The 2010/11 season reviewed: part one, on the pitch – when the wheels came off

There is always one game in every season, one moment in that game, that one moment in that one game in the season when everything can change, when things can either come together or fall apart for the rest of the season.”

The Damned Utd, David Peace

Saturday 8 January 2011, and Bradford City are leading second bottom Barnet 1-0 at Valley Parade. The home side have been dominant since the half time break, twice hitting the woodwork, but a second goal hasn’t materialised. Yet they are well on track for an eighth win in 13 league games; and as it stands only goal difference will keep them out of the play offs. After a bad start to the season, it all seems to be coming together for City under Taylor – who during the week had turned down the Newcastle United assistant manager’s job – and hopes of promotion are high.

But during the second half, standards begin to slip. The players stop working hard for each other, stop getting the little things right, stop pressing the visitors. It’s as if the game had become too easy for them, that they believe that can coast it. It was to prove costly.

That one moment in that one game in the season when everything can change occurs when on-loan defender Rob Kiernan needlessly heads a Barnet cross into his own net. It is a truly shocking moment, and as the home side go onto collapse in the game – eventually losing 3-1 – it leads to a shocking second half to the season. This moment triggers the start of a run that sees the Bantams win just six of their remaining 24 games. Soon we wouldn’t be looking upwards, but nervously over our shoulders.

It would be a ridiculous assumption to make that, without Kiernan’s game-changing own goal that afternoon, the Bantams would have fulfilled those pre-season expectations of at least a top seven finish, but it certainly killed growing momentum and spurred the subsequent nosedive in form. A moment of madness, that instigated a maddening end to the season. That it could have ended much worse than it did is a consolation of sorts, but can’t disguise the scale of under-achievement.

Four months on from that dismal January afternoon, it’s hard to believe we were once able to harbour hopes of promotion. Yet although the season begin woefully, a more acceptable autumn had seemingly set City up for an exhilarating second half to the campaign. Along the way, there’d been some brilliant moments – the apparent season-turning win in the London sunshine at Barnet, the thrilling come-from-behind 3-1 victory over Cheltenham, the crazy second half 5-0 crushing of Oxford, and the jubilant 1-0 success on a rain-soaked Tuesday night at Bury. “We are going up” we sung with growing conviction. “Peter Taylor’s Bradford Army” we chanted with feeling.

Comparisons were made with the last successful Bantams promotion bid in 1999, where the players and management recovered from a nightmare start to climb into the top two and hold their nerve. Certainly the early season results bore strong similarity, as City began with four defeats from their five opening league matches. Occasional signs of improvement – a fortuitous last minute win over Gillingham and credible 0-0 draw at Rotherham – were quickly forgotten as poor results continued. In truth, only the commendable League Cup showings against Championship clubs Notts Forest and Preston provided us any hope that the players could turn it round.

Morecambe at home in early October was arguably the worst performance of the entire campaign, the 1-0 loss failing to do justice to how badly City performed. Having defended so well at Rotherham days earlier, the decision by Taylor to drop strong performers Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien for two young kids signed on loan from Manchester United seemed to deflate players and fans. Meanwhile lanky defender Luke Oliver was still playing up front, which made for largely ugly viewing. Taylor was subject to a torrent of abuse at full time. National media speculation grew that he was one game from the sack.

Then came that huge win at Barnet, and much improved form. Taylor, it seemed, had evolved team selection to finding the right players, and the best football of the season came during October. Omar Daley was deployed in a free role, partnering either James Hanson or Jason Price up front. Lee Hendrie was displaying his Premier League pedigree wide left, while David Syers was proving a revelation in the centre of midfield alongside an in-form Tommy Doherty. At the back, Steve Williams was outstanding while summer signing Shane Duff was, for a spell, able to shake off injuries and impress.

Form slowed a little, but victories – such as over Hereford in December – still occurred regularly enough to keep City in the position of play off dark horses. There were a number of injured players due to return in the New Year, and Taylor confidently talked up the prospects of truly kicking on.

Of course that never happened, and seven weeks after turning down Newcastle Taylor departed the club having seen his popularity sink drastically. We knew before he arrived in February a year earlier that City would be more dour under his management, but not this dire. Lack of entertainment might have been tolerated if the Bantams were winning each week – though that early season win over Stevenage put doubts to that – but losing and playing negative defensive football was a miserable combination. So Taylor left – the b*****ds having ground him down.

His final match in charge – a 3-2 victory over nine-man Stockport, where Gareth Evans netted in stoppage time to send us into raptures – had seemingly eased the threat of relegation. But despite interim manager Peter Jackson winning two of his first three matches in charge, fears kept returning that our league status could be surrendered. Jackson at least had City playing more attractive, attacking football – but results failed to improve. Heavy defeats in April to Torquay, Southend and Accrington left the Bantams too close to the relegation zone for comfort. Jackson – not able to make any signings – was having to make do without key defenders, as the injury problems continued and the club’s financial issues began to come to light.

In the end enough was done to preserve league football, but it remains an enduring mystery how City under-performed to such an extent this season. Taylor blamed it all upon the injury list, and this probably explained how a promotion push never ultimately materialised. But it does not fully justify finishing seventh bottom of the entire Football League, as the lowest scorers in the three divisions.

Taylor had a strong budget, certainly strong enough to do better. The rotten luck with injuries suggests he was right to bring in quantity over quality during the summer, but City were too badly lacking in certain positions. Daley and Leon Osborne were the only natural wingers at the club after Taylor sold Scott Neilson a fortnight into the season. On the eve of the campaign Taylor admitted he feared he was lacking a quality goalscorer and he was to be proven right. There was so much inconsistency to team selection. A curiously high number of players made captain.

Too many chiefs. Not nearly enough leaders.

And not for the first season, we were left to question the number of loan players brought in and lack of longer-term thinking. While club captain Rehman should have handled the situation of being continually left out for inexperienced loanees better, he deserved fairer treatment from Taylor. When Tom Adeyemi scored a consolation at Port Vale in February, there was something unsettling about how pleased he looked about it. Although Richard Eckersley caught the eye at times, on other occasions he seemed more interested in looking good than taking the right option when in possession. For whatever reason, it just didn’t look as though everyone was pulling in the same direction; desperate to achieve the same things.

Ultimately, only Syers and O’Brien can look back on the season with their head held high. Others contributed positively at times, but more should be expected and demanded. Yet still – no matter how awful the league table looks and how much misery we’ve had to endure over the past 10 months – were it not for the one moment in that one game, this season might have turned out oh so differently.

The fifth midfield shows as City face Northampton

In a season which promised much and delivered little it has been difficult to bring to mind any reasons to be cheerful as City look to the future but – when those reasons are brought to mind – chief in them is the performance of David Syers.

Signed at the start of the season from Guiseley Syers arrived at Valley Parade looking very much like an unnecessary third wheel in the midfield. With Tom Ademeyi added to an assumed midfield three of Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and Tommy Doherty it seemed that Syers was going to find first team opportunities limited.

His debut goal – the equaliser in a game with Nottingham Forest – did not harm his case but twenty starts later Syers’ honest endeavours have seen him not only elevated from signed up curio to hope for the future but also activate a second year clause in is contract.

Without a manager in place for new season let alone a set of players it is hard to see Bradford City 2011/2012 but were Syers to be within that somewhere and somewhere in the midfield.

The one thing that has united all four seasons of City teams in League Two has been midfield failure with the sum of parts so often being less than it should be. Doherty and co this season should have been a superb set up but not only did they often have the ball over their head under Peter Taylor but when they did get a chance to play they failed to take enough of a grip of matches. Doherty is the poster boy for this season’s midfield failure. A favourite of Taylor, a player of massive ability, but it just did not happen for him.

Nor did it happen for the Michael Flynn midfield under Stuart McCall the previous year. Flynn’s hard work did not cut a swathe through the division although the player himself performed well. In its way that year of midfield was no worse the much lauded previous season with Paul McLaren, Dean Furman and Nicky Law. All talented, none of whom were able to grab games by the scruff of the neck.

Paul McLaren – the senior professional – taken the blame for that but once again is a very talented footballer as was the first League Two midfield boss Paul Evans the fading of whom remains a mystery to me as well as one of the most disappointing player seasons I’ve ever seen.

Four season, four midfields and none of them simply poor at football but all of them coming up short.

Not so – at the moment – Jon Worthington who bestrode the City midfield like no other player at this level since we sank down. Worthington’s first full ninety minutes came last week at Morecambe and has he battled for every ball so did the rest of the team. It was inspiring to watch.

One has to wonder what Worthington – benched under Taylor who signed him – did to not impress the previous gaffer but in his old Huddersfield boss Peter Jackson Worthington has someone who knows the value of a proper holding midfielder.

The Flynn/Worthington midfield is a solid foundation – the Syers/Worthington one could have promise too – and one which has the kind of battering energy which is often seen in the teams which exit this league in the right direction.

Gareth Evans missed a penalty last week after a tireless display of not little ability while Kevin Ellison – who won said spot kick – seems set to take Scott Dobie’s place in on the left wing. Omar Daley has become available to recall from loan by Jackson after his first month at Rotherham and has let it be known to those who know him that he will play for anyone who gives him a contract for next season.

Also letting things be known this week was Jake Speight who tweeted to former City skipper Zesh Rehman spelling out the change in attitude at the club and his support for his new manager saying

speighty28: @Zesh_Rehman yes bro am good thanks! Yeah finally back playing new gaffers class 2 be fair! Its a lot better here now! How is it over there?

Rehman is enjoying Thailand – so he says – and is pleased that Speight is feeling the same as shows in his (that word again) energetic performances of late which hint at – rather than promise – goals. Perhaps the game with Northampton will be the day that Speight gets the goals that his input suggests but football can be unfair. Speight will be up front with James Hanson.

Jon McLaughlin may keep his place at the back after his clean sheet although Lenny Pidgeley hopes to be fit again. The back four of Lewis Hunt, Steve Williams, Luke Oliver and Luke O’Brien also celebrated a clean sheet and will be retained for the Cobbler’s visit.

Northampton sit below City in League Two – although they too have a new manager in the highly impressive Gary Johnson – and a win for the Bantams would do much to secure Football League status sooner rather than later.

Which would strengthen Peter Jackson’s claim for the Bradford City job long term – and perhaps this time long term could be more than a season – so the likes of David Syers might be able to be considered to be part of the club for more than a season by season basis.

The case for the defence

Peter Taylor takes his Bradford City time into the definitive Christmas period with a string of defensive injuries and a decision to make over Zesh Rehman.

An injury to Rob Kiernan stretched Taylor’s defensive resources seeing the Bantams manager push striker Jason Price into the back four while Rehman – disciplined by the club – sat in the stands.

Simon Ramsden is expected to miss the entire Christmas programme but Steve Williams, Lewis Hunt and Shane Duff could all feature at some point but the City boss has thin ranks for five games in two weeks. Three full backs are fit in Richard Eckersley, Luke O’Brien and Robbie Threlfall and three central defenders in Kiernan, Luke Oliver and – should be be brought back into the fold, the transfer listed Rehman.

Rehman’s possible exit aside Taylor’s squad is enter a period of flux. Keeper Lenny Pidgeley, David Syers, sometimes skipper Lee Hendrie and a host of loan players may all leave the club leaving the 2011 Bradford City that Taylor attempts to push to promotion much different to the late 2010 version.

Hendrie, Syers, who it is believed has attracted interest from up the leagues after his first four months in professional football, and Tom Ademeyi could all leave following the Christmas period and – to strengthen City’s appeal to those players – five good results would no doubt strengthen the Bantam’s case to those they wish to keep. All three players are expected to make a midfield with Tommy Doherty.

There is no indication that James Hanson will leave City although it was thought that Coventry City were watching the striker before they signed Marlon King. Hanson strikes one as the kind of player who will have convinced the entire City crowd on his exit. Like Ron Futcher, Dean Windass and a host of other players before him once Hanson is gone and City return to seeing the ball cleared with some ease when put towards the strikers then Hanson’s critics will see their error.

And formally apologise to the rest of us, just like the people who jeered Dean Windass provoking his exit, and our relegation.

Hanson will line up with Omar Daley in the forward line at Crewe.

Crewe – who are making much of Clayton Donaldson in their forward line – sit two points off the play offs in 9th having come off a 3-3 draw with Stockport last time out.

Dario Grady says that Crewe are looking for new defenders. Aren’t we all?

Everyone loses as Zesh Rehman is transfer listed by Peter Taylor

I’ve always been the type of supporter who takes the manager’s side in public fall outs with players.

Paul Jewell v Lee Mills, Jim Jefferies v Stuart McCall, Colin Todd v Lee Crooks, Stuart McCall v Chris Brandon. Sure, I often understood the player’s grievance, but the way the would have behaved or lack of acknowledgement of the bigger picture left me ultimately agreeing with the manager’s point of view.

But when it comes to Zesh Rehman’s falling out with Peter Taylor, I have to stick my flag firmly in the middle.

This evening on BBC Radio Leeds, Taylor confirmed that Rehman has been transfer listed and stripped of the captaincy due to comments he made in an interview for the same station on Monday. Rehman had spoken out about how unhappy he is to have been dropped on more than one occasion to make way for inexperienced loan players, despite playing very well for the team and helping City achieve some good results. Rehman’s comments can be read here, but in summary he stated:

I’m not going to lie, it’s left a bad taste in my mouth having to watch the last few games from the bench. I’ve led the team to good results and performances and then I’ve had four young loan defenders, with 10 league games between them, come in and play ahead of me. Now, no disrespect to them, but at times like this I think you need experience. I’m club captain, have played over 200 games in my career so far and I think my experience could help the team right now.

“It’s not just me that’s baffled as to why I’m not playing, but my team-mates as well and I’ve been stopped by a number of fans too. But, at the end of the day, the manager has to pick the team that he thinks can win and you have to respect that and get on with it.”

Rehman’s comments are far from out of the blue, a month ago he expressed similar comments to the Telegraph & Argus, after Reece Brown and Oliver Gill’s time on loan had come to an end and the Pakistan international recalled. Last week, a triumphant piece of reporting of Rehman’s Downing Street meeting with David Cameron on City’s official website initially included reference to the Prime Minister expressing his confusion of why he kept getting dropped – only for the offending paragraph to be removed from the page hours later.

Rehman was probably warned about his public comments, and one can understand why Taylor would be angry at having his authority questioned in this manner again. With his unusual background in football, Zesh is regularly sought out for interviews in the national media and has more opportunities than others to express his views. His latest public utterances appear very ill-judged.

On Radio Leeds tonight, Taylor, who had had been listening to Radio Leeds at home when Rehman spoke, explained:

There’s been a couple of situations recently he should have been disciplined for but didn’t. I think I’ve been very open…to say he’s very unlucky to be left out. Every time I’ve made a decision it’s been an honest one. I felt listening to him on your programme Monday night, that was very unnecessary…I think as a club captain he’s let himself down. The timing is poor, and I think he knows what he is doing.

But if it’s difficult to sympathise with Rehman’s actions, it is very easy to understand them. Of course Rehman’s City career has not been the success we hoped when he signed in January 2009. Last season the list of poor performances from City’s number 5 was disappointingly high. He was at times fortunate to retain a place in the starting eleven. But his end of season form was good under Taylor, and the manager could have easily got rid of him during the summer. We can all argue whether he deserved another chance this season, but in been given one he is surely then entitled to a fair crack of the whip.

Rehman would make few supporters’ best City XI when everyone is fit, but with so many defenders on the sidelines he has come in and performed commendably – including playing out of his best position, at right back. And the number of clean sheets and good results his precence in the team helped to earn was evidence of the positive difference he was making.

Then along would come another young loan player, and Rehman was back on the bench.

In such circumstances, who wouldn’t feel frustrated and angry at being forced to make way for young players who were hardly any better or capable? If, in our own jobs and careers, we were giving everything we had to the cause and knew we were making a difference, only for the person above us to decide to bring in someone else to do our job for a few weeks and force us into doing something less, we’d have every right to feel aggrieved. The right way of expressing that anger is a matter of debate, but Rehman’s choices doesn’t make his anger any less valid.

Rehman talks about younger, inexperienced players coming in – and we’ve all seen the struggles Reece Brown, Oliver Gill, Rob Kieran and, to a lesser extent, Rob Eckersley have endured when arriving at Valley Parade. But in some ways this isn’t really the point. Taylor could have brought in Glen Johnson on loan to play right back instead of Rehman, but if the general principle is the loan player is here for just four or five games and then departs back to their club what is the benefit in the medium to longer-term?

City badly need to have a settled team and a settled squad, who are realistically all equal and where the victors of the first team jerseys on a Saturday achieve their places on merit. For sure City have had injuries lately and, after Steve Williams was injured at Colchester last month, Taylor had no choice but to bring in a loan defender with Williams joining Shane Duff, Simon Ramsden and Lewis Hunt on the sidelines. But he did not need to bring in two defenders and drop an in-form Rehman. He could have signed just Kiernan and kept Zesh as right back, he could have signed just Eckersley and moved Rehman to his natural centre back position.

The point is that City’s reserve players should have the clear motivation of a first team opportunity to push for if there are injuries or loss of form; but if Taylor rules those reserve players are not good enough then why have a squad at all? And why the philosophy of having two players for every position if the back up guy can’t be trusted? If Taylor wanted to be so reliant on the loan market, he could have signed fewer players during the summer and targeted higher quality over quantity.

Rehman talked about other players not understanding why he was dropped – a favourite line used by players who speak out against their manager and one which frankly does him no favours. But it is worth pondering what message Rehman’s continuing dropping from the team for young loanees sends to the rest of the squad fighting for opportunities. What if Luke O’Brien was to get injured in training tomorrow, would Taylor bring in Robbie Threlfall or sign a loanee who is better at attacking than the more conservative-natured former Liverpool youngster?

But let us not pin the blame for this situation on Taylor, for it is a deeper issue running through the club which has led to this public bust up. 2010 has been the year of short-termism for City. The dumping of McCall, the trialling of Taylor and, most damaging of all, then only offering him a one-year contract. This season is all about promotion, and as things stand Taylor will be joining Rehman in leaving Valley Parade just a few months later. We had the outstanding candidate, he told the club what was needed to deliver success. That advice was rewarded with just a short-term contract and then failed promises – and it will be Taylor who carries the can for it.

And so Taylor has to focus all efforts on getting the club promoted this season in order to keep his job. So he has no time for short-term poor results and for developing players like Rehman, when his job will likely depend on very thin margins. He has to get a result on a Saturday, and another the Saturday after. If the best chance of doing that is bringing in a kid from Watford for a few games then who can blame him. Worry about a few weeks time, when that kid departs, later.

If Taylor had been handed a two-year deal and the buffer that this season was not promotion or bust, he could have channelled his efforts wider in developing a squad that would grow and improve over time and City would be all the stronger for that, rather than get rid of players who can’t quite do what he wants and needs in an instant. We are, in many ways, wasting Taylor’s talents by the pressure all of us force him to work under.

It is a great shame that Rehman is going to be departing this club. He is a clearly a fantastic person, who has done a great deal for Bradford City, even if you argue most of it has been off the field. He may not have boosted Asian attendances to Valley Parade in the way some hoped, but the manner of his work in the community and in acting as an ambassador for the club have been outstanding and could have significantly born fruit over time.

But sadly we are a club which has turned to quick wins over long-term thinking. And right now it seems nobody wins.

Cameron joins questions as to why Rehman does not get in the City team

Peter Taylor is talking once again about the need for more loan signings at Valley Parade as he looks at the shape of his squad.

We’ve been forced to get young lads on loan because of the injuries we’ve had in some areas.

Of so the City manager said. Going into the specifics of the squad City’s injuries seem to emanate out from the right back berth taking in Simon Ramsden and Lewis Hunt as well as Shane Duff and Steve Williams at centreback. The lads drafted in are Rob Kiernan, Richard Eckersley now and previous Oliver Gill and Reece Brown.

Zesh Rehman – who can play both the right back and central defensive positions – seems to have become persona non grata and when Taylor talks about the City squad Rehman – it appears – is not to be considered.

David Cameron this week joins the English bid to host the World Cup in 2018 – one of the things he will tell FIFA is that unlike the Russians racism is not a problem in English football – as the Prime Minister joins in with the national game.

Cameron and Rehman met last week with the PM praising the City captain’s foundation which aims to promote the cause of British Asians in football. Cameron has some nice things to say to the City skipper and – albeit only briefly reported on the City website before being removed – the Prime Minister offered this opinion as related by Rehman.

He seemed a little mystified as to why I had been in and out of the side this season despite leading the team to good results and performances.

Reaching the position of Prime Minister is a lot about being able to say the right thing to the right person at the right time – one of Cameron’s predecessors Tony Blair famously had a different favourite food depending on where he was when asked: Fish and Chip in South Shields, something French when down that London – and this need not always be considered what is correct but one has to wonder why Rehman cools his heels while Rob Kiernan and Richard Eckersley are in the side.

The arguments of playing other people’s players over our own in this case and – especially playing Tom Adeyemi over young, owned players like David Syers – has been talked about at length and is a separate question as to why Rehman is isolated from the squad.

(As much as it pains me to say it) Cameron is right that Rehman’s performances in the City side have seen good result and good performances – much of the optimism coming into this season was on the back of the last six games of last season which that Rehman put in a half dozen great displays – but nevertheless something in the mix of Rehman and Bradford City seems to misfire when it comes to a place in the starting eleven. The club seem to acknowledge this if only in their desire not to talk about it shown with the rapid use of the memory hole.

One could speculate about what goes on in the dressing room but it would be just that – speculation – but whatever the reason a cash strapped club seems to find money to bring in a player who can play while a contracted one is on the sidelines.

The club captain who cannot get in the team for a couple of borrowed players, the guy who does great work off the field but can’t get onto it. A player who plays well when he plays, but does not often play.

It is a mystery – and one that I have no answers for – but a mystery which even the Prime Minister cannot fathom.

The wrong type of match winner

With little to separate two very good League Two sides, the likelihood that one mistake would settle this contest grew as the minutes ticked by. Yet it wasn’t any of the 21 players left on the field who were to ultimately determine this outcome, but the man who was supposed to ensure it was a fair contest.

Mick Russell capped a truly appalling refereeing display with a moment of confusion which allowed Wycombe to take advantage of Bradford City hesitation and Kevin Betsy to tap home a loose ball.

Only seconds earlier, the linesman had flagged for a Wycombe free kick which the City players stopped and waited to be taken – with the fouled home player lying on the ground apparently needing treatment. But Matt Bloomfield continued charging into the area – to everyone’s confusion – and attempted to take the ball around Lenny Pidgley. After City’s keeper tripped up the home striker, Betsy struck. The fact other Wycombe players had also stopped and the home crowd was at first quiet as Bloomfield raced forwards summed up the confusion.

City’s players were left fuming and they surrounded both the referee and linesman. There will be two arguments against their complaints – firstly Russell will have claimed he played advantage in allowing Bloomfield to run through. Fair point usually; but during an erratic display Russell had shown bizarre levels of inconsistency in the application of the advantage rule.

Twice during the first half, for example, City had been on the attack and fouled by a home player, but were still in possession and able to continue. Frustratingly, Russell stopped the game to lecture the players who’d produced fouls, rather than allowing City’s momentum to continue. It is therefore understandable why they would assume a free kick for Wycombe in a similar situation would result in the same pausing of the match.

The other argument, the old “play to the whistle”, is also worth pondering. No doubt Russell will have argued back to fuming City players that he had not blown his whistle to confirm the linesman’s flagging up of the free kick, so they were at fault for assuming. But still there was no obvious gesture he was playing advantage, and so City can feel justified in their complaints they had stopped the game believing it was a home free kick.

Only after Russell had finished arguing the ‘goal’ over with Pidgley and Zesh Rehman – the latter receiving a booking for the level of his protest – did the Hertfordshire referee bother to talk to his linesman. As the pair were locked in conversation, the possibility that the goal would be disallowed temporarily flickered. Yet having got this far, such an admission of error would have been horrendously embarrassing. Whether or not Russell still believed he was right, it was easier to continue the game with Wycombe a goal ahead.

Such incompetence was in keeping with display that saw Russell enrage almost every person inside Adams Park at some point over the 90 minutes. Former Wycombe midfielder Tommy Doherty was sent off on the hour for reacting badly to a strong challenge from Gareth Ainsworth. A fair decision, but when minutes later Wycombe’s Dave Winfield pushed Jason Price in the face after producing a crude challenge on Omar Daley, but only received a yellow card, the double standards were again there for all to see.

It wasn’t that Russell was biased, it wasn’t even a case that he was influenced by pressure from home fans. He was just an appalling referee who made a series of bad decisions against both teams, and it just so happened the random pattern to his decision-making was to cause the Bantams to lose the game. He could just have easily have made poor decisions that led to an away win. And there above all was the frustrating factor. A good referee is supposed to go unnoticed, a bad referee like Russell has such a strong influence he actually determines who wins.

The real problem with referees in general is the incredible variety of standards. Week-by-week, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. In one match the referee will let everything go, in another the official will issue 12 yellow cards. Today we saw a number of  well-timed tackles deemed as fouls, while some awful challenges went unpunished. Midway through the first half David Syers was charging forward on the counter attack with just one defender for company. He was crudely barged over, only for the referee to wave play on. 10 minutes later Syers won a free kick when he was fairly tackled. Just what was the basis for such inconsistent decisions?

When Russell wasn’t misjudging incidents, a very good game of football was threatening to break out. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been here a few seasons now and are over the culture shock, but this year the standard of League Two seems stronger. Wycombe looked another excellent side who liked to pass the ball on the deck and produce attractive football, if physical at times in their approach.

The Chairboys began the game well, despite Daley forcing a good save out of keeper Nikki Bull in the opening two minutes. Manager Gary Waddock appeared to have had City well-scouted and his players attempted to isolate full backs Rehman and Luke O’Brien by doubling up on them when attacking. The battle between the wily Ainsworth and O’Brien was especially enthralling, with City’s home-grown defender yet again performing admirably.

Taylor had to work on getting wide players Tom Adeyemi and Lee Hendrie to be more central with Tommy Doherty and David Syers, to cut the supply line. Eventually Ainsworth was withdrawn to a more deeper central role, such was City’s success in blocking Wycombe’s tactics.

And by that stage City had grown from a tentative start to give as good as they got. Daley was again a real handful and caused all kinds of problems in his free role. Price, in for the absent James Hanson, was his usual consistently strong self and did the ugly things very effectively. Clear cut chances were limited for both sides – a magnificent Pidgley save from Stuart Beavon’s header the best opening for either side – but a few close efforts from Daley and five successive corners underlined City’s attacking threat. A strong City penalty appeal was also turned down, naturally.

The pattern continued into the second half; but as easy on the eye as the one touch football from both sides was, this was a game where defences remained largely on top. It may not have been a happy return to Wycombe for Doherty and Taylor, but Luke Oliver enjoyed another outstanding display and produced a number of superb tackles and interceptions. Alongside him on-loan Watford defender Rob Kiernan made his debut – remarkably the 11th defender used by City already this season – and impressed with his reading of the game and comfortableness on the ball.

Doherty’s sending off gave Wycombe a man advantage for the final third of the game, but with Gareth Evans and Leon Osborne brought off the bench to double up as wide midfielders who could support now-lone striker Price when City had the ball, the threat of City making the break-through was just as strong as Wycombe. That is until referee Russell made his final decisive contribution.

City struggled to chase the game effectively in the final stages, with Wycombe’s extra man advantage obvious for the first time as they comfortably retained possession. Yet in the first minute of stoppage time Adeyemi almost equalised after his late surge into the box and powerful effort was tipped behind by Bull. They were not able to use the remaining three overtime minutes to muster another meaningful attack.

So defeated, but not exactly beaten. Taylor will take on board certain lessons, but unlike City’s other seven league losses this season this wasn’t down to self-inflicted failings. The two up-coming home games against Macclesfield and Accrington offer the opportunity to continue the ascent up the league table, though they and the trip to Aldershot will have to be navigated without the growing influence of Doherty.

Whatever happens in those games, it’s to be hoped it will be left to the players on the field to determine the outcomes.

Taylor enjoys the freedom of pragmatism

As decelerations of intent go, this was as loud as Bradford City have screamed all season. Recent victories over Barnet, Cheltenham and Oxford may have defused an alarming start to the season, but to triumph in the backyard of one of the early promotion front runners suggests the Bantams’ prospects for the campaign may be more in line with those heady pre-season expectations.

Bury came into tonight’s clash having won seven and drawn one of their last eight games – they hadn’t been beaten at Gigg Lane since an opening day 1-0 reverse to 2nd place Port Vale. Extreme downpours, which had the game in doubt even past kick off, left a soggy pitch not conducive to the passing brand of attacking football which is winning the Shakers’ rave reviews. But this was still some result for City.

Omar Daley’s 30th-minute spot kick ultimately won the contest – the Jamaican getting the opportunity from 12 yards which he’d been denied on Saturday when chasing a hat trick, as designated penalty taker Lee Hendrie, injured tonight, had been unwilling to step aside – after his superb run and through ball to strike partner Jason Price was illegally stopped by home keeper Owain Fon Williams. But this game was less won through individual brilliance, more collective endeavour.

Manager Peter Taylor had spoken pre-match of taking a more conservative approach, and while attacking intent remained the team was deployed deeper and the onus was on Bury to attempt to break them down. David Syers, brought in to replace Hendrie with Tom Adeyemi switched out wide, performed a central role that looked less sparkling than his previous thrusting style, but where he was simply sensational and the key man all evening in protecting the back four.

Syers’ return allowed Daley and Price to remain up the park and the willing runners of Leon Osborne and Adeyemi were encouraged to get forward when either forward had the ball. As such, the game plan of frustrating the visitors while posing questions on the counter attack was executed beautifully.

The quality that is evident in City’s ranks has truly emerged in recent weeks, and though this evening flair was reined back Tommy Doherty was again masterful in setting the tempo and spraying the ball around intelligently. Daley continued where he left off on Saturday in causing havoc. The theory with Daley is that his inconsistency sees him go missing on wet nights like this, but instead perhaps it’s worth contemplating whether previous tentativeness was in fact lack of confidence. Omar clearly looks a far more committed and happy player than the guy who missed sitters at Burton and in the first half on Saturday.

With Price enjoying easily his most productive game to date since signing on loan, City were a handful in the small bursts where they attacked. And while Bury can argue they were unfortunate to go in at half time 1-0 down having enjoyed 66% of the possession, the scars leftover from when City played them off the same park last January, only to lose to a penalty that never was, left sympathy in short supply.

The second half saw strong spells of Bury pressure; but other than Ryan Lowe’s shot that hit the post, a scramble off the line and a Lenny Pidgley save in the final minute, the prospects of that pressure leading to an equaliser seemed unlikely. This was largely down to a superb performance from the back five. Luke Oliver – so often maligned by supporters, including those of his former clubs, for his ungainly style – was outstanding and produced his best performance in a City shirt. Time and time again balls into the box met his head and were diverted out of harm’s way.

Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien continued their consistent form while Taylor would be wise to call off any search for an on-loan right back, such is the impressive manner Zesh Rehman has grown into the role. He may not be as effective as O’Brien when going forward, but Rehman’s positioning and reading of the game has come on in leaps and bounds from the panicky, dive-in-first-think-later form he was displaying for a great deal of last season.

The minutes ticked by ever slower. James Hanson replaced Daley, and within seconds embarked on a superb solo run and fired a sizzling long range effort which Williams did well to tip over. With Price also missing an easy headed chance back at 0-0, it can be argued City created the evening’s best chances even if they otherwise had to defend for long periods.

But best of all on nights like this was the incredible backing from us supporters. Bury’s sizeable away end was packed with City fans and the roof acoustics are favourable for creating a right old din. The chanting was kept up most of the evening, and in the second half every tackle and clearance from a City player was greeted by huge roars of encouragement. A major contrast to the emptiness of the three home stands, where vacant seats in two at least easily outnumbered those with bums on. A reminder, if it were needed, of what a huge club City are at this level.

Huge or otherwise though, it’s what’s on the field that counts; and as depressing as the dreadful start to the season was to go through it seems to have generated a spirit of togetherness between supporters and players that, frankly, has been lacking in recent years. Perhaps things got so bad that perspective and reason finally had to change. It’s no use believing we’re too big a club to be in League Two, if those expectations are too much for our League Two players to live up to.

Whatever the reason, the players and management are currently receiving vociferously-positive backing before they’ve done anything to deserve it, and such a revisionism seems to be allowing the pragmatic style of Taylor to flourish. Tonight City played like a team which knew it was probably the weaker side but which could triumph by accepting and dealing with such a truism, rather than acting like ‘big club Bradford’.

Like a number of visiting sides to Valley Parade in recent years City kept men behind the ball, made sure they controlled the tempo and that it was a tempo too slow for the home side to profit from. And unlike in recent times where pressure from fans meant this wasn’t possible – because we “should be beating little teams like Bury” – we supporters got behind them for doing it. This was like City at Sunderland in the first Premier League season; and just like that season deploying this strategy at the right times can help us to achieve our objectives.

Quite what is possible for this season now is unclear. City are three points off the play offs and eight from still third-placed Bury. Perhaps most symbolically of all, the league table now shows us as a respectable 10th. The corner seems to have been turned, and we have all played our part in making that happen.

1999, and all that

It’s 10-and-a-half-years since Oxford United last visited Valley Parade – but the remarkable period in City’s history which that end-of-season game was part of ensures the memories remain vivid.

Oxford home was Bradford City’s penultimate fixture of a Division One campaign on the brink of ending in glory. A week earlier, the Bantams had defeated QPR 3-1 at Loftus Road while promotion rivals Ipswich Town incredibly lost at home to bottom-placed Crewe. Fantastic news for City – lifting them into the second automatic promotion spot on Goals For with two games to go – but the Portman Road result was not so good for Oxford, who were battling with Crewe and five other clubs to avoid the drop.

With City facing Oxford at Valley Parade a day before Ipswich’s tough away encounter at 4th-placed Birmingham, there was genuine optimism this was going to be the weekend that City – with a far superior Goals For total (Goal Difference wasn’t used back then) – would seal promotion to the Premier League. The easy part of the bargain seemed an inevitable victory over a struggling Oxford who hadn’t won in five. What could possibly go wrong?

That day was almost a living nightmare. I still have video highlights of the disappointing 0-0 draw, taped from Yorkshire TV’s Goals on Sunday, and even watching years on you can still feel the tension that was rife among the sell-out home crowd. City struggled to rise to the occasion, Oxford refused to lie down. They even created the better chances, forcing Gary Walsh into a couple of superb saves.

The Valley Parade clock seemed to tick by worryingly fast, the atmosphere was flat – we all just seemed too nervous to even attempt a chant. I felt sick in my stomach as the growing sense of realisation we weren’t going to win – and therefore might have messed up our promotion chances – sank in.

In a cruel and horrible twist, deep in stoppage time Stuart McCall was presented with the easiest of chances right in front of us in the Kop. He headed the ball over the bar, and the split-second we allowed ourselves to believe we’d got out of jail gave way to crushing misery. McCall was inconsolable as he left the field – the TV highlights capturing a shot of a ball boy attempting to hug him, only for the skipper to brush him off.

It all worked out wonderfully in the end of course: Birmingham beat Ipswich the following day to leave the Tractor Boys a point behind. A week later came that stunning victory over Wolves, which sealed City’s promotion and lead to wild scenes of jubilation in the away end and back in Bradford. And in hindsight we could look back on the Oxford draw and feel glad we didn’t win, so we got this never-to-be-forgotten moment at Molineux. Oxford were relegated, despite winning 5-0 against Stockport in their final game.

Although I still look back on that afternoon against Oxford and feel sick at the despair we endured, with each passing year of disappointment there’s part of me that longs to experience such disappointment again. True we’ve had some truly miserable times over the past decade, but for City to be up their fighting for promotion and to have some many sleepless nights hoping they could cross the finishing line is a different kind of emotion – and one we’ve struggled to come close to experiencing since.

It’s impossible to find the words that do justice to just how much promotion meant to us that year, but perhaps things have now become so bad that, if and when success does return to this club, we’ll feel just as happy as we did then.

For much of the club’s subsequent fall, there’s been a feeling promotion should be our right rather than the astonishing achievement 1999 was. As such, if we had achieved promotion from League One in 2006 or League Two in 2009, the celebrations would have probably felt more reserved. A sense of entitlement that we were simply fulfilling our right, rather than delirium that our lives could be blessed with something so remarkable.

Perhaps the ongoing frustrations of League Two life and never-ending despair that we can’t seem to bottom out now mean that a promotion from League Two would leave us feeling just as happy as Wolves 99. While the twists and turns leading up to it would at times leave us as emotionally-traumatised as the last time we played Oxford.

All of which seems a long distance away as City welcome Oxford tomorrow while 20th in League Two. Wins over Barnet and Cheltenham lifted spirits and breathed new hope into a season heading down the pan, but the setback at Burton last week has again dampened the mood. There’s less anger than post-Morecambe, but things still feel very on edge. Another defeat tomorrow – or even a repeat of the outcome when City last played the Us – and the pressure will rise again.

The task in hand is far from easy – the Oxford of 2010 do not represent anything like the home banker to City that the 1999 match-up suggested. Like City the last decade has been hugely difficult for United, with the 1999 relegation quickly followed by demotions to League Two in 2001 and out of the Football League in 2006. For three seasons the club enjoyed the highest gates in the Conference but failed to climb out of a division they appeared too big for – sound familiar, eh? – before beating York in the play off final last May.

The manager is another reason to look in the past. Chris Wilder played 45 times for City during the 1997-98 season, before moving to hometown club Sheffield United on transfer deadline day.

After impressing as manager at Halifax, Wilder guided Oxford back to the Football League and is a name who often crops up when debating a managerial change at Valley Parade. Wilder and Oxford have started well and lie in 11th place ahead of their trip to West Yorkshire – though their recent league form is just as inconsistent as the Bantams.

Jon McLaughlin will continue in goal for City – despite another bout of public criticism from his manager after Burton last week and the added pressure of Lenny Pidgeley arriving on trial. The defence will see two changes as the departing Man United loanees Reece Brown and Oliver Gill leave gaps that will be taken by Zesh Rehman and Luke Oliver.

Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien will keep their places, but the disruption to back four selection throws questions over the value in signing the two youngsters for a month and looking to build with them. Or to quote Rehman, “No disrespect to the two lads coming in (on loan), but I don’t think they did anything that I felt I couldn’t do.”

Lee Hendrie is fighting to be fit after missing last week, with Tom Adeyemi set to return and battle with David Syers to play alongside Tommy Doherty. The early signs are that Syers provides the midfield with greater balance, and his last two performances make him difficult to leave out. Leon Osborne is slowly developing into a decent player, but continues to be the target of some supporters.

Up front, it’s hoped Omar Daley will be trusted to return to the free role position he was performing so well, with Jason Price and James Hanson vying to start alongside him and the other making a very good sub. Price has so far won plenty of praise, but Hanson’s return makes him less needed than he was a few weeks earlier when Oliver had to play up front. Timing is everything in football, and it remains regrettable Taylor couldn’t have signed a loan striker earlier than he managed.

Jake Speight, Louis Moult, Robbie Threlfall and Lee Bullock are all battling to return to the side, and could yet play a significant role in the season. And as the visitors remind us of our enjoyable past, it’s perhaps the last trip City made to Oxford which should provide the greatest inspiration.

City won 1-0 in December 1998, to reverse a two-game losing run. That paved the way for a superb run of form – eight wins from the next nine matches – and solved the final piece of then-manager Paul Jewell’s promotion squad conundrum which had seen the team selection evolve after a dreadful start. Robbie Blake was switched from right winger to partner Lee Mills, it all fell beautifully into place. The immediate challenge for Taylor is to shape his squad in a similar fashion and unearth the right formula that will turn an under-achieving team into promotion contenders.

Tomorrow will hopefully see another positive step towards fulfilling that aim – so in time we can party like it’s 1999.

16 words for 16 games

So this is it then. A week after the must-win game at Barnet, Bradford City manager Peter Taylor takes his side into a game he must not lose – or it appears highly likely he will be asked to pack up his desk on Monday morning.

Earlier in the week Taylor publicly called for his two Chairmen to clarify his position in the wake of mounting speculation. Mark Lawn chose to respond with just 16 words, that fell a long way short of backing his man. It’s not only what those 16 words meant, but the hundreds of other words Lawn opted not to use. Taylor will surely be disappointed by the fact his employer turned down the chance to offer his public support.

It has been argued, and perhaps with good reason, that Taylor’s own comments asking for clarity weren’t the cleverest and that in a sense Lawn was backed into a corner. But if the public face of the Board really still believed in his manager, this was the opportunity to dismiss the speculation as false and reaffirm his commitment to the man he offered a contract too just five months ago. He did neither.

So it all comes down to Cheltenham at home. From the outcome of Saturday’s result it seems we are to determine the entire season’s prospects – and the long-term future of who should be charged with steering this ship. And yes, you can argue that all of the other previous poor results will have contributed significantly to any P45s issued next week, but if that’s the case why not just sack him this week? Why wait and let the outcome of one football match determine the next few months and years?

It is simply ludicrous to apparently be in this position. A win this Saturday does not make Taylor any more suitable to do the job than a defeat would prove he isn’t. But this is where short-term thinking gets us.

Taylor, who signed the one-year contract before Northampton last season, has since taken charge of 16 games – winning six, drawing two and losing eight. It’s true that some of the performances have been amongst the worst we’ve ever seen, and no one could argue he’s so far done a good job. But to hand someone a contract and to then be prepared to tear it up after 16 games, and when asked to defend their choice of manager to be only able to find 16 non-committal words of support?

It is pure madness.

But for now the hope is that last week’s encouraging performance against Barnet will have provided the spark City’s campaign desperately needs. There have been some false dawns of late – Gillingham home and Rotherham away – but the  league form guide of won two, drawn two and lost two from the last six matches suggests the club might be slowly turning the corner; particularly when it’s recalled the four prior matches had all ended in defeat.

In order to really get into the groove, it’s hoped there won’t be many changes to Taylor’s team sheet. Jason Price’s arrival on loan and Jame Hanson’s return to fitness mean it’s unlikely Luke Oliver will remain up front, but all eyes will be on whether the back four is also tinkered with. Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien are emerging as the two main contenders for player of the season, but both have been dropped before and could be again if Taylor decides to push Oliver back into the centre of defence.

Oliver Gill, who it’s been suggested has to play every week under the terms of the Man United loan agreement, could be moved to left back again – but it would surely be daft to make any changes at all. Zesh Rehman, an inspirational leader last week, should at least carry on at right back and, with Simon Ramsden and Lewis Hunt out for sometime, plus Reece Brown rumoured to have returned to Old Trafford due to injury, a run in the team surely awaits. Shane Duff will hope to be fit and selected against his former club. Jon McLaughlin keeps goal.

In midfield a week off seemed to have helped Tommy Doherty’s fitness and form at Barnet last week, and he will be counted on for inspiration again. For much of the season the movement in the attacking third has been poor, which has clearly limited the effectiveness of Doherty to produce incisive passes. At Barnet fellow midfielders Leon Osborne, Tom Adeyemi and Lee Hendrie provided that movement and should all continue. Lee Bullock and David Syers wait on the sidelines.

Omar Daley received words of encouragement for his performance up front last week and will probably partner Price, with Hanson starting from the bench. These sudden extra forward options push Chibuzor Chilaka, Louis Moult and Jake Speight further out of the picture; though the latter will hope a scoring performance in the reserves midweek will be rewarded with a starting spot.

