City visit Shrewsbury as the start begins to end

If the end of last season started with the 3-0 defeat at Rochdale’s Spotland then the end of City’s promising start came at Shrewsbury’s New Meadow when the Bantams lost 2-0.

The Rochdale ghost was buried in the week when Stuart McCall’s men came back from behind to take victory with a goal from Scott Neilson that took enough of a deflection to be chalked up to luck.

Not that Dale boss Keith Hill would agree with that railing against the referee on the evening as not being fit to officiate. Odd that last season’s man in the middle who seemed to want to gift the game to the home side did not incur Hill’s wrath. That kind of myopia would fit right in at Rotherham if – should rumours be believed – Hill replaces Barnsley bound Mark Robbins.

At Shrewsbury last season Referee Jarnail Singh practically proved he was not up to refereeing by once again allowing goals to be scored while players were down with serious head injuries and the sight of TJ Moncur staggering away collapsing with the home side celebrating is the enduring one. Moncur and Lee Bullock were invalided away from right back that day.

Bullock’s return to the City team this season owes a deal to the injury to Stephen O’Leary who continues to miss games with a toe problem following his impressive debut against Port Vale.

Bullock is far from universally loved by City fans and in this post-Joe Colbeck era we enter is the next player to split fans.

Personally I’m conflicted internally on him not especially enjoying watching him in the way I enjoy the robustness of Michael Flynn but noticing the correlation between his name on the teamsheet and City winning. Call it the inverse Nicky Law effect.

Bullock and Flynn are likely to be rejoined by Steve O’Brien in the midfield following the youngsters benching in the week while those tight three midfielders will notice little difference on the right with the aforementioned Colbeck gone but replacement Scott Neilson impressing and exciting in his opening one hundred minutes for City.

Peter Thorne was robbed of the chance to impress by a hamstring injury on Tuesday night but he would have likely stepped down for James Hanson and Gareth Evans to continue a fruitful partnership.

At the back the four of Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien will return in front of Simon Eastwood.

That Rehman missed the midweek game was officially put down to a thigh strain although in all likelihood he was being given recovery time being in that twilight zone between injured and fit. As City’s squad shrinks the prospect of the player carrying injuries into games emerges. A week of rest becomes a rare thing and a player’s season becomes defined by how they deal with niggling injuries that would be rested at a higher level but are played through in League Two.

The counter to that resting is the benefits of confidence coming from playing games and it is that which Stuart McCall believes will get the best out of keeper Eastwood.

Eastwood had a ropey start to his City career but the start is coming to an end and the Huddersfield loanee is improving.

As are City. A win at Shrewsbury would be an impressive return – the home side have not yet lost a half dozen games at this stadium – but would be a fourth win in a row and set up parallels with Colin Todd’s side that collected fifteen points out of fifteen four years ago. A draw would no doubt be welcomed by the management keen to show the ability to be pragmatic away from home as a table begins to form and City begin to nestle into it.

The points adding up as Rehman signs – Bury vs Bradford City – League Two Preview

The Barry Conlon penalty at Luton Town was scant reward for City’s second half endeavours when Stuart McCall unveiled what I’m sure his critics will be calling Plan B.

McCall – sent to the stands for complaining about a decision to award a free kick on an afternoon that saw many a bizarre refereeing decisions – enjoyed the best and worst of times facing criticism for abandoning his FourFourTwo principals for forty-five minutes and then seeing his side utterly dominant in the second half thanks in no small part to the ball winning of Dean Furman.

Furman’s display added to an impressive set of midfielders with Nicky Law spoken of as undroppable, Paul McLaren making significant contributions including the first goal on Saturday and Joe Colbeck returning for the last fifteen minutes adding to the already impressive Omar Daley. McCall struggles to make a best fit of those five names without the additions of Steve Jones, Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock. His selection for the middle is an embarrassment of riches of his own making and should he return to the four in the middle on Tuesday night for the trip go Gigg Lane then one can only guess who will be excluded. For my part Colbeck, Furman, McLaren and Daley would be my four but every City fan will twist that Rubik’s Cube in different ways.

A different sort of puzzle is the reason why the mean defence of City on Saturday suddenly started to leak goals – or a goal rather – a specific cross in and head in which the Bantams have not seemed so venerable to since Gary Shaw and his two and a half minute hat-trick.

What caused the Bantams to go from unit to untied is not known although the presence of Zesh Rehman – a central defender signed on loan from QPR on Monday – in the directors box might not have been the most settling sight for Matthew Clarke to see although in all likelihood the three goals from balls lumped into the box and the absence of Barry Conlon’s clearing head were not unconnected.

Coming out of contract at the end of the year Rehman looks to impress in his loan until the end of the season. The Birmingham born Rehman has played six times for the Pakistani International side and become captain in the 7-0 reversal by Egil Olsen’s Iraq side – if our path since we relegated his Wimbledon side has been winding imagine what road has led the Norwegian to be manager of a nation which in the time since we were in the Premiership tortured its players for poor results.

Rehman – who has played right back but favours the middle has his potential debut at Bury for Bradford City which is interesting in many ways much beyond football, and for that matter politics. Simon Schama would call it the future of the British Empire but – for the moment – we shall call it an interesting signing when one considers how stable the back two have been over the last month.

Mark Bower exits to Luton as Rehman arrives and BfB never favours playing loanees over our own players with one feeling sorry for City’s longest serving player. Rehman’s signing made sense if he plays and does well and makes sense if he adds to the right back berth uncovered since TJ Moncur’s return to Fulham but there is a nervousness that City’s second Asian player and first Pakistani is something of the Beckham of Bradford designed to get bums on seats from the locals of BD8 rather than cheat sheets.

Perhaps it might be nice to do both. Certainly it cannot do much harm and Rehman need only prove as useful as TJ Moncur or Steve Jones to be justified in the context of the season. If he proves to be in the bracket of Nicky Law and Dean Furman then he is available at the end of the season.

One might suspect that City needed not to strengthen at the back but bolstering up front with goals hard to come by over Christmas and January – until the second half on Saturday – but still Peter Thorne struggles to find the net and Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon were left cooling their heels. With chances created will follow goals and considering the options in midfield those chances should be created.

Bury for their part are in reasonable form sneaking to third in the table with the kind of mix of draws and the odd win that City get. The Shakers still possess the highly rated Andy Bishop whom Stuart McCall was impressed by and boss Alan Knill informs all that he has yet to have a firm bid for the player. They sit a point above the Bantams but have a poor record against promotion rivals – recent losses to Shrewsbury and Wycombe and a draw with Darlington – all of which points to an interesting game and a telling one.

Should the Bantams win then we will – at least – slip above Bury and could end the night second while a defeat could leave us tenth but with Rehman’s incoming and Bower departing being – seemingly – the last movement of the transfer window after McCall declared himself happy with striking resources then it would seem that they City manager has the squad in place that he wants – or at least can have at this point – leaving the players to get the results to back up such faith.

The first acid test – Bradford City vs Shrewsbury Town preview

Let’s put Sunday’s thumping 4-0 win over Morecambe into perspective – the last time the Bantams won a league game at Valley Parade more convincingly Benito Carbone was playing a starring role and David Wetherall, Wayne Jacobs and Stuart McCall were all important first team players.

The 5-1 thrashing of Gillingham on Friday 14 September was preceded by a rendition of stars and stripes, given it was just days after the 9/11 attacks. The vast majority of the 14,101 at the game that evening would probably have been struggled to competently answer what ‘Administration’ meant and around the pitch were adverts for something called ‘ITV Digital’.

Much has changed – at Valley Parade, in English football and across the wider world itself – and though City have played better on many occasions since, the emphatic success over Morecambe which signalled the end of 2008 deserved more appreciation and credit than it received from some quarters.

I must admit I didn’t enjoy the game as much as I should have, though the reason why was because of the spectators who sit near me. I suddenly seemed to have been lumbered with a ‘McCall out’ bunch of people far more interested in looking for fault on the pitch than offering praise. Another 90 minutes was spent berating everything Paul Arnison and Barry Conlon tried, as though they know what makes a good full back and target man better than the man paid to select them. Without fail the opening few minutes of the second half are spent screaming for a substitution to be made before another bout of criticising Stuart for not been able to change games. Booing when the ball is passed backwards, when minutes earlier they’d complained City play too much direct football. And though I was pleased when most left before the whistle I was also angry that these boo boys – many of who normally stay until the end – couldn’t bring themselves to wait for full time to offer the players and management their applause.

Of course it doesn’t matter, City won easily and the support around the rest of the ground was good I’m sure. The acid test when come in harder games when City won’t be able to dominate in the way many expect and will need the crowd’s support to earn the three points. The first of a series of promotion ‘six-pointer’ games at Valley Parade in 2009 sees Shrewsbury in town tomorrow for a game which, though we have only just passed the half way stage of the season, could prove significant when the table is finalised in May.

The Shrews, who let us not forget spent more money than anyone else during the summer, will arrive without a win on their travels since August 16 but very much in the promotion race because of a formidable home record – City one of their conquests. The majority of manager Paul Simpson’s budget went on Grant Holt and the £170k man has already netted 20 goals – 12 in the league. Other than midfielder Ben Davies, however, the rest of the team have struggled to find the net. They are sure to be provide tough test, though after recent weeks Stuart will probably be pleased to be facing opposition unlikely to keep men behind the ball and play for a draw.

In the home dressing room the evolution of a squad good enough to at least stay in the 3rd automatic promotion spot it currently resides is reaching a crucial phase with the January transfer window opening up. Willy Topp and TJ Moncur have departed, freeing up wages and while Dean Furman – impressive on his return against Morecambe on Sunday – is on board for the rest of the season question marks remain over other loanees Nicky Law and Steve Jones.

The latter seems set to stay for January at least, after which it would be questionable whether he will be needed given Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon should be fit, although rumours linking Omar Daley with a move away may make him worth hanging onto. Another striker is Stuart’s top target and with names like Andy Bishop, Chris O’Grady and Karl Hawley linked, not to mention a certain out of favour Hull forward, it’s a case of watching this space with interest.

For now Conlon and Michael Boulding will lead the line with Peter Thorne rested up to get over another niggling injury. The pair’s understanding was much-improved against Morecambe and, were it another player, Conlon’s delightful through ball to set Boulding on his way to 2-0 would have been drooled over. Like against Morecambe, there may be a third striker with Jones employed further up the park, the 4-3-3 formation working reasonably well but omitting Daley. A switch back to 4-4-2 would see one of Jones, Law, Furman and Paul McLaren moved out of midfield onto the bench to make way for the Jamaican. Such dilemmas will be welcomed by Stuart given the lack of options he had during November and December.

City’s defence has not been breached for 270 minutes of football which, given the amount of criticism they’ve endured from some fans, deserves much credit. Matt Clarke is a great example of why managers don’t simply “get rid” when performances dip, but shouldn’t be relaxing just yet. Graeme Lee has been outstanding lately while Arnison and Luke O’Brien continue to impress. Rhys Evans had little to do against Morecambe because of the form of those ahead of him.

The 23 points City have picked up at home so far this season may not be as impressive as the 28 the Shrews have recorded at New Meadow, but with only one defeat it’s mightily improved on recent seasons. Darlington and Wycombe are also due in the next few weeks and if a decent points haul can be achieved from these fixtures the prospect of promotion will move ever closer.

To do that everyone will need to be on their game and give it everything they’ve got, and that includes those supporters who seemingly want to indulge in petty criticism while ignoring the positives.

The decision on City comes at Christmas – Bradford City vs Chester City Preview

Recall this time last year – dear reader – and remember the questions about Stuart McCall and his team which had broken out of a losing run that would put Paul Ince to shame but were a long way from impressing with a scrappy team culled together from free transfers and loan players showing few signs of becoming a capable side.

Peter Thorne was a malingerer, Willy Topp the great hope and Joe Colbeck a guy you send out on loan. How times have changed and how last year’s festive period changed them.

The Boxing Day 2-1 win over Lincoln City – Barry Conlon scuffing the winner in the last minute – built on a good performance in the rain at Chesterfield – and showed a City team with Omar Daley starting to find form and Colbeck energised that could compete with the spirited teams in the division.

A Referee cost City in the 3-1 defeat to Hereford but the impressive display cemented the feeling that City could now start a run for bigger and better things which has continued to this day. In the last 365 days the Bantams have not been as lowly as we were at the start of December 2007.

So a year on and the Bantams – unarguably in a better position – face similar questions and have a similar need for a thrust of improvement although while twelve months ago the impetuous was to move away from mid-table and relegation to flirtatious play-off lower reaches now it is impressed upon Stuart McCall and his charges that with more than the play-off team what is Bradford City will be a promotion side.

Such comments are – in the opinion of this writer – unduly harsh on a Bantams side that has suffered at the hands of footballing fatalism more than most this season. Not a team in the land could survive the loss of the entire midfield and two replacements: Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren, Lee Bullock, Dean Furman, Omar Daley and Joe Colbeck have been simultaneously out of action; without a dip in results and while some suggest that Stuart McCall’s inability to have his team hang into the top three places on a weekly basis is a criticism of the manager I would suggest that it is credit to him.

The injury situation at City should have crippled the team – Steve Jones, Nicky Law Jnr, Tom Clarke and Kyle Nix is no one’s dream midfield – but each week the Gaffer has sent out a team that while bettered was never battered and the kind of excuses that formed under the likes of Jim Jefferies were never allowed to take route. McCall’s nemesis spent much of the Premiership talking about injuries to David Wetherall and Andrew O’Brien yet Stuart’s red cross list has been worse and concentrated in an area of the field position but never been allowed to become a self-perpetuating reason for defeat.

The jury – one could say – is out on McCall but one suspects in modern football the jury never returns – or only does so retroactively as it did on Paul Jewell who like McCall build a side with character that competed but was criticised for being commensurate rather than dominant. I would suggest that the improvement of the last year suggests that McCall is performing well and that if someone were to try ascribe this to the injection of funds in the summer as a suggestion that anyone could perform as well give the cash I would point them to 17th place Manchester City. Resources are only useful once marshal and marshalling of resources are perhaps best seen in the fullness of a season – injuries and all.

