Lazy / High / Low

I do not believe that any footballer is lazy.

I think that to become a professional footballer you have to put it a level of effort which precludes the genuinely lazy people from ever getting on a pitch. I have seen lazy footballers though – players like Alen Boksic who was once caught offside twice in the same movement while playing for Middlesbrough at Valley Parade.

So lazy was the striker – who was reported to be paid £61,000 a week for his efforts – that in the time it took him to walk back from hearing the whistle another Boro attack had started and he was caught offside again from a pass forward without ever having got onside.

The fact I can remember this outlier of laziness so clearly suggests to me that lazy football is a very rare thing.

Which is why I find it hard to consider Haris Vuckic and Mark Marshall lazy footballers following Bradford City’s inert home draw with Southend.

Two

There are two ways for a footballer to use the effort he puts into a game although these ways can be hard to categorise.

One way is to take responsibility for winning the ball back, for supporting your team mates by standing in a ready position to win the ball should they err, for ensuring that other players have options. Players who spend a lot of energy in this way are the players who make dummy runs that leave them isolated but other players open.

They are the players who hold deep rather than rush forward. They are the players who play possession football over five yards rather than ping a defence splitter over fifty.

We will – for the sake of this argument – call these players “High Percentage” because the governing motivation in what they do is to find options that work in a high percentage of situations.

Contrast that with “Low Percentage” players who take responsibility in a different manner.

A low percentage player is concerned mainly with how the next goal will be scored. They are the player who takes up the best position to for attacking play, who take that position in preference to offering an easier option for a teammate in possession.

The low percentage player surges into the box to following in for the chance – however slim – that a loose ball breaks to them. They play the glorious pass over fifty yards which is too often headed away but – sometimes – slices a defence in two.

Two2

The art of football management is – perhaps – balancing these two dynamics.

Stuart McCall – the definition of a high percentage player – has a belief in the low percentage footballer which was not shared by his predecessor as Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson.

That belief was obvious in McCall’s first (second) spell as City manager and has resurfaced in his second (third) spell. Against Southend United in a poor game with a poor referee that belief was a problem.

Trying to win the game while at 1-1 with twenty minutes left McCall put his faith in the low percentage Marshall, in Vuckic, and later in Jordi Hiwula, while high percentage Timothee Dieng watched from the sidelines.

City struggled to get the ball back from a Shrimper’s midfield for which “robust” and when they did get the ball struggled to get it through the visitors and increasingly made low percentage attempts to break that resistance.

Way

It should be said that most players exist on a continuum between the high/low percentage and that that position varies over time.

The best football of Peter Beagrie was a lesson in high percentage wing play but in his career, he had long spells of low percentage play. More recently Filipe Morais’ performance at Chelsea was low percentage for forty-five minutes then high percentage for forty-five – or was it fifty-four minutes – and one doubts had his performance not changed City could have come back at Stamford Bridge that day.

As a personal preference I like high percentage football – that is why I have little time for the en vogue motif of disliking Parkinson’s style of play – but I know very well that much of football support adores the low percentage player.

For me football is too in love with the periphery figure who would turn a game if only the work-a-day Joes in the rest of his team would only get the ball to him. I’m distrustful of any idea of football that suggests that a single player is removed from the responsibility of the team performance.

All players are responsible for the performance – at least that is what I think – but that does not stop the entire nation anointing Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, and Raheem Sterling as England’s saviours despite their inability to influence games.

City’s greatest low percentage player was Chris Waddle who would do one thing a game that no other player on the pitch could even do in their best dreams but would spend long spells of a match dreaming away on the wing.

Had Waddle stayed with City the mid-nineties season he played with City it seems sure that City would have suffered relegation but he left and was replaced with the more industrious – and higher percentage – Tommy Wright and results improved.

Last season Parkinson balanced the team more towards high percentage football and put out all ten outfield players to play in that way. That is why he favoured Tony McMahon on the right-hand side over Mark Marshall. While McMahon could not do what Marshall can do he can be relied upon to do something and it turned out that something was create goals which he did more of than anyone else in the division.

McCall believes he can free one or two – or last night two or three – players to provide the moment of low percentage inspiration to win games and balances his teams to do that and me to watch on increasingly worried.

Loved

Mark Marshall is well loved at Valley Parade these days – Vuckic less so – but both personify my worry.

Both are capable in their own ways. One of playing the ball that unlocks the defence – in Vuckic’s case, which he did for Marc McNulty’s goal on the night – and the other of making a telling run with the ball. Neither contributes to as much to the rest of the play as a high percentage players would.

Marshall lauds McCall for the freedom he has under this manager rather than the previous one and that is the freedom to play low percentage football. Marshall enjoys the freedom to try turn a sturdy full back and put in a cross but more so he enjoys the freedom to fail to do that.

He plays without fear but he also – by virtue of being a low percentage player – plays without end product and on the evenings where there is no end product the rest of the team – balanced as it is to allow he and (last night) Vuckic to create – struggle to find other avenues to goal.

So City end up at the whim of low percentage football which works less often but is more effective when it does.

Vuckic proved this when in the midst of a half of drifting where he wanted between the lines of midfield and attack he played a superb ball forward to McNulty. It was a telling contribution and something which Billy Clarke – the regular in that role – seemed unlikely to ever do. Marshall made no telling contribution and – by virtue of his low percentage play – was less use to the rest of the team than a Tony McMahon on the right would have been.

As the game ebbed to a draw and Southend’s muscular ways continued the usefulness that a high percentage approach seems to offer was more apt to the game that the the deft touches of a low percentage approach although McCall’s team struggled to adopt it.

The surprising thing – perhaps – is that anyone thought anything else would have been the case.

Changes / Institutional / Retention

There has been much talk since his return to Bradford City that Stuart McCall had changed as a manager and that talk was manifested for the first time as his team came from a goal down against Coventry City to win 3-1 at Valley Parade.

A goal down and not playing well one worried at half time that whatever the City manager was to say to his players it would make matters worse. This, after all, was the criticism most fairly applied to McCall in his first spell as City manager. That he has the capacity to take a disadvantage and turn it into an eight game losing run.

That was the McCall way. McCall created teams that played not just with passion but were fuelled by it. When that passion was applied the result was a team of flair and verve that – like some Hendrix lead guitar riff – worked not because it had passion but because it was passion. When it did not work one ended up with two month sulks.

Which contrasted with Phil Parkinson’s five years at City were the Bantams were bass guitar perfect in their rhythm never to be put off balance. McCall had – in his previous time at the club – sent out teams transformed from bad (or average at least) to good after the fifteen minute break but too often it was the other way around.

City trailed Coventry City to a debut goal from on loan forward Burnley Daniel Agyei who had turned Romain Vincelot and finished well following a frustrated attempt to clear the ball up the left hand side of a lopsided Bantams team.

McCall had sent out a three man central midfield with Mark Marshall given a single winger role that overstates his ability to have an influence on the game. Marshall provided an outlet on the right for attacking play but there was no mirror to that the left leading to the singular problem with clearing before Agyei’s goal and a general problem all first half that City were predictable in dysfunction.

Coventry knew what the Bantams would do and that when they did it it would not work.

Coventry City’s Tony Mowbray deployed his Sky Blues team – still looking for a first win – to press high up the field and lock on City player to player. They played at an intensity which was not sustainable for ninety minutes – legs would tired and tired soon – but that one worried at half time would have broken the home team’s resolve and need only continue to keep the Bantams at arm’s length.

But at half time McCall addressed the problem down the left by pushing Billy Clarke – rancid in the first half, much better in the second – alongside Jordy Hiwula and having one or the other break left when the Bantams had the ball.

This tactical tweak had two effects: It balanced the width of the midfield giving an outlet on the left and it stopped Clarke dropping deep and – as a result – allowed the three man midfield to push forward into the last third. It was the opposite of the charge of tactical naivety but I never bought into that charge anyway.

That the change worked was down to metronomically good displays from the likes of Vincelot, Josh Cullen, Nicky Law Jnr, and Daniel Devine. Players who were able to maintain a level of performance and – by doing so – provide a platform for those who were playing poorly to turn their performances around on on.

This was the hallmark of the Parkinson era and the thing one was most worried about losing when Parkinson left. No matter who took over the knowledge Parkinson grafted into his teams of maintaining a level of performance when performances around you after going bad had to be lost.

How that knowledge has been retained is a mystery or perhaps it has just been recreated. Vincelot’s clean through ball to Clarke after an hour came when the visitor’s legs were too tired to press but the Frenchman had not fatigued physically or mentally. Clarke went for goal but was pulled down and Tony McMahon’s penalty pulled the score level. It was simultaneously reassuringly familiar and entirely new.

Coventry City’s approach of going man-to-man on the Bantams failed following the dismissal of Jordan Turnbull for conceding the penalty and within minutes Mark Marshall arrowed in a diagonal long range strike which is as good as any seen at Valley Parade in recent years.

Marshall’s performance was still a problem though and one which may become pressing as City progress. He spoke following the game about how previous managers had not allowed him to play with freedom and there may be good reason for that. Marshall unleashed is as liable to land a 25 yard screamer into J block of the Kop as he is the back of the goal.

That Marshall is allowed a platform at all is a balance created by the metronomic midfield. My worry is that he does not create enough to provide weight in that balance. His improvement is slow but this goal and this game showed a step in it.

A second McMahon penalty came after Cullen was hauled down in the box – that the midfielders were getting in the box showed the turnaround caused by the switch McCall made with Clarke at half time – and the stand in skipper stepped up to score again before hobbling off injured.

McMahon will miss four to six weeks after history maker Kyel Reid trolled into him leaving him with a dead leg he pushed too far. Reid had a very Kyel Reid type of game. He ran a lot, fell over too much, and should have scored a couple of times but did not and on each occasion recognised his failure with a big smile.

But Reid looked different from a distance and playing for another team: more dangerous sometimes, more cynical sometimes, more desirable maybe too;

Which is enough to make one think on a wet summer August afternoon where what one worried about losing with Parkinson and regaining with McCall began to evanish.

Preview / Players

It’s just words I assure them. But they will not have it – Simon Armitage

Something unique at Bradford City as one of the goalkeepers is the only player in British Football to have his transfer fee on his back as a squad number. Number one, and costing just one pound, is Colin Doyle arrived from Blackpool and looks to be starting on the first day of the season.

A commanding figure at six foot five Doyle has had the kind of career that seems to engulf goalkeepers who get used to the bench. He is thirty one and has played less than one hundred games.

Steve Banks – who arrived as keeper coach from Blackpool alongside Doyle – has the faith that the Irishman can step up to the duties of a starting keeper and should he fail then Rouven Sattelmaier gets a chance.

Sattelmaier – City’s first European number twelve goalkeeper – has played more first team games than Doyle, albeit at a lower level, and is three years his junior. The German talks confidently about challenging Doyle for his position.

It will be interesting to see at what point Stuart McCall opts for change – if he does – but the relative levels of experience afford an odd unbalance in confidence levels in Sattelmaier’s favour.

Joe Cracknell is third choice. He wears number thirty. The lesson he might learn is to not to get to thirty having been anything other than a first choice goalkeeper.

Of the five candidates for the central defensive roles Stuart McCall is spoilt for choice. Rory McArdle is initially unfit having had an operation in the summer and Matthew Kilgallon has had not pre-season following his release from Blackburn Rovers and so may not figure in the opening games but Nathan Clarke is able enough in the short term and Nathaniel Knight-Percival impressed on previous visits to and from Shrewsbury Town.

Kilgallon seems to be too high profile a signing to be anything other than McCall’s long term choice in one of the two central defensive positions and Knight-Percival has probably not moved to West Yorkshire with now expectations. McArdle has proved himself to be as close to undroppable as a player could be and there is little reason to imagine he will not carry on at such a high standard.

Which leaves McCall with – when fitness comes – the sort of headache any manager might want of having too many good players. There is the option of playing three central defenders which the new manager did experiment with when he was the old manager but failing that it seems that Kilgallon, McArdle and Knight-Percival have got reasons to perform in a fight for their places.

Which damns Nathan Clarke and youngster James King to a season picking up scraps.

On the left side of the two full backs James Meredith has no competition for his position following Gregg Leigh’s departure although there are moves, we are told, to bring in cover for the Australian. Meredith could be employed further forward should McCall play a three man central defence with wing backs. Should Meredith miss out then someone in the squad will be press ganged to left back.

And that someone is probably Tony McMahon who has played in most positions at Bradford City in his one and a half years at the club and after being – some may argue – the best player last season on the right hand side of midfield he has been officially announced as now being a right back.

A stranger move it is hard to imagine considering Stephen Darby’s position not only as right back and captain but consistent performer over the last few years. It is not accident that Darby’s name – as with McArdle – appears alongside the better moments of Bradford City’s recent history. An acid test of McCall’s second/forth spell at Bradford City is his ability to see this.

Again as with McArdle Darby starts the season injured and is two to three months away from full fitness. McMahon has the position for now.

Darby is important – very important – but McMahon’s abilities are not to be underestimated either. He led League One on assists last season and performed the wide midfield role far better than players who were signed with much more flourish. Finding a place for McMahon in the side is important but to replace Darby is to cut out the heart to add an extra hand – or foot – where it should not be.

Daniel Devine can also play right back, but he can do anything, read on.

Stuart McCall’s situation with midfielders is similar to his central defensive proposition in that he has at least three players who one might argue should have places and two places to play them.

Romain Vincelot continues the Brexit baiting European-ness of not only being French but also wearing number six and playing in midfield – does he believe he is Luis Fernández? – and seems assured a place in McCall’s side while Timothée Dieng who wears a more respectable eight jersey has done enough in pre-season to suggest that the two might combine into a dogs of war midfield. Or should that be chiens de guerre or perhaps coeur de guerre which sounds much more romantic.

However Nicky Law Jnr’s return – the first summer signing of what can justifiably be called a new era – suggested that he was likely to be favoured in a central midfield role. The aforementioned McMahon and Filipe Morais can also play the role and Devine has impressed too.

Devine, King and Reece Webb-Foster who we shall come to later have an interesting position in the 2016/2017 Bradford City squad. Where previously injuries in the Football League were on the whole covered by loan players new regulations mean that such moves can only happen within transfer windows.

This sets a requirement for players like Devine to be kept near the first team squad as cover rather than being sent out on loan, or isolated from the first team squad because the intention is to send them out on loan.

As the aim is to have a Devine, or a Webb-Foster, or a King ready to be dropped into first team action in the way that Wes Thomas or Tom Thorpe was last season then there is an opportunity to have those players blended into the first team squad. And in that context should Webb-Foster show day in day out in training that he can score then his path to the first team is highlighted.

This was not the case under Phil Parkinson where young players would complain about a lack of development – there was no reserve team some of the time – and there was an obvious preference to loan signings over development players. News that McCall is interested in Liverpool’s Cameron Brannagan and is trying to bring back Josh Cullen is interesting in this context.

It would seem that Vincelot and Dieng will start the season in the centre of midfield for City and that Law Jnr, and Devine, will cool their heels waiting for an opportunity or for McCall to try a three man midfield that would take Dieng holding and Vincelot and Law alongside him.

It would be odd if McCall – an advocate of the FourFourTwo – abandoned that formation just as its resurgence post Euro 2016 took hold. His willingness to do that perhaps depends on Brannagan or Cullen signing or the performance of the most disappointing group of players last season.

We shall dub these the creators if only because repeating the words “wingers, attacking midfielder and and drop off strikers” over and over will get tiresome. Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall’s failure to fulfil these roles last season deformed City’s season and to expect both to improve is an act of faith.

Anderson’s first season was interrupted by injury but when fit his play was not especially useful. He is fast and able to send a ball into the box at a ninety degree angle to his running path but as previously mentioned crossing is football’s overrated virtue and not only would Anderson have to play better this season to impress he would have to play differently.

Which means that Anderson – who enjoys a seniority at the club and is expected to perform – needs to not take the easier options he so often did in his performances at the start and the end of last season where he went wide hugging the touchline and hit the ball into the box and to nobody. His delivery was poor and considering the lack of numbers City got into the box that was a problem.

Anderson needs a reinvention. He needs to be the player who uses possession much better than he has done previously. He needs to be the player who can effectively cut inside as well as go outside of a full back and when he does he needs to have more presence of mind to find a target more often or to choose to do something else such as a surge into the area.

It might be that Anderson does not have these attributes to his game but if that is the case then he condemns himself as a very easy player to play against and one which will struggle. Even at League One level football has no time for the player who has but one way to achieve his aim and persistence is only admirable when a player carries on doing something effective.

Which brings us to Mark Marshall who has a similar situation albeit one he has shown more capacity to address. Marshall’s delivery is better than Anderson’s and he shows a willingness to vary his play which makes him genuinely difficult to play against but he is troublingly negligent in the defensive side of his game.

Marshall too often could be accused in his appearances last season with exposing the full back behind him and not working well in the defensive unit. A coeur de guerre midfield might give Marshall more licence to idle in this regard but he is simply not a good enough winger to set up a team to carry him if he does not track back.

Unlike Filipe Morais who offers McCall the type of endeavour that the previous manager loved but not the creative output which the team needs. Morais is being considered more of a drop off striker to play in what is now called the number ten position but was the hole although his effectiveness there seems to be a result of his randomness rather than the teams ability to blend him into a style.

Morais, as with Marshall and Anderson, is a creator who does not create enough and this is where the worries about Stuart McCall’s planning for the season start. The back six players provide a superb platform – arguably better than the one that Parkinson’s side had – but there seems to be a dearth of creators to stand on that platform.

