting with a coasting of League Two. The Munto Group, funded in a Byzantine labyrinth of financial twists involving a “Middle East” organisation called QADBAK, were going to make a mark in sports starting with the oldest league club in football.

The Bantams were blown away by a set of very good footballers playing very well that day but that August afternoon seems increasingly long ago for the Magpies.

This week the Guardian released information to the effect that an investigation by Formula One into the QADBAK attempt to purchase the BMW Sauber team the findings of which seemed to be that QADBAK, Munto Group, County’s holding company Blenheim 1862 and First London all seemed to lead a trail back to a man called Russell King of whom the words “convicted fraudster” are often associated.

David Conn – the hero of football finance investigation – has spent months on unravelling this situation (and a similar oddity at Elland Road) and even his dedicated research has not been able to get to the bottom of the situation although his prompting has seen the Football League begin questioning County again.

County’s attitude to any questions on the people who own the club is aloof to say the least with head honcho at Meadow Lane Peter Trembling stating that “the people who need to know, know” when asked about the owners of the club who he characterised as “Middle East investors” that turn out to be based in Pakistan – not the Middle East – if indeed the location of incorporation of one of the many companies in the pyramid can be said to be a base. Trembling put down any queries or ill feeling County provoked as being a kind of sour grapes, as being jealousy.

One wonders what Trembling would say about Formula One’s rejection of the QADBAK money in their notoriously cash strapped sport. Hardly the stuff of envy the main reason that F1 sent QADBAK packing was because – well – they could not find any money at the end of the trail they followed and had more of a care over the sanctity of their sport than The Football League had.

The Football League took in whatever investment came into Meadow Lane with glee and welcomed Sven-Goran Eriksson to the lower leagues of the game with a level of investigation which they have twice felt the need to reopen. Sol Campbell walked away from County complaining that not much was happening to suggest that there was a revolution in progress and talk emerges that Eriksson might end up at Cadiz sharing his time between the two clubs should he be paid a few million pounds he was promised.

The worry – the worry when words like “fraudster”, “pyramid” and “no money at the end of the trail” start to be banded about is that at some point of putting sums between accounts then there will be a case where the cupboard is bare and the League Two all-star – assembled from the high earners of clubs like City and from the division above – would in short order find that the patience, the sympathy, the regard for football’s oldest club had gone. The adage of being nice on the way up because one would meet those people on the way back would come into force with the caveat that the rise had been – potentially – rather shallow.

Perhaps though the Formula One investigation has found one thing and another is the case. Perhaps County with the six figure debt winding up orders, the questions from Sven, the walking out of Sol and so on and so forth are simply a business who do business that way. Messy, but above board.

All of which concerns City little. County come again for a fourth game at Valley Parade after new year and will have the usual squad of quality players because unless the unravelling some see happening at Meadow Lane is more rapid than anyone could predict. Nevertheless though there will be an effect on the Bantams, and on everyone in football.

If – as doom sayers looking at the County situation would predict – everything at Meadow Lane build since the summer turns into a weight to drag the oldest club out of existence then the credibility of the game both in League Two and beyond suffers.

The attempts of clubs to raise money are hampered by another football failure and the integrity of the competition is damaged by the collection of Ben Davies, Graeme Lee et al assembled on what would be in this scenario false pretences unbalancing the league.

Moreover though such a situation demands questions of the footballing authorities and the Football League itself which at the moment seems to be less well governed than an organisation headed by Max Mosley and allows clubs to be bought and paid for with wind and ghosts.

Perhaps then calls for proper regulation of clubs, of owners and of the money in the game at this level might reach levels where they can not be ignored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bradford City fans celebrate Simon Eastwood's penalty save

Did we not already have this debate?

There is an article on BfB about Stuart McCall saying that he should not be City manager after the 5-0 defeat to Notts County at the weekend and similar discussions are being had on other fora. I respect David’s opinion on BfB and I understand his worries but I do not agree.

