Carl McHugh and contextual positioning

The more I watch football the more I am convinced that the game is more about character than it is about positions.

That prefaces the following statement: that I do not know if positions are everything or nothing in football. I veer from one conclusion to the other.

When I was a younger man positions were simple. Goalie, right backs, left wingers and so on. It was easy to look at the teams of the 1970s and put a man in a hole.

Easy but wrong. Because there was an increasingly level of subtlety to those positions. You can blame Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley if you wish. In Mexico in 1986 they played up front together for England and by no means were they both just “strikers”.

And so terms like “drop off man”, “goalgetter” and “in the hole” started and those are functional but following them as a train of thought takes you to a conclusions which is that in describing the positions in which Lineker and Beardsley played one was actually describing the tasks they performed.

Which rendered the need to talk about positions obsolete. There was a task to do on a football field of getting the ball in the area between the defensive line and the midfield and that was what Beardsley did. That he did it from “attack” rather than “midfield” is largely irrelevant because on the whole he was spending his time in that position.

Add David Platt to the England team following Beardsley’s (premature) exit and you have a player in the same position who is titularly a midfielder not a forward. Have Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard Jnr in your team and it may say that one is a striker and one is a midfielder in the Panini sticker album but both are spending 90 minutes in the same square footage of the field. That is a problem that England never mastered.

And so these tasks became described as roles which and the notion of positions was refined with more granularity. Words like “holding midfielder” came into the lexicon of the modern football supporter and that was no bad thing.

But the more that tasks were named the less importance on the fact that those tasks needed to be carried out was obvious. Someone needs to win a ball back in midfield and that is described as a “holding job” and rapidly came to seem like an option rather than a necessity.

Which is where I veer. If described in enough granularity positions are everything in football. If thrown around they are meaningless and ignore the importance of the tasks that need to be performed.

Wayne Jacobs talks about Phil Parkinson’s use of Carl McHugh and Matthew Bates at left back and does so with an authority. “Matthew’s right-footed and that causes a problem when you try to link up and get down the left wing. He is obviously tempted to drive infield. I’ve been really impressed with Carl’s attitude… however he is a centre half and sometimes if you come up against a real out-and-out winger, agility and movement can be an issue when you’re playing in that role.”

Which was obvious when McHugh faced Jamie Murphy of Sheffield United who exposed those flaws in his game away at the Blades. At home to Port Vale and MK Dons had wide players who pressed less and were happy to contain. This let McHugh perform a different set of tasks, ones he was more comfortable with, and thus did better at. From that we might conclude that the statement “he can play left back” is – in some way – contextual.

The friends of Bradford City welcome back that rarest of thing

Wayne Jacobs and David Wetherall will return to Valley Parade on Thursday 22nd September at 20:00 as the Friends of Bradford City host a forum with the former players and coaches of the club.

Both Wetherall and Jacobs put in sterling service for Bradford City with the pair of them clocking up around thirty years combined service. For Jacobs the service was on the way up the leagues starting as a free transfer from Rotherham United recovering from a season long injury and going on to be a Premier League player. For Wetherall – who scored the famous headed goal which kept City in the top flight – the only way was down and as City slipped down the leagues the former captain’s contribution was to slow that decline.

Jacobs put in 318 games for City, Wetherall 304 which dwarfs anyone in the current set up and leads one to wonder who – in ten years time – will be being invited back for functions such as this? Who are are heroes of the future when the current player with most appearances for the club – Luke O’Brien – is persona non grata at Valley Parade. Injury to Robbie Threlfall (21 apps) may see O’Brien add to his 122 appearances for City this weekend.

O’Brien and Lee Bullock (120 apps) are the only players at the club in triple figures – a long way behind Ces Podd‘s 502 – but neither seem to be set to add many to that list. Bullock was unwanted by Mark Lawn but kept by Peter Jackson while O’Brien is frozen out of the first team for reasons unknown, or at least unsaid.

Not that O’Brien has ever enjoyed great popularity at Valley Parade. As a player he is better regarded on the bench than he is on the pitch. On the bench he is the world beating Roberto Carlos ready to turn things around but, when on the field, one might wonder if one were hearing the same crowd describe the player where his efforts are met with grumbles and only quiet support.

Often the same can be said for third on the list James Hanson (79 appearances, 21 goals) who proves that he can score when given service but is subject to a level of criticism which would suggest he had picked selected members of the support and punched their dogs.

Hanson’s return is under a goal every 3.76 games – around the same strike rate as Robbie Blake (153, 40) – which puts him above a good few well respected Bantams of the past. Joe Cooke (3.99) played 271 time and scored 68 although he played central defence at times. Ask men of a certain age about Don Hutchins and they go weak at the knee and his return of a goal every 5.5 games (286 appearances, 52 goals) was a good return and secondary to his overall contribution. The lauded Paul Jewell (269 appearances, 56 goals) banged in one every 4.8 games although most of them were before Christmas.

To paraphrase the problem is not in the stars but with ourselves. A mentality has grasped most of football – having taken hold a good many years ago – which suggests that supporters are blissfully happy to be unaware of what they have until it is gone. Sean McCarthy banged in a goal every two games for City – more or less – but was nicknamed “Scud” as a reference to his perceived inaccuracy.

McCarthy won the hearts of City fans when he exited Valley Parade for Oldham on deadline day and turned up wearing a ludicrously high squad number on Match of the Day a few days later playing at Old Trafford. Players who leave the club are well regarded. Wetherall and Jacobs’ defensive team mate Andrew O’Brien was – according to one voice in earshot – “On his way to Halifax Town, if they will have him” following City’s promotion. Two years later and he was “being sold too cheap.”

An exit infers a kind of status on a player, a respect because someone else has recognised the ability, and without that status our own players are generally disregarded. No player racks up hundreds of appearances because they either are snapped up by someone higher or they are slapped down and leave of their own volition.

A Catch 22 situation then. If a player never leave it is – in the eyes of some – because he is not good enough for anyone including City so should not be suffered to be in the side. It is no coincidence that the greats of Bradford City history: Stuart McCall, Bobby Campbell, Peter Beagrie; left the club before coming back.

Not Jacobs or Wetherall though. Both stayed with the club as players and became part of the coaching set up at later Valley Parade. Wetherall left for a development job with the Football League while Jacobs was unceremoniously launched from the club after Peter Taylor’s sacking. There was a verbalised question mark over Jacobs coaching ability and the former number two probably has too much class to point at the current state at the club – the so called “worst team in Bradford City history” – and ask how his departure improved things at Valley Parade.

One wonders if Wetherall and Jacobs are a rare thing. Only fourteen players who topped three hundred games for City and to add to that list Luke O’Brien would have to play pretty much every game for the next four season for a club where he is the only player who has been here for more than four seasons.

Rare things, and worth see. The forum is free to Friends of Bradford City members or a single shiny pound for non-members.