Which leads back to McMahon who – like it or not – created a lot last season and should Anderson, Marshall and Morais not step up their contributions significantly then one suspects that McMahon will need to be taken out of whatever hole he would like to fit into and bashed back into one of the wide midfield positions.

Creation, assists, and defensive ability to not leave the team undermanned this should not be a difficult choice to make but one worries that McCall will have to learn this lesson the hard way. As it stands McCall is putting a lot of faith in players who have done little to merit it.

Should McCall favour a three man midfield then one might see Anderson and/or Marshall deployed further forward as part of an attacking three but that does not seem to solve the problems so much as make them less relevant by shifting the creation to the three midfielders. If McCall opts to play Vincelot and Dieng deep and a row of three creators behind a front man then one might worry about the effectiveness of such an approach but still these players would have to step up their performance.

McCall seems to be prepared to put that faith into Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall and one hopes that his faith is rewarded – much depends on it being – and one expects to see both starting against Port Vale for the opening game of the season and hopes to see the two players who were promised twelve months ago.

Which leads us to the subject of Billy Clarke and the strikers. Clarke’s promise at the start of last season evaporated leaving the top scorer of the year before idling towards the end of Parkinson’s time at City.

As with Anderson and Marshall the problem Clarke presents is that he does not scorer enough to be considered a goalscorer nor does he create enough to be thought of in that role and unless there is a drastic change in either of those qualities then there are problems when he is in the team.

One can try play a passing game routed through Clarke the number ten but to do so is to put undue faith in the Irishman’s sporadic ability to unlock a defence. This is a distinct contrast to James Hanson who one can rely on to beat defenders to high passes on a regular basis.

This was always the unsaid – or perhaps unheard – quantity in the debates over how Phil Parkinson’s side played football. Hanson would reliably win high balls, Clarke would not reliably unlock defences through craft. The argument was more pragmatics than cosmetics and the nature of that argument has not changed with the change of manager.

Get the ball to Hanson and there will be flick ons more often then there will be through balls from working the ball through Clarke. The two can play together with Clarke playing off Hanson but to do that Clarke needs to remain close to the man they call Big Unit and not wander off on esoteric crusades for the ball deep in the midfield.

Likewise to play the ball through Clarke and look for craft to open defences Hanson would need to be more mobile than he is and make the sort of runs which have not been a staple of his career.

Which is where Jordy Hiwula and Webb-Foster present options that are valued if only because they are unknown.

The problem that Stuart McCall has is that Bradford City do not score enough goals. I would argue that they do not create enough chances and the reason for that is that the team was set up defensively after a recruitment issue left the team with a goalkeeper and back four who could not deal with crosses.

The solution to not creating enough chances is in the creative players: the Andersons and Marshalls; and in the strikers: Clarke and Hanson; and the onus on them to make more chances to allow a reasonable conversion rate to result in more goals.

It is not impossible that this situation will have been addressed by a general step forward by the entire team – the defensive posture of last season prized not conceding over everything else – but unless it has or unless the players perform then the strikers will spend the season once more trying to convert a high percentage of fewer chances.

One can expect to see Hanson and Clarke start the season and one can expect before August closes the strikers and the creators to have been augmented. At the moment City and Stuart McCall seem to have a team that his half right which at least is not a step backwards.


This preview might get out of date quickly and if it does it will be updated. Just so you know.

Unfamiliar / Preview

Matthew Kilgallon joined Bradford City on a one year deal from Blackburn Rovers bringing a level of excitement to some supporters at the end of a summer where things at Bradford City fell apart and were put back together again.

The usefulness of Kilgallon’s recruitment will be seen in time. He and Nathaniel Knight-Percival joi in the central defensive position and Nathan Clarke and Rory McArdle remain. This gives Stuart McCall’s Bradford City three or four – depending on your view on Clarke – strong choices to start in the middle of the defence.

At the other end of the pitch things are different and attacking options are thin on the ground. McCall arrived in June to find James Hanson still at the club he had left five years ago but one could argue that Hanson and his colleagues players in attacking positions: Mark Marshall, Paul Anderson, Billy Clarke; need improvements on last season’s performances to be significant.

Teams score goals, not players and while four of those mentioned above could be more creative than converting – the flick down from McArdle’s diagonal ball is an act of creation – none could be said to have created enough.

Tony McMahon’s withdrawal to right back form the right wing – where he spent a season under Phil Parkinson – is a curious move from McCall exactly because it removes the one player in the Bradford City team who excelled in creation last season.

Drop

His name dropped into the preview it is worth acknowledging that Phil Parkinson is going to have more of of an impact on Bradford City 2016/2017 than Stuart McCall will. Parkinson – who of course exited for Bolton Wanderers in June – built as much of a monolith as football allows a manager to create in the modern game at Valley Parade.

Parkinson took his backroom team with him to Bolton and his backroom team – it is reported – took everything they had worked on with them. Once again – just as with the situation a few months prior to Parkinson’s arrival at Valley Parade – the file cabinets that contained scout reports were empty and the structures around a football club were scant.

And it is this way because Parkinson wanted it this way. The former Bradford City manager had had experiences sharing out the power at a football club previously – most notability at Hull City – and found it wanting. Parkinson fought a hard fight against unspecified directors with unspecified roles to make sure that he had some control in every aspect of the footballing side of Valley Parade and he won those fights.

There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop young players and so Stuart McCall arrived to find no young players with first team experience. There was no pressure on Parkinson to create a squad which was sustainable from one season to the next. There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop a squad with resale value until new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp arrived at the club and – within a few weeks – Parkinson was gone.

Rahic and Rupp arrived to replace Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes as Bradford City owners and began to talk about a future in which the squad was shaped around recycling the waste product of Premier League academies.

That last statement sounds needlessly dismissive and should not. If one looks at the example of The Chelsea Academy of the last fifteen years one can only think of a single player – John Terry – who was not waste. Millions are spent on players who are discarded for not reaching and elite standard but are able to be turned around and made into useful footballers.

A production line of turnaround players is as close to a business model as the game at lower levels has ever had and one which Rahic and Rupp believe they can benefit from. Clearly the club they bought was an ill fit to achieve that.

Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes freely admitted that they could see no other way of the club going forward than someone arriving and injecting more money and, as the ultimate result of that paucity of thinking, they were prepared to give Parkinson total control of all football matters.

Which is not to say that Parkinson should not have enjoyed carte blanche to do any or all these things as he sees fit. Parkinson’s methods showed constant year-on-year improvement and perhaps would have continued to do so but without the manager ceding some control they would not have aligned with the owners.

Parkinson used many short term contracts, and Parkinson used many loan signings, and Parkinson was not entirely interested in developing young players, and if the club are now interested in long term permanent signings of young players then it starts from a negative position.

Which is a long way of saying that the 2016/17 season – the first post-Parkinson season – is defined by the decision taken by Rhodes and Lawn to allow Parkinson to be the entire centre of the footballing side of Bradford City. There was no institutional retention of knowledge – the scouting cupboard was bare – and that is the result of choices made before June 2016, not after.

Five

Phil Parkinson’s final finish for Bradford City was fifth in League One and it is that which – rightly or wrongly – Stuart McCall will be measured against in the next twelve months as will Parkinson at Bolton Wanderers.

Both measurements could be unfair. For Parkinson his record of first season success is thin and the Trotters would be better to be prepared to wait.

For McCall he is a manager who started late and without structures which are necessary. McCall has not walked into a Southampton where the manager is an appendage to a well run system. He is at a club which – both rightly and wrongly – allowed itself to be defined by its manager and who has now gone.

There is much work to do to replace Parkinson and while Rahic has an idea of the shape that he would like the club to take in the long term there is no reason at all to believe that any of the work ahead of McCall, Chief Scout Greg Abbott, James Mason or Edin Rahic can be achieved without any negative effect on performance.

That Bradford City that finished fifth last season is gone and progress must now be judged anew.

These are unfamiliar times.

Unbalanced / Vincelot

Shall we begin with the warning, dear reader, that pre-season games are not to be taken too seriously and that not too much should be made of a poor afternoon where Bradford City lost 4-1 to Burnley without much of a whimper.

Burnley are a Premier League side and are built like it and the physical size of the visiting team’s back four against an attacking pair of Billy Clarke and Filipe Morais showed the porosity of options in replacing injured James Hanson. That Hanson when missed cannot be replaced is obvious to all. Play a different way without Big Jim, but do not play as if he is there. Stuart McCall found out today what Phil Parkinson knew in that. There is an obvious need for another forward.

At the back there is a type of order emerging with the Tony McMahon cemented in at right back in the absence of Stephen Darby and Nathan Clarke and Nathaniel Knight-Percival alongside him. They struggled today but signs of a relationship with Colin Doyle in goal were there. Daniel Devine will not be starting at left back but – at seventeen and taking responsibility for the ball that put some of senior professionals to shame – I’d expect to see him starting games this season. Despite playing left back today he was the best midfielder in claret and amber on show.

Which brings us to the afternoon’s issues: one old, one new.

City started the game off brightly but Mark Marshall’s inaction in the defensive third allowed Burnley to score – Marshall gets no credit at all for shouting back at McMahon (his captain, and full back) who balled him out after his mistake, Marshall is too old to be having a strop when his captain tells him what everyone else could see – and within minutes the game was utterly beyond the Bantams. In recent years we have seen Bradford City teams who prided themselves on never being out of games but the McCall standard of over-dramatisation returned and Marshall’s mistake swept through the team as nervousness and before half time Burnley had a 3-0 lead.

McCall’s statement that Marshall could play a key role this season assumed much improvement from the wide player which seems to have no evidential basis. Marshall’s tricks on the wing are impressive but he remains a literal liability. For every two times he does something with his ball skills he allows three chances behind him with he undisciplined performances. This was true last year and was true against Burnley in pre-season. Unless there is a very sudden change to how much he creates, or gives away, then McCall has a problem in the making.

The a different type of the same problem emerges for Paul Anderson. Once again big things are expected from the winger without any suggestion that he will achieve them. Both Anderson and Marshall create a type of possession but by fielding one or both of them McCall foregoes other possession. By telling Anderson to try fly past full backs one is axiomatically foregoing possession in from of the full back. Anderson/Marshall look for zone 16/18 possession and that stretches the midfield.

That midfield today saw a new recruit with Romain Vincelot joining from Coventry City for £80,000 to pre-empt the problem of the afternoon. Timothée Dieng held the middle of the pitch well but Nicky Law – coming forward out of midfield – left Dieng often alone in the middle of the pitch and – without Anderson and Marshall to tuck in – with too much work for one man to do. If McCall is to play Anderson and Marshall – and one would hope the pair would improve in the next two weeks to justify that – then Vincelot and Dieng are in and Law is out in order to create something like a balance.

More balanced would be to play only one of the Anderson/Marshall pairing and allow Law – or McMahon when Darby is fit – to create a tight three in the midfield but some distant worry niggles at my head and leaves me wondering if the changed McCall has changed for the better in learning the virtue of this kind of balanced middle four or if he may have fallen for an idea of attacking players rather than attacking chances.

The season is a long one and when it starts pre-season and its niggling worries are all but forgotten.

Holes / Fit

Stuart McCall gets to the business of building a squad to compete in League One next season and he does so starting with a compliment of ten outfield players and no goalkeepers.

The goalkeeping situation offers most scope for change. Ben Williams – who is considering a new deal – would not suit McCall’s style of play at all. Williams’ weakness on crosses forced deep sitting defensive lines in Phil Parkinson’s final season. McCall needs a keeper who can control the defensive line, keep it high, and clear out any cross that comes behind it.

And then he needs another of these keepers as back up, and perhaps a third considering the changes to loan rules.

Across the back four Parkinson has left three solid players: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and James Meredith; and certainly Meredith seems to be exactly the type of attacking left back which McCall fielded all through his management career. Darby offers a balance on the right and – unless Parkinson is able to call either of both like some crazed Boltonian head of the herd – McCall would be best advised to keep both in position.

Rory McArdle seems a player to build any defence around and McCall’s fondness for a big central defender was personified in Marius Žali?kas at Rangers a year ago. During his first spell at the club McCall inherited David Wetherall and Mark Bower and ended up struggling to work out what he wanted from his central defensive pairing.

The new City manager often preferred two commanding central defenders and McArdle fits that bill but he has played his best football last season with a faster, clean up player alongside him and McCall might be advised to find one of that type of player as well as cover.

Considering Phil Parkinson’s sit deep team Stuart McCall might be surprised to find he has two wingers in his dressing room. Both Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson need to perform significantly better to be considered League One standard – which for Anderson is a bold statement considering his pedigree and remunerations – but the new manager has shown a commitment to wide play which affords an opportunity.

Filipe Morais and Tony McMahon are not McCall’s definition of a wide player but both could prove useful if in the merits of a better balanced midfield are to the fore. This all assumes that McCall will play the 442 formation he did at Valley Parade in 2010.

McMahon proved last season his ill-fit in a central midfield role being to weak in the tackle to hold the middle of the pitch. McCall needs an entire new engine room for his team. Last time he favoured one robust midfielder and one more attacking player while fielding two who could still be considered box to box players. It will be interesting to see if in the intervening time he has gained any faith in specialist defensive midfielders.

He has four players to bring in for that area. It will be interesting to see who they are and what roles they will take. McCall needs to find character and leadership in those positions and those things are seldom going free in a summer. It is easy to say that McCall needs to find his McCall, and is not untrue.

One midfielder is expected to be returning is Nicky Law Jnr. The Junior being increasingly humorous in a man who, like your author, has inherited his father’s hairline.

Up front McCall finds familiar face James Hanson. Discussion on Hanson will always be split and split along an ideological line. Hanson is the only player City have who could clearly be said to be the best at an aspect of the game in the division. People can cross a ball better, and shoot better, and defend better but no one in League One is as commanding in the air as Hanson.

This has massive implications for the opposition going into game. If a manager ignores Hanson he faces the prospect of watching his team be dominated from corners and crosses. If he takes special measure for Hanson he surrenders more space to other City forwards. That two men are marking Hanson at set plays affords space to someone else.

Ideologically though some are unable, unwilling or uninterested in this sort of dynamic between teams and are of the school of the thought that suggests it is for a team to dominate and dictate their way of playing onto the opposition. McCall was of this mindset too, far more than Phil Parkinson, and it will be interesting to see if he has changed.

The aforementioned Clarke seems very much McCall’s new Michael Boulding and while one can expect the manager to look at bringing in strikers one doubts Clarke will be hurried out of the door. Reece Webb-Foster will probably be given a chance – McCall’s record on untried players is a stark contrast with Parkinson’s – and another rumour reunites McCall with brief Rangers loanee Haris Vu?ki?.

End / End

All good things, it is often said, must come to an end and so it was that on the 48th game of a season that started with an unsettlingly easy 4-1 defeat at Swindon Town Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City acquiesced to remaining in League One for another season.

City lost a two legged game 4-2 to Millwall and while there was plenty to be said about those games: why was that wall lined up like that? Why was a handball to deny a goalscoring opportunity not the cause of a red card?; more needs to be said about how City got to the play-offs.

Parkinson’s team had been built to win promotion, but struggled badly, and what was built was rebuilt. 2015/2016 was the year of two the Bradford City teams. The first was a team with flying wingers – even in the inside midfielders were wingers at heart – and had a name goalkeeper and a pacey forward. The second was a nailed together collection of talented loan players, short term signings and making the best of what was there.

And to that extent the success of this Parkinson this season – his ability to forge a team from scraps – is also his failure in that the summer recruitment of 2015 has more than anything shaped the campaign. That failure is shared – very little at a modern football club is down to one man – but the lessons from it need to be understood for the club to make progress.

The success of this season was the return of Kyel Reid as Parkinson attempted in a reboot of his team. Lee Evans and Josh Cullen were better than anyone can expect a pair of loan players to be and Reece Burke showed no little ability but each of those successes is a retrofit to a mistake in the summer. Jamie Proctor, who others adore but I have reservations over, arrived a swap for Devante Cole.

Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall had campaigns which neither would like to remember. That Anderson’s was hampered by a broken leg was unfortunate but neither before or after did he look like he was going to prove as useful to the side as Reid has. Likewise Tony McMahon’s season leading number of assists is impressive but his place on the right hand side of midfield was a result of his failure in the holding midfield role Cullen would take.

It is impressive that Parkinson found a way to make McMahon work – he is certainly the City manager’s type of character – but had McMahon, Anderson, Marshall et al started the season as well the likes of Evans, Burke and Cullen finished it then the play-offs would have been a consolation in a failed promotion bid rather than a richly deserved reward after playing catch-up.

The failure to recruit a goalkeeper – remember Jussi Jääskeläinen in a City shirt – which concluding with a disinterested Brad Jones wandering away led to Ben Williams which in turn led to a team necessarily stacked towards defending. Williams deserves some credit for a record number of clean sheets this season but never had a City team been so committed to not allowing the opposition to cross the ball and that commitment to defence and mutated the team into a glass-jawed pugilist able to take nine our of ten blows but incapable of landing a knock-out blow and on the canvas when something gets through the guard.

The credit for Parkinson is that he recognised that he had to shape his team in this way and – after doing so – shaped that team superbly. The fix worked, and some, and the fact that City were in the play-offs at all is a success far outweighs the problems in the first half of the first leg, and the second half of the second, and for that matter in the summer of poor recruitment.

Without Parkinson everything that is good about Bradford City would be lost.

Change

Next season everything about Bradford City changes.

The game that Bradford City play is changing. The next time you watch Bradford City a player making a foul while trying to play the ball in the penalty area that denies a goalscoring opportunity will not be sent off with the penalty and a yellow card being punishment enough.