The midfield of woe is returning to fitness with Lee Bullock and Dean Furman both playing forty five minutes in the reserves. Both are looking at this weekend’s game with Chester as a way back before the Christmas break and one may suspect that McCall will give them the same type of “a half each” run out for the first team as they received on Tuesday afternoon for the stiffs. Doing so would allow Paul McLaren to retain his place and let Nicky Law Jnr shift right to the flank which he delivered such a sweet ball to Michael Boulding from last time at Valley Parade. Omar Daley’s return on the left last week at Brentford shows how important he has become to the team – a contrast to fifteen months ago and a change he credits McCall with.

McCall though credits Daley, Colbeck and his attacking three of Peter Thorne, Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon as being his entertainers and driving his City team on this term. He looks for another forward in the transfer window – reports that he was interested in Chesterfield’s out of contract Jamie Ward would seem to be wishful now Jewell’s Derby are interested – and sees strong attacking as the way forward. Thorne and Boulding are expected to start against Chester.

With this Keegan-esque mindset the defence that causes problems to some would seem to be less of an issue to the manager. Paul Arnison’s long awaited return for TJ Moncur should see the more attacking – or at least better crossing – full back in opposite Luke O’Brien who continues to perform well at left back. Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke – along with keeper Rhys Evans – will look on the McCall’s philosophy with the attitude that they aim if not for clean sheets then for one fewer concession than the other team and while statistics suggest that they could improve the Dagenham game showed that while it conceded in a mistake the back line did not buckle under the pressure.

Pressure that is not expected to be as great against a Chester City side who have scored only nine on the road this season and will no doubt end the season thankful of the deductions other clubs have suffered. A win over Chester precedes another Boxing Day game with Lincoln, a home tie with Morecambe and the visit of Shrewsbury. All tough in their own ways but all winnable for the Bantams who recall players to fitness and look to the sturdy first half of the season to set up a run for promotion in the second.

The decision on City – and most probably on Stuart McCall the manager – comes this Christmas.

The four corners – Brentford vs Bradford City preview

The Bantams travel to the football ground with a pub on each of the four corners looking at the four corners of the midfield as the return to fitness begins.

Paul McLaren was back for last week ahead of time and the extra week should see the playmaker building up match fitness. The number four’s impact has been lessened by injury since his arrival in the summer and an unbroken period from now to May could go a long way to seeing City promoted.

Lee Bullock – McLaren’s partner has been missed more than he was appreciated and is back in training with a return expected for the Christmas games. Dean Furman is further away but is also expected to be starting 2009 fit. When all three are in the running for places – should it happen – it will be interesting to see which two are considered corners of the City midfield. McLaren and Bullock is the accepted wisdom but Furman impressed.

Such a problem exists on the flanks too with Omar Daley returning to the side for this weekend’s clash while Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon wait until the new year to be back in contention. Daley’s performances this season – in the face of a criticism which would see him “got rid of” despite his obvious advantages – have belied the fact that in the dream City midfield on paper in August he was on the bench and Brandon and Colbeck were in.

As with Furman, Daley’s performances have made him undroppable and away from home watching the winger sprint puts the fear of God into the opposition. His return is anticipated.

No return to date for Paul Arnison who was not popular in the position where no player is every popular – right back – but since losing his place to TJ Moncur the momentum has build behind him. Moncur’s mistake last week added to his critics but no calls for his exit owing to that will come from this quarter rather a belief that Arison supported his winger better than Moncur and was a route to goals and that is why we prefer the one over the other. Moncur, however, is expected to take right back opposite Luke O’Brien – roasted a little last week – at left back and Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke in the middle.

A point on last week is that Dagenham celebrate the game as their best performance in recent years if not – truly – ever and look at the 66% possession stat with glee. In this context the defending of Lee and Clarke with the full backs and the goalkeeping of Rhys Evans was exceptional and did not get enough credit. Yes, the mistake cost a goal but the draw was saved by some sturdy backline duties.

And the draw came from some impressive attacking play by Nicky Law Jnr and Michael Boulding both of whom are to feature in a team that should read Evans, Moncur, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien, Steve Jones, McLaren, Law Jnr, Daley, Boulding and Peter Thorne. They face a Brentford team doing well in the league in 8th position but coming off the back of a 2-1 defeat to Barrow in the FA Cup and in the midst of a goalkeeping crisis.

Lies, damned lies, statistics and Bradford City

Wasn’t it Paul Jewell who said ‘There are lies, damned lies, statistics and Bradford City’? Oh no, it was something else that Jagger said. Back to that in a minute. No, according to Mark Twain it was Benjamin Disraeli who made that comment – or at least he would have done if he had still been alive back in 1903.

But have a look at the official club website and you’ll see some quite alarming statistics from Saturday’s game. They say, for example, that City, starting a home game as second in the league, had just 29% of the possession, had just half of the number of shots on target as the Daggers and won 4 corners as against their opponents’ 13. Those are the kind of statistics that don’t lie.

At least now I know why the manager keeps his hair as long as it always has been. It’s so that nobody realises how much of it he tears out whenever we gave the ball away – which happened roughly every thirty seconds yesterday. He will soon be as follicularly challenged as the rest of us, especially when we concede possession about 25 yards from our own goal.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded the Daggers’ corner count being 14, if the extra one had been the ball TJ could just have knocked out of play instead of letting it be put back across the face of Evans’ goal, thereby setting up the equalizer. But come on, be fair to Evans. He’d kept us in it and there was very little he could have done to prevent that goal.

Of course, what the statistics don’t tell you is that, for all that City were outplayed up and down the pitch, there was only one team who were ever going to score that opening goal. I don’t suggest it was fated or anything like that. What I mean is that it took a passing team, operating at pace and a real quality goal scorer to create and score a goal like that. We’ve done it before – Rochdale comes to mind – and we’ll do it again this season. There are ways of soaking up pressure and still scoring goals and we seem to have some of the best ways. They’re called Boulding and Thorne.

Even allowing for the justice in the equalizer, City could have lost the point gained. Apart from the referee, who else thought it wasn’t a penalty? And what about the reaction of the Dagenham players? The last time I saw that sort of scrum round the ref was when Andy D’Urso had the temerity to award a penalty against the home team at Old Trafford and Roy Keane’ eyeballs were several inches away from the sockets. Wasn’t that exactly what the Respect campaign was all about? So how come not a single yellow card resulted from the cavalry charge?

Ah yes, that was what Paul Jewell said. After the recent Derby game against Nottingham Forest he gave the referee 100% in his report card, because he wanted to see if anyone actually read the numbers awarded by the managers. That was the game where the ref gave a penalty for a handball that wasn’t, where quite literally a one second pause would have solved everything, that being the time it took for Derby to put the ball in the net. The penalty was saved and even the second time Derby put the ball in the net the ref found a push, although he couldn’t say by which Derby player. Replays showed two or three from Forest, none from Derby.

And why was I reminded of Paul Jewell? Easy really. That Derby ref was none other that Mr Atwell, he of the phantom goal in the Watford and Reading game and he of the non-penalty and no respect at Valley Parade yesterday. (I gather Derm Tanner’s substitute on Bantams World needed the prompting of John Hendrie to point out that this was the phantom goal ref. Still, given that he also insisted that the cross for Boulding’s goal came from Jones, maybe he could give up the day job and become a linesman.)

I just wondered how a Premiership ref couldn’t book anyone for that confrontation. Then I thought of the absolute howlers he’s made already this season, each of which has cost points for different teams and, for Aidy Boothroyd, a slap on the wrist for his reaction. But yesterday there were no TV cameras, save for the highlights package which will never show the incident. Or maybe Mr Atwell finally figured that, when you have just dug that hole a little deeper, there really must come a time to stop digging. I could almost wish for the return of Graham Poll.

Well, almost.

Reduced choices – Bradford City vs Dagenham and Redbridge – League Two 2008/2009 preview

There may not have been any further injuries to emerge from last weekend’s FA Cup defeat to Leyton Orient, but Bradford City manager Stuart McCall has still found himself with two less players to choose from for tomorrow’s important league encounter.

Willy Topp and Tom Clarke have both departed Valley Parade during the week and, while each leave with most fans best wishes, it’s the latter one which causes the most immediate concern. Clarke looked an excellent proposition in the middle of the park and has been growing in confidence after a long spell out injured, but was recalled back to Huddersfield in time to face Walsall. He was initially signed to provide defensive cover, but leaves having successfully performed a role in the team it previously did without.

There’s been much debate at City in recent years about the merits of using a holding midfielder and, for much of this season, Stuart’s preferred to line up minus one. Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren started the season in the centre, largely sharing the defensive and attacking responsibilities. That continued when Dean Furman and then Nicky Law came in when injuries struck. After McLaren limped off at Rotherham, Clarke was brought in and the effect was a more balanced looking midfield and licence for Law to roam further forward.

It won’t work in every game, but the benefits of having a defensive midfielder on the books was shown in Clarke’s excellent showings against Chesterfield and Leyton Orient. Compare the more solid platform provided with the home games against Gillingham and Barnet, where the lack of protection provided by those in front of the back four played a huge part in the amount of pressure City wase put under. Clarke maybe gone but, with a new manager with new ideas set to take charge at the Galpharm, Stuart might be keeping tabs on how much he figures during the next few weeks with the January transfer window approaching.

Until then City will go back to a central midfield pairing sharing the roles. McLaren is expected to be fit enough to return and, though question marks over his start with City remain, his calm passing and dead ball skills will be welcomed back. Law will be reined in slightly but still expected to put his high energy levels to good use in the final third. They will sit between two widemen with much to prove. For a spell on Saturday Kyle Nix sparked City and it’s to be hoped he can recapture last season’s form as we wait for Omar Daley, Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon to regain fitness. Steve Jones makes his home league debut having impressed in patches against Orient. More will be expected of him as he finds his feet.

Up front the competition for places is fierce with Barry Conlon expected to be fit enough and Michael Boulding looking more like a player worth all that effort pursuing during the summer. Peter Thorne has been benched partly because of fitness but also partly on merit. It’s fair to say that the early season spark has been absent from his game recently, but it’s testament to the relative ability of City’s squad that, unlike two years ago when an out of form Dean Windass was still too good to be dropped, Thorne is kicking his heels on the bench. How it can be argued Topp deserved a run in the side at the expense of two of these three is beyond me.

Defensive failings still occupy many minds and last weekend’s showing was only marginally improved. There are calls for Mark Bower to return at the expense of Matt Clarke – who actually played okay last week. I can see the argument, but when some fans go to the extremes of listing Bower as our best defender and slate Stuart for ignoring him one is left wondering why it’s been so quickly forgotten that a year ago many were demanding Bower be dropped for Clarke. Lee will certainly start alongside one of them, with TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien taking the full back roles in front of Rhys Evans.

Valley Parade is joint top with the New Meadow in League Two in terms of how many goals have been scored this season – and a visit from League Two’s top scorers is unlikely to slow that. England C international Paul Benson has led Dagenham’s surprise promotion challenge with 10 goals, though strike partner Ben Strevens isn’t far behind on eight. Twice they’ve hit someone for six but they’ve lost almost as often as they’ve won. Last year they triumphed at Valley Parade on route to avoiding relegation.

It will mean another tough afternoon for a back four which has lost some of its protection, though for much of this season Stuart has chosen attack as the best form of defence.

The luck of the draw

Watching the Bantams go out of the FA Cup 2-1 to Leyton Orient two frustrations of this 2008/2009 season struck me but only one left me surprised.

The Bantams interest in knock out competitions ended after a header former Leeds man Danny Granville headed home a well placed corner leaving City – who had got back into the game following going behind in the first half – tired and heading for the exit.

City had started slowly – a problem of late – and Graeme Lee’s continuing problems with TJ Moncur maintaining a position to his right hand side saw the skipper foolishly following the wrong man leaving time and space for Jason Demetriou to turn and pick out a fine shot to beat Rhys Evans from range. It was a deserved reward for the team from the division above having the better of the opening exchanges and there was a worry that as with Tranmere Rovers 3-0 win in a previous FA Cup tie that League One would just have too much quality.

Credit then City for clawing back into the game to such an extent that the first half ended with the Bantams in the ascendency much of which had to do with the Bantams midfield – second choice and second best – adding a needed steel to proceedings.

The quartet of Nicky Law Jnr being anchored by Tom Clarke with Kyle Nix on the right and debut loan winger Steve Jones replacing the injured Omar Daley were bullied out of the opening exchanges but added perhaps a little too much of the tough stuff with Clarke picking up a booking and Nix pushing in two challenges that had they connected could have resulted in red cards.

Nevertheless the muscle matched the visitors from the league above who’s robust style of play had seen a heavy challenge on Barry Conlon in the first ten minutes result in the in form 100 goal man coming off after twenty minutes with a back injury and considering that none of the midfield four would be in Stuart McCall’s all squad fit team then credit is due for the resurgence that bore fruit after an hour when a smart through ball allowed Michael Boulding – who ran tirelessly all afternoon – to get behind the immense Alton Thirwell who had a superb game for the visitors and equalise for the Bantams.

At that point City looked the team most likely but the goal galvanised the visitors who stepped up and within ten had taken the decisive lead. The Bantams had chances to equalise – Peter Thorne uncharacteristically heading the best of them wide – but Thirwell, Jordan Spence and midfielder Adam Chambers kept a strong spine to restrict City who lost by an edge, but just an edge.

Curious then that a decent turn out despite pricing villainy by the Londoner’s boardroom did not get behind City more. The Bantams battled with a team a league above and battled well. A nicer drop of the ball or a slice of luck and City could have been through yet the atmosphere was once again strangely muted. Hardly a surprise but whatever a crowd can do to push a team through we do not seem to do it, at least not at Valley Parade.

Surprising and disappointing has been the rumbling of balls around Bradford City this season. Four times the Bantams have been drawn out of hats and every time we have faced a team in the highest division possible. Huddersfield Town, Leeds United and Milton Keynes Dons have previously faced City in the cup this season all from League One.

With the Bantams doing well in League Two we could assume that a draw against anyone below us – and in every draw we have been in most of the teams have been below us in the league structure – would have been more beatable but rather than Grimsby Town away in the Johnsons Paint we end up with Leeds and rather than Chester in the League Cup we went to Huddersfield. Of course there is no guarantee we would have won those hypothetical games but City should not be down hearted about being out of all the cups but rather surprised at the bad luck that saw us get four tough games.