It is three months since Valley Parade demanded that Stuart McCall stay as manager. What has changed in those three months? Not much, but for some reason the people on the thin end of the argument think it is time to reopen it.

The argument has been had and a decision was reached. Those people who wanted Stuart McCall to leave City made a case, had a say, and should remain in the back seat understanding that Valley Parade has had its say and backed McCall in big numbers. We remember the SOS signs and the banners? One banner at the end of last season summed it up: Save Our Stuart, Stuart Must Stay.

One defeat does not change that.

One defeat to a team that has just spent oil millions on bringing in the best quality of management in Sven Goran Errikson and a collection of players who are too good for the division certainly does not change anything. It is not that case that we look at Notts County being really rich and should decide we have to do something, anything!

City the same problem a few years ago Colin Todd’s side lost to Southend United in the first game of the season and everyone screamed cause that we had lost to a newly promoted side but eight months later they were promoted and we had ripped ourselves up over being beaten by a team that went to The Championship. You do not change a determined attitude on the basis of a single result.

That decision was a value judgement made by the widest collective of City fans one can remember – minute’s silences and protests about administration aside when else can one remember Valley Parade reaching a consensus as it did at the end of last season when it backed Stuart McCall?

There are a couple of things to notice.

Firstly that for all the changes at Notts County this summer one thing that is not changing is the manager – Ian “Charlie” McPartland – who has been at the club for a decade and is trusted to carry on his work that includes finishing 19th last season because he knows the club. For all the money of the Munto Group and the Sexy Swede’s spending the thing that the boardroom at County know you can’t buy is the passion for the club to want to do well or the continuity of an establishment at a club. Can we not take that as a lesson from yesterday?

Second we need to know that sticking with your manager is not something you give up after a bad result in any game. Sticking with your manager is a belief that things get better with time, when patterns are built up, when knowledge is pooled and shared and that belief that that banner at Valley Parade summed up perfectly: Eight managers in six years we need stability (I paraphrase) and it is a belief that people at Valley Parade sung for, stood up for, and want.

That is a belief. If you change your belief after a bad result it’s not a belief at all, It’s a hobby.

I do not have a problem with people not rating Stuart or not thinking he is a good manager but we have already had this debate at City at the end of last year and we came to a decision to keep faith in our manager not just for the summer but for the long term. Some people made it really clear they did not want Stuart at the club but more people did want him.

Three months on the (and I used a broad brush here) anti-McCall people are back and they are intent on trying to unsettle the manager that everyone else wanted. These people lost the argument in the last breath and in the next want to carry it on.

Managing a club in the long term is done over years, not single games, and I would suggest that McCall’s position should not be questioned for years. Realistically though those people who argued that McCall should not be City manager and lost the argument can take a back seat for at least twelve months if not more rather than trying to pedal short term solutions to longer term issues.

The people who lost the argument need to show some respect for everyone else, sit down and shut up to allow McCall to get on with what people wanted – managing the club on something other than a game to game basis – rather than trying to push the agenda back around to something that has already been decided.


Writer’s Note: Comments are not on on this article. This is a debate that has already been done and I do not believe it should be reopened now.

Through the looking glass

Through the looking glass

It’s almost upon us, as always in a summer bereft of international action, the gap between end and start of season stretches out like a shimmering hot desert, the oasis of that first game still a mirage on the horizon. The Ashes wets the whistle but nothing quenches that thirst like the first roar of the home crowd, the first sight of a new team lining up, full of optimism, the first goal of the season from a man in a claret and amber (or now mainly claret) shirt.

This summer has been all about money, Manchester City offering the England Captain £250,000 to join the Eastlands revolution, Real Madrid buying up just about every sought after footballer on the planet and bizarrely, Sven-Goran Eriksson being installed as director of football (though some think he might be manager in all but name) at the newly oil-rich Notts County.