That player would be sent off were the foul outside the penalty area leading to the potential for a situation where a player in the first minute of a game might beg the referee to place the offence in the box, not outside it, thinking that one down with eleven is better than level with ten.

Also a dog can head the ball into the net now, and it can still be a goal.

The players Bradford City play the game with is changing. Obviously a large number of the current squad are either out of contract or were on loan. A retained list will come out which will probably reduce the squad by four or five – we may have seen the last of Billy Knott, and that is a shame – while Lee Evans has already bid farewell to be followed by the other loan players. We will miss you Reece Burke. We will not miss Wes Thomas.

Loans in the style of Wes Thomas will not be replaced. The FIFA laws of the game have long been out of sync with how loans work in the Football League and the Football League have finally had to comply. Loans will be made in transfer windows. The team at the end of August will be the team at the start of January – Paul Anderson broken leg or not – and so more pressure is put on clubs to get their summer recruitment right.

We will never see another Kevin Wilson month loan cameo at Valley Parade again.

The club or Bradford City is changing. You do not need me, dear reader, to tell you the rumours around the ownership of the club or how much credibility those rumours have gained. The Rhodes family – who own 66% of the club – have long since said they are prepared to sell.

Whatever the reasons why the sale has suddenly become motivated, and whomever the new owners are, the challenges for the club remain and were unconquered in the co-chairmanship of Juliand Rhodes and Mark Lawn. The story that Bradford City missed out on Leicester City’s en vogue Jamie Vardy caused some amusement earlier this season but City seem to spend the summer months missing out on targets. Andy Williams ended up at Doncaster Rovers when Parkinson wanted him, Mark Beevers reached the play-off final with Millwall having sat around a table with City.

This is not a new problem. Chris Brandon once stunned his manager Stuart McCall by revealing how much he had been able to negotiate as a weekly salary. The club missed out on the chance to sign Gary Jones 12 months before he actually arrived having shown him around Valley Parade. Just after that Parkinson told me and Jason (The WOAP man, when he was still of this Parish) than every club needed someone who could get a deal over the line.

Recruitment is identifying targets and acquiring them in the most efficient way. If it were Lawn and Rhodes, of Mr Palidini, or the Germans, or the contacts George Galloway had (who never seemed to materialise, like all of Galloway’s promises) the task would be the same. Find more players to choose from and then the choice is made, sign them for the right price.

And this is the final headline of length, and with sub clauses, about how change will happen

That Parkinson was able to make a superb season out of the wreckage of the Summer 2015 recruitment is testament to his abilities as a manager. He got it wrong, and then got it right, and his right was bigger than his wrong.

But as Bradford City as a whole woke up with a sad heart after play-off defeat its worth noting that any failures done did not happen on the field against Millwall but in the summer before.

Bradford City need to be better at recruitment or this season will happen again, which might be no bad thing because it has been a blast, but were we to get recruitment right then we have a manager peerless to get the best out of them.

Phil Parkinson and the team of tautology

It seemed odd twenty minutes later but at half time I waxed lyrical about how good Walsall were.

Walsall were, after all, the first team to put the ball past Ben Williams in over eight games when they scored in what would be their manager Dean Smith’s final game in charge at the Bescot Stadium back in November and they had won that game.

At half time – defending City’s noisy North End – they had gnarled their way through the opening forty five minutes with the type of performance that City’s Phil Parkinson would have been proud of from his players.

Indeed Walsall’s James O’Connor typified the Saddlers approach to gutsy determination to not allow goalkeeper Neil Etheridge’s clean sheet to be dirtied. Away from Valley Parade during the transition period between City’s early season floundering and that eight games without concession it was exactly the sort of determination that O’Connor showed that Rory McArdle was dragging out every game.

But that was then, and this is now.

Transition

Turning this Bradford City team around this season ranks alongside Chelsea, Arsenal and Wembley twice in Phil Parkinson’s achievements as Bradford City manager.

So meek in surrender earlier in the season, and so aimless at times, this was to be a fallow year for Bradford City.

It was a season where signings did not work out – Paul Anderson watches from the bench, Mark Marshall nowhere, Brad Jones elsewhere – and where even the signings that did work didn’t work. How strange does Devante Cole’s decision to join a relegation battle in preference to staying at City look now?

Which is impressive is not just that Parkinson has spun this season into something when it threatened so often to be nothing but how he has done it.

Parkinson has created the team of tautology: A committed group of loan players.

Shut up Wesley!

Josh Cullen, Lee Evans, Reece Burke were a good chunk of the spine of Bradford City in the 4-0 win over Walsall and have been crucial in the transformation of the team. Indeed Cullen’s arrival allowed the much loved Gary Liddle to exit for Chesterfield and another relegation scrap and while one doubts Cullen (or Burke) will be starting next season in the Olympic Stadium with West Ham neither of them are committed to City in the long term.

But in the short term they are? And why is this? Loan players are as Wes Thomas has been. Oddly out of sorts perhaps, and stuck in their ways. Thomas was to the Bradford City support what Jamie Proctor became: The alternative to James Hanson;

Nevertheless Thomas’s unwillingness or inability to play a high pressing game – which resulted in opposition side’s getting an easy route out away from their own goal – has seen the player confronted with two choices: Parkinson’s way or no way at all. Being a loanee and able to ride out the rest of his deal Thomas seemingly did not care for the former and ended up with the latter.

Which has been City’s experience with loan players since their presence went from odd novelty to (apparently) a necessity in the last two decades of the game. If one includes Kyel Reid and Jamie Proctor as loan players (as they initially were) then half of City’s team could not be around next season.

So how are they not a team of Wes Thomas’s?

The fault is not with the stars

The answer to that question probably resides in Rory McArdle and James Hanson, who both returned to the side for the Walsall game, and with other long time servers like Stephen Darby, James Meredith and perhaps the aforementioned Reid.

There is an adage in football – which is attributed to Brian Clough but I’m sure pre-dates him – that a club is as good as its senior players. It seems that Parkinson believes that to be the case. There is a circle of players like Hanson, McArdle, Darby, Meredith, Reid, and perhaps extended to Ben Williams and Tony McMahon who create a tone and an atmosphere at the club which has in its way become a repeatable pattern of success.

To that circle – an inner circle perhaps – Parkinson trust everything. It is to those players who the manager turns when defeat to Coventry City and a draw at Shrewsbury Town has questioned the club’s play off credentials. And with rich reward too. Hanson scores his first professional hat-trick and remains the club’s top goalscorer while McArdle returns the club to clean sheets. The 24th of the season.

For younger players who arrive on loan at the club the message is obvious. Take your cue from that inner circle in how you play, and how you train, and learn the lesson about how far that sort of attitude will take you in football.

What do you learn

One wonders what a young player gets from League One football. Dele Alli – named PFA Young Player of the Year – started last year scoring against City for MK Dons. The intelligentsia have it that it is his blooding as a child in the lower leagues that maketh the man. As if the sort of cold Tuesday night in Crewe that the football media so often sneer at is actually of crucial importance in some way or other.

If it is then Cullen, Evans and Burke have those lessons which are attributed to Alli, and to his partner Harry Kane who wandered the lower leagues as a part of the loan system. Parkinson’s approach to the game involves making sure you are never out of a game – never cast adrift two or three goals behind – and keeping the competitiveness for ninety minutes.

To not lose easily perhaps sums it up best and contrasts with a Walsall side who saw the tide turn away from them on Saturday and did not want to get their feet wet in it. From dogs of war to puppies in the space of fifteen minutes and incapable of stopping the game from going away from them. Parkinson’s approach would have been to close the game down at 0-1, and he has been criticised for that, but only once or twice have City been out of matches all season.

That approach has become the season and there is something about Parkinson’s approach – about following Parkinson’s approach – that is instructive to young footballers. Certainly they show the trappings of players who understand the nature of league football. Burke is committed against Walsall ensuring nothing goes past him. Evans has a poor first half but Cullen carries his team mate through a bad forty five minutes and the pair emerge imperious at the end.

Cullen carries his team mate. A 20 year old loan player prepared to put some of his performance into making sure his team mate’s performance can recover. If that does not tell you the scale of Parkinson’s achievement with this group of players nothing will.

And the achievement is in the approach and the approach relies on the inner circle of players who maintain an attitude throughout the club.

After all these years City have finally got good at loans.

Do you remember the last time?

Just as City start to master loan signings then loan signings disappear. The loan system as we are used to it in the Football League is changing and next season loans are restricted to transfer windows. No emergency bringing in Kyel Reid after an injury to Paul Anderson, no drafting in Lee Evans because things are not going how you want them.

Next season’s summer recruitment has to be more fruitful than this year or the club face a long slog to Christmas but the same was true this season and when Hanson wandered off with the match ball – two headed goals and a powerful right foot finish – one might have wondered if Parkinson were forced to work with the players he had would he have been able to get them to the play-offs this season? If Paul Anderson had not had his leg broken would he be doing what Kyel Reid is now?

In this case retrospect does not have to provide an answer.

The character of Bradford City’s goalscoring problems

To understand the problems Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are having scoring goals at the end of the League One season – a season which has gone far better than one would have thought for much of it – one has to go back to the problems that marked the start of the season.

By August 2015 Parkinson had put the final nail into the coffin of his 4312 playmaker formation by signing Paul Anderson to add to other recruit Mark Marshall to give his team two out and out wingers.

Marshall and Anderson would be Jamie Lawrence and Peter Beagrie for the 2015 generation and City would rampage through the division with an attractiveness which joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes have asked for previously.

However in the opening week trips to Swindon Town and York City, and the game at home to Gillingham, Parkinson’s plans faltered and they faltered because his team were vulnerable to counter-attacks and crosses and these vulnerabilities were caused by a hole in City’s defence.

Joke Hole

That hole was an key. The hole was a gap between goalkeeper Ben Williams and the centre of the defensive line. Whenever a ball would come into the City box Williams and the defenders would struggle with one being too far from the other and as a result opposition strikers being given the freedom of the penalty spot to exploit City again and again.

This coupled with the counter-attacking problem in that Swindon Town exploited ruthlessly. When a City attack broke down the opposition recycled the ball past the wingers and brought the ball into dangerous wide positions challenged by only the City full back, or took it past the central midfielders.

Parkinson’s first solution to this problem did not work.

Brad Jones came and left very quickly and is widely considered to have been a failure at the club. After Jones’ exit a kind of media spin was given to the remaining keeper Ben Williams – that he had “seen off” the more experienced Jones – and so could be considered solid number one material. Williams bought into that and his grown since.

Williams’ record breaking run of clean sheets has written him a paragraph in the history of Bradford City and he deserves credit for it. But how those clean sheets came about is the root of the current goalscoring problem.

Because as Jones left and Williams stayed Parkinson changed City’s approach to games, or their tactics if you will.

Mints

(Brian Clough used to say there is a lot of nonsense talked about tactics by people who could not win a game of dominoes and I’m very aware that I may add to that but I’m not a believer in the reductionist view of tactics which had taken hold at all clubs in modern football where tactics can be boiled down to how the ball is delivered to the final third of the field: long pass or series of short passes; and I’m not a fan of making the word synonymous with the word formation which is also too inexact for our uses. For the word tactics to be of use it has to be nuanced, else it is a nuisance.)

Staying with his philosophies on the game Parkinson changed how City played to stop them conceding goals. His five years at the club have shown us that Parkinson works from a solid defence forward. To this effect the midfielders would take a step back in the course of play and not commit to attacking in forward positions when City had the ball.

Flash your mind back to 1999 and Jamie Lawrence crossing from the right. In the box Lee Mills would be in the six yard box, Robbie Blake would dally at the penalty spot and Peter Beagrie would be just past the far post, just out from the touchline. That season Mills, Blake and Beagrie scored 75% of City’s goals. In addition Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley – one forward one back – would offer short options and there would be a full back in attendance.

attacking-1999

Consider last night at Coventry City when Kyel Reid had the ball and in the box was Jamie Proctor, and that was it.

Billy Clarke offered a short option but staying outside the box and both Josh Cullen and Lee Evans were back down field. The support from the full back was there but on the opposite side of the field Tony McMahon was not in the box looking to add to the forwards, or forward if one were more honest. Instead McMahon is stepped back making sure that if the keeper catches and throws the ball out City are not exposed.

attacking-2015

Reverse the wings and the story is the same. This is not an issue with personnel it is a part of the way that City are playing. Everyone is a step further back than they could be, and the are further back because when they stepped forward at the start of the season they left holes which were exploited and results were terrible.

That Williams and the back four can claim a record number of clean sheets is a function of the fact that they are not fielding as many crosses, or taking on as many shots, because the midfield is balanced towards making sure that defensive holes are plugged.

Being Reice Charles-Cook

zones-on-a-field

When Reice Charles-Cook – the Coventry City goalkeeper – caught the ball on Tuesday night he looked to get play started quickly for the Sky Blue team that make a fetish of possession but the quick throw to a midfielder on the wing or a player in central position in zones 4-6 are not possible because Reid, McMahon and Clarke are already in zones 4-6 getting back to zones 7-9 while – by contrast – Blake, Lawrence and Beagrie would be in zones 1-3.

Likewise when City attack Cullen and Evans do not need to venture to zone 14 – Billy Clarke lives there – so they stay in zones 8 and 11 making sure that any breakdown of play does not leave the defence exposed. No counter attacks through zone 8/11, no wide attacks leading to crosses through 4/7 and 6/9.

This approach has done wonderful things for City in the last few months – the move from struggling in lower mid-table to third in League One is a result of this approach – but were Parkinson to alter it now for more of an attacking focus then the defensive issues that mandated the approach would no doubt reappear, or at least Parkinson might worry they would.

The defence – and specifically the control gap between Williams and the defensive line – has not been solved just been filled up with players sitting back. It is control through numbers. Shrewsbury Town’s equaliser will remind you that that issue between Williams and his defensive line has not gone away.

And Parkinson knows this.

Character and confidence

He knows that if he were to add – for example – Filipe Morais to the right flank over McMahon with instructions to get into zone 17-18 then the team would return to the same concession problem it had at the start of the season. He knows that if he had Billy Clarke (or someone else) press alongside Proctor in zone 17 rather than staying in zone 14 then the result without be that Cullen and Evans came forward, making the entire defensive unit harder to control, and the concession problem would emerge again.

Parkinson might try beat opposition sides in a scoring contest a la Kevin Keegan trying to win games 4-3 but considering the statistic talked about about City’s forwards scoring one goal in thirty shots over the last two games – which I would argue were low quality shots, because of the options in the zone 17 mentioned above – one doubts that the manager will change his approach so drastically.

And why should he? That approach has taken a team which struggled badly at the start of the season into genuine contenders for the play-offs. That prospect did not look likely at Gillingham when the third goal without reply went in back on the 2nd of January. Parkinson has shown that he can build confidence from teams that do not concede, and that is what he has done this time.

The arguments over Billy Clarke’s missed goal at Coventry – it never looks any better – or his goal should have stood goal at Shrewsbury – it never looks offside – can continue but on a longer timeline City’s goalscoring is not about players missing the target but rather about decisions made to patch defensive weaknesses and to give the team the chance to build confidence by not being beaten.

Like it or not that is the character of Bradford City 2015/2016.

When to start pressing your palms together as Bradford City beat Oldham Athletic 1-0 at Valley Parade

Bradford City ground out a win against an Oldham Athletic team who played most of the match with ten men after Connor Brown was sent off for a late and long lunge at Kyel Reid and were defeated when James Meredith’s deep cross was lob headed in by Tony McMahon.

City had chances to add to the lead which were squandered – strikers James Hanson and Billy Clarke both were guilty of missing the target in the final third – but it seemed that there was little commitment from City boss Phil Parkinson that his team would add a second, or third, goal against a team in the bottom four and playing with one fewer men.

Parkinson was happy with a one goal win. Parkinson is always happy with a one goal win. Parkinson has been Bradford City boss for around 250 games and we know that he approaches football like this. He likes clean sheets and takes a geological (“Geology is the study of pressure and time“) approach to winning matches.

This approach was in evidence at Parkinson’s finest hour and in many other fine hours before and since.

The game this time last year against Millwall which saw the visitors fold after an early sending off was the game that everyone wanted once Brown was sent off but it did not happen. Oldham under new manager John Sheridan were more robust than that Millwall team and approached the game trying to not be beaten rather knowing they needed to trying to win.

Wedded to that was City’s struggle to make play. James Meredith had one of his better games but most of the other players have had more fruitful afternoons. None of the players have got more points on an afternoon – there is no four points for an entertaining win – and so City continue to occupy a place in League One where with games in hand and a good wind the Bantams would trouble the play-offs.

Pressing palms

After around eighty minutes of the win over Oldham Athletic a cross from Mark Marshall was headed wide by James Hanson. It was a bad miss and received only a smattering of applause from the Valley Parade crowd of 18,522. I did, and was (in a roundabout way) ticked off for a friend who sits nearby at VP.

“I’m not clapping that” he remarked with what could be described as a cheery grump, before asking me why I was. The exchange was good natured with fifteen minutes of him turning to ask if it was acceptable to clap now and me telling him that he could not.

This exchange culminated with (and I shall let you, dear reader, judge if this is a high bar to clear) my point which encapsulates the argument crisply.

“You can clap when the fourth goal goes in against Chelsea, or you can start before then, its up to you.”

It all comes back to Chelsea in the end.

Gnomic

What is supporting a football team? A disinterested friend of mine calls it “cheering laundry” while a friend of his defines his life by the fact that he has a season ticket at Old Trafford. One suspects that there is a type of support for every supporter.

But there does seem to be an Isthmus of Suez between those who believe that supporting is an active participation in creating a better football team and those who believe it is appreciating the endeavours of that team. The former see supporting as an active process of involvement in a community while the latter look at it as a reactive experience in which their involvement is largely immaterial.