Leyton Orient was a winnable game – both in theory and during the match – but it was not Histon Town 1 Leeds United 0 and as we look to the league now and the next five months of trying to ensure promotion we should do so knowing that in all four of those games – save the second half against Huddersfield – the Bantams gave as good as they got against the teams we want to be playing week in week out.

Four times we played league one clubs. Once we learned a lesson, once we got an apology, once we played and won and once we played and lost. We are ready for that league.

Overcoming the margins – Bradford City vs Leyton Orient – FA Cup 2nd Round preview

We remember Ben Murihead stupidly running down a blind alley with 10 minutes to go, losing possession and Barnsley racing up the other end to crucially equalise. We remember Jermaine Johnson’s incredible dribble from his own half before shooting wide when reaching the penalty area, then a Nathan Doyle own goal gifting Millwall an undeserved win. We remember David Wetherall hitting the crossbar with a header before, erm, Tranmere proceeded to play us off the park and win 3-0.

The previous three Bradford City seasons have featured progress past the First Round of the FA Cup, before each time falling at the Second. We’ve allowed ourselves to dream of City’s name being included in that illusive 3rd Round Draw with the opportunity of a lucrative tie. On Saturday we dream again that this could our year as Leyton Orient rock up to Valley Parade – will it be fourth time lucky?

The so-called “magic of the FA Cup” will be duly hyped all weekend and City could, by some stretch of the imagination, be considered one of the giant killers of the last round after the impressive win at MK Dons – a result which looks more impressive each week as the Buckinghamshire club climb League One.

It’s doubtful whether the magic really will touch Bradford this weekend though, the stadium will be barely a fifth full and there’s a convincing argument that, unlike the last three seasons, an FA Cup run is an unnecessary distraction. Nevertheless as memories of recent disappointments remind us of the often thin line between success and failure it’s worth noting that City have twice this week been on the right side of such margins – Rhys Evans’ wonder save at Rotherham and Jack Lester’s miss at 2-2 on Tuesday – and it’s the sign of a good side when they’re the ones regularly benefiting from such fortune.

A good side. Worth emphasising to some of our supporters who still can’t manage to do anything but criticise and moan. Tuesday’s comeback win against Chesterfield was a fantastic game of football – arguably the most entertaining of our season so far. Yet still all some can do is focus on the disappointing first 25 minutes, pick on a couple of players who didn’t reach the heights of others and, perhaps most stupidly of all, moan that City we’re hanging on during the final 10 minutes. Let’s imagine our team had fallen 3-2 behind and had a man sent off with 10 minutes to go, wouldn’t we still expect our players to force pressure in the closing stages? Why shouldn’t Chesterfield fans expect any less of their side?

We witness an injury hit City side show tremendous character and commitment to recover from an awful start and win against an impressive visiting side, why can’t we enjoy it? All some people can do is look for negatives; there’s been some over-the-top moaning about Matt Clarke (who apparently was booed by some ‘fans’ in the Kop whenever he touched the ball on Tuesday), the medical experts amongst us have managed to blame Omar Daley’s injury on Stuart McCall and there’s a certain balding Irish striker who some attempted to argue was one of our worst players. I am staggered how any City supporter could have left Valley Parade on Tuesday feeling unhappy. As Alan Hansen would say, “it’s unbelievable.”

Of course there were things which didn’t go so well and Stuart will look to address these on Saturday. I’m full of admiration for the way he stuck to his guns with the line up on Tuesday. At 2-0 the diamond formation he’d employed did not look a clever decision but, rather than panic, he got the players doing the right things and the improvement was vast. It won’t work every game and may not be used tomorrow with no Daley, but Stuart has a lot more faith in his team than many of us supporters do and surely it’s time more of us got behind them, particuarly when they’re struggling.

Stuart is unlikely to make many changes for this tie. Nicky Law and Tom Clarke have both had their loan spells extended and both arguably enjoyed their best games in Claret and Amber so far on Tuesday. They will make up the centre of the midfield with new loan arrival Steve Jones, taking Daley’s place, on the right. Kyle Nix, who did reasonably well Tuesday considering it was his first game back from injury, will push his claims for a regular spot on the left.

The back five will be unchanged with Matt Clarke still causing concern but Graeme Lee winning fans over. At 2-0 down and in real trouble on Tuesday, strong leadership was needed and Lee stepped up to the mark in more ways than just his impressive free kick. TJ Moncur must improve on his recent showings while Luke O’Brien will reflect that it was a year ago this weekend he made his debut and how far he has come. Rhys Evans keeps goal.

Up front Stuart has a real dilemma. At last Valley Parade got to see what a talent Michael Boulding can be and it would be difficult to rest him with confidence improving. Same with Barry Conlon, who’s popularity is surpassing the ‘cult hero’ status of last season into genuine ‘fans favourite’. That could mean Peter Thorne is left out again, which might not be a bad thing with a busy Christmas coming and injury niggles. FA Cup rules allow Stuart to name seven substitutes, which will give some fringe players a chance – will Willy Topp be one of them?

Of course the last time Leyton Orient were in town they cruelly smashed our hopes of avoiding the drop with a two-goal burst which had people around me crying and the boo boys curiously gloating. That day City battered Orient and wasted a hatful of chances to be out of sight by half time.

It’s those margins of success and failure that good teams invariably benefit from and poor sides are left cursing about. If City are the beneficiaries on Saturday we supporters just might start to believe in magic again.

Battling back

City produced a fine comeback from 2-0 down to grab all three points and ascend into 2nd place in League Two.

It was a game full of incident and open play, and City’s superb resolve and spirit was highly commendable against dangerous attacking opposition.

McCall sprung a surprise in naming the starting eleven by leaving top scorer Peter Thorne on the bench. His troublesome back problems that have developed over the last few weeks is likely to be the reasoning behind not risking him from the start. With so many injuries to contend with, McCall tinkered with a diamond formation in the first half, with Tom Clarke playing the anchor role in midfield protecting the back four, and Omar Daley getting a free role to roam with menace.

Things could not have got off to a worse start when a long throw into the area was not dealt with, and Jack Lester rifled in a left foot strike beyond Rhys Evans to put Chesterfield ahead.

The game opened up and City had two good chances to level via Omar Daley – in particular when he seemed to have got clean through and just before he was about to shoot, an excellent last ditch challenge was produced by Chesterfield defender Downes, to deny the pacy Jamaican.

Things went from bad to worse when Chesterfield doubled their advantage on 23. A loose ball floated around the penalty area that City failed to clear and it was left to Darren Currie to produce a rasping left foot strike that took a deflection and flew into the roof of the net, prompting jubilant celebrations from the scorer.

To their credit, City never let their heads drop and really began to play with more purpose despite being 2-0 down. There was some nice interplay and with Michael Boulding a willing runner all night, City began asking questions of Robert Page’s Chesterfield backline. When Barry Conlon was fouled just outside the box, the resultant free kick was left to skipper Graeme Lee who smashed the ball directly into the net with a thunderbolt that threw City a lifeline.

And just before halftime a short corner produced a left wing cross that was headed firmly down by Boulding that drew City level.

The second half began with City in the ascendancy and should have taken the lead twice through Boulding. First, he was unlucky to see his strike bounce wide following an excellent cross from the left from O’Brien. Then he really should have scored when one on one with Page, but he dragged his shot wide of the target.

Chesterfield were still having a fair amount of attacking play though, and Jack Lester missed a very presentable chance when clean through on goal to the left of the box. But Evans did a brilliant job, making himself big, and only providing Lester with an acute angle left to shoot which he sliced into the side netting.

The penalty that was awarded in City’s favour that won them the game seemed to be a fairly harsh one from my viewpoint. Nicky Law did brilliantly to take on his man and dribble inside the box, but seemed to go to ground too easily (I haven’t seen the replay yet) and initially I thought Law was going to be booked for diving. But the referee pointed to the spot, and served as some compensation for the terrible offside decisions that were given against us attacking wise.

Battling Barry Conlon grabbed the ball and confidently stepped up to take the penalty (I must admit I wanted either Boulding or Thorne to take it!). What followed was an audacious chip (Dwight Yorke style in his heyday) that went straight down the middle for the Burly Irishman’s 100th League Goal highlighted by his flash of his undershirt in the goal celebration, which was rewarded with a booking.

City held on for the last 20 minutes against ten men (Goodall was sent off for a second bookable – his foul on Law inside the penalty area) largely thanks to an excellent save from Evans from a Jamie Ward effort, and TJ Moncur made a vital interception at the back at the death – nipping the ball away from Lester with the goal gaping inside the area.

Whilst they made it very hard for themselves, its hard to find anything to criticise about City’s under strength side tonight. Yes they started slowly – but their battling back from adversion is promotion form (demonstrated also away at Accrington to grab all three points).

Boulding had a productive night and never stopped running. Tom Clarke produced an effective display protecting his back four, as was his brief. And Lee really is producing “Captain Fantastic” performances consistently now – a really worthy replacement for David Wetherall. His strikes from set pieces are now something of a secret weapon ( 30 yards out against Bury, The winner away at MK Dons in the FA Cup and now tonight).

My only grip about tonight were my fellow supporters in the Midland Road stand. With 2 – 3 minutes remaining there was an exodus of people making their way to the exit. Having just seen their team produce a stunning comeback against a very strong side, surely the team are worthy of a standing ovation. Or at least a round of a applause from the over 11,000 home fans? No, some people want to leave early to “ miss the traffic”. It’s pathetic.

You either commit to supporting the team or you are simply a spectator with no heart in caring about the team when they deserve some support or a pat on the back. People would be quick to boo the entire game if the team lost but to not reward a winning team who have dug really deep to deliver an excellent result is really not on.

At the rate that people were leaving the ground before the final whistle it was like we had lost 4-0.
Anyway, well done to Stuart and the lads. Our position in the table is very encouraging. And what is more encouraging is that I don’t think we have even hit top gear yet. From the way things look tonight, a top three finish is very achievable by this team, who like to do things the hard way.

Part two of four – Bradford City vs Chesterfield – League Two preview

There’s little doubt this is an important week in Bradford City’s season.

On Saturday it began with the low-thrills win at Rotherham and tonight’s game is a great opportunity to increase pressure on those near the top and move further clear from the chasing pack, which includes visitors Chesterfield. Saturday’s FA Cup clash with Leyton Orient carries the possibility of a lucrative 3rd round tie for the winners, while events in the days before it will also be far from insignificant.

Thursday is deadline day for loan deals until January and, with five league games in December, manager Stuart McCall has much to do to ensure he has sufficient options. After tonight, Tom Clarke and Nicky Law’s loan deals expire and, while Stuart appears keen to retain them both, it appears likely only Law will be allowed to extend his stay. With Huddersfield caretaker manager Gerry Murphy keen to give those players who he nurtured through Town’s youth academy the opportunity, Clarke is expected back at the Galpharm.

Murphy’s philosophy may lead to his on-loan option Steve Jones making the opposite journey on the M62 and former Leeds winger Seb Carole remains a possibility Clearly a right-sided midfielder is badly needed by Thursday, even if it’s just the retention of Law. Stuart may be running up a large phone bill over the next couple of days in pursuit of targets.

Clarke and Law will feature from the start tonight as City look to continue in the manner they finished at the Don Valley on Saturday. Paul McLaren’s injury isn’t expected to be serious enough to see him missing for long, but in his absence Clarke’s more defensive-minded approach should allow Law to get forward more regularly in the way he did for the final half hour on Saturday.

On the flanks Kyle Nix is back in contention after injury and made a 10-minute cameo on Saturday. He may replace Leon Osborne, who Stuart revealed was disappointed in his own performance at Rotherham. The youngster has apparently been playing well in the reserves and will look to inspiration from the likes of Luke O’Brien and Joe Colbeck as he tries to cross that psychological barrier of doing it in the first team. Whether he is ready for the test of a five-figure Valley Parade crowd remains to be seen.

Omar Daley will remain on the right wing. Many fans on Saturday were frustrated to see the Jamaican switched over from his usual spot on the left and it was fair to say he was less effective. Stuart might allow himself to feel a little smug after persisting with Daley on the left last season and receiving criticism from some supporters for playing him ‘out of position’.

What is clear is the service to City’s forwards needs to improve. Stuart may wish to chop about after Saturday and recall Barry Conlon after his introduction indirectly saw the team score two quick-fire goals. Michael Boulding would be favourite to be left out with Peter Thorne possibly taking his turn for a rest on Saturday.

At the back Rhys Evans and O’Brien will be in high spirits while Matt Clarke and Graeme Lee will be hoping for their first back-to-back clean sheets since August. TJ Moncur will be looking to get forward in the same effective manner as O’Brien, though has the added defensive responsibility of playing behind Daley.

The last time Chesterfield were at Valley Parade their supporters taunted their manager Lee Richardson with the chant “you don’t know what you’re doing”. The former Halifax and Huddersfield midfielder is still in charge, with his team unbeaten in seven and climbing the table after a slow start. Having been injured for both meetings last season, Jack Lester (35 goals for The Spireites from 53 appearances) will line up against City and scored for Nottingham Forest on his last visit to Valley Parade. Jamie Ward, who had a superb game on that horrible afternoon 19 months ago is winning plaudits and attracting attention.

He will be with Chesterfield until January at least but who will be lining up for the Bantams over the same period isn’t fully clear. We wait for Chris Brandon, Colbeck, Lee Bullock, Dean Furman and now McLaren to return from injury and, while it leaves a larger reliance on loan players than Stuart would probably like in the short-term, it’s nothing on the situation two seasons ago where so much of Colin Todd’s long-term plans depended on them.

If it’s to be good bye from Clarke and Law tonight, let’s hope it ends in the same way their loan periods started.

What’s next?

It wasn’t pretty, it was far from convincing and it will be quickly forgotten – but the most relevant description of Bradford City’s 2-0 win at Rotherham would be ‘job done’.

The open manner of attacking football which manager Stuart McCall is largely pinning City’s promotion hopes on was rarely exhibited, but some of the other equally important qualities that any side with promotion aspirations was. It may have been played out in the unusual and somewhat soulless setting of Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium, but Rotherham provided that familiar awkward test and the Bantams had to display steeliness, grit and determination. Ultimately the three points earned by Luke O’Brien and Nicky Law’s second half strikes will be all that matter come May.

Not that it was a bad performance from the pre-season League Two favourites. Rotherham United supporters might consider that their entire home crowd can be dumped into one stand of their temporary home as an indicator of their place in the world, but they will also know their team would be battling with City for promotion were it not for that 17 point deduction. For 70 minutes the Millers dominated possession and posed plenty of questions of a defensive line which has being needing to provide answers.

