Aaron McLean and the heroes of failure

The collective view of history

There is a view of history which holds that if there had never been a Genghis Khan, a Joseph Stalin, a Pol Pot, then the course of the world would have been drastically different. No Mongol hordes, no Cold War, no pogrom.

This is the individual view of history.

There is a competing view that suggests that those three people, indeed any person of history, is only of history because of the rising and falling of collective events. That if it had not been Genghis Khan then someone else would have been credited for leading the hordes, and history would have remember their name instead. That large groups rather than an individual caused the world to turn.

This is the collective view of history. It is less exciting, but probably more accurate.

From Pol Pot to Pulis

Stoke City’s rise to the place of mid-table in the Premier League is largely down to former manager Tony Pulis, and Pulis puts any success he has had down to a recruitment policy based on character.

When speaking about Ryan Shawcross Pulis commended the defender’s character – which is to say his desire to win football matches – saying that a team was built on players such as Shawcross.

“You can have other players who don’t have that (character),” Pulis added, “but only for eighteen months and then you have to move them on.”

The heroes of failure

Why do Bradford City supporters not curse the name Benito Carbone? Why is Ashley Ward’s time at the club given a light disregard when the memory of Mike Duxbury can cause grown men to froth at the mouth? What is it about Darren Morgan that has some City fans reserving a place in the inner circle of failure which even Aaron McLean – seemingly leaving City this week – need not fear reaching?

And what is this word scapegoat which is applied in defence of McLean? Has his treatment been unfair? What are the mechanics of failure at a club like Bradford City that can lionise one player and condemn another.

And let me start by saying…

When Aaron McLean leaves Bradford City, few will be upset. McLean has done well in the past proving his ability but did not do well at Bradford City. The sort of ability McLean is credited with is rare for Bradford City players over the last decade. Few players have been criticised for want of motivation rather than ability.

More common in the last decade have been the players who have shown a level of effort that defined their abilities. The words “give everything” are used about James Hanson, Gary Jones, and Andrew Davies. Players like Barry Conlon, Matthew Clarke and Lee Crooks were never said to be shirking, just that they were poor footballers.

McLean gets to nestle his name alongside Ashley Ward, Nicky Summerbee and Bobby Petta in the players who idled away their talents rather than had no talent to begin with.

In the worst possible way

Aaron McLean arrived to replace Nahki Wells. Wells enjoyed a meteoric rise at Bradford City. His speed and eye for goal were impressive and he played a role in taking City to Wembley twice in three months. After an early exchange of distaste for his choice of clubs following City it seems that Wells has settled back into his place in the hearts of City fans.

One might speculate that the fact that Wells has joined a Huddersfield side in the year they have achieved next to nothing is his saving grace for City fans. Were Town in the play-offs and Wells the architect of that, then things may be different.

But Wells is not an architect. The type of player he is – they are called “finishers” for a reason – puts him at the necessary end point rather than the engine room of a team. Wells was the end of a team of Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, James Hanson et al. Those players were the big characters who pushed the team. Wells, Nathan Doyle, Will Atkinson, Carl McHugh were (seemingly, and by virtue of their exit) the “eighteen monthers” that Pulis talks about.

Being Phil Parkinson

Losing Gary Jones was inevitable. Phil Parkinson probably joins with the rest of City fans who watch the skipper playing for Notts County and wonders if there was another year in the now 37-year old midfielder, but giving him that extra year is a delay of the inevitable need to replace him.

Losing a player like Gary Jones from your team – be it from age or transfer – matters more than losing a player like Wells because of the type of strong character he is. Bringing in or building a replacement takes time and may not be achieved. Those old enough may remember the attempt to replace the massive presence of Stuart McCall with Iain Banks and wince at the memory. If you are younger, read “Gary Locke” for Banks.

It is Parkinson’s hardest job and while developing Billy Knott may be a long term solution, one suspects the City manager has concluded that he needs to bring a character into the side and is working to that end. At the moment though Parkinson puts out the team he has and that team has some qualities, although is lacking in others.

Who does not love Xaviar Barrau?