To start to characterise the two groups the latter group Hanson’s miss has nothing to applaud. It is a failed attempt to produce an aim. To the former group Hanson’s miss is a subject to improvement and that that improvement is made through hard work by the players and that hard work comes as the result of encouragement. It is not hard to imagine what the latter group would think about that.

The latter group look on a miss like Hanson’s as being similar to a duff album track, or Star Wars Episode One, as something that could be done better but was not. Why get excited about something like that? Why clap Jar Jar Binks as a good attempt that went wrong?

The former would reply that the heights of achievement are only possible because of the support at the bottom and that when teams are playing poorly, or when players miss headers, it is the role of supporters to rehabilitate and return to the heights.

When to start and when to finish

The classic Chicken or Egg situation exists here. Are Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United et al popular because they are successful or successful because they are – or were – popular? Is there a symbiosis of the two?

The Chelsea game gives a case in point. The cheer for the fourth goal – the footballing cherry on the top – was so much full-voiced than that for the first which seemed a consolation at the time, or the second which equalised. Instinctively I know why this is but it would be better to have cause and effect explicit.

I clapped Mark Marshall’s cross, and James Hanson’s effort to get to the ball, and Jon Stead’s 1-2 goal and the effort which created the single chance City mustered at Accrington in a Peter Jackson inspired 1-0 defeat which represents the lowest ebb of City’s play I’ve seen.

Hanson’s header went a long way wide but his header against Aston Villa put the club into a Cup Final. The approach, losing a man, getting in front of a defender, the effort required, everything to the finish was the same. Is only one admirable?

Perhaps I should have saved my applause for the moment Yeates had put the ball past Cech or some other rung on a ladder between there and here and somewhere lower. I did not and I cannot help but wonder what football would be like if people did that.

How Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds

An away trip through South Yorkshire

Chesterfield away is a classic of the genre. A one goal victory that came when Bradford City ground the ambition out of the home side leaving only struggle.

Every pass forward was marshalled and pushed away by an imperious defensive line. Every easy clearance was made hard by strikers and midfielders who chased down what would have been the routine were it not for the attitude that manager Phil Parkinson has drummed into his team.

The goal came when Tony McMahon finished off a mazy run and low cross by Billy Clarke. Clarke enjoyed his best game in claret and amber and tormented the Chesterfield backline dropping into the hole between James Hanson and the midfield and exploiting it.

Chesterfield’s response – to bring on the aging Richie Humphrey – showed a team stepping back on their home turf. McMahon’s goal finished off the home team.

Parkinson would say after the game that City could have had four – indeed the post was pinged a number of times – but really the City manager oversells his policies. A one goal away win excites Parkinson – and excites me – because of the grind that has seen wins come Scunthorpe United, Rochdale, Doncaster Rovers, Oldham Athletic.

Those days are Parkinson at his best.

Playing away to teams that want to win mirrors the visits of Sunderland, or Arsenal, or Aston Villa, or the trip to Chelsea. When the opposition commits to victory Parkinson uses Hanson the battering ram occupying multiple defenders, and soaks up pressure with a mean back four.

The City manager’s problems come at home when teams sit back and defend the Bantams attack which is sporadic as shown by the third fewest goals scored total in League One. When City are forced to make the play in a game then games slip away from Parkinson.

Or sometimes things do not work.

An away trip to South Yorkshire

Text message before the game with Sheffield United: “Upper or lower?”

Reply: “Neither.”

Going to a football match should not cost more than going to the cinema. I’ve said this in the past and I believe it.

I think that Bradford City’s home pricing is a rare oasis of sense in a madness of a game in which this generation sells the game from the next and does so with a great deal of support from those getting fleeced.

Bradford City’s away pricing – and walk up pricing – is equally toxic to the game as a whole. Last time I checked it cost £25 to go to Valley Parade as an away fan. It cost £22 at Chesterfield, it cost similar at Walsall, it cost similar at Doncaster, or at Scunthorpe and so on.

The impact of this aggressive pricing that makes following football a thing that only some can afford is obvious to anyone who sees the aging supporter group and the gentrification which seems to come with it.

£27 to get into Sheffield United is certainly something I can afford but it is not something I will pay. It is a few pounds more than other games and those few pounds are hardly significant to me but I will not pay it.

And I do not know when the hand becomes the wrist nor do I feel like I’ve created a hard and fast rule never to be broken but I would not support this part of football’s attempts to gouge out of my pocket because they assume that because I can pay it they should sell to me, aged 42, for a price that me, aged 21, would never have been able to pay.

The combination of the two

If you enjoy a team that puts in a performance that is part frustration, part opportunism then you would have enjoyed the Chesterfield game.

I would argue that Chesterfield, or Scunthorpe, or Doncaster, or Oldham were little different to the game with Chelsea that defines 2015 for Bradford City: Minimise chances coming at your goal and maximise what one has at the other end.

But I cannot say with all honesty that all people would enjoy all or any of those games. I am cut from a cloth were I am more impressed with hard work and honesty on a field than I am by rabona kicks and 45 man massing moves.

I enjoy seeing a team with limitations which overcome those limitations, some of the time, and the processional football of the Champions League leaves me cold. I’ve no interest in football where the players who walk onto the field against Barcelona believe they are beaten before kick off.

Winning away at Chesterfield from few chances but battling to make sure that the team does not concede a chance let alone a goal is a good Saturday afternoon for me but probably only because of the narrative it creates.

It is enjoyable to watch my team Bradford City attempting to overcome limitations because I know those limitations. There is an overarching story of the emergence of Rory McArdle from understudy to as rock of defence, or about Tony McMahon finding a role having floated anchorless at the start of the season.

(There is also a story about James Hanson being not good enough for a transfer to a professional club, not good enough for the bottom of League Two, not good for the middle of League Two, not good enough for a League Cup semi-final, not good enough for a play-off second leg, not good enough for League One, not good enough for a team chasing the League One play-offs. One day he will not be good enough and I’m sure the phrase “we told you so” will be used regardless of all the times naysayers were proven wrong. Watching Hanson over the last few years is a lesson in the narrative of football.)

These things are seen over the course of months, and years, and not in isolation. Football, for me, is never viewed in isolation. I find the idea of turning on Sky Sports to watch any old game as mystifying as opening a book at a random page, reading twenty pages, and then putting it back on the shelf.

To watch the unfolding narrative of a team one needs to be able to watch often and prices over £20 are no aid to that for me but would have been a substantial problem to me twenty years ago. Is Sheffield United vs Bradford City £27 worth of entertainment when – if one considers it – one could take a friend to watch The Force Awakens in IMAX and still have change for popcorn?

I can’t remember a worst time

Sheffield United away is not Chesterfield. Without a game owing to waterlogging and without the regular training pitches owing to flooding reports return that City lack sharpness and are easily beaten. Football is a multi-polar world and games are hard enough when preparations are ideal.

The supporters – both Bradford City and Sheffield United – are subject to some racist chanting from Sheffield United fans and some chanting that is unpleasant. This will be passed onto The FA – who are perhaps the least able and qualified body in the Universe on this subject – but probably not to the Police.

The FA never seem to tire of their role as prosecutors of – some might say persecutors of – those whom the Law of the Land can find no case against claiming their lower standard of evidence as somehow better than the one that is required by any court which could not be prefixed with the term Kangaroo.

I would not want to have The Racists of Sheffield who were at Bramall Lane to be convicted for what they said or what they think. I’m happy to just consider them to be a collective of idiots and be done with it.

But I did not pay £27 so what can I say?

The focus

To suggest that football needs to understand better its audience is to allow the game – the collective of clubs and organisers – leniency on the charge that they understand full well that they increasingly greying men who populate matches are the ones who will dig deepest for tickets and that they exploit that.

The people who run football always need more money and they know that people aged 35+ in good jobs with good incomes will fund their extravagant demands for more wages paid, more promotions pushes, more mistakes and managerial pay-offs.

These people are the focus of football’s attention. In twenty/thirty years time when those people have retired to Saturday afternoons in more comfortable surroundings there will be no generation to replace them because that attention is so narrowly focused.

Oddly enough because of the odd combination of Wembley twice and season ticket pricing Bradford City are one of the clubs who have some protection against this – there is a healthy group of younger City fans who have been allowed a stake in the support – but mingle with the home fans at an away game and appreciate the difference.

Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds.

The longview

Sheffield United away is I am told a bad performance in isolation but not out of keeping with how Bradford City perform. When taken over a longer period City are averaging a point and a half a game away from home, as well as the odd Chelsea if you will.

Often the game plan of Chesterfield works but when it does not the result is as it was in South Yorkshire. Since Phil Parkinson arrived his plans have had a shifting impact on the mentality of the club.

When he arrived the club was congratulating itself for avoiding relegation out of the Football League under the hapless Peter Jackson. Now there is a consideration that the club is not ideally placed to reach the second tier of English football.

But I – and perhaps you – only know this having been fortunate enough to be able to afford to follow the club from that period to this.

I do not see how that will be possible for the coming generations of football.

Getting back to a better bad as City lose 2-1 to Walsall

Football, in the end, is a zero sum game. If a game if going to have a winner then – in a very real sense – it has to have a loser.

Between that starkness lays an admission that performance in football match can be anything other than zero sum. It is possible, and not uncommon, for both sides to have played well in a game one lost. Players can put in good performances against other players who put in good performances.

And so when Bradford City surrendered the seemingly endless clean sheet that had meant not conceding a goal in the previous two months it seemed hard to accept that the Bantams might have – in a first half which many grumbled through – that City had played well.

Played well but not as well as the host Walsall.

Walsall are an interesting team managed by the very impressive Dean Smith. Half beautifier/half pragmatist Smith sends a team which likes to pass the ball but does not marry themselves to passing football. That plays an open game but closes matches off with (frankly shocking) time wasting. That has room for flair players but takes care to take care of the oppositions.

So it was that when Rory McArdle would get the ball he would have the nuisance Tom Bradshaw closing him down in a way that central defenders seldom get closed down. That the midfield allowed Billy Clarke to drop back as far as he wanted and effectively ensnared the striker into the middle and pushed the Bantams pair of Lee Evans and Billy Knott deep. That the home side played the ball across the back to pull City one way when attacking having compressed them when defending.

Bradshaw took the first goal well after a long range shot got caught in McArdle’s feet and the striker enjoyed the spoils. A good finish but without the type of long range effort that Ben Williams has been gathering with ease for the last half a dozen games taking a ricochet it was hard to see how Walsall were going to score.

Which perhaps speaks to the general improvement that has been seen in City since the last defeat. After the loss at Colchester the idea of the first half at Walsall representing a low tide mark of form would have been considered surprising.

A bad half at Swindon saw City ship four goals and a summer of confidence. If the first forty five minutes against Walsall represent bad then one can reflect that it was only 1-0, and that Walsall had not dominated possession, nor squandered chances, nor had City not been in the game.

City cold have scored through a James Hanson lunging header, and lived with the home side who were fourth at kick off to such an extent that for Phil Parkinson’s side to come back into the game after half time there was little in the way of wholesale changes needed.

Evans and Knott pushed forward pushing Clarke forward and it was the Irish striker who headed on for Evans to hit a well placed drive across the Walsall keeper Neil Etheridge which nestled delicately into the low corner.

Tony McMahon – ineffective for a large part today – lashed a chance over. James Hanson had a mobile and burly game and saw one header pushed away by Etheridge. City looked secure in at least a draw but a poor exchange between Evans and Kyel Reid saw Romaine Sawyers quickly pass to Milan Lalkovic who beat Williams with a low, hard drive past him.

The speed from the ball being given away to it nestling in the goal was reminiscent of the early season woes but the character of the game – and of the players – could hardly be more different.

A bad – if you want to call it that – first half recovered from and in the end Parkinson’s side would have been left believing they could have had more even if they did not. Contrast that to the aforementioned season opener at Swindon when a good first half was so quickly undone and players so quickly surrendered.

If this is the new bad, it is better than before.

But football performance, to the wider world, is that zero sum game and the display gets little credit. Had Referee Mark Brown – who gave a handball decision against Bradshaw for jumping at Williams and having a flailing arm redirect the ball, and one against Hanson when the striker missed with a leap and saw his trailing arm carry the ball – decided that Devante Cole’s injury time effort that was blocked with two raised hands was of the same nature as those offences then we may well have been looking at today as a hard battled for draw.

As it is it is a hard battled for defeat. Which is zero. In the zero sum game.

Smiling a little bit as Bradford City draw 0-0 with Coventry City

If football is about making people go home happier Bradford City’s scoreless draw with Coventry City at a cold Valley Parade was probably the net best result for all concerned.

For the visitors Coventry City they exit the stadium still top of League One and reflecting on the adage that any point away from home in league football is a good result.

The Sky Blues players left having worked hard and both given out and taken a few lumps as Referee Nigel Miller allowed both teams to be as physical as they wanted to be. Billy Knott and Gael Bigirimana battled hard, Lee Evans and one time City target Romain Vincelot battled hard. It was a hard battle.

Coventry City manager Tony Mowbury will be happy enough that his team stuck to a plan to try stretch out Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City by playing the ball across the backline to draw City players forward and break the team’s shape. Parkinson will be pleased that his players did not break their shape, and looked solid all evening.

Parkinson should be especially pleased with the emergence of Rory McArdle from able deputy to defensive leader. It was obvious that McArdle would have to make this step up in the absence of Andrew Davies and worrying that it seemed that he would not be able to but – mouth on and arms pointing – McArdle had taken responsibility for the positioning of the defensive unit which has not conceded a goal in the last six games.

Which is not to underplay the role other players have in that – this is the evening where everybody emerged a little bit happier – but McArdle has answered the biggest test of his career to date in moving from a good lieutenant to a leader and against striker Adam Armstrong who had twelve goals this season his unit did not even blink.

Which is not to say that there were not chances. Coventry hit a post while Reice Charles-Cook made a superb save from a Tony McMahon low shot. But at the final whistle Coventry City were top, Bradford City had entered sixth position and the play off berths, and neither team had lost in the league in November or October.

So everybody goes home a little bit happier, or should at least, knowing that more definitive games are to come.

The superb and stupendous success of Scunthorpe United

There were probably more Bradford City fans in the stadium applauding off their side than there were supporters of Scunthorpe United following City’s 2-0 victory.

The Bantams had scored a goal in each half with Kyel Reid being fouled after his own shot was saved to allow Tony McMahon to score his second penalty of the week. Greg Leigh scored his second mesmerising run and finish from left back of the week too. Which was good, if you like that sort of thing.

City drafted in Jordan Bowery on loan from Rotherham United to cover Steve Davies in covering James Hanson in the forward line. This caused some upset with some supporters aghast that the Billy Clarke/Deavnte Cole partnership would not be given a chance, others that Bowry’s training would be to have Rory McArdle kick the ball at him very hard, and others that Luke James would be furious. The irony of Parkinson being called out for overlooking long term loan players in favour of short term loan players is not to be lost.

But so it was that Bowery – a willing runner who ran up with cramp towards the end of the game – played target man and Billy Clarke fell deep from the forward line to bolster a midfield which was already bolstered by favouring the more defensively minded Gary Liddle over in form Billy Knott.

City dug in and delivered the ball quickly to the final third. It was the first Wintery day of the season and – at times – one half expected to hear the old stand-by that the ball would come down with snow on it.

Oh to be a Scunthorpe United supporter

By contrasts Scunthorpe United are a joy to watch. Set up with a 433 with one fulcrum midfielder they deployed the insanely talented ballplayer Gary McSheffrey on the left side of a three up front and he drifted between the lines perfectly.

The Iron midfield moved and played short balls well – or tried to – and the forward play of Darius Henderson was all about him dropping deep and trying to turn balls on the floor into him, into passes to supporting players. Henderson ended up isolated and isolated because after a team the belief seemed to seep out of Scunthorpe.

Promiscuous manager Mark Robins has created a Scunthorpe United team who try to – underline on the words try to – play football “the right way” and while the two best chances that the home side created came from raked balls forward on the whole Robins deserves whatever credit swirls around for playing passing football to focus on him.

Yet nobody stayed to applaud his team off.

What you say you want

What Scunthorpe United do is what you (and it should be obvious who the “you” referred to is) say you want. You say you want to see Bradford City play passing football. You say you want City to stop playing long balls to a target man and play through the midfield. You draw little pictures of formations with Devante Cole on one side of attack and no Tony McMahon.

This is what you say you want. Players with deft touches trying to create the perfect chance. The passing game. If you are brave enough to match the courage of your conviction and utter the phrase “I’d rather see City lose than play like this.”

This is what you say you want.

And I wonder if you would stay behind and applaud off a team that lost 2-0 and lost heart when the deft touch was bitten down and the team fell short in effort as well as quality despite the desire to do the right thing.

The evidence of the home supporters suggests that the superb and stupendous success of Scunthorpe United is not all it is cracked up to be.

And perhaps you should stop saying it is.

And onwards

There was a sense of hopelessness in the air when Phil Parkinson brought back Kyel Reid and put McMahon on the right at Rochdale but City have not lost a league game since.

McMahon talks about a team meeting that turned the season around and brought the squad together. That togetherness is – to me – what is worth watching in football. Seeing players enjoying working hard for each other, and enjoying the rewards.

It is what elevates the game from twenty two grown men running around a bit of grass taking everything too seriously.

Stern tests await. Coventry City are top of the League One table and arrived at Valley Parade on Tuesday night. They used to have McSheffrey and now have Joe Cole in his position.