Another search for a manager begins

Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes will be used to looking for a new manager and – after three appointments two of which lasted less than a year and a bit – they show no signs of having a grasp of the right criteria to make those appointments.

When Stuart McCall “resigned” from the club the question we asked was what the plan was for the recruitment of his replacement was. A lot of these questions have been answered with the move to new facilities at Woodhouse Grove and the appointment of Archie Christie as Chief Scout and Director of Football Development.

There is a plan at the club which Christie was brought in to implement to develop players for the first team – and to provide more players for the manager with a more extensive scouting network – which aims to take some of the onus of recruitment from the manager and have a retention of knowledge beyond the man in the dug out. Unlike the situation where Peter Taylor left and his backroom staff were sent away with him Jackson having left yesterday the players have familiar faces around them.

It is this type of system which saw an end to Kevin Keegan’s second spell at Newcastle United and – in a way – Alan Curbishley at West Ham but is increasingly common in football. Indeed on Jackson’s last day at Valley Parade Michael Flynn told Radio Leeds that Colin Cooper took the players through their paces while the manager spent the morning on the phone to football managers trying to find a striker on loan. The team and manager lunched and went over the plan for the Barnet game, then resigned.

(It should be noted, and as an aside, that Keegan’s contracted stated that he would have the final say over players brought into the club and when the club’s Director of Football Recruitment Dennis Wise signed Xisco – the issue which Keegan resigned over – Newcastle United were in breach of that contract and while Keegan resigned he later successfully sued the club for constructive dismissal. One wonders what the detail of Jackson’s contract was.)

The manager’s remit is the first team and the requirement is not for an holistic club builder but rather for a game winner, and someone who with coaching and deployment can edge a performance an inch or two better. There is a list of managers who were considered to replace Stuart McCall (now Motherwell): Peter Taylor (now Bahrain), Steve Cotterill (now Portsmouth), Russell Slade (now Leyton Orient), Peter Jackson, Lawrie Sanchez (now Barnet), Jim Magilton (now caretaker assistant manager Shamrock Rovers), Dean Windass (working for BSKYB), John Coleman (still Accrington), Iain Dowie (no club), Martin Allen (now Notts County) and Wayne Jacobs. Six months ago John Hughes (no club) declared an interest in joining City and John Still (still Dagenham) interviewed for the position.

How many of these fulfil the remit which Jackson was being asked to work within? Certainly John Still – the victorious Dagenham manager of last week – would do having worked with Christie before but one has to wonder how much of an appreciation of what skills the next manager needs to have, and how those skills are distinct from those which were required when looking for McCall or Taylor.

Having appointed a big personality in Jackson – and perhaps had personality clashes – Lawn and Rhodes may be tempted to opt to bring in a younger manager who is more malleable, less set in his ways of how to run a club, and able to work within the current structure. They would do well to avoid “Yes” men.

The aim of the club is to have an appointment before next week’s trip to Morecambe which suggests that there is someone in mind – probably someone who has talked to the club six or eighteen months ago – but that Lawn and Rhodes do not have the clarity to bring someone in immediately. Were John Still to be the choice then one imagines a call would be made, a resignation drafted, and the new man revealed on Monday. The fact that there is a week until appointment suggests that there are discussions to be had and a choice to be made. There is a suggestion that three interviews will be held this week. One has to wonder what Lawn and Rhodes think they will hear in those interviews which they had not heard in the last two rounds, and how they will be able to sift the answers to get the right man. We are to assume that Jackson and Taylor were both the most impressive people in interview.

The early runners

The link to John Still – who talked about how he would have joined City were it not for the uncertainty over the future of Valley Parade – is a strong one with the Dagenham manager being in the final two of the club’s thoughts when Jackson was appointed. The club would – not doubt – have to pay Dagenham to free Still from his contract.

Impressive in the last round of interviews was former Hibs and Falkirk manager John Hughes who is out of work at the moment and could come in without any compensation payable. Hughes is a strong candidate for the job but one might expect him to be appointed this morning rather than next week if he is the chosen one.

Former players Peter Beagrie and Dean Windass have their name’s mentioned often in connection with the job. Beagrie has shown no interest in moving into management thus far but Windass has made his desire to take over the club known – Terry Dolan as his assistant – and could fit in as the type of rookie manager who may appeal to the board who have had problems dealing with experienced number ones.

Former Barnsley manager and City man of the 1980s John Hendrie is also an option although one might wonder how many conversations Hendrie has had with Stuart McCall about the board at Bradford City and how that would colour his view of the job were it offered.

City have always been fond a bit of fashionability and so perhaps Jim Magilton – who is working as caretaker assistant at Shamrock Rovers who qualified for the Europa League with this superb strike last night may be an outside bet having talked to the club previously.

Other names work mentioning include Colin Cooper the current caretaker manager and former player and Farsley manager Lee Sinnott. Paul Ince has been mentioned – his promotion with MK Dons would impress the board almost as much as his collection of shiny medals but his track record is patchy.

Finally John Coleman has interested City in the past.

Luke O’Brien proves himself a worthy successor

While trooping out of Valley Parade following the Bolton friendly defeat yesterday, the loud moanings of one fan could be heard over the sea of relative contentment most people felt towards a very good Bradford City performance. The subject of this person’s ire was Luke O’Brien, and the fact he’d been caught in possession leading to Bolton’s undeserved fourth. And despite a decent performance otherwise, this fan could not stop slating him.

It’s not an unusual occurrence over the 18 months. Despite having his best season in his fledgling career last term, complaints and criticism over the left back’s ability were aired frequently. At some games people seemed determined to pounce on his every perceived mistake while constantly questioning his positioning. When he did things right, many attempted to still find fault. When he actually did make a genuine mistake, the level of abuse was astonishingly high. In some people’s eyes O’Brien is a poor player the club needs to be rid of, despite having made 136 appearances in claret and amber.

But as rumours began to surface last night – confirmed by the T&A this morning – that O’Brien’s position rival Robbie Threlfall has been told he can leave, it appears the former Bantam trainee has won the battle that really counts – convincing the manager he should be first choice left back. Many argue Threlfall is a better player, looking at purely technical ability he probably is; yet the former Liverpool youngster has failed to nudge O’Brien onto the sidelines, and has now been told where the door is.

All of which says a great deal about the mental toughness and desire of Luke. When Threlfall was signed on loan from the Reds one game into Peter Taylor’s ill-fated reign as manager in February 2010, it looked curtains for the previous player of the season who had struggled for form during Stuart McCall’s final weeks in charge. Threlfall netted a superb free kick on his debut at Rochdale, and became a steadfast fixture in the team before his move was made permanent during the summer. O’Brien was initially moved to left wing where he was steady if not spectacular, but by the end of the season he’d lost his place in the team.

Despite Threlfall beginning last year first choice left back, with O’Brien on the bench, he struggled to find his own form and eventually lost his place to Luke. A change of manager to Peter Jackson though, and come the end of the season Threlfall was back in favour and O’Brien on the sidelines. Perhaps now we can suggest this was Jackson using the last few games to put Threfall in the shop window, but from the outside it didn’t looked good for O’Brien – widely considered runner up in the player of the year award to David Syers.

