The first time Bradford City reconsider being the overdog as Halifax Town look for a giantkilling

Of the 79 other balls in the FA Cup First Round draw, few would have been as warmly met as the ball that signified a potential trip to FC Halifax Town – after comprehensively vanquishing Chorley in a replay – for the Bradford City supporter and, indeed, the wider TV audience: but there is more than geographical proximity that adds import to this fixture. This is the first time since the cup run of 2013 that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are forced to bring the mirror to themselves and see what gazes back at them.

First, dear reader, let me make no apologies for referring comprehensively to “that season” – any article anyone at all could write about Bradford City in 2014 and beyond has the potential to lazily fall back on using that cup run as reference: but in this case, I feel it is truly the first time introspection has a real reason to be made.

The diversion of cup competition while City are in poor league form a welcome one for Bantam fan, player and manager alike: it is fair to say that in the forest of League One trees, not many are being pulled up by anyone in a claret and amber shirt this term. Nor, to stretch the metaphor to the point of abuse, are they lost in the woods.

The team remain resolutely mid-table, overall neither excelling nor failing, and this in itself is cause for the mist of doom and gloom to become increasingly lower. The natives are restless, and they demand satisfaction.

With the FC Halifax Town game, the opportunity is rife – Sunday’s opponents are two divisions beneath in the pyramid: their team is partially made up of players who never made the grade at ours – and would never get in our current side, and add to that, the cameras will be watching as our bumper crowd shifts a further 20 minutes down the A58 (or A647 if you like your air thinner and your weather more extreme). Foregone conclusion: rub your hands together and wander off into the sunset.

At the risk of pointing out the clearly obvious: apart from the slight distance between our ground and The Shay, this is what Arsenal and Aston Villa both thought – and Watford and Wigan must have both thought it was even more of a relatively closed-door formality.

We are no longer the independent coffee shop outselling the Starbucks next door: in this particular dynamic, it is us who is the Tesco looking to flatten a third-generation cornershop. No neutrals will be looking to cheer us on from their sofa – our Cinderella story is very much over.

The great cup run of 2012/13 was built on standing against adversity, on steel, on being greater than the sum of our parts, and on steadfast terrace support. On Sunday, the likelihood of any of these things being present is slender: even if the fans do sell out the allocation – which, at the time of writing, is not being projected – what is the atmosphere amongst fans going to be? It is not, “We are here through thick and thin and Oh my we’ve done it”, it is, “If we do not score within the opening five minutes we will make our ire known”.

Only three players, and the manager, remain present from the team that started Capital One Cup Final – the same number of ex-City men in the opposing squad. It is going to be as much, if not more so, of a challenge of their mental strength as it is for newer cohort members. They have tasted success because they had belief in themselves as a unit against the odds: how can Phil Parkinson, who told Rory McArdle, Stephen Darby and Andrew Davies in the dressing rooms of Vicarage Road, the DW Stadium, Valley Parade, Villa Park and ultimately, Wembley, that if they galvanise and believe in themselves as a unit, they can accomplish great things – and then principally delivered on that promise – now turn around and make those same players believe that others who are now in the equivalent position cannot easily do the same?

As much as these three and the rest of the team will utterly embrace the diversion from the frustrations of the league campaign; will they be as excited, as invigorated, as out-and-out ready for the proposition of facing FC Halifax Town as the players of FC Halifax Town will be of facing Bradford City? The three players who have been rejected at Valley Parade will have, no doubt, watched the 2013 Cup Final and thought, “I could have had that moment” and whereas the stage on Sunday is very different, their motivation will be clear.

19 years ago was the last time Bradford City faced non-league opposition against a then- relatively-unknown Burton Albion and only the rear-end of Gary Robson could save our blushes, awkwardly bundling in with a part of the body few have ever scored a goal with, much less a midfielder who would usually have struggled to tell you the general area of the goalmouth, to sneak a 4-3 win. I have no doubt that the team of 1995/96 did not conceive they were going to be so closely-ran – in May that year, they were celebrating promotion to the Championship-equivalent at the Old Wembley.

Two years prior to that, Old Halifax Town of the Conference were beating Championship-equivalent West Brom in a televised match in the First round of the FA Cup, and I likewise have no doubt that that team of 1993/94 did not conceive that such a thing was possible, no matter how hard they believed.

Of course, the Bradford City of 2014/15 are not the Bradford City of 2012/13 or even 1995/96 any more than the FC Halifax Town of 2014/15 are the Halifax Town FC of 1993/94, and on Sunday none of these histories should matter. Whether the squad of 2014/15 use the parallels of 2012/13 as a curse, or a warning, remains to be seen.

