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

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Billy Knott, Lee Evans, Kyel Reid | (James Hanson || Steve Davies), Devante Cole | James Hanson, Mark Marshall, Luke James

Constructionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reductionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of course this assumes one is not entertained already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The obvious quality of Phil Parkinson and how he could be the decisive factor in 2015/16 Promotion

The season starts and one thing is obvious: Bradford City will be promoted.

That is obvious. It is obvious because I’ve read it in FourFourTwo and it is obvious because Bradford City beat Champions Chelsea last season and that must mean that Bradford City can win League One.

It is obvious because City have brought in some real quality in the form of Paul Anderson and Mark Marshy Marshall, and while seeing Andrew Davies go is hard seeing Mark Yeates and Andy Halliday go is not.

And it is obvious because City finished a place off the play offs last season, and every season Phil Parkinson has improved Bradford City’s league finish, and as we all know no one ever gets in the play offs and does not win.

It is obvious and because of that it is a thought that has passed the mind of even the most negative Bradford City supporter.

No matter how many layers of cynicism a person might surround themselves with one cannot escape that feeling on a sunning Tuesday morning that this year is the year that City return to the top two divisions for the first time since May 2004.

But wait…

A Barnsley website who had, one assumed, lost Jason McKeown’s email address asked me to preview the coming season. They asked what my realistic view on the Bradford City season was. I chewed my pen (metaphorically speaking) and considered beating Arsenal, beating Aston Villa, late serge and beating Burton, Wembley again, beating Chelsea, getting to Wembley for a major Cup Final.

It struck me that at Valley Parade of late realism is in short supply.

And perhaps in that context it is excusable if all of us go on a little fantasy safari when considering the prospects for the season that starts at Swindon on Saturday.

The counter to those thoughts are the huge gulf that was obvious between Bradford City and Bristol City in the mauling of last season and the general lack of character in the team around that time. Reality comes in wondering if the Bantams have a Marlon Pack/Luke Freeman pairing as Bristol City had or a back line as strong as the one that took Preston North End up? Or a 25 goals a year striker?

At that point obvious stops being the operative word.

The multi-polar world

The temptation is, of course, to take the team one follows in isolation and to consider that if your team has done well in recruitment, or preparation, then it will improve in absolute terms in League One. League structures are always relative.

You can be better than last year (or worse) but your position will on the whole be decided by the strength of the other teams in the League. Was the Benito Carbone team in the second year of the Premier League worse than the one which finished 17th the year before?

It certainly was at the end of the season but after the other win over Chelsea in August 2000 was the team worse or was the problem that there were no Watford, Wednesday and a woeful Wimbledon dropping like a stone to finish beneath them?

Football is a multi-polar world. Your league achievements are necessarily measured against the other teams around you. It might be obvious that City have improved (or not) but have they improved more than the teams around them in League One?

Looking at the teams in League One this season first day opposition Swindon Town lost in the play off final last season which normally denotes a challenger but they seem to have lost a lot of players and are blooding a new team.

Relegated clubs can be strong but few will fear Millwall considering how easily the were brushed aside eight months ago at Valley Parade. Wigan Athletic have a lot to do to end a losing mentality which has come into the club since it got to an FA Cup final three years ago. As for Blackpool it is very possible they will carry on where they left off last season and finish bottom.

The likes of Peterborough United, Doncaster Rovers, and Barnsley would all argue that they have as much of a right to be considered promotion contenders as anyone. Scunthorpe United, Bury and Fleetwood Town have spent money to get where they are but not Bristol City levels of money and even if they had sometimes when you spend money you get Aaron McLean.

I have a belief that Burton Albion are worth considering as having an interest in the play off places. They are a club that seem able to transcend managerial changes and maintain steady progress. Coventry City have potential and in Tony Mowbray they have a pragmatic manager.

All of which leaves Sheffield United as being everyone’s favourite for promotion. They reach semi-finals, they bubble under in League One, they have a strong fan base and get great noisy crowds. They seem to have everything that a club that is trying to get out of League One wants.

Except for the manager.

They have their second choice as manager.