Instead Threlfall is looking for a future elsewhere and O’Brien can look back with pride on the fact a player was signed to replace him and he stood up to the challenge with great character and dignity. And as the complaints from some fans will no doubt continue this season regarding his ability, there are further reasons to bestow a comparison on him with one of the club’s greatest modern day players.

Wayne Jacobs: a great club servant, hugely respected by most fans – constantly vilified by others during his 11 years playing at the club. Jacobs was considered the team’s weak link in Division Two (now League One), but despite many fans attempting to drive him out he kept pace with the club’s meteoric rise to the Premier League. When he made a mistake the reaction from many was over the top and deplorable, but he seemed unfazed and continued coming back.

Then there was all those replacements signed to take his place, who he managed to shake off: Lee Todd, Andy Myers, Ian Nolan and others. Only when he got older did Paul Heckingbottom finally wrestle the shirt from him. To have so many fans barrack you and to have managers try to replace you: that Jacobs stayed so long at City – making the best use of the ability he had – is a commendable lesson for anyone.

Including O’Brien, who from some he attracts similar types of criticism as Jacobs and who has now fully fought off his first major rival. It is sad that it has to be this way but – just like with Jacobs – it should not be overlooked how many supporters do rate him and are willing to fight his corner. Luke does have weaknesses to his game and can occasionally be caught out, like others he will make mistakes over the coming season. But his work rate and positive attitude makes up for other failings, and the defensive ability he does have means he can go further in his career than a League Two full back – with or without City.

Growing up watching City on the Kop, no doubt hearing the abuse directed at Jacobs over the years, Luke couldn’t have had a better role model. Those lessons probably helped him when his future looked uncertain at City more than once; now he has the chance to continue to build on a promising career with even more reason to feel confident.

Jamie Lawrence, the workaholic

Jamie Lawrence is approximately 60 metres away from me when he picks up possession inside his own half 67 minutes into an FA Cup tie with Grimsby. 10 seconds later, and I and dozens of people around me are hugging the Jamaican international following a sensational weaving run past numerous blue shirts than ended with the ball passed crisply into the back of the net.

It is a glorious solo goal and – in the days before football was breached by health & safety guidelines and players weren’t sent off for celebrating with fans – Jamie has chosen to run to the part of the Kop where I stand to celebrate with us supporters his special moment.

Lawrence only ever scored 14 times in his 170 appearances for the club, so this strike – which ultimately proves the winner in one of the last genuinely exciting FA Cup matches before the magic of the cup began to wane at all levels – can be viewed as a peak moment in his Bantams career. Certainly Jamie is fondly remembered for the occasional brilliant goal, such as against Norwich that same season, and West Ham and Tottenham in the Premiership a year later, but it wouldn’t be his first quality to come to our minds when we recall the Londoner’s time at Valley Parade.

Jamie was a battler, with a commendable work ethic that stood out even in a team featuring the likes of Stuart McCall and Wayne Jacobs. He would give everything he had to the cause, running up and down the right flank defending as equally effectively as he attacked. Most of us fans lapped it up – a rare real life example of the myth that we’ll always get behind a player who might not be the best, so long as they put 110% effort.

Not everyone agreed though, and in some ways there was almost a snobbish attitude displayed by Lawrence’s dissenters. Jamie was a poor player with limited ability, they argued, but he gets away with not being given a hard time because he hides behind his work rate. In the days when Peter Beagrie struggled to win over the crowd and was at one stage packed off on loan to Everton, some argued Lawrence should be criticised as widely too.

Yet Lawrence’s work rate and application levels stood out to me as inspiration rather than a disguise. Sure he wasn’t the greatest player in the world, but without working so hard on his game and displaying such passion, those skilful qualities he did possess would never have been seen either. Lawrence grafted to win our trust and respect, and once we supporters, team mates and management built up our faith in him we were rewarded by ever-improving levels of performances. While other members of the 1997-98 mid-table first division squad were left behind by the bar been risen the following season, Lawrence kept pace and became a key figure in the club’s promotion to the Premier League and successful survival in the top flight the year after.

The lessons we can take remain as relevant today as they were then. Without working hard, mastering the basics and showing the right attitude – none of us would progress so well in our own careers and even in life. I’ve personally learned from Jamie that demonstrating an aptitude for hard work can get you a long way in winning over people; and the greater responsibility and promotions you crave – offering you the chance to really show your worth – are the rewards. In contrast I’ve seen other friends go into a job believing they are above it and then failing to put in the effort or focus on improving, leading them to fall at the first hurdle.

Not all footballers can be as good at taking on players as Lawrence (I remember him selling Steven Gerrard a dummy once), nor are they capable of curling the ball into the top corner from 30 yards like he did at West Ham in 2000. But there’s no reason why any player can’t look to emulate him in the effort levels they put in on the pitch and at the training ground.

Sadly, players that came close to matching Lawrence’s work rate have been few and far between in recent years.

So I loved the fact I got to hug Lawrence at the front of the Kop that day. Because his stella goal was the result of him trying and succeeding to overcome personal failings and win over doubters; of recognising the need to improve and taking responsibility to do so; of building up confidence in yourself and in other people’s minds.

And of how anyone – if they work hard enough – can surprise themselves and those around them in what they are truly capable of.

Who’s better

I want Bradford City to be better.

A glib statement of the obvious? To some, probably. But for me it’s a genuine, earnest desire. I mean I really want Bradford City to be better. A lot.

The statement isn’t a direct reaction to the club finishing in it’s lowest league position for 45 years this season, the winning of a mere 15 league games in a season that averaged less than a goal a game, or even the wrangling over rent and where we are to make home. I have, and will always, want Bradford City to be better.

As they walked out at Wembley. As Wetherall belly-slid across the Valley Parade turf. As we greeted a grinning Carbone and a beaming Geoffrey. I looked forward to getting better.

It’s a want that all connected to Bradford City share, from the boardroom to those in the cut-priced seats. The truth is, however, we seem to have forgotten how to get better. And as we have seen in the last ten years if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

In our four seasons and counting in the basement of English football, permanent and interim managers alike have bemoaned a lack of consistency from one week to the next. I find consistency an odd concept to embrace or value. I’m a believer that you’re either on the gain or on the wane.

Whilst sporadic fluctuations in the quality of human performance can be expected, and excused, more important is the general movement towards ‘better’ from the collective or any individual contained within it.

Great sportsmen and women will see a steep and long upward curve in ability and performance. They will then, at some point (and probably unknown to them) hit a peak, followed by a decent, which they will try to make as gentle and elongated as possible.

Tiger Woods will never eclipse the near golfing perfection he achieved at the start of the century. His challenge now is to minimise the rate of his decline and hope his still immense ability sees him to future victories as his powers diminish.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been the master at putting together team after team that have improved as a unit, then dispensing with those individuals that have peaked whilst retaining those with the longer curves of improvement.

