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.

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