Nigel Atkins manages Sheffield United now but they wanted to take Phil Parkinson to South Yorkshire. It seems that the Blades boardroom came to the same conclusion that echoes around the City manager.

Parkinson: Special One

If all league football is relative then perhaps management is absolute.

Perhaps a manager who improves a team always improves a team. Perhaps when Parkinson is given the chance to manage – a chance Hull City did not give him in his brief time at that club but did at Colchester United – he will always improve a club as he has Bradford City.

It is hard to draw a conclusion but Parkinson’s admirers are many and growing with every achievement.

From the outside when looking at the twenty four teams lining up in League One some teams have spent more, and some teams have more season ticket holders than others, but no team has a better manager in a better position to manage his club than Phil Parkinson at Bradford City.

Parkinson has carved a space out for himself. He arrived at a club where Mark Lawn was accusing the players of not passing to a prospective signing, that had had a manager who (reportedly) felt bullied out of the club, and where the dysfunctions at the club had become endemic.

The success Parkinson earned on the field gave him the scope to create the role he wants off it. Parkinson is as powerful a manager as Bradford City have had but still had challenges to his role. One could worry about how success would be maintained should he exit if one wanted but more important would be ensuring that he is allowed to do his job and shapes the club around that.

We are, perhaps, lucky that the Sheffield United approach and the moment Parkinson had to bend the knee to the boardroom were separated by six months. Imagine starting this season without Parkinson. Where would thoughts of promotion be then?

When looking at which teams will be promoted what is most often the decisive factor? It is not in the quality of players but rather the quality of manager. The thing that unites the clubs that went up was that they had experienced managers who are spoken of in terms of their quality.

What Steve Cotterill, Karl Robinson and Simon Grayson offered last season is the thing that Phil Parkinson offers this. Likewise when José Mourinho got over his defeat at City by winning the Premier League it was – we are told – because he was the best manager. Success – the theory goes – goes to the best manager.

That, at least, is obvious.

How Bradford City got to the sixth round of the FA Cup and how easy it was

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Andrew Halliday, Mark Yeates, Francois Zoko

A story of abject failure

Bradford City’s 2-0 win over Sunderland was most remarkable because of how easy it was.

From Billy Clarke’s third minute shot deflected in by John O’Shea onwards the result at Valley Parade was hardly in doubt.

Bradford City played accurate passing at tempo which Sunderland could not match, and with a shape which Sunderland would not adapt to. Robbed of midfield quality in Jack Rodwell and power in Lee Cattermole Sunderland played Liam Bridcutt and Sebastian Larsson in the middle against City’s three of Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle and Billy Knott and lost the midfield.

Bradford City dominated the first forty five minutes. Liddle sat behind his two partners who were both admirably disciplined, and while Bridcutt picked up Billy Clarke in the playmaking role Sunderland manager Gus Poyet left Larsson on his own with three players.

And Larsson could not deliver a quality of possession on the flanks for Sunderland who had based the game on the ball to wide players – Adam Johnson looked lively – which would be put in for Steven Fletcher to finish with Danny Graham in support. Fletcher vs Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies was hardly even a contest.

Better matched were James Hanson and Jon Stead against O’Shea and Wes Brown but with Clarke coming forward and Hanson moving out wide left City pressed with strength, movement and intelligence. O’Shea and Brown with Bridcutt coming back were unsettled by Hanson’s strength and Clarke’s speed with ball at foot.

Only unsettled though, but with so much of the rest of Gus Poyet’s team selection playing exactly as Bradford City’s Phil Parkinson would have wanted it to be it seemed that the Premier League time arrived at, and played with, a hand tied behind their back.

And that hand was tied by Gus Poyet. At half time, watching his team lose the midfield battle, Poyet threw on Connor Wickham for Graham, went route one, and lost the game.

In terms of a manager approaching the game, understanding how the opposition would play, and putting out a team capable of navigating that Poyet failed utterly abjectly.

Shall we switch narrative?

We have become old hands at this of course. The giant killing narrative that is spun around a team who have done what Bradford City have done in the last few years. The talk is of passionate performances and playing with character. It is of small changing rooms and bad pitches.