Rhys Evans made an early low save and the City stopper had a busy afternoon. With widemen Jamie Green and Dale Tonge causing plenty of problems, numerous balls were fired into the box and Matt Clarke – who appears to have heeded the wake-up call from losing his place in the last home game against Barnet – and Graeme Lee stood up to the battle.

Not that Stuart would have been happy with how much they had to do. In the middle of the park City were second best for much of the game and possession was too easily squandered. There’s seemingly been a learning curve all season about the best way to play, with many players often taking the direct option of launching the ball forward as quickly as possible. While it’s effective at times – some of City’s better first half opportunities coming this way – it needs to be used in the right way. In the early stages there was a reluctance to slow the tempo and pass it around, instead the ball quickly sent forward and invariably returned just as fast.

Questions continue to be asked of Paul McLaren, who it’s felt can do more. This is the sort of game where a midfield leader, a Stuart if you like, is badly needed and McLaren is the closest we have. His manager must be looking to McLaren to demand the ball off others to then deliver sensible and, when the opportunity arises, killer passes which set City on their way. McLaren was guilty of taking the wrong option too often in the first half and moves broke down. Like with other City players who’ve struggled, the management is capable of coaching more out of him. Should Stuart succeed, McLaren will be a better player for it.

Two widemen were employed, with Leon Osborne brought in on the left and Omar Daley switched to the right. It was unusual to see Daley on this side and served to only remind us that, while his pace and dribbling skills are such a potent weapon, his final ball into the box can sometimes be poor. Daley was City’s best attacking outlet but Osborne too was a willing worker.

The second half became a fascinating battle as Rotherham continued to exert strong pressure and waste some good chances, but City slowly began to play in the right way. Possession wasn’t feebly squandered seconds after been won. There was some impressive passing with some moves agonisingly breaking down when one pass wasn’t quite good enough. City also seemed to work out when to go direct and when to slow it down. In short – they began to play like a good away side.

So while heavy pressure in City’s box continued, more and more gaps began to emerge at the other end and the counter attack was on. The ball was played quickly to Osborne or Daley, who used their pace and the space to get City on the attack. Nothing was to come of it at first, but as Rotherham showed a degree of naivety in how far forward some of their players went, the opportunities were increasing. After Tom Clarke was brought on for the injured McLaren, Law suddenly had the licence to get forward even more and this made a difference.

Seconds after Barry Conlon also joined the action, City got their counter attack spot on. A Rotherham corner saw plenty of red shirts forward, but the was played towards a galloping O’Brien, who burst forward to the edge of the area and hit a low shot which appeared to leave Rotherham keeper David Stockdale unsighted as it flew into the bottom corner.

Two minutes later Rotherham fans thought their side had equalised as Drew Broughton’s header from close range was magnificently pushed onto the bar by Evans, but then another counter-attack delivered a killer second goal as Law’s shot from distance flew past Stockdale into the same corner of the net as O’Brien’s.

With the game effectively won City were able to slow the tempo and pass the ball around in a calmer manner. An O’Brien dribble forward was illegally stopped and the resulting free kick fired over, while a great passing move resulted in TJ Moncur wastefully stabbing the ball well wide of the goal. A third would undoubtedly have flattered City.

Those sat near this writer will have to excuse my over-exuberant celebrations for both goals, particularly the first. For most of the game the cold air around me was polluted by one supporter who’s non-stop moaning about his team was not only moronic and largely unrealistic (they are League Two players, but I doubt even Premiership players could manage what he expected our players to do), but his choice of players to ‘target’ was ludicrous. All game long I watched an excellent performance from our young left back, O’Brien, and all game long I listened to irrational abuse about how rubbish he was, with this fan often calling him a four letter term beginning with T. That was when he wasn’t yelling equally ridiculous abuse about Osborne and demanding Stuart sub him.

Is this the way we should be encouraging our younger players? No one says we should gloss over if they fail to reach the standards required for first team football, but when they’re not even having bad games it was hard to listen to this fan’s clueless rants. So when O’Brien struck the first I had to fight every urge to turn around and call my fellow supporter a four letter term beginning with T, though my mouth dropped to the floor in astonishment as he joined in when others later started a chant praising O’Brien.

But in some ways it was that sort of afternoon. The Don Valley stadium is a horrible place to watch football and the freezing conditions had us longing for the final whistle well before it was due. Any attempt to build an atmosphere by the 1,600 City fans was largely lost in the wide open space and, for those of us with limited eyesight, it was difficult to see the ball at the opposite end of the pitch when it got darker. It can’t have been much fun for the players either, with three sides of the ground completely empty. It was a matter of getting the win and moving onto the next game.

Rotherham’s 17 point deduction should mean the Don Valley stays on the fixture list for League Two sides next season – another incentive for City to get the ultimate ‘job done’ and earn promotion.

Unfamiliar familiarity – Rotherham United v Bradford City – League Two preview

This is the seventh season out of eight to feature Rotherham away on Bradford City’s fixture list, though there will be nothing familiar about Saturday’s trip.

The financial difficulties which the Millers have struggled to overcome during the last few years has resulted in a temporary move to Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium. With a running track around the pitch and the stands – of which for only one side is there a roof – positioned well back, it will certainly be a contrast from the intimacy of Millmoor.

For Rotherham the move was born out of necessity as Millmoor’s landlord, former Chairman Ken Booth, demanded too much rent and not enough access to its facilities for it to be financially viable. Attendances have slightly dipped through the six-mile relocation, though with only two home defeats so far it’s clear the players have adapted to new surroundings quickly.

For us Bradford City supporters, it should be a case of being thankful for our lot. Clearly the Bantams have suffered from financial troubles in recent years and the two relegations since leaving the Premier League can be blamed on it to varying degrees. Yet both City’s spells in administration came before the sort of point deductions which have been inflicted on Rotherham for three consecutive seasons. As for a former chairman owning the ground and the struggle to make rent payments, a move to Odsal looked a possibility back in February 2004.

Which goes to show that, if there can be positives to take from what this club went through, it’s the timing of it. Pity the marketing men at Rotherham, who this summer had to work out how to sell season tickets for a club which had moved to a nearby city, which wasn’t fully guaranteed to be allowed to continue by the Football League and who even then started with a 17 point deduction. The self-righteous whining from Leeds United supporters last season has ensured many of us hold little sympathy for clubs who break the rules by getting in such debt, but things could have been much worse for us during those dark days and at the time that didn’t seem possible.

For City at least, such difficult times are now part of the history books and they approach the only proper League Two Yorkshire Derby of the season with strong promotion aspirations. Last week’s defeat to Wycombe may have tempered confidence among supporters, but manager Stuart McCall will know the true quality of a good side is how it responds to set backs. So far this season the players have made a good fist of it.

The team is likely to be similar after Stuart’s attempts to bring in a right winger on loan drew a blank. Rhys Evans keeps goal behind a back four slowly recapturing its early season solidness. Paul Heckingbottom came through the reserves unscathed midweek and Stuart may consider giving Luke O’Brien a breather. TJ Moncur seems to be comfortably first choice ahead of Paul Arnison on the right and Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke continue in the centre.

The other Clarke will continue in midfield. City’s line ups this season have largely not featured an out and out holding midfielder and the hope has to be that Paul McClaren, alongside Tom, can get forward more than he has been afforded to. Lee Bullock is close to a return to fitness and McClaren may be aware he needs to show more in order to keep his starting place. Nicky Law will play on the right with Omar Daley likely to provide the team’s main source of attacking inspiration from the left.

Up front Michael Boulding will be hoping to get the nod over Barry Conlon, with the latter still sweating over a new contract offer in the new year. There are some concerns over Peter Thorne’s recent performances, but there’s no one you’d rather have on the end of any decent chances the rest of the team can create during the game.

Rotherham are not without their problems having lost experienced keeper Andy Warrington to injury and with only Steven Cann, who played his first senior game midweek and was on the end of a 3-0 defeat, to call upon between the sticks. Manager Mark Robins too has been left frustrated by the loan market and, unless any late attempts prove successful, it will be a big day for the 20-year-old South African. They also have their own Omar, who is perhaps more Willy Topp.

One familiar face will be Alex Rhodes, who joined the Millers from City during the summer. The winger was an excellent proposition on his day, as Rotherham themselves know only too well, but lacked consistency. Had Stuart kept him on it’s likely he’d have barely figured for City this season up until Joe Colbeck’s injury, so his regularity for Rotherham suggests City would be finishing above them even if they’d not suffered that heavy points deduction.

Like City, Rotherham will be aiming to put their financial troubles behind them but the impact which the credit crunch has had on so many parts of UK life has yet to be realised in football. With the UK heading for recession tough times may be ahead and typically its lower league clubs who will suffer.

If United had trouble with season tickets this season what about the next, when people’s spending will become even tighter? This week Rotherham announced half-year season ticket prices which are still more expensive than it cost for a full City season ticket. If levels of support are to be maintained in 2009/10 season clubs are going to have to consider the sort of innovate pricing approach which has succeeded at Valley Parade, though that might be difficult for clubs like Rotherham to implement with money in short supply.

If City can march onto promotion this season they should have few problems retaining their support should they keep similar prices, which would once again leave us pleased with our timing and thankful for our lot.

Where we want to be – MK Dons v Bradford City – FA Cup 1st Round preview

The chances are that those of us at Stadium MK this Saturday will witness a City defeat – but I hope to still make the 162-mile journey home feeling happy.

I will be happy if I see commitment from those who don Claret and Amber for this FA Cup 1st Round tie. Injuries, in midfield in particular, are severely limiting Stuart McCall’s options. There are already plenty of excuses which can be made if defeat occurs, but if those who are fit to play show anything less than full commitment towards the cause of City’s name appearing in Sunday’s 2nd Round draw those excuses will lose credibility.

I will be happy if Stuart is able to learn something from the game. Those injuries allow others their opportunity and, with seven substitutes allowed in the FA Cup, there will be plenty queuing up to take it. Injuries to Dean Furman and Kyle Nix – added to Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon – open up a hole in midfield. Stuart may move Nicky Law across to partner Paul McClaren in the centre, which should leave Leon Osborne or Willy Topp battling to take the vacant right midfield role.

Osborne made his debut for City against Millwall in May 2007, but got off on the wrong foot with Stuart that summer which hindered progress. Topp’s contribution this season has been two appearances from the bench. He played reasonably well out wide during pre-season, through Stuart may wish to bring him in up front tomorrow.

If Law is kept on the right, Luke Sharry could make his much-anticipated debut for City having impressed in pre-season and for the reserves this season. At the back Huddersfield’s refusal to let Tom Clarke play should mean a return for the other Clarke; though Paul Arnison could be recalled and TJ Moncur moved to the centre to partner Graeme Lee. Luke O’Brien, who made his senior debut in the FA Cup this season, will hope to recapture his promising form at left back, with Rhys Evans keeping goal.

Up front it seems unlikely Peter Thorne will be risked into action, with City’s top scorer seemingly picking up as many niggling injuries as goals. The in-form Barry Conlon should partner Michael Boulding, although don’t rule out the 4-3-3 formation adopted against Leeds in the Johnstones Paint Trophy which would see Boulding and Omar Daley assume the wide forward roles. Otherwise the latter will return from suspension in his familiar left wing role.

The MK Dons are far from unfamiliar opposition and it’s barely six months since they sealed the League Two title with victory at Valley Parade. Currently 4th in League One, they are nicely set up to achieve Julian Rhodes’ ambition for City of back-to-back promotions.

And that’s where the real happiness could be gained, even if City make it a hat trick of first round cup exits this season. They are not there yet, but we hope this City side can be as good as last year’s MK Dons and follow their path towards the Championship. That doesn’t mean we’ll be good enough to win, particularly with significant injuries, but we want to at least see our team compete with them.

There were many impressive facets to the MK Dons side which beat us at home April, right up there was their resilience. We travel South in the hope of an upset, but even if the best our patched-up side can achieve is to run the Dons close it would speak volumes of the character and strength of this squad. There’s no excuse for the players who’ll get a rare opportunity to show anything less than their all, but that should go for the remaining regulars too.

Too much ying for City’s yang

If there was one positive for us Bradford City fans to take as we exited Valley Parade at full time it was that it’s unlikely we’ll witness as wretched a second half performance from our team all season.

Going in at half time in a far from commanding 3-2 lead, the players appeared unsure whether to keep attacking or see out the game and failed to do either with any conviction. And although it’s questionable whether Albert Anomah’s 75th minute prodded equaliser crossed the line, there was no disputing how deserved it was – or how fortunate City were that the two points lost didn’t become three.

This was an afternoon in which much of what’s good about City this season was on display, but was undermined by much of what’s not good. Three times they took the lead in the first half and each time it was well taken. First Barry Conlon nodded the Bantams ahead after 10 minutes following a fine team move out of defence which resulted in Peter Thorne’s clever lay off been crossed into the box by TJ Moncur. Paul McLaren’s superb free kick delivery on the half hour was aching to be nodded home and Thorne did just that to put City back in front. Conlon then got his second – and sixth of the season – after finishing well from Moncur’s pass for 3-2. Recalled to the starting line up after his midweek heroics, the Irishman had an excellent afternoon and has now moved ahead of Michael Boulding in the goalscoring charts.

Yet in between those three goals were two soft ones at the other end to grimace about. Conlon’s opener was cancelled out after a woeful Moncur back pass sold Rhys Evans short, but even then the City goalkeeper should have made a better fist of clearing the ball instead of dallying and allowing John O’Flynn to roll the ball into the net. After Thorne’s header for 2-1, Anomah beat Luke O’Brien on the byeline and got a shot in which Evans did well to save, only for slow defending to allow Nicky Nicolau the space to slam the ball home. Conlon then struck again to re-establish a lead City’s first half efforts deserved.

A half which heavily featured attacking football from both sides. Manager Stuart McCall, without the suspended Omar Daley, moved Boulding out wide and brought in Conlon; but while Boulding had enjoyed an excellent game on the left wing at Grimsby eight days ago he was a huge disappointment. Whether he was unhappy to be switched or there’s some anxiety at playing in front of a large demanding crowd which is hindering, he failed to produce what was expected. Worse he was woeful at tracking back and helping out O’Brien; the latter too often left exposed against the threat of Anomah, who thankfully couldn’t cross as well as he could dribble.

