Strikers / Trajectory

There are many reasons, dear reader, as to why Bradford City are struggling to sign a striker following a two goalless draws one of which resulted in a penalty shoot out defeat to Accrington Stanley and what I am going to do is add a reason to the list.

Understand that I’m suggesting that this is a part of a nexus of a causal events that are conspiring to bring about an outcome and not the single and sole reason for Stuart McCall’s struggle to get a number nine who can put the ball in the onion bag.

It has to do with Japan, Andy Cooke, and West Bromwich in Birmingham.

1996

There is a temptation for anyone recalling the past to see it as halcyon. I am forty three years old next week and that means I’m old enough – just about – to remember that twenty years ago people were saying that things where better twenty years ago and to have lived through both time periods.

But I do recall that the character of football in 1996 differed from the current game in many ways but specifically in this one: Player used to decline.

Which is to say that one could watch a player on Match of the Day in the First Division for a few years of his career and when he lost a yard of pace or a touch of sharpness one could be sure that one would be seeing him at a lower league ground soon.

It was the natural order of things. Bradford City – like many clubs – number some players who declined from the top league to the grace of a good career lower down amongst their iconic figures. The top flight was done with Peter Beagrie when he came to Valley Parade, it was done with Trevor Cherry, it was done with Roy McFarland.

There was a steady stream of players who would have had a good career at the top level and would take a few stop offs down the leagues before they went to the job as a landlord/raconteur at some local boozer back near the ground where they were most fondly remembered.

2007

When Andy Cooke signed for Bradford City under Colin Todd he joined the club for a Korean side having had a few months in the Far East and got home sick. Cooke was a decent enough worker although he would not have been an answer to anyone’s goalscoring problems but he did show an interesting route a football could take.

Way batter yourself around Bristol Rover and Burton when Busan I’Cons will give you a year living somewhere exotic. Cooke was last seen playing for Market Drayton Town and one wonders if he might have thought that Busan to Bradford was not the best move he ever made.

Jay Bothroyd came through the Arsenal youth system and played for Coventry City in the top division and as he declined it became clear his career was a slow decline. Bothroyd handled that decline differently to most and cut a path that is increasingly common.

When QPR had done with him and the contracts on the table would have seen him schlepping around League One and Two he upped sticks and moved on to Thailand and Muangthong United and then to Júbilo Iwata in J2. He was J2 top scorer and got a promotion to J1.

Rather than opting to struggle in League One and Two Bothroyd went to someone else’s top flight. A modern football does not need the last pay day as was the mark of many a footballer. They can go where they going is good?

Or not.

2014

Rickie Lambert got his dream move to his boyhood club Liverpool and he got to play for England in what was an unexpected Indian Summer to his career aged 32. Liverpool moved him on to West Brom a year later and if Lambert was not already set up for life following his Bristol Rovers and Southampton career he was after a year going into an out of Anfield.

Lambert is currently at West Brom but played only eighteen games last season scoring once. I’d suggest that he is the type of player who twenty years ago would have been keen to not run down his contract at The Hawthornes and see what happened after knowing he had the comfort of a near limitless financial cushion but would have been telling his manager today that he wanted to find a club lower down to give him a three year deal to secure him a decent future.

Lambert is atypical in the Premier League in having played in the lower divisions of English football. I do not wish to cast aspersions on Lambert’s Baggy team mate José Salomón Rondón but there seems to be no future in which Rondón joined Walsall after four good years at Albion but accepting his yard of pace has gone.

Indeed it seems that when a Premier League player begins to decline rather than accepting a deterioration in contract terms lower down the league they head for the money of China, or Dubai, or somewhere else that allows you to fail upwards.

2016

It is not the sole reason that Stuart McCall struggles to find a striker but football – at the moment – has a supply problem. Players do not have the career trajectories they once had and do not end up coming to a Valley Parade aged thirty plus looking for a solid three year deal to secure their futures.

The scarcity of that sort of player makes other good strikers – the Rickie Lamberts on the way up – harder to come by and McCall, like many managers, is looking for scraps.

Phil Parkinson and the team of tautology

The Team

Ben Williams | Stepgen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Josh Cullen, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Filipe Morais | Billy Clarke, Jamie Proctor, Nathan Clarke

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.

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

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Nathan Clarke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Billy Knott, Lee Evans, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Devante Cole, Mark Marshall, Jordan Bowery

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.

If Parkinson is the Special One if City only get one point?

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Gary McKenzie, James Meredith | Andy Halliday, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott, Mark Yeates | Jon Stead, Billy Clarke | Francois Zoko, Alan Sheehan

As time ticked out on Bradford City’s 1-1 draw with Walsall at Valley Parade Andy Halliday – playing right wing – stood defensively containing the visitors left back preventing him from playing the ball forward.

Play the ball forward – or beat Halliday with the ball – and the Saddlers would have a chance to create a chance. And from a chance they could turn the point time would give them into three. And that could not happen.

Likewise had Halliday tried to win the ball then City could have fashioned a chance to do the same but to do so risked losing position on the field.

As it was Halliday kept his man on the flank and the clock ran down.