There is a long way to go for Chilaka, Moult and Speight to make a bigger impact at City than we’ve seen from them so far. But the 16 words of Lawn suggest it will probably be another manager trying to get it out of them.

Living the moment

There are few things in life as exhilarating as watching your team win away from home. The likelihood of victory is always far less on the road, and so the extra effort undertaken to attend and number of previous times that effort has gone unrewarded make days like Bradford City’s 2-0 win at Barnet all the more special.

Any win is fantastic of course, and filing out of Valley Parade having seen City collect three points provides a buzz that often lasts for days. But the collective thrill we feel from a home victory and the more exclusiveness of away wins are different types of joy.

Home wins are like being fans of huge bands such as The Beatles and Oasis – we share the music, occasionally in our snobbiness believing others don’t appreciate them in the same way (how can that moaner sat  in front really celebrate City’s last minute winner when they spent 89 minutes moaning how bad City are?) and there’s a great feeling when we come together (stadium gigs can be incredible).

Away wins are like following a band with a smaller fanbase which are unnoticed by the masses. It gives us more ownership of their songs, more room at their gigs and a slightly more rewarding feeling when they briefly appear on TV (Jools Holland and the Football League show?).

For those fortunate to be there for an away win, it becomes ours and reward for all those times we endured miserable defeats and a long journey home. In our last promotion year I was one of 200 City fans who attended West Brom away in September. We won 2-0 to get our season going, and for the first time performed like promotion contenders. A week later we beat Barnsley 2-1 with Gordon Watson’s injury time double, and as we celebrated promotion next May many fans pointed to the Barnsley win as the turning point. But those of us at the Hawthorns that day, we knew the truth.

On the Football League Show last night, a City fan texted in to declare they were still very unhappy despite the win. Well no offence to this fan, but you clearly weren’t at Underhill yesterday. It wasn’t that we saw a promotion-standard performance. It’s not as though any of the 424 of us present have extra reason to believe in the manager. But when your team hasn’t scored in four games and for 64 minutes of this must-win game you feel as though we’ll lose, the exuberant celebrations that greeted two goals in four minutes provided such a wonderful feeling that for the next week at least nothing else should matter.

Nothing else should matter – but building on the positives of City’s first away win of the season. In truth it wasn’t a sparkling display – who expected it to be? – and for sections of the first half and just after half time it seemed as though Barnet’s youthful exuberance would break through and score at any time. But if quality is still lacking in the Bantams, the work-rate and solidness which went missing against Morecambe last week had at least returned. It proved to be enough.

At the back City recovered from last week’s wobbles and looked the well-drilled unit that was so impressive at Rotherham 11 days ago. Oliver Gill was moved to centre back in the absence of Shane Duff and was excellent; Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien were their usual impressive selves. Special mention should go to Zesh Rehman, who not only put in a man-of-the-match-contender performance against a tricky winger, but notably led his younger defensive colleagues through the afternoon. How ironic it is that he has found the best form of his City career just as he’s unable to command a regular place. If only he’d been playing like this a year ago.

For the most part City still looked feeble going forwards – though Luke Oliver and Lee Hendrie both came close with headers. Confidence looks so short in some players, and there was a clear reluctance for any one other than Rehman, O’Brien, Williams and Tommy Doherty to take ownership during the first 45 minutes at least. Defender Oliver continued upfront, this time with winger Omar Daley as partner and four strikers sat on the bench. It wasn’t hard to see why fans are so frustrated at Taylor’s approach.

The debate about Oliver rages on, though it must be noted this was his most effective game up front to date. Today he looked like a target man off form, which is a major improvement from not looking like a target man at all. He had a good physical battle with the Barnet defenders, often penalised for fouls and occasionally winning free kicks.

Yet the low confidence in players and Oliver up front are connected, and to me where the frustration lies with Taylor. Yes we were having a poor start and there were loads of injuries, but we don’t have to play a big front man and there was no need to prematurely move to such desperate tactics. Taylor should have had more faith in the quality of his players to pull through. Instead it was too easy to launch it to Oliver and duck responsibility, something Leon Osborne and Daley were especially guilty of.

Taylor’s half-time words seemed to have some effect, and as City kicked up the famous Underhill slope in the second half they survived a couple of scares and began to take control over limited opposition. Still the frustration in the away section over the lack of subs began to grow, and a fierce debate raged over the merits of appointing Peter Jackson as our next manager. It was beginning to feel as though the effort of getting up early on a day off and making a 400 mile-round trip would carry no greater reward than a 0-0, and someone somewhere – Mark Lawn  perhaps – was probably drafting Taylor’s last rites.

But then City scored, twice. The frustration of the last few weeks was pushed out to be replaced by giddy excitement and joy. Both goals were remarkably similar, in that Barnet had a corner at the bottom of the slope and City broke up the pitch and netted. Each time Jon McLaughlin had claimed the ball and quickly threw the ball out to charging midfielders. Firstly Tom Adeyemi broke down the flank before cutting the ball back to Doherty. The pass lacked pace and should have been cut out, but the cultured midfielder was able to grab possession and fire a superb through ball to Osborne, who cut inside and finished expertly.

For a second there was silence. It happened right in front of us away fans, but we almost don’t quite believe it had. Then we celebrated wildly.

“Peter Taylor’s Bradford Army” bellowed fans behind me who’d been so vocally critical of him before. In front of me there were angry faces from other fans incredulous that these people could have the nerve to be so two-faced. Football. Fickle. End of.

The second goal, four minutes later, came after McLaughlin’s throw was collected by Daley, who scampered up the field and picked out the run of Adeyemi through the middle. The on-loan midfielder just had the keeper to beat, and coolly slotted the ball into the roof of the net to set up even more frenzied celebrations that for him included hugging the City fans in the seating section. At full time he went over to do it again, and it looked as though his dad was in the front row and that was why he’d raced over.

Tom Adeyemi hugs family members at full time

Tom Adeyemi hugs family members at full time (click to enlarge)

In those immediate seconds after Adeyemi’s finish, nothing else mattered and for our brain to allow ourselves to feel such unadulterated pleasure without logic or reason is what makes football such a wonderful sport. Back in Bradford I bet some fans felt disappointed, because Taylor would not be packing up his desk on Monday like we all expected. But it didn’t matter who was in the dugout – right now celebrating equally as wildly, and good on you Taylor. All that mattered – and should ever matter, really – was that City were winning.

The joy of the away goal continues as you began to calm down again – and you suddenly realise that, for the last few minutes, three sides of the ground have felt utterly miserable at what your team has just done to them and had little choice but to watch you leaping for joy, with huge envy. Intense pleasure in one corner of the ground, depression for the rest. In truth we’re rude guests, but then we’re usually too kind as hosts and let others behave this way on our own patch.

Not much else happened in truth. McLaughlin almost let a weak shot squeeze in; James Hanson was able to come on as sub, showing in just a few brief touches just how much he’d been missed and inadequate Oliver the striker really is; the Barnet left back made an idiot of himself. The win was never in doubt, we could even have scored again.

But to score twice having only managed four goals all season was beyond expectations, and to be able to drive home knowing this feeling of joy can’t be taken away until Saturday at least was just reward for seven hours in a car. Ultimately this win won’t mean much if City lose at home to 7th-placed Cheltenham next week, as Taylor will be sacked. Like at Torquay last season, it might have just prolonged the inevitable.

Whatever happens, it’s days like this which make enduring all the other crap worthwhile.

Where does one see Bradford?

A view which normally shows Bradford, but is foggy, taken this morning on 8th of October 2010Waking this morning in Bradford and looking out over the City one could not notice – as the photo shows – that something was missing. Indeed Bradford, it seemed, had gone.

From the back window of Clayton you can normally see Lister’s Chimney and the view over BD8 but not Valley Parade which as the name suggests is under the eye line, hidden from view.

One has to wonder what has been going on hidden from view at Valley Parade this week. A defeat to Hartlepool United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy came almost without a blip so expected was it after the woeful 1-0 loss to Morecambe at the weekend. Peter Taylor was linked to a move for Calvin Zola – Calvin Zola is not coming – and TalkSport and the Daily Mirror both noted that this weekend’s game was win or bust for the City manager of six months.

Despite the board of many and the co-ownership it seems that Mark Lawn will be the one to make that decision. Lawn famously said that he “had 2,000,000 more reasons to be frustrated” than other City fans and if one agrees to the idea that the more you have money the more you can care about your football club then one can only imagine how Lawn feels watching the things he has put into place to replace Stuart McCall that should have worked failing so miserably now.

Say what you want about McCall’s exit – and we have all said lots – but Lawn’s recruitment of Peter Taylor was a clear way forward and an outstanding appointment of a manager with a great track record. One might argue the length of the contract has caused problems or that the failure to get training facilities sorted out are restrictive to what the manager can do but few would say they should be the cause of a woeful run of form.

Would City be in any different position now if Lawn had given Taylor a five year contract not a three month one? Perhaps, but as Lawn – we are told – is considering paying out Taylor’s contract then the brevity of it becomes useful in this situation at least.

Taylor’s team take on Barnet who struggle at the foot of League Two also. Jon McLaughlin has kept goal no better and no worse than Simon Eastwood did but is more favoured and perhaps that says much about the nature of support at City. What is an offence one season may not be the next.

Reece Brown is not expected to return from injury to be right back so Zesh Rehman will continue while Oliver Gill is supposedly enforced at left back. Shane Duff is expected to return from injury to partner Steve Williams in the middle of Taylor’s defence. Lee Bullock will sit on top of them with Tommy Doherty expected to return alongside him.

If it is win of bust for Taylor then he should probably play Doherty. A weak midfield will lose the game and thus his job and so it will hardly matter if Doherty misses the first game of Dean Windass, Peter Jackson or whomever’s time in charge.

Michael Flynn’s recovery from injury came to a grinding halt at Hartlepool United where his hernia which was thought cleared turned out not to be after his substitute appearance. Lee Hendrie will fall in as the left hand midfielder – let us not say “wide man” and Omar Daley is expected to play on the right with Taylor adopting a 4411 as strikers appear at a premium.

Luke O’Brien seemingly is out of both the midfield running and left back. It is said that there are players in the dressing room who would not be upset to see the back of Taylor but that O’Brien is not one of them. Such shows great restraint by a player who has been ousted from the City team so often. Tom Ademeyi seems to float in and out of the side with little reference to his performance. Leon Osbourne and Robbie Threlfall both seem to have had time in the team which has come to an end.

Luke Oliver will no doubt lead the forward line and while I would not concur with the idea that he should not do that because he is “out of position” – few would have complained if midfielder Flynn had been fit enough to take the position in the attack – the fact that Oliver struggles to play the role effectively is a problem. Calvin Zola was rumoured to be arriving and did not and as Peter Taylor looked around the world of football for a striker to borrow his vision was as blank as the fogged look over Bradford this morning.

James Hanson edges closer to fitness and perhaps Taylor might be able to risk him, Gareth Evans is out for three months. Taylor”s inability to get the levels of performance out of Evans that they player is capable of minimises the effect of this – he was not playing well – but as a player he can do and the frustration of watching good players play badly under Taylor is epic.

City have gone four games without a goal and Taylor has a selection of strikers for the the role off the main striker. Louis Moult, Jake Speight, Chib Chilaka. Name the striker and he is not scoring enough goals. The net seemingly fogged for Bradford City.

Peter Taylor will hope to cut through that fog, to get the win, to extend his stay at the club which looks increasingly like it will be coming to an end with the next defeat. Should that be the case then Mark Lawn’s view at the future at Valley Parade would be as fogged as the view from it.

Where would we go next?

Thinking in three months blocks as City face Hartlepool

A lot can happen in three months at a football club.

Three months ago Luke O’Brien faced an uncertain future at Valley Parade when – three months previous – Peter Taylor had arrived at the club and signed a player who had been scouted by Stuart McCall in Robbie Threlfall and the former Liverpool loanee had won his place in the Bradford City team.

The local left back was given a standing ovation for warming up on Saturday – an acknowledgement from supporters who thought his being dropped for Manchester United loanee Oliver Gill – which is a far cry from the criticism that the player was given when Threlfall arrived. O’Brien had – some supporters attested to – been embarrassed by the new signing, probably wished he has a contract and had a future at Guiseley perhaps.

How times have changed.

Indeed three months of loan play at Bradford City and Threlfall was coveted in the Summer but with the rider that City would never be able to land the player from Liverpool. His signing – three months ago – was a part of a series of arrivals that saw City supporters and the wider football public start tagging Peter Taylor’s Bradford City as favourites for League Two.

The past three months have seen Taylor’s stock diminish in a way that few would have thought possible on his arrival but that some worried it would after his initial three months at the club. Taylor’s football at the end of last season was dour but carried on along the same average points achievement as the previous manager had struggled to better and it was assumed that those were the seeds out of which an oak of promotion would grow.

Three months ago Taylor gave Bradford City’s board a list of requirements which could see the club improve on the field. Taylor wanted a flatter pitch, a more professional attitude and new training facilities and while the ground is flat and the players are now wearing very nice suits the plan to move to Weetwood fell through. Three months of the dog poo uneven pitch of Apperley Bridge has perhaps shown that Taylor’s judgement was correct – City did need to sort out the training facilities if they were going to progress.

So perhaps three months down the line of working in a situation which he did not to – Taylor, it is believed, would not have joined City were his demands not met – perhaps the manager will turn to the board in any one of the rumoured “emergency summits” at the club and tell that that he cannot be held liable for failures that he has given the solution for, but that solution has not been put into practice.

What Taylor can be held responsible for is the way that the Bradford City team have been playing which after three months is grinding on the eye. If the first three months at the end of last season seemed like a long time it did – at least – end with decent run that avoided the worst finish for the club since 1966. The fact that this last three months has seen City amass only eight points from ten games with a won one, lost one cup record has caused the time to drag.

The season has seemed a very long time indeed. Taylor was brought into the club not to play pretty football or to be friendly with the players – indeed these were cited as negatives about the previous manager – but to get results.

When people talk about the attractiveness of the football then people speak out of place (although one might agree with them) because the winning side in the argument over Stuart McCall established an idea that “you can’t keep a manager because of sentiment”. That those people will not stand up for Taylor and tell people who go dewy eyed for watching a City team under McCall which tried to play football and did so with vigour and energy is (on the whole) a character flaw on their part but should not count against the manager who has a single remit: promotion; and until that remit it unachievable should carry on with the full backing of all.

You, or indeed I, might not like that idea but such is the non-sentimental view that was allowed to take hold at Valley Parade when some fans and some people in the boardroom decided that they wanted to oust Stuart McCall as manager. They won the day (if not the argument) and to them the spoils.

Three months ago saying these thoughts would have provoked the ire of the club. David Baldwin interceded on a Telegraph and Argus message board argument, The City Gent’s Mike Harrison was hauled over the coals for suggesting that the Bantams would finish 8th in the table (one wonders how many in the Valley Parade boardroom would take Mike up on his offer if it could be made so right now) and should you believe the rumours City’s Football in the Community Officer and weekend wireless pundit Ian Ormondroyd was given a forty five minute grilling by his superiors because he was not enthusiastic enough on his radio commentary.

One can imagine Mark Lawn’s frustrations at Ormondroyd, Harrison et al and he is left looking foolish at his insistence that City followers be positive about the football which has seen City in the lowest position many, if not all, can recall and he might ask how was he to know that Taylor’s team would be performing so poorly three months into the season.

Indeed three months previously the appointment of Taylor was heralded by many (including me) as “outstanding.” Indeed were one to line up the runners and riders for the Bradford City job post-Stuart McCall then the pragmatic, experienced Taylor who had significantly achieved success and repeated that success. Would still be the best choice.

Lawn gave Taylor a three month contract and then – after that initial three months – a one year deal which represented promotion or bust for the manager and much has been talked about that in the situation that City currently find themselves in but perhaps it might be worth considering those first three months.

Taylor’s side did not excel at the end of last year and the football was seldom good to watch. The manager was abrasive then and had the same way with the media as he does now. After three months of working with Peter Taylor Mark Lawn decided that he was worth a one year contract.

Consider that for the moment.

Lawn had the longest trial period for a manager in Bradford City’s history on which to judge the replacement for a manager he spend half a season seething about and planning to replace. It was – perhaps – the most considered managerial change the club has ever had and ten league games later we are where we are and – it is said – that “the board” have given Taylor two games/a month to improve or face the sack.

Having had three months working with him, and a good few months thinking about who he would replace Stuart McCall with, sacking Peter Taylor would be the single greatest statement of failure Mark Lawn could make. It would make the most significant act of his joint chairmanship an utter failure, and absolute failure and one which would totally question any qualifications he has to make another similar decision in the future.

If after working with Taylor for three months Lawn offered him a contract (and that is the way it appears externally) and now wants to rip up that contract then how can he be trusted by the rest of the board to be involved in a similar recruitment process again? In three months time if Bradford City do have a new manager then one has to hope that someone else has made the appointment.

However in three months time things might have turned around totally.

Taylor is on the low ebb of a ten game bad run but bad runs are not uncommon in football and had he had won over eighty points and then in the last ten games limped over the line to promotion after eight points in the last ten games then few would suggest he should be sacked (although some, no doubt, would) which is in effect what happened to Keith Hill at Rochdale last season.

Hill’s wheels falling off the wagon at the end of last term was as unexpected as Taylor’s side suddenly getting two points a game or more for the rest of the season but if such a thing happened then both teams would have had losing runs – one at the start of the season and one at the end.

So should the club turn around then perhaps it should do it tonight in the Associate Members Trophy at Hartlepool United where Peter Taylor is expected to field a side which differs from the eleven who started on Saturday – one would struggle to dub that “the first team” – and could give any number of players chances to win back favour.

O’Brien and Threlfall may both hope to be fielded although word has it that Oliver Gill has been guaranteed a place as a part of his loan deal from Manchester United. The same could be true of Reece Brown at right back.

Michael Flynn looks set to play some part although Tommy Doherty – injured but on the bench on Saturday – is not expected to play. Chib Chilaka might hope to replace Luke Oliver in the forward line, one wonders if Oliver’s favours stretch to this competition.

On the whole though City’s problem is not one of personnel – there are very few that would agree with the assessment two sets of three months ago that Stuart McCall’s legacy was a group of poor players when players like Gareth Evans have gone from bulldog exciting to stolid woe under Taylor – but of attitude. Players like Louis Moult are in the running for a place although the Stoke striker is said to be counting the days until he can go home.

The entire squad is peopled with players who could perform better but are not doing. Three months ago I suggested that the mark of Taylor as a manager was in how much of a performance he got from Zesh Rehman. A player with pedigree he represented raw materials which I expected the manager to sculpt in a way that his predecessor could not. To smooth edges and motivate, to bring back to the path of progress and to get the best out of.

Rehman is benched for a Manchester United reserve despite two other right back injuries. Tonight he is the very type of player who might get a chance to show Taylor what he can do and in doing so preserve Taylor’s job and reputation.

Three months ago few would have thought that.

Our old friend Rafa has little to do with Morecambe

The school of thought – pretty much doused after the signings this week of two month long loan players – has it that if Peter Taylor did not get four points from his next two games that finish at home to Morecambe then he would be sacked.

The point at Rotherham United gave him one, anything less than a win would see him out the door. Probably not but that was the rumour which has since been replaced by the idea that if things have not improved for the Bantams by the time that new recruits Oliver Gill and Reece Brown return to Old Trafford then Taylor will be out of the door.

When Taylor became City manager – and let us not speak the name of the man he got it from for fear of offending the delicate ears of some readers who comment whenever it is mentioned – he was trumpeted as an outstanding appointment taking over from “someone” who speculation had it would have been fired could the club afford it.

Indeed at the time whose name I do not wish to recall was leaving this club at Gill and Brown’s good friends down the M62 Liverpool it was said that Rafa Benitez would be given his P45 if only the club had the funds to do so, or if the two owners could make up their collective mind about it. Rafa left that club in the summer about the time Peter Taylor was signing his season long contract with the Bantams and ended up at the San Siro and Inter Milan.

There were many scratched heads at the appointment and predicted a fall from grace for the treble winning Inter side who are now leading Serie A and romped to a 4-0 win over Werder Bremen in the week as Rafa’s replacement Roy Hodgson’s side struggle in the Premier League. Talk to those who concern themselves more with the fortunes of Liverpool FC and they will point the finger of blame at the Americans who own the club rather than the managers.

Nevertheless it is worth considering Benitez’s progress for a moment and comparing it with to events which have unfolded for Peter Taylor. Inter Milan were obviously in rude health having won every competition they entered last season while Liverpool are obviously not and were Hodgson to have returned to the San Siro and Rafa remained where he was one is tempted to suggest that very little would have been different.

So Taylor – a manager with a good track record – struggles at Bradford City and is rumoured to be a draw away from being fired and one wonders how much different things would have been were anyone else rather than Taylor been manager.

None of which is to say that managers have no capability for effecting change but rather that they are not the sole agent of it and – if they are not given the time, resource and remit – they will be as battered along on the winds of fortune as any supporter.

Take, as an example, Chris Sutton who was the manager of Lincoln for a touch under twelve months that ended this week. Sutton inherited his side from former Bantam Peter Jackson when they were placed twentieth and left this week with the Imps placed twentieth. The fact that he was not able to improve or make worse Lincoln in that time suggests that the problem is something other than the manager.

Rafa carries on Inter Milan’s success and looks to continue it, Roy takes on Liverpool’s decline and looks to arrest it while Peter Taylor gets to grips with what is going on at Valley Parade and one hope that he is allowed to fully grasp that task.

Taylor brought in the two defenders from Manchester United with heads scratched as to why they are needed. It seems that Reece Brown will come in at right back to cover injuries and that Oliver Gill might take the other full back slot over Robbie Threlfall leaving Shane Duff and Steve Williams to carry on their partnership at the back in front of Jon McLaughlin.

Such would be harsh on Threlfall who like Taylor impressed in his first three months and then had some tough times. Perhaps Threlfall will be reflecting that he and Taylor are currently enjoying the same fortunes and while Taylor is given a month, he is not. It is said that there are people in the City dressing room who say they would no be upset were Taylor be moved on but these are the kind of rumours that no one could substantiate and few would believe if it were not for the displacement of the team’s performances and the search for reasons for that.

Zesh Rehman – who launched his own foundation this week – is rendered almost obsolete by this decision too. What does one make of a situation when both right backs are injured and a loanee is brought in over the next man. Indeed what does one make of Rehman’s time at City which has seen some good performances, and some good periods of play like the end of last season, but have never seen him cement a place in the side.

A former Premier League player and one with the ability to play well Rehman joins a lengthy list of players signed by the club and later seemingly rendered useless. Supporters and the club have a tendency to lay these failures at the door of the player – be he Dan Petrescu, Michael Boulding, John McGinlay, Paul McLaren or Bruno Rodriguez – but the constancy of this sign and deteriorate through various managers, boards and years is something not to be dismissed so lightly. Rehman is another player that – it seems – the club have failed to get the most out.

The midfield starts to return to a shape that was anticipated at the start of the season with Michael Flynn almost ready to return. Lee Bullock, Tommy Doherty and Tom Ademeyi have struggled from game to game although Ademeyi looked good on his return in the week but it seems that he would be the one to step down when Flynn returns. Lee Hendrie seems to have a long road bad to fitness done in half hour steps from the bench while David Syers deserves much credit for his introduction to League football and as he returns to the bench he should do so with great heart and promise.

Omar Daley returned to the forward line in a swap with Jake Speight and impressed although the idea that Taylor will only play one of the two lively forwards is frustrating. On paper the pair would seem ideal for channel running and getting close to the big striker but – perhaps to avoid predictability – Taylor prefers to have two who might win the ball up front and Gareth Evans and Luke Oliver providing weight to the forward line.

Morecambe sit 22nd in League Two – a place below City – and were bested 4-1 by Bury in their new home this week. They are the sort of team that City are always expected to beat and for once for Peter Taylor the expectations do not outstrip the things in his control, o el control del hombre de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme.

The end of the beginning, or still something much worse?

It was easy to fear the worst tonight. The bubble of optimism that was growing after the Gillingham win had been painfully burst at Northampton three days ago. And a trip to a third-placed Rotherham side who had scored 12 goals in their previous four home games suggested only one outcome – a heavy defeat. Yet Bradford City put in a performance far beyond expectations to earn a draw that could easily have been more.

For the second Bantams visit to the Don Valley Stadium in a row, home keeper Andy Warrington was named the sponsors’ man of the match. This said much about the quality of the visitors’ display. It was no backs to the wall defensive job, with Warrington making stunning saves to deny Omar Daley, Tom Adeyemi (twice) and Steve Williams from snatching a priceless winner. City were comfortably the better side, and despite having to settle for a point will have returned back up the M1 with renewed confidence.

It was easy to fear the worst tonight. Following the Northampton defeat, word reached BfB that an unhappy City Board had told Peter Taylor anything less than four points from the next two games will see him sacked. Another source claimed the manager has been given a month to turn it around. Whether either rumour is true, the fear is that this situation can’t go on much longer without someone deciding on drastic action.

This could have been Taylor’s last game in charge, but if any of the Board were at the Don Valley tonight they would surely have taken great heart from the way the team performed which should carry beyond whatever happens on Saturday. City began on the front foot, with the returning Daley causing problems down the left flank and the midfield trio of Lee Bullock, Tommy Doherty and Adeyemi quickly getting on top.

Daley was one of the chief scapegoats for the Southend debacle almost exactly a month ago; and although he has been away with Jamaica for a short period, he has found himself shunned from any first team action. Yet if City are going to climb up the table they must surely utilise their better-quality players. And whatever is said about Daley, when on form he is just that.

As ever, tonight we saw a mixed bag from Omar and his decision making was familiarly poor at times. But he provided a spark that helped the team claim greater territorial advantage than we’ve managed on the road all season, and the first half ended with his fizzing shot from an angle forcing the best out of Warrington.

It was easy to fear the worst tonight. If Taylor was dismissed, where exactly would that leave the rest of the season? Sure we might bring in someone who can turn our under-achievers into world-beaters and climb the league, but City’s recent history shows such hopes are highly fanciful and never realised. Too often the answer to the problems has apparently lied in appointing another new manager, yet still the club’s decline continues.

More likely there would be a short-term boost from a new man, but in the longer-run the problems currently afflicting Taylor would remain. And as well as the cost of sacking a manager, there’d be a need to fund his replacement’s demands in the transfer market. All in all it’s a risk that could see the season written off with over three quarters of it to go. Is that really the best route to take?

But until tonight at least, there’s been a conflict of emotions inside pretty much every City supporter. Sure it’s a daft idea to sack a manager after 10 games…but what has Taylor done this season to deserve our support? There’s been very little for us to be impressed by regarding his performance since the season kicked off, and we’ve probably all scratched our heads wondering why the great things he was doing towards the end of last season suddenly aren’t coming off.

Tonight though Taylor got it right. Aside from a 20-minute spell before half time, Rotherham were completely neutralised by the 4-3-3 formation and strong levels of effort running throughout the team. At the back Steve Williams and Shane Duff were simply outstanding – the former so able in winning the ball from a forward’s feet, the latter never missing anything in the air.

On either side of them, Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien were contributing at both ends of the pitch. O’Brien in particular having a storming game which included recovering from a slightly rocky five-minute period where he’d made one mistake. What a talent Luke has become.

A perfect display? Not by a long shot. In the final third City continue to struggle to find the fluency levels that Taylor’s side were able to regularly achieve last season. Luke Oliver again gave his all as an emergency striker and had more joy winning flick ons in the second half, but the sooner James Hanson returns or a target man is signed on loan the better City’s ‘goals for’ column will look. Gareth Evans still appears short of confidence and high on indecision, but we should not forget what a good player he can be if he can recapture his form.

Early in the second half, City really got on top and were seemingly camped out in the Rotherham half. Warrington made his collection of breathtaking saves and other efforts were blocked or flew narrowly over. Several corners were won and the backing from the 605 Bantams fans was impressive.

It was easy to fear the worst tonight. On the message boards so many fans were saying they weren’t going to attend and, as me and my friend supped pints in a sparsely-populated empty away fans bar inside the ground with less than half an hour to kick off, it seemed as though we’d be short of company outside in the stand. Yet there was a good following in the end, and the noise levels were impressive too.

Midway through the first half a chant of Peter Taylor’s Bradford Army thundered across the empty Don Valley bowl. When Daley was subbed, which appeared unfair on the winger, there were no boos like in previous games. At Northampton there’d been reports of ‘Taylor out’ chants, but tonight not one word of dissent was aired his way – at least within my ear shot.

It was easy to fear the worst tonight. That it’d be a heavy defeat; that would then cause another managerial change, that would then split supporters, that would then end the season prematurely, that would then lead to falling attendances, that would then lead to the club’s downward spiral continuing, that would then lead to oblivion.

Even by recent standards it’s been such a dark time for every Bradford City supporter, and we’ve had little cause to believe we should expect to feel anything but miserable.

But the worst didn’t happen. And although a home defeat to Morecambe on Saturday might bring about all that we fear, perhaps we should begin to believe the corner is being slowly turned. It’s now one defeat from four, and the Northampton debacle aside there has been a steady improvement to performances. The poor start has been a colossal under-achievement, but that huge capacity to do much better means it’s not yet time to give up – on the players, on Taylor, on that promotion dream.

The season is still only at the beginning, but now we’re praying for that beginning to end.

A long time watching as City face Rotherham United

We Bradford fans looking ahead to tomorrow’s game evening at the Don Valley Stadium do not have much reason for optimism.

Following the elation of a very good performance and last minute winner against Gillingham many believed a corner had be turned. Unfortunately despite the fact Northampton were supposedly dead on their feet following 120 minutes of midweek cup heroics City could not kick on. Bradford now go into the Rotherham game only two points off the bottom of the football league and could even be bottom before Wednesday comes. Many see tomorrow as a foregone conclusion and it is understandable to see why- Rotherham are yet to lose at home Bradford City are yet to win away.

Having faced my usual lecture following a visit from my grandfather this weekend about how I ‘should be playing football on a Saturday rather than watching that bunch of fairies’ I couldn’t justify it with my usual response that I enjoy watching Bradford too much because currently that is not the case. His favourite catch phrase of ‘you’re a long time watching from the stands but only a short time playing’ may begin to hit home. My feelings towards watching the offerings of the current Bradford side probably sum up the thoughts of many current supporters.

However, at least we can look back to our last outing to Rotherham’s home in Sheffield with happier memories. After thinking we had had the result stolen away from us in injury time we went straight up the other end of the pitch and forced a corner. On that day we managed 5 shots on target 11 in total on Saturday we mustered a measly 1 shot in the whole game.

Also on that day the scorers were, Michael Flynn and James Hanson for a side skippered by Simon Ramsden and how desperately do Bradford need those three back now. Unfortunately none are ready to face Rotherham which must leave Taylor thinking he is not the lucky manager that Stuart McCall suggested we needed during his unofficial radio resignation. And for those already beginning the Taylor out calls we must hold a certain amount of sympathy with regards to this because based on last season’s showing a Bradford City without Michael Flynn, James Hanson and Simon Ramsden is much like Liverpool without Gerrard, Torres and Carragher. On the other hand though Taylor decided to assemble a large squad over the summer and that does not leave him short of options.

Ramden’s absence will be felt even harder following the injury to his understudy Lewis Hunt who is likely to be replaced by centre half Zesh Rehman. The rest of the defence that will have to contain the division’s best striker, Adam Le Fondre, will depend on what system Taylor decides to line up with. Should he go with his favoured 433 then it is likely Luke Oliver will resume his target man role further forward with Williams and Hunt with Luke O’Brien maintaining his place to the left. However following Saturday’s failings at Northampton he may consider 442. In such a system O’Brien may push up to the left wing with Robbie Threlfall returning to left back. It is probable that Williams and Hunt may still keep their places but Oliver is well liked by Taylor and could be considered. The defence will be completed with ever present Jon McLaughlin between the sticks.

Further forward it is anyone’s guess what possible solution Taylor will try and find to cure City’s inability to not only score but also create chances. The midfield will much depend on whether Lee Hendrie is considered to have gained enough match fitness to start. In this case it is likely that David Syers will lose his place if 433 is continued but a 442 could well see Lee Bullock or Tommy Doherty dropping to the bench. Another option that Taylor will no doubt consider if to keep O’Brien at full back with Hendrie out wide a position that in the Bradford side that a certain cousin of his knows very well. This would allow O’Brien a license to roam down the left side and create opportunities on the overlap as Hendrie is likely to tuck in more central. A further option Taylor has available is to make it his set up all about pace on the flanks and although Omar Daley appears to be out of favour- he didn’t even make the bench at the weekend- Leon Osbourne may occupy the opposite flank to Luke O’Brien.

Finally, the most evident problem in the side, who will be chosen as the men who are supposed to score the goals. Unfortunately Bradford don’t boast a Le Fondre in their side. Instead our strikers this season have got a one goal haul between them in the first 8 league games and that was from a Gareth Evans penalty. Unfortunately Evans seems to be lower on confidence than anyone and a ghost of the player who took on James Hanson’s mantle at the end of last season and was at the forefront of Bradford’s good run in the closing games. His replacements in the last 2 games have been Jake Speight and Louis Moult. Speight has worked tirelessly since his introduction to the side and Moult has come with glowing references from his Premier League parent club, Stoke but appears to go missing for large periods of his matches so far. Many fans claim this is because Taylor plays him out of position and perhaps they may get their wish against Rotherham and see him played as a more central striker in a front 2.

One past Bantam declared that the player he would pick as a striker week in week out was Omar Daley. That former Bantam was Dean Windass and although I’m not too sure I agree with his opinion I would certainly give anything to see him lining up in a City shirt again. If that was the case I’m confident that even at 41, he’d have more goals than the 6 strikers we have played so far combined. After all you can guarantee he’d of had his hands on the ball before Gareth Evans for that penalty!

Despite having a few key players missing through injury Taylor still has many options available to him, the majority of which are his signings. We are now 8 games into the league season and Taylor said it may take him ten games to discover his best side, I worry that if things don’t improve in the next two he will be getting very few more.

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.

The day after the sky fell in

Last week City had to beat Southend United and did not.

The sky did not fall in on Chicken Licken nor did the walls tumble down but the sense of dejection around City fans was palpable. There is a level of disappointment which goes beyond a moaning about the team or the players to just not talking at all. Rather than getting heads together and saying how this formation or that substitution would have sorted out the problems City fans around Bradford and beyond looked blank and shrugged. What is there to do?

Some carried on as normal – one has to be impressed with the tenacity of the people who are still arguing that everything will be right when Stuart McCall leaves the club when the evidence of swapping one manager for another once again illustrates that the manager was never the main of the problem – but even that carrying on seemed to be half hearted. Making the same noises because they are the noises you make.

Peter Taylor made his noises on the BBC’s Football Focus revealing his disappointment in the season so far, using “they” rather than “we” a couple of times and issuing an open invite to David Beckham to come to Valley Parade where he would get a game although one has to worry that with the three man midfield with two wide players up front if Goldenballs would fit into the Bantams line up.

It is that line up which Peter Taylor is being urged to change for the arrival of Port Vale on Saturday. Taylor deployed a World Cup style 4231 but the three given the role of dangerous players were anything but and the result was a massive hole between the midfield and lone striker James Hanson.

James Hanson has come in for some criticism this week – “just a pub player” someone said. People who think like that are wasting their money even coming to Valley Parade just as people who love Pot Noodles and Big Macs are wasting their money going to Noma. Of the reasons to be optimistic about the future of Bradford City Hanson figures highly and if he is fit he would be the first name on my teamsheet.

Hanson came off at half time last week as City’s 4231 faltered and the whispers are that the striker has not been fit all season. Taylor has the option of deploying Gareth Evans or Chib Chilaka as target man to give Hanson the chance to recover but seems to hold last season’s player of the season in high regard and – as I would – would probably play him every week if he could.

Jake Speight has returned to full fitness and liberty and is expected to make a first start for the club as one of three up front with Evans alongside him and Omar Daley dropped to the bench. Speight and Daley both seem to be charged with offering (for want of a better phrase) an x-factor to City’s line up and presently Daley looks some way away from being able to do that. One could speculate all day about why this is – tougher training, return to fitness, form – but the winger has always blown hot and cold and managing him back to heat quickly has been a challenge for City bosses.

Louis Moult is talked up much considering he is a Stoke City played facing Port Vale but after a poor show last week one doubts the loanee will make the side. Since the moment pre-season finished Moult has worn a City shirt well but not shown anything to suggest he is worth a place in the side. He is all promise and prospect but – at present – Taylor needs productivity.

The Moult Hole last week caused an issue for City’s two holding players Tommy Doherty and Lee Bullock – both of whom are expected to start in a three man midfield alongside probably Tom Ademeyi or perhaps David Syers – who ended up having to come forward to try fill the hole. Doherty has started to look impressive in his distribution while Bullock is struggling to get back to last season’s ways.

The defence seems a mixed bag thus far. Robbie Threlfall’s distribution is missed giving him the edge over Luke O’Brien although the latter has put in some good performances. Lewis Hunt is steady to a fault at right back – nothing gets past him really, he does not get past anybody really – but Zesh Rehman hangs on his shoulder looking for a place in the side. Anyone who things that Rehman he been “obviously the worst player at the club for eighteen months” (as was commented this week) is invited to go stand in the Wilderness Garden behind an eight foot fence on a Saturday afternoon.

None of Rehman or Luke Oliver, Shane Duff and Steve Williams have especially been woeful this term and occasionally some have been excellent. In defence popular wisdom has it that Taylor should pick a team and stick to it but one recalls how Paul Jewell would have three names on his back four and float in one of Ashley Westwood, Jon Dreyer or Andrew O’Brien to partner Darren Moore between Steven Wright and Wayne Jacobs seemingly at random although – perhaps – based on the opposition.

Jon McLaughlin, he plays in goal. He blamed himself for the first goal against Southend allowing the ball to get away from in turning possession over to the visitors. He must have been waiting for people to note his mistake, waiting for the treatment that Simon Eastwood got for similar.

As it happened the sky did not fall in.

Time for Plan A?

As Saturday approaches I have begun my usual guessing game over what team Peter Taylor will choose.

Stuart McCall was criticised on many occasions last season for not having a ‘Plan B’ Taylor it appears has got a plan C, D and E. With the season only a handful of games old Taylor has already used 20 outfield players- that would quite possibly be more had Michael Flynn and Leon Osbourne not been missing through injury- and also 4 different skippers. Taylor has explained his high rotation of players and his reasoning is fair. Firstly he says does not yet know his best side and secondly there have been a high number of games in a short space of time, two of which have gone to extra time and therefore he has looked to give players a rest. However, with 4 games of the season gone, with only 1 win and 8 days since the last game surely now we will see what Taylor believes to be his strongest side.

The only player that has begun every game is Jon McLaughlin and although he was called into question by Taylor following the Torquay match he still remains first choice. There is no doubting that he is talented, assured and confident between the stick and it appears he will not let any previous mistakes affect him too easily. But he is young and needs not only some experience in front of him but consistency too.

Unfortunately his most experienced defender and club captain, Simon Ramsden has had his involvement limited by injury. This has seen his understudy, Lewis Hunt step into the vacant position and he has performed adequately, but no more than adequate. Hunt to me seems a more than able replacement for our consistent captain and yet at the same time his lacklustre, relaxed approach to the game leaves me thinking he could be a lot more than adequate.

In the first game against Shrewsbury he did not appear to be fit, which was unfortunately exaggerated as he tried to handle the impressive Ainsworth. In the following games he still appears to amble over to the touchline whenever he is required to take a throw in, rarely appears to be willing to receive the ball and as far as I can remember has never created an overlap for his winger. In fairness to Hunt we do not know what his instructions have been from Peter Taylor and he may well be ordered to be so conservative and concentrate on his defending- a job which he performs very capably. Even so I can’t help but hope we see a fit Ramsden taking the field again before too long.

The other 3 slots across the back 4 have not had had reduced options through injury and yet are still chopped and changed. I am a firm believer that an understanding between the defence and goalkeeper needs to be established from playing together regularly. How often did you see Sir Alex Ferguson line his side up without Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister when both were available, or Wenger without Tony Adams and Martin Keown or even Mourinho without John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho.

Those partnerships were part of some the most successful defences in the Premier League’s history because they were exactly that. Each player knew what their partner was going to do and their goalkeeper behind also created that same understanding be it Schmeichel, Seaman or Cech. Something our current number one Jon McLaughlin must do with whoever plays in front of him. I don’t doubt the ability of any of our current centre backs but all of them will play the game differently and if McLaughlin has a consistent partnership in front of him then that will allow him to become more confident in his decision making knowing what his two defenders in front are most likely to do.

So far it appears to be any 3 from Steve Williams, Luke Oliver and Shane Duff for the two centre half roles with last season’s captain Zesh Rehman providing back up. I was never a huge fan of Rehman last year, but do feel as though he became a lot more assured and solid when Taylor took over towards the end of the season and is possibly a little unfortunate to be overlooked. For me Steve Williams is a rough diamond and has the potential to play at a higher level. I would compare him to a lower league Rio Ferdinand in his style of play. However, much like Rio Ferdinand at the beginning of his career he is still inexperienced, still learning and prone to a mistake. For that reason I would suggest he needs an experienced, vocal leader alongside him. Luke Oliver, unfortunately, does not possess those qualities and although he appears to be Taylor’s favoured option – he has started every league game so far – I would still favour Duff. I do not base this so much on my own observations of Duff due to the limited amount of opportunity I have had to watch him but more on my second hand knowledge of the player from Taylor himself.

When Duff was signed Taylor acknowledged that it was because he felt that Williams and Oliver did not have enough league football experience and Duff has racked up almost double the amount of league appearances that Williams and Oliver have combined. Further, Taylor described him as a ‘good leader’ in the mould of Tony Adams. It is for those qualities that I consider him to be the perfect partner for Williams.

Left back is also a position that is very much in the balance with a decision to be made between two very different players. Robbie Threlfall probably began the season as the favourite after impressing on loan last season. He’s tall, and can boast of an extremely sweet left foot but has been found out at the beginning of this season while the smaller, quicker Luke O’Brien has impressed. Unfortunately, despite getting himself in promising positions O’Brien’s final ball and decision making in the final third leaves something to be desired.

Still if he could cross a ball like Threlfall he probably wouldn’t be playing for Bradford City. It is possible that following his outstanding first season and deserved Player of the Year trophy Luke O’Brien became over confident and it was a combination of this and the lack of competition for his place in the side that led to his disappointing second season. Now with Threlfall pushing him for the starting berth he has returned more determined with a point to prove and on current form deserves his place. That is of course unless Taylor chooses to deploy him further forward in midfield.

Midfield provides Taylor with a selection headache before he chooses his personnel, is the side more suited to 3 in midfield and 3 forwards or a more standard 4-4-2. We have seen both systems tried so far with varying degrees of success. One thing that can’t be denied is that there is plenty of competition, especially in the centre. For the Stevenage game we set up with 4-4-2 with Lee Bullock and Tommy Doherty occupying the central roles. Both players are very good at what they do but are they not too similar? In that game both played very deep and this left a gap behind the strikers and meant they were not provided with enough support. This appears to be something Taylor also identified at half time when replacing Bullock for David Syers.

This would suggest Taylor favours Doherty, and despite being considered to not look fully fit by many supporters, I would agree that he has the edge. Doherty is more mobile than Bullock, a superb passer of the ball and, judging by his performance against us for Wycombe two years ago, he has the ability to dictate and dominate a game. His perfect partner would be Michael Flynn. Last season Flynn was one of our most impressive performers but unfortunately injury has ruled him out of featuring so far. So until Flynn’s return Tom Adeyemi and Dave Syers look to stake their claim. If footballer’s were judged on academic achievement both of these would be in the Premier League however despite both impressing in patches neither can justifiably believe they deserve to be a certain starter.