(The pitch was was better today, something I would congratulate and praise Roger Owen for but as he has said he is not directly responsibility for the pitch and that it is not his responsibility so I offer him no congratulations and no praise at all.)

Talk like that misses the point of Bradford City’s wins against Chelsea and Arsenal, Aston Villa and Wigan but it especially misses the point of this game. Bradford City did not approach Sunderland with a blowing hurricane, just with determination, but Sunderland’s preparation and approach was so far away from what it should have been that the distance between the two sides was great.

For all the coverage of a “team of heroes”, or “plucky players”, or (curiously) “real men” the reality was a Bradford City team who put in a very steady performance. Not that the players were not very good – they were – but that at the end of the game where City had won in something of a canter no player had especially surprised, or played beyond himself, or amazed.

All had played very well, in a very good unit, and carried out the roles that they were assigned very adeptly. Billy Knott – the agent provocateur against Chelsea – slipped into the discipline of a central midfield role as well as he had since first he joined from Sunderland. Filipe Morais continues to curb his solo excesses too.

Everyone played very well but Bradford City did not spring a surprise on Sunderland, or mug Sunderland, or rough Sunderland up. Bradford City played in the same way as in the win over Milton Keynes Dons on Monday, and did not have to play better to beat Sunderland.

Sunderland were the team that were beaten 8-0 by Southampton once again. Bradford City – in this giant killing – were just here to make up the numbers.

The best thing about Sunderland

The only good thing one can say about Sunderland is that the team is much, much poorer than the supporters. The supporters of Sunderland applauded former players, applauded Bradford City for beating them, applauded Bradford City fans for the atmosphere in Valley Parade. They deserve better.

They will be told – perhaps by Guy Poyet – that City roughed up the team on a bad pitch and the media will tell them they were beaten by a team with chutzpah.

But that is not true, and those fans know it.

Poyet set out an attack that played to City’s strengths and a midfield that was outnumbered in the centre of the field, and they played without the commitment to a team structure and the belief that what they were doing would work.

One does not want to downplay what Bradford City and Phil Parkinson have done against Sunderland or in his time at City. The level that City play at is very high and the squad’s character is obvious to all.

Sunderland played badly and often Parkinson’s teams make other teams play badly. Parkinson has his team close down the space for opposition players making time on the ball claustrophobic. That was certainly the case today.

But Parkinson just had to ensure that his team continued Monday night’s MK Dons performance and the victory was not even difficult.

So then now…

After a few minutes Billy Clarke took the applause after lashing a shot back across goal which cannoned off John O’Shea and into the goal past Vito Mannone and City – perhaps – expected the Premier League visitors to come back into the game. Phil Parkinson’s return to 442 from his 4312 was the making of his City team against Halifax in the first round of this competition, as City go into the sixth round the three men in the middle smothered Sunderland.

Sebastian Larsson – a fine player – struggled to move the ball to the flanks effectively. Occasionally Johnson looked impressive but with only Larsson in the middle either Knott or Morais could help full backs deal with wingers. Graham was anonymous finding no room to play around Gary Liddle and Stephen Fletcher’s abilities in the air are less than either of Davies or McArdle’s.

The best Fletcher did – and the best chance Sunderland got – was a ball that slipped through the offside line and nestled at the Scots striker’s feet until McArdle appeared (as if from) nowhere and hacked the ball away. The cliché writes itself here, McArdle wanted it more, but Fletcher did not seem to want it at all.

Contrast that with the quick thinking in the second half when James Meredith pushed Johnson all the way back into the corner of the pitch and Johnson lobbed the ball out for James Hanson to head softly beyond Brown and O’Shea, but not beyond Johnson deep, and to Jon Stead who picked up the ball and finished well under Mannone.

An hour in and with Sunderland resorting to playing long balls which Davies and McArdle took care of, and aside from Ben Williams making a single save the Bantams defence was untroubled.

Phil Parkinson and his City players took plaudits from a capacity Valley Parade – including a good few Sunderland fans – for a fifth Premier League team beaten in three years. The sixth round of the FA Cup is the last eight teams in the country. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United (or Preston North End), Aston Villa West Brom, Reading, Blackburn Rovers and Bradford City.