We used to have knack for improving players. Remember that young, skinny lad McCall and his ragbag teammates in 1985 that grew individually and became more than the sum of their parts? Dean Richards oozing pure class from his debut to his departure and beyond. Sean McCarthy smashing up Norwich City in the Coca-Cola Cup before going on to score at Old Trafford for Oldham?

What about the lazy lad Blake we signed from Darlington? Wayne Jacobs seeing off an almost annual replacement left-back? Lee Mills? Jamie Lawrence? You’ll no doubt have your own favourite, dear reader, but what we saw were players getting better and our club benefitting from it greatly.

Bradford City players don’t seem to get better anymore. Last August the squad were pre-season promotion favourites, now, despite Jacko’s “everything must go” approach to the retained list, City would be forgiven for thinking the new telephone lines aren’t working properly . We witnessed the incredibly hard-working Gareth Evans seemingly give up on his City career with two months of the season left, and last week even the ever-positive Michael Flynn conceding that Bradford City is “a negative place to be“.

It’s telling that the last four Player of the Year recipients were all enjoying their first full season within the professional game, and as such, we cannot apply any metric of improvement:

  • 2008: Joe Colbeck. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and direct play. 16 disappointing months after his award he moved to Oldham, and then Hereford.
  • 2009: Luke O’Brien. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and direct play. Last seen sat next to Leon Osbourne on the substitutes bench as City were dismantled by Crewe.
  • 2010: James Hanson. Burst on the scene, all strength and no shortage of finishing ability. A second term disjointed by injury and questionable priorities.
  • 2011: David Syers. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and an eye for goal.

Time will tell if Syers can buck the trend, but the preceding three represented our most exciting and talented young prospects and all have failed to improve after their first season.

Jackson has signed the exciting prospect Ross Hannah, and the enthusiasm leaping from his twitter feed should hopefully see his first season in professional football be filed alongside that of Hanson, Syers and Steve Williams rather than that of Scott Neilson. But, in many ways, getting a good season out of Hannah isn’t the most pressing issue or biggest challenge for the next permanent manager of Bradford City.

Whether the board reluctantly appoint Jackson, or, as rumoured, continue to wait for John Coleman and subsequently expect him to repeat a decade’s growth and endeavour at Accrington in a 12 to 15 month period, the major challenge will be to get individual and collective development out of more established and experienced players. Creating a culture of improvement which is both inspiring and contagious within a dressing room.

There’s seems little point in throwing more of the precious wage budget at talents like Paul McLaren, Tommy Doherty, Michael Boulding, Graeme Lee et al when we continually fail to get the best from them, and then discard them without examining why. League Two has never been about having the best players, it’s about getting more from your players.

Off the field there is a lot of work to do, but lots of opportunities to get better. For all the criticism and scepticism aimed at the board recently, it’s worth remembering that they too want things to be better.
David Baldwin’s announcement about the new training facilities deal with Woodhouse Grove is incredibly welcomed. Negotiations with our landlords continue with the hope that a deal can be worked out that’s better for Bradford City.

We, as fans, can help make things better. Rival managers and players talk often of how the impatience of our large crowds can play into their hands. It seems odd that the greatest strength of our opponents is something we control. Let’s make that better.

Where Bradford City will be in 12 months time, in terms of both league position and physical location, is pure speculation at the time of writing. My only hope is that we all feel that we’re moving closer to where we want to be, and, as much as possible, enjoying the process of getting there.

As the rebuilding begins, let’s not immediately concern ourselves with being the best. Let’s focus on getting better.

In praise of Bradford City 1998/99

This article first appeared in the excellent football website The Two Unfortunates in February 2011.

The Crumbling Terrace: Pre-amble One
Towards the end of the 2008/9 season

There we are, on the crumbling terrace of Morecambe’s old Christie Park ground,, watching Bradford City and wondering how it all came to this.

It turns out in the game that City will be robbed a winning goal when Peter Thorne bundles in from close range and that a line’s flag twitch – the doubt going to Morecombe’s on loan Rene Howe – will bring defeat and more so bring to an end Stuart McCall’s expensively assembled side’s promotion push. Those things are for the future though because the more pressing problem is that the police are taping up a barrier in front of us telling us that we can’t lean on it because “a bit or pressure and it will be over.”

How did it come to this? Why did it come to this?

The Man Who Would Not Walk Again Takes Flight: Pre-amble Two
Late 1998

Ashley Ward has scored for Barnsley – recently of the Premier League – and they are going to sneak a 1-0 win at Valley Parade despite having only ten men but something in the Bantams psyche seems to struggle. Let us not kid ourselves, we have watched Bradford City team edged out of games, losing 1-0 and being a dash unlucky about it, for decades now.

There is something in Paul Jewell’s side which seems to denounce that idea. Jewell is a rookie, younger than his captain McCall at 32, but he seems to have built a team which has the character and desire that was sadly lacking from the man as a player.

Two goals were scored in injury time, both by Gordon Watson a player who 18 months early had almost lost his leg after a tackle described as “The worst I have ever seen in football” by Chris Waddle. This is his comeback game.

Watson had been taken from the pitch to hospital where he had almost lost his leg to a tackled six minutes into a local derby with Huddersfield Town. Kevin Grey’s “tackle” came when City were already one down and while an equaliser was scored the whole game was overshadowed by an horrific injury. Then manager Chris Kamara had burst onto the field in anger, his face turning sickly on seeing the wound. Everything was overshadowed.

Now he was back and in five minutes Gordon Watson scored two goals and turned a blank return into two points. Moreover though he maintained the belief that seemed to have dripped into the club under Paul Jewell. The manager from nowhere brought a belief from somewhere, and it had changed the club.

Two goals in five minutes. It seemed fated, everything seemed fated.

The Promise

May 1999

On the 9th of May at around 2:17 on a bright May afternoon Bradford City were promoted to the Premier Division of English football as runners up to Sunderland following a season which had threatened nothing at all.

The opening day – a defeat to Stockport – saw returning club legend Stuart McCall injured and was followed by two points in six games and suddenly it seemed that the team that cost a staggering £3.5m to build and included City’s first two £1m plus signings in Issiah Rankin and Lee Mills was going to achieve very little.

Hope came after a 2-2 draw with Sheffield United where the Bantams looked more than capable and belief came from that, or so it seemed, and that belief was cemented by the return of skipper McCall and a gradual climb up the table that included Barnsley, 2-1, and Gordon Watson.

Watson’s story seemed to typify the playing squad who had all come back from some kind of injury or – in the case of McCall – exile. A key figure in the club’s failed push for promotion in 1988 McCall always had “unfinished business” with City and so as he anchored the side using the wealth of experience that comes from an FA Cup final, World Cup goals, multiple titles with Rangers he made good on that promise.