One can not imagine that if reading that all the Bradford City players would smile and note that McSheffrey’s position is somewhere deep in Stephen Darby’s pocket.

Parkinson’s best ever Bantams keep their eyes on a further prize beating Aldershot 2-0 in the FA Cup First Round

Phil Parkinson ventured the opinion that the current Bradford City team who progressed to the Second Round of the FA Cup with a 2-0 victory over Aldershot Town was the best the manager has assembled in his time at Valley Parade.

Indeed many of the statistics which jump out from the game support Parkinson’s supposition. Ben Williams connected a fifth clean-sheet in a row on a night where he was never seriously tested and Rory McArdle looked comfortable alongside Nathan Clarke at the heart of the defence in a way that one could only have dreamed of after the opening day defeat to Swindon Town.

Indeed Billy Knott who was a passenger on the road to nowhere at at The County Ground on the first day has taken massive strides to where he should be as the type of take responsibility midfielder which is needed in League One promotion teams. It was Knott who flighted a fine long pass wide to Greg Leigh who burst into the box and deftly finished to end the game and three quarters deadlock between these two sides.

The quality of Leigh’s goal was something to observe but while Parkinson talks in glowing terms about his team that idea – of quality – is not often heard connected to the Bantams. It is interesting that while supporters may talk about City as necessarily hard working at best the manager is prepared to be proud and state that this win – a 2-0 over Aldershot – was the result of the best team he has put together.

Move back some five years or so and Peter Taylor’s Bradford City were beating Aldershot – then a league side – by a similar score and not pleasing chairman Mark Lawn. Lawn had recalled how Taylor’s side were less entertaining in only dispatching The Shots by this score rather than the more entertaining 5-0 that Stuart McCall’s side beat them. Indeed the City co-chairman said tellingly about the McCall side that “it was a different type of football but I believed it was a type of football which would get us out of this league.”

Now it would seem that the manager is confident enough in his positions – and why should he not be – that he is able to declare that it is this team, and this style, that will bring promotion again rather than bowing to the idea that his City side would be more atheistically pleasing.

More power to Parkinson’s elbow. Who knows what the viewer at home thought of the FA Cup tie that was featured on BT Sport but in the lashing rain of Valley Parade one could not help but admire the determination which the team put to the cause.

Determination in staying with a game plan and the game plan was to edge this game as it is all games. Keeping chances at a premium one end costs them at the other. Injury to James Hanson is a worry – Aldershot were given a Refereeing pass by man in the middle Keith Hill for some rustic tackling – but Tony McMahon’s penalty after Luke James was felled in the box put that worry back to being Saturday’s problem.

The next round promises Chesham United at Valley Parade – a team lower in the pyramid than Aldershot but equally deserving of the respect that Parkinson paid his first round opponents that manifests itself in taking the same approach to Cup games against the non-league as League games against rivals – and the hint of more to follow.

Last year Parkinson’s team beat Chelsea on its way to a quarter final. Parkinson thinks this team is better.

The Ben Williams season continues with City facing Aldershot Town in the FA Cup

Williams from Williams

The first time Ben Williams became known to Bradford City supporters was during the first round of the FA Cup when – minutes into the game with Halifax Town – he was picking the ball out of the back of his own goal.

An inauspicious start to a campaign that would see Williams keeping goal at Stamford Bridge but his afternoon at The Shay better when Phil Parkinson switched formation and Filipe Morais and Billy Clarke turned the match and the season around.

Jon Stead scored – he always scored in the FA Cup – and Williams’ role was largely forgotten but he did make a very good save from a Williams’ close range header. I’d describe it as memorable but it seems that not a lot of people remember it.

Ben Williams save from Steve Williams. Steve Williams is a former Bantam who exited Valley Parade around the time of the change from Peter Taylor, to Peter Jackson, to Phil Parkinson . In the words for former Chief Scout Archie Christie when asked why the talented Williams had left said that the player “did not want it enough.”

Wanting it enough was big for Christie, and is big for Phil Parkinson.

Wanting it

The last three weeks of Bradford City have been the definition of “wanting it”. A trip to Millwall, a visit from Blackpool, a trip to Aldershot for the 0-0 draw that brings about this reply, and a 2-0 win over Crewe Parkinson’s team had dug in hard to turn a few good wins into an impressive unbeaten run.

Parkinson’s has taken his Bradford City back to the most simple of building blocks creating a team which fetishises not conceding in the same way Barcelona lust for possession. Parkinson’s City will not concede – so the thought goes – and as a result the result will take after itself.

One has to go back to 24th of October when Wigan Athletic took the lead past Ben Williams for City’s last concession. Williams could have done better with that strike, and he got lucky with a shot from Crewe on Saturday that slipped greasy off his body and flew back into play but Williams has earned his luck with his graft.

My issue with Williams’ goalkeeping style – that he allows too much of a gap between the defensive line and himself – is addressed by Parkinson compressing his defensive unit at the expense of his forward line leaving the forward line lacking numbers. It is meat and potatoes and City are criticised for a negative approach to the game.

Criticism is always relative though, and relative to the criticism one gets for losing.

The work

The work which Phil Parkinson’s team have put into the last two months is transformative. Players have developed pairings where previously there was confusion. Stephen Darby has found an unlikely partner in Tony McMahon while James Meredith probably thought reuniting with Kyel Ried was unlikely too.

The central midfield pair are of two of Lee Evans, Gary Liddle and the much improved Billy Knott are a product of days at Apperley Bridge. Knott would be the poster boy for improvement with his push back from the Ghetto of being an “attacking midfielder” into a genuinely useful box to box player.

Would be if it were not for the backline of Rory McArdle, Reece Burke and Williams himself. Calm has replaced barked blasts. Control has replaced scrambles. Stern has replaced soft when running at the heart of the Bantams team.

There is a significant need for a collective improvement. It has happened.

A Ben Williams sort of season

Bradford City’s season has become a Ben Williams sort of season. Capable of slips, and at times doing things wrong, but improved with hard work and no better/no worse as is shown on the field.

I’ve always found this aspect of football as – perhaps – the most understated joy in football.

To support a Liverpool in the 1980s, a Manchester United in the 1990s, a Manchester City now is to experience football top down where expectation is winning and winning is everything. Bristol City supporters last season – with a team outspending its league – expected the same. It is rare to have that in football, I’m sure most at City never will have had it.

For the rest the drama is in watching teams which are – and I struggle to find a better description – only as good as they are on the field. City are in a morass of teams in League One who are in a similar situation. The FA Cup against Aldershot Town offers the kind of assumption which the Bantams seldom get, and can never enjoy.

Aldershot Town are struggling for form in the National League but so were City when City rolled up at Chelsea last year – everything in the FA Cup is set in the Chelsea context for a while at least – and while the Bantams should win they will only do so with the same hard graft that has turned the season around.

Hard work, and hoping the mistakes go unpunished. A year on from his debut and we are all having a Ben Williams sort of season.

Bury, Wigan Athletic, styles of play and the reductionism coming to Bradford City

Constructionism

Three ways of playing football in a week on show at Valley Parade, and three different outcomes.

Foremost was Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City who – revitalised after a poor start to the season – play a direct game and press high looking to force mistakes from an opposition.

Parkinson’s side look to make the most of set plays and do. Both goals against Bury and the single strike against Wigan Athletic were the result of corners. That this will be the case was obvious as Wigan put eleven men into the penalty area every time Tony McMahon or Lee Evans crossed. It worked on fourteen occasions. On the other James Hanson headed past Jussi Jääskeläinen for an equaliser.

Wigan’s response to City’s strengths was to try counter them – naturally enough – while trying to play to what they believe are their own better qualities. Gary Caldwell’s Wigan side are quixotic in a belief that every move must be built from the goalkeeper to defender and forward and Jääskeläinen never once kicks from his hands. The try pull the compressed Bradford City side forward because Caldwell – as well as Parkinson – knows the need to counter the opposition.

David Flitcroft at Bury falls somewhere between. As the second goal – a deflection from former City man Reece Brown – bounces into the Bury goal Flitcroft forgoes his attempt to pass the ball and ends up with four players across the forward line. They will score in the dying seconds of the game when a long punt from the keeper is flicked on and then over shoulder volleyed past Ben Williams without having touched the floor from keeper’s hands to the back of the goal.

Flitcroft’s five man midfield met Parkinson’s strong banks of four in a first half in which both teams tried to make sure that there would not concede. Rory McArdle headed in just before half time from another well delivered corner. Bury hope to control games, to shut down games, away from home and as with Wigan they successfully identified Parkinson’s plan and looked to counter it. Bury are a burly side – more so than City – and at the end of the game Steve Davies run in the side would be ended as he begins three months on the sidelines.

This physical approach is also seen when Wigan Athletic score having felled the oak of James Hanson with a high tackle. This was not illegal – at least not illegal today for this referee – but City always seem much worse at dishing out this kind of physical play than they are at receiving it. The likes of Billy Knott might put in the odd sliding tackle and deserve the odd card (although not Knott today who is booked for being pushed over) but City seem incapable of making a tactic out of this.

The strategic physical approach is all over Wigan’s play. They are beasts one minute brittle the next and Chris McCann earns the ire of the crowd for faking a foul every time a striker goes near him. McCann is not injured, he will not miss three months, but he successfully stops City from pressing high as they fear more bookings.

This behaviour is effective and not isolated to the left back. You will not read about it in the morning papers when you read that Wigan Athletic try play the game in a better way than Bradford City but Gary Caldwell’s Latics gamify the Referee’s decision making process. Any Referee will book a player for persistent misconduct after five fouls and most players commit at most four in a game. An act of fabrication – be it in foul or reaction – adds to the natural attrition of discipline and scares back players pressing high.

To their credit Flitcroft’s Bury do not react in the same way and battle man for man with a City team which is getting used to hunting in packs. Knott starts to look capable as he did before his dalliance with the footballing graveyard of the “Attacking Midfielder”. He runs down players alongside Evans who provides a more than useful pass. Bury’s struggle to contain City as they leave defensive duties in search of two goals and Mark Marshall is criminally profligate in front of goal.

City miss enough chances to win the game against a Bury team which is aptly described as free-spending by four or five goals ending instead with a seemingly slim 2-1 victory. The response to the game is muted – the late goal took a gloss off the match – and needlessly so.

The draw with Wigan results in Tony McMahon punching the air as if in victory. McMahon was persona non gratis at City a month ago but having come into the bolstering right wing role his delivery and attitude have found a place and a balance with Kyel Reid on the wing opposite. McMahon is the spirit of the new City that emerged four games ago and has not lost since. His energy allows for a high pressing game and his delivery is useful. More over though what he does is working, and often that is all that is needed.

Neither Wigan nor Bury will adapt their games to exploit City’s most significant weakness of the season. Wigan artfully try to pass through Rory McArdle and Reece Burke while Bury look to play into a single striker. Neither cross to exploit the gap between Ben Williams and his defensive line and the goalkeeper has two good games to build confidence right up until Michael Jacobs hits a shot from the edge of the area that the keeper gets to but does not keep out.

For Caldwell it seems to be a matter of principal that players like Yanic Wildschut – too expensive for Bury who tried to bring him in from Middlesbrough – be able to dribble through the opposition. Later in the game Grant Holt is on the field but the service to him is not apt and he struggles. Caldwell can be proud of how rarely his team resorted to playing crosses directly to strikers if that was his aim but his aim counter-acted what often works against Bradford City.

And so City win and Wigan draw and Bury lose. The approaches to the game are different in many ways. Bury want to stop the home side playing but fail to do so and then become more direct than any team could imagine. City look to maximise set-plays and deliver the ball early and direct while Wigan Athletic want to play on the floor and take as long as they can about it. If Wigan cannot play how they want they will not play – simulating imagined offences – while Bury will be burly and too much so as they try claw back into the game.

Reductionism

The increasing level coverage of football has not increased the depth of that coverage and unnecessarily there is a reduction of the complex to try to be more digestible than it is. Ockum’s razor asks you to make things simpler but not more simple than they should be.

And so the way a team plays football is reduced from the multitude of variables to a single almost aesthetic consideration. How the ball arrives in the final third of the field. Is it lofted in from a defender, played from a winger, passed from a midfielder. Pick a variable and label a team forgetting anything else that most obviously is involved. Colin Todd called Phil Parkinson “the enemy of football” on the basis of such a reduction.

That reductionism has started a train of thought amongst Bradford City supporters which normally one could ignore – this is about the football and not about supporting the football – were it not to do more than form a significant part of the discussion around the pitch and start to impact what is on it.

With Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes already declaring that for City to prosper in football it would be necessary (in their opinion) for an injection of funds and perhaps their exit there is little prospect of City taking the approach that either Wigan or Bury have of trying to spend more than the rest of League One to escape it. It is possible – and I would say preferable – to be promoted without this sort of financial investment but as most teams are attempting the same that becomes hard to ensure. Would City with – as was wanted – the odd Doncaster Rovers player here and Jussi Jääskeläinen there be guaranteed promotion. No.

So without success – or perhaps guaranteed success – the questions become not about if something will be achieved then how it will be. It is not if City will finish in the upper-middle of League One it is how will that happen.

And so the suggestion is that without guaranteed success then the way that the status quo is maintained becomes important. If we are not going to be promoted then – the thought goes – can we at least be entertained? Do we deserve what oft sacked Steven Pressley described as “dark ages football

And of course this assumes one is not entertained already.

There is a school of thought – one that I subscribe to – that entertainment in football is not synonymous with passing football and that how the ball is delivered into the final third is but one of a number of things all of which can be entertaining. I have long since recognised in myself that I do not go to Bradford City games to watch Barcelona’s passing style. Indeed if I wanted to see that I would go to Barcelona – or at least watch the disturbing last bastion of acceptable nationalism on Sky TV – which I do not and will not do.

I would consider this to be symptom of a footballing culture which has allowed television to reshape it and is currently in the process of letting new media complete the mutilation. Highlight TV shows like Match of the Day sold the public the idea that one did not have to watch a full game to understand it, one could just watch a slice of it. It is garnished with a uncritical critical media who for largely commercial reasons repeat this same trope that watching football matches is of the waste of time that is the difference between ninety minutes and the highlight clips. To hear Robbie Savage blindly reading out appearance, league position and goal statistics to support his idea that a single incident can be extrapolated into the entire make up of a player is to commit suicide of the intellect.

This of highlight slice is further shrunk into clips of the highlights of the highlights which are distributed on YouTube creating a contextless football which is all about a series of ten seconds slowed down and repeated until one is convinced. One has never really appreciated the difference between the types of football supporter if one has not had to break up a work conversation with someone else who ventured to a Millwall, or a Walsall, or a Torquay to hear the progress of YouTube scouting on the latest player linked to a high up Premier League team.

At that point one can almost certainly guarantee that what you enjoy as a regular watching a League One team is not the same as what someone who has the mediated top flight football experience enjoys. It really matters to those people what pace EA Sports assign a player in FIFA 16. Really matters.

And it is for those people that football has contorted itself and continues to do so. The mindset that is rife in football – the middle ground – is one which suggests that only the things which make a good highlight reel are of value.

One is tempted to suggest that every person in a stadium has a set of elements they enjoy in the context of a football game and that while it will be true for some of them that they have haphazardly wandered into Valley Parade having mistaken it for Nou Camp BD8 for many, if not most others it will not be. For one person football might be about community, another it might be about victory and nothing else, and another might want to watch wingers beating men (one of the most exciting sights the game has to offer) and very little else.

It became obvious to me that I watched football to watch the narratives created around a set of players. To watch a boy become a man and a man accept – or not – the responsibility for how he plays his own games and then for his team’s performance. This arc is – to me – endlessly fascinating in its differences. Some players thrive, others do not, and watching a team over a series of weeks and seasons is watching the progression of that narrative. That Stephen Darby went from skinning kid to captain was a thing to be seen and to be enjoyed, that James Hanson went from the man who worked at the Co-op to a League Cup final was enjoyable in itself and that enjoyment had little to do with the type of football played.

(This contrasts sharply with the Mercenary team of Colin Todd where the likes of Bobby Petta, or Steven Schumacher, or Marc Bridge-Wilkinson were lauded for failing to take responsibility for the general performance of the team field and singled out for praise for individual displays. There was no need – under Todd – to make sure all your team mates played well, just yourself, and that attitude which Todd allowed was – to me – the enemy of football. Likewise at the moment Phil Parkinson’s neglect of the youth set up and disinterest in bringing through players is not something I enjoy.)

Yet the mix of reductionism and a belief that there is a single criteria of enjoyment is pervasive in discussions on the game to a point where it starts to be a metric to criticise a manager as if he had failed. The less one plays in this way which is perceived as what everybody wants the more a manager should be called to account. And at Bradford City we talk often about how we have “fans as chairmen” (I would argue we abuse that phrase) but by virtue of Mark Lawn/Julian Rhodes being fans they can be assumed to be vulnerable to the same moods as fans.

There is a constant background noise against Phil Parkinson for his way of player (“bilge“) but will anyone be critical of Gary Caldwell for trying to pass through the middle of a team who are so obviously vulnerable to crosses? Will anyone – other than the odd City fan – be critical of him for ostensibly allowing his players to fake fouls and injury to avoid having to cope with Phil Parkinson’s high pressing team?

One doubts it. Aside from not winning the reductionism in football criticism has it that only the way the ball arrives into the final third of the field is a subject of debate and criticism. Were I to watch City players behaving as Wigan’s were yesterday – “tactical simulation” might cover the charge very well – I would enjoy the game less regardless of result but factors like Parkinson’s unwillingness (for whatever reason) to “tactically simulate” are not brought into the discussion about the aesthetics of managers performances.