Going forward Boulding was little better and, with Nicky Law playing in fits and starts, City played without the wide threat which has helped them to stretch and win games this season. Stuart must have recognised this and no one would have blamed him had he brought Kyle Nix or Leon Osborne on at half time, but instead he persisted with a line up which wasn’t functioning properly.

Barnet came out strong in the second half and their threat never went away. With pace on the flanks and a midfield not afraid to put a boot in, it became more and more one-way traffic as City struggled to keep them at bay. Rare home attacks carried a threat – Law and Conlon both going close – but the visitors enjoyed far more of the ball and posed too many questions of a fragile backline.

And herein lies the problem with City at the moment. There’s no doubting the attacking quality within the ranks, shown here despite the absence of key players, but when they do go in front there is some uncertainty over what to do next. Once again we see too many long balls launched in the hope the strikers can hold the ball up, but the offside flag or strong, and sometimes questionable, Barnet challenges limited this effectiveness. Stuart seems to want City to pass the ball about from the back and this often works well, but when the nerves are prevalent or the lead is slender ‘hit and hope’ seems to be favoured. To Barnet’s credit they must have noted this and sought to apply pressure on City from high up the pitch.

In such situations it’s as if City have one less player in midfield and the ability to slow the game down, keep passing the ball around and take the sting out of Barnet’s attacking momentum seems to be beyond the players. They will often work really hard to win the ball back, only to lose it cheaply seconds later. It meant the defence was overworked and the equaliser seemed inevitable.

The sight of Dean Furman having to limp off the field was distressing, given he was the only member of City’s midfield successfully doing the right things. His injury might have meant Stuart decided to keep Boulding on when his ineffectiveness should have been rewarded with an early exit from play, but three minutes later City were kicking off again and seemingly lacking the belief and composure to get back in front.

The performance of the backline is clearly a huge concern. Graeme Lee has looked much more the player of early season during the last two games, but he needs to be more commanding of the troops around him. Tom Clarke is a decent player but struggled as the game went on and it was O’Brien’s toughest afternoon to date, not helped by that lack of support in front. Moncur considers himself a right back, but the doubts are still there. Much of the recent defensive shortcomings have been blamed on Matt Clarke, but I believe he hasn’t been as bad as others make out.

Not that City particularly missed him, but there is someone sat in the same dugout who it can be argued they are. David Wetherall was always going to be a tough act to follow after retiring last season, but it’s the way Stuart is now trying to get City to defend which is perhaps causing teething problems. Wetherall’s lack of pace meant City had to defend deeper and the back four are now trying to play a higher defensive line. This is working reasonably well – though defenders need to be more decisive in possession when opposition forwards are pressing them – but was seemingly abandoned in the second half due to the midfield’s lack of control. The pressure grew, but the more forward players didn’t drop further back with the defence and huge gaps emerged which Barnet were able to exploit.

After Barnet’s equaliser there only looked to be one winner as the impressive visitors continued to attack. At least the defence did well to prevent a late winner with some excellent headers and blocks, how frustrating for them it must be to see the ball come back towards them so quickly after.

The full time whistle was met with boos, but it’s questionable how this sort of reaction helps anyone. There still remains a lot to be positive about when assessing City’s chances this season and the problems afflicting it can be sorted in time. Some fans said that last season City would have lost the sort of game they won against Bury midweek, well that’s true about this game too.

An unexpected late Halloween horror show at the back to endure, but the ability to keep producing fireworks at the other end has left City in an excellent position in the league. Those shortcomings will need to be banished in order to stay there.

Stuart goes in without his wingers – Bradford City vs Barnet – League Two Preview

Stuart McCall never got to the by-line.

He never skinned a full back and he never cut inside.

Little legs and a low centre of gravity Stuart McCall would have been a rubbish winger but his City team is all about the men on the flanks.

Omar Daley’s random darts have confused enough defences this year to make him one of City’s most dangerous players and the route of lots of chances but while no one else can understand a word he says Referees can and have booked him enough to suspend him.

Joe Colbeck offers something different but still important for City beating men with accurate crosses but injury at Grimsby has him sidelined and Stuart is left looking for new wingers.

Nicky Law did a reasonable job on Tuesday night but did not give the supply line that Colbeck or Daley does and Kyle Nix might be able to do what Joe does but movie left but only on a good day and the Rothstrailian hasn’t had one of those in a while.

So options like Leon Osbourn and Billy Topp in a wide role are getting talked about. Expect one to sit on the bench but Nix and Law to be the guys next to Paul McLaren and the brilliant Dean Furman.

Similarly up front Barry’s heroic header on Tuesday will bring him a place on the bench behind Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding.

At the back Matt Clarke is back and could replace Tom Clarke which would be harsh on the loan player from Udders who did well alongside Graeme Hammer Boot Lee. Tom Moncur and Luke O’Brien are full backs with Rhys Evans in net.

Barnet are without Jason Puncheon since last year after if wowed then transferred but they do have Luke Medley now which says a lot about where the club seems to be going.

They messed about in the top half of the table for a bit but are bottom half now. Expect a battle but one City can win if the squad can keep in mind the fact that the flying wingers are not replicated.

Not so much Plan B as Style B.

Whatever happened to Plan B?

When Barry Conlon checked back to see it the header that gave City a 1-0 win over Bury we all checked back a month or so to when City were in trouble.

Back then Barry was getting booed and City were on the way out of the promotion picture. The reason for this was Stuart McCall who was tactically naive or he lacked a plan B or both.

The jungle drums that beat were against him but sound distant now. McCall was never the hapless legend afforded a job above his talents that his detractors would have him portrayed but neither does he have a Midas touch either. Sometimes he gets things right and sometimes he does not and it seems that the former out weigh the latter.

McCall suffers as all managers do from the wisdom of crowds where broad judgements are given to fine situations. It is very much a tool in the modern arsenal of a manager to be able to filter the signal from the massive noise that pervades every decision one makes.

McCall’s continued use of Conlon shows this skill is growing in the City boss. The manager wants Barry in the squad but not the side and while backing him to beat boos and be useful he is careful not to overplay his importance at the expense of his plans for Michael Boulding.

McCall does the same with TJ Moncur who’s presence in the side over Paul Arnison is a mystery to me but not to the manager who ultimately is charged with maintaining cold judgement when all around are dealing in hyperbole.

The calls for Barry to start will increase but Stuart must keep his own council on the hard working, prolific Boulding despite the noises around him and the emotion of Conlon, Willy Topp et al.

Perhaps one day McCall will join a club where if need not worry about damaging his legend status – his comments at City have shown on occasion an impressive willingness to wield the power he has – and his relationship with supporters will differ.

Then he may be aggressive as well full throated in his defence of a Conlon but for now he has the lesson of filtering out all except performance and the justification that comes with winning.

Now the manager faces a different set of tests with Joe Colbeck out for two months and the continued motivation of Omar Daley now paramount but those tasks begin from second in the division.

Plan B? Tactics? Barry Conlon? Everything becomes right with a win.

That’s character

It wasn’t a night where the attacking swagger of football which characterised Bradford City’s excellent start to the season fully returned, but nevertheless manager Stuart McCall will have been delighted with those answers his players did provide to the questions raised of them.

In the wake of Monday’s disappointing defeat at Darlington, Stuart had stated he needed big characters to reverse a season in danger of slipping away and, after Matt Clarke’s controversial early sending off, the remaining players had 78 minutes to prove how much resilience they had. Whether the feeling of injustice helped spirit or it was a strong determination not to let things slip again, they responded by scoring a further two goals and then put in an excellent defensive shift which partially answers increasing accusations they aren’t good enough at the back to last the distance.

After the match Stuart admitted the referee had no choice to send Clarke off, though he did not have the benefit of such a good view of the incident as the 803 travelling City fans behind the goal. Grimsby’s Nathan Jarman had charged through only for the former Darlington defender to produce a risky, but clean, tackle to stop his route to goal. As both players laid on the ground referee Graham Salisbury consulted with his assistant before producing the red card and awarding a free kick.

It means that, in each of Sailsbury’s last three occasions he has officiated a City game, a red card for a player in claret and amber has been produced. The other two – Jermaine Johnson at home to Yeovil in January 2007 and Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu in last season’s FA Cup win against Chester – were also questionable decisions and one is left to wonder how credible the term ‘coincidence’ can be to the decisions Sailsbury has made against City. Though given Clarke’s challenge had been inside the box, the home side will also feel aggrieved they were not awarded a penalty.

The red card punctured City’s excellent start to the game. Having taken the lead after six minutes when Omar Daley latched onto a weak headed clearance, beat the full back and charged across the penalty area before unleashing a fierce drive into the top corner, a convincing away victory looked probable. Graeme Lee caused panic in the area soon after and the home defence struggled to clear their lines following another corner. Paul McLaren and Dean Furman looked busy in the centre and Daley was a constant menace.

The sending off saw that particular threat deactivated as Stuart sacrificed the Jamaican for the on-loan Tom Clarke to make his debut at right back, with TJ Moncur moved across to the centre where he looks more comfortable. Both were kept busy as Grimsby sought to take advantage of the extra man, though the chances they did create were often wasted by poor shooting.

To City’s credit they did not sit back either and tightened their grip with a second goal on the half hour. McLaren set Colbeck away on the right and his burst towards goal was blocked on the edge of the area. Ex-Mariner Michael Boulding was following up and unleashed a superb low drive which flew into the bottom corner. It was Boulding’s fifth strike of the season and, the impressive manner he’s been tucking away chances when presented to him only adds to the frustration at the lack of service he’s been getting in previous games. City are still working out how to get the best of a player who scored 25 goals for a relegated club last season.

Unsurprisingly Grimsby exerted strong pressure at the start of the second half in an effort to get back into the game and Rhys Evans made two excellent saves, but it was heartening to see how many balls into the box were cleared by a City head. The Bantams more obvious quality going forward was soon rewarded again when a rare corner was met by Lee’s diving header at the far post. Had he and his colleagues been marking so badly at the other end a home win may have resulted, but captain Lee’s exuberant celebrations for his first City goal were much deserved during an evening that he led his team so well. Special mention should also go to the corner taker McLaren; he’s received a lot of criticism recently but his last few performances have shown improvement. Think back to some of City’s goals in recent weeks and consider how many have featured City’s number 4 in the build up.

With the game seemingly over Grimsby suddenly pulled a goal back through Liam Trotter’s header to set up a final 25 minutes of pressure, but it would be the only blemish on City’s defence all night. Evans hasn’t fully convinced in goal since joining during the summer, but had an excellent game with the confident manner he deals with high balls into the box something which can only spread through the rest of the team. It was also heartening to see Luke O’Brien stand up to such a big test and, with each recent game, he is blossoming.

The final whistle was met with some ugly scenes in the home end as some Grimsby fans tried to charge onto the pitch, with Mike Newell recently put in charge it was presumably the players who were the target of their anger. It’s 20 games since they last won; but while that might lessen the impressiveness of this result for City, how victory was earned and the recent dismal record when facing teams on such poor runs means the 10-men deserve plenty of credit.

It wasn’t a game won through the attacking ability the team processes – it was shown on occasions, but it’s nothing we didn’t know before – but the way in which the players, particularly at the back, stood up and showed a robustness which has been lacking. Promotion is not ultimately won during games against struggling teams, but it can easily be lost.

So it’s back to Valley Parade for games against Bury and Barnet and the target must be six points to continue the recovery. Expectations will be allowed to creep up again and, with the Shakers having enjoyed an excellent start themselves, the Valley Parade support needs to be rediscover its own early season form on Tuesday and offer the sort of backing which so impressively helped the team at Blundell Park.

Matt Clarke will be suspended, as too will Omar Daley after picking up a fifth booking of the season. Joe Colbeck is also a doubt after been stretchered off with ten minutes to go. It all adds up to a few headaches for Stuart, though after Friday’s win he can be confident his team has the character to still deliver.

The graveyard and how to avoid it – Grimsby Town vs Bradford City preview

Soon Grimsby Town will move town – to Grimsby from Cleethorpes so lets not expect the uproar that Wimbledon and Milton Keynes caused – and when they do few will miss the oft touted coldest place in football that is Blundell Park.

It was this ground that saw two City players sign off their Bantams careers in vastly different circumstances.

The week before Christmas a single pass from Chris Waddle gave City an equaliser in a dour game at this ground with the cold win whipping off the North Sea and Gordon “Sid” Cowans was substituted after an hour or so too a ring of boos. He would not play for City again and to many – if not most – it was good riddance.

Years later the Bantams under Nicky Law won a free kick on the edge of the box which was deftly, carefully, accurately floated into the top corner of the goal for the only score of the game and the last contribution on the field of Benito Carbone.

Stuart McCall takes his City team to this curious graveyard hoping for a rebirth.

The Bantams are in what has been dubbed a bad six. Six games with only one win and with so few minutes in the lead that it is hard to recall a period of Bantam enjoyment. Luton Town, Accrington Stanley and Gillingham saw City lead less than half an hour.

In contrast the home side would kill to have six good games having half a dozen points from draws and defeats that have caused a change of manager to Mike Newell. Newell’s guidance has seen the Mariners come within a minute of a win and the question seems to be if the new manager buzz faded when Luton equalised on Tuesday night or if they can carry it over to this game with City.

The Bantams come into the game with a new face – Tom Clarke – who will look to unseat Matthew Clarke from his role in the side partnering Graeme Lee in front of Rhys Evans in goal. The full back question continues on the right hand side with some – me included – favouring Paul Arnison over TJ Moncur and others not doing. Luke O’Brien is expected to keep his left back berth with Paul Heckingbottom injured. O’Brien’s improvement in recent weeks has been a bright spot.

The midfield of Dean Furman and Paul McLaren are expected to have Joe Colbeck and the returning Omar Daley – back from the bench – on the wings with instructions to feed the wide men more.

Peter Thorne is rejoined by twice former Grimbarian Michael Boulding who returns from injury and displaces Barry Conlon. Louis Horne presses for a place on the bench

Stuart is gone for his tea

Real football isn’t Championship Manager I keep reading but if it was what would Stuart McCall be doing after last night’s defeat 2-1 to Darlington?

He might say it was unfair that the home team got a later goal when their tiny midfielder out jumped Matt Clarke. “As if that would happen!”