When City were promoted – a 3-2 win at Wolves on the final day of the season securing it – it was very much McCall’s promise manifest. Certainly a season of performances represents something precious to any football supporter. We know, as supporters, that players are more mercenary than we would like to admit and when a player seems to match us for how much he cares we cherish that player.

And that group of players, in this case. Players who seemed invested in the outcome of the season which offered a deliverance for many. Watson from injury and the ghost that haunted him, McCall from the previous failure.

Peter Beargie had arrived a summer before under allegations – and later convictions – to do with a sexual assault while he was at Manchester City. Beagrie faced prison when he arrived in his first, ineffectual, season but the change of manager from Kamara to Jewell seemed to have focused the mind. Everything Beagrie did seemed to have a point to it, every cross made to perfection, hanging impressively for Lee Mills to arrive onto. At the end of the season three quarters of the club’s goals came from Beagrie, Mills or fellow striker Robbie Blake.

If Beagrie had faced prison then fellow winger Jamie Lawrence had been there. A convicted bank robber Lawrence had been something of a novelty on his release signing for Sunderland and then Leicester City but that novelty had faded and Lawrence wound his way to Valley Parade which seemed to be another step in a career of wandering but once again Jewell seemed to focus the mind, tell the player that his achievements were limited only by his belief.

This became Jewell’s hallmark with Bradford City and was a trick he repeated at Wigan Athletic. His ability to take a player and make him perform seemed to border on the magical and no more was this true than with idling forward Robbie Blake.

Blake was a bit part player transfer listed for being pulled over for drink driving in the week Diana died and incapable of nailing down a place in the starting line up despite the odd impressive performance. He was a slow right winger, able to show tricks but without the traction to stick in the team, until Jewell’s intervention.

Jewell got under Blake’s skin – famously they used to have bust ups with Jewell offering him nowhere to hide and dubbing him a “sulker” – but whatever the means the ends were impressive. Direct, skilful and cunning Blake formed a partnership with Lee Mills which tormented the division.

Blake’s anticipation allowed him to feed off the £1m costing target man Mills and grow into the type of player the manager himself felt he could have been had he had the application. The man who used to lay out Kenny Dalglish’s shorts Jewell’s playing career was a cautionary tale used to motivate the strikers he managed.

As a signing Mills – sadly – turned out to be a one season wonder after problems with drink cost him his place in the Premier League but for that season he represented some canny business for the club. Chris Kamara had been keen on Mills while the player was at Port Vale but it took Jewell’s determination to put in the £1m bid and secure the player. Belief, it seemed, was the watchword.

Another player who suggested much for some season and was anointed by Jewell’s belief was midfielder Gareth Whalley. Whalley, a £650,000 recruit from Crewe, became a midfield partner for McCall adding a sly pass to the captains driving heart. Darren Moore seemed too big, too cumbersome, to be a Premiership player but Jewell made him the defensive rock partnering him with one of Jon Dreyer, Andy O’Brien or Ashley Westwood on the basis of the opposition.

Gary Walsh, veteran of the Manchester United bench was as sure as one could imagine between the posts. He had a calm confidence about him that seemed to exude throughout the team. Walsh had left Old Trafford after collecting a lot of medals while hardly getting his kit dirty and ended up at Middlesbrough where he had been a small part of Bryan Robson’s Teeside revolution but in Bradford City he seemed to have found a place where his achievements would be recognised on the merit they had.

As a keeper Walsh was something to behold. Possessed of an unerring sense of positioning Walsh was the type of goalkeeper who seemed to suck the ball into his hands. Not for Walsh the need for acrobatics but rather a calm sense of seeming to play the next few second of an attack out and conclude where the best place to be to gather the ball at the end of it would be. A belief, if you will.

Late on in the season £1m brought Dean Windass to the club – a perfect match or player and team – but Windass’s contribution was minor although not insignificant. One bank holiday Monday at Bury with the team running on empty it was Windass who – like Watson before him – pulled three points out of seemingly nowhere.

Not that every signing Jewell made worked well. Full back Lee Todd was signed to replace club man Wayne Jacobs but Jacobs – as he would do all his career – saw off the challenge to win back his place. More obvious though was the £1.3m spent on Arsenal’s young prospect Issiah Rankin – a player of whom Jim Jefferies remarked “could not finish a bowl of cornflakes”- which proved profligate in excess.

A player with lighting quickness Rankin struggled for goals and after a fruitless pair of games at Huddersfield and at home to QPR was dropped for Blake to shift from the right hand side and Lawrence to join the team. Rankin never looked forward again.

Belief, it seemed, was lacking.

And It Was About Belief, Of Course
May 1999 and onwards

All these things eclipsed: The players, the manager, the belief; and they eclipsed in a game at Wolves that lead to two seasons in the Premiership, Benito Carbone, Stan Collymore and the story which is too often told. The first season in the top flight continued much of what had been good about promotion but the sense of hunger that Jewell used to feed the belief had gone. Within a month Watson was gone, Blake and Moore on the transfer list, and slowly things fell apart.

Those years continue to define the club – the financial fallout ruins the club to this day, we are the footnote in discussions about a Paul Scholes wonder goal – but seldom is the making of those days, how we got to a point where we could throw it all away, considered.

So a crumbling terrace in Morecambe and the failing of a promotion campaign and everything seems so far away now. Much further than the positions in the league and the comparison of Christie Park to Old Trafford or Anfield.

The reality of football is that most Autumns turn into hard Winters and joyless Springs. Most players want to achieve but fall short, most teams lack collective belief. This is not the game’s tragedy, the tragedy are those years having seen such a thing, and the wanderer waiting for its return.

Jackson starts work at City

If Bradford City’s board had been accused of short-term thinking in the past then those accusations are set into a new light and a new context by the decision to appoint Peter Jackson as manager on a week by week basis.

Jackson started work at Valley Parade today with a remit to prepare the team for Saturday’s visit to Gillingham. He might expect to be in charge for the visit of Rotherham on Tuesday night following and the trip to Morecambe on the weekend after but his time at the club is dependent on the interview process for the next manager.

If – one assumes – a manager is found then Jackson is moved on and in that context it is difficult to see what he offers the club over and above allowing Wayne Jacobs and Junior Lewis to caretake. That Wetherall is to be assisting Jackson – away from his other roles at the club – while Jacobs is paid to stay at home is nothing short is disgraceful.

David Wetherall assists Jackson who manages with a style that contrasts predecessor Peter Taylor sharply. During the time he spent at Huddersfield Town with Terry Yorath Jackson would rarely be seen at the training ground allowing the former City manager Yorath to take near total control of that side of the club, a point noted when Jackson was replaced by the more tracksuited Steve Bruce.

If the 49 year old maintains that division of labour then the players will train under Wetherall and have their tactical approach set by Jackson. Also in contrast to Taylor Jackson’s teams operate under a flexible tactical approach with the manager matching approach and attitude to the game before him and players he has available. Practicality rather than pragmatism which is perhaps suited to the role of week to week manager.