All other factors are filtered out until one returns to this idea that if the team is not to be successful it should play the game in a specific way regardless of the issue that maintaining a way of playing as dogma can be – and was in the case of Wigan – counter-productive.

Assuming Parkinson does not continue his trend of upward movement at City – and that is not a safe assumption to make – then he will increasingly be called to account for his approach to the game. Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce, Charlton Athletic under Alan Curbishley, Manchester City under Peter Reid, West Ham United every other manager it seems that football is littered with clubs that believed that they should be playing the reduced, different, “better” type of football and slumped as a result.

This will be the discussion at Bradford City – if not in League One now then in The Championship later over the course of the manager’s three year deal – and the people who assume that all share their view that Parkinson’s approach to the game which is direct but is also honest is inherently worse than (for example) Caldwell’s passing and faking or Flitcroft’s controlled midfield and less controlled aggression. They will assume it is commonly held that a team that passes the ball into a striker’s feet is inherently better than a team of character, or a team of players who test and surpass their limitations, and they will demand it.

And you may agree with that, dear reader, but if you do not and if you believe that there are many thing about Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City you would not change then you had better prepare to take a corner and argue for what you want.

The reductionists are shaping the middle ground of football to be a bland nausea of highlights and YouTube clips. They want to take Bradford City and shrink it to the three clips that will look good on Football League Tonight.

If you do not want that you had better get used to tools of opposition against this reductionist mindset and get good at making your arguments.

The first day, the fourth year, and Bradford City beating Doncaster Rovers 1-0

Day one

There is a much mangled by often said phrase which mumbles around the words that time will make strangers of us all. It is is a gnomic observation and one which has little denoted meaning. “Death” is sometimes substituted for “Time”, “Angels” for “Strangers”

But it is not perhaps unfair to suggest that if the phrase can be applied to mean anything it means that people change over time. I am not the man I was four years ago, dear reader, and probably neither are you.

And nor is Phil Parkinson who has been Bradford City manager for a shade longer than that period.

The friend who is a new manager

The talk before this game is about the new manager. The new manager of Liverpool Jurgen Klopp has taken the national headlines. At Doncaster Rovers Darren Ferguson arrived on Friday to take charge of the home side.

Doncaster Rovers and Liverpool are not often united in expectations but both are united in a sense that pervades that both feel as if they should be higher up in football without any real justification for that. Klopp’s arrival at Liverpool will not make Manchester City any poorer, or Arsene Wenger any less keen to focus on finishing third or forth without risk of second of fifth.

Likewise there is little about Doncaster Rovers that suggests they have a natural place in The Championship and plenty to suggest that – as with a few other club in this level – they do some things right and others not. Standing around the Keepmoat Stadium looking at the pitches for juniors, the modern facilities, the ample parking one cannot help but be half impressed and half underwhelmed.

For all that impresses in the environment there is a sense that as Ferguson arrives the manager is an afterthought in a club doing all the right things to be an impressive 40-60 ranked side. They have created a setup for a team at this level. I contrasts sharply to City who are a club built in the image of the manager, and entirely dependent on that manager.

Ferguson might change that at Doncaster. He could take Doncaster to “the next level” that I’m sure has been mentioned in his recruitment. He, and Klopp, are welcome friends. Time has not made them strangers yet.

Phil Parkinson the Stranger

Which is the excitement of a new manager and the contrast with having a manager for as long as City have had Phil Parkinson. Ferguson, and Klopp, are dealing in potential. Today could be the start of the Ferguson-Era at Doncaster – in two years they could have been at Wembley twice – but it probably will not be. What is most odd about considering four years of Phil Parkinson is that most managerial appointments do not work out but Parkinson has.

Nevertheless there is a growing conflict within the Bradford City support that divides along an analytical style of Phil Parkinson’s style of play.

That style of play has always been pragmatic more than pretty and the defence for it – if a defence is needed which I would say it is not – is that the directness brought about success. “Would you rather be playing pretty football in League Two?” comes the retort, as if that sort of weighing of options were ever offered.

It has been noted that City are not progressing up League One – although the league position finished suggest otherwise – and that results at home are not good – especially if one excludes Sunderland and Millwall which in this argument one does – and so if results are not what one would want why suffer a manager playing a style of football which is not pleasing on the eye?

And of course it is never phrased that way – no one suggests Parkinson should leave Bradford City – rather it is phrased that things would be better if Parkinson were to adopt a different style of play. That if Parkinson cannot bring progress (and that is some assumption, considering he is doing) then he could at least have the decency to stagnate in an attractive way.

To wish for the end of things

Time makes strangers of us all, but Parkinson is no so strange.

When he arrived at Hull City – a larger club than Colchester United where he had made his name – Phil Parkinson was offered the opportunity to change his methods. I am told that he believed he flexed too much, and that senior Hull City players believed he flexed too little, and after an indecently short length of time Parkinson was sacked.

That Parkinson walked away from that experience – and from his time at Charlton Athletic – with the belief that he needed to be more committed to his approach rather than more flexible to change as he accuses himself of being in the past says much about why the manager is not about to begin Tiki-taka football now.

(An aside on Tiki-taka)

(It is worth noting that Tiki-taka – lauded as the most attractive way of playing the game that speaks of Spanish passion and flair – is at its heart a statistical reductionism of football tactics based on the correlation between the amount of possession a team has an its frequency of victory.)

(It is a Moneyball tactic that objectives the number of goals scored as a function of possession and thus makes possession the most important aim within a game. Possession in Tiki-taka is more important than scoring goals because retaining possession minimises the oppositions opportunity to score goals. It is, at its heart, a defensive approach.)

Not changing

To wish for Phil Parkinson the Bradford City manager to take a different approach to the game is to wish for another manager of Bradford City.

When after thirty seconds of the game with Doncaster a throw in cleared the first defenders and ended up in the middle of the penalty area one wished for City to have the sort of player who poked the ball in in such positions and there was Devante Cole to do just that.

One goal in less than a minute and to hope that Phil Parkinson would use the early goal as a platform for more is to not understand the manager who it was said of that he made teams which could defend. Recall Parkinson’s coming out party as City manager against Wigan Athletic, or the follow up against Arsenal, and Parkinson played a team of pragmatism and pressing.

The management of players working hard to constantly defend is what Parkinson brought to City and what he will hope to return to. With eighty nine minutes left to play were the situation reversed and who in Doncaster knows what new manager Ferguson would have done?

How does a Doncaster Rovers fan know how a new manager will react 45 seconds into his first game? Every City fan with an attention span know what Parkinson would do.

What Parkinson did

The performance, as it arrived, was in the spirit of 2012/2013.

The midfield pair of Lee Evans and Gary Liddle sat on top of the Rory McArdle and Reece Burke back line, and Steve Davies (and then James Hanson) defended the midfield. Tony McMahon came inside to bolster and Kyel Reid and Devante Cole stretched the home side to prevent them coming too far forward, and to stop them adding pressure to pressure.

Attack sporadic, and pushed wide it was the Parkinson we had become familiar with and perhaps forgotten. The feeling that if Nahki Wells can nick a goal then the defence could see any game out was the stuff of that season that ended at Wembley.

The best laid plans…

Which is not to suggest that there were not chances for Doncaster to get back into the game – indeed they will still be smarting over a chance that hit the bar, came down and was not ruled to be in before it was punched in by a Keshi Anderson – but the chances were minimised, and they were pushed out wide then soaked up by the central defensive pair.

Up front Devante Cole scored – he seems to do that often – but most important ran his legs off chasing down clearances and putting defenders under pressure damaging the delivery forward for Doncaster.

Like Ferguson Devante is another Manchester “son of” and that will take a line in a report despite Darren not taking the job officially until Monday. Whatever Ferguson attempts to do with Doncaster Rovers it would be easier with a striker like Cole to do it with. It is easy to forget after five Cole goals in eight games that had Parkinson had his way then Doncaster forward Andy Williams would have been leading the line for City.

We have got to know much about Parkinson. We know that he is not the greatest recruiter in football – and no one’s idea of a wheeler-dealer – and struggles to replace players he has made on the training field. Wells was replaced by Cole after eighteen months of looking at players like Williams but City still wait to see a new Gary Jones, a new Andrew Davies.

Cole fits more and more into Parkinson’s plans and Parkinson’s plans continue unchanged. Today those plans came good while often of late City have looked incapable of seeing out a lead. Parkinson makes his players, and his teams, on the training field. Improvement happens slowly but is permanent when it does.

The poster boy for this is is James Hanson. There is a school of thought that Hanson – working hard off the bench today – is “not good enough”. The people saying this flatter themselves having said that Hanson was not good enough for the bottom of League Two, and then for the top of League Two, and then to fight relegation in League One, and then to play in team fighting for promotion from League One.

The retort writes itself of course but the more salient point is that under Parkinson players like Hanson, like Rory McArdle, like James Meredith who could have spent careers in League Two are continuing to improve. “Hanson is not good enough” will eventually be right, because time will make a stranger of us all.

Parkinson is at City – Parkinson is in football management – because he believes that a team that plays as City did today defending, pressing, working with each other, will be successful.

After four years that is no different than it was on his first day at the club.

City walked in a line and beat Rochdale 3-1 at Spotland

Heart and Soul

When Steve Davies arrived at Bradford City the role he would play in the squad seemed straight forward.

As a target man of sorts he would replace James Hanson when James Hanson could not play. City’s number nine is not without the odd strain for sure but as a man who spends Saturday afternoons being bashed around thirty yards of pitch Hanson – we recall – needs a rest.

In fact it was this need that prompted City to bring in Jon Stead on loan twice. The second time Stead wrote his name in the to the club’s folklore but in my estimation did too little else.

Stead could be the smart, give-nothing-up, resourceful target man that City wanted but was not too often – or rather was not when he did not want to be too often – and so he is in the middle of League Two at the Notts County inner circle.

No Love Lost

Alan Sheehan’s rather curious parting shot at City – that he could not get into manager Phil Parkinson’s inner circle of players – was a somewhat heartening thing for a team that seemed to be losing the very core that the left back who rejoined Notts County could not crack. Parkinson’s response – that Sheehan never cracked the core because he never was better than other players in the positions he played in – tells half a story.

Sheehan has shown some ability at his time at the club and one excuses him the drop in form after his mentor/dad died but he was never a player who led by example, and never one who put his heart and soul into a game. A professional for sure and one of the rank and file but no one ever left a match saying that Sheehan had run his legs down the knees, or committed himself to tackles, or any of the other cliché we use when talking about full-hearted players.

The Irishman’s finest moment in City colours had come twelve months ago at Rochdale where his ability with a dead ball from central defence turned the game which is much less than Jon Stead’s performance at Chelsea but if if Stead or Sheehan wanted an illustration of why a player with talent are outside the core of squads at so many clubs he need look no further than Steve Davies’ in the 59th minute at Rochdale chasing down James McNulty until the home defender slipped and Davies squared a ball that after ineffectual swipes all round was in the goal with Devante Cole running away happy.

New Dawn Fades

The enduring problem for Bradford City since the change in the team of 2013 has been a lack of character. The enduring problem for Bradford City fans has been being told this after every defeat only – following victory or a decent draw – to be alerted to the character returning.

I’m guilty of this myself of course and can only apologise in the hope that that buys some credibility back. There is a tendency to use the word “consistent” in the place of “excellent” in football – a team could be “consistent” by losing 10-0 every week – and the character of a team which is lacks character is the kind of lose-a-game/win-a-game runs which City go on.

Every win is assumed to the the start of a consistent run of other victories. A kind of endless Disneyland of football in which defeats never occur, until they do and reading the output of #bcafc on Twitter have the character of all the other Joy Division songs, or the lyrics of the one now oft sung.

When we say want character to end inconsistency we say that we want the team to win more and to lose less which is a statement with almost no content of use in it whatsoever.

Atmosphere

At Spotland where Keith Hill tells us – and I am legally not allowed to argue with him – that there were more Bradford City supporters in the ground than there were Rochdale fans City’s character was hardly tested at all. Perhaps it was the feeling of being tourists at home that robbed Rochdale something today. Andy Cannon chopped Tony McMahon in half on the touchline near the visiting supporters after 29 seconds and one might speculate that the noise was enough to keep the home side quiet for the rest of the afternoon.

Whatever caused it aside from a tidy finish by Peter Vincenti after a shot by Callum Camps has been deflected into his path City had little pressure to cope with. That Camps rans so far with the ball unchallenged was the only black mark on another good afternoon for Lee Evans.

Evans scored an opener for City when a McMahon free kick hit the wall and bounced invitingly to him. He floated a cross which Oliver Lancashire looped over his own keeper in the second half just after Cole’s goal to give the scoreline the entirely correct impression that the visitors won the game with something to spare.

Which is not to suggest that the Bantams faithful roared City to victory – although I’m sure I will read that too somewhere this weekend – just that the supporters like the team were surprised by just how little resistance Rochdale offered.

Leaders of Men

So the problem with the leadership shown by Bradford City’s players is not so much answered as fudged but there are things to reflect on for Phil Parkinson. The midfield was strengthened by Tony McMahon on the right hand side coming in to add to the middle two when needed. The balance of a one-wide/one-tight midfield with a central two players one of whom wins the ball and the other who goes box to box rarely fails.

Does Parkinson seen McMahon in his best eleven? One doubts that he does but without someone else to play that role – and with a need to have a more sturdy midfield more often – one can see McMahon continuing to feature. On the other side Kyel Reid returned from City and had a wonderful afternoon of spiriting with the ball at feet and crossing. This is – in theory – what Paul Anderson should have done but seldom wanted to.

Reid talks about playing with a smile on his face – which he does – but players like a player who has an understanding of how temporary careers can be when outside the higher divisions of English football. That Reid will run all day is the character which we have talked about lacking, as is Davies’ pressure which led to a goal, leading us to a conclusion which Sheehan – and perhaps Stead in a different context – missed: That running in a straight line up and down the left wing as often as you becomes the inner circle.

Taking back control of the result as Bradford City draw 0-0 at Barnsley

When talking this week about the need for Bradford City’s players to put in a Bradford City performance manager Phil Parkinson engaged in a little modesty, and a little evasion.

I don’t think there was enough out there in terms of the Bradford spirit and determination we’ve known – and that didn’t sit easy with me – Phil Parkinson

Four years ago on Tuesday saw the Bradford City manager who proceeded Parkinson go into a broad room meeting trying to justify a lifeless performance against Dagenham & Redbridge and failing. He resigned and within a week Parkinson came to the club after the cameo of a Colin Cooper 4-2 against Barnet.

Many wanted Cooper to have the job and Parkinson, less obviously attacking in his approach than Cooper, was criticised as he went about a process that made City more predictable and by virtue of that less interesting.

Jackson’s last side was as lifeless as one could imagine but it was not criticised for that having come after Peter Taylor’s weak outfits and Stuart McCall’s sides who famously could take an offside decision going against them in a win and sulk it up into a six game losing run.

This has been the way Bradford City have been perhaps since Paul Jewell left the club in the Summer of 2000. For those ten years we were a club often at the whim of external forces be they financial or on the field. To a greater or lesser extent until Parkinson arrived City were a club who seemed unable to control its own fortunes.

Unless one wants to journey back decades then it would be more accurate to say that it is not a “Bradford City performance” that Bradford City failed to show in the 2-1 defeat to Gillingham it was a Phil Parkinson performance.

Modus operandi

Having watched Phil Parkinson’s teams over the last four years it strikes one that first and foremost the City boss demands the level of effort which was lacking from his players on Tuesday night. For much of Parkinson’s time at the club he has been able to select a team from a squad who all were able to reach that level required.

That that situation was coming to an end has been obvious for some time. If one believes that the Gillingham performance would not have happened had Jon Stead been in the forward line, or had Andy Halliday been in the team, then one convicts oneself of the most idealised thinking.

On Tuesday night – and over the week – it became obvious that he did not have eleven who put in what Parkinson requires and so new faces were called in: Reece Burke on loan from West Ham United, Lee Evans from Wolves.

In the past four years Parkinson’s loan signings – as opposed to his loan to purchase deals – have largely been to decorate the fringes of his team. Burke and Evans came straight into the side recalling Parkinson’s first month at the club when the likes of Matt Duke, Jamie Devitt, and Andrew Davies were signed and put into the side.

Loan signings disrupt the flow of a team, but when the team is not flowing what is to lose?

Replacements in South Yorkshire

In the event Lee Evans turned in a fine performance in central midfield as the Bantams had more control of the central area than they had in any game previously this season. It should not be said that Christopher Routis is the sum of the problems at Bradford City but with him injured, and Tony McMahon ill, the middle two of Evans and Gary Liddle looked to have the kind of solidity which has been lacking of late.

Evans will be at the club for five months at least. He is young and has some ability. His signing on loan suggest is is an after thought but one finds it hard to believe that Parkinson can have thought that he could go into the season with such poor resources in central midfield and perhaps Evans’ two weeks sitting out games at Wolves focused his mind on how to progress his career at another club.

Only here for a month Reece Burke – 19 years old and having only played five games previously – slotted into the defence alongside Rory McArdle and never looked out of place. Burke put in a calm, assured performance as one might expect from a player on his debut but he seems to be a short term solution to the problem of replacing Andrew Davies.

Alan Sheehan – who has performed the role better than anyone else this term – was on the bench and is thought to be about to leave the club. Millwall defender Mark Beevers has had talks over a move but those talks came to nothing. Nathan Clarke is on the bench until such a time as Parkinson redeems him.

Redemption/reconstruction

While there were chances for Bradford City to win at Oakwell against Barnsley Parkinson’s City were not seeking a redemption so much as reconstruction.