Wigan was unexpected and tough, Arsenal was hard but deserved. Aston Villa was a double sucker punch at the end of the game and Chelsea was understanding the power of pressure and seeing that pressure pay. These were all great, great games and great football matches to be at.

Sunderland, though, was easy.

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.

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.

When pre-season became interesting

At some point after the middle of the 1990s pre-season became a thing of interest.

Perhaps it is the rise of Sky Sports and the need for constant football, perhaps it is the public’s thirst for the close season to end as quickly as possible, perhaps it is clubs trying to spin out two or three extra big money games in a season but whatever has caused it pre-season in modern football has become much more of a big deal.

Looking at the likes of Guiseley who had Bradford City on the pre-season fixture list until recently the games against league opposition offer a chance of a pay day in excess of most league matches. Kendal Town play Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic and walking around the Westmoorland town one would struggle to miss this fact – that and the fact that Chas Hodges is playing in town soon – which is a marked contrast to the games within the regular season which pass without note in that part of the Lake District.

Certainly City’s return to action against Eccleshill United was eagerly anticipated with a good number of Bantams fans looking at pre-season as a welcome return to normality.

Turn on the ubiquitous Sky Sports News today and you will see highlights from pre-season matches up and down the land. Last year when Newcastle United lost 6-1 in pre-season to Leyton Orient then Sky’s talking heads damned the Magpies to a season of struggle in The Championship. They won it.

So in tone and in the minds of supporters and on the balance sheet pre-season seems to be interesting in a way which it was not previously. Pre-season matches happened for sure and occasionally they would be seen in the newspaper (as is my recollection) and talked about in vague terms by very few who seemed to have a mystic view of the new players on the first day of the season.

Steve Gardner turned up as an unknown on the opening day of one year with the words “He looked good in pre-season” offered by a City sage who had seen such things. The sage was considered rare and some what obsessive – like people who go to more than one date on a band’s tour – while extrapolations about Gardner, as with Newcastle, turned out to inaccurate.

At City the change over from a pre-season which was the preserve of the dedicated and the players probably occurred around the time that Chris Kamara was manager and City played Newcastle United in which Peter Beardsley and Tino Asprilla weaved majestically and a high quality Middlesbrough side in a two day period and then went on (again, if I recall) to play Santos of Brazil in a game which saw the only – to date – overhead back heel volley goal.

Compared to that the reality of the season seemed something of a let down. The circus had come to town and then left us with some reality where Norwich and Swindon – not Newcastle and Santos – were the opposition.

Peter Taylor managed Southend at the start of that period and Gillingham around the middle but perhaps it is his experience a England u21 manager which shapes his thoughts on how preparation games should be treated. He talks about how the Bantams could have played some big teams at Valley Parade – Premier League Burnley played at VP last season – but for the newly laid pitch but it is clear that Taylor sees these matches as build up to Shrewsbury Town on the first day, no more or less significant than any other training session and certainly not wasting the fresh grass on for a few extra quid.

So City have no big name on the fixture list – Rochdale are the highest placed side we face – and a swathe of games against low opposition including North Ferriby United who City play at one on Saturday afternoon. Taylor talks about the games in terms of being build up, fitness getters, and while supporters can watch the manager does not see them as being spectacles. His threat to take his team home at half time at Eccleshill says all you need to know about how Taylor prioritises.

Not for him an evening watching Beardsley and Asprilla run rings around his players. Not for him bowing the knee to boys from Brazil.

So a City squad of around twenty-two will be split into two teams of eleven with the aim of fitness not performance. City are without Michael Flynn (Groin), Tommy Doherty (Calf), Luke Dean (Broken leg) and Jake Speight (Broken promises) but Tom Adeyemi will make his debut following his arrival on loan from Norwich City and have Matthew Tipton and Lee Morris looking to earn contracts.

The game kicks off early for those who fancy a trip to Grange Road but one doubts that anyone will be encouraged to slam in an overhead backheel.