The role of week to week manager though seem to simply confuse.

If the aim is to provide an experienced hand on the tiller until a new appointment is made then could Peter Taylor not have been asked to stay until his replacement is made? He would be no less of a lame duck manager than Jackson is with every game potentially his last and the players knowing that it is not the man in the dug out they have to impress.

If the aim is to make a more stable ship by having an experienced manager on a week to week basis then Jackson’s arrival added Lewis and Jacobs’ exit seems to be unnecessarily upsetting for the club and the squad. For sure Jackson could have provided the change of voice while Wetherall, Lewis and Jacobs did whatever it was that Yorath did at Huddersfield but from Monday morning the players will have entirely different faces to deal with.

One might make argument that that is no bad thing considering the season to date, but one would have weigh that against the worry that the change will work out like Mark Cooper’s time at Peterborough, Peter Withe at Wimbledon or any other dozen and a half spells that produced one or two wins and a quick sack.

No matter who the week to week manager was it would carry a risk and bring a good deal of confusion and perhaps the best City fans can hope for as Jackson starts work is that his tenure is short and a full time manager with a contract and a remit to build the club over a long period is appointed as soon as one can be found.

One wonders if Jackson will be that man. His last contact with City of any major note was to use his position as Lewis Emanuel’s agent to (seemingly) try encourage the player to move to a Huddersfield Town team which a few months later he was managing and during his time at Huddersfield Town the former City skipper seldom seemed to show any affection for the club he served well for some years and then very poorly for two others.

But the many lays a wreath every May in private, away from the official ceremonies. Nothing is simple.

Peter Jackson starts work at Bradford City and he will probably be the manager next week, but might not be, and perhaps his appointment should be seen in that context. It is but twelve months since City last interviewed a bunch of managers, one doubts that Martin Allen, Jim Magliton and the others have changed that much in a year so there is no need to think that the process will be protracted.

Hopefully as he has most of his career Jackson will put the club on the path to staying in the same division but with players out of contract and decisions to be made on them – and with the very real risk of another summer building for a rush season or hoping for promotion – the Bantams have a pressing need to think beyond the week to week.

Peter Jackson appointed interim manager

Bradford City have named former captain Peter Jackson as the club’s manager until the end of next week replacing Peter Taylor.

Jackson joins City on a week to week basis as caretakers pending the appointment of a manager as assistant manager Wayne Jacobs and first-team coach Junior Lewis “have been placed on gardening leave.” The club with no money having suddenly discovered enough cash to two people to stay at home. David Wetherall takes Jacobs’ place as assistant.

Jackson came through the ranks at Valley Parade in the early 1980s before leaving for Newcastle United only to return to his home town club for two years until 1990 when he was freed and joined Huddersfield Town, then manager John Docherty dismissing Jackson as “too handsome for a central defender.”

Jackson went on to play for Chester City and Halifax Town before going into management with Huddersfield Town when – in partnership with Terry Yorath – after steering the club away from relegation worries in his first season he took the Town to the brink of the Premier League.

“Brink of” meaning “not into”.

Jackson was somewhat unfairly dismissed as Huddersfield manager when new owner Barry Rubery opted to appoint Steve Bruce over him. He returned to Huddersfield Town in 2003 taking them out of the fourth tier following administration but. In the period between his spells at Huddersfield Jackson accepted Geoffrey Richmond’s offer to manage Bradford City on Christmas day 2000 only to give back word on Boxing Day.

Jackson left Town in March 2007 after failing to make the League One play-offs but returned to football at Lincoln City in the October. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in February 2008 and took time off, returning in January 2009 only to be fired in September 2009.

Jackson returns to City – where he made 330 appearance and led the team to the 1985 Third Division Championship – on a short term basis as the club look for a new manager.

Taylor gets a final chance to write his history

Peter Taylor exits Bradford City after Saturday’s game with Stockport County which is described by joint chairman Julian Rhodes as “possibly one of the biggest in the club’s history” but the judgement on his time at the club will not follow until the end of the season.

Taylor’s time at City has been marked with upset over negative play and managerial mistakes as well as the manager criticising supporters who he revealed today were the cause of his decision to leave but his position in City’s history will be written in May when he is either written off as an experiment gone wrong or written in stone as the man who had Bradford City relegated out of the Football League after 106.

An assessment which would be harsh for sure – you do not go from the Premiership to the Football Conference in just over a decade because of the guy who got the job twelve months ago – but one which will no doubt be made. Taylor’s only input into this writing of history is the tone he sets in his final game.

The final game with Stockport who – in something of a minor irony – have helped to seal the manager’s early exit. Mark Lawn and Rhodes talked about their requirements for the medium and long term when thinking about the next appointment but it cannot have escaped their notice that by changing manager Lincoln City and Saturday’s opponents have turned seemingly moribund seasons around with revivals.

There is something to be said for that approach too. It is football in the ludicrously short term – the financial position being what it is and relegation hovering City may only have a short term left – but increasingly it seemed as if the players had lost belief in Taylor and that they might benefit from another voice in the dressing room.

Be it David Syers and Tom Ademeyi being given the midfield roles against five Lincoln players, Scott Dobie being given the job of chasing high balls or Luke O’Brien and Lewis Hunt playing full back without anyone supporting them when they are doubled up on the players are coming under criticism for decisions made by Taylor, and on occasion that criticism comes from Taylor.

That they stop thinking that following the manager will lead to success is a problem addressed by Taylor’s exit, although after that one suspects the problems will begin and that chief amongst those problems will be finding a new manager who has the same effect on City which Steve Tilson has had on Lincoln to some degree or another.

If the benefit of Taylor’s exit is a change of voice in the dressing room then there seems little benefit in appointing Wayne Jacobs until the end of the season but the assistant manager has twice taken control of the club as caretaker in the past. The two week gap that follows the Stockport game suggests City will have time to bring in short-term appointment and that a caretaker taker will probably not be needed.

Names suggest themselves: Phil Parkinson and Brian Laws mentioned in one breath, Dean Windass and Terry Dolan in another. Martin Allen has previously impresses Mark Lawn and could get a chance to do again but those problems are for Monday. Saturday is more pressing.

The effect of Taylor’s departure on that game is hard to measure. The City players responded to Stuart McCall’s departure with a loathsome display at Accrington Stanley in Peter Taylor first game. In his last one might expect the squad to be equally nervous although perhaps they will feel they have something to prove to the outgoing manager. If they spot a trenchcoat in the main stand they may feel they have something to prove to the incoming manager too.

Taylor is likely to stand by the players who have figured in the majority of his squad although there is a sneaking feeling that he may employ a 235 1911 style in a final flash of “attacking football.”

Assuming he does not Lenny Pidgeley will keep goal behind Lewis Hunt, Steve Williams, Luke Oliver who more than most will be effected by Taylor’s departure one suspects and Luke O’Brien. A middle three of Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and Tom Adeyemi seems set to continue – one has to wonder why Jon Worthington was brought in – while the forward three could feature a return for James Hanson alongside one of Scott Dobie or Gareth Evans, and Kevin Ellison.