Who was the scapegoat in David Wetherall’s relegation side which was the worst team Bradford City have fielded in my lifetime? Who carries the can for those feeble months? Not Wetherall, and not his players. Spencer Weir-Daley’s many misses against Leyton Orient and Omar Daley’s giving up of the ball on the wing are critical memories but on the whole the players are not criticised. Kelly Youga (injured during his time at the club) is fondly remembered. Who does not a place in his heart for Xaviar Barrau?

Wetherall’s side were simply too poor for scapegoats. To single out one player is to allow a club and a culture at a club to be freed from blame. No one points the finger because no one has enough fingers to point.

Likewise relegation from the Premier League is never assigned to a group of players, and the likes of Benito Carbone are heroes of the club. Circumstances dictate that a scapegoat will not be found, at least not on the field.

Parkinson’s team are not so outgunned as those two examples. The are far better than Wetherall’s side for sure, and the rest of League One is – in relative terms to City – not as good as the rest of the Premiership was in 2000.

Phil Parkinson’s team are closer to success. Indeed at the moment City win and lose on the basis (seemingly, but probably not in the opinion of the management) of individual actions. Billy Clarke puts the ball an inch lower and Oldham away is a good point; Christopher Routis heads a ball into the stands against Sheffield United then City get a battling point with ten men and so on.

Just as two years ago Rory McArdle’s determination was the difference between winning and losing against Aston Villa in the League Cup semi-final. When the difference between success and failure is small there is a temptation to assign it to individuals and individual actions.

Stevie Gee

Importantly though one can only justify assigning success to individuals when margins are small. A scapegoat is the player who did not apply the marginal difference. The opposite – a player who applied the individual difference between success and failure – is what he call in football a hero

Watching the career of Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard is watching that that theory in action. In European Cup and FA Cup finals (both of which ended 3-3) he has been heroic because he has been the individual difference between success and failure.

Last season his defensive slip against Chelsea – an individual mistake – seemed to cost his team the Premier League title. “If he had not slipped” is said with a misty eye by many, but few ask what would have happened if (now Liverpool’s) Dejan Lovren foul on Daniel Sturridge in November 2013 in a Southampton 1-0 win at Anfield had been given as a penalty.

Scapegoating is arbitrary.

Had Aaron set off in time

Aaron McLean’s first game at Sheffield United for City – a 2-2 draw – had the striker almost score the goal which almost built his confidence and almost put him on a run of goalscoring, and so on.

McLean is in poor form, and plays like a player in poor form, and many people (not me) consider that the problem City face at the moment is the need for a finisher. The logic follows easily that McLean, a finisher, could be difference between wins and defeats.

My view of football is increasingly more inline with Pulis, and it is more inline with the collective view of history. When Nahki Wells was scoring for City it was not because of his abilities so much as because of the team’s abilities (which he was a part of) and had you dropped Aaron McLean in then, McLean would be the “Goal Machine” his name so cruelly rhymes with. If you put Wells into the current City team, he would struggle.

The team struggles because of the recrafting job that is needed on its core following Jones’ departure. and the wider break up of the “History Makers” team that Phil Parkinson built. The eighteen months were up, and now Parkinson starts again. The manager is not back at square one, and the fact that the gap between success and failure seems bridgeable is a frustration, and causes this illusion.

Nahki Wells was a hero of Bradford City’s success.

Aaron McLean, because of his place in our history, is a hero of failure.

Reacting to the cold, sifting the good from the bad

Defeats are always worse in the cold.

A miserable night and a miserable result for Bradford City going down 3-0 at home to a Rochdale side that – in a League Two context – redefined ebullience.

As the bitter winter drew into Valley Parade the Bantams were beaten by what was probably the best team to come to the stadium in the two and a half years since relegation.

All had started bright enough for Stuart McCall’s side when the early exchanges saw City pinging a cross over that James Hanson turned just wide of the post and the 433 formation that saw James O’Brien return to a midfield alongside Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock and Gareth Evans and new boy Simon Whaley flank Hanson up front seemed to pile pressure onto the side which had ambitions for the top of the division.