The excuse

Michael Flynn has spoken about how he believes that the new Bradford City manager needs to put some rockets up backsides at the club. Flynn said

We need somebody with a big character who won’t take any messing. Some of the lads might feel a bit too comfortable and a few need a rocket up their backside.

Comfortable is a curious thing at a football club. One the one hand one wants the players to feel relaxed and at ease to allow themselves the freedom to express, to make mistakes without being pilloried, to be able to minimise defeats and move on from them however when the players slide too far along this scale of comfortability then they become complacent and defeats are not felt as keenly as they should be. If the blame for a loss can be put elsewhere – Referees, pitches, the quality of the opposition, injures – then it allows the players who retain self-belief but should that blame be constantly deflected then the players will no longer behave as if they are responsible for the performances.

Certainly Stuart McCall favoured the pattern of giving his players he room to breathe and could oft be heard criticising officials for the plight of his players. For what it is worth I agree with McCall that it was – in no small way – the fault of Referees making a string of atrocious decisions the apologies for which must have rung in Stuart’s ears when he heard them from men in the middle the Monday he left the club but I doubt that were I Bradford City manager I would have allowed the players to be left off the hook so easily.

Paul Buckle – the manager of Torquay United – would have the same thought. After his side had out-played City but lost two two late and unlucky goals from the Bantams he offered his players no place to hide saying that they should have done more to win the game. Since then results have not improved – one draw and three defeats from four – and Buckle’s position at the club is questioned. The response he was looking for from his players in not engaging in what could be called “excuse culture” he has not had.

A trip up to Cardiff sees Dave Jones and his team sitting in fifth place in the Championship despite a trip to Newcastle’s St James Park which saw the Bluebird beat 5-1. After the game Jones would hear not a word against his players talking about long trips, injuries and suspensions having taken a chunk out of his side who lost to a great Magpie’s performance. Jones would not allow his players to take any responsibility and a few days later they were back to winning ways 2-0 over Peterborough United.

Two managers, two approaches and the converse which one might expect with Jones’s side doggedly in the promotion hunt and Buckle under pressure. If City were in the position Jones’s has Cardiff in would excuses be a problem? We are in the position Buckle’s side is in, would we accept his strident denials of any external responsibilities? Would Michael Flynn’s kick up the arse aimed at Torquay not be seen just as kicking the players when they are down? Perhaps.

Famously after Wigan Athletic’s opening day defeat to one squeaked goal to nil against Chelsea Jose Mourinho shook Paul Jewell’s hand and said to him “I hope you stay up.” Jewell firmly returned the shake and replied “Yeah, I hope you do too.”

Jewell would not allow his Wigan players to consider themselves on a different level to any of the other teams in the top flight but when Arsenal stole a win from the Latics Jewell was quick to blame the officials. Jewell understood that “excuse culture” is nothing of the sort. Excusing the players – or not doing – is a tool to keep the pressure off the squad when one wants it to be and not in other times.

Sven Goran Erikkson revitalised Ruud Gullit’s career by accusing the midfielder of having “glass knees” during their time together at Sampdoria. Gullit’s parting shot at Sven as he left to return to AC Milan went along the lines of “I showed you” to which the Swede explained his admiration of the Dutchman and his desires to be showed up by eight superb months of football. Excuses are a way of balancing the responsibilities a player takes and good manager’s know when to use them and when not to.

Who knows what approach the next manager of Bradford City will take towards the linguist tools of his role. Perhaps he will be like Buckle in reaction to Stuart’s excessive excuses and perhaps he will get the same results as the Torquay boss or perhaps he will strike a perfect balance letting his players feel they can control their football destinies but shielding them from outrageous misfortune.

Either way it is worth remembering that these “excuses” are tools of the manager and when employed by a Jewell giving his players the belief that they can compete with anyone or a Jones telling his players to move onto the next game without worry are at least as much about the mentality inside the club as outside it.

Jewell looks to Stoke for rebuffing

Paul Jewell and Tony Pulis go way back – or so we are told – and they seem set to renew that association as it seems that the former City boss is set to join Stoke City as the new assistant boss.