Of course for those of us not owned by rich consortia from the middle east, the opposite has been true, purse strings have been tightened, wages have been slashed and optimism is a word whispered quietly, especially around the streets of Bradford. You see, we bantams have had our fingers burned. Cast your mind back to last season, full of bluster and bravado after the signings of players with proven calibre in a level above, we played Notts County in a mirror image of this seasons first game and, it must be said, came away fairly happy with a 2-1 win. However, the tale was a cautionary one, we flew too high too fast and came down with a bump, now it is Notts County with the millstone of money around their necks and I for one, think this will aid us.

This league asks for passion and desire, with an ability to deal with the physical side of things, something maybe players such as Paul McLaren didn’t have the stomach for, in this respect I believe the signings we have made, whether they be forced upon us by circumstance or not, will be ideal for the league. Steve Williams and James Hanson have served their apprenticeships in non-league, they know the game is kick and be kicked. Non-league is no longer a footballing wasteground, the level of football has long been improving and there is no doubt that players coming from that background can step up, you only have to look at Stockport and Peterborough in recent years for examples of how buying players with a point to prove from lower levels can work.

Gareth Evans and Simon Ramsden know this league well, Evans should hopefully develop and blossom alongside the experienced finishers we have in Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne and Simon Ramsden seems to be the kind of solid, no nonsense full back Stuart has been looking to fill that gap for some time.

So come the first day of the long awaited season, when Sven looks out onto the Meadow Lane pitch and wonders what the hell he’s got himself in for, City fans, with our hearts full of pre-season optimism, should relish being the poor relation as it might just have forced our hand into getting what we wanted all along, a ticket out of this league.

Maybe Notts County are – gulp – doing it right

One can’t imagine that a few years ago Mark Lawn imagined he would be looking forward to the start of the football season as a chance to sit a few seats away from Sven Goran Eriksson who returned to English football with Notts County as director of football but the Swede and the Shipley based business man will be but yards apart for the opening day of the season.

Much mockery of Svennis’s return to English football at a low level with one blog summing up the move saying “If the money is there, then Sven will be there.”

You struggle to recall how Sven went from the man who beat Germany 5-1 to being today but it had far too much to do with his proclivities in the bedroom and not enough to do with his inability to tackle the Steven Gerrard/Frank Lampard midfield which was great at getting to places but lost grasp when they were there. Sven came more close, more often than any other England manager to success.

So why is he watching Steve Williams – the Barber from Bamber Bridge – make his professional bow in August and not off preparing for a World Cup or at least a Premiership or Championship campaign? Public relations partly – Sven is damaged goods – but then came a thought.

Notts County are owned by men richer than nations and the assumption is that they have arrived at Meadow Lane to buy success in short order. They have signed City man Graeme Lee and former Bantam Delroy Facey to achieve this.

Sven, Graeme Lee, Delroy Facey. It would seem that they are not putting the resources into the playing squad. If signing Graeme Lee was instant promotion then City would not be facing Notts County in League Two.

It occurs – and perhaps this will be proved to be wrong – that the money of which there is lots is going to Sven and Tord Grip and going behind the scene rather than on big contracts for players the way Fulham or Wigan rose through the leagues.

Qatari tycoon Abdullah bin Saeed Al Thani fronts an investment group which owns County and as with most investment groups he no doubts looks for longer term and sustained profits. This is not Blackburn and Abdullah bin Saeed Al Thani is not Jack Walker. It is not about pride it is about building a football club to be successful in the longer term.

How long? Sven talks of the Premiership and has signed a five year contract but if at the end of that five years the ramshackled County of last season are gone and a foundation for sustained success is in place then he will have done his job. Academy football, training grounds, recruitment policies. These are the things that one would want to put in place for longer term success and these are the remit of a director of football and County have gone for a man vastly over qualified for the job at League Two level.

Perhaps the remit is to build Notts County as a Premiership club from the outside in rather than the model of getting it Premiership on the pitch and hoping the rest well follow. After all that is the way Bradford City rose and fell.

At five on the first day of the season City fans will cheer to the rafters should we win and we would be joined by the sniggering behind hands of many ready to have a pop at Sven but short term results are not (it would seem, I could be proved wrong with a glut of spending tomorrow) the aim but rather the construction of a solid, robust entity which can maintain any success it has.