Ambitions they would realise by the end of the evening and with no little help from City – Steve Williams’s attempt to clear a ball and his inability to step up after he had given that ball away saw a ball ended up being fired under Simon Eastwood for Dale’s first goal scored by Chris Dagnall.

The visitors played like a team brimful of confidence and as drilled as any who have been to VP for years with every man pressing at City. The full backs added to the wide men to force City’s two wide strikers to come back and be employed as weak midfielders – almost wing backs at times – resulting in a poor first home start for Whaley and Evans’s worst game since he signed for City.

The two wide played stolen away James Hanson cut a lonely and easily policed figure up front while James O’Brien struggled to get a grip in the midfield – the problem with 19 year old players is that they are, by nature, inconstant and hindsight says that McCall would have been better with the more experianced head of Chris Brandon, not that I would have made that decision at 19:45.

Luke O’Brien and Simon Ramsden – who later switched inside to cover (one assumes) an injured Zesh Rehman leaving Jonathan Bateson on the flank – were exposed by Whaley and Evans’s inability to perform both jobs adequately and the ball inside Ramsden ten scattered minutes after the first goal was centred by 39 minute City loanee Chris O’Grady for Dagnall’s second.

The Bantams players got heads up after but the support on the whole rounded on the players with not one player saved a lashing of tongue (and often worse than lashing, but let us concentrate on the main thrust) and a suggestion of their inability. All teams who are not winning at half time are booed of these days, but is there not a distinction to be made between a team playing badly and another team playing well and – if that is a distinction – was it the case on this evening?

Rochdale played as well as any side who have come to Valley Parade in this league have done and showed signs of belief in each other that the Bantams aim towards. One could spend fifteen minutes at half time reviewing every City player to find a problem in his performance but ultimately the main problem the Bantams had tonight was that they were playing against a side that played brilliantly. Swapping out any of the City squad, switching formations, changing personnel: none of those things would have altered that.

Last season’s 3-0 reversal at Spotland saw Paul Arnison hung out to dry for not being able to cope with Will Atkinson who presented a myriad of problems for Simon Ramsden tonight. When does it stop being the fault of our right back that a cross has come over and start being the credit of their left winger? Did right backs up and down the First Division lose their jobs the week after Peter Beagrie ripped them to shreds in 1999?

The build up of understanding between Dale’s pairings – the two at the back, the midfield pair, wide payers, the forwards who caused problems all night with a running off the ball and movement that border on zealous – was honed and the strength of will in the squad was evident and there as an example – no, as something to aim for – to City and to all sides in League Two and beyond. Well drilled, confident teams will always do well, they should always do well.

Rochdale got a third – O’Grady scoring after some more defensive hi-jinx – but any bad luck the Bantams had in the odd run of the ball was made up by two or three great saves which earned him a man of the match award in a match that City could hardly get into. Scott Neilson arrived late and nudged a headed chance at goal but the result was a long time decided at that point.

Ultimately while supporters will no doubt go into a catatonia of debate over the reasons and machinations behind tonight’s result – and while everyone will have a different take on those elements – it will be Stuart McCall’s decision as to sift out what he considers to be issues which can be addressed and those which came around as the result of an excellent performance by the visitors.

I have said many times in the past that the key to dealing with results good and bad is to minimise and move on and that is McCall’s task now. To isolate the problems which can be addressed and to address them, then ignore the others and not let the fact that another team has played well force his thinking away from the idea that the side – the young side – is learning and improving. Tonight was a lesson, and a spanking, but it is something which is learnt from.

The Rochdale fans asked if they could play City every week – considering the one win each of the season then we might take them up on that – but in all likelihood should they maintain that level of performance it would have to be in a division above. The last time Rochdale were promoted The Beatles were number one (with Get Back, which, oh irony, they did) and Keith Hill’s side have managed to escape promotion twice over the last two years.

City on the other hand take stock, sift the good from the bad and move onto Darlington on Saturday. Seasons are made up of cold winter nights like this and how they are reacted too.

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