Out wide the sometimes brilliant but more frequently frustrating Omar Daley looks to have returned from his horrific injury lacking in confidence and a yard of pace slower. Unless Taylor can find a way to help him return to his previous best I fear that his days as the winger who could petrify fullbacks may be over. Following Scott Neilson’s departure that leaves a lack of options on the flank, O’Brien proved he is a more than capable on the left last year but that also means he has to vacate the position of full back. On the other side Gareth Evans is yet to find his best position as either striker or winger. You can guarantee he will give it his all in either position but as a winger he is probably better coming inside from the left as he did against Rochdale last year and therefore perhaps not the solution on the right. Leon Osbourne is yet to return from injury but after impressing at the end of last season there is reason to be enthusiastic about his return. He, like Evans may benefit from a more advanced role as a wide forward and considering the amount of different options we have in terms of central midfielders this would give an compelling argument for a use of a 4-3-3 formation.

That would leave 1 striker from 3 spearheading the Bradford attack. James Hanson, Player of the Season last year impressed all fans with his strength, ability in the air and work rate. Some do worry that he may suffer from second season syndrome and he hasn’t dominated defences in the same way at the beginning of this season. It is important to remember he was injured in the run up to the beginning of the season and will only be beginning to reach full fitness, he has not lost his ability over night and would appear to have the perfect qualities suited to a lone striker.

Big things are expected from loanee, Louis Moult following his arrival from Stoke and he has shown glimpses of fantastic ability in his limited opportunities so far but Taylor appears to prefer using him out wide. That leaves Jake Speight and although he arrived under a cloud he was one of the few positives that were taken from the game against Stevenage and helped him on his way to winning over the supporters. He works tirelessly and was a real handful for the defence, and reports suggest he is going to be rewarded with a deserved start come Saturday.

I had hoped putting my thoughts in writing would help enable me to understand Taylor’s thinking and give me an insight into his possible line-up for Saturday but still I am clueless. I suppose at the end of the day I’m just a fan and that’s why when the team kicks off on Saturday I will take my place in the stands and Peter Taylor will be in the dugout.

So over to you Mr.Taylor, I certainly still have complete faith.

Empathy but no space for sympathy for Southend United

Southend United have fallen from above the leagues and arrive in the bottom division struggling to stay alive, get a team together and with three games and one draw behind them struggling to get a win. It is a situation which City have found themselves in a number of times and it is hard not to feel some empathy.

Sympathy though will be in short supply. Bradford City need to win.

Not need to win in the two points to stave off relegation or win promotion or need to win in the “win or you get fired” way but with the team having put in a good performance in defeat on Tuesday after three unimpressive displays in the League – and the City about to get a good kicking in the media on Saturday – the early season malaise can be lifted with victory in this Friday night game.

Southend is home to Peter Taylor – he was manager too – although he harbours a reduced affection for the town he called home lamenting the decline of the centre. Empathy.

That Taylor’s time at Bradford City has so quickly started to sour is worrying. The best manager available to the Bantams is being criticised because his team have lost two away matches and heard a parting shot from Scott Neilson about PTs playing style which was booed against Stevenage in the last outing in the league at Valley Parade.

One cannot help but wish that Mark Lawn would occupy himself in stating for all that Taylor is the best manager for the job, that he is here for the long term and that he has the full throated backing of the board but alas Taylor’s remit presently only lasts until such a point where it is considered he will not take City to promotion and – for some people – that point has already been reached.

As curious as it maybe to some but wandering around the places where Bantams fans talk after the Torquay United game already the season had been written off – there is a ludicrousness to that assuming a great team gets three points from home games and one from away leaving the Bantams able to win the next two and be back on a perfect track – and for all one might say that only a madman would sign his name to such a comment those men have started to talk and Taylor’s job is already questioned and who is anyone to silence them?

The Tuesday night performance was a fillip. Taylor’s beamed with pride after the performance of his players on Tuesday night – they played hard and were beaten by a couple of long range laser guided shots – and perhaps most pleasing was the performance of some of the fringe players.

There is a speculation that Taylor has brought quantity and not quality to the club and that may be true – although few would have suggested that Tommy Doherty does not represent quality – but Taylor is betting on the idea that a good team comes not from having a higher eleven inked into your team sheet but from having one and a half dozen players who could all feature at any point.

It is experience like this that convinces all about Taylor. He knows football at this level and how to win at it and part of that is – he seems to say – ensuring that you have a depth of player who all can be used. I would agree with the manager. The notion that – at League Two level – there is an ocean of quality to choose from simply does not agree with the football we have seen over the last three years or longer.

So the performance of David Syers and Jake Speight – non-league signings awaiting their first start for City in the league – will be heartening with both showing their usefulness in the League Cup. Speight is itching to go and his header in the week seemed to bury the last of the decent that surrounded him while Syers performance was understated and on the whole unrecognised.

Syers is a rare thing. A player who shows his enthusiasm through his disciplined play, who shows his passion by sticking to his man. He has filled a huge gap in the side that would have been left when the last of the ideal midfield three of Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and Tommy Doherty departed on Tuesday and as resources in the middle are thin his first start seems to be imminent.

Seeing Taylor deploy Syers as well as Chib Chilaka on Tuesday night in a team which also contained James Hanson and Steve Williams showed the current manager’s commitment to continuing the recruitment of players from outside the League structure which shows an added depth to the squad. Without wanting to afford the plaudits to Syers before he has even started a game in players like Syers, Hanson and Williams Taylor gets a resource in the squad previous managers have not.

These players are the Danny Forrests, Craig Benthams and Jake Wrights of City’s past who have learnt that when you exit your league club you end up in a Supermarket or cutting hair and having been given the second chance you work for need to work harder to maintain it.

There is a lesson for many players who are in the squad, or have been, about attitude and one which Syers is testament to. Work hard and good things will come, and more power to his elbow in that.

Assuming the main midfield three are out then Syers will be alongside Tom Adeyemi and perhaps a press ganged striker or defender although probably Bullock or Doherty will return to action. The three in midfield are to be expected to have more work to do with the two wider players deployed on Tuesday night in a 451 being the strikers of a 433 if you will allow me the vagueness of tactical talk.

Gareth Evans is expected to be one of those strikers, Jake Speight hoped to be another with Omar Daley dropping down to the bench. There are few things in football that thrill me more than watching a winger like Daley charging at men but this season, and this set up, do not suit the Jamaican and one worries about his place in the squad.

Certainly Taylor recognises that as a player Daley offers an abundance of energy which can make an unplayable winger but the restrictions on his play and requirement to have him tuck in to the midfield and come back defensively weight heavy – certainly Taylor does not share the love of wide, wide men that his predecessors Stuart McCall and Colin Todd did. Daley represents is a tough call and one that assumes that City will both carry on with the 433 and Taylor for the foreseeable future.

James Hanson seems to be far too useful to not play in every game he can but he has been carrying an injury all season and Chib Chilaka represents an alternative in holding the ball up up front.

The backline will hope that Southend don’t bring Preston’s laser guided football ad that keeping the opposition to thirty yards will be as successful as it was against Stevenage. Zesh Rehman moved to right back to replace Lewis Hunt and will continue alongside Steve Williams and probably Luke Oliver who seems to have a much worse reputation than his performances suggest. Then again failing him coming onto the field and slaughtering a chicken then bathing in its blood in front of the family stand it is hard to see what Oliver could have do to live up to the reputation that the adequate no nonsense player seems to be developing.

It is said of Oliver that he is without skill – he is a central defender – and that he his a big turning circle which is true but as the defender tasked with going to the ball rather than tidying up behind he is hardly needed to spin on a One Euro coin. The fact that he does what he does and little else seems to take away – in some people’s eyes – from the fact that he does what he does to such a point where he is criticised after the Stevenage game where he is the heart of a clean sheet.

Perhaps he can juggle, dance and sing and that could win him friends but as long as he gets his head to what he can as often as he can and lets Steve Williams tidy up behind him I’m happy. Effort is all in the game but manifests itself in different ways.

Luke O’Brien will continue at left back in front of Jon McLaughlin. Bradford City goalkeepers and Southend United have previous history and perhaps it was that which prompted the move of the game forward an evening considering Saturday’s situation.

Certainly the racist Southend fans who left me threatening messages on my answerphone following the Donovan Ricketts sending off and the ructions that followed would be able to make a weekend of the trip to Bradford but never are the whole collection of football supporters represented by the thoughts and actions of a subset.

Empathy for the plight of Southend United then, but City, City fans and especially Peter Taylor have little room to offer sympathy.

The story, and the story not told

When they come to talk about Peter Taylor’s time at Bradford City they will say that in this season City were – once again – knocked out in the League Cup in the early rounds but after an evening of extra time and anything but the meek surrender that has come in previous exits to high division oppositions the Bantams can feel unlucky to not be in the third round draw.

Unlucky and unfavoured by a Referee in Christopher Sarginson who have carte blanche to the visitors from Preston North End who will remember a couple of great goals from this evening but will look back at the game with a worry that but for being allowed strong arm tactics which many, if not most, officials would have taken a dim view of they would have struggled.

Having bested Nottingham Forest in the first round after extra time City learnt a lesson and afforded less respect to the Championship side getting close and tight to them. Taylor sent out a five man midfield leaving Gareth Evans chasing shadows often but the ball when he could and at one point muscling his way past Sean St Ledger to hit a low shot that cannoned off Andrew Lonergan’s post and bounced away.

City were set up to counter-attack the visitors surrendering space to a crowded midfield and looking to suck Preston on, and spring a ball forward quickly but the problem that City encountered was not that this plan failed but that Referee Sarginson allowed it to be undone through unfair means.

One attack from David Syers – again impressive in the Bantams midfield – was broken up before it started when Keith Treacy rugby tackled the blonde midfielder to the ground with resultant finger wagging while right back David Gray stopped Luke O’Brien going forward with support to out number defenders with a two footed tackle that he was as lucky to only be yellow carded for as O’Brien was to walk away from.

Later in the game Paul Coutts and Gareth Evans would end up both going into a tackle with two feet. Both should have been sent off but Sarginson seemed to be Refereeing using something like pre-season friendly rules and as a result the team that muscled – and got away with – more ended up winning the contest.

Which was hard on the Bantams who matched the opposition stride for stride going a goal behind just before half time when Coutts hit a low drive unerringly accurately from range that arrowed into the bottom corner of Jon McLaughlin’s goal. McLaughlin was still cursing himself for letting the ball squirm away from him in the previous attack when he could have held it but once again made a half dozen superb saves.

As good as it was Coutts’s goal was outdone by Treacy’s winner in injury time which more or less finished the tie off. The midfield hit a powerful high and near unstoppable drive that swung out and into City’s goal. It was a superb strike and City’s heads – on and off the field – dropped after.

The Bantams had a time to win the game as Taylor added James Hanson and Jake Speight to bolster the forward line and then – as a last throw of the dice – threw on Chib Chilaka who showed his usefulness when a Lewis Moult throw in found him in the box and the man mountain shoved off three tackles to poke the ball to Luke O’Brien who crossed to Speight hanging at the front post to equalise.

On the front foot City huffed at Lonergan’s goal and Speight once again looked lively and dangerous. Extra time saw David Syers hit a looping shot that pinged off the bar but not long after Preston scored and the game was gone.

The Bantams deserve the plaudits for an evening of hard work and no little excitement while Preston will worry that without two exquisite strikes they seemed to have no path to goal. On loan striker Joshua King was nullified and were it not for the two well hit long rangers then they offered little else. City crafted more clear chances although a note goes to eighteen year old New Zealander Bailey Wright who came off the bench at half time for Preston and looked superb.

That Preston relied on low percentage football – and physical football – to win the game it the counter balance to City’s win over Stevenage who were they able to ping a shot in from thirty yards would have tonked the Bantams. If City did not deserve that win then – one is forced to say – they must have deserved this one.

Perhaps, perhaps not but certainly Taylor can take pride from his charges tonight and they way they matched a team from the divisions above in their approach. The records will show City went out before the last club had come in – again – but the evening told a better story for the Bantams.

A story which should have been different. Christopher Sarginson should not have allowed a good number of tackles tonight and players should have been sent off. He should have booked other players and at one point got to the stage where a player both straight armed Speight and then cleared the ball seventy yards after the free kick had been given and still was not sent off.

The sight of Treacy obnoxiously slowly wandering to take a pair of corners to waste time and try drag the game out to penalties was just the visitors showing a proverbial middle finger to the official having guessed that the man in black was not about to start punishing them as he should have. The whole game was littered with occasions where Sarginson saw offences that are mandated as cautions and opted not to book. In one hundred and twenty minutes of football these things would have added up.

The disappointment was not that City went out, or that City went out to a team that without two nice get of out jail free lashes from distance, but that the rigours of a Referee prepared to enforce the rules of the game as laid down (including – for those who would paint this as myopia – sending off Evans) would have probably made for a more exciting, better match.

The Invincibles

When taken over a long enough time line most things tend towards a level. Preston North End arrive at Valley Parade for the second round of the League Cup in a way that illustrates this perfectly.

Darren Ferguson – “Sonnov” of you will – was pleased to get his first win of the season for the team which under Alan Irvine seemed to be in permanent residence in the top half of the second tier of English football. Irvine’s side knocked on the door of the Premier League but never went in and the sight of local rivals Blackpool doing just that almost by accident is a hard one for the Deepdale supporters.

Not that one need consider Preston North End a team who should be in residence in the top half of tier two. In the 1980s and much of the 1990s they were a side who populated the bottom two leagues. After the war they were fixtures in the top flight. In 1888/89 won both the inaugural Football League and the year’s FA Cup without losing a game. To paraphrase Wells they started at the top and worked their way down.

Which is the real Preston North End? The Invincibles of the 1880s? The stable top flight club? The lower league side? The Irvine incarnation? If all things tend towards a level what level are Preston North End to end up as?

On Sunday morning the Wikipedia entry stated the club was in the Blue Square Premier with a note that some fan was “planning ahead” making his thoughts on the club’s level clear based – seemingly – on a start that saw them defeated by Doncaster and Swansea. A win over Portsmouth on Saturday might have changed his mind but the illustration of football as short term thinking could not be clearer.

Ignore the last 125 years, it is the last 180 minutes of football that count.

So to Bradford City and Peter Taylor who watched his side concede an early goal and have a man sent off before losing at Torquay United on the back of a win which the manager had to join some supporters in criticising and a defeat at Shrewsbury Town prompted some members of the Bradford City community to write off the season before 270 of the 4,140 minutes of football in a league season had been played.

This runs contrary to the great hope of Bradford City supporters that the maxim that all things tend towards a level will see the club level in the longer term somewhere around the position Preston North End are now – half way down the second tier. That idea holds that the mass of the club is such that eventually – and on a longer time frame – City will rise the leagues through osmosis.

Catchment area, size of supporter base, budget available all factor into that equation which works over a longer term than 270 minutes and there is an idea that the actions which the club and its management (and the management of that management) takes serve to hamper that osmosis rather than aid it. Each of us would have a different view on which actions these are.

The 270 minutes of league football might have delighted Bantams supporters not – in that context – hardly matters. The calculation is done over 1,000s of hours of play not three games but cup football concerns itself with those shorter time frames and the joy of those 120 minutes against Nottingham Forest in the last round of this competition stand as a marked contrast to the league season.

One could put this down to any number of factors but choice d’jour is the idea that the Bantams go from being the big team in every League Two game to the small team when playing tier two sides and the resultant release of pressure allows the team to perform better. It is a hangover from the World Cup thinking and England’s choking where the weight of expectation – for whatever reason it is in place – is a barrier to performance.

When the players are considered to be good by virtue of the shirt they wear they play poorly, when they are considered to be poor they play well that is if you consider the league games to have been poor so far, many do not although Peter Taylor does and post game after Torquay he once again charged the players with the responsibility of performing better.

It is not hard to see why Taylor makes this mental challenge to the players. If they can beat Forest – a team which would be acknowledged as “better” footballers, they can beat anyone. The key to that performance being mindset. That – more than the choice of substitute or formation – is what makes a manager able to effect his team.

Prime target of Taylor’s more public coaching is Jon McLaughlin who the manager singled out as having made a pair of mistakes which caused concessions on Saturday. Having given the young keeper the number one shirt Taylor rides the youngster. Twelve month ago when it was considered that Simon Eastwood was making a mistakes that cost game the clamour for McLaughlin was marked. One doubts that Lloyd Saxton will be given a place in the side for this Preston game, or that there will be calls for him to be played.

At right back Lewis Hunt continues in the place of the injured Simon Ramsden and Luke O’Brien is expected to come in at left back for the suspended Robbie Threlfall. Taylor could differ from his pairing of Shane Duff and Luke Oliver to return Steve Williams to the side – Williams perhaps being better equipped to to copy with the more finessed play of the leagues above. Zesh Rehman is also in the reckoning.

The midfield three of Tommy Doherty, Lee Bullock and Tom Ademeyi pick themselves with Michael Flynn out for a month although David Syers – impressive in the last round – could be drafted in over the Norwich loanee who has been given clearance to play from his own club or Doherty who struggled on Saturday and is “not thought to be fully fit” which is often football fan code for “player playing badly, but we don’t want to say it cause we like him.”

James Hanson and Gareth Evans have played almost every minute for City this season as two of the front three and with Louis Moult making little impression since the season started Jake Speight than did in the win over Forest one can imagine Peter Taylor may see a chance to change up front.

Speight is struggling with an injury but he is expected to play some part in the two games this week – City also facing Southend United on Friday night – while Moult more than anyone has looked out of sorts so far. A young player with a good few months ahead of him he has time to change that.

Omar Daley has looked out of the fit of the side thus far this season while Chibuzor Chilaka – given a squad number on Saturday – also stands by.

Idealism departs and the bigger picture shrinks

There’s something unromantic about allowing Scott Neilson to depart back to non-league circles and the lining up of out-of-contact Seb Carole as his potential replacement. But then idealism only gets you so far on a limited League Two budget.

Neilson quietly exited Valley Parade for Crawley Town on Monday evening, a contrast to the fanfare that had greeted his arrival almost exactly a year ago. After impressing on trial for the reserves against Middlesbrough, a three-and-a-half year contract was gleefully signed by the Cambridge City winger. And while the hope was he would follow the unexpected early season instant success of James Hanson and Steve Williams, we were quickly to become familiar with a player who had much to learn.

His full debut at Rochdale was thrilling, a purposeful run from his own half and deflected long range looping shot winning a low key JPT 1st round cup tie. ‘Scotty’ continued to play a part in City’s recovery from a slow start to the season, scoring in the 3-0 win at home to Chesterfield but then overshadowing a excellent individual display by inexplicitly shooting against the post when presented with an open goal. His crucial miss against Morecambe a few days later probably summed up a player with potential, but where further development was needed. Sven Goran Eriksson was a fan, making a serious enquiry.

Neilson was the ugly duckling of an unsightly first team performance under Peter Taylor at Accrington, quickly finding himself shipped out on loan to Cambridge United due to concerns over his deficient fitness levels. He only returned for 20 minutes of the final game at Crewe, but an encouraging pre-season suggested he would make a bigger impact this season.

Alas, his two starts against Shrewsbury and Notts Forest saw deficient performances that hinted he would become a bit part player again. Repeated transfer bids from Crawley manager Steve Evans ultimately proved too tempting, presenting the chance to restore money into an over-stretched transfer budget that might otherwise have lead to more important players leaving.

But still the potential that was evident in Neilson is sad to see depart. On paper it may appear as though the step up to the Football League came too soon, but with time and further development a bright career at City might have been realised. Playing week in week out at Crawley may be more advisable at this stage, and in time it might be looked back on a temporary step downwards before returning stronger and wiser to this level.

With Leon Osborne’s role in the squad as a fringe player who could play a part this season, could Taylor and City afford to invest wages and time polishing up Neilson? Should the trial be a success, his replacement Seb Carole offers far greater experience and instant know-how. Taylor will look upon him a player who’d offer greater consistency and team discipline, not someone who’d hide in his shell and allow a Shrewsbury winger to rip his full back apart.

But as impressive as Carole’s pedigree is on paper, the memories of ‘ex-Celtic star’ Bobby Petta still linger at the back of the mind. If Carole can match Neilson’s work rate and appetite to improve Taylor will have a player who can deliver this season, but the trail of Carole’s career drifting down the leagues and in and out of clubs offers indications that enthusiasm is lacking. If City represented Neilson’s big chance, do we merely signify a regular wage to Carole?

Time will tell. But if the realities of League Two finances and pressure for instant success provide grounded logic to cashing in on a promising young player and replacing him with a rootless winger, it ignores the longer-term picture.

Idealism allows us to dream that Neilson could have grown and learned from his mistakes, becoming a star player who maybe one day would have been sold to a bigger club. Realism is that Taylor was only given a one-year contract and will probably be asked to leave if results over the next 44 league games don’t end in promotion, and so he has to prioritise accordingly.

A tough trip down South

Neilson’s City debut actually came against Torquay a year ago, with the then-newly promoted outfit going down to a 2-0 defeat as part of only two league doubles the Bantams achieved last season. And while the 2-1 victory at Plainmoor last January left the home side languishing in 20th place and only six points above the relegation zone, a spectacular end to the season lifted Torquay out of trouble and then some.

Torquay’s last defeat was at Morecambe on 27 March, the last time they conceded a league goal was Easter Saturday. Those nine consecutive clean sheets include a 5-0 demolition of a Rochdale side who expected to seal promotion that April afternoon, and two impressive league wins over Northampton and Lincoln this season. They are not the tentative outfit who allowed Gareth Evans to crash home two late goals eight months ago to prolong Stuart McCall’s departure by a week.

Neilson’s exit means five of the startling eleven at Plainmoor that winter afternoon have been let go by Taylor, and the rotation methods employed during the first three games of the campaign means we are still unsure who features in his first-choice eleven. Jon McLaughlin starts in goal and the back four he will be in front is likely to see some changes in the centre at least.

With Simon Ramsden out for a few weeks, Lewis Hunt will continue at right back while Luke O’Brien’s strong start to the season should see him hold the left back jersey. Williams – left out for disciplinary reasons last week and curiously receiving public criticism from Taylor – will hope to bounce back and continue his outstanding form. Luke Oliver and Shane Duff struggled to impress last week, despite the clean sheet, and Zesh Rehman may be awarded a first league start.

In midfield Michael Flynn’s 35 minutes for the reserves increases pressure on the midfield three of Tom Adeyami, Lee Bullock and Tommy Doherty – none of who found their top form last week. David Syers will also be hoping for a full debut.

Should the 4-3-3 remain, Hanson and Evans will have either Omar Daley, Jake Speight or Louis Moult for company up front. There are rumours Barnsley striker Ian Hume is about to arrive on loan until January, perhaps providing that cleverness to a forward line which Taylor fears is currently missing.

Peter The Consequentialist

Consequentialism has a simple message for football: An action is considered to be good if the outcome is good and thus Bradford City’s 1-0 win over a Stevenage side who returned to Hertfordshire with the applause of their supporters ringing in their ears would only be considered to be not only a good result but also a good performance.

Indeed it would be very hard to find fault with many areas of Bradford City’s display. Defensively Peter Taylor hit every note right pre-empting the visitors switch to a more direct football by bringing on Zesh Rehman for today’s captain Shane Duff. Luke Oliver – the man of the match for some today – seemed to struggle in the game but in the end too the plaudits at the heart of a back four that conceded no goals.

Indeed the best chance that Stevenage had came when Luke O’BrienDuff passed back straight to Yemi Odubade holding his head in his hands and not watching as Jon McLaughlan spread massively and dug a foot into the striker to save the day.

The midfield sat atop the back four let little of consequence past with Tom Doherty and Lee Bullock, and later David Syers, blocking and forcing the visitors into what has become known as Hollywood shooting. Football which seldom gets rewards and is often the result of impressive defensive play.

That the Bantams ended up playing a game at Valley Parade in their own half, that so much ground was surrendered to a visiting side who three games ago had never played a Football League game, of no concern to the Consequentialists. The result was good, ergo everything was good.

The decisive goal – when it came – came from a Gareth Evans penalty that was a result of a tidy bit of play that saw the Bantams stretch down the right hand side. The ball cut back to Bullock who took it forward and was cut off by an ill advised lunge by Joel Byrom. Evans put the penalty in with a calmness.

The forward three of Evans, James Hanson and Omar Daley were disjointed in the first half but maintained a discipline in the second that saw them utilised in the pursuit of a clean sheet. The forward line dropped back onto the midfield who dropped back onto the defence who tried to push out and it was all good because the outcome was good.

The penalty aside City enjoyed only one other chance of note – Omar Daley breaking at the start of the second half and pushing the ball past three defenders hitting a fading shot over – but for all the visitor’s attempts they looked more dangerous as a statistic than they did on the field. The chance given over by O’BrienDuff was the best that troubled the Bantams.

Daley and Tom Adeyemi struggled to find a place in the game with Adeyemi poor today by virtue of the fact that his role was so isolated in the side. The attacking midfielder in a team which did not attack he enjoyed a better afternoon scoring the goal last week at Shrewsbury but that that was the one in a defeat, no matter how fruitless it may have seemed his his performance was today a consequentialist would say it was good.

Daley – on the other hand – is one short of a hundred games for the Bantams but cut an isolated figure on the left hand side of an attacking three with the requirement to pull back and bolster the backline curtailing his advances. His role in the side would seem to be to stay as solid as he can and then – if he can – provide the spark that makes the difference.

Any trouble for the Bantams side was marked by the agitated figure of Peter Taylor surging forward from the technical area to blast his team with instructions. Moving like a marionette with its strings tangled Taylor fumed at his side enforcing the defensive unit in an attempt to ensuring that the win was not lost. The big decision of the game – to replace Duff with Rehman – Taylor judged exceptionally well although the consequentialism which dictates the merits of the display also judges the quality of the substitution.

In short everything was good, but cause it ended well.

Nevertheless – and the statement is remarkable when said out loud – the Bantams were booed off for wining the game 1-0. Indeed through the second half that saw City build the wall of a defensive which could not be breeched there was an increasing grumble that Taylor should “sort it out” which – considering the Bantams were in the lead and not especially living on the edge – was to be assumed to be a desire for a more attacking game to be adopted.

The consequentialism as opposed to a deontological approach which would have it that football is for the enjoying and a victory without enjoyment is no victory at all, or rather that it is a bad victory and that it needed rectifying.

All of which send the mind drifting back to a Saturday in February in which Stuart McCall’s Bradford City side battered a Bury team which ended up winning 1-0. McCall bowed to the pressure (which came from both the terraces and the boardroom) and exited after that game with an idea that his deontological approach was not what the club needed.

The club needed – it was said – a manager who won games and evidently Peter Taylor is that manager and one has to wonder what the 57 year old gaffer would make of the reception his side received for the three points they worked hard to win.

Indeed what is one to make of a group of supporters who boo when the team does not win, boo when it does and seemingly will only be sated when the club are winning every game with a flourish, probably scoring with exactly the kind of Hollywood football which did not work for Stevenage?

The descenting voices who complained that the club needed to forgo all in favour of victory are now complaining that the wins are not attractive enough. A lesson for Mark Lawn – perhaps – in the merits and effects of appeasing the malcontent.

The Bantams have a first win of the League season and go to Torquay with points on the board, the unique sound of a Bradford City team being booed off for winning a game rattling in the hollow, empty, otiose Valley Parade.

An evening to savour or get out the way?

Driving back up the M6 towards Skipton after Bradford City’s opening day defeat at Shrewsbury Town, a convoy of Nottingham Forest supporters’ coaches crawled by the other way. The passing of ships in the early evening night carried a certain symbolism – for in recent years both clubs have been travelling in very different directions.

It wasn’t that long ago that City v Forest was a regular league fixture. First in Division One from 2001; then, after a one-year break caused by City getting relegated first, in League One. A pair of fairly big fishes tredding in choppy lower league waters, struggling to recover from calamitous falls. Each club specialised in under-achievement, and struggled to adapt to the fact recent Premier League glory days probably wouldn’t be re-lived anytime soon.

But while City sunk another league, Forest resuscitated and now return to Valley Parade for this League Cup tie a big Championship gun looking to avoid a giant-killing. The differing fortunes have much to do with finances and Forest’s stronger fanbase – no need for cheap season tickets to entice supporters to the City Ground, even at their lowest ebb. Yet the fact things can change relatively quickly offer hope for City that they too can follow Forest’s journey of revival.

Now which way up should this map be?

The Notts Forest supporters were travelling home from Burnley on Saturday night following a 1-0 defeat. Ah Burnley, remember when we used to be able to look down on our neighbours from just over the border? But then the Championship is now bursting with teams that not long ago we considered ourselves well above: Doncaster, Hull, Scunthorpe, Swansea, Barnsley – and let’s not even get started on Blackpool.

City have not so much been driving in the slow lane, watching others overtake them, as stuck on the hard shoulder with smoke coming out the engine.

Perspective in football is always changing. And it’s nights like this – rather than Saturdays like the one coming up when Stevenage come to Valley Parade, where it hits home how much City have faltered over the last 10 years. Four years ago City travelled to Forest on the opening day of the season as equals, the narrow 1-0 defeat which occurred offered few clues to the great chasm which has since developed. 59 league places separated the clubs at the end of last season, it’s a long way back.

After the disappointment of Saturday, Forest’s quick return up North to Valley Parade this evening is probably looked upon by Peter Taylor as an unwelcome hindrance. The City manager returned from Shrewsbury with plenty of food for thought and, for the first time since he took over last February, faint criticism from some fans over his team selection and tactics.

The flaws of his 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation at the New Meadow were expertly exposed by Graham Turner’s strong outfit and, despite the success City enjoyed from this approach at the back end of last season, there are calls for a return to 4-4-2. But against such strong opposition as Forest, albeit as the home team, it will be a tough dilemma to abandon or stick with the extra defensive benefits the so-far employed tactics offer.

Do City have a go this evening, take the game to quality opposition in an attempt to get them on the back foot? Or is it better to prioritise containing players of the calibre City won’t face during the bread and butter league campaign? Does Omar Daley’s return from suspension encourage Taylor to play two out-and-out wingers to supply crosses for two central strikers, or would that risk a central midfield two ending up over-run by a team known for passing the ball?

A year ago McCall was slated for playing 5-4-1 at the City Ground, though the then-City boss was already in a position where whatever he attempted to do would be criticised by a section of supporters. The surprising level of dissent shown towards Taylor by some fans in the away end on Saturday, and on Message Boards in recent days, would suggest  he’s not in the ‘can’t lose’ position this nature of cup tie would normally represent. A poor showing tonight, and the criticism may get louder.

With such uncertainty over what formation Taylor will play and the possibility of resting players, it would be wasting mine and your time to try to predict tonight’s starting line up. We may see a struggling-for-fitness James Hanson rested up. Both Louis Moult and Jake Speight impressed when coming on from the bench on Saturday, and one or both may get the chance of a full debut alongside Gareth Evans.

Daley is likely to be given a first outing of the season, either up front in a three-man attack or as a wideman. Light relief on Saturday came from a heated argument between two City fans in the second half, triggered by one angrily questioning why Taylor didn’t bring Daley on. When the other person sought to  point out the obvious – the Jamaican was suspended – the exasperated retort was “Yes I know, but why doesn’t he bring someone on like Daley!” The debate raged on about how Taylor didn’t have such an option, and suddenly the importance of Daley in City’s promotion bid became evidently clear.

Also in line for a first appearance is Luke O’Brien. Alongside Zesh Rehman a scapegoat for many fans last season, the duo’s absence saw Scott Neilson and Luke Oliver take over the roles of being singled out for abuse and may now be dropped. Luke still has a lot to offer this club – and after Robbie Threlfall’s dismal performance on Saturday, perhaps even as a left back again – but faces a difficult fight to claim a regular spot. Zesh and Shane Duff may also earn a start. Michael Flynn is nearing a return to fitness, but it’s questionable whether he or Tommy Doherty will be risked from the start tonight.

Like City, Forest go into this season having to cope with heightened expectations following their over-performance in finishing 3rd last season. Manager Billy Davies is robbed of five players due to international call ups – including £2.65m Welsh striker Rob Earnshaw. That may allow one-time City loanee Dele Adebola a rare start, who should receive a warm reception on his first return.

Last season against City, Davies opted to play several first team players. Chris Cohen and Paul Anderson ran the show that evening; though after going onto become key players in their ultimately failed promotion bid, they may now have been elevated to the status of needing to be rested ahead of a home game with Leeds this Saturday. Their exclusion would increase City’s chance of causing an upset.

Tonight’s game will be a useful exercise in how City measure up to one of the best sides in the Football League – and how much progress there has been towards bridging the gap over the last year. But while a cup run will be welcome in this season especially, Taylor is likely to be prioritising Saturday’s game with former club Stevenage. A repeat of that famous win over Forest in 1995 will be most welcome, but only if it helps the team in their quest for promotion like it did that season.

But ultimately we should fear defeat this evening and the start to the season becoming worse before it gets better. A year ago after losing at the City Ground McCall declared “the season starts here.” Taylor may end this evening uttering something similar.

So now then

When last we convened for serious business, dear reader, Peter Taylor’s Bradford City had gone a half dozen games wining four and drawing two guiding the club away from the lowest finish since 1966 towards a middle of the league end point.

As we saw in the summer, a lot has changed since 1966.

These four wins: Crewe away and Northampton Town, Barnet and Morecambe at home; form the basis for the optimism with which City come into the season. In the match before the six game run – a 2-1 home defeat to Macclesfield Townthe situation was described thus: “PT seems to be doing at the moment is losing the confidence of the paying customer and relying purely on a reputation.”

Taylor was – it was said – “achieving (results) with Stuart’s squad not his own” and some four months on little in the personnel has changed but one doubts that when Taylor saw the squad he thought there was a problem with the ability of the side and recalling the Bury games before he arrived one would agree.

Nevertheless the attitude at and around the club has changed. Optimism – however founded – is in the core of beliefs on which performance is based and Taylor’s robust team is built on the idea of a long term belief in the success of the season rather than an obsession on individual games. Taylor – as with Paul Jewell – is keen for his side to shake off the hangovers or elation which rolled over from McCall’s side’s games.

So on opening day of the season as City go to Shrewsbury Town Taylor will be thinking not of the discreet entity but rather the forty six game whole.

Jon McLaughlin – who did not play a part against Bradford (Park Avenue) in the week – is expected to start the season as number one keeper. One hopes the young custodian makes no mistakes all season but should he – and one remembers the World Cup again – then one has to wonder if the clamour for his understudy to be given a chance will be as vocal as it was when McLaughlin played second fiddle to a faltering Simon Eastwood.

Should McLaughlin not play then Lloyd Saxton stands by but one doubts he will enjoy the same pressure for his inclusion as McLaughlin enjoyed twelve months ago. Junior Chris Elliott is the Bantams’ first choice.

Simon Eastwood Ramsden is captain and comes into the season as right back with Zesh Rehman and Lewis Hunt available as cover for the position, and for central defensive roles. Similarly Robbie Threlfall is left back elect with Luke O’Brien – his cover – considered by Taylor as much as a midfielder as a full back the very capable young Louis Horne also serves a left back cover.

Many may debate who is expected to start in the middle of the back four. Steve Williams is thought to be highly thought of by Taylor while new arrival Shaun Duff probably has not moved after a decade at Cheltenham to sit on the bench but Duff’s decade in the lower leagues does not suggest that pedigree of Zesh Rehman while Luke Oliver is – well – really big.

If Taylor has a job this season then it is to get the best out of a player like Zesh Rehman who no few people will tell you is a poor footballer – a concept alien to me – but has obvious talents which were the cornerstone of the six game run at the end of last term which the confidence for this year is built from. Likewise Steve Williams’s abilities are not to be squandered although were I to be a betting man I would suspect that the former barber will not be making the cut and Duff will make his City debut alongside Rehman.

You, dear reader, may have different views.

The midfield three picks itself when fit – or so we expect – with Lee Bullock, Tommy Doherty and Michael Flynn presenting an impressive engine room but Doherty is not expected to make the game with Tom Adeyemi filling in in that way that might prove hard to dislodge. Michael Flynn is hopeful of playing but Luke O’Brien stands by to fill in for the Welshman. Ryan Harrison and Luke Dean enjoyed wretched pre-seasons with Dean breaking a leg and Harrison struggling to partake in the robust midfield battle.

Gareth Evans is likely to be leading the line in the absence of James Hanson who is suffering a back problem that will most likely restrict him to the bench keeping the former Manchester United and Macclesfield man out of a chance of playing in one of the wide berths. Louis Moult has not looked the same kind of battering ram as Hanson but could be used in the middle striker’s role to hang off the shoulder of a high defence.

It is hard to understand the significance of the two wider roles in Peter Taylor’s mind this season. 433 is a notoriously hard to play formation with a requirement for these two wide players to be able to either track back with on coming full backs or fall into the midfield to create a five while always being aware that should they fall too deep, not break quick enough, and isolate the central striker the formation becomes not only defensive but also utterly ineffectual.

Away from Valley Parade Taylor will no doubt hope to create a bolstered midfield and his selections in these two positions can flex to accommodate that.

Taylor is without the injured Leon Osborne and the suspended Omar Daley for this game but does have Jake Speight, Scott Neilson and Moult. Taylor has seen more of Moult than most others and will know how well equipped the Stoke striker who scored two in his first two pre-season games is to the wide role. Should the gaffer believe Moult can play a wide left role then it seems that he will most likely get that role with Neilson on the right otherwise Speight will make a debut.

As with Taylor bringing an optimistic side into this season there was a time when that looked highly unlikely.

Another season of despair

On The 2010/2011 Season

I met a traveller from an antique land.

The modern history of Bradford City – which is to say the everything from the return to Valley Parade onwards – shifts on a fulcrum moment which happened ten years ago this month that City kick of a fourth consecutive season in the bottom tier of English professional football.

August ten years ago and – with bare faced cheek and a brassneck – I went to my boss and asked him if I could leave half way through the day because I wanted to go to the press conference that unveiled Benito Carbone as a Bradford City player. Carbone – at a cost of just under £55,000 a week – was the pinnacle of something that rose at The Bantams and – in the last ten years – fell.

Much has happened in that last ten years – two administrations, three promotions, BfB has had 112 more writers doing about 3,500 articles, the hole in the ground, a riots, the boss in question now is chairman of Bradford Bulls – but nothing has matched that moment. Geoffrey Richmond sitting at the head of a room of supporters and journalist proudly proclaiming the promise that his new recruit represented.

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert.

Valley Parade played host to former tenants Bradford Park Avenue and – soberingly and as a result of that time ten years ago – its current tenant Bradford City and is a transformed arena. The main stand rises high and is most often half empty or half full (your point of view on that) ready to host Premier League football which is a distant memory now.

Rippling away from Valley Parade the effects of City’s rise and fall fade. Peter Taylor tried to prepare for this season in different training facilities but that proved impossible – for now at least – and Apperley Bridge continues to be the host for the club’s day to day activities. Carbone said of City on his arrival that “nothing resembled a football club” including Apperley Bridge in his swathe of comment.

Players have come and gone most notably Dean Windass who partnered Carbone up front in the Italians first game. Windass returned but left the club after death threats following a sending off.

Managers have come and gone most notably Stuart McCall who was the captain and assistant manager when Carbone was signed. He, along with other players of the day Wayne Jacobs and David Wetherall have reputations tarnished not by the continued involvement with the club but by the club’s decline from that day onwards.

In the wider football world though that day – and Bradford City in the Premiership – is a footnote. The other team in Paul Scholes’s wonder goal, the prototype for the likes of Hull City and Blackpool and a step on the evolutionary ladder from Barnsley’s single season in the top flight. Not forgotten but hardly remembered and remembered as one of many teams who tried and failed.

An ebullient Geoffrey Richmond stood on the field – a dozen City fans around him – in a blazing eyeball to eyeball argument with a Daily Express journalist who questioned his motives and motivations. It was a rare sight. The Empire builder questioned, raging against the coming tide which he would not be able to keep back.

He resurfaced briefly at Notts County and Leeds United, and then he was gone.

And on the pedestal these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

So ten years on Bradford City under Peter Taylor prepare for the new season and it is hard to imagine being further from that August press conference. The pitch – sun drenched on that day – has been improved at last but little else can be said to have.

Pre-season was low key to a point of hardly being considered during the tour of Essex which saw four games in seven days. The jailing of one former striker and one new one provided the news and perhaps there was a sense that nothing else from the club would match that so – other than the progress of the new grass – little emerged from the club. There is no good news, so there is no news.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.

The best which can be said about Peter Taylor is that he has augmented what he found on arrival at the club rather than trying to rebuild salvaging some of the last two and a half years of work that Stuart McCall had put in. A look at Taylor’s assumed first eleven shows that the keeper Jon McLauglin, defender Steve Williams and striker James Hanson were all plucked from nowhere to be key members of this season’s side.

Indeed it is to Taylor’s great credit that one can skip through the team: Right back Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman at centreback, left back Robbie Threlfall was a target of McCall and co at left back, Lee Bullock was converted to a deep role by McCall, midfielder Michael Flynn and striker Gareth Evans brought in by the previous manager. Taylor has recruited Tommy Doherty for his three in midfield while Omar Daley – with 97 appearances for City – pre-dated the previous manager.

Rather than start again Taylor has taken what he found and added to it giving City a rare route to having some stability at the club. That he has only a one year contract is a matter of great worry – for every prediction which tells you City will be promoted you can find one which says we will end in mid-table which would result in the board not offering a new deal to the manager – with City highly unlikely to find as good a replacement for this manager as was found for the last.

His football is pragmatic to a point of unattractiveness at times but Taylor is perhaps the only reason for optimism at the club this season. A man who appreciates the value of building while standing in the bare, lone and level sands.

Watching the grass grow

Players sent to prison for a weekend, players sent to prison for twenty five years. Accusations of lies told to City by Jake Speight, from City by Guiseley. Plans coming to pass, plans falling apart. All along though there has been a constant message coming from Valley Parade.

The grass is growing.

City look forward to a season in which increasingly they are tipped for promotion with a grounded optimism based – perhaps – on three years of League Two football on which it was observed that it was not the best but the most resilient sides which got promoted. The sides who were best able to learn from and forget the last result to move onto the next.

So three days after Rochdale City play a final pre-season game and one is reminded how Peter Taylor’s side turned around in the three days between an atrocious defeat at Accrington Stanley to a fine win at Spotland.

That resilience contrasted with Stuart McCall’s side which lived on rollovers and hangovers that took the baggage of one game into the other be it from eight game unbeaten runs of ten game spells without wins. Taylor’s side are less emotional, and from that comes the idea that they will be a more stable creation. Flatter perhaps but easier to play.

Like the grass at Valley Parade which has been the club’s main news focus of the summer.

The turf at Valley Parade has been relaid on the instructions of Peter Taylor who wants a green carpet. Gone are the Peter Beagrie Bog relaid for the left winger to enjoy in the second half, gone are the sandy beaches of the box and in the place comes the luxurious carpeting in City’s new home.

City’s new home and Bradford Park Avenue’s old ground – the other Bradford club spent some time at Valley Parade as a part of the decline to termination at the start of the 1970s – but the Wool City Derby is one of football’s forgotten games last played competitively 1969 with the scores left standing – hanging even – with City having won 20 and Park Avenue 21 of 58.