Is Parkinson a special one?

Have no doubt, dear reader, that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City side against Walsall will not have returned to the dressing room to an angry manager. Parkinson will not have blistered the walls with shouting nor will he have been furious at chances missed. In fact the 1-1 with Walsall is exactly how Parkinson would want his Bradford City team to play.

Of course he would have wanted more goals to be scored and fewer conceded. He would have wanted Francois Zoko to make more of the chance that fell his way in the second half, would have wanted Billy Knott to have confidence with his right foot when given the option to shoot with that, would have wanted Rory McArdle to not lose his location and head the ball cleanly seven yards the wrong side of the goal post. He would have wanted all those things.

And he would have wanted Billy Clarke to have run back to replace Andy Halliday when Halliday gave the left hand side of the Walsall attack too much space that allowed Anthony Forde to cross and Jordy Hiwula-Mayifuila to head in after slipping away from the otherwise excellent Gary McKenzie on his début. We all wanted those things.

But we have learnt Parkinson’s method over the last 3 years, 177 days of his time at Bradford City and nothing suggests that he would unbalance his team to try take all three points when he had one. The failures that prevented City winning were in execution for Parkinson, but not in the planning.

Which raises an interesting question for City fans to consider.

At 2-1 down to Chelsea Phil Parkinson did not send his Bradford City team to play an all-out attack, nor did he at 1-0 down to Leeds, but those wins came from a combination of maintaining City’s position in the game (which is to say, not conceding more) and taking chances that presented themselves.

One can – and I have – criticise that approach as not doing enough to commit to winning a game against opposition who aimed to draw at Valley Parade but one cannot deny that the overall approach for games does not differ between matches.

Stuart McCall – for example – was fond of changing his team with the ebb and flow of the game. Chris Kamara was too. I would suggest that both McCall and Kamara would have looked at the Walsall equaliser as a signal to make attacking moves, bring on strikers and generally try to create a win.

And I found both managers created very exciting teams to watch. One recalls McCall’s City 2-0 down at Accrington Stanley only to win 3-2 following the introduction of Barry Conlon. Barry came on and caused chaos on the pitch that City benefited from massively.

One recalls the game at Addams Park Wycombe under Kamara were City went two down early on and Kamara brought on Carl Shutt to create a 253 which made for a massively unbalanced game which ended up as a cricket score in favour of Wycombe. At two down, Kamara thought, City were not going to win the game anyway so why not throw in some chaos and see what happens.

Parkinson is not a manager who enjoys adding chaos into games.

McCall or Kamara might have thrown another striker on at Chelsea, or today, and it might have worked. For Parkinson though staying in the game and working hard has worked.

But it has only worked at Bradford City and Colchester United. Supporters of Hull City and Charlton Athletic found Parkinson intractable and unadventurous and were largely glad when he left their clubs because of his tactics and approaches. At Valley Parade today he defended a 1-1 draw, and one doubts he would apologise for it.

If one is happy with Parkinson’s games at Chelsea, and at home to Leeds and Sunderland, then one is happy with the approach that created it then perhaps one just has curse bad luck today and regret that ill-fortune did not favour City today while accepting that other days it does.

Parkinson’s football is the application of pressure towards steady progress. To want him to be different is to want another manager.

Seven

The frustrations of the afternoon were obvious to all. With injuries to James Hanson, Filipe Morais, and Andrew Davies Phil Parkinson reverted to his 442 deploying Halliday on the right, Mark Yeates on the left and Billy Knott with Gary Liddle in midfield behind Jon Stead with Clarke playing removed from the front man. The result was a less pressing midfield that contained the game more.

Indeed Walsall seldom attacked through the middle and Liddle and Knott will reflect on a successful afternoon but Yeates was out of sorts on the flank and not involved enough to pick up the tempo of the game. Halliday was manful on the right. He was seven out of ten. Again.

The result was not so much a lack of creativity – chances came – as it was a misshape on the creativity. Stead held the ball up by fewer players ran past the forward line from midfield than had in previous games leaving him to pop the ball out from between his feet to anyone who might be near.

The supply from the flanks was sporadic. At one point Stephen Darby beat six men on a mazy dribble which was impressive but underlined the problem the players were finding. Without the reliable diagonal ball to to Hanson from McArdle City were less predictable but by virtue of that easier to play against. The paths to goal were improvised and Walsall’s backline stopped what they could. Dean Smith is a good manager and had his side well drilled.

But Smith, like Parkinson, hoped that what was created would tip the game his way but would rather not have lost. Walsall have not lost in eight away games and have their own trip to Wembley to plan for. City take up sixth place in League One.

It should have been a good day all round, but we have got used to better days than this. They are not long the days of milk and honey.

Parkinson has his thoughts on the bread and butter.

Suddenly it all seemed simple

When Phil Parkinson got ready to go in at half time at Brisbane Road to give his team talk to a City side that were beating Leyton Orient 1-0 he must have been thinking about how simple this game of football really is.

At a corner the ball was delivered deep to Aaron McLean who spun off his man and ended up at the back post on his own. One touch and City never really looked back all afternoon against a Leyton Orient team who are much vaunted in third place but never really looked capable of breaking down the Bantams defence.