These players are tasked with winning the game – an everyone in for a pound offer which sadly was not extended to the visitors should see a few more bums on seats – and starting writing what could prove to the the last chapter in the 58 year old manager’s career.

A win and graceful retirement to Newcastle United’s backroom awaits, a defeat and he starts to become the man who killed a club.

Pressing the Flesh

The players are working ever so hard; the manager wants to build long term success; the fans are great; it’s a wonderful club; there are no problems with the chairman … fans’ forums with the manager follow a certain script. From Paul Jewell to Lennie Lawrence; Terry Yorath to Stuart McCall; the personalities change, but the message remains fairly constant.

However, what I have never seen before was, at the evening’s end, the manager standing at the exit shaking every supporters hand and thanking them for their attendance. Here was the former England international and Premier League manager firmly closing the gap between supporter and manager. As we read this morning of Wayne Rooney’s transfer speculation, and view endless replays of Champions League matches, the contrast with Peter Taylor standing at the door of Bradford’s Irish Club shaking hands with the supporters of his fourth tier club is all the more remarkable.

We will return to this theme, because it emerged as the key moment of the night. However, first let’s cover the usual business discussed when a football manager meets the fans. The Supporters’ Trust organised a fans’ forum to coincide with its AGM (which I will cover in another piece as it deserves a stand alone report). Peter Taylor, Wayne Jacobs and Luke O’Brien (one of the Trust sponsored players) were our panel.

The evening opened with Peter Taylor laughing at the suggestion that he might have been glad that the forum did not take place two weeks ago. He revealed that his daughter had joked that had he been sacked at Barnet at least it was close to his family home. Peter Taylor said there was no real issue with Mark Lawn and that both of them were men who ‘said it like it was’ and that any disagreements were quickly put behind them.

In response to a question about the T&A headline that suggested that Peter Taylor was seeking reassurance from the board about his position, he said he had merely told the paper that if he were the chairman of a football club he would immediately clear the issue up and go public. It wasn’t meant as anything else other than a general observation, but that had been changed into a managerial crisis. He did mention a story that Paul Jewell had relaid to him. When Jewell was under pressure at Wigan Dave Whelan, the chairman, had asked permission to go into the dressing room. When he got here he told the players that Jewell was his manager, he wasn’t going to be sacked and of they didn’t like playing for him they could leave immediately. Decisive action that completely cleared the air.

A question was asked about the inclusion of the Manchester United loan players in the team the lost to Morecambe. Peter Taylor said that at Northampton Hunt was injured, on top of Ramsden’s longer injury, it left him perilously short of cover in defence. He had already been talking to Manchester United and both players were signed on the morning of the Rotherham game. He could not play them at the Don Valley because both had played for United’s reserves the previous evening. Of course, City gained a morale boosting point at Rotherham and kept a clean sheet. However, the loan deal stipulated that both players had to play in their first available match – which was Morecambe – but after that the decision is solely Peter Taylor’s as to whether they play or not.

It was touch and go as to whether they will remain at the club, Manchester United play Wolves in the League Cup and they may be recalled to appear in that match. Peter Taylor said that the loan players were costing the club less than Luke O’Brien’s basic wage and that bringing them to the club had not hit his budget.

Tactics are always an area of discussion, particularly in this era of Championship Manager games where everyone is an instant expert, one fan caused amusement by suggesting a 4-4-3 formation, the manager said yes please if he could get away with it, but the real discussion focused on the merits of 4-4-2 and 4-3-3. Most fans seemed to be supporters of 4-4-2 but as Peter Taylor pointed out we lost using that formation against Southend and had played 4-3-3 in the League Cup matches against Forest and PNE. The manager said that the players should not hide behind a system, it was possible to play well and badly using either formation. He did mention the frustration of opposing teams coming to Valley Parade and playing 4-5-1. A tactic designed to frustrate and get the big crowd on the home players’ backs. Wayne Jacobs mentioned that he had seen one team play two up front at the then divisional leaders Rochdale and then come to Valley Parade and play five in midfield.

We had to have a Luke Oliver question. Peter Taylor said he thought that Oliver had done a great job for the club and he had decided to play him there as the team were short on confidence and, at that time, needed the easy ball for the big target man. He didn’t think that Evans, Moult or Speight had held the ball up well enough (and he had told them as much) and after the Stockport game he decided that it was time for a change.

With James Hanson now fit he didn’t envisage playing Oliver up front again – at least on a regular basis. Luke O’Brien was asked what his favourite position was. He initially gave the party answer of being happy to play anywhere, but did say that he had begun his career as a left winger, he had later modified to left back and that was now his preferred position. Peter Taylor said he thought that OB was a better player than OB thought he was and that he was very effective going forward. He needed more belief in himself when attacking.

On training facilities OB said it was a pain to get changed and travel in their cars to Apperley Bridge, but once there, at least at this time of the year, the pitches were fine. Wayne Jacobs said that the facilities desperately need upgrading, he had been to non-league clubs with better facilities. He said some of the big signings City made in the summer of 2000 could not believe their eyes when they saw Apperley Bridge. Apparently, people from opposition clubs have been known to come and watch City train.

Peter Taylor also appealed for the City fan who had been posting on the internet the formation City had been training with to stop doing so as the only people it aided was the opposition. Dave Baldwin was actively looking for other options and the club may spend some money on new facilities in the future. Of course, City were going to Weetwood, part of Leeds University’s campus, but talks broke down at the eleventh hour when the university revealed that the lady who would have the ultimate say on which part of the facilities City could use was rarely on the campus. Suddenly there was the possibility of restrictions on certain days and even a suggestion that on some days they would not be able to use the goalmouths.

Peter Taylor said he had come to Bradford City because he thought that City were a wonderful football club and one that would be amazing if it was turned around. He said the reaction to Cheltenham’s goal was unbelievable. He did admit that a small section of the support can make it hard for the players, particularly the younger ones. Luke O’Brien reminded us that many of the players were simply not used to the big crowds at Valley Parade. Many of them had signed from the non-league or other lower league clubs where crowds numbered in the hundreds or low thousands. However, following the Cheltenham game the players couldn’t wait for the Oxford game to come around.

Peter Taylor then made probably the most telling intervention of the evening. He said when he first came he thought of the fans ‘crickey these lot are a bit impatient’. But he now understood that a lot of that frustration was born by ten years of decline and possibly the worst home record in the entire Football League over that period. His attitude has changed and he is trying to build a positive relationship between the players and the fans.

He has seen opposition clubs come and use the Valley Parade crowd as a weapon against their own team. He said we all have to change and muck in together. It was the only way forward. He accepted it is difficult at times, but it was vital.  There is still a long way to go this season and with Hanson and Price up front our squad is as strong as anyones.