Park Avenue’s progress up the leagues is slow and City fans debate the merits of that but they start a season in Northern Premier League Premier Division three leagues below the Bantams.

Avenue will most likely field three former City players – Kevin Sanasy, Diddy David Brown and Tom Claisse – with the former player especially interesting to see. A hotheaded player when a Bantam but Sanasy who had some ability and it will be interesting to see how he has progressed.

The Bantams hope to have Michael Flynn fit enough to play a part in expectation of a return for the opening game of the season at Shrewsbury Town on Saturday although Tommy Doherty is unlikely to play in either. Tom Adeyemi, Lee Bullock and Luke O’Brien are likely to be the midfield three behind Omar Daley and Scott Neilson supporting Gareth Evans with James Hanson out injured with goalscorer from Saturday Louis Moult starting on the bench alongside Jake Speight.

Jon McLaughlin sits behind a back four of Simon Ramsden on one side and Robbie Threlfall the other with Zesh Rehman and one of Shaun Duff, Luke Oliver and Steve Williams alongside, most likely the former.

Here comes the season

Rochdale and Bradford City took to the pitch with the words of  The Stone Roses’ “This is the moment I’ve waited for” blasting out of the Spotland PA system. And while we all know that moment is really still another week away, there’s a sense of liberation in reaching this point.

The close season is almost over, another lengthy break from football survived. For the sizeable travelling City support, Saturdays have now returned to being about going to the football. 46 league games to look forward to, three cup competitions to take a curious interest in.

We’ve made it. Now let’s get started.

There’s so much analysis and debate about whether pre-season friendlies really matter, but I think what we all want to gain at this time of year is re-assurance that the players are ready and able for the many battles ahead. And in a decent workout against opponents who begin next week a league above, there was much to feel assured about. City were every bit Rochdale’s equals this afternoon, and that was while missing key players.

A few weeks back, manager Peter Taylor  stated this game was ideal preparation for Shrewsbury, and the 4-5-1 formation he employed in the first half offer strong clues to his thinking for the tricky opening day trip to the New Meadow. The sole forward today was the clearly confident Gareth Evans, who has maintained his strong end of season form into pre-season at least. While not best suited to the target man role, Evans was charging all over the final third to make himself available to others, attempting to hold up the ball so midfield runners could get forward and support him.

Apart from a tentative performance from Omar Daley on the left wing, this approach was largely successful with Scott Neilson in excellent form and on-loan Norwich teenager Tom Adeyemi catching the eye with his box-to-box style. Lee Bullock and Luke O’Brien largely held central positions in the middle of the park, and the ball retention from City was particularly impressive. Patience took precedence over urgency, as the ball was methodically worked around the pitch. Robbie Threlfall came closest to scoring during the first half, with a long range drive.

Taylor reverted to 4-4-2 after the break, with new strikers Jake Speight and Louis Moult brought on and O’Brien moved to left wing. Within 10 minutes of his first appearance in claret and amber, Moult latched onto Adeyemi’s through ball and firing a perfect low shot into the bottom corner to put City in front. Taylor had previewed Moult’s arrival on Friday by stating he was signing a striker who offered something different to what he had, and his style of playing on the shoulder of the last man is certainly that.

The lead was short lived as former City loanee Chris O’Grady found space, following a partial clearance, to fire a low shot past Jon McLaughlin; with the City keeper initially unsighted due to the number of players in the box. And when a minute later Lewis Hunt – another half time sub – tripped Jean Louis Akpo-Akpra inside the area, a credible win looked set to turn into defeat.

O’Grady’s run-up for the penalty was similar in length to Blanco’s for Mexico against France at the World Cup. As he got closer, he kept adjusting his pace, while McLaughlin erratically moved left-to-right on his line and feigned to commit himself to going to his left. The mind games were won by City’s new number one, who did actually dive to his left and superbly kept out a decently-struck spot kick. It should be noted McLaughlin’s performance was far from flawless, he looked very tentative from crosses in particular. But as confidence boosts a week before a season go, he couldn’t have asked for a better moment.

City shaded the final 20 minutes, with the much-discussed Speight making more of an impression as the game went on. He is quite small with quick feet, but what  really stood out was his strength in holding up the ball. The reaction from supporters near me when he came on suggests he has much convincing to do after what’s gone on, but by the end he’d offered some evidence to justify Taylor’s faith.

Defensively City looked strong all afternoon. Zesh Rehman barely put a foot wrong, Oliver caught the eye with his passing ability. His half time replacement Shane Duff seems to be an excellent acquisition and Hunt, who looks a bit like Richard Edghill, should be adequate back-up for the on-form Simon Ramsden. A big question mark with the 4-5-1 formation, if employed, is the tracking back of the midfield. Certainly Neilson cannot afford to allow opposition full backs to brush past him in the manner Joe Widdowson regularly managed in the first half.

Adeyemi almost snatched a late winner with a superb long-range shot that was tipped over, and when the final whistle was blown seconds later a buzz of satisfaction emanated from City fans as they warmly applauded the players off. The first Saturday back – none of the others are likely to be as relaxing as this.

For as the season kicks off for real at 3pm next Saturday, the expectation levels also return. City are touted as favourites by some bookies, and how that will translate into the weekly battles remains to be seen. What will our reaction be if City lose at Shrewsbury? 45 games still to go, but the pressure will surely increase. And while this workout offered plenty of indications that the players are taking on board Taylor’s instructions, applying it when the grumbles are reigning down from the stands is another matter.

Can the patient passing approach withstand the predictable bellows of “FORWARDS” from some fans?

All we know about this season is that City will win some games and City will also lose some games (the rest will probably be draws), and how the ups and downs are managed will probably determine whether this is the season it finally comes together.

Rochdale may still be a league above us, but that didn’t stop our light-hearted chants about how small and rubbish their set up is compared to ours. We, and others, consider Bradford City “too big for League Two”. But that inevitably creates a level of pressure on the players which their rivals on the pitch simply don’t feel. Whether it lifts or weighs them down cannot be calculated during a relaxing pre-season game, but we’re about to find out whether they have the mental strength to make our dreams come true.

This is the moment, the moment to go back into the pressure cooker.

The start of the most interesting season

This season will be fascinating. Every move will be analysed, every game mark a position, ever result considered as a proof of a concept about building slowly and in a determined fashioned. One can only guess at the outcome too – a team that takes change as part of progress, that sees development as a thing done over years, not over a summer.

It will be a very interesting League One season for Rochdale.

After the best part of four decades in the basement division Rochdale have gained an upward mobility which saw them promoted last season despite having sold – to a club who plead poverty for a figure they did not disclose – their best player in Adam Le Fondre but prospered because of the strength of the unit. Defender Craig Dawson is looking to move on this summer with the club waiting for someone to match the £1m valuation they put on him and – once again – Keith Hill will look to his side’s whole being able to withstand the withdrawal of one of the parts.

Rochdale are an object lesson in the idea of retention. Keith Hill has been at the club since his retirement being in charge of the youth side, then the assistant manager and finally as manager. The squad has long service – captain Gary Jones has played 229 games for the club – and with that has come a resilience.

One could take issue with other things about Spotland but on the field there is much to admire about Rochdale and their progress this term represents a test of their ideals.

Bradford City represent something of a contrast being a club that has firm and fast plans off the field which have seen the club be rightfully proud of being one of only two professional football clubs in the black as well as taking firm action against troublemakers. The commercial side of operations at Valley Parade come on a pace we are told and off the field – despite the legacy of huge debts ten years ago – the club are in rude health.

It just goes wrong when kicking a football come into the equation. It would not be true to say City do not have a plan on how to go forward – they have lots of plans – and they change on a regular basis.

Over the summer Peter Taylor has gone about augmenting what he inherited when he moved into Valley Parade while keeping some things in place. Wayne Jacobs, Michael Flynn, James Hanson, Steve Williams and Jon McLaughlin have all benefited from this as the manager recognises that all retention builds institutional knowledge. Nevertheless Hanson and Williams both arrived as part of the club’s plan of harvesting the lower leagues. That came after the club’s plan of spending £600,000 on talent. Remember City’s Mexican academy? City had a plan that included with Royal Racing FC Montegnee and the development of young players? A side note here is that the Bantams Belgian partners picked up Willy Topp on January three years after City took him from them RRFCM’s grasp.

While Rochdale have been pursuing a single approach, City have had many and perhaps they would have all failed in the long term but having not been given that time who could say?

Taylor’s one year contract evidences this – clearly the best man for the job – with the club hedging bets so that another plan can be sprung into place to replace the current one which at the moment is “the right thing.” If you buy enough lottery tickets then one day you will win, maybe.

Taylor has something of an injury crisis on his hands with James Hanson – who is expected to lead the line for the season – struggling to be fit for the first day with Gareth Evans and a new mystery striker who the manager hopes to sign today – replacing him in the forward one of a 433.

Evans would be deployed as a wider player alongside the likes of Scott Neilson, Jake Speight, Leon Osborne who is injured, Omar Daley who is suspended for the opening day of the season and perhaps Ryan Harrison and Norwich loanee Tom Adeyemi who are midfielders who may move forward.

For Speight the chance to play in front of his new fans and start to build bridges after a summer of sentences and suggestions will be welcome. If every a player needed a good start to his City career it is Speight.

City’s idea midfield three are Flynn, Lee Bullock and Tommy Doherty but the bearded maestro is injured suggesting that Adeyemi may be used in the middle although Luke O’Brien may slot onto the left hand side of a three as he did last year. With James O’Brien leaving this week City seem light in the midfield area with those three, the Norwich loan player and youngsters Luke Dean and Ryan Harrison and perhaps Taylor will be looking to replace the exiting Irishman.

At the back the Bantams have some strength and the names write themselves on a team sheet: Simon Ramsden, Steve Williams, new recruit Shaun Duff and Robbie Threlfall; Luke Oliver may yet end up pressed into attack once more – that is a pudding that is only for the eating – and Zesh Rehman would seem to be marked to provide cover for Ramsden and the central players.

If Taylor has one aim this year it should be to get Rehman – who has a pedigree of playing Premiership football – to perform appropriately consistency. Rehman put in a half dozen excellent performances towards the end of the last season under Taylor and if the manager is the manager everyone (seemingly including Fabio Capello) thinks he is then it will be in getting performances out of the likes of Rehman which will evidence that.

In goal Jon McLaughlin is expected to get the number one shirt with Lloyd Saxton to wait for his chance as McLaughlin did.

City face Rochdale and then entertain Bradford Park Avenue at Valley Parade on Tuesday before starting the season on Saturday at Shrewsbury. At least that is the plan.

Another season starts with expectations outstripping realism

The World Cup final is two days away as Bradford City start a season in which Peter Taylor is mandated to take his team to promotion.

Starting by taking on Eccleshill United at Plumpton Park City’s manager is has a contract which last until the end of the season with the expectation being that should the Bantams not be starting next year in League One then they will be starting it with a different gaffer.

It is hoped that Taylor has the raw materials in place – he has a new flat pitch, money for overnight stays but crucially not the next training facilities he wanted – and has augmented a squad which last season finished fourteenth in the division.

The hope for Taylor – and all – is that the additions of Jake Speight, Tommy Doherty and Shaun Duff can make a significant difference. Mark Lawn has called Doherty a player good enough to play in the Championship which he may be but he, as with the rest of the squad, line up as League Two players against no doubt another twenty three sides who have squads peopled with players of similar quality.

Everyone has their great hopes at this time of year, everyone has their own ideas of how they are going to be the team that gets promoted.

A view of League Two – a League that Taylor has taken teams up from – tells us that the teams which win promotion are those who have a season marked with resilience. Rochdale recovered from the 3-1 defeat we visited on them at Spotland last season but City did not from the 3-0 defeat at the same ground the season before. The Bantams tendency under Stuart McCall to be able to carry any defeat into the next game as a merciless hangover was a marked characteristic of this.

Mental and physical preparation are key – Taylor’s talk of training facilities is recalled – and as the City manager starts his one chance at this club with these players he does so without the things he asked for. A realistic view of that is that once again the manager is in a position of having to over-perform in order to perform as expected.

Tonight Taylor will play players for forty-five minutes each changing the eleven at half-time but retaining the 433 he is set to play in the season for both halves. Speight, Doherty, Duff and Lloyd Saxton are expected to make débuts while Luke Oliver and Robbie Threlfall will make first appearances as City players proper.

Look out for Omar Daley – his last season ruined by injury this term he starts from a full pre-season – and for James Hanson to see if he and Gareth Evans can continue on the form they showed last term. Steve Williams has competition for his place from Zesh Rehman, Oliver and Duff and it will be interesting to look at the styles of those central defenders although all four are big lads able to clean out the backline.

Taylor has strikers Matthew Tipton and Lee Morris on trail. Morris was linked with City at various times in his younger years. The forward who made his name through his blistering pace is now thirty and has been released by Hereford United while Tipton has been released by Macclesfield the Welshman having had a career around the lower leagues.

The season starts tonight and ends in May 2011 which will be one hundred years since City won the club’s only major honour. Expectations are that we will have something to celebrate then.

Taylor laying out his formation for next season

In talking about needing to bring another attacking midfielder/forward to the club Peter Taylor has made it clear that he is favouring a 433 for next term.

Taylor’s 433 was deployed at the end of last term which finished with six unbeaten games and the signing up of Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and Tommy Doherty showed the the City gaffer had an eye on playing the formation that boast three in the middle. Now his talk about bringing in another flank man confirms it.

Already Taylor’s team lines up with Jon McLaughlin behind Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Robbie Threlfall across the back. The midfield three of Flynn, Doherty and Bullock are set for the middle but up front the picture is less clear.

James Hanson would seem a cert for the middle striker role but Gareth Evans would need to ensure that he maintained his performances at the end of last season to nail down a place on the right of the central striker. Evans also represents the back up for Hanson with defender Luke Oliver third choice for the position and it is expected that Taylor will be happy with that choice.

Should Evans not be right then Omar Daley – a pre-season under his belt – will probably be although the winger who missed most of last season injured can be used on the left where Leon Osbourne played at the end of last term. Gavin Grant – who has yet to sign for the club after playing non-contract last year – also was employed in these roles.

Daley divides opinion and his deployment in this kind of formation is a curious one. For the wide role Taylor requires players who are ready, willing and able to track full backs back when they break but are also have good enough judgement to know when to move to a more attacking position to bolster the attacking line as well as the abilities to make good with the ball.

The great thing about 433 is that it can turn into 451 really easily. The worst thing is that if you are not careful then it turns into 451 really easily.

Daley would be one of my choices on the flank but he will always struggle getting back and the player would need to show unbroken concentration to make the position his own. Evans would need Hanson to play every week to nail down the position. Osbourne has shown the willingness but probably would not be the player than anyone would go into the season with as a first choice.

So Taylor is on the look out for wide players who he can trust and no doubt his famed book of contact will be out to try find someone. One rumour had Robbie Blake about to sign for a return to the club although Taylor has multiple targets with the manager saying “I think I’ve got one in my sights but that doesn’t mean we will get him. You just have to see what develops, so there’s more than one that I’m speaking to.”

We await progress for the manager but – it is worth reflecting – that for the first time in over a decade City fans will not be in the dark over the majority of the side at the start of August and two months early nine of the starting eleven can be nailed down.

Oliver, Threlfall and Saxton sign for City

Peter Taylor has done what many thought would be impossible and recruited on loan Liverpool left back Robbie Threlfall on a two year contract with the Bantams as one of three signings the City manager has made to start off a summer of some recruitment.

Threlfall joined the Bantams after being scouted by Stuart McCall to answer the recurrent problem with delivery his sides had and the Anfield loanee proved his value with a performance and goal at Spotland in City’s 3-1 win over Rochdale that underlined his usefulness. From that point on Threlfall continued to show his talents with a deadball and his signing on a free from Liverpool – which was once thought to be an outlandish aim – is a welcome reality.

Also returning from last season is giant of a defender Luke Oliver who signs on a free from Wycombe Wanderers. Oliver joins the club seemingly as a replacement for the departed Matthew Clarke and while many if not most would concur that the departing defender has better ability than the man who arrives the fact that Taylor has worked with Oliver at three clubs now speaks much about the character of the player and the trust the manager feels he can place in him which – perhaps – was not the case with Clarke.

Oliver also arrives on a two year deal where as as does 20 year old keeper Lloyd Saxton is signed for one who arrives to be understudy to Jon McLaughlin. Saxton has yet to play a football league game despite being named on the bench some thirty times for Plymouth last season. Saxton had indicated that he would prefer a first team role at a non-league club and now finds himself in the position McLaughlin occupied for two seasons on the bench at Valley Parade.

Taylor has indicated that McLaughlin is his number one keeper for next season and one can only hope that not only does the man who showed the virtue of patience seize the opportunity given but that he is protected in the same way Simon Eastwood was when he was wearing the number one jersey for the Bantams.

Eastwood’s critics were plentiful – as were Stuart McCall’s for keeping faith with him – but the saving grace for both and the hope for McLaughlin is that Peter Taylor shares the same views on switching keepers and – in short – will give the gloves to McLaughlin and leave Saxton sitting on the understanding that little good comes of rapid goalkeeper changing. It would seem that Saxton can expect to warm the bench for sometime.

Oliver competes with Zesh Rehman for the place of big centre half alongside Steve Williams or Simon Ramsden – most likely the former – in Taylor’s defence next season as well as having a role as emergency striker which few would relish seeing again. T’was like Andrew Tod has returned to haunt us.

Of the three Threlfall is most likely to be starting the season on the first team with the left back set to continue his role at full back come August 2010.

A happy ending of sorts

Who would have believed, as we trooped out of Valley Parade despondently on Easter Monday, that the 2-1 reverse to Macclesfield we’d just endured would turn out to be the last defeat of the season?

That evening anger and frustration were the overriding emotions as the season was seemingly petering out towards a worst league finish since 1966, with a squad decimated by injuries looking increasingly disinterested. But instead the final six games have produced the second-best results sequence of the campaign, offering genuine grounds to feel optimistic about the next one.

Of course we’ve been here before. Strong ends to the season, after promotion hopes were long since dashed, are far from unusual in recent years. And the praise directed at the players now is somewhat tempered by the fact that, when it really mattered earlier in the campaign, they failed to deliver the goods. But still, the way we felt after Macclesfield were clumsily allowed to record that Easter Monday victory is a reminder that players showing little pride in wearing your club’s shirt is one of the most unforgivable crimes they can inflict.

City were comfortable winners at Gresty Road today in an encounter which had nothing riding on it, but that’s not been the case during other impressive recent results. Various League Two clubs entering the closing stages of the campaign still biting their nails have received little but misery from a seemingly guaranteed three pointer with the mid-table Bantams. The good run has left City in a final position of 14th – still a bitterly disappointing under-performance for a club with the resources to do better, but it could have ended much worse than this.

Ryan Kendall – brought on as sub in the first half due to an injury to Gareth Evans – got the only goal of the game mid-way through the second half after a quickly-taken free kick from Michael Flynn afforded the on-loan Hull teenager time and space to fire a low shoot past on-rushing home keeper Adam Legzdins.

But it could easily have been a more comfortable away win. Flynn had forced an excellent first-half reaction stop out of Legzdins; Robbie Threlfall’s long-range effort was too straight to beat the Alex stopper; Adam Bolder’s header was deflected over shortly after half time; Flynn’s low shot from a well-worked corner was blocked soon after City had gone a goal up; Kendall twice should have hit the target with close range half-volleys which he fired over.

Crewe were not without their chances, a free kick just after half time was tipped onto the crossbar by Jon McLaughlin and, seconds after City scored, Calvin Zola had an effort disallowed; but the visitors carried the greater vigour and work rate throughout. The approach play from the Bantams was generally impressive, though a lack of players willing to support Evans/Kendall in the penalty area often meant good passing moves broke down. And with the back four in excellent form – Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams especially solid – a late equaliser never looked likely.

It was a performance similar in approach and overall standards to the previous four. The six-game unbeaten end to the season began unpromisingly with a poor performance at Burton Albion. The point picked up was almost entirely due to an inspired performance from McLaughlin, who was brought in for Glennon, and who kept up his form to the final whistle at Crewe.

No one has had a more purposeful end to the season than the former Harrogate Railway stopper. A year ago on the last day he started at Chesterfield almost as a token gesture. Despite largely playing second fiddle to unconvincing keepers from Huddersfield, he ends this season in pole position to be number one for the next campaign.

And another meaningful moment that day was what initially seemed disappointing news. On-loan Luke Oliver, scorer at the Perelli Stadium, was recalled by Wycombe as the team travelled home. But with the giant defender having been converted to giant striker due to injuries, his leaving turned out to be a blessing in disguise. No longer could City hit the ball directly to a tall frontman in a depressingly ugly style, suddenly they had to play football.

Against Morecambe a few days later Peter Taylor employed a 4-3-3 formation that relied on wide players Gavin Grant and Leon Osborne supporting Evans, and the subsequent success has been significant. All three have shown a great level of work-rate, and the movement has caused opposition defences problems. Evans has recaptured early season form, benefiting from increased faith in his striker prowess, instead of being asked to play as a wide midfielder, and might have equalled injured top scorer James Hanson’s haul but for that early injury today.

For Grant and Osborne, who had yet to convince supporters of their worth, it’s been an especially good period. Grant looks a promising proposition who Taylor will likely sign permanently this summer, while Osborne is showing potential and had arguably his best game yet for the Bantams at Gresty Road. Meanwhile the midfield has began to pass the ball around patiently on the deck again in recent weeks, with Bolder recapturing his form and Lee Bullock and Flynn enjoying strong ends to the season.

The scorer of the first goal against Morecambe was Rehman, who had his name booed when it was read out before kick off. City’s captain has also rediscovered his form and looked excellent over the last few weeks, including when asked to play the less comfortable role of right back. Back in the centre today with Matt Clarke gone, he barely put a foot wrong recovering from his only obvious mistake to retain possession when it appeared he’d overrun it. Taylor has arrived at City with a reputation for employing dour tactics, but the freedom Rehman and Williams have been afforded to play the ball out of defence is a long way removed from the row Z approach League Two is known for.

All of which has helped City end the season looking more of a cohesive unit than they have all season. And what’s really encouraging for the 2010/11 campaign is that most of the players appear to be staying. While there has been calls for a culling of the squad, the good work Stuart McCall had initiated is being continued and developed.

Sure, there are positions Taylor needs to strengthen this summer and the lack of depth has been shown to be a problem all season, but the nucleus of a good side is already here and the immediate priority has to be securing the signatures of Flynn, Simon Ramsden, Bullock and others to maintain it for the next campaign.

Is it a good enough squad to build from? The table shows a big improvement is needed next season, but the 62 points the Bantams ended with is only five less than last season. Not a bad return considering the playing budget was slashed by a third.

As the final whistle blew, the players, subs and management walked over to applaud the travelling fans with great gusto, and in return received a warm reception. There was a real bond between players and supporters, exemplified by Flynn’s example; and even though things haven’t worked out this year, the signs are the players genuinely do care about playing for Bradford City.

We’ve seen the opposite when seasons have tailed off badly, and we know how horrible it feels to know the players you’re cheering on couldn’t care less about your club. The last six games might not have involved anything to play for, but at least the current crop have shown playing for City still matters to them.

But the final word should go to the away support. Some 700+ City fans travelled to Crewefor a fourth division game with nothing riding on the result. The atmosphere, from the pre-match pub sing-along to applauding the players off the pitch at full time, was outstanding. On the day Mark Lawn publicly declared cheap season ticket deals are over and questioned whether the Bradford public had the appetite for watching affordable professional football, he and others should keep in mind the strong hardcore of support this club enjoys and ensure efforts are concentrated on maintaining and building it. Rather than solely worrying about floating supporters who cannot be relied upon when the chips are really down.

During the final 20 minutes, almost everyone joined in the continuous chanting of “We’ll always remember – the 56.” It was hugely moving, bringing tears to some supporters’ eyes and immense pride in everyone.There may not be a great deal to remember about this season, but at least we can be proud of the manner we’ve remembered our past.

A Jon Bateson season that finishes at Crewe

Jonathan Bateson has been released by Bradford City after only nine months at the club and if ever a player summed up a season it is the young right back signed from Blackburn Rovers and released to an uncertain future.

The players released are Bateson, Rory Carson, Matthew Clarke, Matthew Convey, Matthew Glennon, Steven O’Leary and Luke Sharry and few of those names surprise. Matthew Clarke always seemed to be on the edge of leaving the club and Peter Taylor is expected to try sign Luke Oliver as a replacement. It seemed that only one of James O’Brien and O’Leary would stay and it was O’Brien.

It is Bateson – however – who sums up the season. A decent pre-season prompted optimism which was burst down in Nottingham with the team beaten 5-0 and 3-0 in four days and Bateson sent off for a two footed lunge on his debut.

Following that there was a tough comeback. Hard work and effort that brought lots of positive reports which struggled to be transffered into the results everyone wanted. Bateson was labelled as having great potential which his manager Stuart McCall’s team looked capable of putting in great displays but seemingly incapable of winning great results.

Bateson struggled to win a place in the side as other players such as Simon Ramsden established himself and the idea of Bateson winning his place started to seem more and more remote. Sure he could put in a good display when needed but it always seemed that he was settling in to the middle of things, despite the odd Johnstone’s Paint win.

So a change in manager brought in optimism but not a massive change in position because it seemed that the season had been cast in the middle. Zesh Rehman dipped his toe into playing right back and Bateson appeared again showing some stability but the die has been cast and stability saw out the season into mid-table.

Changes were made. Bateson exits.

So Peter Taylor finishes three months as City manager with a end of season middle of the table game which could see the Bantams reach 13th or may drop to 16th. Of the players released only Clarke featured in the side last week and he is expected to be dropped to allow for a Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman middle with Simon Ramsden and Robbie Threlfall at full backs in front of Jon McLaughlin.

Matt Glennon’s release is a big thumbs up for McLaughlin who seems set to be City’s first choice keeper next season.

Also looking at being nailed in for next season is the three of Adam Bolder – who may return to Millwall with Taylor wanting him back – Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn in the middle. Gareth Evans leads the line with Gavin Grant and Leon Osbourne supporting.

And no room for Bateson. Not been his sort of season.

Reflections on a chapter still waiting to be ended

As uplifting as Tuesday night’s victory was, the meaningless end of season nature means that it may be the events before kick off against Barnet which capture the most attention. At 2.45pm the 1984/85 Bradford City Division Three promotion winning team will be presented to the crowd. 25 years on from their fantastic achievement, they are sure to receive a warm reception; but it will be the presence of one of its biggest stars in particular which adds intrigue.

Stuart McCall from the Panini 1990 Sticker AlbumLess than three months after resigning, Stuart McCall makes his public return to Valley Parade. He will join other celebrated names on the pitch, he will be warmly cheered and probably hear his name sung from all four stands of Valley Parade. Then he’ll sit in the stands, as a guest of honour, to watch a team he was in charge of only 10 weeks ago.

After staying firmly out of the spotlight, McCall made a guest appearance on BBC1’s Late Kick Off show last Sunday. It might have been expected he’d be asked a question or two about his views on City’s form, though with results disappointing probably had a quiet word with presenter Harry Gration before about avoiding the topic. He’s not a person likely to stir matters, he’s too nice a person to have an axe to grind. But as low as he must have felt when quitting Valley Parade in February, he must also be able to allow himself to feel better.

For 10 weeks on not much has changed at Valley Parade, and though Tuesday’s impressive win was a welcome shot in the arm for Peter Taylor, the interim manager has impressed without taking the Bantams further forwards. The slide was at least arrested, but the argument McCall simply didn’t have the resources to make a better shot of promotion has been supported by the continuing up-and-down form.

Instead McCall can sit back and look on his old charges with some pride. Gareth Evans may never reach the legendary status the man who signed him achieved at Valley Parade, but his incredibly high levels of work rate and passion, showed all season but especially impressively on Tuesday is closely follow his example. After a mid-season dip, Steve Williams’ form is returning to the heights he achieved at the beginning of the season. Williams has greater potential which can be unlocked next season, a great find by McCall.

McCall will be disappointed to find James Hanson, his other non-league gem of a signing, is still injured – but a measure of his impact is how much the former shelf stacker has been missed since limping off against Bournemouth. Then there’s the potential of James O’Brien, Jonathan Bateson and Jon McLaughlin, who all excelled in midweek and can all play key roles next season, and the clutch of youngsters who’ll probably start from Taylor’s bench, eager for a chance. Youth Development Manager Peter Horne was full of praise for the way McCall focused on the youth teams when in charge, he can take some credit if they emerge into senior contention although the manager may wonder – as many do – why at the start of the season McLaughlin was not favoured and Simon Eastwood was.

If McCall is able to meet his former players, he might also have some words for captain Zesh Rehman. The debate over the merits of the Pakistan defender continues to rage despite the man-of-the-match contender performance and goal in midweek, which followed an encouraging display at Burton last Saturday. It’s a debate which some of us supporters feel unsure whether to add to and risk inflaming or quietly hoping it all calms down. For his part Rehman ignores the abuse which – distressingly – he has got used to during his career.

Having spent most of his career bathed in success McCall would not have been used to criticism or abuse as a player and any wisdom he could pass on to the man he made captain would be based on the last two years of his management. Talking about McCall in a superb interview the City Gent released this weekend Peter Taylor likens his first management role at Southend to McCall’s time at the Bantams and speaks about the healthy distance he has between himself and the job that he learnt from the experience.

Watching Robbie Threlfall could give McCall chance to raise a smile – he was on the former boss’s shortlist and his delivery once again proved telling on Tuesday night – and one doubts he will find anything to dislike in Adam Bolder. McCall’s teams were defined by the presence, or absence, of hard-working midfielders such as he.

One wonders if McCall will be rueful when watching the game seeing the directness of Taylor’s side. McCall’s teams were more committed to playing the beautiful game beautifully than Taylor’s are and perhaps that is a regret for the former manager. Had he used the strength and height of James Hanson as Taylor does, had he told his defenders that Row Z – rather that attempts to start attacks from broken up play – offered the safest policy would things have turned out differently for the former gaffer. Will they turn out different for Taylor?

Taylor sends out a team to play a struggling Barnet side who look over their shoulder at Grimsby’s slow trundle towards them with an increasing worry. The London side are not in squeaky bottom time yet, but a defeat at Valley Parade would draw that day closer.

Taylor’s side is still beset by injuries with first team players Simon Ramsden, James Hanson, Omar Daley and Michael Flynn all edging slowly out of the treatment room. Taylor is expected to play the same eleven who started on Tuesday night with McLaughlin in goal, Bateson, Williams, Rehman and Threlfall at the back a three in midfield of Lee Bullock, Bolder and James O’Brien with Gavin Grant and Leon Osbourne supporting Evans up front.

Evans shows the routes to success

Few victories reward the heart more than the hard fought for victory and as City put a spell of bad form behind them with a determined performance over a Morecambe side which arrived at Valley Parade with four wins from as many games.

Peter Taylor – shod of his target man with both James Hanson out and Luke Oliver back at Wycombe and back on the bench – deployed Gareth Evans as a front runner with support from the pace of Leon Osbourne and Gavin Grant and was rewarded with good set of performances from his forwards but especially from Evans who perhaps put in his best performance in a City shirt.

The summer signing ran his legs down to the knees in an evening of working channels and following passes down to the touchline often with no support and no target to aim for in the middle. Evans ran, harried, held and often was chunked to the ground by a Morecambe side who has – some might say – conspired to have him sent off at Christie Park earlier in the season.

Indeed it was one of these chunkings that saw Evans have his legs taken away for a free kick on the bye-line which was floated over by Robbie Threlfall, headed on by Steve Williams and finished at the far post by Zesh Rehman.

Rehman peeled away to thank Peter Taylor enjoy the culmination of an improvement in his performances that saw him not only score what turned out to be the conclusive goal tonight as well as put not a foot wrong at the back. Whatever Zesh was doing wrong a month ago he is going doing right now, although his is still Asian and if that is why his name was booed as it was read out – and if you are one of the people who did the booing – then please would you not come to my site again because you are not welcome.

Adam Bolder – on the other hand – seems to have earned the ire of the support for reasons which elude me. A midfielder who arrived as one too many loan players in my opinion but has done a decent job filling the not inconsiderable hole left by the injured Michael Flynn Bolder put in a healthy shift of work tonight never shirking a tackle, never stopping running in a game in which the Bantams more or less owned the midfield area.

Aside from the usual reservations about loan players one could not fault Bolder’s application in a Bantams side that first and foremost built a platform for victory by defending stoutly and with a deep set midfield. In the closing minutes Gareth Evans was given a through ball and powered forward with it as if it were first minute not last to square a ball to Bolder who sidestepped and jinked and danced his way around the odd defender and goalkeeper Barry Roche to place into the goal and win the game.

Gavin Grant turned in a best display in a City shirt, Steve Williams looked confident, Lee Bullock controlled the positioning of the two lines of defence and there was little not to be pleased with from the way that Peter Taylor has managed to impose a structure onto a disparate group of a few first teamers – only Rehman and Bullock started the first game of the season – reserves and loanees.

System and structure are all, and are imposed well even against a Morecambe side who had a winning habit when arriving.

The visitors – however – appeared almost scared to play with eleven men looking as if they were worried about the expectations of a lofty position. They sidestepped the responsibility to create play and were restricted to a fistful of chances which Jon McLaughlin dealt with well.

So City rise to fifteenth and are mathematically safe from relegation but perhaps the lesson from tonight is more about how Taylor will manage City next season. A system put in place and players detailed how to play in it giving a variety of approaches and a number of routes to success.

City face Morecambe looking at a new type of football

The grimness of an away day at Burton and the realisation that the Bantams are going to fail to improve on last seasons league position has led to a dark cloud hovering over Valley Parade that threatens to consume all beneath it.

Mark Lawn – who two months ago flexed his muscles to rid the club of what he saw as the curse of Stuart McCall as manager – must wonder how everything he touches at Valley Parade seems to go wrong: Signing Willy Topp, signing Zesh Rehman, “giving” £600,000 to the player budget, replacing McCall with Peter Taylor. It seems that Lawn is finding what many involved in football do and something McCall would underline. That the will to succeed is not enough to ensure success.

Author Mark Twain – on one of his more crabby days – said that it was “not enough in life to simply succeed, other must fail” and this is very true in football. No matter how much work and effort you put in, no matter what you do, if enough other teams do better then you do not achieve the goals you have. Aston Villa are a great success but to win the league they require a lot of other clubs to fail.

As Lawn watches Peter Taylor’s team flounder both in position and play he must wonder how making the best possible appointment has started in this way. He need to ignore these thoughts. Football management is done over the longer term and in stability – the people who denied this as they railed against McCall can hardly point to Taylor’s arrival as proof of concept – and once again the Bantams are in a position of needing to keep faith in a manager, needing to give him time, needing to have stability.

(I knew I would end up writing those words, but I thought it would be more than two months before I did.)

The end of Taylor’s start at Valley Parade has provided difficult to watch but Taylor’s priorities – results over performance – are those that Lawn recruited and these priorities were evidenced in the 1-1 draw at Burton Albion.

As woeful as it may have been to watch the result in the East Midlands was a good one. Peter Taylor’s football is a football of percentages and grinding. It is a football of aiming for two points a game not a win in every match and as a part of that playing as – as one Burton fan said – “the worst team who has played us this season” but getting a point is the aimed for achievement, especially considering the injuries the club has.

Taylor’s football is about percentages and doing the thing that most often gets success. A football about setting an aim and putting in a level of effort to get it. Not 101% flogging players like horses but a measured effort that ensures that a level application can be given for every game. It is a football that is not tied up in the passion and chest beating of a Stuart McCall and in that it is a sea change in attitude for the majority of the players who were brought in by the previous manager.

Any sea change takes time and Taylor will have it if only because for all the criticism of Mark Lawn one would never call him stupid and to have not learnt the lessons of sacking a manager and the short term effects on the club in the last couple of months and to repeat that in another month would very much say he was so.

So the Bantams face a Morecambe side who are going for a play-off place and one can only hope that they have the same equity of Refereeing that the Bantams enjoyed at Christie Park when the roles were reversed. If at the end of the game Morecambe have scored two but had one chalked off despite it being over the line, have seen linesman raise and lower his flag as a striker sprints through and scores and seen one of the Bantams forward get booked, dive all afternoon, stick a knee into someone’s face and then score the winner then empathy with the Shrimpers will be high.

City have no Luke Oliver – who returned to Wycombe Wanderers with Taylor talking about bringing him back in the summer – a wounded bunch of players that includes top scorer James Hanson, Simon Ramsden, Omar Daley and Michael Flynn as well as a few players who are paid to stay at home. City’s striking options are limited and Peter Thorne is on a beech somewhere. Go figure.

Gareth Evans is expected to take the forward role in a 442 with Ryan Kendall or Gavin Grant supporting. The trio of Leon Osbourne, Nathan Clarke and Oliver Forsyth may press for places on the bench. The time is perhaps ripe for Clarke or Forsyth to be given a run out.

Certainly favouring the younger goalkeeper in the form of Jon McLaughlin on Saturday reaped rewards with the keeper saving a penalty and putting in a good display. Defenders Louis Horne, Luke Dean, Phil Cutler and Andrew Villermann and midfielder Ryan Harrison could all lay claims for a shot at the team.

Most likely all those players will have to wait for a chance that probably will never come. Youth development at City – as with most clubs – is far too invested in the preferences of a manager and if the club wanted to start making movements in that area then they could do so. A maximum number of over 23s on the clubs books of fifteen would be one way to ensure the manager is force to blood the younger players as would a requirement to give a certain number of the young players débuts.

Jonathan Bateson will continue at right back while Ramsden is injured – although the full back might be fit for this evening – with Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman in the middle. Robbie Threlfall continues at left back with indications being that he will be offered a deal at City next year. Luke O’Brien is expected to return on the left side of midfield with Lee Bullock and Adam Boulder in the middle. Stephen O’Leary, James O’Brien, Luke Sharry – the right hand side is up for grabs.

The season begins to sort itself out – Rochdale can be promoted tonight while Notts County’s Luke Rodgers is finishing the season he started by diving against City by moving to New York – but the Bantams have much work to do before next term.

Universal effort needed as City head towards their lowest league position in 44 years

In attending away games, there are certain irritants you get used to regularly experiencing; tedious travelling, getting lost around town centres while struggling to spot floodlights arching over buildings, hideous visiting supporters’ toilets, unwelcoming home fans and hit-and-miss food. In addition the home advantage factor increases the likelihood of seeing your team lose, subsequently making the journey home that much longer.

Yet one thing I’ve always struggled to accept when watching City on the road is lack of effort from the players. If I’m going to travel many miles and spend lots of money to cheer you on – often meaning the entire day has been given up for it – the least I should be able to expect is a minimum level of passion.

With great difficulty, I can accept heavy or unlucky defeats and the pain of questioning my sanity being there, but I’m only ever left to feel stupid for going if the players I’m cheering on are blatantly going through the motions. At least they’re paid to be there, and are being paid to do a job we’d all give our rights arms to be good enough to do.

Saturday’s trip to Burton was largely a brilliant day out – the sunny weather and choice of Bloc Party and Kings of Leon on the stereo meant the car journey flew by; the ground was impossible to miss and very impressive, featuring that rarest of qualities in new stadiums – character; the Burton stewards and staff were over-friendly and the food and away bar facilities inside enjoyable. But once more, the afternoon was let down by suspect passion from those wearing Bantams colours.

It was a strange performance,with a very wide spectrum of respective efforts from each player. If there was a sliding scale illustrating the difference, it would feature Jon McLaughlin and Gareth Evans at the top of the high effort barrier – closely followed by Zesh Rehman – and Gavin Grant right at the opposite end. Other players fell somewhere in the middle, with some efforts to commend and others to question.

When taking over in February, Peter Taylor had been able to harness a team ethic to City’s approach which took much of the good of what Stuart McCall had left behind. Injuries in recent weeks has robbed Taylor of the team’s spine, and many of those who’ve remained available have failed to grasp the mantle. How Michael Flynn, James Hanson and Simon Ramsden in particular have been missed. Many fans have again openly questioned the commitment of Omar Daley in recent weeks, they should have watched the 90 minute performance of Grant at the Perelli Stadium.

City were highly fortunate to take a point from this game, despite taking the lead in the second half. Jon McLaughlin put in arguably the best goalkeeping performance of the season, impressively keeping out numerous Burton attempts at goal which included saving a first half penalty. Matt Glennon has failed to make a notable impact since signing in January, and after this display McLaughlin should keep his place for the remainder of the season. First choice keeper for next season he has the potential to be.

But McLaughlin aside, the resistance was limited. Robbie Threlfall has impressed greatly to date and looks likely to sign during the summer when his Liverpool contract expires, but at Burton he was badly showed up by the outstanding Cleveland Taylor. All afternoon, the Burton winger easily dribbled the ball around the young full back, while Threlfall was repeatedly caught out by a ball played from midfield over his head to unoccupied space Taylor was charging into. It was a poor performance, which made the sight of Luke O’Brien relegated to the bench all the more frustrating.

And though the rest of the defence were generally solid – Zesh Rehman back in good form and Steve Williams enjoying a decent end to what can be considered a memorable season, though Jonathan Bateson struggled at times – the midfield allowed Burton to pass their way through too often. Lee Bullock was among the more committed players, but Adam Bolder and Steve O’Leary were again disappointing as Taylor lined City up in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation.

When Bolder has been on form he’s looked very accomplished – the Millwall loanee’s second half performance at home to Aldershot perhaps his stand out game. But recently that form has dipped and he has struggled to make any impact, at times looking disinterested. It’s been a funny season for Steve O’Leary, who impressed during City’s opening home game against Port Vale before injury ruled him out until the New Year. Despite an encouraging belated second start, away at Rochdale, opportunities have been limited under Taylor.

Although starting the last two games, he is giving the impression he knows he has no chance of an extended deal this summer, and so has nothing to play for. It was no coincidence City began to play better after the more zestful James O’Brien replaced him.

And though Grant and Luke Oliver did well for City’s goal, the rest of their efforts were not good enough. Oliver is a defender playing up front, so allowances have to be made, but he is not good enough to play such a role despite his height and goal return over the last game and a half. There was also something curiously flat about his goal celebrations in front of the City fans, as though it didn’t mean a lot to have put his temporary club into the lead.

His performance was hindered by how isolated he was from Evans and Grant, but, other than his effectiveness in the air, he lacks the hold up or passing ability to make a positive contribution as a frontman. A defender up front is a rare but not unprecedented occurrence at Valley Parade, remember Andy Tod? If the now-recalled Wycombe defender returns next season, it will be solely for his defensive ability.

While if Grant is still at Valley Parade next August, it will surely be due to past form witnessed by Taylor rather than the very fleeting glimpses of ability shown since signing for City on a non-contract basis. He looks tentative and slow to react to situations, and very unwilling to chase lost causes. But for his excellent run which lead to the goal, he offered nothing towards City’s cause and was deservedly subbed.

End of season is perhaps the time to try out players like Grant, rather than signing them up without properly viewing them only to regret it later. But end of season is also the time to try out youth players and, despite Taylor saying he will look to blood some in over the final few games, this was a missed opportunity to try out players who would have been guaranteed to show more commitment. Tuesday’s home game with in-form Morecambe looks less the occasion to risk them and, with City still to face promotion chasers Chesterfield and Northampton, further opportunities are limited.

Of course any player has to earn the right to get into the team, and young players shouldn’t be promoted to the starting line up ahead of more experienced players on the sole criteria they are more likely to try harder. But the lack of effort shown by some of the senior players City are relying on is worrying and there’s a risk of next season’s plans being disrupted if this campaign is allowed to end on the low note it’s heading towards.