And while City had choked badly on Tuesday night against Walsall there was an ease to the play in a game in which the Bantams were not asked to make the attacking running. The same problems were obvious but they mattered less once McLean had got his second goal in City colours.

While a goal ahead and with the ability to sit deep and try use the power of McLean and Jon Stead up front or the pace of Adam Reach or Kyle Bennett to get behind a team which needed to win Parkinson could watch the second half confident that his team would win.

Sit deep, make possession difficult for the opposition, hit from set plays. It worked against Leyton Orient, it worked against Arsenal. Wry smiles all round.

But smiles from afar form Parkinson who was sent from the stand after a scuffle in the Orient tunnel following a handball by Andrew Davies which occurred after the half time whistle. It was Clive Thomas refereeing but it was as much as City had to cope with.

Stead’s arrival to cover the injured James Hanson and Andy Gray who – while also injured – did nothing to impress on Tuesday night gave Parkinson the luxury of an effective target man on Saturday without the worry of not having one for Tuesday night’s trip to Coventry City.

City go to Coventry City and both teams are on 48 points which would – last season – have ensured League One survival. One point is probably enough to rubber stamp survival for both and is perhaps the simplest outcome of the game. That The Sky Blues have achieved this from administration and The Bantams have done it from 7th in League Two will give both managers a chance to have something to smile about.

Not that they will smile at each other. Coventry City boss Steven Pressley called Phil Parkinson’s tactics after the 3-3 draw at Valley Parade earlier this season “dark ages football.”

The enlightenment of football probably eludes both these teams but neither have done as well as the slick passing of Leyton Orient who tried pass and move and ended up as thin waves ebbing away from a solid Bantams defence and beaten by a set play.

Pressley’s point is not lost but it assumes much. It assumes that Parkinson – a football manager given to elements of coaching modernity – has not looked at the way the game is played in League One and concluded that the most simple way of playing football is the most effective. That the enlightenment of football analysis tells him that dark ages football works.

On afternoons like Leyton Orient away it is worth reflecting that the simplest answer is often the best.

Doing your business early

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Steven Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, Adam Drury | Kyle Bennett, Gary Jones, Matthew Bates, Adam Bates | Andy Gray, Aaron McLean | Garry Thompson, James Hanson, Matthew Dolan

Doing your business early

After about fifteen minutes of what would be a stolid, fruitless encounter with Walsall at Valley Parade the visitors gave up.

Adam Chambers – the number seven – had showed well pushing forward from the Saddler’s midfield but found Matthew Bates in front of him detailed to sit and stop him playing. Bates and Gary Jones were the midfield and perhaps it was Phil Parkinson’s homework that told him that Walsall would push Chambers forward and leave another back but Bates was deployed to nullify that threat.

And he did.

Such underweaned ambition defined Bradford City on the evening. One wonders what was in Phil Parkinson’s mind when he decided that against a team eight points off the play-offs the highest priority was to stop them playing. That this was achieved – Chambers simply dropped back on top of his back four creating two holding midfielders – caused further problems.

Problems for Kyle Bennett who if he has skills – and I struggle to verbalise what skills are that put him above Zavon Hines who was moved on in the summer – has skills which involve cutting into the middle of the pitch which drove him straight into that deep sitting middle two. It crowded an already crowded area which already had the static Andy Gray and the ineffectual Aaron McLean.

Its worth considering McLean, Bennett and the likes of Adam Reach on the left who looked more dangerous than Bennett on the right but considering the onus was on either to breakdown the visitors neither were able to. Throw in with them Parkinson’s other Winter recruits and recall that the reason City had to sell Nahki Wells at speed was because we needed to “do our business early”.

The results of this business? Reach looks promising, Bennett’s promise eludes me, Matthew Dolan is in and out of the team, Aaron McLean looks like he is involved in the longest pre-season in football history getting ready for next term. Why the rush? Three months after not being able to hold out on Wells the approach we are taking to an upper mid-table club coming to Valley Parade is to nullify?

Which is not to criticise Parkinson’s approach to the game over much. Every man, woman and teenager who shouted vehemently that we needed to replace (for example) Stuart McCall – who could have (and still could) learnt much about shutting down a game from Parkinson – is forced to accept that this dour pragmatism is very much what was wanted. We are not an enterprisingly, free flowing, attacking team and were not last season either. Walsall at home 2013/14 might be the ugly face of Parkinson’s approach to the game, but it is the approach which was lauded in the summer.

On the pitch City looked like a team who have forgotten what winning looks like. There is little confidence and that is obvious when players stand on their heels not expecting a teammate’s pass to reach them or perhaps not recalling what to do if it did. All that was in the subconscious is not strained and pained over. In short, and collectively, Bradford City have choked.

But it may not have been so. A free kick thirty minutes into the first half which Andrew Davies headed wide, the entry of James Hanson after an hour which seemed to inspire would have changed things against a Walsall side that would have been happy to go home having said they battle hard for a point.

A mistake on the front post by Jon McLaughlin though and the evening, and the game, were lost.

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