Notts County – for all the money bags talk – might be doing things right.

Stuart McCall and Plan Nine from Outer Space

I have become so tired of hearing the phrases “tactically naive” and “No Plan B” and if life were QI then the siren would be going off around almost every football discussion heard.

These two phrases are banded about by the media with one being used to apply to Kevin Keegan and Sven Goran Eriksson but within months of their uptake they became part of the lexicon of every football supporter.

Any team that has not won are lacking a “Plan B”. Every team that get beaten are managed by someone tactically naive. It is no more sophisticated analysis than saying that a match was a game of two halves but it sounds more analytical and there is is the key to its asinine overuse.

Stuart McCall and his management team was accused of having “No Plan B” this week not a fortnight since we saw a City team struggling to breakdown Exeter and until McCall pulled Paul McLaren further back on the field creating spaces and holes for midfielders to probe and twenty minutes later we had four goals. He either got very lucky, understood the tactics involved in the game or found a “Plan B”. That or he made a change, put some rockets up backsides and reminded the players that they had no little quality.

The whole assumption of “Plan B” in football is flawed. It assumes that every week a manager goes into a game telling his players little more than “Go with Plan A today, boys” which is probably a product of Championship Manager/Pro-Evolution Soccer thinking and almost certainly not based on anything that happens in a real dressing room where other teams are watched, players are singled out, danger-men noted and patterns recognised in the opposition.

Don Revie famously complied dossiers on every team in the First Division and every Referee that his Leeds United team could face in a season each game presenting itself differently to the last or the next, each game requiring individual preparation.

Not “Plan A” or “Plan B”. Nothing so simple.

In truth “Plan B” is one of those football phrases that when translated means little. If a manager’s team is losing then “Plan B” is the term given to his demonstrable actions. If those actions work and his team win then he is judged as “being able to influence the game from the sidelines”, if they do not he “has no Plan B.”

Likewise a manager is “tactically naive” if he does not use uncommon formations or should I say if he does not use uncommon formations and win. Sir Alex Ferguson won the treble using a 442 formation but very few called him naive. He won the double last year using the same formation which Kevin Keegan was using during his brief spell back at Newcastle United but few suggested the two of them as having the same tactical acumen. Too often “tactically naive” means “plays the default formation in FIFA 2009” and the people who generally believe that a Keegan or a McCall is lacking in understanding of how the game is played need a new way of saying what they think.

Tactics are painted in such broad brush strokes that such ham fisted criticism is almost inevitable. Within football tactics are about the jobs that must be performed on a field and who performs them, they are about making the most of combinations on the field, about when to attack and when other players should commit to attacking. They are nuances and subtleties that are simply not addressed in the phone number phrases that are passed off as analysis. “Four-four-two” is a starting point but it is not a tactic and when played with an Owen Hargreaves/Michael Carrick formation it is simply not the same way of playing football as when Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard occupy the middle positions.

These are phrases used as pejorative that have long since lost any meaning. One might as well say Stuart McCall is “player boot naive” that he has no Plan Nine from Outer Space. That or you could – if that is what you think – say that Stuart McCall has a troubling lack of options in his squad when his team is behind other than bringing on Barry Conlon to play a battering ram role and perhaps – as has been said before – that that sort of talk might be more appropriate than randomly firing around criticisms which have no granularity between “slight issue with” and “majorly incompetent at”.

Football management is not about applying single skills – you cannot add a dash of tactics to a team and make them win – it is a combination of mental and emotional skills and not the kind of problem that can be modelled and brought down to such simple mechanics.

It certainly cannot – in the most – be summed up by soundbite phrases. We live in a time when through official message boards and forums, fanzines and websites (such as this one which has given voice to over 125 City fans and only turned away less than half a dozen articles in ten years), blogs and letters to the T&A football fans are more listened to than ever. It is thus important that when they speak they do so with a sense of understanding of how what they say will be perceived and responsibility they have when they say it.

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