Because as this draw saw City drop down another place in the league table, recent from is pushing the Bantams towards a lowest league position since 1966 – 44 years ago. To more than one generation of City supporters, it could be argued this team is the worst we’ve ever seen. In 1976 City finished 17th in Division 4, beating or least equaling that over the final five games of this season will be the smallest of consolations.

But not exactly much to market the season ticket offer on. There are three home games before the £186 offer comes to an end on Sunday 9 May – 11 years to the day City’s last promotion was achieved – but there is little beyond blind faith to suggest the Bantams will be celebrating a rise to League One come next May. Perhaps more than ever bold action is needed to entice supporters who may not go to games often right now but who might be persuaded into buying a season ticket; free entry to the Northampton game?

The players need to do their bit. Whatever their motivation may be, they need to find it or else stay on the sidelines. Certain players are almost carrying the team right now – that City didn’t lose to Burton was due to the commitment of some, but that City didn’t win is due to the lack of commitment from the others.

It caused more damage to the league position, but even more significant is the damage this poor form could cause to realising next season’s forecasted budgets.

Square pegs in round holes

Just as Fabio Capello faces the decision about playing Frank Lampard in the England midfield with Steven Gerrard, Peter Taylor faces the decision of who to play up front for Bradford City. With the recent departures of Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding along with James Hanson being injured, this task has been made harder. Today at Burton Albion, he opted to play the lanky defender Luke Oliver up front on his own. He was occasionally joined by the hard working Gareth Evans and Gavin Grant. But this for me was the wrong choice as the first half produced very few attacking moves from Bradford City with too many long hopeful balls pumped forward which the Burton defence dealt with easily. Infact the home defence was superbly marshalled by their centre back James. With Bradford playing a 4-5-1 formation, we had an extra man in midfield but both Bolder and O’Leary sat too deep (a role performed well by Bullock) whilst the Burton midfield passed the football well. The former Scunthorpe winger Cleveland Taylor was a constant menace to Threlfall who was eventually booked in the second half.

The fact that the half time score was 0-0 was largely down to the excellent display by Jon McLaughlin who was making only his third appearance for Bradford City. He made several good saves including one from the Burton striker Harrad. After O’Leary tripped a Burton player, McLaughlin then guessed correctly diving to his left to keep out Pearson’s penalty. Chants of “one Jon McLaughlin” echoed from the away supporters. How nice to hear for a player who has had to be patient for his opportunities.

McLaughlin continued his fine display in the second half keeping the score at 0-0. Then on the hour mark, the ineffective Grant produced his one moment of decent play and following his mazy dribble the ball eventually found it’s way to Oliver’s head and he calmly looped the ball over Krysiak and into the Burton goal. So Bradford led 1-0 which was an injustice on the Burton side who had been the better team.

However, with time running out, the Burton left back and former Derby player, Boertien (who was named man of the match by the Burton stadium announcer) broke down their left and crossed for the impressive Harrad to score a deserved equaliser.

By this time, Luke O’Brien had replaced the ineffective O’Leary and Jamie O’Brien had replaced the poor performing Grant. The two O’Brien’s added more purpose to the City midfield. Indeed Jamie O’Brien showed his battling qualities by chasing down what seemed like a lost cause in the closing minutes of the game. This resulted in him dispossessing a Burton defender and delivering a cross which unfortunately went over Oliver’s head. And so the game finished 1-1.

A special mention goes to Zesh Rehman for a better display from him although he was playing in his more familiar role of centre back today rather than right back. However, an improved performance in the second half by Bradford City could not hide the fact of how poor we were in the first half. It’s not Luke Oliver’s fault that he is being asked to play up front. However, I hope that Taylor, who apparently mingled with the City supporters an hour before the game which is nice to hear, opts for a 4-4-2 formation on Tuesday night against Morecambe with a recognised striker operating alongside Gareth Evans. Maybe we might even see Oliver Forsyth who has been scoring plenty of goals for the youth team this season under the watchful eye of David Wetherall.

Now there’s another round peg for a round hole!

Pride in your football club

Like going for a meal at a restaurant as part of a large group, only to be stuck sat next to someone you don’t really know or like; Bradford City and Macclesfield Town laboured through 90 minutes of tedious and repressed interaction – conscious that more fun was been had across the rest of the table and around the room.

35 Football League fixtures took place up and down the country today, only the Championship game between Derby and Ipswich carried as little meaning as this fixture. The easter weekend is traditionally a time for nail-biting, but such drama was absent from the menu of a clash between teams who began the afternoon 16th and 18th. Pride was all that was at stake, the enthusiastic cheers from the visiting fans and players at the final whistle indicated which club found greater pride in winning at Valley Parade.

Instead the clash of the day was between supporters of the same club. When Zesh Rehman allowed himself to be caught in possession on the edge of the area just before half time, former Bantam trainee Emile Sinclair was able to skip through and fire a low shot past Matt Glennon which brought understandable groans of despair from home fans. But when seconds later Rehman’s next subsequent touch was greeted with loud booing from some, it seemed once again Valley Parade had descended into an arena where those who moan the loudest are allowed to represent everyone.

Yet the internal anger at seeing City’s captain booed poured out from the main stand through loud cheering and applauding  when Rehman prepared to take a throw in, and quickly fans from all four sides of the ground were joining in to drown out the boos. It was an uplifting moment triggered by those who so often have to remain silent and allow the volume of anger to dictate subsequent decisions. It was acknowledgement that, while yes Rehman had made a bad mistake and has clearly had a poor season, the undoubtedly high level of effort put in on and off the pitch this season does not warrant such a reaction.

It was about supporters showing pride in their club.

For those who did boo Rehman’s every touch during the final five minutes of the half, what is there to say? Of course they have as much right as anyone to express their views, but booing your own player is putting personal views on team selection ahead of the greater needs of the team and club. It is just as counter-productive as the mistake by Rehman in how much it helps the team.

There’s also a high suspicion it is influenced by some form of resentment about the community efforts Rehman has spear-headed, and mis-guided opinions about why he is even at the club. All season long some fans have half-joked that the Pakistan international only starts games to attract Asian supporters, to the point some even seem to believe it. It is insulting to the player, it is insulting to Stuart McCall and Peter Taylor, it is insulting to the other players, it is insulting to everyone connected with the club.

And so a player who gives his all but struggles for form is singled out for booing in a game where the commitment of many others in Claret could be questioned. City were poor across the pitch, with the lengthening injury list costing Taylor the spine of a team and ripping much of the heart out.

Wide men are in short supply, resulting in central midfielder Steve O’Leary taking an unfamiliar right wing spot and looking far from comfortable. With left back Luke O’Brien struggling to make an attacking impression on the left wing, a predictable route one approach was taken by both sides – the visitors ridiculously over-reliant on the long throws of Matthew Lowe.

Ryan Kendall and Gareth Evans started up front, but the partnership looked disjointed and awkward, with neither able to effectively read each other’s games. A wonder goal against Dagenham aside, Kendall has barely had a kick in the three home games he’s been involved in so far and was withdrawn at half time.

So with the ball not sticking up front or outwide, it was half of direct balls knocked back and forth, only punctured by Rehman’s mistake which gave Macclesfield the lead. Big changes were needed and Taylor shuffled the pack by withdrawing the left back playing as left winger and pushing back the striker in his place; bringing on a right back and moving the central defender at right back to the centre, so the other central defender could push up front; and bringing on a winger to play up front with the defender.

Players out of position is a fact of football life, but City’s square pegs in round holes approach is as much self-inflicted as it is necessitated by injuries.

But the impact was instant, with the former Silkmen Evans charging down the flank and firing in a low cross that substitute Gavin Grant – the winger moved up front – dummied to enable Luke Oliver – the defender pushed into a striker role – to fire home.

It should have provided the momentum for a third Taylor home victory, but the lack of urgency instead enabled Macclesfield to hit back and inflict a first home defeat. Shaun Brisley was allowed the time to run to the byline by the switched-off Robbie Threlfall and Steve Williams, and fired a low ball across which former Lincoln striker Ben Wright fired home.

City had 29 minutes to find a second equaliser, but failed to dictate the tempo and looked unconcerned by the obvious time-wasting efforts of the Silkmen. Evans, one of the few players to demonstrate the necessary commitment, shot narrowly over from distance, then Adam Bolder had two chances in the area but wasted them both. It was an especially poor second half showing from the on-loan midfielder, who kept taking the wrong option and failed to show enough appetite to drive City forwards. Michael Flynn was badly missed.

And the 11 players which ended the game had an unfamiliar feel when thinking back to just a few short weeks ago. Taylor has been able to bring in his own players and allowed others to leave, but the Bantams look no better for the changes even accepting the lengthy injuries. If the club has saved significant money from allowing Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding to leave early, it may be in the best long-term interests compared to pitching them in this meaningless game. Yet the availability of either might have made things different.

While the lack of wide players makes Taylor’s decision to allow Scott Neilson to spend a second month on loan at Cambridge all the more baffling. What is really been gained from his exile at the Abbey Stadium when City don’t have enough fit wingers to select? 18-year-old Ryan Harrison was awarded a senior debut, but nerves appeared to get the better of him. Overlooked fellow sub Leon Osborne may reflect upon this as the afternoon his Bantams career was effectively over.

And though it doesn’t really make much difference to the season that City lost this game, the loud cheering of those visiting fans at the final whistle was significant. It mattered for a club like Macclesfield to win at a club like Bradford City, it should matter to Bradford City to lose to a club like Macclesfield, or anyone. It should be a privilege to play for this club; but to many of the players who allowed the game to drift away, it looked anything but. This should hurt, but it doesn’t seem to.

So City suffer their first pointless easter since 1998, where caretaker Paul Jewell’s chances of the full time job looked to have been ended by an uncommitted squad drifting along in mid-table. This time around there is no such doubts about Taylor’s future – the contract offer will presumably remain on the table until it’s signed – and the hope is a similar scenario will lead onto the kind of promotion success City were on the brink of achieving by easter 1999. Six games to go and City’s players are allowing the season to drift into nothing, but this club and its supporters deserve better than that.  

There is nothing to play for but pride, but pride in playing for Bradford City should be stronger than this.

The articles of association football club Bournemouth

The story is that in 1972 – Britain having ditched the hour shifts of summer time and gone decimal – some of the directors at Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic F.C. decided that the modernity that swept the land needed to encompass the football club on the South Coast of England.

So taking a lead from the naming conventions of the continent and the playing strip of AC Milan the club – which had just been promoted to the third tier – was renamed AFC Bournemouth and nothing was ever to be the same again, so the story goes.

Of course things were the same. AFC Bournemouth, Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic F.C. and further back Boscombe F.C. have similar league histories going up sometimes, going down sometimes but generally doing well for themselves as a steadfast member of the bottom half of English football.

Perhaps there was an idea that the AFC element would alter that patten – that following a more exciting European model – might move Bournemouth on in the world. It was a plan and in retrospect it seems like a far fetched one – but it is a plan to take the club forward never the less.

Planning is the talk of Valley Parade at the moment. It is said that after a meeting this week with Peter Taylor and the trio of the boardroom Mark Lawn, Roger Owen and David Baldwin that the interim manager is pleased with the plans that the club have hastily put in place at his behest and a gambling man would bet on the manager remaining in charge next season.

The club’s planning over the previous decade and a half has been – in places – dreadful from the days of signing Dan Petrescu and Benito Carbone and having them change in one place and train in another to the wandering blindly into giving up the club’s biggest asset in Valley Parade to the current, much discussed situation.

Let us not rehash these problems, dear reader, but concur that they exist and consider how they could be circumnavigated.

Having spend much of yesterday in and around Fanny’s Ale House in Saltaire within a stone’s throw of the buildings of Shipley College I recalled the Business 101 class I took back when The Doc was still City boss – which was rather grandly called The Organisation In Its Environment – and the lesson that said that businesses were guided by a set of principals.

The businesses – as a rule – were plc’s of which the Bantams are not but the principals which took the similarly grand name of Articles and Memoranda Of Association were in place to define to any and all what that business was about.

They divide into two sets being Articles – the aims of a company – and the Memoranda – which are the objectives. In short what the company is trying to do, and how it is trying to do it.

Aim: “Bradford City aim to offer season tickets to supporters at affordable prices”. Objective: “The club will ensure that season tickets price going to games in line with similar activities such as a trip to the cinema”.

One has to wonder if such a constitution exists at Valley Parade – they may do – and if such a constitution could be made public. A set of principals that tell supporters exactly what they are supporting and tell those involved in the club at all levels what they are signing up for.

If Peter Taylor does sign up to be City manager next season them signing players from the current set up will occupy him. Of the team that is expected to take the field at Dean Court tomorrow a half dozen of them are contracted to stay at the club and the rest are looking to impress.

Matt Glennon and reserve man Jon McLaughlin are both out of contract and one doubts that the senior man has done enough to ink his name on a contract. New manager’s often mean new goalkeepers.

Zesh Rehman is contracted to be around next season, Simon Ramsden has no deal but most would keep the latter – who returns to fitness – and release the former. The topper most of the achievements Taylor could have is to get Rehman playing like a player capable of operating at a higher level once more.

Taylor is said to be a massive fan of Steve Williams and one can see him being around next season and the same could be said for the massive Luke Oliver who seems to have stepped in front of Matthew Clarke who – it seems – is playing through his last days at Valley Parade.

Robbie Threlfall has no deal at Liverpool and one suspects no future there – when was the last time The Reds brought through a local lad? – although his performances have suggested that he is worth a deal from the Bantams if no one else offers him anything.

Ten years ago a player coming out of one of the top clubs would cost anyone interested £500,000 n the assumption that the Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds only took the best rather than the current situation where they take – well – whomever they can get their hands on. Now they are simply lads like those who City release and are looking for contracts at whatever level they can get one.

Not that Louis Horne or Luke O’Brien will be looking for deals. They both seem set to stay with City next season with O’Brien growing into his left wing role he will continue in tomorrow. The right hand side has Omar Daley and Scott Neilson with one injured and the other out on loan. Gareth Evans – another who is staying – will take the right hand side with Gavin Grant looking to get a chance to impress following his return from injury.

The middle two perm from the three of Lee Bullock, Adam Bolder and Michael Flynn with the latter moving up front to cover the repositioned Evans and Taylor no doubt wanting all three around next season. Certainly the ability to not have to change central midfield tactics with Bullock’s now spent suspension has been a boon and if all three can stay then Taylor has more of a chance to keep continuity in that area of the field.

James Hanson could hardly have had a better season seeing off Michael and Rory Boulding to establish himself as City’s leading striker and there seems to be more chance of his being snapped up from above than leaving to someone below. Ryan Kendall is looking for a club next term but even with his goal scoring antics last week he is to stay on the bench to allow Flynn to join the attack.

Rounding up the others Jonathan Bateson, Jamie O’Brien, Leon Osborne, Luke Sharry and Stephen O’Leary are all looking very much like they will struggle to get new deals partly through a lack of chances in the case of the injured O’Leary and O’Brien and partly through a failure to gasp those chances. The tragedy of the season is Luke Sharry’s first half against Port Vale where a promising player failed to take his chance with two hands while Leon Osborne has never had the impact to suggest he will have a future with the club.

Nevertheless as the club winds down the season going neither up nor down then all these players may get a chance to impress. It is ironic that as the Bantams weigh up who will get a deal and who will not their opponents AFC Bournemouth have had to rely on exactly that sort of player and sit third battling for a play off place with Notts County and Rotherham – teams adapt at spending other people’s money – with any plan they ever had to progress thrown out of the window.

Eddie Howe spins gold from what he has, but he has nice training pitches.

Update Since writing Bradford City – and me – have had various injuries. Simon Ramsden is definitely out giving Zesh Rehman the right back role. Gareth Evans has an injured foot that will allow the right hand side to go to the aforementioned Sharry perhaps and hopefully the youngster can make the impression he hints at. Gavin Grant could also feature.

Ryan Kendall will almost certainly get a game with Michael Flynn’s injury ruling him out while Matthew Clarke has a calf injury that ensures that the Williams/Oliver partnership can play again unless Rehman moves inside and Bateson can feature at right back.

I have a bad knee and am limping around the house getting on Mrs Wood’s nerves and wincing every time I walk. I have no idea where the knee tweak came but I have not suffered a heavy tackle or ran for a ball and as I hobble around the house I reflect on the idea that at times players are expected to get on with the game when they are feeling as I do, or worse.

This leads me to recall this story about former Arsenal man Perry Groves who when playing in a reserve game at Luton Town was hacked fairly viciously as he stormed down the left wing. Groves lay on the floor in front of the fistful of Lutoners who attend second string matches one of whom shouted “Get up off the floor you ginger puff” in the direction of Groves.

Groves, his leg being magic sponge, gingerly rose to his feet in time and turned to the stand to tell the supporter a cold hard fact.

“Mate,” said Groves, “That really hurt.”

Finding new meanings on predictably unpredictable days like these

Peter Taylor’s contract talks hinge on having the resources to make Bradford City a more organised, methodical and professional outfit both on and off the field – but until the future is truly resolved, old habits die hard.

Valley Parade has been home to farce and blunder for several years, and the comedy of errors which saw the Bantams blow 2-0 and 3-2 leads this afternoon prompted the sort of groans and boos from the crowd that are as seemingly traditional as a Billy Pearce pantomime up the road.

With the fourth official about to indicate four minutes of injury time and City’s defence having just snuffed out a dangerous Dagenham attack, Adam Bolder and Robbie Threlfall casually knocked the ball back and forth by the edge of their own penalty area in almost comical fashion. Before supporters’ could scream “it’s behind you”, Bolder was predictability robbed of possession by the Dagger’s sub John Nurse, and the resulting cross spectacularly headed by Luke Oliver into his own net.

Two points criminally dropped, and that after City had already allowed a seemingly comfortable two-goal cushion to be wiped out – Oliver’s partner Steve Williams also netting an own goal to make it 2-2. Taylor has sufficiently impressed enough during his short trial for results to now almost become irrelevant in the longer contract negotiations, but the late relinquishing of control of the game offered another wearisome reminder of the amount of assembly his squad requires.

All of which diverted the focus from what should have been an afternoon about James Hanson. City’s top scorer scored twice in one game for the first time to take his season’s tally to 14 goals. After a mid-season dip, the 22-year-old has netted five in eight games. Should he manage another four in the final eight matches, he’ll have scored more goals in a season than any City player since Dean Windass in the 2005-06 season. A remarkable achievement for a player Stuart McCall signed from non-league Guiseley as a back-up striker last summer.

Hanson got the afternoon rolling with a close range header from Threlfall’s corner in the second minute to put City into a lead they looked comfortable holding on to for much of the afternoon. Dagenham, who arrived with realistic play off aspirations, looked surprisingly lacklustre and barely threatened but for the long throws and dribbling skills of Danny Green. It was a typical route one approach from the London outfit, which with Hanson’s defensive support on set pieces was largely neutralised.

The first half chances almost completely fell City’s way. Omar Daley, back on form after a tough Tuesday evening against Notts County, was a menace on the right and from one counter attack forced a great save from Tony Roberts. Soon after the Jamaican was leading defenders a merry dance in the penalty area, but took too long to shoot and saw his effort blocked. Gareth Evans, continuing up front, had two efforts at goal which caused Roberts concern. Soon after half time Hanson struck the post with a towering header from Daley’s cross and the on-form Luke O’Brien’s long range effort was unconvincingly half-blocked by Roberts and almost sneaked in.

But the momentum was shifting and the disruption caused by changes to City’s midfield helped Dagenham to gain control. First Daley, trying to bring the ball forwards on the counter attack, pulled up in obvious pain and a suspected hamstring injury that saw him hobble off to the changing room and out of service for at least a fortnight. Then the all-action running of Michael Flynn, another player back on form after an early-year dip, was surprisingly withdrawn for the more static Steve O’Leary.

At first this didn’t matter, as seconds after O’Leary came on City were celebrating when Hanson again got on the end of a Threlfall dead-ball and expertly planted a header into the bottom corner. But the obvious sighs of relief caused from seemingly putting the game out of sight proved costly when Nurse fired home from an angle following good work from an otherwise subdued Paul Benson just two minutes later.

Dagenham suddenly exploded into life.

Josh Scott wasted a glorious chance to level, but soon after Nurse cleverly peeled away from Williams from a free kick, which gave him space to head the ball into the net via the City defender’s thigh. Dagenham were swarming all over City, who couldn’t seem to keep hold of possession and regain control of the midfield, with O’Leary looking rusty and Bolder afforded little time. Aside from a big penalty appeal when substitute Ryan Kendall – who replaced Daley – hit a low cross towards Hanson that seemed to hit the hand of a grounded visiting defender, the pressure was mainly on Glennon’s goal.

But then Kendall, who’d struggled to time his runs and get close enough to Hanson to read his flick ons, suddenly got both right and was played in by his partner to lob the ball beautifully over Roberts, putting City back in front and triggering wild celebrations that, at the front of the Kop,  spilled onto the pitch. When Dagenham had made it 2-2, the celebrations at the other end by eccentric old-timer Roberts caused outrage. Roberts pulled up his shorts comically and began pretending to fire a bow and arrow. While no one enjoys seeing opposition players celebrate, the humour failure of those with a close-up view in the Kop was disappointing. Still at least we had our panto villain.

Meanwhile the referee was booking Kendall for taking his shirt off and the young striker, borrowed from Hull, was finally impressing by sitting on the shoulder of the last man and making darting runs, just as the mutterings of “he’s not up to this level” were starting to become audible. And City should have seen the game out, and looked set to see the game out, before the madness of City’s comedy duo gifted the equaliser and prompted more Roberts’ celebrations. Dagenham might even have won it 4-3, but Benson headed a presentable opportunity over.

This unpredictable ending was untypical of Taylor’s reign so far, and as his influence continues to grow it is unlikely to be witnessed too often. Composure gave way to panic, confidence replaced by fluster. City’s previously compact and on-form midfield meant the long balls towards a fragile backline were less threatening and at times Dagenham couldn’t get near Bolder and Flynn. But the changes saw City lose their authority leaving lessons to learn and conundrums to solve.

Oliver and Williams had impressed as a centre half pairing on Tuesday, but both suffer from lapses in concentration and after the game Taylor revealed he’s ordered them to improve their communication. Matt Clarke was again left out of the 18-man squad while Zesh Rehman began to redeem himself with an improved performance at right back. All season long the question of what is City’s best back four has gone unanswered. Consistency in all but the injured Simon Ramsden is lacking.

Daley’s absence should now open the door for Scott Neilson – who’s one-month loan at Cambridge United is due to expire – to be tried out by Taylor during the next few weeks. Lee Bullock’s calming presence was missed during the latter stages, and if Taylor can sign up Bolder, Bullock and Flynn for next season the Bantams should be very strong in the middle of the park. Luke O’Brien’s recent form is so good it now poses the question over whether he could be considered first choice left winger for a full campaign, should Threlfall’s loan move be made permanent.

Hanson may be on a two-year contract, but an improved deal might be worth proposing to him with the likelihood of higher league interest this summer. A deciding factor of a successful promotion campaign next season may be finding a strike partner who can score as regularly. Despite the excellent goal, Kendall needs to show more to demonstrate his worthiness of a permanent offer. Evans may be lacking goals, but offers the versatility and work rate Taylor will continue to rely on.

With the contract negotiations expected to be concluded positively within three weeks, Taylor’s blueprint can be properly implemented and the future of players permanent and temporary can start to be resolved. That the plans are based around greater organisation and more conservative tactics might suggest an end to unpredictability and excitement that days like these exemplify.

But after years of failure – for City, the meanings of ‘unpredictability’ and ‘excitement’ could be redefined as actually succeeding.

Finding something to play for

Bradford City lose a game under Peter Taylor – and the general outlook is that the season just needs to be seen out, with the focus quickly moved onto getting it right  for the next one. But then Bradford City win a game under Peter Taylor, and the urge to check the League Two table and remaining fixtures becomes strong enough to leave you wondering whether the club could still make the play offs. Then Bradford City lose a game, then win again, then lose again. A constant swapping of hope and realism that you know will probably result in disappointment but you can’t help but wistfully daydream might still end in glorious celebrations.

The Bantams go into this evening’s home game with Notts County back in downbeat mood; and though Saturday’s defeat at Hereford isn’t the final nail in the promotion bid coffin, there aren’t too many left until its firmly closed. Tonight is City’s game in hand and a victory would push them up to 15th and close the gap to the play offs to nine, with nine games to play – back to looking up those remaining fixtures?

Realistically the ghost has been given up by all but some supporters, but the reluctance to fully let go stems from the alternative monotonous reality of a meaningless end to the season.

We have all summer to feel bored and do other things with our weekends, wishing we could go to Valley Parade. And while City going into the final few weeks with nothing to play is a familiar reality, there’s a growing feeling at this time of year that we have make the most of what’s left of the season. We only get to go to Valley Parade six more times between now and early May. We only get to go to Valley Parade six more times between now and the middle of July.

Which means until it’s no longer mathematically – or at least tediously – possible, our time is wasted contemplating the form guide of League Two’s play off contenders and filling in the excellent BBC predictor as optimistically as possible. If City can win tonight and on Saturday and if Bury can continue to implode and if Northampton collapse and if everyone stops winning and if, if, if.

Stupid. Pointless. But what else is there?

For Taylor at least, making sure the last few games are meaningful is his most realistic goal. Joint-Chairman Mark Lawn has begun initial talks over a longer contract, and the results and performances over the eight games Taylor has been in charge of have provided plenty of reasons to support extending the relationship. After tonight he will be half way through his initial 18-game deal, but with the new contract far from sealed, he can’t allow his players to drop standards in the run-up to the summer break.

Saturday’s defeat has dampened the mood and even lead to a small number of City fans questioning whether another deal should be offered to the interim manager. Every City fan who’s had a go at the BBC predictor over the last few weeks would have calculated a Bantams win from the trip to Hereford. And though the recent defeats at Aldershot and Port Vale could be excused given their higher league positions, losing to a side on a terrible run of form and near the relegation zone is rightly criticised. Just think of Stuart McCall still in charge and imagine the reaction.

A win might have set up a  realistic late promotion push, but instead the changing of a winning side – perhaps motivated by Taylor’s desire to evaluate his players and with a busy week of games in mind – backfired dismally. The likelihood that Hereford’s sinking position meant their players wanted it more must not become regular, with seven of City’s last 10 games against opposition going for promotion or battling to avoid relegation. Taylor has to instill greater desire and work rate; he only has six more games at Valley Parade on his initial deal, he may yet only have six more games at Valley Parade as City manager.

Huge game for visitors Notts County

Notts County certainty rock up to Valley Parade with the kind of butterflies-in-the-stomach and sweating-over-the-league-table outlook absent from City’s run-in. So much has been written about County’s eventful season – on this site and elsewhere – but whatever the rights and mostly wrongs of their approach, the world’s oldest professional football league club have been left with a very capable squad which may end the season lifting the League Two title.

The size of the task for City tonight is huge. County are unbeaten in the league since Tuesday 9 February – eight games ago. Since the JPT penalty shootout defeat at Valley Parade in early October, they have lost only four of the 29 matches they’ve played. If they win their two games in hand they will be within three points of Rochdale, with the Spotland club yet to travel to Meadow Lane. They’ve dominated the headlines, for largely the wrong reasons, all season – but there’s an increasingly strong chance they will attract some positive exposure too, for a short while at least.

For while the outcome of entrusting mysterious owners and their lofty ambitions of Premier League football has so far been self-inflicted damage – the new owners have inherited an initial £6m worth of debts from the publicity-shy Munto Finance and narrowly avoided going into administration last month – if and when those debts do catch up with the club, there will be others angrily demanding justice. Under Munto County signed up a playing squad they couldn’t afford, under new owners County are using a playing squad they can’t afford.

If Notts gain automatic promotion and then fall into administration, how will the club who finishes fourth feel? County are effectively cheating their way to a place in League One and no one in an authoritative position seems to care.

Yet with all this turmoil and high turnover of managers, that County have kept it together on the field is somewhat remarkable. Tonight they are robbed of the services of their top and third highest scorers – lookalikes Lee Hughes and Luke Rodgers – due to suspension. This leaves County relying on strikers Karl Hawley (four goals), Delroy Facey (one goal) and Ade Akinbiyi (no goals) to lead the line, though a potent midfield which includes goalscoring midfielders  Ben Davies (ten goals) and Craig Westcarr (nine goals) carry a clear threat.

Since Steve Cotterill took over as manager, County have five clean sheets from six games and former Bantam captain Graeme Lee has become a key figure of a defence backed up by the reputed £15k-per-week keeper Kasper Schmeichel – rumoured to be entitled to a £200k bonus if Notts are promoted. Kasper is said to have impressed onlookers this season, though his bizarre appeals for a foul when missing a cross that allowed the tiny Chris Brandon to head home an equaliser, smashing up of a corner flag and then punching of a hole in the dressing room wall, during the City-County JPT tie, means few connected with City hold him in such high regard. Expect boos for him tonight.

Bully’s suspension and mis-firing loanees offer Taylor food for thought

Hoping to score past Schmeichel will probably be a strike partnership of James Hanson and Mark McCammon/Ryan Kendall, with midfielder Lee Bullock’s two-game suspension forcing Taylor to contemplate moving Michael Flynn back to the middle of the park alongside Adam Bolder. Another option is the under-used Steve O’Leary or even returning skipper Simon Ramsden in the holding role and Jonathan Bateson continuing at right back.

Robbie Threfall plays at left back after his loan deal was extended, while a weak performance from Luke Oliver at Hereford leaves Taylor with a familiar problem of who to play in the centre of defence. Matt Clarke is quietly winning appreciation from fans. Zesh Rehman is nearing full fitness and might be given another go alongside him, or Steve Williams – star of a two-page article in this month’s Four Four Two magazine – may be recalled.

Out wide Omar Daley was likely left out of the starting line up at Hereford in order to be fresh to start this game in front of the usual mixture of Daley fans and haters arguing it over in the stands. For some reason Daley’s match-winning contribution against Aldershot has attracted a hostile reaction from those who point to his lack of consistency; but, if Taylor can coach higher standards into the Jamaican, City have a superb player who can make a difference. It was sad to see Luke O’Brien dropped at the weekend and he will battle with Gavin Grant and City’s own Dirk Kuyt, Gareth Evans, for the other wide berth. Matt Glennon keeps goal.

Taylor is making City more organised and disciplined, but his reign has so far produced unpredictable results. Tonight should be a great atmosphere as County bring a good following up the M1 in confident and vociferous mood. Tonight City play a team desperate for the three points and uber-confident of getting them. Tonight City’s players have limited motivations and ambitions, and probably could shrug off a defeat as expected.

But tonight should be about those players showing character and demonstrating a willingness to take up the fight of next season leading City towards the type of promotion push County are mounting. Tonight should be about giving everything, because it’s not acceptable to believe there is nothing to play for. And tonight should be about City fans responding to the away atmosphere by outsinging them and supporting their players in winning every tackle and completing every pass.

After all, we’ll be wishing we could do so come the summer.

Peter Taylor and the Bradford Bug

City earned a hard fought victory against playoff contenders Aldershot, as Peter Taylor’s influence on the club continues to yield positive results.

The manner of the defeat to Port Vale in midweek was disappointing given recent progress – and Taylor was quick to admit the City players had not lived up to the standards that he expected in the Vale game.

But it was the reaction to that defeat that was the question this afternoon – and City didn’t disappoint despite a bumpy start.

Matt Glennon disappointingly split a long range shot – only able to palm the ball into harms way – which allowed Anthony Straker the chance to nip in and slot home the opener as Aldershot took the lead.

But City did not let the goal affect their confidence. Within five minutes, they had drawn level and produced a goal of real quality.

Michael Flynn, again playing in a more advanced role compared to his usual central midfield position, chased a long ball on the right and shielded the ball away from the Aldershot left back Charles. He then turned and produced a perfectly flighted cross with his left foot from the right wing, which top scorer James Hanson brilliantly headed home to level things up.

Hanson has had a dream first season at City – his first in League football. Combining hard work up front with some quite superb finishes – he has proved he can finish in the air (as you would expect), but he also has got some great finishes up his sleeve with his feet (remember that bicycle kick against Crewe at home?!).

And in this game, he was everywhere. Defensively clearing crosses from corners, and tracking back to defend like I have seen no City centre forward do in many, many years. It all seems to be part of Taylor’s ethos of “not letting any player neglect their defensive duties” and not allowing any player to cruise through games, regardless of their position, which Omar Daley confirmed in his post match interview.

After the equaliser, City had their tails up and produced another fine goal, which proved to be decisive. A very good run and cross from Luke O’Brien on the left ended with Omar Daley taking possession. After feigning to shoot once, he then turned and produced a rocket of a strike with his left foot that sent the Kop wild.

City then engaged in a tight contest for the remainder of the game, with the emphasis being on defending and trying to stop the opposition from scoring rather than adding to the lead.

Glennon redeemed himself for his earlier error with an excellent save from a first half Aldershot effort, and the City keeper commanded his area brilliantly and caught every cross in the second half.

City had a real let off with 15 minutes to go when substitute “Marvellous” Marvin Morgan took on debutant City defender Luke Oliver, beat him, and whipped in a perfect cross onto the head of Marlon Jackson, who astonishingly missed his header from 5 yards when it looked harder to miss than score.

But the Aldershot defence were certainly not immune to mistakes, – in particular second choice keeper Venezuelan Mikhael Jaimez-Ruiz, and the concession of a third goal could easily have happened. In particular with two very strong penalty shouts. Omar Daley went one on one with a defender, and with Daley leaving the defender in his wake, he was clean through before he appeared to be impeded before trying to finish off the move with a goal. But the post match interview with Aldershot manager Kevin Dillon told a different story – with Dillon angrily suggesting that he thought that Daley took a blatant dive that would apparently be shown on “Soccer AM” next week. Surely they are not that short of material? I suppose only a replay will settle that score.

The strong shout for a penalty for City late in the second half. Debutant Gavin Grant, only for Omar Daley with 25 minutes to go, produced a strong run and seemed to be felled in the area when surrounded by two Aldershot defenders. The penalty shouts were waived away by the referee but City hung on to clinch all three points.

There is a definite improvement in this City side with Taylor in the managerial hotseat, and his record now reads four wins from seven games, including highly impressive away victories at top three sides Rochdale and Rotherham.

Admittedly, he has brought in players on short term deals until the end of the season, but there is no reason why any of the players he has brought in (expect for Robbie Threlfall, who might go a League or two above) could be playing for Bradford City next season. Adam Bolder in particular has impressed, and did again today, breaking up play, playing simple balls well and having an influence on the game.

For me, Peter Taylor needs to be handed a new deal as soon as possible. His positive vibes around the club, about how he is enjoying it and has caught the “Bradford Bug” is very pleasing to read. He is and was an outstanding appointment, and if he is enjoying it that much, then lets hold up our end of the deal and give Taylor this chance to finally get Bradford City out of this awful league next season.

But to leave the much discussed managerial debate behind, wont it be interesting to see which of the current crop of players will be with us next season? For me, I’m afraid Peter Thorne’s time at the club looks to be over. Thorne has been brilliant and prolific for City in previous seasons, but I don’t think he fits into Taylors ethos of “a striker that is willing to put in the work defensively”.

Equally, the expensive and underperforming Chris Brandon looks to have been given the boot by Taylor. And James O’Brien, Michael Boulding, Zesh Rehman and Scott Neilson look to be players that Taylor doesn’t seem to rate as the “right” kind of players to get us promoted from League Two. I trust his judgement and that seems to point towards us having an almost completely new squad once again next season. How many times will we need to rebuild the squad before we get it right?

This is a low

After a week of rising excitement and gushing praise towards new Bradford City manager Peter Taylor – sobriety. 

Optimism filled the air, and the away end, as the 15-week spell under Taylor’s tutelage kicked off, but the crashing-to-earth realisation there is no magic wand came long before the final whistle. If he didn’t know it already, the size of the task was coldly presented to the one-time England boss during this weak surrender.

If there’s a consolation to take, it’s that things really could have been worse. As Accrington’s John Miles was allowed to run clear on goal and slot home the first of two goals at 4.09pm, the bottom two clubs – Grimsby and Darlington – were both in winning positions and gaining ground. In the end Grimsby drew and Darlington blew an 80th minute 2-0 home lead to lose 3-2, meaning the Bantams retain a cushion barrier from the relegation scrap.

But there was little hope of an away team recovery in East Lancashire. Starting the game in a 4-5-1 formation – gasp, remember when Stuart McCall was widely criticised for being so ‘negative’ in playing like this? – Taylor’s City struggled to make any impression on a dreary game. James Hanson was the sole forward of the set up, but was so effectively marked out of the game by the hugely impressive Darran Kempson it would be no surprise if the home defender only took his sights off the former Guiseley striker as he boarded back onto the team bus.

Sure Kempson pushed his luck, shoving Hanson in the back and not being afraid to lead with elbows, but the weak manner in which Hanson allowed himself to be bullied out of the game shows how far he has to go before he can realistically hope for higher league interest to turn serious.

Yet as has been typical of City in recent weeks, when Hanson does play the over-used tactic is to hit the ball long towards his head. The midfield five were presumably instructed to read Hanson’s flick ons, but his low success ratio and poor movement from behind meant possession was regularly gifted back to the home team. And when City did play through the middle they found eager red shirts snapping at their heels, giving them little time on the ball. Such work rate simply wasn’t matched by those wearing black.

Scott Neilson and Gareth Evans were the more forward-intended players of the midfield five; but both lack in confidence which meant that, despite them notably trying harder than others, little went right. That’s not to say they ran themselves into the ground, certainly Neilson was often guilty of strolling, instead of racing, back to track runners. But if Taylor was able to avoid covering his eyes, he may seem some hope in the pair provided he can install some belief.

The other three in midfield were simply woeful, and would struggle to argue their efforts deserve anything better than relegation to the bench. Michael Flynn’s dipping of form in recent weeks is alarming and today he looked disinterested and out of ideas when in possession. The ability to ping a cross-field ball and make forceful runs – illustrated so regularly prior to Christmas – was hidden behind illogical passes and tame shots. He is supposed to be City’s general, but is going increasingly awol.

Lee Bullock was also uninvolved while Chris Brandon’s maddening tendency to drift all around the pitch and take up ineffective positions was yet again to the detriment of the shape of the team. It can be argued McCall failed to make the most of Brandon’s undoubted talent and we might expect Taylor to do better in the coming weeks, but much should come from the player himself and the impression all season is City fan Brandon lacks the commitment to be successful.

And if Taylor inherits some significant problems in midfield, the defence will surely contribute to some sleepless nights too. Zesh Rehman has struggled for form during most of the campaign, but this was perhaps his worst game yet for the Bantams. He looked panicky every time the ball came nearby. When he wasn’t hoofing the ball aimlessly forwards he was struggling to control it. He continued to lose his man when Accrington attacked and, when he did have time on the ball, often chose the wrong passing option. He was sacrificed in the closing stages as Taylor brought on Peter Thorne, a move which triggered cheers from an strangely muted travelling support.

Luke O’Brien also struggled, how he must long for the club to sign a left winger he can link up with or at least for Omar Daley to remain fit. So often the ball was played to O’Brien near the back without a single black shirt nearby to present a passing option. He had to keep taking the ball forwards only to be closed down and concede possession.

City’s five-man midfield should have meant one of Bullock or Flynn could drop deep to help, while Brandon or Evans should have drifted over more to the left flank to partner up with him. Matt Clarke and Simon Ramsden hardly enjoyed good games themselves, but at least showed more composure and urgency to do the right things.

After a dull goalless first half in which a tame shot from Brandon was the closest City came to scoring, Miles opened the scoring on 54 minutes with Clarke and Rehman having switched off. Hanson had minutes earlier fired City’s best chance over the bar from Ramsden’s free kick, but despite having 36 minutes to come back the Bantams rarely looked capable.

The introductions of Michael Boulding for Brandon, Leon Osborne for Neilson and Thorne for Rehman made little difference, and Miles sealed a deserved Stanley victory with four minutes to go after former City striker Michael Symes crossed the ball into his path. That might have been his hat trick goal, but minutes earlier Matt Glennon had denied the former-Liverpool trainee with a decent save.

The final whistle was met with loud boos and, disappointingly, some fans chose to give Flynn some distasteful abuse when he came over  to applaud the away end. For the moment no blame will be attached to Taylor, which means the players will have to get used to being on the receiving end of fans’ anger.

Which won’t help their clearly dipping confidence. It’s hard to believe these players were at least putting in some strong performances only weeks ago – usually not getting the rewards or the correct refereeing decisions. Now they seem to have little trust in themselves or each other to do the right things, and many are shying away from taking responsibility.

Even in a campaign which has featured the heavy defeats to Notts County and Rochdale, I would argue this performance and last week’s against Grimsby are the worst of the season. In fact it’s difficult for those of us who’ve being watching the Bantams for less than 20 years to recall performances as wretchedly-clueless as these.

All of which leaves Taylor with a huge amount of work to do. City have dropped to 18th, and the 14-point gap to the play offs firmly shelves any talk of a Chris Kamara-style late surge. The season cannot be allowed to drift into nothingness. The miserable outlook which has engulfed the club since Rochdale triumphed 3-0 at Valley Parade in December has to be shifted. The future has to look bright again.

The fantastic Accrington fans – who put on a magnificent home atmosphere which should shame most City supporters – regularly sang how we’d f**ked up the Premier League, the Championship and League One. The big question is whether this defeat represents a low point, or is the low point. Can it really get any worse for City than it is right now? We’ve asked that question often in recent years and later found the answer to be yes. Taylor’s task over the next three months is to at least ensure we supporters can one day look back on this afternoon and answer no, it couldn’t and it didn’t. 

But with a daunting trip to leaders Rochdale on Tuesday night, the doom and gloom is unlikely to shift quickly. It threatens to be a very long night and, on the back of this sobering afternoon, heavy drinking beforehand is strongly advised.

Jacobs can’t shake off the staleness as City draw with struggling Grimsby

A  banner was unfurled over the edge of the Main Stand top tier as the players came out for kick off which seemed to be in support of Stuart McCall; but before we’d had chance to read what it said, it had been removed.

This didn’t appear to be an act of boardroom concealing, more concern from stewards that the banner was covering up advertising hoardings. Though it was a shame the supporter’s home-made effort wasn’t allowed to be draped over some of the thousands of empty seats.

It was not meant to be, and perhaps the same can be said of Wayne Jacobs as Bradford City manager. Having requested to Mark Lawn that he is interviewed for the vacant position during the week, this disappointing draw with second-bottom Grimsby was hardly the commendation he needed ahead of Monday’s meeting.  Already an outsider for the position, his chances seemingly reduced with each passing minute of goalless action.

Apart from Jacobs patrolling the dugout in suit rather tracksuit, it was difficult to recognise much different. For 90 minutes City huffed and puffed, but the well-organised visitors defended in numbers and carried a threat on the break. Oliver Lancashire and Joe Widdowson were outstanding at the back and, although the Bantams spent long spells camped out in the opposition half, clear cut chances were at a premium.

Robbed of injury to Omar Daley, Jacobs’ team selection could easily have been that of McCall’s. Though Gareth Evans was moved to the left instead of part of a front three, bringing more balance to the side than for last week’s defeat to Bury. Scott Neilson was recalled on the right and improved on a tentative start to produce an impressive second half display which was aided by Jacobs’ switching Simon Ramsden back to right back at half time, as City’s captain was more supportive going forward than Zesh Rehman in the first half.