The panel were unanimous (as you would expect) in their belief that City would be promoted this season despite the poor start. At the conclusion of the evening, Peter Taylor shook hands with each individual, it was evident that the manager had identified one of City’s biggest strengths and weaknesses – its fans. Of course, there may well be an element of self-preservation in this approach, but perhaps when the fans roared their support in the wake of the Cheltenham goal it was the moment Bradford City hit rock bottom and bounced?

Taking the next steps

As Peter Taylor substituted Louis Moult to widespread boos and groans two-thirds of the way into Bradford City’s eventual win over Gillingham last week, it was tempting to ponder just how long the City manager will be around to make such unpopular decisions.

This was the second home game in a row a substitution by Taylor was booed by some fans; and in the other two league home games there was the half time chant directed at him to “sort it out” against Southend, and booing the team off in victory against Stevenage.

Unlike his predecessor, Stuart McCall, Taylor is clearly not someone readily prepared to blame himself and believe those questioning him are right to do so, and one can speculate whether the reason his assistant Wayne Jacobs was sent out to face the media after the game was due to anger at having his decisions questioned once more.

A frosty relationship between manager and many supporters is beginning to develop.

The frustration last Saturday stemmed from the fact it was Moult rather than Luke Oliver taken off by Taylor. After a fairly anonymous start to his six-month loan stint at Valley Parade, the Stoke striker was finally beginning to show glimpses of his potential and was one of a handful of influential players helping City to get on top in the second half. Oliver meanwhile looked clumsy and awkward, the wrong man in the right place of City’s increasingly-frequent attacks. The sight of Gareth Evans ready to come on told us the hook was coming, but in many fans eyes Taylor was taking off the wrong man.

Football coaches often talk about the importance of going back-to-basics when things go wrong. If, for example, a midfielder produces a poor pass, he is encouraged to make sure he tries something much simpler the next time he receives possession, so he can quickly build up confidence again. When a team is on a run like City have been, it’s understandable Taylor would want to take a back-to-basics approach to selection and tactics. Start getting points on the board, then build up again from there.

Taylor’s approach against Gillingham strongly suggested going back-to-basics. Without James Hanson and after a loan striker turned down a move, the deployment of Oliver up front was all about better-retaining possession in the final third so the team as a whole could gain greater territorial advantage. Oliver was instructed to win and hold up the ball, thus bringing others into the game. Not fantastic to watch maybe, but effective. Basic you might say.

I personally believe Taylor got a better performance from his players than he’d dared hoped, particularly in the second half when Lee Hendrie’s introduction sparked more attacking impetuous and saw City gain a lot more joy from passing it through – rather than over – the visitors.

But this improvement suddenly made the tactic of Oliver up front far less effective, and what City really needed was a forward more comfortable in possession and who could make intelligent runs. The moment where Hendrie dribbled past a couple of players and produced a perfectly weighted through ball for Oliver, only for the tall defender to fail to control it with just the keeper to beat, summed up the sudden problem.

So like others I was willing Taylor to take off Oliver. And although I did not boo, I did groan and feel deflated when Moult was hauled off instead. This was surely a moment where Taylor could have been braver, shown more belief in the way his team was playing. But in the back of his mind perhaps was the risk of Gillingham scoring and City needed to go long ball in the final 10 minutes, where Oliver would have been needed.

But after so many times a City manager has been unjustly slated for his tactics when City have lost a game, Taylor ultimately deserves a lot of credit for the fact his tactics and substitutions ultimately delivered three valuable points.

As City head to Northampton this weekend, it will be interesting to see how much Taylor changes things around to build on the basics which have slowly started to come together since the season’s low point of the 2-0 loss to Southend. Both Hanson and Michael Flynn – another target man option – are not expected to be fit in time, so the chances of Oliver continuing up front would appear high.

But it should be recalled that arguably the best football City have played under Taylor so far, the final five games of last season, saw a 4-3-3 formation employed without a target man. This worked well because of the running and link up of Leon Osborne, Gareth Evans and Gavin Grant. It is that level of football City now aspire to reach again, and to which Taylor could consider evolving the back-to-basics approach from and look to employ at Sixfields.

Oliver’s move up the pitch enabled Steve Williams to return to the central defence against Gillingham, and the impressive display he and the fast-improving Shane Duff produced would suggest Oliver may have to join Zesh Rehman on the bench at some point in the near future. With Jon McLaughlin also looking more composed during the last two games, Taylor is moving closer towards a solid defence which has acted as the bedrock of his previous promotion-winning teams

At full backs, however, there are plenty of unresolved issues. Lewis Hunt and Robbie Threlfall have both attracted a lot of criticism for their efforts this season, but in many ways they are in excellent company as I struggle to recall many City full backs over the years who were not slated at some point.

In terms of Hunt, the criticism he’s receiving has to be balanced by the fact he is a second choice right back at a fourth division club. The wage allocated for this role isn’t going to be high, and so Taylor is limited in the options and ability he could bring in. Meanwhile Threlfall had a shocker at Shrewsbury on the opening day, and hasn’t recovered.

Luke O’Brien, who’s had his own dips of form, is arguably playing his best football of his career so far. The Gillingham half time switch around that saw Threlfall replaced and O’Brien moved to left back is surely likely to be continued while Threlfall rebuilds his confidence. But let’s not forget it is his form, rather than ability, which is the problem.

In midfield there are suddenly stronger options when a fortnight ago it looked a major problem area. Lee Bullock picked up the sponsors man of the match last week and his return to form benefited Tommy Doherty; while the arrival of Hendrie further brought the best out of both. For now Hendrie will probably remain on the bench, or start the game and be taken off, as he builds fitness. David Syers is beginning to look the part and should be fit to start; Omar Daley has been an unused sub for the last two games, and the Jamaican’s future is beginning to look bleak.

Up front there remains a troubling lack of goals, and the poor form of Evans and tentativeness of Moult leaves Taylor with some difficult decisions. Osborne’s first meaningful appearance of the season last week attracted derision, but his form at the end of last season showed promise and it would be worth getting behind the player – who has emerged through the ranks, remember – rather than writing him off so prematurely. For now at least Oliver classes as a forward option.

Northampton are fresh from incredible cup exploits over Liverpool, but in every other way will hopefully be stale. Taylor had joked about asking Liverpool assistant manager Sammy Lee to make sure the game went to extra time, and the fact Clobbers’ players were on the floor with cramp towards the end of their penalty shoot out win would suggest the Bantams will carry a fitness advantage from no midweek action.

City have so far lost two and drawn one on their travels, and though it is still early days the points return from the trips to Northampton on Saturday and Rotherham on Tuesday will say a lot about the team prospects for the rest of the season. A four-point haul would set City up nicely for upcoming easier-looking games and a climb up the table during autumn.

Achieve that and, come winter, it’s hoped the only frost we’ll be talking about is the stuff which forms on the ground, rather than the nature of the feelings heading towards and from the Valley Parade dugout.

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