He would probably say the same out Kevin Austin’s free kick five minutes from time that looped over Rhys Evans but maybe he should take a look at Evans who made a couple of great saves but was beaten too easily by this free kick.

He might do that thing where you clear all the players and pick your best eleven again but if he did would he include Barry Conlon who was booed by the home fans because he was playing so well cleaning everything out at the back.

He might wonder why his team has started letting in two goals a game in the last six games and look to the game before this bad run started. The difference is in the full backs. Luke O’Brien is coming on well but TJ Moncur and the way he ignores Joe Colbeck in front of him is huge problem.

The pressure on the ball on the flanks has been lessened as has the amount of possession City enjoy in a game and much of this is down to the full back positions and how those who play them play the game.

Dean Furman almost had another impressive game alongside Paul McLaren who looked good but it was Furman who was caught in possession allowing the home side a second goal as he looked for a perfect pass rather than doing the simple ball.

City did some simple things well for most of the game but were caught out trying to ease out a draw and now go to Grimsby down on luck and looking for a win at a team that haven’t got three points all season. Stuart has been watching players who know better and who has has seen play better make mistakes in the last few games and that is depressing. Darlington was different and most of the defensive mistakes of the past few games were ironed out for most of the game but still at the end the Bantams resistance was undone by errors.

How will Stuart approach the game on Friday? How will he turn things around? If life were like Championship Manager he’d probably turn it off and go for his tea instead.

McCall goes back to, and loses sight of, basics

Having apologised in public for underestimating the quality of City’s display last week Stuart McCall had clearly had a word in one of two ears before the Bantams started the battle for nine points in a week.

For forty-five minutes the Bantams did simple things impressively and should have been taking the first three of those nine points on the road. City faced Gillingham on Saturday, go to Darlington on Monday, and Grimsby on Friday and the Bantams are very much within – as opposed to ahead – of the pack leading League Two.

It was noticeable how the Bantams defensive line smashed the ball out of play when under pressure. how often Dean Furman and Paul McLaren got on the ball in midfield, how Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley moved wide when needed and came back when not. The simple things that when done well result in results.

So they would have over Gillingham had they been maintained for the full game. The Bantams battled with a Gills side who deserve a huge mention for playing an open game rather than trying to kill off the game when they arrived at VP and who would get their rewards. Those rewards looked distant when a free kick from Paul McLaren was headed towards goal by Furman – who had his best game for City thus far – and after a save and a scramble was smashed in by Peter Thorne for his tenth of the season.

All of which was City edging ahead rather than dominating but was a good return for the opening and deflated the visitors. That deflation saw Joe Colbeck batter in an impressive slip inside by McLaren from inside the box as McCall switched his wingers to allow the tired Daley to charge at the booked Barry Fuller but in that combination the problems that City would have in the second half – and had all day – were shown.

Colbeck and Daley are a quality pair of wide players and good enough for any team in this league but they are only best value when they are supported by full backs and today they were often left disconnected, flailing ahead without the back up a winger needs.

TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien were those full backs with Paul Arnison and Paul Heckingbottom on the bench and while O’Brien did not do much wrong at the back he offered little coming forward. Moncur – who replaced Paul Arnison in the side five games ago when the number two was injured in the Bournemouth game – was troubled while defending and failed to connect with Colbeck coming forward with unpredictable results.

From a statistical point of view since Arnison was injured five matches ago City have shipped ten goals and scored eight. Watch the team one sees Colbeck taking up good positions and being ignored by Moncur most of the time and the full back lashing in ineffective crosses. Arnison was criticised by some supporters but his crossing was better and he provided options for Colbeck which Moncur does not and after the defence got back to basics so – one hopes – will McCall.

Only once was Daley able to push the ball back to Luke O’Brien for support in attacking positions. In wins like Exeter The Full Pauls were a major part in making sure that Thorne and Michael Boulding had supply to score and that Daley and Colbeck had players to team up with that they could rely on to be predictable and constant.

As it is Thorne and Boulding feasted on scraps today and the game should have been beyond Gillingham’s reach but Simeon Jackson pulled one back for the Gills after getting beyond the pairing of Matthew Clarke and Graeme Lee following head tennis and high feet and smashing home. Jackson’s pace troubled City all day but in the second half the Bantams put as much into their defeat a the visitors did.

The simple things that were done in the first half faded. Defenders began to try to put foot on ball rather than clearing, pinging the ball over the midfield and into the arms of a referee and linesman who flagged for offside incorrectly three or four times as the ball was pumped up to Thorne and Boulding. City looked alive and dangerous when the ball was brought through wide but neutered by the linesman’s flag and the defending of the men from Kent when whacked long. City stopped doing the shorter passing, the easy play, that had served so well now and previously.

So too often the Bantams wasted the ball and turned over when in dangerous positions for the want of application falling too easily into the trap of believing the besting the offside flag was the only way to score. When Peter Thorne was substituted with ten minutes left he arched his back in agony knowing the game was not won. He was right.

Despite Mark Bentley’s deserved dismissal for a two footed challenge on Paul McLaren too many City players seemed too ready to so the most obvious – rather than the most simple – thing and point to the man in the middle as wronging them.

So when Jackson burst through and scored an equaliser the Bantams seemed a long way from the team that had done the simple things well in the first half and the team that could roar into games earlier in the season. Five minutes if injury time saw the Bantams find that roar with Colbeck hitting a shot to the top corner that was excellently palmed away, Graeme Lee smashing a header from teh resulting corner against the bar and Willy Topp hooking the ball over his shoulder and the bar as City went close to a winner.

However in simple terms the Bantams allowed two points to slip away today in the way that Accrington did last week and did so when losing sight of the basics which they had done so well.

Darlington on Monday and everyone – players and management – should be looking at the things that work most often most of the time.

The end of the curse of October

At twenty five to five this report was going to be very different. At twenty five to five the report was going to centre around Bradford City and the October curse but at quarter to five Peter Thorne completed an amazing come back and the report had been turned on its head.

Our record in October over recent seasons has not been good last year we played 5, lost 3 and drew two. The year before played 4, lost 3, drew 1. Going into the last ten minutes today with confidence obviously low it looked as though this year would read played 2, lost 1, drawn 1. However thanks to an inspired performance from the player, who was the focus of what is becoming known as ‘boogate’, defeat was avoided and Bradford are sitting pretty in the automatic promotion spots.

Bradford set up like they do for all home games in a 442, Nix predictably came in for Omar Daley who was on duty with Jamaica, Luke O’Brien replaced the suspended Paul Heckingbottom, and TJ Moncur returned to the side in place of Ainge despite him doing a more than capable job against Luton. For much of the first half Bradford dominated possession without creating much but were more than comfortable with an Accrington side who didn’t look in any danger of breaking the deadlock. The Bradford fans locked out of the ground despite having tickets weren’t missing much of a spectacle.

On the same day that Lampard and Gerrard were being reunited for England and consequently sparking the usual debate of whether they can play together, Bradford seemed to be suffering from the same problem with their two talented central midfielders, MacLaren and Furman. Where as Lampard and Gerrard both like to push on and get up with the strikers leaving a hole behind them in front of the defence, MacLaren and Thurman both like to lie deep in the midfield leaving a gap just behind the strikers. Consequently any ball knocked down from Bradford’s front two was not contested and simply picked up by the Accrington players, who would soon easily give possession back to Bradford. It seemed as though this pattern would continue until changes were made.

Then 20 minutes into the game Accrington won a corner and a few nerves seemed to enter the Bradford players as they shakily defended the corner and eventually scrambled it out for a second corner. Again the corner wasn’t dealt with in the most sure manner and as the ball went out for a third corner an air of tension seemed to be gripping the strong Bradford following. The third corner saw Bradford punished by a move they themselves have used to good effect as the corner got sprayed to the edge of the box which was dummied by one and placed into the bottom corner past Rhys Evans by the onrushing James Ryan. Out of nowhere Bradford found themselves a goal down having once again been punished for the slack marking which has been evident over recent weeks.

Fortunately this seemed to spark life into the men wearing claret and amber and the tempo of the game picked up as they began to turn the screw. Minutes later Nix brilliantly switched the ball from left to right in a well worked move that found its way to Thorne on the edge of the box but City’s red hot striker just pulled the ball wide of the post with the chance that nine times out of ten he would have nestled in the bottom corner.

It was the Bradford youngsters who seemed to be stepping up to the plate, Furman was battling away and still keeping composure with the ball at his feet, while Luke O’Brien was bombing on from full back to give Nix the over lap and create the extra attacking threat. This threat was probably more effective due to absence of Daley purely because any full back would struggle to catch the Bradford speed merchant never mind overlap him.

City continued to look for the equaliser as the first half wore on and were extremely unfortunate to have a goal ruled out for offside just after the half hour mark. A lovely weighted free kick found its way to Graeme Lee and Lee cleverly nodded the ball down to Thorne who did find the net on this occasion only to see the linesman flagging. Somehow he had seen Lee to be offside when the free kick was taken.

As the half wore on frustrations began to show and Colbeck was booked for dissent by the referee, Mr. Jones, who was handling the game very well. It was the referee giving another free kick Bradford’s way that led to the best and final chance of the first half. A Colbeck free kick caught a deflection off the wall onto the bar and the rebound fell to Michael Boulding with an open goal gaping. However, the ball bounced away from the player who couldn’t get his head far enough around the ball to direct it into the net.

The mood at half time was neither upbeat nor low, although some were annoyed the Accrington catering staff were unable to cope with the big crowd and although it has been denied that Windass will return rumours may reappear because someone had eaten all the pies! After the break the players returned to positive reception as the crowd certainly didn’t think this game was beyond Bradford yet.

Unfortunately this mood lasted no more than 5 minutes as Terry Gornell playing in only his third game on loan from Tranmere slipped all too easily in between Bradfords two centre halves and an exquisitely played through ball found him one on one with Evans and the youngster slipped the ball between the former Chelsea keepers legs. Now Bradford found themselves with a mountain to climb.

The goal seemed to zap the confidence from the players and the effort seemed to have gone too. I was soon worrying about what I would be able to put in this report as for the next half hour nothing appeared to happen. Gornell still worried the City defence with his movement but Bradford could no longer seem to put anything together themselves. Numerous times Rhys Evans rolled the ball to the disappointing TJ Moncur who proceeded to just lump the ball back to Accrington side. This seemed to happen with almost every possession Bradford had and made the exclusion of Ainge seem even more unfair.

After the game McCall would say in an interview about how he worried about the lack of leadership on the field and this was certainly evident as the 11 players went completely quiet with no communication apparent. With around 20 minutes left McCall resorted to his much criticised ‘plan b’. Barry Conlon had warmed up and stripped off and everyone waited to see what reaction the travelling Bradford contingent would give the big striker. I admit that I have been one of Barry’s biggest critics in the time he’s been with the club but would never go to the extent of booing him. I have never seen what he offers and have even labelled him lazy despite the majority appearing to think he gives 110%. I have often thought he doesn’t compete for headers and falls over to easy for a big lad.

My disappointment was further enhanced by the fact the player he was replacing, Kyle Nix, is a player who’s cause I have championed on many occasions and a player I feel always likely to get a goal when played down the middle. To be fair Nix had not had his best game off he came with Boulding taking his place out wide. The 442 was retained but the wingers were pushed further forward as Stuart tried to find a way back into the game.

For his first ten minutes on the field of this game Barry did nothing to change my negative view of him, that however was soon to change. With ten minutes to go and Bradford looking like making it 1 point from 12 another long punt was launched up the field. A punt which before would of been won by the Accrington defence was brought down by ‘Big Baz’ and neatly laid off into Boulding’s path who struck it first time into the underside of the bar and down into the net. Suddenly Bradford felt they may get a point after all and no more so than Barry who was all over the place. Winning the ball in his own half and spraying perfectly into the channels, winning balls in the opponents half and knocking it to players wearing claret and amber. Something the rest of the side had struggled with for much of the second half.

Two minutes from the end Conlon found the ball coming his direction inside the box and for once his leap saw him rise above everyone else and he directed a header into the back of the net. For the second game in a row he had come off the bench to score and if he wants to stop the boo boys then he can do no more than find the net regularly.

Accrington were on the rocks and Bradford were now wanting blood. Less than 60 seconds from the restart they worked their way into the Accrington half and Bradford fans had barely had time to catch their breath before the ball was slid into prolific Peter Thorne’s path and there was no doubt about where the ball would finish. Thorne thumped the ball home to complete an amazing Bradford comeback that had been unthinkable just ten minutes before. The relief and joy was evident in the stands as the fans went wild and some idiots even charged onto the pitch, hopefully no repercussions will follow for the club from these actions.

The shocked Accrington players threw men forward in vain even keeper Kenny Arthur appearing in the Bradford box for a late corner but City hung on and the three points ended up somehow crossing the border from Lancashire to see Bradford climb back into the 3 automatic promotion places. However the result certainly did not tell the whole story and it was obvious from Stuart’s face at the final whistle that he was less than impressed with the overall display. Still it is about time the gloom merchants at Bradford began to look on the bright side and we go into the Gillingham game only a win away from top spot and the curse of October ended.

How respect is lost through a lack of understanding about football

Let me begin with two important statements. The first is that referees hardly ever lose games; much more often players lose games or opposition players win games. Referees’ decisions can have immense bearings on the outcome of games, especially late on and in close contests. But those situations are quite rare. Jarnail Singh’s decision to play on after the obviously serious injuries to Lee and Moncur almost certainly cost City a goal, but they had 84 playing minutes to catch up. They were lucky it was only 1-0 at half time.

The second thing I have to say is that I really did start the new season in the spirit of Respect. I thought the trappings (walking out together, shaking hands and the like) were all about style and nothing to do with substance. As such, they represented very accurately the times we live in, which is a pity for our great game. But there we are, still looking for the substance and hoping to find genuine respect in our game.

So, with the statements over, let me express my grave disappointment after less than two months into the new season. Sadly the Respect campaign has, as I feared it might, already been found out for what it is. The totality of the campaign is that the players and managers are expected to give their unquestioning respect to referees automatically and at all times.