But elsewhere confidence was obviously lacking. For much of this season City have been too desperate to get the ball forwards quickly instead of showing composure; and though midfield pair Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn impressed in patches, the middlemen were often cut out in favour of a long ball from the back towards James Hanson.

With Grimsby playing a higher backline in the first half, passes in behind the strikers from midfield was an effective option, but when Town dropped deeper it was back to route one. Initial panic was often caused from Hanson’s flick ons, but Town always seemed to have more numbers back to snuff out the danger.

Evans had the best chance of the first half when a good pass had set Hanson clear before he pulled the ball back to City’s number nine. But Evans’ confidence seems to have been unaffected by his double at Torquay two weeks ago and he fired over. It’s now three months since he scored at Valley Parade.

And it’s nine months since Peter Thorne – making his first start since going off injured against Rochdale in the JPT last September – scored anywhere. The top scorer of the past two seasons was effective in holding up the ball, but inside the area the sort of half chances he sniffs out seemed to allude him. Michael Boulding was introduced on 65 minutes and wasted a decent opportunity when shooting straight at Nick Colgan. Hanson and Neilson also fired over from promising positions, but the 0-0 looked inevitable long before the assistant referee signalled four minutes of injury time.

Matt Glennon was a virtual spectator, other than an important save from a well-worked Grimsby corner just after the break. Despite the visitors’ relegation worries, they seemed content with a point and made few efforts to push forwards in numbers during the final 20 minutes. It was an afternoon to forget.

Which quickly pushes the focus back onto the managerial situation and, with Martin Allen and Russell Slade watching from the stands, they and others would seem to be in a better position than Jacobs after he oversaw this mediocre display. Jacobs’ best hope of earning the job would surely have lied in truly differentiating himself from his former manager, given Lawn’s rather tactless hint McCall would have been pushed had he not jumped.

In time, Jacobs would surely stamp his own mark on the club. But his chance always lied in the short term and this City display was much of the same and therefore makes it more difficult for him to convince Lawn and Julian Rhodes he could do a better job than McCall.

But whoever does come in has a job to do in quickly building up confidence and belief in a team which has become too used to feeling hard done by. Not losing today means the spectre of falling into a relegation battle remains distant, but with two tricky trips to Lancashire to come before a visit from a Darlington side showing faint signs of improvement – however futile – the urgency for improved results is increasing.

Like this drab draw which was seemingly decided long before the end, City’s season seems to be drifting to an inevitable mundane mid-table conclusion. That Jacobs was unable to make an impact means it will surely now be an outsider entrusted with shaking things up.

The legacy of Stuart begins as the Bantams welcome Grimsby Town

The pile of CVs has been sifted through, the initial interviews held. Events are moving quickly and we may have a strong idea of who the Bradford City caretaker manager for the rest of the season is to be before the weekend is over, possibly even before kick off of Saturday’s visit of Grimsby.

For the players especially, it’s a case of who they need to impress. It’s perhaps testament to just how small former manager Stuart McCall’s squad was – or his indecision – that there are no senior players rotting in the reserves. However well or badly they have performed, each player has it all to do all over again. Wayne Jacobs will be in charge from the touchline, but it may be a question of who might be watching from the stands.

And if the caretaker-to-be is able to run the rule over his new charges, he shouldn’t be too disappointed with what he to work with. McCall had to work under tough financial constraints which will have hindered his ability to build the team he wanted, but what the players lack in quality they have almost always compensated by their effort.

I’ve always found that a fair summary of how well a manager did can only be drawn after a lengthy period, and though we may in time label McCall a failed manager it would be premature to do so. Like with Nicky Law and Colin Todd, we may soon discover a change makes no difference, in which case the proportion of blame McCall would be considered to deserve for this season’s under-achievement lessens.

But what we do hope to learn in this season’s squad is that McCall has achieved one of his original stated aims, revealed during his first interview after becoming the manager in May 2007. He said then, “I think back to the first time I was here when we signed people like Greg Abbott, John Hendrie and Chris Withe…they went on to be great servants for the club and loved being part of it…I want to bring in players like that who will hopefully develop and grow with the club.”

McCall’s Monday departure ensured few people were too bothered with talking about the Bury defeat, and the post match comments of defender Simon Ramsden appear to have been widely missed. He told the Telegraph & Argus, “The gaffer has got a history with the club from playing and manager. You can see the club means a lot to him, as it does with all of us. Every time you put on the shirt you should wear it with pride and give 100 per cent.”

If three, four or five of the current crop of players can become entrenched in the hearts of us supporters in the same vein as Abbot, Hendrie, McCall and co, the departing manager can be considered to have delivered some success. If these players can continue their development and lift the club forwards, the foundations can be credited to the biggest legend of them all for rubbing off the passion he had. McCall didn’t view managing City as just any old employment, his legacy may prove to be a playing squad which shares this outlook.

The worry is the eventual long-term successor might rip this work up, rather than build on it. But if the caretaker-to-be is watching and they’re looking to do more over the next three months than merely put themselves in the shop window for a better job, tomorrow could be the day the players start proving themselves as key components of the next chapter.

Quite who’ll be given the chance to impress is another question. This is Jacobs’ second game in charge of the club after acting as caretaker for the then-Division One club’s trip to Stoke back in 2003. He certainly caused an impression that day, consigning Dean Windass to sit amongst us away fans. Second time around, Jacobs will certainly pick Matt Glennon in goal with the experienced stopper having had little to do but conceding six goals in his first four Bantams games.

The passionate Simon Ramsden was outstanding as a centre back last week and will surely continue there alongside an equally impressive Matt Clarke. I didn’t agree with the decision to push Zesh Rehman over to right back, and though Stuart could no doubt explain the logic to me I’m not sure he’d go as far as to claim it worked. The promising-but-raw Jonathan Bateson may be recalled, with Luke O’Brien at left back.

Last week Omar Daley reminded us of his frustrating inconsistency after an ineffective performance as part of a midfield three, which at one stage drew an angry tirade from Michael Flynn. In the second half a Bury breakaway was thwarted by the Jamaican racing back to clear, which emphasises how his patchy form cannot just be labelled as ‘laziness’. He should start in what may instead be a 4-4-2.

Flynn and Lee Bullock will look to continue in the middle, though this writer craves for young Luke Sharry to be given more opportunities before the season ends. Steve O’Leary skippered the reserves to a rare win midweek and may be considered ahead of Bullock. Chris Brandon and Scott Nielson, both struggling for form but not involved with the second string, will hope for a recall. Leon Osborne is back from injury and worth considering for the bench.

Up front Jacobs has the luxury rarely afforded to McCall of having four fit strikers to choose from, though form is another matter. Gareth Evans netted twice at Torquay, but still looks unconfident and is fast-becoming the main target for the boo boys. Michael Boulding flatters to deceive and James Hanson and Peter Thorne’s recent injuries leave them rusty.

Grimsby rock up to Valley Parade deep in relegation mire, winless in 19 and 13 points behind City – but if that gap has decreased come 5pm Saturday, Bantams’ alarm bells will start to ring.  The Mariners have not beaten City in 11 attempts and their last win at Valley Parade was back in 1997. They’ve managed just 20 goals in 28 league games this season; if they play half as bad as they did against City at Blundell Park earlier this season, a comfortable home win will be achieved.

Personally I would be sad to see Grimsby go down. Cleethorpes is a pretty ugly place, but there are worse away ends than the one at Blundell Park and the fish & chip shop nearby is astonishingly good. They are six points adrift of safety and former City striker Neil Woods has so far been able to turn the tide.

According to the chairmen City go into this game with nothing to play for; but with such an uncertain future for the players and coaching staff, it’s not a time to be deliberating the summer holidays just yet. McCall’s legacy does not deserve to be players who’d give up trying now, tomorrow is their first chance to honour the former boss.

The saddest of endings

Stuart McCall’s farewell lap around Valley Parade applauding supporters was a heartbreaking sight – but it was also a beautiful moment.

His actions at the end of the 1-0 defeat to Bury said everything that is fantastic about the City legend. He knew the game was up and that, whether on Monday it will be announced he has resigned, left by mutual consent or been given the sack, it was no longer up to him whether he could stay. But there was no quick retreat down the touchline; he showed typical courage and respect in going out to applaud his supporters.

And the reaction back was equally fitting. Sure there’d be typical murmurings of discontent about McCall during the match and many had exited the stadium before the final whistle, but this was a time for  putting aside misgivings and showing appreciation for the man, the legend, who will ultimately always retain the respect and adulation of City fans.

It was the saddest of farewells, handled with the greatest of dignity.

There’s been a fear among many of those fans who’d been demanding a change that, if action wasn’t taken swiftly, McCall might be subject of the sort of unpleasant abuse other managers have received in the past. No one wanted it end ugly, and it sums up the bond between McCall and supporters that the parting of ways is as amicable as can be. I was close to tears as I applauded McCall’s farewell lap, and I have so much respect to him for taking the time to do it.

Once the farewell had been competed, Bury manager Alan Knill walked over to McCall and hugged him. He was humble in victory, as is easier to be, admitting that, just like at Gigg Lane a fortnight earlier, the Bantams were unfortunate to lose. Undoubtedly City, who hurled everything including the kitchen sink at the visitors during the closing stages, deserved to take something from the game.

Yet I don’t agree that City – and McCall – had been unlucky to lose this time. I was disappointed with McCall’s formation and tactics. And though I wanted him to remain as manager, there is something troubling about the evidence presented in front of us over the lack of progress this season.

Even before kick off, City seemed to have a whiff of desperation about their approach. Playing 4-3-3 is not new this season – the merits or otherwise having been debated on this site only a day earlier – but 4-3-3 with James Hanson, Gareth Evans AND Michael Boulding? Three up front worked earlier in the season due to those employed to take the two wide slots of the front three – Evans and Neilson – been able to play out wide. But Boulding and Hanson are largely better through the middle and leaving Omar Daley in the middle three meant the balance to the team wasn’t right and the style of football suffered.

It reminded me of then-Shrewsbury manager Gary Peter two years ago, realising the season wasn’t going to plan – and therefore his own future was in doubt – and just deciding to “go for it” every match. He picked a team at Valley Parade full of attacking intent, but City tore into them with two of the four goals coming on the counter attack. Peters was shortly afterwards sacked.

Playing 4-3-3 like City did yesterday suggested a lack of confidence in the players. Even in a must-win game, McCall and City needed to show patience and have a greater game plan than just going for it. It was a contrast to the visit of Bury last season, where a more measured and composed approach eventually brought a late Bantams winner.

At the back at least, recent defensive problems were partly addressed with Simon Ramsden moving from right back to centre back alongside Matt Clarke – and the pair put in as outstanding and assured defensive displays since David Wetherall and Damion Stewart dominated at the back in 2006. Luke O’Brien had a tough afternoon, but characteristically stuck to the task.

However the decision to play Zesh Rehman  at right back was curious and ultimately flawed. Zesh is a good player, but has not had a good season and there’s frustration and even unfair suspicion over why McCall is seemingly unwilling to leave him out. At right back, Rehman kept losing his man and unnecessarily diving in for challenges when he just needed to stand up and block the path to goal – often leaving him on the floor and out the game, while the winger charged on.

Rehman played at right back towards the end of last season with limited success, but that was due to some disappointing performances from Paul Arnison. As well as Ramsden, City have the able Jonathan Bateson as a natural right back who gets forward well, and he should have been included instead.

City nevertheless competed well and were unlucky to go behind, but then the desperation was too strong again. On a difficult pitch and with Hanson competing well, playing a more direct style of football had been tolerated if not approved. Yet with 25 minutes to play Daley was withdrawn for Peter Thorne, and we had the sight of four City strikers and just two midfielders. As intentions go it was clear there would be no passing and running down the flanks, but that the back four would simply be charged with launching it forwards.

This long ball football would be understandable with 10 minutes to go, but with over a quarter of the game still to play it was premature panic. Thorne added a much needed touch of class up front and his link up play saw the ball begin to stick in the final third, but for a period it seemed as though the players had lost heart, couldn’t find a way back and were at a loss of what to do next. Heavy pressure belatedly commenced in the final stages, but the team set up suggested the manager didn’t believe his players could come back by playing football.

It was perhaps the ultimate of ironies. That a manager who made his name as a player for his combative and inspirational skills in the middle of the park, had resorted to abandoning having a midfield in order to save his job.

And yes the argument goes that on chances, possession and territorial advantage, City did not deserve to lose. There’s an argument that the referee should have awarded a penalty and sent Bury’s Afe Sodje off. There’s an argument Bury didn’t look anything special. But ultimately the difference between the sides was the composure and organisation of the visitors and the fluster and anxiousness of City.

I don’t believe this is typical of McCall’s reign, but perhaps why we’re now saying goodbye to the City manager is because it is typical of McCall’s reign when things are going wrong. In his first season there was the autumn collapse of form that saw eight winless games and promotion hopes up in smoke. Last season the collapse came at the end of the season, lasting nine games, and this season’s recent run of poor form since December has been strikingly familiar.

At these difficult points we see too much indecision in the team selection and tactics. We see what initially seems a couple of set backs become a crisis of confidence. We see a slow and stuttered speed to the recovery. We see a manager trying to put a brave face on matters, but taking the setbacks too much to heart instead of instilling confidence into others. We see a football club quickly dropping down the league table.

Ultimately, as Stuart has acknowledged repeatedly in recent weeks, it’s a results business. No matter how much we supporters want him to be a success, the results simply haven’t been there. It is incredibly disappointing that it has come to this and it will take some time for many of us to fully recover and be enthused with City and football again, but if there’s a consolation it is that it has ended more painlessly than it might have.

Indeed the tone of McCall when speaking on the radio after the defeat was almost that of a relieved man. Acknowledging the circumstances of the game been so typical of the season to date, he even allowed himself a chuckle about his own misfortune. He seemed remarkably relaxed – but sad – and perhaps that was because the pressure could now be released off his shoulders. On the BBC One’s Football League Show last night, he even texted in to thank supporters again and to apologise he couldn’t have done a better job.

The special bond he has with the club and supporters remains in tact, and while for many that would always be the case the memories are at least not going to be added to by the sight of ‘McCall out’ chanting and the visible type of abuse which many of his Valley Parade dugout predecessors have endured.  It still sickens me that, after a 1-0 defeat to Doncaster in 2006, then-manager Colin Todd found his car had been attacked by City fans – I can’t imagine how I’d feel if such acts of horror had been inflicted upon McCall.

Nine months before that boxing day incident, I’d written an article for this site about why I didn’t want McCall (or Peter Beagrie) to become our next manager. My reasons were that I feared the souring of the special bond we supporters have with McCall, and that it would end with the usual suspects reigning down the boos.

A year later and, with the club in dire straits, I was prepared to abandon those fears and believe McCall’s installation as manager could have the romantic ending we all felt it would. As he prepares to clear his desk on Monday I feel devastated it was not worked out, I remain unconvinced it is the right move to part ways now, but I’m also happy that is ending relatively agreeably.

The City legend has given so much to this club across four decades, his lap of farewell at Valley Parade yesterday was yet another unforgettable Stuart memory.

The problem with John Terry and the England captain

I don’t know the number of people who want John Terry removing as England captain and how that has increased since the confirmation that he might be – well – a bit of a git but I’m not one of them.

That is not because I think that Tezza and his wandering eye should be forgiven for his antics that seem set to lead to Wayne Bridge pulling out of his England role of being a reserve to Ashley Cole. It was that role Bridge perfected at Chelsea and one struggles to recall any player who has ever so clearly put being paid over being played. 129 games in the last seven years is a waste of a career and the fact that he has yet to play more games for the clubs who offered him the big money to leave Southampton than he did for the Saints is a damning statistic.

Bridge’s level of ambition aside it is not that Terry’s behaviour should be forgiven it is that I would never have picked him for the England captaincy in the first place. Steven Gerrard is a man who leads on the field, he near single handled won the European Cup one season and to me always seemed an outstanding candidate.

That said Gerrard was involved in a brawl in a bar and while he was cleared of any wrong doing legally had he been England captain would he have been called to account for the company he kept and the fact he was out drinking until the wee small hours? Others talk about Wayne Rooney as a potential England captain. If he had the job would he be required to curb his on field emotional outbursts to stay within the remit of skipper?

The problem with Terry’s role and the position of England captain in general – the position that Red Tops are calling for Terry to lose – is that for all the decrying over how poorly the Chelsea man represents the country neither Terry, England boss Fabio Cappello or the bosses at The FA could point to a job description for the position.

Naturally on a personal level we can all come up with a list of what we consider the most important things for the armband wearer to have and probably the vast majority of them would not include sharking on team mate’s better halves but there is no set of guidelines – as far as we know it – which the FA can point JT at and give him a cast iron reason why he should lose the position.

Should such a job description exist then the same people who are calling for Terry to be hoisted by the yard arm – The Red Tops – would have been the people who when David Beckham was England skipper would have been saying that the position should be all about the results on the field and the winning mentality within the dressing room and nothing about the personalities outside it.

As with the use of nameless “sources close to” Terry while objecting to super-injunctions the media are perfectly prepared to indulge in any double standard to sell newspapers.

Bradford City have had four captains this year: Peter Thorne, Zesh Rehman, Michael Flynn and – on Saturday – Simon Ramsden and most City fans have an idea of who they believe is best suited to the role although it might be worth noting that in Saturday’s 2-1 comeback all four were on the field when the goals went in.

In football leaders are Heaven sent while captains are often titular. Short of putting a rag in Stuart McCall’s mouth Rangers could not have stopped him showing the same leadership he did at City even though other players had the armband. Good teams have many people who are prepared to lead and taking the captain’s role from John Terry will not stop that ability coming through on the field.

Moving forward one suspects that despite the furore of the weekend this story is a seven day wonder and by the time South Africa comes around England will have largely filed John Terry and Wayne Bridge alongside the Steven Gerrard scrap, the Frank Lampard radio phone in and numerous other Earth shattering events that are supposed to have forced action from the national squad but in retrospect hardly wobbled the needle on a Richter Counter.

Moving forward – and before anyone else is given the armband and named England captain – it might be worth a set of guidelines emerging as to what the requirements of an England captain are and what is considered to be outside that remit. If the job is about representing the nation then why remove Beckham from the job? If it is about results then why even discuss Terry’s future?

Until a set of criteria exists that the occupant of the position has to work within then we are going to forever be trying the Captain accused in Kangaroo courts, deciding on an ad hoc basis what we want the job to be.

Searching for an end to uncertainty as Bradford City travel to Torquay United

After a week in which it had been widely expected Stuart McCall would be given the sack, Bradford City travel deepest South with the immediate future continuing to be clouded by doubt.

The City manager remains; but should the Bantams return from the 600-mile round trip to Torquay pointless, it will surely spell the end. Then again it seemed as though defeat to Lincoln would trigger McCall’s dismissal, and before that the loss to Bury, and before that the draw at home to Cheltenham.

Uncertainty prevails. Visits to the Bantams’ official website have become more regular and tense – such is the expectation of been greeted by a statement announcing McCall has gone. Message board rumours emanated by someone who “knows someone who works at the club, his sacking will be announced tomorrow” become more regular and take added credence. A few times earlier this week, the sound of a text message  arriving has left me wondering if it’s someone letting me know he’s gone. Whether we want a managerial change or not, we’re all waiting for what seems like the inevitable – but it remains all quiet.

The silence, from the boardroom, is deafening. We’ve been in this situation four years ago with Colin Todd – who’s then-unpopularity still far exceeds the growing levels of discontent towards McCall – where growing pressure to make a change was met with no public comment from the club.

It’s clear that Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes can’t really win if they say something now – as any statement would increase the pressure on McCall regardless of what it contained, even public support would be dubbed the “dreaded vote of confidence”.  Yet the lack of comment can also be viewed as a lack of leadership and, with the local media typically falling in line, City supporters remain completely in the dark about the future of the manager.

A defeat on Saturday and it all starts over again. The continued checking of the website, the message board rumours, the bleep bleep of the phone. Perhaps this time it really would be it, but then perhaps McCall will be in the dugout at Valley Parade at least one more time, with Bury at home next. We can say with confidence that Torquay away is a must-win game for City’s already unlikely promotion hopes, but we have little idea if Torquay away is a must-win game for McCall.

Yet the significance of the result at Plainmoor cannot be understated. This week McCall has talked more than once about the importance of winning, no matter how it’s achieved, and the long-awaited delivery of three points would be the perfect tonic for the January blues afflicting everyone connected with City.

A midweek of inaction might have seen the Bantams slip as low as 19th, but instead results elsewhere left the club firmly stuck in 16th. City make their furthest away trip of the campaign with the play offs the longest distance away they’ve been all season, but the 10-point gap isn’t unbridgeable if a revival can begin quickly.

Who will be charged with beginning such an upturn is less clear, after McCall spoke earlier this week about rooting out the faint-hearted and dropping players who couldn’t handle the pressure. If the early substitutions made at Sincil Bank are any indication, that may include Zesh Rehman. The City captain has endured a tough season and may have only retained his place in recent weeks due to the raft of suspensions involving his defensive colleagues. He was badly at fault for both Lincoln goals, in almost exactly the same manner, and, though his half time replacement Steve Williams also looked a bit unsteady, the former hairdresser may take Rehman’s place.

Matt Clarke, left on the sidelines for much of the season, had a very strong second half at Lincoln and is arguably the most in-form of the three natural centre backs. The standout central defensive performance of the season to me remains Simon Ramsden in the JPT at Rochdale, and McCall may consider switching him into the middle and continue playing the promising Jonathan Bateson – subbed at half time too against Lincoln, but more than likely for tactical reasons – at right back. The only certain starter of the back four at Plainmoor will be Luke O’Brien. Matt Glennon keeps goal.

In midfield Omar Daley impressed against Bury and Lincoln and is becoming more effective with each returning game. The Jamaican was used on the right at Sincil Bank, and Chris Brandon may be moved to a more orthodox left wing position to provide balance after a somewhat disastrous first half at Lincoln in the free role. Brandon’s failure to make an impact was the fault of others as much as his, but the slight upwards curve in recent form needs to continue for him to sustain what for him is a regular run in the starting eleven. Scott Neilson is also in contention against opposition he made his City debut against last August.

Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn should take the central midfield spots with Steve O’Leary finally nearing full fitness and expected to be ready to provide competition from the bench. The usually-consistent Bullock was poor last week, while Flynn is struggling to hit the early-season heights. Former Leeds midfielder Bruno Riberio, now 34, has been linked with a move to Valley Parade, due to a long-standing friendship with goalkeeper coach Nigel Martyn.

Up front, Peter Thorne is surprisingly set for a place on the bench after scoring in his return to action for the reserves in midweek. With goals drying up of late, City are desperate for the sort of striking prowess Thorne possesses. Just remember his record at City – 69 starts 32 goals. How different might City’s season have so far been if they could have called upon Thorne more than a mere five times up to now.

Gareth Evans – who looked out-of-sorts at Lincoln and badly needs a rest – will partner Michael Boulding – who has shown decent recent form – in attack. James Hanson – his transfer fee finally agreed – is still injured.

Torquay’s return to the Football League may not be reaching the same heights as their Devon counterparts Exeter last season, but they are reasonably positioned to avoid relegation. Last week they blew a 2-0 home lead to Burton and ended up beaten. On Tuesday Barnet’s Paul Furlong netted for them to earn a 1-1 draw at Underhill. They’ve not won in five games, one less than City’s current dismal run.

Ideal opposition for City to get going again? Nothing is certain with the Bantams right now, although surely City’s winter of discontent and McCall’s reign as manager cannot both continue for much longer.

Can they?

The last days of Rome

On arriving at a club we often hear how a new manager has made five or six changes from the previous gaffer’s last team and on watching Stuart McCall’s side of players rag-tagly out of positioned for the first half of a a sixth winless match on the trot at Lincoln City’s Sincil Bank one could not be struck by the notion that should the Bantams have a change in the big chair sooner rather than later then his first job would be to put players back into position.

Simon Ramsden moved into midfield, Omar Daley up front, Chris Brandon wandering around in “the hole” and after the two goals that proved decisive Michael Flynn in the forward line. Players out of position seem to be the precursor of manager removal.

That City boss Stuart McCall got his first half team so wrong caused an unsolvable problem for the Bantams which could not be fixed after forty-five minutes. The second goal saw Brian Gilmour slice through the centre of the same flat footed, square defence that was exposed at Notts County on the opening day of the season.

The pairing of Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke is chalk and chalk. Two players who can clear the ball out without the pace to clean up behind them and they were exposed by Gilmour to get the second. The first goal came from Brian Gilmour setting up Chris Held for a close finish and came as City’s heads were down following more linesman “fun”.

That the official had been subject to some vile abuse from three or four City fans at the front of the away end may have played on his mind when Omar Daley rounded Steve Watts to burst towards the penalty area only to being sent sprawling – Decision: Free Kick to Lincoln – is little excuse for a wretched afternoon of poor decisions. His role in the first, match swinging goal came from keeping his flag down as Gareth Evans felt the force of both Watts’s hands in his back.

He was a poor linesman – perhaps making errors, perhaps seeking redress – but no one deserved the level of homophobic abuse hurled at him by a shameful handful of City fans who tellingly pulled scarves over their faces when later a scuffle broke out when another supporter was ejected.

Horribly City’s players put heads down after the foul on Daley was not given and after dominating for the opening half an hour and having a great run by Luke O’Brien well saved and a Gareth Evans shot eke wide found themselves quickly two goals behind. Problems were evident, City had crumbled like ageing marble statues.

The problems – however annoying the re-occurrence of them was – were addressed at half time in the dressing room and City came out with Ramsden back at right back, Rehman off and Steve Williams on and Michael Boulding adding to the forward line. Cue a forty five minutes of near constant Bradford City pressure.

That that pressure resulted in only a single goal when Michael Boulding finishing smartly after good work by Luke O’Brien who – as with Matthew Clarke – had as good a second half as he did a poor first was partly the goalkeeping of Rob Burch but mostly City’s difficulties in breaking down a backs to the wall second half from the home side which one rarely sees from a side on their home turf but won them the three points.

(A note here on recent weeks: Lincoln, unlike Bury and Cheltenham, did not feel the need to cheat and the game was all the better for it.)

The Bantams tried, tried, tired to breakdown the home side who were playing like an away side but it was to no avail. At one point Matt Glennon was in the forward line and even the BBC called the Bantams unlucky but ultimately McCall had made a big mistake with his team selection but had seen the problem and fixed it. In the end it was too late, but it was not mistaken by those who saw it for too little.

These people – the six hundred or so who travelled to Lincoln – came not to bury Caesar, but to to praise him. There were the odd pocket of people voicing anti-McCall sentiment but on the whole as the Visigoth sacked the streets a single word rang out from the Bradford City support not too a man but to a point.

“Stuart, Stuart, Stuart.”

The perspective of Bradford City’s winter of misery as Notts County come to Valley Parade

The snowy weather continues to make life stop-start. It has caused disruption to Bradford City’s season, it has caused misery around the country.

Hours of media attention has contributed to making snow the number one topic of conversation. A Channel 4 News reporter spent a great deal of time interviewing a weather expert in the middle of a wintry Manchester last week. When asked how recent conditions contrasted to the famous big freezes of decades ago, the expert began replying that it’s nothing in comparison to how bad it was then. The interviewer hurriedly cut him off by asking a different question, thereby unintentionally revealing personal aspirations that what he was reporting on was something more historically significant than merely a spot of bad weather.

The here and now is dreadful, who needs the perspective that others had it worse than us in the past? Certainly not the Channel 4 viewers, watching at home on widescreen TVs and keeping warm through central heating.

Perspective is not always welcomed and, as City’s season looks set to unpause again with the visit of Notts County, the opportunity arises to move away from the depressing mood which has engulfed the club since Rochdale waltzed around Valley Parade at the beginning of December. There has only been five games since, despite the seven weeks which have passed. With even the only win of that period widely derided rather than celebrated, a miserable outlook concerning the state of the Bantams has been as difficult to shift as any deep snow.

Has it ever been worse for City then it is now? Perspective might be found from recalling the scary moments when the club almost imploded through administration, from the misery of relegations even from a higher league, or from the fact that City’s history is not without its basement league periods. But the present occupation of League Two midtable below the likes of Morecambe, Accrington and Aldershot is an unhappy one. Many are sharing the outlook of that Channel 4 news reporter – we’ve never had it so bad.

Which, looking from an even wider perspective, offers an interesting clattering of outlooks with Notts County. With this being City’s fourth occasion locking horns with the Magpies this season, the wide range of emotions which has fuelled their season has largely glimpsed through Bantams’ eyes.

The halcyon-dreams of domination prompted by the 5-0 opening day massacre at Meadow Lane. The losing faith in Ian McParland which saw the under-pressure manager dance down the Valley Parade touchline when it looked as though his team had won the JPT tie late on in October, only for a late City equaliser to contribute to his sacking five days later. There was the short-lived reign of McParland’s replacement, Hans Backe, who enjoyed his first win in charge by defeating City in the FA Cup during November.

Backe has gone, incredibly the mysterious richer backers Munto Group have already gone. Suddenly a club with seemingly realistic dreams of climbing all the way to the top is saddled with a level of expenditure and wage bill an average Championship club would struggle to cope with. Reports suggest that, if Executive Chairman Peter Trembling can’t find replacement backers with rich pockets, the club will fold in two months. From the bright days of August, the dark throes of winter see County crawl into Valley Parade with its very future in doubt.

Of course the here and now for County is a respectable fifth-place position and seven point-lead over the Bantams. But as many green-filled eyes from BD8 looked on at Meadow Lane this summer and wondered out loud why it wasn’t us been taken over by rich backers, the uncertainty at County offers plenty of reasons to breath sighs of relief that mysterious folk with questionable motives targeted someone else.

Just like driving cautiously in the snow and passing a BMW driver who’s veered off the road, on Saturday should we look over at the away fans and feel smug or sorry about their misfortune?

So City’s season starts up again with the gap to a play off spot a-still-bridgeable six points away. For how poor recent form has been, the distance has only grown by two points since City drew 2-2 at Northampton at the beginning of October. The most pressing concern is to reverse the shocking home form which threatens to undermine efforts on the road to reduce that gap.

The statistic of a paltry three wins from 11 Valley Parade has been oft-quoted over the past fortnight. Perhaps the clearest indication of the damage can be found in the fact that, since the last home win against Hereford in October, six of City’s nine league games have been at Valley Parade. Seven points have been taken from those three away games, with just three acquired on home soil. The pressure for a maximum home haul is mounting.

Matt Glennon has been signed up to provide greater reassurance to an oft-nervous backline. Ultimately replacing his former team-mate Simon Eastwood, City’s as yet squad number-less first choice stopper arrives with plenty of experience but question marks over rustiness following a lack of senior football. I saw him earlier this season play for Huddersfield reserves at Valley Parade, and what stood out was the volume and regularity of his booming voice ordering around his young back four. While Eastwood improved over time, his rawness still caused him to concede soft goals. The number one quality sought in Glennon is reliability.

The other big player news of the week concerned Michael Flynn’s public rejecting of transfer speculation of a switch to League One. Flynn’s commitment to the cause, even when not playing at his best, is one to build a team around, especially as the 29-year-old has many years of good service in him. He’s also rejected more vicious suggestions of unhappiness at not being captain. The perpetrators of this rumour seem to have a dubious agenda against the awarding of the armband to Zesh Rehman, for what they consider questionable grounds. Let’s just say they probably read the Daily Mail.

Zesh will continue to lead out the team and partners the returning Matt Clarke at the back with Steve Williams taking a turn for suspension. The ever-reliable Simon Ramsden will take up right back with Luke O’Brien on the left side. It remains a personal frustration towards some supporters this season that many are out to deride O’Brien and continually label him not good enough. Last season, Luke seemingly couldn’t put a foot wrong in many fans’ eyes despite obvious rough edges, now he’s playing better and taking on more responsibility and people are seemingly out to slate him.

A few fans have called for his dropping to be replaced by the “hungry young Louis Horne”. At what point did Luke lose his hunger? Perhaps OB can take consolation from the fact the last OB was widely derided by some during the early part of his career – and he’s not done bad since.

In midfield alongside Flynn will be regular partner Lee Bullock and then the still unanswered dilemma of whether to play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. In the last home game Chris Brandon spearheaded a diamond formation and was subsequently keen to point out a lack of chances so far this season. This formation seems to suit him best, but arguably doesn’t suit City.

James O’Brien – goalscorer last time out – is also in contention alongside Scott Neilson and Omar Daley. Recently watching last season’s goals of the season DVD – with the delights of the always-brilliant Keith Coates commentating – I was pleasantly surprised to recall just how well Daley played up until his injury against Darlington. He scored a number of fantastic goals, created plenty of others too. At full pace and with only the resistance of an opposition full back, he made things happen and his improving fitness offers expectation he can make things happen for City this season.

Up front, Michael Boulding should be fit and may take the place of Gareth Evans, who’s confidence has been dented in recent weeks, partnering top-scorer and rumoured-Huddersfield target James Hanson. City’s chance-to-conversion-ratio is poor and the return of Peter Thorne is anxiously awaited.

Notts County’s last VP visit saw a slightly weakened team and tomorrow we should have the dubious pleasure of watching then-rested Lee Hughes partner Ade Akinbiyi or Luke Rodgers in attack. Graeme Lee will hope for a happier return than his sending off for persistent kicking of Boulding in October. Kasper Schmeichel should be kept away from the corner flags.

Dave Kevan is the caretaker in the dugout. Sven may watch on from the directors box – though it’s rumoured patience has reached its limited and this might be his final game.

Sven probably really has never had it so bad.

 

A muted victory

From a fixture Stuart McCall couldn’t feasibly win, at least the Bradford City manager was able to enjoy the satisfaction of three points.

Against an already doomed home team which has lost its last two games 4-0, only a similarly convincing scoreline for the Bantams would ensure victory would truly be considered a victory. That Steve Williams’ 23rd-minute strike was the sole occasion the ball found the back of the net will have done little to ease the darkened mood triggered by the midweek Rochdale humbling. Indeed the sight of City players’ blatant attempts to time waste long before the final whistle was due offered a clear indication that, while the win ultimately reduces the gap to the play offs, a vast improvement is needed for the season to conclude with a top seven place.

Not that Stuart seemed to be overly-perturbed after the final whistle. A victory is a victory and the points reward for winning 1-0 is the same as winning 4-0. Darlington showed a degree of spirit in the second half – on the evidence of this and City’s recent trip to Blundell Park, there is more hope to be taken from the Quakers’ efforts even if the League Two table makes it implausible to argue they can avoid relegation – and with City wasteful in front of goal for the game’s first two-thirds, the home side might have snatched a late point due to endeavor if not ability. In the end it was an afternoon for getting the three points, climbing back on the coach and moving on.

A more convincing victory still appeared on after a first half easily controlled by the visitors. Back to playing 4-4-2, Matt Clarke took the place of the injured Zesh Rehman, and a more solid performance from the former Darlington centre back alongside Williams was the platform for a 45 minute period where possession was dominated by claret and reasonable chances were readily created.

James Hanson came close early on with a shot deflected over, Simon Whaley almost scored direct from a corner, the recalled and impressive Scott Neilson might have done better after charging into the penalty area and seeing his low drive blocked by home keeper Nick Leversidge.

Lee Bullock, Hanson and Williams continued to go close and soon after Williams was rewarded after popping up at the back post to head home Neilson’s corner. It was a good moment for the former non-league defender after the difficult evening he’d endured midweek, it was also the third away league game in a row he’d netted. City continued to press and Hanson headed just wide.

At the other end Darlington’s efforts to pass the ball around on the deck were admirable but largely impotent. That the half chances they created almost all came on the counter attack said much about their lack of authority on the game.

But it was during the second half where the promotion credentials of the Bantams could again be doubted. City have held a 1-0 lead at half time in eight of their 20 league games this season, but the dilemma of whether to continue in the attacking manner which had earned that advantage or sit back and protect it is one which is leading to uncertainty and awkwardness.

Initially City’s intent was to get that second goal with Hanson again twice going close, but slowly the team began to drop back and ambition became limited. Stuart attempted to encourage fresh impetuous by introducing the dropped Gareth Evans from the bench for Michael Boulding, but the former Macclesfield striker’s confidence has clearly taken a dip of late, and he did little to reignite purpose to the attack.

Though questions must again be pointed at Boulding, who was well shackled all afternoon by former City defender and Quakers captain, Mark Bower. His introduction from the bench against Accrington helped City to pile on late pressure and he almost won the game late on with a shot that hit the post. Boulding can consider himself unfortunate not to have started the next game against Grimsby, but having got his chance at the Darlington Arena his failure to again take it was mystifying.

Often Boulding is excused for anonymity by relative poor service, and while he was provided few sights of goal, he must surely be prepared to work harder. Boulding looked unhappy to be subbed and went straight down the tunnel, where he was followed a few minutes later by Stuart for what may have been a tongue-lashing.

James O’Brien was shortly after brought on for Whaley – the on-loan Norwich midfielder again looking the best player on the park in terms of ability, but often failing to make the most of many opportunities to cross the ball with some poor deliveries.  As the home side finally starting to exert some pressure, Simon Eastwood had to tip one effort round the post and blocked a shot from further out which was straight at him. By then the visitors’ time-wasting got too much for referee Neil Swarbrick, who booked Neilson for unsubtly kicking the ball away. City’s ball retention was poor and will not go unpunished if it continues during the next four league fixtures, all against promotion rivals.

When the final whistle was blown it was met by a faint smattering of boos in the away end, but the overall cheering and chanting of Stuart’s name suggested the general mood was that, while dissatisfied with the performance, at least a difficult week had ended in a positive way.

There are still plenty of issues for Stuart to ponder – the return to playing 4-4-2 may have made City look more solid, but the high work rate the 4-3-3 formation has been built around was curiously lacking. Little confidence can have been taken from the second half display, though the clean sheet is not to be sniffed at.

So a muted victory, and one which may be best judged retrospectively in a few weeks. The hope for Stuart must be that this the game acts as the springboard for a run of good form going into the second half of the season, rather than proving a blip which had more to do with the Darlington formbook. Perhaps, in a week where we at BfB have looked back to the last promotion season and how the team ultimately benefited from losing 3-0 at home to QPR late-autumn, this win will have provided the tweak which makes the difference.

The tweak being the change back to 4-4-2 and return of Clarke, who has surely earned the right to now keep his first team spot. It wasn’t spectacular, but the first game after the tweak in the 1998/99 season, a 1-0 success at struggling Oxford thanks to a header from a set piece in the 23rd minute, offered few clues of what was to come then.

Anything similar this time around, and this will be later judged a fixture Stuart won in more ways than one.

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.

Pre-Christmas gets underway as City welcome Rochdale at the start of a big week

This could be a pivotal week in Bradford City’s season.

A win against Rochdale this evening would place the Bantams on the cusp of the play offs, follow that up with a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of automatic. A defeat against Rochdale this evening would keep City wedged amongst the midtable traffic, follow that up with anything less than a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of manager Stuart McCall’s future.

A couple of weeks ago Joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn likened City’s campaign to a pot of stew – “all the ingredients are in and we are simmering away. But now is the time we have to look to turn up the gas and bring it to the boil.” The temperature began to increase with the 3-0 success at Grimsby a week ago, a further two victories this week would see the vapour begin to rise. After Darlington, City have a week without a game before a busy Christmas period featuring six matches in three weeks. Often a critical phase of a campaign, this week’s target is to go into it in a strong position.

For now though the focus is firmly on Rochdale, who arrive at Valley Parade second in the league and with a string of impressive recent results. Keith Hill’s side has won 4-0 at leaders Bournemouth and triumphed 2-1 at fourth-placed Dagenham, who previously were unbeaten at home. They have defeated current play off occupants Bury and, last time out, Notts County at Spotland. They could go top with a victory tonight and, after two successive play off failures, look a strong bet to make it third time lucky and seal a first promotion since 1969.

As the likes of Accrington, Cheltenham, Burton and in the fact the Bantams can testify, the Dale are from invincible. But the impressive side built by Hill is well respected among City supporters for the attractive style of high tempo football and ability to mix it up with crafty counter attacking when required. Chris Dagnall already has 10 goals, Tom Kennedy is a classy attack-minded full back, Will Buckley a determined winger who tore Paul Arnison to pieces so badly last season the now-Darlington right back’s summer departure became inevitable.

Rochdale’s promise and fact it has wrecked City’s own promotion chances for two seasons in a row – plus the fact Dale’s manager, chairman and supporters appear to dislike the Bantams –  give this encounter the level of anticipation no other League Two club coming to Valley Parade can generate. How good is this Bradford City side? Tonight arguably offers the biggest indicator of the season’s prospects so far.

The line up to undertake the challenge is likely to unchanged side from the one which largely impressed at Blundell Park a week ago. Simon Eastwood’s rehabilitation continues in goal in front of a back four that will feature ex-Rochdale full back Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien. Consistency of selection in defence has been a characteristic of Stuart’s managerial reign, for better or worse, and the fact the present incumbents collectively improved enough to keep a clean sheet at Grimsby will ensure Matt Clarke and Jon Bateson remain on the sidelines for now.

The midfield three will be Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and James O’Brien. The latter’s return at Grimsby made a clear difference and his corner deliveries have improved throughout the season, with the Irishman setting up a number of goals in recent weeks. Chris Brandon and Scott Nielson will be back up, but how we long for the sight of Omar Daley taking a place on the bench. The Jamaican was due to play in the reserves last week before the game was called off, the next second string fixture is later this week. Stuart will be grateful the number of other injuries has reduced, thereby lessening the urgency of Daley’s long-awaited return.

The front three will probably be James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Simon Whaley. Michael Boulding is pushing hard for a start and the close-to-returning Peter Thorne still has a significant part to play, making the competition for striker positions fiercely competitive. Hanson’s strike record of seven goals from 18 starts is highly impressive. Evans is not far behind on five goals from 17, and will hope to rediscover his scoring touch after some recent bad misses. Whaley struck a memorable goal on his debut and, up against a side he was playing for just 17 days ago, has plenty of incentive to build on an impressive start.

As will a certain Rochdale forward. For the third game in a row City are lining up against a former striker and for the third game in a row that former striker has a point to prove. Chris O’Grady’s brief loan spell at Valley Parade last January was a curious one given many City supporters were so quick to turn on him and criticise Stuart for signing him. Many of those same supporters were, around the same time, demanding Stuart bring in a fourth striker to compete with Thorne, Boulding and Barry Conlon.

O’Grady’s scoring record before was impressive, and while he undoubtedly struggled to make an impact in the two sub appearances he made (he was recovering from an injury), I’ve never seen a player given so little time before being universally slagged off. Should O’Grady start and complete the game tonight, he will have more than doubled the time he spent on Valley Parade pitch than when he wore Claret and Amber – a whopping 39 minutes.

No doubt O’Grady will be booed by some, but such is the regularity of former players lining up against the Bantams this season the fear is not so much the law of the ex, but the law of averages which dictates whether he will have the level of influence on the outcome Steve Schumacher and Michael Symes have previously enjoyed, or what Barry Conlon and Graeme Lee endured.

But as Stuart will be telling his players in the dressing room prior to kick off, it’s what City do which counts. Tonight is a tremendous chance to take a step forward from constrained to capable, this week is a tremendous chance to upgrade the season’s hopes from reasonable to realistic.

In other words, it’s time for Stuart to serve up his stew.

Mastering the winning habit

There’s a saying connected to self-improvement. It’s about how everything you can confidently do now, at one stage in your life was considered difficult.