Candidate Four: Aidy Boothroyd, the local boy done something

The mark of excellence in management is not success but repeating success and as brightly as Bradford born Aidy Boothroyd shone in his first appointment where he took Watford to a 3-0 play-off final win over Leeds in 2007 so has the rest of his career been cast in the shade.

Boothroyd’s career ended at 26 owing to injury and and worked his way through youth teams and coaching positions to to becoming first team coach at Elland Road and then manager at Vicarage Road. His year in the Premier League with the Hornets impressed some but his story of relegation and then fading away is not uncommon amongst those who take a club up.

So spells at Colchester United and Coventry City showed signs of being on the brink of blossoming again but never did. He is out of work, looking for a job, and his home town club could offer something.

Which is – perhaps – the nub of the problem with considering Boothroyd as the next City boss. Were he not born in Bradford, and were he not a City fan in his youth, then would he be considered at all? Without “Born in Bradford” on his CV it would not be dissimilar to dozens of other candidates.

However writing Boothroyd off could be a mistake. Looking into his past, and how he talks about his career, the noises he makes have a ring of familiarity.

Professional footballers should be professional. They have a responsibility to come in, listen and learn, watch their performances, analyse where they went wrong and improve. Not to come in, have a five-a-side, bugger off and play golf. I get quite passionate because I was that person. I was a mercenary who went from club to club on a free transfer and, really, that’s not how football should be – Aidy Boothroyd

Boothroyd’s words recall Paul Jewell’s summation on his playing career and his motivation to move into management. Boothroyd talks about football as a mental game and underlines the importance of modern training methods, empowering player’s to take charge of their own performance. He is analytical, business-like, and at times can come off cold. A leap from the emotional whirl of Peter Jackson.

At forty Boothroyd has experience and youth – he took Watford up aged 34 – and there is talk that he is on the shortlist of three for the City job. If the convenience of the appointment can be overlooked, the merits of it might emerge.

David, Goliath and Tom Cleverley

It is hard to not fall into the trap of painting Bradford City’s attempts to claim some of the loan fees paid by clubs to Manchester United from clubs who have borrowed one time City youngster Tom Cleverley as being a kind of cheeky David trying to sneak Goliath’s wallet out of his pocket and in doing so dismiss City’s claim as being opportunistic.

There is something cunning about the Bantams’ claim for slices of the money paid by the likes of Watford and Wigan for the player. It seems that City – bolstered by the player’s move into the England senior squad and Manchester United first team picture – have been alerted to the terms of the deal and almost certainly those terms and the sell on clause in them was nothing at all to do with these loan fees and everything to do with the idea that the midfielder would bubble around at Old Trafford before Gabriel Obertaning his way to Newcastle United to deliver City a slice.

In such a context then Mark Lawn’s professional to professional approach is likely to fall on deaf ears. After all Wayne Rooney’s Gorilla chest vests do not come cheap.

Legally though the claim would depend on the definition of a loan and in that City’s case builds. Loans is a colloquialism for the correct term “temporary transfer.”

The loan system is a pathed cow path that replaced a team making an agreement that they would sell a player and buy him back later. The registration transfer might be temporary but it is a transfer and if money changes hands to enable it then there seems to be a reading of the contract that entitles the Bantams to some of that money.

After all were there no formal loan system and Cleverley had been sold to Wigan with a gentleman’s agreement that he would – if he played well – return to Old Trafford for a similar amount plus a bit for the Latic’s trouble then there would be no question of the Bantams getting a cut.

No doubt this will head to the football authorities. Bradford City – £45,000 a week for Benito Carbone – make poor Davids to anyone’s Goliath and so one wonders how much sympathy would be engendered. A decision in favour of City would help any club who had lost a player to the top flight only to see him loaned around the leagues and there is certainly a claim that the spirit of the agreement is that the Bantams would benefit from any financial gain that comes from the player moving to another club.

Reports suggest that Manchester United have offered to settle for £50,000. City might accept that. How often does any club go up against Manchester United and win off the field let alone on it? Regardless of who is right, often football favours might.

Two arrive, one departs on loan

Peter Taylor has been busy in the loan market today bringing in two defenders and allowing a striker out on loan.

Clarets Mad detail City’s signing of 21 year old right back Richard Eckersley. Eckersley has less than a dozen league games under his belt and has failed to make much of an impact at Turf Moor although he did set the Clarets back £500,000. Claret’s Mad report on City is best read in the context of the BfB debate on rivalry Burnley having a long standing needle with City which is hardly reciprocal.

Watford defender Rob Kiernan has also arrived. The 19 year old is a central defender has had loans at Kilmarnock and Yeovil Town but again has played fewer than a dozen games. Eckersley and Kiernan have arrived as the Bantams struggle for central defenders following Steve Williams’ injury.

Meanwhile Chib Chilaka has signed for Bradford (Park Avenue) on a month’s loan.

How respect is lost through a lack of understanding about football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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