Real respect may be granted at the outset, but then has to be earned. I have always compared the status of the referee with my old job as a judge, while conceding that I had time to make decisions and referees may have to act very quickly. (An argument in support of technology, but we’ll leave that for another time.) There is, however, at least one perfectly valid comparison with my old job. Whenever I first sat in a new area, I may have had the initial respect of the professionals in front of me. I hoped that, as they listened to my decisions and the reasons behind them, the regular professionals would continue to respect me, without necessarily agreeing with every decision I made. We all make mistakes and with many decisions there must be a sinner and a sinned against; a winner and a loser.

Respect for referees, it seems to me, should work the same way. It should be granted as a starting point, but it may not last forever. If the referee is plainly not up to the job – I shall come back to that phrase in a moment – he will lose the respect initially given. And he will rightly lose that respect, just as judge or a policeman or head teacher or a manager who is not up to the job will also lose the respect of those over whom he has authority.

So, having said that retaining respect (as opposed to the initial granting) requires that the referee act in a manner that does not destroy what he started with, I must go on to a second point; respect works two ways. Many readers of this will spend much of their time in a workplace where either they supervise or manage others and/or those others supervise or manage them. When a new manager arrives, we all wonder what he or she will be like and we may well take time to get to know his or her particular methods and personality. We may not always agree with our new boss, but we will surely respect sound ideas, especially if they outnumber the dodgy moments.

But we have all had bosses who, for one reason or another, have lost our respect. I once had one who couldn’t face awkward truths and consequently told me what I can only describe as a right cock and bull story about my career prospects. All respect was lost once I worked out the truth and, having been lost, it was never recovered because she kept on avoiding the truth, thereby continually repeating the very reason for losing respect.

So what of a referee who loses the respect of the players, not because of a decision or two they don’t agree with, which might or might not be a mistake, but because of the general manner of his refereeing? Are the players and coaches seriously intended to remain genuinely respectful to such a person, despite the fact, as the crowd’s chant might put it, that he’s not fit to referee?

All of this has been brought to a head by two particular referees in the last week. What I believe they have in common causes me real concern for the way our game is refereed and for the future prospects for genuine respect. I question whether these referees (and probably several others who referee in similar styles – no, I don’t necessarily mean you, Mr Styles) understand how football should be played. More fundamentally, I question whether they, like the worst managers we’ve worked for, have any understanding of the people over whom they have authority. They may not even feel the need for such an understanding, so long as they know the rules and get the respect they think they deserve by virtue of their status.

A lot has been said about the first of these two referees. Mr Atwell, at 25, used to be famous for being the youngest referee in the Premier League. He is now more famous for allowing the goal that never was at Watford. Much as I was troubled by that goal and what the referee and his assistant thought they had seen, I was more concerned by how the referee reacted to the players. And I don’t mean just the Watford players. The Reading players were equally baffled. The only difference was that one team was laughing and the other arguing. Nobody but the officials thought there had been a goal.

What this suggests to me is that either the officials weren’t watching the players or they didn’t feel the need to observe and understand those over whom they had authority. Anyone with a basic understanding of football observing the Reading players would have spotted immediately that not one of them had thought for even the briefest moment that there might even just possibly have been a goal scored. Now what does that tell us? It tells me that there wasn’t a goal.

But what did it tell Mr Atwell? Nothing at all, it seems. I don’t know where he was looking at the time, but it can’t have been at the ball. If he had been watching the ball, he would surely have seen that it never went anywhere near the goal posts. He must, then, have been watching the players nearest to the incident. But what did he actually see? Not enough to suggest to him that there was something very wrong indeed here, when both teams were playing on, when not one Reading player was appealing for anything at all, when no fans were shouting for a goal and when the only person in the entire stadium who thought he had seen a goal scored was his assistant.

Let me go back to Mr Singh and what he has in common with Mr Atwell. A minor incident it may have been in the context of TJ’s injury, but in the last few minutes Grant Holt hit a shot yards wide, cursed himself and turned to trot away for the goal kick. Rhys Evans went to retrieve the ball for the same reason. Mr Singh gave a corner. What was he watching? What had he seen that no one else on the pitch or in the crowd had spotted? Why was his eyesight so much better than everyone else – including Grant Holt? And didn’t the unanimous reaction of the players on both sides tell him he might just have got it wrong? Apparently not.

The Moncur-Lee incident is in my eyes a much more serious symptom of the same problem. According to Stuart McCall, Mr Singh says he saw the clash of heads ‘and felt they were both okay.’ I might be inclined, with another referee, to put it down to just one single human error, albeit one with potentially the most devastating consequences. The resulting goal was a mere nothing compared to what might have happened. Even from the stands it was immediately obvious that this was very serious. Listen to the commentary. Listen to anyone who saw the incident and understands football or has even a rudimentary knowledge of falls. But Mr Singh ‘felt they were both okay.’ He, of course, has form for this sort of mistake, as City fans know only too well. I think Steven Schumacher will also remember more of his head injury than TJ can recall.

In the second half at Shrewsbury there was another head injury. From my seat some 80 yards away I was sure the Shrewsbury defender was the victim of a foul by Omar Daley, an arm or a hand to his face, as Omar took the ball away from him. Where the ref was looking is another little mystery. The defender went down, play carried on and, so alarmed was she by what she saw of her player and what she knew of the referee’s earlier failure, the Shrewsbury physio ran on to the pitch while play continued for quite some time. OK, she broke the rules and the ever efficient Mr Singh told her off. But she acted on a genuine human concern for a man obviously suffering from a head/facial injury. She was up to her job.

Later in the game two Shrewsbury players collided, both going to the ground, although not in the same bone-crunching fashion as Lee and Moncur. Mr Singh had finally learned his lesson and stopped the game. Neither was, as it happened, all that badly injured and both carried on after the briefest treatment and the mandatory leaving of the field for five seconds.

Now what concerns me about these two referees and those others like them is not that they make mistakes; not that they make important and possibly dangerous mistakes; not even that they make lots of mistakes; but that they do not understand what football and footballers are all about. In that sense they are plainly not up to the job. They have other and wrong priorities. They want to demonstrate their knowledge of the rules, rather than their ability to evaluate. They feel the need to satisfy the assessor or, in the Premier League, the TV cameras.

In the old job I always had to give a public explanation for each decision, which could be used on any appeal. There was always someone who didn’t agree with the decision, but at least we all knew how it been reached. Referees explain very little and most of their decisions are immune from appeal.

But if referees don’t understand what they’re doing and why some of them are doing it so wrongly, not just making human errors, then the respect will soon be lost, never to be regained. Long before Saturday I’d lost respect for Mr Singh, not just because of the Schumacher injury, but because he failed to send off Darren Holloway at Yeovil for a waist-high scythe. I would have been furious if he’d been an opponent. The yellow card, while a relief from the team’s point of view, finally convinced me that Mr Singh doesn’t understand football.

How many more referees come into the same category? And does the FA really expect fans, players and coaches to forget what they see and dutifully respect them? If that is the FA’s expectation, they too do not understand those of us who care about this game and its future.

How would players react to injury in an ideal world?

Without wanting to do something as dull as look at the rules of the game of football after the controversial goal that set Shrewsbury on the way to the 2-0 win over City Law 5: The Referee in the section Injured Players the first two laws are:

  • Play is allowed to continue until the ball is out of play if a player is, in the opinion of the referee, only slightly injured.
  • Play is stopped if, in the opinion of the referee, a player is seriously injured.

As Bradford City fans have seen Mr Singh deal with five head injuries in two games, yesterday and three years ago when he allowed Oldham to score against the Bantams while Steven Schumacher was injured.

Mr Singh once stopped the game for Grant Holt and Kevin Mcintyre and neither were injured meaning that his assumption that – under the rules above – at least one was seriously injured. He did not stop it for Schumacher and should have as the player needed treatment and was seriously injured – he missed games after – nor did he stop it for for Lee and Moncur when one of them needed to be replaced and collapsed again on his way off the field. All of which suggests that his judgement of the seriousness of an injury is not to be trusted not least of which by himself.

The idea that it is probably better to be safe than sorry when dealing with head injuries perhaps Mr Singh should blow his whistle and risk stopping the game for no reason rather than “letting the game flow” while a player is injured when he is incapable of judging the seriousness of that injury.

Of course last week we talked about if players can be trusted to do the right thing. What can you say about the Oldham players who scored while Schumacher was down or Grant Holt and Ben Davies who tried to score while Lee and Moncur was down?

Certainly if I were a professional footballer I’d probably not want either on my team and would probably be careful around them in training.

As a supporter I have a fairly low opinion of both. I’m often calling for footballers to be given more trust and to be treated as adults but incidents like this where players continue not in spite of but because a team has men down thus increasing the chances of scoring.

Given the choice I’d rather footballers thought like Miguel Llera who gave away a penalty yesterday handling the ball because his goalkeeper was hurt rather than looked at injuries as an opportunity for goals but more so I’d rather Referees and players considered scoring when players were down was inherently worth less and – for want of a better phrase – “was just not cricket.”

I’d rather that after ten minutes watching TJ Moncur needing treatment Shrewsbury whacked the ball into their own net and said to us “See that, 1-1 – We can beat Bradford City without favours.” I’m an idealist and that is an ideal.

Perhaps it is the stunning lack of empathy of a Ben Davies when he seems two guys pole-axed and rather than thinking “I hope these guys are ok cause if that had happened to me I would want someone to give me treatment as soon as possible” one assumes he thought “Wow, a massive gap in the defence has been caused by those two guys laying about there, I can use that to get a goal” or perhaps it is the idea that winning in such circumstances is more hollow but incidents like this sour football because they bring home some ugly facts about the game:

That referees are barely capable of understanding the issues in the game and that players – certainly more than those at Oldham and Shrewsbury – are more concerned with goals than safety.

We can all agree on one thing

So what plan is this?

This week all we’ve talked is is Plan Bs and tactics and about fans and other fans and in about ten minutes everything that had been talked about had come to a head.

I was worried that Stuart McCall had listened to the moaners and because he had no Peter Thorne who I guess is injured went for a packed midfield with Dean Furman in it and Barry Conlon leading the line with Michael Boulding on the bench. It was Stuart doing something to counter a team that had scored seven at home I hoped and not Stuart trying to prove that he did know his tactical arse from his elbow.

Barry Conlon is more loved away from home where you get to watch him chasing balls all afternoon long trying to make feasts of scraps. I’m not saying that everyone who goes away loves Barry but they seem to appricaite him a bit more than the VP crowd who look at goal tallies more than effort. When you’ve come all this way as most of us do week in week out then you like the fact that someone is going to run around.

The Barry buzz was still going and people were still talking about it when Shrewsbury scored although after that the week was totally forgotten. The ball came in and Rhys Evans seemed to punch it but as he did Graeme Lee and TJ Moncur went up for it and both went down after having smashed heads against each other. The referee was the same guy who allowed Oldham to carry on when Steve Schumacher was poleaxed three years ago and the result was the same as Shrewbury’s Ben Davies whacked the ball in.

Great game this football. Davies was wheeling away cheering while our guys were on the floor injured. Moncur stood up and went down again and people said he had a fit but soon he was off for Kyle Nix and Lee Bullock was at right back.

So no leading forward, goals going in when players are fitting, a lot of possession for the start of the game and a good shot by Furman that troubled the keeper. I have to wonder what non-niave tactics should Macca use now and what the Hell plan letter are we supposed to be on now?

The game settled into a pattern but the City players and fans seemed a bit quiet and someone aid that Moncur was off to hospital and it didn’t look good but we hd no idea what that meant. Grant Holt buzzed through and had a shot that dribbled wide. By half time Nix and Paul McLaren were dipping crosses around the keeper and just as half time was supposed to come City were on top but we played minutes added on my J. Singh to allow Shrewsbury to score while our player was down. Omar Daley had one cleared off the line and we were still playing at four when everyone else was kicking off and at half time we had been robbed cause while I’m sure that we will hear that Davies didn’t know about the injury and that Singh should have blown his whistle again but seems to be getting closer and close to his aim of seeing a goal scored when their are dead bodies on the field. We felt robbed by someone and maybe the Stockport manager can tell us who.

And down was the word. Everyone was down but everyone was together in being a bit worried about TJ Moncur and less about what was going on on the field. Even in the second half when Joe Colbeck slammed his custom right foot blast from the wing across the keeper which went over and Lee and Grant Holt battled away. Bullock moved back to right back but came off injured agian with Michael Boulding coming on and went up front with three at the back or was it four and this was Plan D or perhaps it was Little PLan Zee and after that comes Vroom? Boulding joined the forward line and we all wondered who was going to be left to play Luton next week but this week seemed lost with Shrewsbury basically keeping the ball from us and Paul McLaren ending up at right back.

The game got scrappy with an stupidly named midfielder going close for them and the much tidier Kyle Nix having a shot for us but from that scrappiness City started to get something together and started to control the ball a bit better. By the time five o’clock came City were giving as good as we got from the team that will use today as some kind of indication that they are more promotion bound than us but to be honest the difference between the teams came when we had two down and as it happened one badly hurt and I guess we will never know if the home team would have got a goal against City without the injuries but the rest of the game where Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke pocked Grant Holt while the rest of the plan, the tactics, the sodding game was in chaos says to me that they would not.

But like the guy said if you moan about a Ref they come back to haunt you and you have to wonder what sort of stink City kicked up about J. Singh last time and how much that played on today. Barry lashed one wide in stoppage time before they took a second goal while we were trying for an equaliser and that was that.

But in a week about plans this was City without one. It was freak football and the most important man on the field was an Referee who I think we can all agree at BfB and on the OMB and on the terraces at VP and in the hushed tones around pubs in Bradford should not be allowed to Referee football matches because of his dangerous policy of letting games carry on when players are hurt.

Probably won’t agree for the same reasons though.

The clouds that form over us – Shrewsbury vs Bradford City – League Two Preview

Once again one could be forgiven for thinking that Bradford City were going into a weekend fixture with the heaviest of black clouds over the club rather than playing the team a place below in a game in which the winners end up in the promotion area.

Having heard from various sources that City’s manager was inept, that the assistant was ruining what the manager did and that some of the players were simply good good enough and need to be got rid of it would be interesting to see what reaction a good result at Shrewsbury would have.

By reaction of course I talk about supporters. Within the club Stuart McCall’s job is to minimise defeats and keep player grounded in wins. A reaction in the dressing room akin to that in the stadium and we really are in trouble.

As it is by five we could be top again. Rhys Evans keeps goal but his back four is changed with TJ Moncur coming in for the injured Paul Arnison. Matthew Clarke and Graeme Lee are in the middle with Paul Heckingbottom on the left.