As Bradford City’s campaign of personal development progresses from learning to create chances, to scoring goals, to becoming difficult to beat, to the new challenge of turning draws into three points more often, tentative steps were taken at Blundell Park towards elevating the Bantams to credible promotion candidates. And while it will be hoped last night is looked back on as significant come the end of the campaign, like a kid learning to ride a bike with stabilisers, it was a progression aided by support which won’t always be there.

You see Grimsby Town were just that bad.

It’s seemingly become a tradition for City to arrive at Blundell Park with the home side on a wretched run of form; but the lack of confidence, aptitude and intelligence the Mariners possessed last night suggests relegation from the Football League is no less a formality than that of rock-bottom Darlington. In each of the last three trips to Cleethorpes, City manager Stuart McCall has shook hands with three different managers in the opposite dugout. On Monday Grimsby appointed former City forward Neil Woods despite a winless caretaker stint. This removed the possibility of a short-term lift from a new appointment, though perhaps rather late in the day the Town board has grasped the concept of stability.

Stability for City was the return of the previously-successful 4-3-3 formation and more positionally-solid James O’Brien for an off-form Chris Brandon, with the result a well drilled team versed in the job it needed to carry out. Simon Whaley was handed a full debut ahead of a clearly exhausted Scott Neilson and brought an extra dimension to City’s play. Confident in possession at all times and making some clever on and off the ball runs, if James O’Brien’s hard-working performance put Brandon to shame, the more effective manner in which the on-loan Norwich winger drifted around the pitch will have been noted by Stuart too.

With Lee Bullock carrying out another unassuming but valuable role protecting the back four, the platform was set up for City’s forward players to attack inventively and Whaley’s long range effort sneaked past one-time rumoured Bantams target Nick Colgan to put the visitors 1-0 up on 24 minutes. City had knocked the ball around impressively at times, but the goal was the result of a more direct manner after Simon Eastwood’s long kick and Bullock’s flick on. Stuart has previously made no attempt to apologise for his team mixing up their play and this goal provided a strong argument for incorporating such a style.

Grimsby’s resistance was limited, defender Oliver Lancashire’s header from a corner forcing a stunning save from Eastwood the only time the impressive central defensive partnership of Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams was troubled. And the biggest concern at half time was that surely the home side couldn’t play any worse and of the increasing regularity second half leads have been lost by City this season – Burton, Barnet, Northampton, Port Vale and Accrington. Time for those self-help guides.

Yet with so many doubts to plague the mind, the continued assurance of City after the interval saw the predictable early second half Grimsby urgency dampened with ease. Nicky Featherstone shot wide and there were a couple of throw ins into the box to defend, but it didn’t take long for City to be back into the ascendancy and the determination to finish off the game was obvious.

Whaley and James Hanson both went close before a corner was only half cleared and James O’Brien whipped over a troubling cross which Town defender Paul Linwood bizarrely headed across his own goal, presenting Williams with an opportunity to head the ball into an unguarded net from two yards. As every City outfield player rushed over to congratulate the former non-league defender, the sight of Grimsby players’ heads down, not even bothering to berate each other for conceding so poorly, will surely have troubled every Mariners fan.

From there onwards the game was comfortable with City continuing to carry the greater purpose and intent. Gareth Evans, who’s not quite reaching top form at the moment, should have scored a third after been played through one-and-one and shrugging off a defender, but curled his shot wide. Luke O’Brien, also not quite at his best last night, hit the side netting. Hanson then finally wrapped up the evening after racing onto Evans’ through ball and finishing emphatically. It was the top scorer’s seventh of the season and the superb manner he lead the line all night – winning flick ons and also displaying no little skill with the ball at feet – was a contrast to his target man predecessor and now Grimsby’s number ten, Barry Conlon.

It’s at this point I should really add comment about how disgraceful it was that the majority of away fans booed and sang uncomplimentary songs about the Irish striker. Whatever his failing were in a City shirt, effort was not among them and the great moments he provided us City fans should not be discounted. So I should really add comment about it was a disgrace, but…well, to be honest, I have a sense of humour.

The stick he received was hilarious and the comedy was added too by how badly Conlon played. His big chance to silence the barrackers came shortly before half time when the ball flashed across the box towards his right foot. He ended up kicking fresh air. In response the abuse was interrupted by a mickey-taking chant of “Barry! Barry!” Once sung in affection, but as Conlon was subbed in the second half and Hanson scored a minute later, it was clear we’ve all moved on. Sorry Barry, though given the way you smiled towards us after chasing an over-hit ball which went out of play, I figure you have broad shoulders and a sense of humour too.

A late save from Eastwood preserved the clean sheet – important as it was only City’s second on the road this season. But while City have played better and not won this season, the qualities which delivered the three points stand them in good stead for the tougher battles ahead. In hindsight, that City were only 1-0 up at half time was the best thing which could have happened. A chance to face up to previous fears and play through difficult memories of tentative starts to the second half been punished by conceding.

Every player took responsibility in pushing City on, and by the end of the night every individual battle had been emphatically won. With Michael Flynn and James O’Brien driving the team forward and the movement of Whaley and Evans causing problems, the workmanlike performance was not without its flair.

The win elevates City to 10th and the distance to the play offs has been reduced to two points. After a week off which will allow the fitness of returning players to improve, the self-improvement programme of developing a winning habit continues. From a visit to second bottom of the league to a home game against second top, Rochdale.

This time City will have to do it without the stablisers.

Questions on the captain as Rehman bares the armband

Zesh Rehman is not the Bradford City captain although he wore the armband during yesterday’s game – a draw with Accrington Stanley – which saw the defender attract some criticism.

Rehman – and this is a personal opinion – put in as good a performance as any in the match and certainly did nothing to suggest that faith should be lost in his abilities as a player. His performance as a captain – however – is harder to measure.

Harder to measure because on the whole – and ignoring the fact that Rehman is standing in for the injured Peter Thorne – it is hard to create a set of criteria to judge a captain against.

The finest captain I have ever seen of any side in a good thirty five years of watching football is Stuart McCall and in saying this I recall how I would tell any and all how McCall’s abilities with the armband were defined by the fact that not only did he turn in a performance to inspire but he made the players around him better.

David Wetherall took the armband from McCall and used it to show a steady leadership. His was a less obvious improvement of his peers than McCall but in setting a high standard of professionalism and performance he provided leadership by example for the side. Mark Bower was proof of this developing and slowly improving year on year.

Graeme Lee’s year as skipper post-Wetherall showed little leadership and lack of harmony in the run in was there for all to see. Pre-McCall captains like Eddie Youds or Lee Duxbury showed some abilities but nothing to mark them out as above and beyond the regular progression of skippers which suggests that the inspirational captains are the exception, rather than the rule, and City fans were spoilt with Stuart and Dave and that most of the time the guy with the armband is just someone to pass a pennant and shake hands with the Referee.

Not that were I Rehman I would have shook hands with Steve Cook after the Accrington Stanley game in which the man who could hold the hard to achieve title of Worst Ref of The Season booked five people for talking out of turn during the game like the weakest substitute teacher handing out detentions rather than instilling discipline. To get respect one must give it and Cook certainly did not.

In such conditions – Accrington’s staff laying siege to Cook at half time and a City side who got nothing from the man in the middle in the second half (the linesman gave the penalty) – the Bantams showed an admirable fight long after I had told all around me that “we might as well go home ’cause (The Referee) has decided the result today.”

City kept battling and should have won the game. Gareth Evans and Michael Flynn both fancied the penalty – one suspects Flynn will get the next one – and the players did not shirk the fight which would seem to be one of the qualities that many found lacking from Peter Thorne’s skippering against Notts County at the start of the season and begs another question.

If the team keep going in what many would say were utterly frustrating circumstances then should the captain not take credit for that?

Compared to Wimbledon 5-3, Luton 4-0, Sunderland 4-1, Barnet 4-1, Notts County 5-0, Rochdale 3-0 and so many other collapses that came from things going against the side then Rehman deserves some credit.

The quality of a captain tend to be linked to the success of the team and probably some fine skippers are dismissed because they were part of teams who did not excel but certainly nothing in what Rehman did yesterday would exclude him from that bracket.

If we say a measure of the man with the armband is if can keep his team going in adversity then Rehman is doing a captain’s job as deserves to keep the job.

Struggling to find more

How do you get more out of 100%? As Bradford City manager Stuart McCall observed his players running themselves into the ground while attempting to get the better of League Two early-pace setters Bournemouth this afternoon, that’s the conundrum which must have occupied his thoughts.

Injury-ravaged to the point a central defender had to play in midfield and a central midfielder was deployed up front, it was difficult to find fault with the level of effort his last men standing devoted to the pursuit of earning three points. Coaxing out a greater level of application and smartness already looks key for effort to be rewarded by success.

For as extreme as the injury list seems at the moment, such circumstances appear more likely to be later repeated than addressed by sizeable team strengthening in January. As the second half began to drift into a pattern of stalemate, a look behind his shoulder at the substitute options offered Stuart few solutions.

The danger of a reduced investment in the playing squad was always going to be a lack of strength in depth. Stuart is left with no choice but to fill his bench with youngsters who may not yet  be ready for first team responsibility and are even less likely to be ready to be trusted to deliver a desired level of influence on matches. The worry is those senior players giving 100% will be allowed to get away with dropping a few percentage points, while still keeping their place. Not only does Stuart face the challenge of getting more from 100%, he must ensure 100% remains the minimum.

For the opening 45 minutes at least, City got about the Cherries in a crafty manner which might well have brought greater rewards than Gareth Evans’ cancelling out Brett Pitman’s opener. The visitors were far removed from then-manager Jimmy Quinn’s defensive stranglehold tactics which had paved the way for a 3-1 success at Valley Parade last season, commendably passing the ball around in a confident manner which ran throughout the team. Eddie Howe’s side were comfortably the best team City have entertained this season, but their attempts to play a high defensive line encouraged the Bantams to find success from playing low through balls in behind it, which might have been punished more often but for some tight offside calls.

Michael Flynn – the midfielder deployed up front – was effective in holding up the ball and working space to thread passes in the path of forward runners, while Chris Brandon and Scott Neilson – playing more as orthodox wingers in the first half – showed a willingness to make runs from deep. Evans wasted the best opportunity when a through ball had been timed exactly right and he charged clear with plenty of time to weigh up his options. His attempt to shift the ball to his preferred left foot saw the angle closed down by Cherries’ keeper Shwan Jalal and the eventual shot was screwed well wide of the far post.

Four minutes later Zesh Rehman – the central defender playing in midfield – helped to gift Bournemouth the lead after his hesitancy in clearing a loose ball allowed Anton Robinson to be played through into space between Steve Williams and the recalled Matt Clarke. With just Eastwood to beat, the former non-league player laid the ball into Pitman’s path for an easy tap in.

There were angry complaints from home supporters, who claimed Pitman had been ahead of Robinson and the ball played forwards, thus making Pitman offside. Both referee and linesman missed any such infringement, and Pitman curiously ran off to gloat at City supporters in the Main Stand.

But if heads dropped, the 100% remained and Evans atoned for his earlier miss three minutes before half time after Lee Bullock’s perfect pass enabled him the time and space to round Jalal and run the ball into an empty net. It remains a troubling statistic that only once this season have City come from behind to win – Rochdale away in the JPT; but since Lincoln triumphed 2-0 at Valley Parade last August, only one side – Crewe – has managed to score first against the Bantams and maintain a lead for the full remainder of the game.

Though City dominated the half’s final minutes they were to enjoy less territorial advantage after the break as Howe re-organised his defence so they held a deeper backline. It was at that point the effects of so many injuries were starkly visible as City struggled to execute a game plan that would lead to meaningful control of the match. James Hanson’s injury had been kept quiet – one suspects the local media are starting to become frustrated by Stuart’s economical sharing of team news this season – and City’s top scorer was especially missed once the space for Evans, Brandon and Neilson to run onto through balls was no longer afforded.

City needed someone who could hold up the ball so other players could get forward and provide options, but despite best efforts this is less Evans’ game and certainly not Flynn’s. Neilson and Brandon were able to pick up the ball out wide, but were too isolated with attempts to dribble forward ineffective. Rehman – the defender playing in midfield – largely stayed deep alongside Bullock and Flynn – the midfielder deployed up front – was too high up the park to make his trademark surging forward runs.

City went narrower in midfield with Neilson pushed further forwards and Brandon encouraged to roam, but by then Bournemouth had reverted to playing on the break and the pace in their locker compromised how far full backs Luke O’Brien and Jonathan Bateson could support the attack. It meant the best efforts to play through or or over the Cherries defence went largely without reward.

Which is where more than 100% is needed. The craftiness to try different things, switch play more often and attack with more fluency was compromised by tiring minds and legs, and the options to freshen things up were limited. Other than James O’Brien’s curious non-involvement and the welcome sight of a recovering Simon Ramsden, Stuart had three youngsters with five career Football League starts between them as his subs bench.

One of them, Rory Boulding, replaced the injured Evans with five minutes to go and looked lively, but the inevitability of the stalemate had set in long before. Bournemouth had the better second half chances, although but for the occasional slip up both Williams and Clarke defended well. Bullock might have won the game for City in the closing stages after his header from a corner was superbly kept out by Jalal.

The result leaves City exactly where they were before kick off and exactly where they were five weeks ago – four points off the play offs. With another 30 league games to play it’s a reasonable position to be, particularly taking into account the woeful start. But that the last seven league games have returned just one win suggests more is needed in the tank to stay in touch with and ultimately climb amongst the front runners.

The returning injured players will add to what’s in that tank, but getting more than 100% from the players available is the puzzle which must be solved to avoid the busyness of the physio room determining the outcome of the season.

Finding out what you are good at

Rather unexpectedly, Bradford City become involved in a cup run.

The 2-2 draw with Port Vale saw the Bantams win on penalties and ended up as one of eight in a competition since 1989’s League Cup all of which seemed unlikely after a first half in which the Bantams seemed to have forgotten any or all of the elements which have made the club enjoyable to watch this season.

After an initial ten minutes against a Vale side who predictably defended deep in which the Bantams showed some fluidity but soon the attempted midfield of Zesh Rehman sitting behind Michael Flynn and Luke Sharry. If the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is for anything it is for blooding young players and it is admirable that Sharry was given a chance but the midfielder did not take the chance with two hands and and with Rehman sitting naturally atop Steve Williams and the recalled Matthew Clarke the midfield triangle became more of a string.

As a result the ball was punted long – punted as opposed to passed – with the ball often going to an out muscled Michael Boulding or Scott Neilson rather than the powerful James Hanson. It was from this that John McCombe gave the visitors the lead with a corner being cleared to Boulding who’s attempt to hold the ball up was lacklustre and so as the Bantams came out the ball pinged back in to the flank and then the centre with McCombe converting.

Micky Adams has Port Vale playing at what they are good at. They sit deep and attack with pace and as City had failed at their endeavours in the first half and Vale had not they deserved the lead. Moreover though Stuart McCall took his team into the dressing room knowing that there was a problem which he set about addressing.

Sharry may not get another 45 minutes to press his case for a contract so it is a shame that he did not grasp this game but his replacement – James O’Brien – floated a corner into the middle which good running by Rehman and a ducked header by Flynn which levelled the game.

Flynn had moved to the forward line to replace Michael Boulding – brought off for Chris Brandon – to give the attack more sticking power against a Vale side who looked to up their muscle with West Yorkshireman Anthony Griffith coming on.

Griffith seems to be a player born without any footballing talent. He can – however – tackle and battle which he does to various degrees giving away a free kick for a foul on James Hanson. Luke O’Brien middled the free kick for Hanson who rose to head in.

Football is sometimes very complex but most other times it is utterly simple. Good delivery to players who are good at heading it. Two goals and that seemed to be that until Robert Taylor his a choice shot across Simon Eastwood and into the the far post to set up another round of penalties after ninety minutes.

Penalties – taken at the Kop end to the eternal credit of someone – started with Marc Richards and Michael Flynn scoring Simon Eastwood saved Louis Dodds, Vale keeper Chris Martin saved from James O’Brien. Eastwood’s on line bouncing gave him the edge over Kris Taylor but Chris Brandon became the only player of sixteen to miss the target.

Lewis Haldane, James Hanson, Tommy Fraser, Luke O’Brien, Robert Taylor and Zesh Rehman scored. Eastwood saved from Adam Yates and Steve Williams won the game.

The credit, the songs, the mobbing of his team mates went to Simon Eastwood who had saved three of eight stop kicks and once again had put the Bantams a step closer to Wembley. Eastwood is the new Barry Conlon. Some get on his back but on nights like tonight – just as Barry would get match winners – he was the difference.

At least we have found something he is good at: saving penalties.

Filling the holes to make Bradford City’s promotion bid wholesome

Stuart McCall’s managerial career has so far been characterised by openness and honesty, and the Bradford City boss’ frustration was typically exposed by his body language after watching his team dominate for 90 minutes against Macclesfield Town only come away with a 2-2 draw.

Having walked over to applaud travelling  City supporters following the final whistle, Stuart turned away and began shaking his head in a manner which revealed a lack of satisfaction despite the Bantams recovery from 2-0 behind. The half time advantage enjoyed by the Silkmen had been clawed back within the second half’s first 15 minutes, but despite continuing to press hard for a deserved winner, the ball just wouldn’t cross the line for a third time. City had almost double the shot count and forced double the amount of corners, yet as Stuart shook his head and headed back to the dressing room he must know his team lacked more than just a bit more luck.

Defensive shortcomings continue to undermine City’s cause. Having begun the season conceding eight goals in two matches, the leaks have been somewhat filled but the Bantams remain far from watertight. Four minutes into the afternoon at Moss Rose, a seemingly overhit clearance by home keeper Jon Brain was allowed to run between central defenders Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman and Colin Daniel headed the ball over the onrushing Simon Eastwood and into the net.

All three City players appeared culpable with Williams missing the chance to head clear, Rehman’s indecisiveness causing him to move too late towards cutting out the ball – in the process allowing Daniel to run through – and Eastwood seemingly too quick to rush out his goal when staying on his line might have offered him a greater chance of saving the effort. The sun was probably in Eastwood’s eye – someone forgot to bring along a goalkeeper cap – and he had been warned, conceding a similar goal when warming up with Jon McLaughlan. The goal was messy, the goal was feeble and such goals have been conceded too often during the campaign’s first three months.

Macclesfield had only three purposeful attacks during the first half; the second of which required Luke O’Brien to clear off his own line after poor marking from a corner and the third saw another goal conceded after Emile Sinclair crossed low for Hamza Bencherif to bundle home. That was four minutes before the end of a half City had otherwise dominated and if the Bantams are to make the step up from mid-table to promotion contenders the team’s backbone is going to have to become stronger.

Simon Eastwood has played 18 times for Bradford City and Simon Eastwood has conceded 30 goals. The young keeper’s form may not be the sole reason for City’s defensive shortcomings, but his numerous slips ups – punished or otherwise – breed uncertainty across his defensive colleagues. At times he has made superb saves which have earned City points, but in almost every game he seemingly presents an unnecessary opportunity to the opposition and continues to fail in commanding his area. Last week Stuart spoke of retaining the on-loan Huddersfield youngster beyond January but, while it’s clear he is potentially brilliant goalkeeper, the concern is the rate of improvement he’s shown since the start of the season hasn’t been quick enough to suggest he should be trusted to continue it through a whole season. If Stuart has the budget for a replacement now – and that could be a big if – he may consider his options ahead of next Friday’s trip to Meadow Lane.

Meanwhile Rehman endured another difficult 45 minutes and, despite pushing Lee Bullock close for man of the match against Hereford last week, his recent form is erratic. Up against the imposing Ben Wright, who was the focal point to Macclesfield’s route one game plan, Rehman at times allowed himself to be bullied and on other occasions got too tight in trying to prevent Wright from laying off the ball. During one home attack Sinclair was offered the chance to run at Rehman. With little cover behind City’s captain, Rehman dived in to make a challenge which might have seen him win the ball or risked him giving away a free kick, on this occasion he was left on the floor with Sinclair sprinting away. Merely standing his ground and holding up Sinclair seemed the more sensible option. Rehman and Williams are building a promising partnership, but the redemption of Matt Clarke to first team duty may not be the unthinkable option many fans considered it to be at the start of the season.

Defensive failings aside, City carried the game to Macclesfield and spurned numerous first half chances. Scott Neilson shot just wide, James Hanson headed over, Gareth Evans was denied by a good defensive block and the best move of the half saw Michael Flynn superbly play Neilson through one-on-one only to be denied by Brain’s strong reaction save. Macclesfield were reduced to playing like an away side, on the counter attack, with the impressive Sinclair – once a Bantam – enjoying a fascinating battle against Luke O’Brien which the young defender emerged from with plenty of credit.  The boos from some City fans at half time were born out of frustration, but were still inexcusable.

But though the 4-3-3 formation had proved reasonably effective again, Stuart switched to 4-4-2 in the second half introducing Michael Boulding for the flagging – and again unimpressive – Chris Brandon to partner James Hanson and pushing Neilson and Evans into wide positions. If the goal City were now attacking had inadequately been protected by the visiting defence in the first half, the hosts fared little better playing in front of it during the second.

Brain has previous with City after laughably allowing David Brown to score the only goal in the league meeting two seasons ago, and displayed hesitancy in everything he did. His first three involvements in the second half saw him misjudge a long punt forwards which bounced over his head and just wide of the goal, palm a weak Hanson effort back into a dangerous part of his penalty area when he should have scooped the ball up and slice a back pass clearance out for a corner. Each mistake encouraged City further, each mistake added to Macclesfield nerves. It seemed implausible Brain would end the game with a clean sheet.

Sure enough City got back into it after Hanson headed home James O’Brien’s corner and eight minutes later Flynn’s low long range effort was parried by Brain straight into Williams’ path to tap home and spark wild celebrations. The momentum growing, City continued to pile on the pressure and a more dominant City 45 minutes of attacking football has not been seen since City recovered from 2-0 and 3-2 down at Luton last January. James O’Brien saw a free kick sail just wide, the lively Neilson brilliantly cut inside but shot too straight towards Brain, Flynn typically attempted another long range effort which went narrowly past the post, Boulding spun his marker but the resultant strike lacked pace and Rehman saw a scrambled effort cleared off the goal line. In the second half only Luke O’Brien and Jon Bateson failed to muster a shot on goal.

As City pushed on, gaps emerged at the back and Macclesfield enjoyed a five minute spell of pressure which saw Wright head against the post and Ross Draper shoot wide, but the one way traffic soon recommenced and Evans almost managed a headline-stealing winner against his former club when his great run and deflected long range shot bounced off the crossbar. The half time booing was replaced by a standing ovation for the players at the final whistle and it was difficult to recall a more impressive half of football from City all season.

So many positives to take; but although League Two results elsewhere show the leading pack isn’t sprinting away, that the impressiveness of City this season hasn’t placed the Bantams among them can no longer solely be attributed to that slow start. Stuart needs to find a way of shoring up the defensive holes or risks them ultimately sinking the club’s promotion chances.

The chase continues as City welcome Hereford to Valley Parade

As was learned two years ago, the chase is rarely fun in football.

Bradford City’s first season in League Two was defined by a poor start which left too much ground to make up during the campaign’s final two thirds. Good runs of form had led to hopes of a late play off push, but each defeat felt that more significant as the chasing pack remained out in front. A contrast to the emotions of last season where a strong start kept City in the top seven for virtually the entire first three quarters of the campaign, meaning defeats felt more careless then terminal.

The slow start to this season has left City with catching up to do again. Although the eight-game unbeaten run in the league saw the gap close, the last two defeats have seen it widen again. Stronger conclusions can be drawn from the league standings with each passing week, and the 13th position the Bantams currently occupy – albeit only four points off the play offs – make less than enthralling viewing. Saturday’s visit of Hereford offers the chance to kick start the chase.

The two defeats have prompted a slight puncturing to the growing mood of optimism, exposing the fickle nature of some City supporters with a small number re-commencing with questioning the ability of manager Stuart McCall and prematurely writing off the season as another destined to end mid table. It’s easy to have faith when things are going well; the most encouraging outcome of the recent setbacks is that only a minority of supporters have lost theirs.

Nevertheless Stuart will know as well as anyone the grumbles will increase if another weekend goes by without a win and, with no reported new injury concerns, will have spent much of this week contemplating a few dilemmas ahead of picking a team to bounce back. The biggest question raised by supporters’ concerns goalkeeper Simon Eastwood and the slim balance he offers between stunning saves and stunning cock ups. Both goals at Dagenham could be blamed on the Huddersfield loanee, further testing Stuart’s patience.

As is often the case in these situations, the level of criticism has gone somewhere past sensible. While few supporters would be willing to argue Eastwood’s case, he has not been as bad as some are making out. The cries for Jon McLaughlin to take over ignore the reality that barely 1,000 supporters have seen him in competitive action, or that he began this season with the same level of senior professional experience as his young rival and has shipped in more than a few goals for the reserves. He may be a better keeper, but no one can know for sure and his name might as well be Jon McAnyone-else. It’s an all too familiar type of argument in recent years, you could almost rehash some of last year’s debate about Matt Clarke and Mark Bower, replacing their names with Eastwood and McLaughlin where applicable.

The back four too is prompting unease, with Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman impressing at times but struggling to retain their command through a full 90 minutes. The smart money is on Simon Ramsden eventually moving over to centre back for one of the pair as the season progresses, with the promising Jonathan Bateson brought in at right back. Luke O’Brien continues to hold his own at left back.

In midfield Stuart must decide whether to continue employing the three across which works well on the road but less so when City are the home side, or go back to a more traditional 4-4-2. Lee Bullock’s superb performance against Crewe didn’t prompt the level of praise it deserved while Michael Flynn is matching him in the consistency stakes. James O’Brien is a bit more hot and cold, but is surely worthy of a longer deal when his temporary one expires at the end of this month. Chris Brandon may be brought in to make a four man midfield, although has plenty of convincing to do after a woeful showing against Crewe.

Up front Michael Boulding is expected to have shaken off the bug which ruled him out of playing at Dagenham and be back in contention. Conspiracy theory fans were happy to speculate that his late withdrawal from the matchday squad at Victoria Road was due to him being upset at Stuart for relegating him to the bench following three goals in three games, though if even the tiniest grain of truth was found in this rumour it would look worse on Boulding than it would be considered a harsh managerial decision. The fact Stuart stated after the match Boulding would have started if fit also blasts more than a few holes into the unfounded speculation.

Which may mean an instant starting eleven recall for Boulding, but more likely he will be on the bench with James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Scott Neilson up front. After a bright start Neilson has struggled for form of late, though the difference he made when coming on against Crewe and lack of alternatives makes it unlikely he will be benched for now. It’s worth noting Stuart began the season with Joe Colbeck while still waiting for Omar Daley to recover from injury, with Neilson signed up on Joe’s departure but probably expected to be back up when the Jamaican returns. Neilson has another month at least to prove his worth on a more consistent basis.

Visitors Hereford were last here during Christmas 2007 and the questionable refereeing decisions which paved the way for a 3-1 away success that day left City languishing in 16th place with 24 games to play and prompted Stuart to effectively rule out City’s promotion chances. Promoted to League One that season before coming straight back down, Hereford are improving after a slow start but are yet to register an away win.

For both, the league table reveals there is much work to do in climbing among the promotion runners and then staying with them. Defeat may not be a disaster tomorrow, but the chase would seem that little bit tougher.

A defeat to be proud of?

I have never walked away from Valley Parade, having just witnessed a home defeat, with such pride and optimism for the future.

Crewe and City came into this game with starkly contrasting form. City unbeaten in ten games, league and cup, and Crewe having lost five games on the bounce. Nonetheless, the reinstatement of wiley old Dario Gradi ensured that a very different Crewe side would show up to Valley Parade compared with the team that had heavily unperformed so far this season following their relegation from League One.

The game began well for City – forcing a number of early corners. But it was Crewe who stuck first in devastating fashion. From an acute angle from a throw in, the live wire Calvin Zola produced an unbelievable strike that even some of the home fans applauded. It was the best goal produced at Valley Parade for some years – and was reminiscent of Luke Medley’s strike for City against Wrexham in 2007.

Zola, a real handful and danger every time he touched the ball, performed at a very high level in this game. There is no doubt in my mind that he was the best striker that has been on display at Valley Parade for many, many years. I guess that’s what £200,000 buys you at this level.

City fought back from the early set back with some more pressure, but were then let down by some naïve defending. Joel Grant almost doubled the Alex lead as he charged at Zesh Rehman with pace, who backed off and backed off even into his own penalty area without putting a challenge in, where Grant produced a couple of step overs, leaving Rehman on the seat of his pants. Grant drilled a low shot that cannoned off the left hand post. The warning signs of a 2nd Crewe goal were there for all to see.

And the Railwaymen did double their lead courtesy of Zola again. An uncharacteristic mistake by Steve Williams in possession at the back , left the loose ball to Zola, who quickly reacted and hit a fierce shot that stuck the post and curled into the back of the net. 2-0 inside 23 minutes. It was clear that City’s spirit was really going to be tested.

But they never gave up, and didn’t let the scoreline affect their performance. More City pressure ensued , and Micheal Boulding from six yards out was presented with a chance that was harder to miss that score. But he struck the bar, to the despair of the home fans. Boulding was being given some stick in the Midland Road stand right from the word ‘go’ from one fan in particular (“Thunder” as he was known in the days that we were in the Premiership, the predominant Voice of Midland Road) who slated Boulding for not chasing down a heavily mishit long ball from Rehman. Unbelievable.

And it came as a great relief to City and Boulding when a quality piece of attacking play reduced the scoreline to 2-1. Flynn sprayed the ball down the right for James O Brien ( who had an off day ) who produced a first time cross that Boulding headed into the back of the net on the stroke of half time. Game on.

City again pressed early in the 2nd half, but were dealt a killer blow as ex City Midfielder Steve Schumacher’s long range shot bounced awkwardly in from of Simon Eastwood and flew into the back of the net for 3-1. Previous City teams, even last year’s team, would have given up on this one.

But not this season. Scott Neilson was introduced for Chris Brandon and City reverted to a 4-3-3 which again seemed to work so much better than a standard 4-4-2. The absolute domination of periods of the 2nd half in this formation should surely convince McCall that 4-3-3 is the formation to start with home and away. And Micheal Boulding contributed to another City goal as he produced a quality cross that James Hanson volleyed in quite superbly. City continued to dominate, had shots that were cleared off the line, whistled wide, and a very strong penalty shout which was turned down in favour for a free kick just outside the box which was subsequently wasted.

But time ran out for City. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. And the home crowd showed their appreciation for City as the final whistle drew the game to a close.

McCall has assembled a squad that deliver the minimum requirements that the Valley Parade crowd demand. Effort, passion and determination. And we can even forgive the team for losing a game as long as every player has worked their socks off. It was very evident in this game that every player did. Simon Ramsden in particular had a solid game, but what really stood out was his appetite and commitment to get City back into the game even when they were facing adversity and 2 goals down. He had urgency in his play and even the simple things like making sure the ball was put back into play really quickly when it landed into the crowd was so good to watch.

Chris Brandon didn’t have his best game – but his work ethic and commitment could not be questioned. And McCall has got this from his players all over the pitch. There are no passengers or players not willing to put the work in, and that makes me as a City fan really proud. McCall’s ability to combine good seasoned Pro’s like Ramsden, Boulding and Flynn with non League talent like Williams, Neilson and Hanson who never stop working hard and are getting better by the game, has been the key to the recent unbeaten run and reason for optimism this season.

The key thing though, and only worry, is that we need to get into the playoff’s this year as a minimum as that is the only real sign of progression under McCall in this results driven business. Our home form this season has been too mixed – 2 wins, 2 draws, 2 defeats – and we really need to improve that sequence if we want to turn a fully committed team into a successful one.

The stats of the Crewe game (26 shots on goal, 15 on target, 16 corners) show that the players are giving their all to the cause. Whether they can match their effort with points on the board in League Two remains to be seen – and will be the key question come May.

But as far this team being a team who are enjoyable to watch and give their all to the cause, there is no question in my mind that it’s the best City side I have seen this decade. I just hope that success follows them as it is nothing less than they deserve.

The Crewe joke and how not to be the butt of it as the Alex come to Valley Parade

There was a joke in football in the eighties that went along the lines of asking who the strongest team in British football was to which the answer was, hilariously enough, “Crewe, because they hold the rest of them up.”

That such a jest is outmoded is largely down to the opposition manager Dario Gradi who took charge of that laughing stock club and in a near two decades made alterations which changed the public perceptions of the Gresty Road club.

Crewe, the Football League’s shining example of a well run club to writer David Conn in his 2003 book The Beautiful Game, became synonymous with the development of young players with a series of high profile internationals either coming through the ranks or were picked up following release and turned around.

Gareth Whalley, Stuart McCall’s midfield partner in 1999, came from Crewe.

This track record is largely credited to Gradi and his youth development skills but credit is shared by a whole club prepared to rise or fall on the strength of the talent unearthed. A poor crop of youngsters could see a bad season or relegation but that was never considered a failure of the system which brought rewards on and off the field and certainly not a reason to change that system.

Gradi moved upstairs after his sixtieth birthday but has been called back to the job as caretaker following the dismissal of one of his successors. Crewe, it would seem, have staggered from the light of what they did well for twenty years and perhaps that is why they find themselves back near the position of mirth.

City’s attempt at continuity in management seem to be more faltering with manager McCall given a break from the attempts to oust him as his team continue a run of ten games without defeat that was made more impressive by the changes made in the midweek penalties victory over an unamused Notts County who once again employed the technique hence forth known as “If not a win then spin.”

Ian McPartland tells the vast majority of County fans who were not at the game that they were robbed and that Graeme Lee should not have been sent off and it is not true but creating the suggestion takes some pressure off him.

To be clear City got everything they deserved on Tuesday night.

That this was the case came from a squad capable of fluidly filling in roles in a formation and take responsibility for the performance. Leon Osbourne has yet to win me over but he let no one down on Tuesday for the majority of the game and can take pride in his display.

The winger will no doubt be dropped with James Hanson ready to come back from illness but Michael Boulding is becoming increasingly hard to displace in the side and when Gareth Evans returns from suspension – and the Ref who sent off Evans would have had cause to red Graeme Lee three times despite the Magpies manager’s protestations – Stuart McCall might have to pick between Boulding and Scott Neilson on the right hand side providing an interesting pointer to the longed for day that sees Omar Daley back in claret and (reduced amounts of) amber.

Michael Flynn put in an outstanding performance on Tuesday as he continues to be the ball winning and passing midfielder of our dreams while James O’Brien is starting to look equally impressive. Lee Bullock will return pushing Chris Brandon back to the bench.

Jonathan Bateson is unlucky to have to step down following two good displays and a switch for Simon Ramsden to the middle is not out of the question but Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams are likely to return at the expense of Bateson and Matt Clarke.

Luke O’Brien has been a joy to watch of late and one recalls the Crewe idea that a team might rise and fall on the strength of it’s young players.

If Huddersfield Town rise on the back of goalkeeper Simon Eastwood then it is because of Tuesday night’s two penalty saves which galvanize a player who was mobbed coming off the field.

Mobbed with the rest of the players. Slowly building, improving, not losing. Dario would be proud.

Stalling

At 2-0 ahead and with only 15 minutes to see out, Bradford City’s players might have been forgiven for considering the hard work to be complete and that their smooth climbing up of the gears to control the game boded well for the season’s journey ahead. But if the cruise control option was slipped into, a late Northampton bump punctured any daydreaming and saw three points demoted to one.

A point which at least stretches City’s unbeaten run to nine – the last time such a feat was achieved came when Lee Mills and Robbie Blake shared 15 goals during the December and January spell of 1998/99 promotion season – but the missed opportunity leaves an increasingly-meaningful early season League Table still displaying City behind the early-season pace setters. Those nine games now include four draws – three of which saw City advantages succumbed after the clock passed the 70-minute mark. But for dropping those six points, the Bantams would be sitting joint second. The conundrum of having enough in the tank to last the distance during matches needs solving, so early season form can advance into promotion-challenging.

It should have been a heartening afternoon’s work for City. Robbed of the services of Gareth Evans, James Hanson and Peter Thorne, manager Stuart McCall was left pushing square pegs into round holes in order to keep faith with the 4-3-3/4-5-1 system which is serving his side well on its travels.  Lee Bullock was moved into the unfamiliar role of target man, with right back Simon Ramsden taking his holding midfield slot.  The opening 15 minutes offered largely negative indications to the yet unanswered question over the squad’s strength in depth, with Northampton forcing pressure and only failing to open the scoring due to lack of composure. But gradually City’s players found their feet and took more of a command as a dull first half came to its conclusion.

Bullock in particular came out with plenty of credit for the level of competence he displayed in holding up the ball and winning knock downs. Of course it wasn’t the same as having Hanson’s extra running all over the final third and greater willingness to track back, but the discipline of holding position in a crucial area, which Bullock does so well in maintaining when undertaking his regular deep midfield role, was something other players could utilise, firing balls towards the part of the pitch they had confidence he would be in. Either side of him were Michael Boulding and Scott Neilsen who both worked hard tracking back and making darting runs down the  flanks. Boulding has arguably not contributed such a level of effort for the team during his previous 40 Bantams career starts.

Ramsden too looked solid protecting the back four and marked his return from injury by opening the scoring five minutes after the interval when his shot from the edge of the area was deflected over Cobbler’s keeper Chris Dunn’s outstretched hand.  The goal was part of a more purposeful start to the half by the visitors, which continued four minutes later after a free kick was aimed at Bullock to knock down into the path of Boulding, who brilliantly volleyed home. The subsequent celebrations seemed to involve every outfield City player and the obvious happiness they possessed towards Boulding for netting his first goal of the season suggests the strong team spirit on evidence in recent weeks stretches beyond the regular starting eleven. Boulding continued to play in a manner which makes it impossible for Stuart to drop him when others return – now he needs to maintain it.

Further goals might have followed for City, most notably when Boulding was denied a second by a superb low save from Dunn, after his view of the shot from a fair distance had been obscured until the last second. Northampton continued to show spirit, almost getting a goal back after the referee David Phillips bizarrely ruled a sliced clearance by Jonathan Bateson caught by Simon Eastwood was a handled backpass. Awarding Northampton an indirect on the six-yard box line, the 11-man City wall was able to scramble it away. Eastwood also made two brilliant saves to add to his growing collection of notable stops, but continues to look weak when dealing with crosses. Despite some questionable decisions by Phillips, the game was petering out.

Which is when cruise control may have been adopted and when Northampton unexpectedly came back, netting first through substitute Alex Dyer when his effort from the edge of the area flew past Eastwood; then equalising with a minute to play after a hotly disputed free kick was crossed into the box for the oddly-named John Johnson to fire home. As City’s players came over to applaud supporters at the final whistle, the looks of dejection were clear.

A lesson of sorts had been issued to the players. The incredible level of hard work and dedication they exhibit is something which must be maintained throughout because, as Northampton proved, there are other teams who can muster similar levels of determination to challenge them back. And though Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams, Luke O’Brien and Bateson all enjoyed outstanding games at the back and Michael Flynn was as inspirational as ever, the spine of City’s team still needs to get stronger in order for these nine unbeaten games to prove the start, rather than the peak, of something.

Achieve that and City really can put the foot down and accelerate into the distance.

Weekend preview part two – I believe that Northampton vs Southampton is a local derby

Belief is a funny thing.

When I was a kid it was my belief that Northampton and Southampton was a local derby in the same way that Manchester City vs Chester City or West Ham vs West Brom was.

One former footballer – for example – believes that The Queen is secretly a lizard.

It is a curious view point but looking at how this ethereal thing that is belief rules footballers lives it is probably not hard how one could convince himself that what he decides is, is. The Bradford City team that lost 5-0 to Notts County trudged off the pitch believing they were going to struggle – one suspects they did – but that was the last home league reversal because the belief that courses through the veins has come from seven games without defeat.

The belief is now that Bradford City can go to somewhere like Northampton – as we do on Saturday – and win the match. Belief that is distinct from expectation levels. The players believe they are a good team, a team who deserved to win in the week against Morecambe in the week, thus they are a good team.

That is belief in football.

Disbelief in football was Tuesday night’s sending off of Gareth Evans which goes down as one of the poorest decisions in a Bradford City game ever. There are so many reasons why Stuart Attwell got the decisions wrong that to enumerate them is almost cruel – like pointing out the poor quality of a child’s painting compared to Mona Lisa – but while Attwell continues to foul up football matches his misunderstandings rather than his mistakes should be highlighted.

It is not that Attwell just saw the wrong thing – we could argue about what did or did not happen for eon – but it what he choice to do with the offence he perceived. Evans and Morecambe goalkeeper Barry Roche both contested a ball outside the penalty area. When dealing with goalkeepers the rules of football are based around exceptions so they do not state “A goalkeeper can handle the ball in the box” but rather “no player can handle the ball aside from the goalkeeper in the box”.

They are written this way to ensure that the goalkeeper – once he leaves his box – is not treated any differently from any other player. Watch the Evans/Roche again and imagine the Morecambe player is not a goalkeeper and try picture a situation where it would be a red card.

Evans goes in to the challenge from the front and with a single foot sliding along the floor. It is not violent conduct for sure – that covers punching and headbutting – and it is almost impossible to interpret it as serious foul play which covers things such as two footed tackles. Once again imagine the tackle between outfield players.

So either Stuart Attwell thinks that Evans’s slide was some serious foul play – and if he did then he missed many similar red cards in the game – or he saw that a goalkeeper was involved and decided to ignore the rules of football he is there to apply. Or he did it for some other reason tied into the fact that he is the sort of Referee that gives goals when the ball does not go in the net but he has a belief it did.

The Attwell’s rubbish – which is what the red card incident should be known as – means that Gareth Evans will not be eligible to play against Northampton, Notts County in the Cup or Crewe at home on the following Saturday and frankly the only reason I can see what the club is not screaming to the rafters to have the decision overturned is out of a fear of a Red Riding style corruption that haunts Refereeing.

Jim Gannon said that because his Stockport County side showed up a Referee they were victimised and City’s dealings with Joe Ross seemed to start a good few years of frankly bizarre Refereeing that included a five match ban for Dean Windass for being cheeky. Indeed The Owl and The Badger of the corrupt West Yorkshire Police of Peace’s novels would find it hard to justify that incident where accused was not allowed to speak in his defence and the only witness was the case for the prosecution.

I digress. Maybe appealing is City not making waves and maybe in the long run that is the right thing to do. Certainly I would not trust the FA, the Referees or the appeal process. That is my belief.

I have another belief though which may not be given much regard by most but as Evans sits out and Michael Boulding returns to the side I utter my belief that Boulding is – well – not that useful.

We are told he works tirelessly but Evans and Hanson’s graft put the signing from Mansfield Town to shame. We are told he is a goalscorer but the evidence of last season suggests that Boulding’s big goal tally for Mansfield came from attacking on the break which City seldom get to do with deep sitting defences. If the Bantams play a certain way Boulding will bang them in – or so I’m told – but players who force a single way of playing from the ten men around them always make me think of Ashley Ward and that is never a good thing.

None of which to say that Boulding is not a good player just that he is not as useful as Evans is and as he is paired with James Hanson in the forward line City lose the strength and effort they would have had and gain a forward who occasionally does something superb but often, well, does not. The current Bantams squad is made of consistent performers of which Evans is a leading light.

Also leading is Michael Flynn who with Lee Bullock and James O’Brien form a midfield that protects the defensive line which has not conceded in 180 minutes and as Scott Neilson beds into the side there is a bursting power out of the middle.