Stoke – who retained Premiership status when bigger clubs did not – seem to have looked into Premiership history and identified what is known as “second season syndrome” as the main threat next term.

They turn to Jewell – who kept Wigan Athletic in the Premiership and exited Bradford City before our second season and subsequent plummet – to help avoid that fate. Perhaps his advice based on watching the arrival of Benito Carbone or the exit of Pascal Chimbonda would govern the Britannia Stadium bid for Michael Owen.

Jewell – without a doubt – has the experience to help out a Premiership club and while Pulis gets all the credit going for last season at Stoke on performance alone Jewell should never be in a situation where he is the deputy to anyone in football.

Ten years ago aged 34 and having kept Bradford City in the Premiership Jewell seemed to have an open door to many a job. He picked Sheffield Wednesday which has been the ruination of more managers than one cares to think of but restored his career to health at Wigan Athletic.

Wigan stayed up, Jewell exited Wigan, rumours started, newspapers published videos, Jewell went to Derby and found nothing much of worth before leaving once the titters overwhelmed the appreciation.

Once the shining light of young managers Jewell is damaged goods. Football wants managers who looks dashing in Wool Armani Coats or can talk up a storm but Jewell seems to have lost that edge giving rise to the new old joke “What do you call a football manager you cannot put in front of the camera? Assistant.”

Yet Jewell was the man who said we were all over Chelsea for 59 seconds and when Mr Wool Armani told him after the opening day of the season that he hoped Wigan stayed in the Premiership replied with a firm, warm handshake “I hope Chelsea do too.”

Jewell needs the time out of the limelight to refocus the minds of many on what he can do in football and Stoke offer the perfect opportunity for that. As a manager the former City boss outstrips Pulis and some and no way should he have to call anyone “Boss” but such is the state that his career is in that it has come to this.

Nevertheless no matter who comes in or leaves Stoke this summer they will not make a more significant signing towards retaining Premiership status than Paul Jewell.

Where now for Paul Jewell?

It all fit so well.

Paul Jewell would return to glory at Brian Clough’s first Championship club and the comparisons between the two strikers who retired early and inspired smaller teams to great things would be further cemented. Jewell’s exit came amid chants for his job from the Pride Park South Stand, admissions of contrition from the chairman Adam Pearson and Burton Albion – home of the actual successor to Clough – rising towards the Football League. Both East Midlands clubs are looking at the same manager.

Jewell has left Chris Hutchings in charge – again – and has suffered a significant dent in his reputation having taking on the Pride Park job with a remit not to keep the Rams in the Premiership but to launch a return the season after. The fact that he made such a poor fist of even attempting to stay in the top flight was put down to the players, the failure for a replaced squad to start a promotion campaign falls on Jewell – at least in the eyes of most.

Damning for Jewell were Pearson’s words on his exit – that he was a manager with a proven track record of getting teams out of the Championship – which risk ghettoising the former City and Wigan boss into the Neil Warnock position where he is trusted to get you to the big leagues but no further.

It is unlikely his next role will be at a club higher than the role he has just left leaving him looking at his record – something of a 2:4 with City and the Latics as successes and Sheffield Wednesday and Derby as failures – and hoping that if he is to be considered a promotion expert his next role does not tip the odds against him.

The former City boss is stuck between the limits of being a promotion specialist and the hardship of maintaining a positive role in modern football – even after keeping Wigan in the Premiership the grumbles had started at the Latics who wanted the club “moving to the next level”

Jewell’s next level seems frustratingly out of reach.

Hutchings Horror Wasted The Best Team In City’s History

I once read a book, well I’ve read more than one book but this is the one I’m talking about, and I can’t remember what it was called but it was about a guy who had an earwhigg that had crawled into one of his ears and was digging through to the other side and the guy who had this thing in his ear kept having these memories sparked off my the earwhigg as it went through and finally it popped out the otherside of the guy’s brain and the horror was over only it wasn’t cause the insect was a female and had laid eggs and so it would happen again and again…

That is pretty much how Wigan Athletic fan’s should be feeling right now.