Burke slotted into a back four which was supported by a central midfield who did not stray too far up field and most of the afternoon the full backs were supported by the corresponding wingers Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall.

Parkinson has made it clear that we are at a stage in the season were we can judge all the players (except for Brad Jones, once again absent having missed training all summer) but judgements on those two wide players – and a third Josh Morris – are not kind.

Anderson has – thus far – failed to live up to the hefty reputation he arrived with. His performance against Gillingham was risible and while he was defensively better at Oakwell he showed only very occasional abilities to go beyond the forward line and link onto what could be won by James Hanson.

There is much to do for Anderson.

Josh Morris – who replaced Anderson after just over an hour – has shown more in terms of the ability but is frustratingly easy to knock off the ball for a player with pretensions to take a central midfield role as well as a wide one. For defenders playing against Morris is about playing on the line of fouling and hoping that the Referee has no sympathy for the player who concludes every challenge looking back at the official and appealing.

More curious is Mark Marshall who has very good delivery of a ball when he happens upon the right position to deliver it from but getting Marshall into those positions seems to be a random process. Defensively he issues vague and wrong instructions to the full back behind him but such things are worked on in training and that could improve with time.

Going forward Marshall needs to position himself to take on defenders and go forward rather than to dribble past central midfielders and move sideways. A man who can beat a player is useful when attacking but dribbling through central midfield is dangerous at worse, and fairly pointless at best.

One understands Marshall’s frustrations even without agreeing with his way of venting them.

City’s trip to Barnsley was about keeping a clean sheet and in keeping a clean sheer starting building belief in the squad that it is master of its own destiny. The balance was in favour of defending and none of the wide players was given much of a remit to attack. Parkinson wanted to see if Anderson, Marshall, and Morris were prepared to dig in, that the team were prepared to do as told, and to be responsive for achieving an outcome, and the answer was a qualified yes.

In this context Steve Davies and James Hanson toiled up front with the latter often isolated and the former missing a great chance when one on one with Adam Davies in the Barnsley goal.

One doubts Parkinson will lose much sleep over that. He goes into training for the first time this season – and I would say the first time since Reading – with a team that can be said to have had control over the outcome of the game rather than been buffeted on the winds of occasion.

That was the first thing Phil Parkinson achieved when he arrived at City four years ago. He hopes to have won it back on Saturday.

Parkinson under pressure after City lose 2-1 at home to Gillingham

One wonders how quickly the pressure that swirls around football managers will start to swarm on Phil Parkinson after Bradford City lost a one goal lead to be beaten by Gillingham.

Pressure from results should be irrelevant. Results in football are both the most and least important thing in the game.

They are the most important because they are what the entire football club is geared towards achieving but the least for the same reason. As the sum of all the efforts of a club they aggregate out accurately in most cases. When those efforts are lacking then it is not important that the results are so much as it is an obvious effect.

Which was the case tonight as City’s early season crystallised.

Once again Phil Parkinson favoured the three man midfield with a playmaker but tonight the reason for that choice was not so much the dogged determination to force Christopher Routis into a position so much as the manager addressing the problems that were on the field against Gillingham, and probably seen in training for weeks.

And those problems were distributed around the field, and those problems were largely to do with the level of effort which the players applied and the amount of commitment which those players had.

The level of effort was not enough generally and it was not enough specifically in the case of Parkinson’s two wide players Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson.

“There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them there.”

If there is an experience in football which fills me with dread its the winger who screams for the ball while hugging the touchline. They are the Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin of football. If only the ball could be got to them in whatever position suits them then they would use their influence to turn the game around.

The onus on the other players to serve them. It is the antithesis of the way of thinking and of playing which has seen Bradford City rise from League Two via Wembley and Chelsea.

And Parkinson – in August 2015 – has two of these players.

Marshall demanding the ball in his own half so he can run into the crowded midfield beating men but not making progress. Anderson getting the ball, turning from goal, and laying it off. Both of these players could be great in the future but if they are they need to make games like tonight far away exceptions to their common performances.

I have no truck with the idea that the other players on the field owed these touchline-huggers the ball.

Players get the ball when they are in good positions. When wingers run towards full backs effectively compressing their own team they are worse than useless. When wingers stand behind covering players they are worse than useless. When wingers watch the central midfield struggle from a distance they are worse than useless.

And it was obvious to me while watching Parkinson unleash his two wide men kept under wraps since signing that he must have noticed this tendency in both at the moment and that has forced him to pick narrow formations that exclude them.

There are two ways to play football: To make things happen, or to be a part of things that happen.

The last few years we have been spoilt with players who made things happen: Gary Jones, Andrew Davies et al; and out history as a club idolises them: Stuart McCall, Peter Beagrie et al; and the way those players was contagious.

And they spread their ethos of taking responsibility for the performance around the team. The culture at City in the last few years and at our best has been one of players taking responsibility for performances.

Tonight we had wingers standing with arms in the air. An illustration of the exact opposition of what brings results.

I refuse to write off careers on the basis of a few games but as far as I have seen of both Marshall and Anderson they have not even begun to show the character that success demands. This requirement comes into play before one considers the ability they may or may not have.

The questions marks

Wingers was not the sum of the problem.

We have a group of players who present with question marks over their character who have come into a group of players who had question marks over their character.

This is the team that surrendered to Bristol City, this is the team that were found wanting in the last third of last season following Andrew Davies’ injury, and those problems have not been addressed in the summer recruitment.

There is no pirouette to perform which says that it is the fault of the new players for polluting the old or the old players for not unleashing the new. There is a significant lack of character and willingness to take responsibility for performances that manifests in different ways and to different extents around the team and the squad.

And while some players are more guilty than others all players – and the manager – have to improve the collective. It is hideous in its cliché but the tide needs to rise, to float all the boats.

There is the continuing mystery of Gary Liddle who played a good performance in central defence rather than the much needed role in midfield. There was the problem with Tony McMahon who when put in central midfield represents the softest centre. I consider the role that McMahon plays in front of the back four as being the most important on the field and McMahon has not shown the capabilities to play that role thus far.

Again I do not seek to Damn him. He may be very good at that position but his very good performances will be a long way from this one not just in terms of the effect he has but in terms of how committed he is to the rest of the team and the performance. If he has a role in winning teams it will be shown character not present tonight.

The wrong side of history

This is the pressure on Parkinson. The parts he has brought together for this Bradford City team do not fit easily. He may try take responsibility for the defeat – as he did – but he can not take the players responsibility for the (lack of) effort away from them.

The players who did put in a shift tonight – and there were some – need to do more than just concern themselves with their own game. James Hanson, Rory McArdle, Alan Sheehan who put in good personal performances need to pull up the performances of those around then. That is what Gary Jones would do, and it is what Stuart McCall would do, and it is what Phil Parkinson needs from his senior squad members.

From a tactical point of view Parkinson needs to etch-a-sketch his team and start again.

Central midfield is the most important position in the team and out best player for that role should be there, so put Gary Liddle there. Hanson up front, Darby at right back, McArdle in the middle. All players you can trust to get a team out of a slump.

A shape emerges from that process and I don’t pretend to know what it is. I’ve banged on all season about Christopher Routis but watching Routis involve himself in play contrasted with Anderson hiding when the ball came forward, putting defender between him and the ball, it becomes obvious why Parkinson is picking the Swiss/French.

The pressure on Phil Parkinson comes from the squad he has assembled and making it work. I’m no fan of cliché like “Big Time Charlie” put unpacking that term is useful in analysis of Gillingham at home. Some players on the field felt that is was not their responsibility to win the game.

The wingers, McMahon perhaps, Ben Williams seemingly, Josh Morris, Billy Knott in parts (although his performance is a confusing one) and perhaps one, some or all those players think that they have made a bad move coming to Valley Parade, or that they are somehow apart from the performance of the team.

It is a long way from the Championship Play-offs to the bottom of League One but the blow of that distance needs to hit home hard – if it applies – and players need to make sure they do all they can to be a part of the a successful team.

Or they sulk, on the wing, or in midfield, or in goal, making out that it’s someone else’s job to get you the ball, or stop the man, or organise the defence.

And they fail, and we all fail.

Certainly I’m not going to be part of any criticism of the players who do show the characteristics in favour of new faces who meander the field.

There is no improvement in giving the ball to disinterested players and hoping that that sparks them into life. Anyone seeking to say that things would be better if only the players who has the bottle to win the ball shovelled it to those who did not have the weight of a history of Bobby Petta, Harpel Singh, Tim Steele et al to argue with.

Peter Beagrie did not stand on the wing with his arms in the air sulking because he could not get a pass. He rolled up his sleeves, hunted the ball, and supported his team mates.

The pressure on Phil Parkinson

Parkinson is under pressure but that pressure should be self applied.

It should be to make both his new signings and the players currently in the squad understand that there is a baseline of effort which they have to commit to win matches and that did not commit in the 2-1 defeat to Gillingham.

On the night James Hanson scored from a fine Billy Knott centre but weak attempts to control the midfield against an able and mobile Bradley Dack led to second half pressure from the visitors which too easily overwhelmed City’s rearguard and the game was lost through a Hanson own goal following a long range effort that went through Ben Williams as if he were not there.

The day after Parkinson needs to work out which of his players he can rely on to show character, and to put in effort, and turn performance around. He needs to deputise those players into forming the mentally weaker players – the followers if you will – to create an effective squad.

He needs to find or make a few Gary Jones/Andrew Davies in the current group and have them lead. The names which suggest themselves have been suggesting themselves for months: Rory, Stephen, Jim, Lids; but the team built around those men drifts.

I think that finding those leaders with the current squad might be the most difficult task that Parkinson has had as Bradford City manager.

I know that there is no other manager I’d want doing it.

Six months time

In six months time this article might be absurd.

Team building is a snowball rolling down a hill. It starts often in defeat and the response to that. Paul Jewell famously used the two points from seven in 1998 to build 1999’s promotion.

In six months time Paul Anderson might be everything we are told he is.

Mark Marshall might rip defences apart, Tony McMahon might be solid in central midfield, Stephen Darby might be improving the players around him, the defensive unit might be organised and on and on.

If all those things are the case are it will not be an extrapolation of the performance in this 2-1 defeat to Gillingham, or the (lack of) character shown in it, or the contempt for the effort that is required to win matches on display.

It will be the reaction to that. That reaction is the raw material which Parkinson has to shape his future from.

Post script

James Hanson played well.

Bradford City’s first day defeat and the honesty applied to it

After watching his Bradford City team lose 4-1 to Swindon Town on the first day of the season Phil Parkinson was in need of the very trait the lack of which defines close season: Intellectual honesty.

The second half collapse which saw the Bantams go from strolling to a comfortable win to strolling a deep defeat was nothing new for Parkinson and seemed to be 2015 in a match for the City manager. It started well and then drifted and as it drifted it went away from the team, and the manager.

And it is the manager Parkinson – rightly praised in the build up to the season – who needs most to find the honesty to look at this performance and sort bad luck from bad judgement, and bad play from bad players.

45 Minutes

The opening goal of City’s season was a near carbon copy of the Andrew Halliday effort at Chelsea. A ball worked down the right and put back to Tony McMahon who held the ball up and played it to Joss Morris who – four minutes into his debut – applied the finish.

It was Morris who was fouled for a penalty which Billy Clarke hit too low but wide enough to beat most keepers but Lawrence Vigouroux is six foot six and pushed the ball away.

Which is where the first dishonesty in the game emerged. The penalty was not a turning point in the match. Accepted had the game been two or three to nil at half time then Swindon Town might have found a rally more difficult but the penalty miss was part of a half long period of pressure where the Robins allowed City to dominate possession happy in themselves to play nice passing football at speed and be blocked off by the Bantams physical size.

City bullied Swindon for forty five minutes and Swindon in turn allowed that to happen. The speedy possession play was ineffectual. Ball comes forward, ball pinged around some strikers, Rory McArdle cleans it out, Swindon look sad.

If one is looking for a turning point in the first half then look no further than Billy Knott’s break on 38 minutes which was abruptly ended by a two footed tackle by Nathan Byrne.

Byrne got the ball but with two feet so the Referee Steve Martin seemed to have mandated a given a free kick for an offence which is only punishable by a red card, and gave a yellow.

Quite apart from the fact that Nathan Byrne was to have a not little impact in the second half this moment formed an idea in the head of Swindon boss Mark Cooper which was to turn the game.

15 Minutes

How knows what is said in a dressing room at half time and how those phrases are manifest in performance. Who knows what. Phil Parkinson will look back at the changes he made as having a cause and effect on the second half collapse, Mark Cooper on the revival. One suspect that Cooper said a phrase like “get amongst them” or “match them physically”.

Cooper and Swindon seemed to recognise that the Referee Mr Martin was no disciplinarian and had a broad definition of what constituted robust play. In the first half Bradford City’s side had dominated play because they were more physical but there was clear space between the edge of Mr Martin’s robust play and City’s first half play that Swindon could occupy.

90 Minutes

The effect was that Swindon applied pressure some of which resulted in free kicks and some of which did not and Bradford City wilted in the face of that in the same way that common at the end of last season against Preston North End or Bristol City.

Parkinson’s half time changed the way that City approached the second half. Playmaker Knott and right midfielder Christopher Routis were detailed with closing down Swindon as they tried to play out of the back line leaving left midfield Morris and central man McMahon as the two in the middle and Billy Clarke and James Hanson falling wide when Knott and Routis were closing down quickly.

The idea was not without merit in that twice City robbed Swindon as they worked the ball out of defence but its massive detriment was how porous it left the City midfield. Swindon moved the ball around well but with City committing Knott and Routis to attacking the ball in the Swindon Town half should Swindon get pasted that line – which they were always going to – they found rather than eight or nine players defending six or seven.

They had the space to play and Byrne – lucky not to leave the field in disgrace – left it with a hat-trick with Jon Obika adding a fourth for good measure. Each goal a celebration of passing and moving, running into space and playing the ball quickly, and enjoying the fact that putting in the sort of challenge that is not the done thing in pre-season they had gone in the space of a half hour from being bullied to doing the bullying.

And at ninety minutes the distressing thing was just how City had let that happen.

Honesty

Returning from Swindon will have given Phil Parkinson time to think over what went wrong and much of the season will depend on what those thoughts were.

The manager could look at the players and conclude that they were lacking. It would be true to say that the depth of the collapse of the second half showed the same signs of weak character which were obvious at the end of last season but that explains the depth of the defeat but not the direction. How did things go to defeat at all after the first half? This requires an honest answer, or a series of them.

The Routis/Knott closing down was a tactical mistake from Parkinson.

It solved a not especially urgent problem – that Swindon could bring the ball out – by creating a far more pressing problem of Swindon being able to find space to pass the ball around in the City half which was the cause of the defeat.

The decision to leave Gary Liddle on the bench – one Parkinson said before the game was down to the form of other players – was also a mistake.

The main crux of criticism directed at Liddle is that he is a more defensive midfielder and offers little going forward but this is to vilify a man for his virtues. City needed Liddle to stand up in the midfield and stop Swindon Town playing and whatever the abilities of Tony McMahon he did not do that.

In fact McMahon spent the second half closing down Swindon players who had just played the ball away and if Morris was near him he was doing the same thing but Morris was more often caught between two players with options and failed to take either.

Routis had too far to travel between his hunter role beyond the forwards and his midfield duties which he did well in the first half when no pressure was applied and Knott spent much of his time cast as a Bradford City Frank Lampard watching play happening thirty yards away from him and waiting for the ball back.

The application of honest to Billy Knott is that he needs to be able to play a box-to-box midfield role or all his abilities in the attacking positions are all for nothing. I think he has that capability but I think that if leaving him on the half way line when play is happening in the City is because Phil Parkinson does not feel Knott can play central midfield then he would be best not having Knott in the squad.

As it was Knott was isolated and away from the game which badly needed a player who would try take control of the midfield and – as with the defeats of last season – rather than that it got Christopher Routis.

That Morris always had more to do than McMahon was because of a grimly sobering reality that Mark Cooper’s half time team talk seemed to have told Swindon that they should attack City down the right to avoid Rory McArdle and target Nathan Clarke who was slower than the attacking players, and more lumbering than the attacking players, and without Andrew Davies’ judgement that allowed him to suffer those deficiencies.

If Nathan Clarke is to be a first choice central defender for City then Parkinson needs to find a way of fielding a midfield that offers him more protection against the ball being dribbled and played at him at speed. This would mean looking at a holding midfielder (or two) sitting ahead of the defence to break up that kind of play which again points to Gary Liddle’s afternoon on the bench as a thing of mystery.

Which is not to say that McMahon is not able to play the position he did today just that he did not do it effectively today. If City were to play Swindon every week then I’d be urging Parkinson to field a Double Six of McMahon and Liddle with three in front and a back four behind to compress play leaving Hanson up front alone but City will not play Swindon or Swindon like teams every week. Few teams try to play possession football at pace in League One and next week we may be talking about how it is a lack of creativity, not the inability to stop creative teams, which is the problem at hand.

Part of the rigour of intellectual honesty on Parkinson’s park though also comes in recognising what has gone well on an afternoon that ended badly. He has a Bradford City team which is brittle but – when on top of games – is dominant. James Hanson’s play is both target man and works well in support and Hanson works hard suggesting that if the supply to Hanson is good then City will prosper.

There is a worry about how infrequently Billy Clarke gets into dangerous positions but B. Clarke is an intelligent player and should supply increase then he will adapt his game appropriately, or he will stand down.

Parkinson also needs to look at Ben Williams in the harsh light of Football League reality.