Omar Daley continues in front of Heckingbottom as Chris Brandon recovers and Joe Colbeck will look to continue his impressive form on the right.

Dean Furman – rested from the reserves – may make a first start with one of Lee Bullock or Paul MaLaren stepping down, probably the former as McCall feels the need to add steel to his midfield for the visit to the other highly fancied club in League Two.

Shrewsbury have spent the money raised when Joe Hart made his England debut triggering a half million release clause in the deal that took him to Manchester City on Grant Holt who is am impressively troublesome striker but with the likes of Michael Symes and David Hibbert to pair him with the onus seems to fall on City to snuff out the expensive man in the way clubs would mark tight Dean Windass and not be troubled by whomever was alongside him – a role both Hibbert and Symes took.

Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding would both have been better partners for Windass – who is rumoured to be thinking over an offer to manage Grimsby Town – and both are in the same bracket as Holt entitled feared strikers.

Come five one of there teams will have laid down a marker for promotion. Come next season the bookies expect both to be in League One.

Leeds United vs Bradford City – Johnstone’s Paint Trophy First Round 2008/2009 preview

If Bradford City’s 2008/2009 campaign were a film, tonight’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy First Round trip to Leeds United would represent little more than an early sub-plot for added interest while the main one takes shape.

Sure, it could provide an exciting action sequence or two and it may include moments that are remembered long after the closing credits are run next May; but, regardless of the outcome, it’s not what this season is all about – nor will it define it.

Nevertheless the Bantams make the 9.5 mile journey to the other side of Pudsey with some expectation. The League Cup embarrassment at Huddersfield showed that, so far, manager Stuart McCall has been unable to better the efforts of previous managers when it comes to cup competitions, but this trophy is one which joint-Chairman Julian Rhodes said City should be taking seriously during the summer.

The often-maligned competition has rarely been kind to City, especially since the club returned to England’s bottom two tiers in 2004. During the first season back there was the home defeat to then non-league Accrington and while the area Quarter Finals were reached the following year – helped by a first round bye – progress came to a crashing halt at another non-league club, Kidderminster, with manager Colin Todd and player Lee Crooks having a bust-up after the latter got sent off only six minutes in.

The last two seasons have seen first round exits and controversy, first by Scunthorpe in 2006-07 when they went against rules and fielded a largely reserve side – a league encounter at Valley Parade five days later in manager Brian Laws thoughts – and last season when Stuart did the same at holders Doncaster and City were duly thrashed. Both Scunthorpe and City received fines for doing so, with Stuart paying ours out of his own pocket.

Such restrictions on team selection may not be welcomed by former Scotland team-mates Gary McAllister and Stuart this evening, but they should at least ensure both sides take the tie reasonably seriously. The disappointing news that Matt Clarke will be out for a month means Mark Bower will make his first start of the season, while the sight of Graeme Lee playing out the second half at Aldershot with a head bandage may mean TJ Moncur is drafted in. Barry Conlon is also expected to start, confidence lifted by his five-goal haul in the reserves last week. Peter Thorne will probably be rested and Stuart may look to find room for on-loan Dean Furman in the centre of midfield.

Leeds, who’s slow start to this season is in contrast to their flying one to the last, may also make changes; though it should be noted McAllister is making noises about this tie’s importance. On Saturday they drew 2-2 with Bristol Rovers meaning they have collected only 19 points from a possible 42 at Elland Road in 2008 so far.

The City-Leeds rivalry is a curious one given its apparent one-sidedness, with Leeds supporters I speak to, at least, usually at great pains to point out how indifferent they feel towards us. Indeed we are often accused of being ‘jealous’ – though why we would be envious of a club often dragged down by sections of their support, have a Chairman who is no friend to football fans, were voted the most hated club in the country and who’s financial mismanagement has arguably been worse than ours is beyond me. What Leeds should be proud of is the passion and level of their support and, for all the success of the season ticket initiatives at Valley Parade, we certainly wouldn’t mind a few more bums on seats to rival them.

Whether they care about us or not, it’s likely there will still be a sizeable home support and why not? Derbies are a great feature of football and playing their neighbours is arguably still a more interesting proposition than some of the clubs Leeds face in League One and even the Championship, should they return. It’s a tin-pot competition that means little to anyone but the winners, yet tonight’s game is of far more interest to both clubs than if City were travelling to Hartlepool and Leeds were at home to Lincoln.

For us City fans it’s a chance to avenge the previous meeting and gain our first victory over Leeds for 22 years. It might not matter as much to them, but a few thousand City fans will be situated in the South Stand, hopefully chanting non-stop. A victory would be talked about for years and may just irritate those Leeds fans, who would have to put up with our gloating, enough to look forward to the next derby with more relish.

Tonight may be a short lived sub-plot and, in our heads, we’d swap victory for three points on Saturday; but it’s still one for us City fans to relish and create a white-hot atmosphere to spur on our players in their efforts to take bragging rights.

Let’s-make-some-noise…

Living up to the hype…

City’s highly impressive start to the league season continued as they maintained their 100% record to cast aside last season’s playoff finalists Rochdale.

This was the sort of clinical win that really gives us justified hope that City are real contenders this season.

Rochdale proved to be very sticky opponents. In fact they dominated much of the play in terms of possession and threatening attacks. But they critically lacked the killer instinct in front of goal, with £60,000 ex Halifax striker Jon Shaw really disappointing, and justifying Stuart’s unwillingness to part with any funds to secure his signature.

A quick glance at the statistics from the game shows that Rochdale had plenty of shots at goal, but failed to get even one of them on target.

Omar Daley had a good early chance as he took possession of the ball with plenty of space on the left hand side of the penalty area, cut inside to the centre, skipped past a defensive challenge, but blasted straight at Dale keeper Russell. But if truth be told, Rochdale had much the better of the early exchanges.

Their build up play was excellent attacking the Kop , and forced City into one or two hairy moments the back. Too often did Arnison allow crosses to come in from the left hand side and threateningly cross across goal. But Dale failed to deliver the goal that their possession and build up play probably deserved.

City edged in front on 20 when Daley released Peter Thorne on the right hand side of the box. The veteran striker then whipped in a perfectly executed pinpoint cross right onto the head of Micheal Boulding, who headed firmly down to celebrate his first Bradford goal.

Unperturbed by conceding, Rochdale continued to press for the following 15 minutes, but again lacked cutting edge. And they were stunned when Paul McClaren whipped in a brilliant free kick from the left that was nodded in perfectly at the back post by an unmarked Peter Thorne who doubled City’s advantage with a header from close range. The irrepressible Thorne has had a stunning start to the season and is already establishing himself as a legend among the City faithful.

There was still much work to do in the second half, and City did it extremely well defensively. Clarke and Lee grew in stature in the second half, and both Heckingbottom and Arnison carrying out their defensive duties admirably. Heckingbottom in particular had an excellent game – and nearly scored a collectors item goal with a brilliant run in the first half!

Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley didn’t have their most productive games offensively, but in the second half, both showed a desire and willingness to track back defensively to help out their full backs. Their effort did not go unnoticed.

Lee Bullock didn’t really get involved enough for my liking – he had very much an “Eddie Johnson type” game. McClaren seemed to stroll through the game in a pedestrian like fashion without really impressing (apart from the excellent free kick) before going off with a knock.

In a rare second half counter attack, Micheal Boulding raced clear with intent. With Conlon lurking at the back post, Boulding ignored the big Irishman and struck a brilliant low left foot shot that beat the keeper, hit the inside of the post, and rolled across the goal line out for a goal kick. Desperately unlucky was the impressive Boulding , who was always willing to run beyond the defensive back four and produced numerous excellent flicks for Thorne to feed on. Their newly formed striking partnership is looking extremely promising.

With time ticking on , McCall basically extinguished any chance of City scoring again by leaving Barry Conlon on his own up front. TJ Moncur came on as part of a five man midfield that was the kill the game off as a contest. Not even the player that outdid City twice last season – Adam Le Fondre, could change the course of the game. He was unlucky late on with a strike that bounced off the cross bar.

But in truth, on reflection over the 90 minutes, City were comfortable and had quite convincingly cast aside the much fancied Rochdale.

They say the makings of a successful team is how they react to defeat. That hellish rainy night at Legoland has not impacted our team and what we are setting out to do in the league. We have followed up that crushing defeat with 2 wins, 4 goals and 2 clean sheets. And even in the game against Huddersfield, we more than held our own for 60 minutes.

The way the team have battled back at Macclesfield, and now against a very good Rochdale team proves that we really are worthy of the League Two hype this year. We have been excellent in every department, and if we can keep that up consistently this season, there is no doubt we will end up as Champions. Inside of sulking about losing to our local rivals we have put on two excellent displays.

Can we keep it up? I think so. City are the real deal this time round and, given the evidence of our nearly fully fit team so far, you would be foolish to bet on them finishing outside the top three.

The important and exciting thing this season is that every position seems to be covered squad wise so that even if injuries become a factor, we have good players who can step in. If Thorne or Boulding are injured, Topp, Boulding (R) or Conlon (or maybe not?!) can step up. If Omar Daley is showing inconsistent form, Joe Colbeck can step in on the right. If Lee Bullock is out injured again, the hungry Luke Sharry wlll want to grab a first team opportunity with both hands. If Matt Clarke’s decision making is called into question at the back, Mark Bower will slot in bringing his experience at the club to the forefront.

These are the type of advantages and options that we have not had since 1999.

This is our season.

It has to be.

One down…

It sits with a deceptive confidence this crown of would be kings on the head for Bradford City. It shifts with unease for all.

City’s 2-1 win over Notts County could be the template for the season. The Bantams were worthy winners but by a yard and not a mile and at times nerves were evident in the stands and the players fell out of a rhythm they had used to control much of the game.

When in control too City looked ebullient and passed the ball around from player to player with a calm ease personified by new number four Paul McLaren who had the touch to take a second more on the ball than many other on the field and looked unhurried as he and Lee Bullock won the midfield battle for their first afternoon as a league partnership.

Last season we talked much about Stuart McCall’s attempts to find someone to play in the position and the style he still casts a long shadow over and in McLaren he has someone who can set the pace for the team and create the passing flow that the manager did ten and twenty years ago.

Yet McLaren and Bullock’s control in the game faded and City were left with a scoreline and an afternoon that was closer than the build up to the game would have suggested. On the walk to Valley Parade the atmosphere suggested that City would only need to turn up to win. This is never the case.

Every win has to be earned and this one was. The Bantams put pressure on once the game had settled into a patten and when Lee Bullock was freed past the defence by some excellent work on the right and unceremoniously bundled to the floor it was clear that City possessed the abilities that pre-season suggested and that the quality of Refereeing was not going to have increased in line with City.

As the FA start their “Respect (The Ref)” campaign they send to Valley Parade Mr Darren Drysdale of the five game ban for Dean Windass two seasons ago when the City striker shouted at him in the car park highlighting the problems of the campaign that tries to have respect given in reply to unreachableness, highhandedness and arrogance that marked today’s display and Drysdale’s interaction with Bradford City.

City’s pressure told when Paul Arnison – who enjoyed a great debut coming forward to support Omar Daley superbly – whipped a cross in for Peter Thorne to head in while running onto from inside the box leaving keeper Kevin Pilkinton flat footed and continuing his policy of filling his boots against the club he got a hat-trick against last time they were at Valley Parade.

However for all City’s slick passing County were not snuffed out with Delroy Facey – a late signing who had interested City – troublesome and Jamie Forester looking able. Quick reactions from Rhys Evans saw him sprinting off his line and clearing a ball out at the corner of the box. Evans spends most of his time as a goalkeeper shouting at his defenders and in that way he will do for me.

Also doing for me is Omar Daley who put in one of his best performances in a City shirt. He tried – and for all but a four minute sulking spell when someone had tugged his shorts succeeded in – integrating himself in the side McCall had built tracking back to match the pace of lively winger Myles Weston and unplayable when going forward.

In the first half his mazy dribbles had end points with short passes or – ten minutes from the whistle – cutting onto his left on the edge of the box and lashed a low drive which Pilkington pushed wide. Barry Conlon put the scramble from the resultant corner into the side netting and City could have had two before the break.

After the break Conlon was in his own box playing away the danger of a visiting corner to Omar Daley some thirty five yards from his own goal. Daley went forward with his ranging stride used directly to take him past player and player. A defender lashed out a tackle that Daley skipped and Peter Thorne begged for a pass when the two City players faced only one defender whom Daley took the ball around leaving him one on one and a second later flat on his back when his shot had been saved by Pilkington’s foot from point blank range.

At that point I noticed I had not taken a breath since Conlon played the ball. Exhale and watch Daley rise to his feet and I do too. To applaud. Breathless football. Brilliant football.

The corner that comes from Daley’s short is cleared by Adam Nowland high, high and bizarrely backwards to Peter Thorne in the six yard box who executes an overhead kick into the far corner of Pilkington’s goal leaving red faces for the Magpies and defender Michael Johnson screaming for the offside that would have been the case had the return not been a piece of Steve Hodge style silliness.

All of which seemed to wake up the visitors – losing is one thing but beating yourself another – and gave them the zest to attack City’s flanks having had no joy going through McLaren and Bullock and while Kyle Nix had a quieter second half than his tricksy first he and Paul Heckingbottom stood strong. The right flank was unlocked though when Arnison left too much of a gap between him and Daley and Weston beat him delivering a pass to Richard Butcher in the box who finished well.

From then an even contest. City brought on the pace of TJ Moncur for Arnison to plug the right hand side and with ten minutes to go took Conlon off – Barry’s name was sung and he was applauded by all – and brought Michael Boulding on for his debut. Boulding got free. He took the ball into the box and lashed it across goal in a way that suggested talent and hinted at tunnel vision.

The contest though was won by the solid abilities of Matthew Clarke and the ultra-impressive Graeme Lee. Clarke’s play was reminiscent of Stuart McCall’s team mate Darren Moore who City had tried to sign in the summer instead opting for the new skipper Lee who commanded the box, cleared everything out, tackled superbly and kept the back four in line. Of all the new signings it is Lee who most impressive and he who could be the foundation of a promotion bid.

It sits with a deceptive confidence this crown of would be kings on the head for Bradford City but there – for the first time is some time – is where it sits.

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