Before I say this I’m going to say that I’m sure that Chris Hutchings is a great bloke and he is a good coach but there is no way the guy is a Premiership manager cause I saw every one of his 12 Premiership games and most of his Intertoto cup ties, he won some of them, and I can say better than anyone just how little he was able to get to grips with managing a team.

Charlton away spings to mind where City wandered around the field trying to make up for the big hole around Dan Petrescu where the Romanian “Legend” stood stock still not caring.

After Manchester United away I got disciplined for searing at my boss cause we lost 6-0 and the reason we lost 6-0 was because Hutchings could not see that he needed to play a 451 at Old Trafford.

We all like to point the finger for who was to blame for City’s team going tits up in the Premiership and everyone in the world points at Geoffrey Richmond but in that six weeks of madness Richmond got together the most talented squad ever given to a Bradford City manager and he gave it to Chris Hutchings.

Matt Clarke, Gunnar Halle, David Wetherall, Andy O’Brien, Wayne Jacobs, Robbie Blake, Stuart McCall, Gareth Whalley, Peter Beagrie, Benito Carbone and Dean Windass and if you want more beef add Peter Atherton to the midfield and Static Ash as a non-scoring forward if you must. Throw in David Hopkin if you think that he was a perfectly good player until the second he walked into Valley Parade and remember how Lee Mills was dumped for a player who cost twice as much and was half as good (He means Ashley Ward again, Ed.) Richmond got together the most talented squad ever given to a Bradford City manager and he gave it to Chris Hutchings and Hutching squandered it.

I’m not putting everything at the door of Chris Hutchings cause that would be unfair but the man had the best Bradford City team every and got one of the best performances ever out of it against Chelsea and then like some rabbit in headlights got flattened by the Premiership.

Has he improved since? Wigan had better hope so.

Whatever it is that Hutch does on the training field and Paul Jewell says it is a load he does not do it as manager. As a manager he lacks ideas and imagination. He is low profile to the point of head scratching and this is not about him not having played for England it is about the way that he does not offer leadership for the players.

Dave Whelan obviously sees the same things in him as Geoffrey Richmond did. What does it say about GR that his mistakes are being made again? I hope for Chris Hutchings sake he has a better time of it as boss of Wigan than he did at City or after Paul Jewell’s six months off I think he might find his old number two ready and waiting for a job.

Jewell Leaves Again After Proving A Point

The sight of Paul Jewell celebrating keeping Wigan in the Premiership was confirmation. He could have dnoe it, he would have done it. He would have kept City in the Premiership and would probably have stopped six days let alone six weeks of madness. He resigned from Wigan Athletic in shorter time than he did Valley Parade having proved the point to all.

Jewell is probably England’s finest manager and should he end up at Newcastle United or Manchester City or should Liverpool bin Rafa and give the job to the old boy then no one would find a finer motivator of players.

Wigan’s calmness in the 2-1 win over Sheffield United proved this. Jewell gets his players up for a game not in blood and thunder but in a cool ability to continue playing the game the right way even under pressure. Paul Scharner’s finish typified Jewell as much as Mills or Blake’s goals at Wolves did.

He leave Wigan, as he did City, in a ridiculously better position than when he found them and one hopes Dave Whelan’s reaction is no the same as Geoffrey Richmond’s but one would not be surprised if it was.

How much of the £50m war chest would Wigan have to spend to make up for what they have lost? I suspect that war chest is not deep enough. The millions we gave for Benito Carbone, Dan Petrescu, Ashley Ward et al could not come close to fixing the hole caused by the departure of the gaffer.

Jewell could have everything needed as a manager – he needs to show he can work with bigger budgets and bigger players which is probably why he has moved on – but he lacks loyalty. It has taken him seven years to prove his second year in the Premiership credentials and still Whelan’s bombastism questions Jewell’s ability to get on with the people who give him his jobs.

Nevertheless for now Jewell will hope to make a better step this time than he did last when he exited City for the mire of Sheffield Wednesday but even should he make that mistake again one suspects his reputation as a manager equipt for the last day heroic will survive.

Jewell, eyeing the big time, wants more.

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