Williams is an unremarkable goalkeeper and one of whom it will always be said that he did not have a chance, or that the defenders should have protected him, or that looking at goalkeepers for concessions misses the reason for concessions but I struggle to recall a time which I had so little expectation that a goalkeeper might – occasionally – stop a shot from going into the goal.

Both Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson made cameo appearances and Steve Davies came on and looked like he wanted to plant the same kind of “robust” challenges which the home team had done. City ended the game with Tony McMahon and Christopher Routis in central midfield and the kind of result which one would expect from a team with Tony McMahon and Christopher Routis in central midfield.

Which is both a criticism of the character of the players in the second half and one of the management in not foreseeing that repeating the same mistakes will get the same results. Central midfield is the heart of a team and City’s team were heartless in more ways than one.

How Bradford City mastered calm seas beating Carlisle United 2-0 in pre-season

And the day continued well. Phil Parkinson and his entire back room staff are in talks over new contracts and that was the discussion as fans mingled with players following the 2-0 pre-season win over Carlisle United. The drizzle gave way to a pleasant sun the early evening and all seemed to bode well.

Parkinson’s team had been in full race trim for the only Valley Parade friendly of pre-season and while Carlisle United had a moment or two they seemed a keen poorly set up by manager Keith Curle and set to struggle.

Curle approach centres around switched on midfielders who can dynamically move from the holding role to forward positions and he gives that responsibility to Jason Kennedy as if Jason Kennedy were able to be Steven Gerrard if Curle wants him to. I doubt he will last the year.

Parkinson’s approach is as contrasting as one can get. James Hanson is target man, Billy Clarke plays off him and with two banks of four behind them. For forty five minutes City play meat and potatoes football and they play it well grinding Carlisle in the first half and scoring two in the second.

The second saw Parkinson’s playmaker return but rather than trying to play through the man behind the front two the role was more space hunting third striker looking for the ball that came from Hanson’s head or – later – Steve Davies.

Davies was an inch away from scoring with his first kick but rather was next to Gary Liddle as he tapped in a flick down. Josh Morris had scored the first after switching to the right wing following a productive first hour on the left hand side.

Morris was impressive on the day, as was Liddle who played next to Rory McArdle in the back four, but all impressive performances were set in a context of how little trouble the visitors caused.

And there are things to write about the squad. Things to write about how Josh Morris provides a better supply of crosses than Mark Yeates in that he will cross from the byline. There are things to right about how when Gary Liddle moves out of central midfield there is no cover for him. Things to write about how Parkinson has a better first team but a weaker squad.

But all those things are conjecture based on a weak sample. Most pre-season tells one little, this one has said virtually nothing. Leyton Orient’s Nathan Clarke watched the game from the stands an looks set to sign during the coming week which will replace Andrew Davies.

One wonders if Parkinson hopes that he can maintain a small squad with players able to cover more than one position rather than bring in poor characters. Tony McMahon seems to cover one half of the defence and Alan Sheehan the other while Parkinson would rather play Christopher Routis in whatever hole the team presents than he would bring in players he does not know, who might not have the character he wants, who might not fit into his dressing room.

At the end of August Phil Parkinson will have managed more Bradford City games than Trevor Cherry did which we can broadly define as being the longest serving manager in the modern era. At the end of the season he will be the third on the list of most games managed.

This, it seems, is what stability looks like. Parkinson has players he trusts in the dressing room – players like McArdle, and Stephen Darby, and James Hanson – and he understands that those players have bought into an ethos. With that comes the tacit understanding that that ethos will be maintained.

That puts the onus on Parkinson to only bring in the right sort of character. Football is replete with players who can kick a ball well but are bad characters and it is those people who Parkinson has spent the summer avoiding. Judging a players ability to kick a ball can be seen in a friendly game, seeing how well a player fits into the dressing room will only be obvious as the season goes on.

The type of creativity Phil Parkinson wants as Bradford City start 2015/2016 beating Farsley 3-0

“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity” – Charles Mingus

Bradford City’s 3-0 win over neighbours Farsley was a given but the players in the first half who ran up a three goal lead through two James Hanson headers and a low finish by trialist Sanchez Watt deserve credit for starting the 2015/2016 season with good tempo but the theme of the afternoon was how this new generation of Phil Parkinson’s side was to do with the team’s syncopation.

Within thirty minutes James Hanson had shown that his much converted prowess in the air would figure heavily in Bradford City’s arsenal this season with Phil Parkinson having spend both forty five minute periods playing the 442 with a withdrawn striker which had seemed to be his modus operandi in his first few years at City. Full backs were instructed to go beyond wingers – which they did resulting in a third goal – and a thin slice of the performance suggests that next season will see the tactics of simplicity at Valley Parade.

Which is to say that most of the afternoon in West Leeds was spent wondering how creative this version of Bradford City would be and how important creativity is to a football team.

“Creativity comes from a conflict of ideas” – Donatella Versace

The head of Hanson is a tried and tested route to goal for Bradford City. Hanson flicks on, Hanson heads in, let us take it as read that Rory McArdle – not playing today but wandering the stands – will be hitting diagonal balls towards Big Jim all season long.

This presents two problems. What is Big Jim is not there? There is an argument that the main problem with the now departed Andrew Davies was not that he suffered injury and suspension is was the impact on the team in his absence. Take out Andrew Davies and the rest of the squad would be given am excuse for defeat. Of course we got beat by Preston North End and Bristol City – the mental process goes – we did not have Davies in the side.

This is the idea that a player is almost “too good” for the team he is in and that removing him improves the team. It is counter-intuitive and often seeps into debate as justification for making a team worse and one could dismiss it for that if it were not for the occasions when it is accurate. Chris Kamara’s Bradford City with Chris Waddle beat Everton, and Waddle was the best player by a country mile, but the team lost and drew a lot and only when Waddle exited for Sunderland to be replaced by Shaun Murray, Tommy Wright and other inauspicious names did staying in the division look possible.

The best player left but because the team had to do more than just giving the ball to Chris Waddle and seeing the outcome then there was a general improvement. Without Andrew Davies will the rest of the players be unable to use the excuse – and I use the term in the context of mental reasoning and not about what is said in the T&A – of Andrew Davies’ absence? We shall see.

And we shall also see if the same is true of James Hanson. Steve Davies sat out Farsley too and he may be a Hanson in waiting but none of the other forwards looked capable of replacing Hanson. Those forwards included Billy Clarke who picks up this season where he left off last as prolific but probably not prolific enough and Luke James who caused some problems with his energy but suffered in comparison to Sanchez Watt who enjoyed the forty five minutes before him.

Watt scored and showed a left footed touch to play the sort of ball which will be useful to overlapping players. He slowly got into the game and started to demand the ball more than wait for it. He looks every inch a confidence player who has not got confidence, or at least not where he needs it. Parkinson has a few weeks to decide if he and Steve Parkin can get into Watt’s head and press the right buttons. If they can Sanchez Watt would be a real asset. If not he floats away as it seems he will do.

(If he does though he will still give me this Abbott and Costello moment for the ages heard from two men over my right shoulder.)

Man One: “Who is that?”
Man Two: “Sanchez Watt.”
Man One: “I don’t know what?”
Man Two: “That’s his name.”
Man One: “What?”
What Two: “Watt.”
Man One: “That’s what I’m asking?”
Man Two: “Watt’s his name.”
Man One: “Yes.”

(Humour like that – and I swear that is verbatim – is worth ten pounds of anyone’s money.)

That aside aside there is an obvious problem with Hanson being a single point of failure within the team which was auditioning central defenders with the ability to play a long pass. Gary Liddle best asset as a defender is his abilities in midfield and Alan Sheehan took the second half in the middle of a back four with Greg Leigh playing left back for a half in which he registered nothing of note.

More impressive was the six foot five Jamie McCombe who seemed to quickly find a place in the Bantams side. McCombe is thirty two and has had his own injury hell but I would be very surprised if he were not a City player next season.

Which is not to say that he was especially good against the limited opposition – he was serviceable – but he fit into the role Parkinson has for him so well. Tall enough to offer a threat from set plays, comfortable on the ball enough to play it with control, and massive. Youth player Kesi Omolokun was the fourth central defender on show. He was untroubled during the second half.

In the second half midfield Christopher Routis epitomised Mingus’ point about being weird not being the same as being creative. Routis continues to be an impressive physical kicker of a ball but one who seems to lack a position. We know he is not a central defender in League One and as a midfielder he tackles sometimes and uses the ball badly. I want so much to be proved wrong about Routis because if his abilities to kick a ball could be put into a position then he would be very useful but I cannot see how it will happen.

And trying to force Routis into central midfield makes that a player like Sam Wright – full of energy for the first half and able to take responsibility for the ball – would have his development curtailed. A product of the youth set up Wright burnt himself out after a half hour but he showed his willingness to take positions and offer options to team mates as well as his control of the ball. It is not to damn him with faint praise to say that he could be a man to take a space on the bench this season but rather to suggest that doing so would bring better results than constantly trying to shoehorn Routis into positions he does not show the discipline to play.

Discipline being a key for Parkinson. Routis winning the ball in midfield and having options in front of him – only to see him smash a ball high and wide – is no more useful at Farsley than it would be at Wembley. Routis has a choice between trying to score blistering goals against weak opposition and trying to show how he can perform in a team. He makes his choices, Sam Wright made his, and I know who I believe the club should reward with first team football.

Josh Morris looked able next to Wright in central midfield although one might think that he is best used on the left flank with James Meredith going past him. Morris run and shot off the bar showed a player who enjoyed having the ball but most of his play focused on usefulness and that was a good start. Daniel Devine took a role in the second half but would need to do more to commend himself.

At full back Tony McMahon returned and Luke Hendrie – son of John (although I shall try to not hold that against him) – played at right back with McMahon strolling through the second forty five minutes and Hendrie overlapping well but defending poorly in the first half. Hendrie has spent much of his career to date as an attacking midfilder – a position which borders on fiction – and that showed but there seemed to be some potential going forward but a lot of work to be done as a right back.

Sons of Fathers include Harrison Gilkes – the son of Michael – who was generally unimpressive in the first half on the left flank running at players and losing the ball. Dylan Mottley-Henry and Joe Brennan took the second half wide positions and both looked eager. A note too on Filipe Morais who showed accuracy which gave a second route to the head of Hanson. Increasingly Morais looks key to Parkinson’s plans.

In goal Ben Williams causes me worries, and Joe Cracknell has nothing to do.

“Creativity is the thing that everybody wants and nobody wants to pay for” – Me, this week

And so considering the game the questions arise around how creativity should function in Phil Parkinson’s side. We have always known that Parkinson as a manager wants a controlled, dependable creativity. The Versace idea of creativity as being a clash of ideas is something which City tried last season and got success at but that success was limited. It game us – one could argue – the greatest season to support Bradford City we’ve ever known: Chelsea, Sunderland, Leeds; and it saw an improvement in the League One position but it saw fluctuating results.

Players have come available this close season – players like George Green – who represent that idea of idea clash creativity. The Gascoigne figure bewitches the mind but Parkinson wants the Mingus idea of creativity. He wants a lex parsimoniae creativity of simple football played in small, well practised units.

Parkinson wants the creativity of dependability, metronomic in making chances. To get this he needs reliable routes to goal. That Morais will find Hanson from dead balls is already obvious as is Rory McArdle hitting Hanson long but Parkinson wants Meredith opening the same path, he wants a player entering in the second phase of attacks, he wants full backs able to go past wider players. He wants to collect a team or reliable attacking routes to goal and he is building that from his 442 formation.

At the moment he has James Hanson’s head. It is not wonder he did not want the striker to go.

Parkinson’s success is seen in the shifting of the Overton Window when Bradford City beat Doncaster Rovers 3-0

The Overton window in politics

In political theory, the Overton window is the range of ideas the public will accept. According to the theory, an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within that window. At any given moment, the “window” includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.Overton Window, Joseph P. Overton

It is commonly held, and held for good reason, that the current and previous incarnation of The Labour Party (Miliband and Blair) are substantially to the right of the 1970s (Wilson) party and that the current Conservative policies are also massively to the right of where they could have been in the same decade. 1971’s Industry Relations Act from Ted Heath would put him left of current Labour thinking.

The Overton window is defined – broadly speaking – by the left and right of what the public will accept and so the two parties stand glaring across it. The window was dragged significantly to the right under Thatcher and so Heath would be out of step with modern Tories just as Blair would be out of step in the 1970s Labour movement. The left and right are relative to a centre which is defined by the greater populous.

James Hanson, predictable

Which seems to have very little to do with a Friday night in Doncaster and Bradford City wandering into the dressing room at half time scoreless against a Rovers side who – like Chesterfield on Tuesday night – looked very similar to the Bantams in approach and effort.

First half blows had been exchanged – weakly perhaps – and once again City seemed to be playing a game on a knife edge. Gary MacKenzie’s slip on Tuesday night had decided the Chesterfield game in the visitors favour and something similar would decide this game, or so it seemed.

Which was the frame of reference that a grumble about the predictability of City’s approach of hitting the ball to James Hanson came about. The speaker thought City needed to “get rid” of the man 442 had called the 45th best player outside the Premier League and one could waste ink on the denotation of this rather than its connotation: that City needed something to tip the knife edge in their favour.

Hanson was policed all evening by a Doncaster Rovers backline who know the striker’s threat and did what they could to respond to it. After forty five minutes they would have been pleased with their attentions – not so after ninety – but the instinct of City fans that the Bantams needed to add something less predictable alongside the thrust of James Hanson was telling.

At this stage of the season four years ago there was (needless, in my opinion) talk of City falling out of the League because of Peter Taylor’s management and Peter Jackson’s arrival was seen as something of a saving grace. Taylor’s team were never in danger of relegation and so any credit to Jackson for “saving” a club that was not in trouble is – in my opinion – misplaced but he is given that credit in wider public opinion.

The Overton window in football

Manchester City almost finished in the UEFA Cup places in 2005. At the time it was high drama in the Premier League. David James – goalkeeper – went up field to try seal this amazing achievement for the Blue side of Manchester but it was not to be. In the end Manchester City reflected on a good season but finished 8th.

A similar finish for Manchester City now would be cause for alarm. The ownership of the club – through Khaldoon Al Mubarak – has changed what the populous believe Manchester City should be achieving significantly. When winning the Premier League last season the reaction was muted – or so it seemed – because of failures in the Champions League.

The Overton window in football for Manchester City has shifted as a result of the massive investment in the club.

The same can be said for Chelsea who played league games at Valley Parade in the 1980s but now measure their success by European Trophies and Premier Leagues. It can be said to have shifted down for Newcastle United who go into a derby game with Sunderland hoping for local bragging rights and a secure Premier League finish as a return for a club that twenty years ago believed they would win the League. Mike Ashley’s ownership of the club has – in the minds of fans and the rest of football – made sure that ambitions should be limited and so they are limited to a window of achievement which is shifted downwards since the Keegan era.

It can be said for Blackpool who – when the North of England used to holiday there in the 1950s – were a team capable of winning trophies but as overseas holidays took business the Overton window for football slide down and down to a point where the team who had the Greatest Footballer ever (some say, Matthews himself thought Tom Finney was better) are now amazed to have had a year in the top division.

Four years ago the Overton window in football at Bradford City had shifted down to a point where relegation from the Football League was feared and the idea of promotion from League Two was considered to be all but unreachable. “My main aim next season is to play attractive football, but winning football as well” said Jackson, “I can build for the future.”

Something changed

What words were said at half time by Phil Parkinson at Doncaster Rovers we will not know but the outcome was incredible. In the second half the Bantams were yards ahead of the side that has matched them stride for stride in the opening forty five minutes. Gary McKenzie’s opener came from a scramble on the far post following a corner, and a cross in, but it was the result of pressure following half time that did not relent.

Hanson, tireless, chased down defenders all evening and in the centre of midfield Billy Knott and Gary Liddle stopped the home side having time on the ball. Indeed Knott – coming up against one time favourite of this Parish Dean Furman – can be pleased with his best performance in a two man midfield for City so far. His tendency to go missing went missing and Knott manifested his progress over the season in the display. Liddle battled through and Filipe Morais’ control of possession in the home side’s half showed what had been missing in recent weeks.

Hanson ran defenders down and made room for Billy Clarke to add a second. Tony McMahon got a third – his first for the club – filling in at left wing for Mark Yeates who felt his shoulder pop out ungraciously in front of the visiting supporters. McMahon seems ready to play anywhere for City just to be at City and that attitude is probably worth noting.

McMahon’s goal – picking up on a slip by Reece Wabara – completed a fine enough evening that Phil Parkinson walked the length of the away supporters to give thanks to those who had come down from Bradford. The scenes seemed as unlikely an hour previous as they would have done four years ago.

Which is Parkinson’s success at Bradford City and one which is not dependent on promotion being achieved this year although this result increases the chances of that. The shift in the Overton window in football upwards for Bradford City has it that City should be thinking in terms of a Championship side and thinking about how to win games against teams like Doncaster Rovers who have just exited that level. How can we win the game on the knife edge to chase a place in the Championship? It was not a question we asked four years ago.

And while Manchester City and Chelsea are foremost in clubs who have shifted their windows up through investment – and clubs like AFC Bournemouth, Hull City and others have had smaller investments and smaller shifts – most of the time when the Overton window for football shifts it is because of money coming in or (Blackpool, Newcastle United, Leeds United, Portsmouth) going out in City’s case it has been achieved on the field, with the same scale of resources, and no sudden injections of funds. In fact City have paid back investment in the last four years.

Which is truly remarkable. With the same resources (less, arguably) which were considered only good enough for playing “good football” at the bottom of League Two Phil Parkinson is measured against Bradford City’s ability to be promoted to The Championship.

Now that is success.

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