The backline sees Jonathan Bateson continue to deputise for Simon Ramsden – no goal past the defence in the 180 minutes Bateson has started says much about the unit Stuart McCall has assembled – while Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien seem to be shaping into the best Bantams defence in ten years.

Goalkeeper Simon Eastwood is improving too. That is belief again.

The wonderful world of zero welcomes City and Morecambe

Zero.

Not the greatest number in football but one which welcomed with the ferocity of Chris Brandon’s powerful lash into the back of the net for the third goal in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Chesterfield.

Welcomed because after seven games – six in the league – in which City have not lost he goal difference which took such a battering on the opening day of the season at Notts County has been repaired.

Zero. Even. Balanced and while leaders Bournemouth and the aforementioned County are both in double figures the nice round nought confirms the recovery the Bantams have made both in terms of results and in confidence. The Bantams go to Morecambe in the same confident mood which marked the trip to Meadow Lane in August.

City have faired poorly in the two league trips to Christie Park losing both games 2-1 despite taking the lead in both games. The Shrimpers were in the non-league when the Bantams were in the Premiership, it is not hard to see why they dig deep.

At the moment though there is hope that City will be able to dig deeper which says much about the character the Bantams have shown in the last dozen games. Chesterfield summed up the Bantams so far – not massively better but consistently so and ready to battle for victory.

Michael Flynn typifies that battle answering the call from early in the season that while Stuart McCall can pick a nominal captain the onus is on the players to show leadership – claim the armband as it were – and the midfielder who scored impressively on Saturday has risen to that challenge. Forget who has the armband, leadership is leadership and Flynn is part of a group of players ready to stand up and be counted.

Flynn’s midfield partnership with Lee Bullock – who he paid tribute to in the press following Saturday’s win – and James O’Brien has been the driving force behind this impressive run. It is a midfield of out muscling and then using the ball and it works well. Scott Neilson – further out right and joining Gareth Evans and James Hanson in the forward line – provides a speedy and useful outlet while the two forwards provide constant motion.

Jonathan Bateson stepped in for Simon Ramsden on Saturday and did little wrong while Luke O’Brien battled to a great display. Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams combine strength with pick pocket defending and while the triangle with Simon Eastwood is far from impregnable it has the same confidence that runs through the side and is markedly different from last season’s heads down pair of Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke who after conceding a single goal seemed to suck the ball into repeated danger.

Morecambe sit 18th – credit for a small club punching above its weight and not running into trouble with the tax man – and got a creditable draw with Dagenham and Redbridge at the weekend. The Shrimpers are also on a seven game unbeaten run with the only win in that set of draws being the 2-1 win over Notts County which got into the papers.

That is the only win they have had in League Two this season. Better than zero.

City enjoy being the little bit better

Seven games, five win and two draws and it seems a long time since the Bantams left the two games in the opening four days in Nottingham looking at the season to come with desperation, a desperation further vanished following the 3-0 win over Chesterfield at Valley Parade.

In those days there was talk about Stuart McCall The Player and Stuart McCall The Manager – a distinction between the two – and there was questions about the latter’s selection of captain, captaincy changed by exclusion and injury to Peter Thorne that saw Zesh Rehman take over the armband and culminates today in the sort of display which Stuart McCall The Captain would have been proud.

The Bantams’ win came from a solid and constant display of superiority over the visitors minute by minute being better by increments, grinding down John Sheridan’s Chesterfield with the better performers in claret geeing and improving those around them.

James Hanson will have better games, so will Luke O’Brien but those two players can take huge credit from the way that even in tough situations – and Hanson was up against a fine defender in Robert Page – neither hid from the ball or the game. Players made their mistakes in public, recovered in public and were encouraged and supported by their team mates in public.

All of which is tribute to Zesh Rehman, captain today, who put in one of his best performances for the club and one of the City defensive displays of sometime making a useful Chesterfield side look ordinary. Rehman and Williams marshalled Wade Small, Donal McDermott and towards the end of the game Jack Lester using the Zesh’s power in the air and Williams’s ability to nip in and emerge with the ball to end the game in control of a good set of forwards.

Credit too to the midfield three of James O’Brien, Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn who used the advantage of numbers and an abundance of confidence to win a midfield battle against an impressive Derek Niven who deserves credit for running his legs down to the knees trying to win back control from a City side who were capable of switching from the directness of a ball to Hanson or Gareth Evans to the patient possession.

It was an early, direct ball to an isolated Michael Flynn – lost up field and oddly alone – who meandered into the box and with the away defence expecting a cross bent the ball into the far side of the goal past Keighley born keeper Tommy Lee.

Perhaps there is a way to measure the togetherness of a team – lacking last year but in evidence this – that comes when looking at goal celebrations. Flynn slid on his knees in a cover version of Emmanuel Adebayor enjoying the moment, his team mates enjoying it too.

From then on the game was City’s to lose and Chesterfield enjoyed a spell of fifteen minutes around half time when they tested the Bantams. Lee Bullock deserves credit for his work in this period. Bullock arrived at City as an attacking midfielder but since his move into a containing role he has been a revelation and was my man of the match.

Chesterfield’s best chance caused their defeat. McDermott had a chance which Simon Eastwood did superbly to save from Niven and Darren Currie airshotted. Eight seconds later Scott Neilson was sweeping the ball in for the Bantams’ second goal after Gareth Evans had won an aerial ball, taken it into the box and dragged a shot that was pushed out and popped in.

The celebration. An eye on Zesh Rehman charging back to congratulate Eastwood’s save, Steve Williams joining in. Credit for all, credit deserved.

A third goal came when Chris Brandon – off the bench after a great display by James O’Brien – lashed in a lose ball in the box after Lee had committed himself making a save from Neilson. Another sub – Michael Boulding – could have rounded the keeper for a fourth while Luke Sharry’s cameo saw him set up Neilson who pinged the ball off the post. Four would have flattered and this was a game about taking advantage of being a little better and not thrashing the opposition.

Not ill deserved would have been a red card for Jack Lester who put feet and arm over the ball in a vicious foul on Lee Bullock. Most of the City squad piled in to a push and shove brawl with the game won and no need for further cards.

I guess they just felt the need to show togetherness. Nine games into the season and the table starts to look both relevant and interesting. City nicely positioned, trips of Morecambe and Northampton on the road to come. This season – and City – is up and running.

Denmark, Barnet vs Bradford City

Take apart the falling apart at the end of last season and one can find a plethora of points when in retrospect it is obvious that the writing – such as it was – was on the wall.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark it did not say although it might have done had the effect not been ruined by replacing the Kingdom with the London region of Barnet.

Rotten is was though and the 4-1 reversal that saw 100 year old striker Paul Furlong become a sprightly tormentor and Albert Adomah tear a hole in the curtain of City’s defence.

That was then, this is now and much change has been made since. The general consensus on the Bantams this term to even the brightest days of last is that they are more enjoyable to watch by virtue of the level of effort put in by the players being higher. It is rare to go through a City game at the moment without the words “He puts it in cause he knows what it is like to work at the Co-op/as a plumber/cutting hair and he does not want to go back.” Certainly watching the energy of the over forty Furlong playing every game as if it were his last last season showed that it is not only former non-league players who can have that desire.

Nevertheless it is a given that City did not have it then but do now, and this is to be celebrated rightfully although there was talk in the week as to who came up with the idea of bringing the likes of Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding in the first place.

Considering the money came from joint chairman Mark Lawn’s loan to the club which suggests a logical train of thought that when he brought this pile of cash to the club it was with the express idea of bringing in bigger names which Stuart McCall duly – and gleefully – did. Cash is tight no so who had the idea to find cheaper replacements? File under “Specialist subject: The bleeding obvious“.

So the band of hearty, if cheaper replacements are more enjoyable to watch and if Gareth Evans cost the same as Willy Topp – and we are lead to believe that he did – it is not so much the strategy of recruitment that has brought benefits but the quality.

Quality not having previously been associated with Simon Eastwood until the faffing keeper seemed to be reborn at Shrewsbury with a sterling performance that he took into the game with Burton Albion making two fine one-on-one saves that put supporters of a certain age in mind of the legend of Paul Tomlinson. Tomlinson – who played more between the sticks than any keeper in City history – seemed so good when faces one-on-one with a striker that one felt a little disappointed if a goal resulted from such an attack.

Blame that has been heaped onto Eastwood has roved to Zesh Rehman somewhat unfairly. Odd how often City and Geo-Political machinations align – read Peanut Farmer Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that Obama’s critics are racist – and certainly similar has been said around Zesh at the moment.

For my money Zesh could improve but he is taking on responsibilities for leading the defence and I would rather a player be seen to err in what he does rather than not make a mistake because he does not involve himself in play.

Steve Williams – who will partner Rehman at Barnet – has played hardly a dozen games as a professional footballer and looks accomplished in a way that one could have only hoped for. Simon Ramsden – another recruit – also looks a cut above last season’s new faces despite being “a cost cutting replacement”. Ramsden and Luke O’Brien are the full backs as City settle into a solid and predictable back five.

Predictability is not something one could accuse Chris Brandon’s play of and the lively midfielder still lurches between seemingly like an essential name on the teamsheet and provoking a desire to cast him far from Valley Parade. Ostensibly he is City’s playmaker but sometimes the phrase luxury player seems to fit him more. Without him slotting onto the left City are less inventive with the ball, with him we are less robust in winning it back which is a role that Lee Bullock has warmed to very well. Bullock’s trio with Michael Flynn and Stephen O’Leary was broken up by the latter’s injury – a shame – and Brandon is not able to fill the slot next to the fiery number four so Stuart McCall deploys him opposite Scott Neilson on the flank or brings in James O’Brien.

Last week’s experience in the 1-1 draw with Burton Albion saw City fail to have a strangle hold on the midfield which a trio in the middle rather than two flank players could have given us and one could assume that away from home ball winning would be more important – leading to a suggestion that Brandon should be benched – but with the onus on the home side to attack more a more inventive player could make the most of possession when it comes.

Gosh managing a football club is hard.

Much easier is the forward line which has Peter Thorne out injured and Michael Boulding waiting for the right alignment of planets that would create suitable conditions when he might play well leaving Gareth Evans and James Hanson to lead the line with the possibility of Hanson dropping into the left hand side to allow Brandon to tuck in and perhaps curing both problems creating a robust midfield, having the inventive playmaker in and keeping the hearty players in.

Perhaps that football management is not that tough after all. Then again perhaps one day I’ll be made King of a Scandinavian country.

Waiting for the summer with a confidence as City face Burton Albion

“Well that’s the Summer sorted” I said to the wife with the prospect of the four yearly month off work after England’s 5-1 win secured a place in the World Cup Finals next June.

England’s progression has been remarkable for the rapidity of the turn around from two years ago and the infamous Wally With The Brolly to Wednesday night’s Italian elan and The Man With The Plan.

The management style between the two evenings marks a contrast more than the players involved who by in large are the same bunch and one must be wary to not undersell Cappello’s perfectionist approach but attitude divides the England of two years ago and the team from last night.

Attitude and confidence that started to grow not at Wembley where tabloid journalists unimpressed with the England manager’s aloofness ho-hummed about the appointment but in Croatia when a 4-1 win spoke eloquently for the manager and his players.

It has taken two, four, maybe seven years and Seaman’s swipe in the saucy Swede‘s side to turn opinions around on England but turned they have been and that more even than getting Frank Lampard Jnr and Steve Gerrard into the same side is Cappello’s achievement.

One recalls April 2002 in the months after another 5-1 England win a newspaper story breaking and copy about “the ice cool Swede” who can do no wrong being rewritten. The rise and fall of Roman Empires has precedent.

Far away in a field in Cheltenham not years but weeks ago – club football’s inexorable pace is it’s main difference to the International game – a team ran onto the field with confidence at a lowest ebb to a point where few could see it scoring and not conceding many.

That was Bradford City three weeks ago and four wins ago and while Stuart McCall never sheltered under an umbrella he was a long way from Fabio. Following a 2-1 win at Shrewsbury in which all say that City rode their luck massively the Bantams manager seems to have a turned the same bunch of players into a winning machine that is protected even by fortune.

Four wins on McCall and all – including his supporters in the now muted argument over his abilities – would do well to recall Sir Bobby Robson’s epitaph raised on opening day. You are never as bad or as good as you think you are.

City play with confidence though and McCall has been quick to underline the importance of that throughout his team and especially in young keeper “There’s only one” Simon Eastwood who has begun to rise to his reputation with a string of excellent saves at Shrewsbury despite a heavy whack on the shin that threatens to keep him out and sees Jon McLaughin ready to take the gloves up.

McCall’s faith in Eastwood is being rewarded while his confidence in bringing in Simon Ramsden is reaping benefits with some dubbing the right back brought from Rochdale as Stuart’s Best Signing. He provides a high watermark and good example for Luke O’Brien to follow as the young left back learns about second season and the transition from prospect to player.

Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams are not an unbreakable partnership but are roughly building an understanding.

McCall had – like Cappello – a nominal and a practical formation with a list of players as read out being more of a rough starting point rather than a rigid tactic.

So the midfield will probably read Neilson, J O’Brien, Bullock, Flynn but the make up will see Lee Bullock falling back into a more central, protecting role with James O’Brien and Michael Flynn tasked with traditional box to box play leaving the line up a tad one sided with Flynn tight on the left compared to the width on offer from Scott Neilson who makes his first start at home in the Bantams first game at Valley Parade since the departure of Joe Colbeck.

Steven Gerrard said of Fabio’s England that the players enjoyed the experience more now than they did previously when the crowd was on some player’s backs and so one wonders what the effect of not having Colbeck will be.

I believe the player is talented but the disruptive influence he had by virtue of the schism of opinion was clear for all. That removed will the 11,000 at Valley Parade be more of one voice? It eludes me why any City fan wanted Colbeck to fail but it seems sure that none would want the same for his replacement Neilson and perhaps that positivism will make itself felt on the field.

Neilson is part of a group at City that includes Gareth Evans, James Hanson, Luke O’Brien and Steve Williams who can best be dubbed “the want-to-do-well boys” who see their not inconsiderable work put in rewarded by a matching of longing of supporters. These are young players who have won hearts and minds in a way Colbeck, Tom Penford, Danny Forrest and Craig Bentham did not and rather than question why this is the case let us celebrate the fact it is.

Evans and Hanson will start with Peter Thorne injured and Michael Boulding in a similar state although closer to fitness. Boulding is the picture book opposite to the want to win boys seemingly having talent over effort that see him sidelined and Evans in his role. Hanson leads the line and never loses a header for the want of effort.

Burton Albion are new to the league but not to City who had Gary Robson’s arse to thank for an early rounds of the FA Cup win back in 1996. They were managed by Nigel Clough for nearly a decade before Son of Brain went to Derby County and as such represent a team which has benefited from patience in a manager who has built a structure which new gaffer Paul Pechisolido reaps the rewards from with a good start that includes a 1-1 at Notts County.

Sitting above City a fifth win on the spin for the Bantams would see the clubs flip positions but early season renders that meaningless and McCall and all will be more concerned with rebuilding the hard fought for good home record if six months of last season.

Home form brings confidence and running that confidence through the season is of paramount importance should a promotion bid be staged.

Run that confidence into the summer and who knows what could happen.

City visit Shrewsbury as the start begins to end

If the end of last season started with the 3-0 defeat at Rochdale’s Spotland then the end of City’s promising start came at Shrewsbury’s New Meadow when the Bantams lost 2-0.

The Rochdale ghost was buried in the week when Stuart McCall’s men came back from behind to take victory with a goal from Scott Neilson that took enough of a deflection to be chalked up to luck.

Not that Dale boss Keith Hill would agree with that railing against the referee on the evening as not being fit to officiate. Odd that last season’s man in the middle who seemed to want to gift the game to the home side did not incur Hill’s wrath. That kind of myopia would fit right in at Rotherham if – should rumours be believed – Hill replaces Barnsley bound Mark Robbins.

At Shrewsbury last season Referee Jarnail Singh practically proved he was not up to refereeing by once again allowing goals to be scored while players were down with serious head injuries and the sight of TJ Moncur staggering away collapsing with the home side celebrating is the enduring one. Moncur and Lee Bullock were invalided away from right back that day.

Bullock’s return to the City team this season owes a deal to the injury to Stephen O’Leary who continues to miss games with a toe problem following his impressive debut against Port Vale.

Bullock is far from universally loved by City fans and in this post-Joe Colbeck era we enter is the next player to split fans.

Personally I’m conflicted internally on him not especially enjoying watching him in the way I enjoy the robustness of Michael Flynn but noticing the correlation between his name on the teamsheet and City winning. Call it the inverse Nicky Law effect.

Bullock and Flynn are likely to be rejoined by Steve O’Brien in the midfield following the youngsters benching in the week while those tight three midfielders will notice little difference on the right with the aforementioned Colbeck gone but replacement Scott Neilson impressing and exciting in his opening one hundred minutes for City.

Peter Thorne was robbed of the chance to impress by a hamstring injury on Tuesday night but he would have likely stepped down for James Hanson and Gareth Evans to continue a fruitful partnership.

At the back the four of Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien will return in front of Simon Eastwood.

That Rehman missed the midweek game was officially put down to a thigh strain although in all likelihood he was being given recovery time being in that twilight zone between injured and fit. As City’s squad shrinks the prospect of the player carrying injuries into games emerges. A week of rest becomes a rare thing and a player’s season becomes defined by how they deal with niggling injuries that would be rested at a higher level but are played through in League Two.

The counter to that resting is the benefits of confidence coming from playing games and it is that which Stuart McCall believes will get the best out of keeper Eastwood.

Eastwood had a ropey start to his City career but the start is coming to an end and the Huddersfield loanee is improving.

As are City. A win at Shrewsbury would be an impressive return – the home side have not yet lost a half dozen games at this stadium – but would be a fourth win in a row and set up parallels with Colin Todd’s side that collected fifteen points out of fifteen four years ago. A draw would no doubt be welcomed by the management keen to show the ability to be pragmatic away from home as a table begins to form and City begin to nestle into it.

The sound of silence as City face Rochdale

The first home win of the season came in a strange silence as City fans walked away from Valley Parade.

The performance was not great but the result was and perhaps because of that there was little to talk about. Two goals in both stoppage times saw City taking three points so there was nothing to complain about which perhaps accounts for the silence. As my Nan never said “If you can’t say something nasty about something, then don’t say anything at all.”

The win was City’s second in a week and start to turn around the season which has Chris Brandon sums up as “The first game obviously left a horrible feeling but, apart from that, we hadn’t played that badly.”

Zesh Rehman has his ideas on what – or who – has kept heads high at City paying tribute to former non-league pair James Hanson and Steve Williams saying “They are both new to professional football and they have been brilliant, their attitude is outstanding, spot on.”

The man with the City armband continues “We’ve said to them, ‘What would you have been doing on a match day?’ One of them would have been cutting hair and the other was working in a Co-op. It reminds you of how lucky you are to be involved in professional football and being able to play in front of big crowds.

All of which contrasts with last season’s side which declined so sharply and markedly with games like the 3-0 defeat at Rochdale in the league.

Tonight City return to Rochdale in the Johnson’s Paint Trophy hinting at fielding a weaker side which – ironically – drops the bloke from the Co-op in favour of Michael Boulding. Boulding and Peter Thorne are expected to partner up front and one looks at the depth of the City side and tries to form an eleven of similar one for one replacement.

Jon McLaughlin might get the gloves in the place of Simon Eastwood – The T&A put Eastwood’s drop on Saturday down to a foul the Referee was about to blow for – while Matthew Clarke might get a chance to return at the back.

Clarke is officially injured and out of the side but it is hard to see him claiming Steve Williams’s spot in the team. Louis Horne and Jon Bateson could come in at full backs but former Rochdale man Simon Ramsden is the only option to switch into the other central defensive position.

Scott Neilson’s debut on Saturday impressed in that he continued to do as Joe Colbeck does – trouble full backs – and he will no doubt start. Chris Brandon can come into the middle with Stephen O’Leary – assuming O’Leary’s toe injury does not break down once more as it did in the warm up on Saturday – or Luke Sharry could press his case for a longer contract. Rory Boulding or Leon Osborne could slot in on the left.

Ultimately though City never come close to troubling the later stages of this Associate Members Trophy and the number of those players mentioned above will reveal how seriously the competition is being taken at Valley Parade – normally it is “not very” – and perhaps Rochdale will be the same with the result being a game where at least one side plays a weakened side and thus probably not worth breaking the silence about.

Torquay comes to Valley Parade for the minor debut of Scott Neilson

Scott Neilson will hardly get a mention in the news of League Two signings this week.

The right winger has joined The Bantams from Cambridge City and is expected to start on the bench and make his debut against Torquay United as Stuart McCall’s team looks to build on the first win of the season last week at Cheltenham but one doubts that the coverage of our division will concern itself with that.

Rather eyes will be set for Barnet and Sol Campbell’s debut for Notts County as football looks to see what a player who gets £40,000 a week in League Two looks like.

The contrast could not be more sharp. City spent a week haggling with the Lillywhites over the price of Neilson coming up with a fee thought to be around £7,500, a friendly and some more cash should City make the play offs. Campbell agreed a deal worth over £10m and one is left to wonder why such a deal was necessary. The Magpies already seemed to be able to win handsomely most weeks and concede only penalties. Campbell will perhaps plug that tiny hole and is expected to come into the side to replace injured former City skipper Graeme Lee.

So two debuts in the same division but as far apart as – well – as City are from Torquay geographically perhaps as the Devon side visit a Valley Parade which is flush with comparative optimism following the characterful 5-4 win last week.

Having had more than his fair share of criticism this season Stuart McCall took credit for the victory with all five of the goals the Bantams scored (Simon Ramsden having a deflected shot) chalked up by a player he has brought in this summer as he looked to rebuild the side without the sort of big money, low character players which one assumes County will have to avoid.

James Hanson claimed a first goal for City leading the line in a 451 formation with Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding pushed down to the bench. Hanson’s play this season has been honest and impressive and he is expected to reprise his role up front although McCall must decide if he is to keep the same side and deploy Gareth Evans and Joe Colbeck as wide men or play a more traditional 442 pushing Evans alongside Hanson. Evans celebrated his first goal for the Bantams while Colbeck was recognised for his performance with a place in the League Two team of the week.

It is rare for McCall to opt for anything that could resemble defensiveness at Valley Parade and so one might suspect he will push both wide men into a three man forward line perhaps leaving Colbeck out for Boulding or Thorne.

The midfield three of Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and James O’Brien are a curious set with O’Brien especially prompting much attacking play last week but fairly obviously failing to control and close down the game when City took the lead. Midfields need time and games to blend together and this is best done by picking a set and sticking with it which proves difficult at the moment and that area is very much a work in progress.

The back line of Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien with Simon Eastwood behind is causing sleepless nights. Eastwood struggles to get any control over his back four not talking enough and – when he does – talking to the wrong people while Zesh Rehman has yet to grasp the organisational part of his role as senior central defender.

Williams is learning the game and coming along as is Luke O’Brien. Both are bright but eclipsed by Simon Ramsden who is that rarest of things – a popular Bradford City right back. Of the defenders few would suggest Matthew Clarke should be put in as a solution to any problems but Eastwood will know that he needs to get better quickly and build a rapport with his back line.

Torquay come to City with two wins and two defeats since returning to the League in August losing last week to Barnet. No one was really interested in Torquay vs Barnet game last week but a debut should change that this.

Probably won’t be Scott Neilson’s.

Everything changes after City gorge in nine goals

The nine goals that City and Cheltenham enjoyed on Saturday changed the context of the debate on the Bantams as rapidly as they hit the back of the net at Wealden Road.

Within eight minutes when Gareth Evans powerfully ran from the left to slot in suddenly suggestions of how best to use Michael Boulding and what to do with Peter Thorne were cast far from the mind and as equalisers followed goal the discussion switched to the defence and how to stop it leaking goals. With Bradford City – it seems – there is one glass worth of water and two glasses. One is always going to be half full.

Nevertheless without want to pre-empt or even join either of these discussions one recalls City’s two recent odd wins in nine goal thrillers and how they effected things at Valley Parade hoping to get a pointer as to what the upshot of this match maybe.

Colin Todd’s men who went to Tranmere Rovers on the back of three straight wins won 5-4 thanks to a late David Wetherall goal. That 5-4 win at Prenton Park became the stuff of short term legend with the gate – then a more mutable figure – rising as a result as the Bantams made some news for a display full of character and in that say Stuart McCall’s side may be similar to that of Todd. The Bantams are opt characterised as being a spineless team who are too ready to use adversity as a chance to put heads down.

However three times City were dragged back to level terms and three times the players established a lead once more. Also tellingly every lead was given by a player Stuart McCall had brought into the club following the collapses of the end of last season. James O’Brien, James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Steve Williams all were brought in in the summer by the manager and all gave City the lead at some point.

The 5-4 at Prenton Park saw troubled top spot in the league for a while until encountering Luton Town and Joe Ross who combined to inflict a 4-0 defeat which Todd’s side – in retrospect – never recovered from and perhaps it was precinct that the defence at Tranmere was breached by the Hatters and their many account paid players and of which the utterly impartial Ross said “You need to sort your defending out.”

How true – and utterly inappropriate – the Referee was and so McCall will think the same. One never likes to trust the Press Association stats that are produced (and reproduced on the BBC Website) but over the course of the last two games with Lincoln and Cheltenham the opposition has mustered as many shots on target as they have scored goals with the homes side at the weekend (recordedly) having four at Simon Eastwood’s goal and me struggling to recall Lincoln having to make the City keeper do more work than pick the ball out of his net twice.

All of which will worry McCall but he may cast his mind back to the other 5-4 when the Bantams were beaten by West Ham United in the Premiership in one of the games dubbed as the best the top flight has ever seen.

McCall famously chewed out Dean Saunders for not squaring a chance for City to get a fifth in that game but will reflect that the Bantams backline and goalkeeper that day were hardly a settled unit with Aidan Davison the third of City’s three keepers that year not really getting to grips with sitting behind David Wetherall and Andrew O’Brien.

Defensive units are hard things to gel for sure and anyone who is ready to put all the blame for concessions two the goalkeeper – and Simon Eastwood has been criticised from the second he took to the field for City for not being a bigger name keeper – is naive but it will have escaped the notice of none that the triangle of Zesh Rehman, Eastwood and Williams has not been enjoying the greatest of births.

The West Ham game though – while taken in some quarters as a nail in the coffin for the Premiership City – was used by Paul Jewell to bring heart to his players suggesting that the game was proof that while they lost the game they were involved in the scrap and that he would ask of them only that – that the brought the effort needed to compete.

A lesson which McCall will draw for his players in the coming week. When heads are up the far forward becomes so much clearer.

Next: Cheltenham

The disorder of the day is a question of Peter Thorne.

Thorne took a pay cut to sign an extension to his City contract and was lauded for it. He has a fantastic scoring record for the Bantams which – Dean Windass aside – is probably not matched since Lee Mills ten years ago but that was four games ago and the whispers against the City captain have started.

“Why don’t you do us all a favour and hang up your boots Thorne!” said someone on the kop – how dare he assume to speak for me I angered – and sure enough the short termness of football thinking is brought to bear on our centre forward who slogged though a tired game on Tuesday night ineffectually.

Thorne will score again. You know it. I know it. Peter Thorne knows it. Stuart McCall knows it.

Nevertheless much of the criticism of Thorne comes from the fact that not only has he yet to score – no one else in six hours of football has either – but from the fact that he is the captain.

I’ve never approved of a striker as skipper – or a full back, keeper or winger for that matter – preferring a player who is more in the heart of the side in central midfield or defence just as McCall the player was for the Bantams. Alan Shearer skippered Newcastle United from the front line as did Kevin Keegan but for every example of a half decent non-middle man skipper in the for column Bobby Moore, Alan Hansen and John McGovern are on the other side. Strikers don’t often make good skippers.

However when recalling the teams of Moore, Hansen and McGovern casting eyes around the field would have shown four or five other able men who could have taken the armband while looking around the City team one sees Zesh Rehman and… erm… that is about it.

Rehman, Chris Brandon, Michael Flynn are all names banded about but as Lincoln put in their second goal on Tuesday night no City player was suggesting great leadership. David Wetherall was an obvious choice to replace Stuart McCall who was himself an obvious choice to replace Peter Jackson when he headed to Newcastle in 1987.

No player is suggesting that they would be a better captain than Thorne no matter how well or badly the striker is managing to do the job and frankly if there is a player in the City side watching his team mate’s long faces and thinking that if he tried gee anyone up then he would face some kind of PFA demarcation dispute then he is not that man to captain my club.

Seriously. If someone in the current City side is a great captain just waiting for the armband then they are hiding it bloody well.

Zesh Rehman though is likely to have the armband as Thorne feels the effects of four games and is rested. Rehman’s partner Steve Williams is likely to keep his place despite his tumble on Tuesday even with Matthew Clarke fit again. Simon Ramsden looks good at right back and Luke O’Brien is in at left back.

Simon Eastwood is going to spend four months being criticised at City and may as well get used to it now. Five, two, three, none it matters not. When he plays badly he gets it in the neck, when he plays well he gets it in the neck.

Stephen O’Leary took part in Tuesday night’s warm up but not the game leaving Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn to pass the ball around Lincoln until such a time when (according to Simon, a Lincoln fan in line with Ramsden’s tackle) that never a penalty happened. The pair are likely to continue although O’Leary and Flynn would seem more suited to battling away against a newly relegated side.

City’s forward line is likely to be where Stuart McCall makes changes. Michael Boulding turned down Cheltenham to join City and his pace may be used to do to the home side what Lincoln did to us. James Hanson and/or Gareth Evans might be employed as target men and McCall may opt to play with a lone striker with Joe Colbeck far right, Hanson on the left with Evans up front.

Or Thorne might play.

Bradford City prepare to face Lincoln City in a modern football match

Back in the day when newspapers were typeset by hand, Jimmy Hill’s chin presented Match of the Day and Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine had yet to be applied to the job of applying three points for one win and sorting such a collection of results into an ordered lists League tables after two games simply did not exist.

Not that it was impossible for the scholars of 1974 to work out that a 3-0 defeat on the opening day of the season put Cloughie’s Leeds bottom of the First Division or that a win, a couple of draw and a few defeat in said man’s first six games only gave his side four points but with the effort that had to go into totting up columns, creating news print and video overlays for Television to roughly project onto brightly coloured pictures there seemed very little point in bothering.

The table at that stage did not mean anything after all, and if it did you could be sure that Shankley’s Liverpool would be top of it. Tables tended to turn up in newspapers and magazines in September after about ten games and then they were accompanied by football managers of the day warning that said table could not be read until everyone has played everyone else at least once – except for Jimmy Sirrel who insisted it did not lie.

The modern football table – the sort that sits all summer with naught in every column – is more of a database waiting to happen and has given rise to an obsession with starting counting league position by the minute of each game. In fact ten years ago City were forth in the Premiership for the 22 hours until Manchester United won moving us and everyone else down a place.

Match of the Day made a return this weekend and had the top four places of the top division coloured golden to indicate Champions League slots – somewhere Platini fumes – with the aforementioned United excluded, lagging down in eighth position with zero points in zero games.

Back in my day in March a half blind man would draw a dotted line somewhere approximating the promotions places – and he were always wrong – if you were lucky.

All of which is preamble to saying that aside from the fact that Notts County are top and everyone else isn’t the League Two table means – frankly – “nowt” which is just as well because if it were to mean something City would be third bottom.

The opening point of the season came with the weekend 0-0 draw with Port Vale which presented a Bantams side that – rather surprisingly considering the previous week – had very little wrong with it.

The back four did not put a foot wrong with Steve Williams starting to impress in that way that suggests he is taking to professional football better than Matthew Clarke – who he replaces in the side again tonight – would take to cutting hair in Bamber Bridge. He is partnered by Zesh Rehman and is in front of Simon Eastwood who are both a clean sheet further away from Notts County.

City’s full backs against Vale probably had more pitch to play in than they will in most games this season with the Valiants anything but. Simon Ramsden – it would be amiss of me not to point out after a number of discussions with “our Rovert” on the subject – could have done with more support in front of him when he came forward with the ball while Luke O’Brien could do with putting a bit more air into his crosses with the hope of beating the first man. If not air then variety as the promising young left back’s play became a little easy to read on Saturday.

Promising young left backs though are not in short supply at Valley Parade with Louis Horne ready to replace O’Brien who was sliced in half by Anthony Griffith at the weekend and may not play. Horne – for the uninitiated – is the son of Peter Horne the man in charge of youth development at VP but those who have seen him put in a few games ensue suggestions of nepotism with phrases like “he looks a bit good.”

Horne is a bit good although which bit is not yet clear. He can use the ball, tackle, and has a good head on him and while that is deployed at left back often he does take the left wing and – in the humble opinion of this writer – might want to try his hand in the centre of midfield.

Not that City need any more number fours with Michael Flynn and Stephen O’Leary finding a way of keeping the back door closed and O’Leary especially useful in taking the ball from the central defenders and moving it on with minimum fuss. The pair look set to anchor behind the roving Chris Brandon – who will face up against his former Town boss Lincoln manager Peter Jackson – who comes inside and left flank man James Hanson who loses nothing in the air and comes in from the flanks to add to the attack.

All of which leaves City a little thin out wide but we should not mind the width if we can feel the quality and the quality of City’s approach play impressed on Saturday.

Approach play good and the strikers were not able to profit with Boulding seeing the best of the chances saved. Peter Thorne struggles with four games in eleven days and so may sit out to allow Gareth Evans to lead the line. Michael Boulding is expected to partner.

A decision is made, a result is reached, and City move on

If the season started here in the third match following the week in Nottingham then it started slowly with a 0-0 draw with Port Vale which saw the visitors get the point they came to West Yorkshire for and City stop conceding after eight goals had been lifted out of Simon Eastwood’s net since the season started.

Indeed so clear was Stuart McCall’s desire to ensure that the Bantams would not be looking at a hefty concession rate that the changes had been rung and the solution was found in a full midfield that saw two number fours – Michael Flynn and Stephen O’Leary – hold and Chris Brandon nominally given the right hand side but spread himself over the middle of the pitch in the kind of performance that his status called for.

The industry of the Flynn and O’Leary pairing allowed Brandon to enjoy his roving role – James Hanson was also nominally left flank but spent more time at the far post assisting the strike pair of Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne – and linked the midfield to the forward two effectually or as effectively as the Valiants would allow with their deep sat five and midfield on top.

As such the pattern of the game was set. Vale’s ambition was limited and City’s measured with the Bantams controlling play in the first half to such an extent that at one point a twenty pass move probed either side of the visitors backline without finding a way through. City’s best chance came when Hanson – powerful in the air – won the ball for Brandon to take into the box and Michael Boulding to try finish only to find Chris Martin standing tall to make a save. I tried so hard to come up with a joke about Coldplay’s lead singer but as with City just lacked that touch of inspiration.

Vale on the otherhand failed to convert a few crosses that flashed past the City box for the want of men in the box and some good defending from – especially – Simon Williams who made his home debut with a performance of genuine quality calmly showing a class to slot alongside Zesh Rehman and a physicality to cope with the ageing late sub Geoff Horsfield.

Williams and Rehman kept Marc Richards in pockets save an stinking shot from an actuate that Eastwood took confidently. Second half and City had James Hanson go close cutting in with a shot and could have won the game late on when a cross from Simon Ramsden – who did a grand job down the right with an acre in front of him and little support with Brandon playing more inside – hung deliciously but Hanson rising at the wrong time.

Hanson impressed too although seemed to fade in the last quarter of the match. Gareth Evans came off the bench and hit a dipping shot over the bar. Michael Flynn tested the keeper from range, Luke O’Brien did the same.

Flynn and O’Leary responded to some aggressive play by Vale with a series of lively challenges as the Bantams seemed to find a pairing that looked interested in joining a League Two battle. Vale’s four Anthony Griffith was lucky not to see a red card after a string of feet off the floor tackles ended in Luke O’Brien getting spun and limping through the rest of the match. Born in Huddersfield perhaps he was an excitable Town fan. Regardless he was lucky to stay on the field long enough to be substituted.

Flynn showed a willingness to battle but O’Leary was something of a minor revelation making himself available in midfield for passes, getting stuck in and using the ball well it was a mighty promising display and one that might keep Lee Bullock cooling his heels on the bench. Late in the game Vale put on former City favourite Claus Jorgensen who was roundly and warmly applauded but in the last five minutes that despite some bluster both clubs were happy to see out goalless.

The men on the bench – the management that is – made the point today with a team that joined the battle for League Two. Tuesday night Lincoln City come to Valley Parade and City will look to build on this match but as with the team of Paul Jewell’s eleven years ago – who drew early on with Sheffield United and Bolton Wanderers making the two points from seven games – the shakedown of the start of the season was brought into context later in the season.

Today City did not let anything past – or look like letting anything past – and anything that comes later comes from that.

Will things go as expected? City play Port Vale looking to put the week behind them

When it comes to first weeks of the season they have never come any worse than this one for City.

Ten years ago we were sitting fourth in the embryonic Premiership table after a win against Middlesbrough. A decade on and we are at the foot of an equally new League Two table smarting from a 5-0 defeat and out of the League Cup. That was the week that wasn’t.

Wasn’t very enjoyable that is – unless you like the City of Nottingham – but probably not unexpected. When Championship side (and lest we forget, twice European Cup winners) Nottingham Forest came out of the hat for the first round of the League Cup – away to boot – not a single City fan would have said that the Bantams were anything other than rank outsiders.

Likewise when Notts County started spending money in the summer culminating in recruiting Sven Goran Errikson the majority of Bantams fans would have thought it a surprise if the Bantams had come back from the Lower League all-stars who are assembling at Meadow Lane with a point.

That both things came to pass is the way they did – scoreless and remorseless – has distorted those original assumptions that when City kicked off against Port Vale in the first home game at Valley Parade they would probably have no points and be looking at a few midweeks off after a cruel draw.

Stuart McCall has had little but food for thought in the last five days having played perhaps five different formations during the two matches and used sixteen players one of whom – Jonathan Bateson started his City career in the worst possible way with a red card for slicing Nathan Tyson in half for what seemed like little or no reason. Bateson could not have impressed less.

Steve Williams could have impressed more – it was not a week of full throttle – but he has most probably done enough to secure a debut alongside Zesh Rehman and in favour of Matthew Clarke who seems to be fall guy for the five goals that Notts County put past City despite – whisper it – having a better game than Rehman that afternoon.

Simon Ramsden has started his City career well and slots back to right back after a sojourn at centre back and Luke O’Brien is left back.

The midfield should revert to the four in the middle with Joe Colbeck, Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon although James O’Brien played on Wednesday night with Brandon cooling his heels. As a boyhood City fan robbed of his first year as a Bantam Brandon should be bursting to impress and one hopes he puts in a performance that suggests the desire than comes from playing for your own club. So far such as been lacking from the left midfielder but tomorrow can be his Alpha, should O’Brien not get the nod over him.

In the forward line Gareth Evans impressed on Wednesday but is expected to step down to allow Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding back into the line.

Having draw with Rochdale on the opening day Port Vale got arguably a more testing League Cup trip than City – to Sheffield United – and won it although that was more down to comedic goalkeepering which one hopes Simon Eastwood – the City stopper who makes his home debut – will not follow.

The season is young – baby young – and already City are thrashing around but in football everything becomes right with a win and at Valley Parade – under McCall at least following years of home defeats – wins have become expected and City are doing as expected thus far.

No apology needed

There will have been much to occupy Bradford City manager Stuart McCall’s thoughts as he made his second return journey up the M1 in days on the back of a heavy defeat. A degree of pride was restored on route to yet another early exit from the League Cup, but the aggregate 8-0 score from the two trips to Nottingham tell of a shocking start to the season that sees pressure building ahead of its first home game. At the final whistle Stuart told his players “the season starts here”, but the fear remains that the last few days are a taste of what’s to come.

City were much better at The City Ground compared to the general feebleness evident less than a mile away at Meadow Lane on Saturday. Mindful of playing too open again, which had contributed to the heavy opening day defeat, Stuart opted for a 5-4-1 formation with James Hanson taking the left wing spot when City were on the defensive and fellow debut signing Gareth Evans asked to take on a lone assignment that was supported by Hanson when City were on the attack.

The objective was to frustrate a talented Nottingham Forest side, who passed the ball around quickly and accurately only to be frustrated – for 47 minutes at least – by a well organised Bantams backline which was able to plug gaps. In a dull first half the only chances of note were a Lewis McGugan free kick Simon Eastwood did well to tip wide and a Lee Bullock header over after some promising City build up play.

Essentially, it wasn’t pretty from City. The notion of playing defensive football and only one striker is something which upsets a number of City fans, who will happily roll off the number of times it hasn’t worked and tell you they’d rather watch City go for it and lose. But, considering the gulf in the two sides, there was plenty of encouragement to be taken from how well City contained their Championship counterparts and a feeling that, with more practice, such an approach can pay dividends in some away fixtures this season.

Steve Williams made a very impressive full debut and Simon Ramsden, switched to the centre, demonstrated his versatility and made one crucial first half tackle when it appeared Forest might score. Zesh Rehman – captain for the night – recovered from a torrid afternoon on Saturday to look more assured and debut full back Jonathan Bateson got forward well when he could. In midfield Michael Flynn looked promising covering the back four, though the formation didn’t seem to suit Joe Colbeck who was anonymous for much of the night.

It’s up front that will have given Stuart some of the strongest encouragement for playing this way on the road again, with Evans performing a brilliant job holding up the ball and allowing others to get forward. Stuart’s previous attempts to play with a lone striker have been hampered by the lack of striker who could adequately play such a role, but Evans’ effectiveness and work rate suggests he now has that striker. The downside of City’s tactics was that, predictably, they were less of an attacking force in the final third, with the number of black shirts getting into the box when on the attack too few for possession to be fashioned into decent chances. Still as Evans battled hard and Hanson showed some good dribbling skills, Stuart may have been tempted to glance ruefully over to Meadow Lane on his left and wonder what he might have done differently last Saturday.

The other problem with defensive tactics is when the opposition score and the urge to find a plan B, though how well City did in almost coming back at Elland Road last season when sticking to 4-5-1 shows it’s far from game over. Two minutes into the second half Forest claimed the lead when Nathan Tyson found space on the left and crossed for Paul Anderson to head home. City might have equalised after Evans brilliantly held up the ball and picked Hanson out, but his burst through one-on-one with Paul Smith was cut short by a late flag for offside.

Any encouragement sought from the move was extinguished by Forest instantly going 2-0 up after Tyson again provided a brilliant cross which was tapped home by Dextor Blackstock. The impressive McGugan added a third after another flowing move and the night ended with further misery after Bateson’s none-to-clever lunge on Tyson was rewarded by a red card and the Forest striker having to be stretchered off.

So beaten, but it was difficult to fault the players’ efforts if not their quality. A Forest-supporting friend told me afterwards that his side’s second half performance had been their best for some time and the consolation for Stuart is that City won’t be facing opposition of this calibre in the league. Yet still these are worrying times, pre-season optimism is ebbing away and City go into two successive home games without yet having managed a goal.

But while others can lose their heads with worry – a visit to City’s official message board finds one fan demanding Stuart be sacked should City lose to Port Vale Saturday – the man in charge must not lose his. As Stuart’s thoughts of the defeat occupied his mind travelling back up the M1, the so-far positive stance he’s adopted in defeat is far preferable to the miserable persona of the end of last season. The only worry when hearing he was planning to play more defensively-minded at The City Ground was how much he talked of it upsetting supporters in the past – as though he’s previously stopped himself doing it for fear of upsetting some geek on a message board.

No matter what, Stuart is still widely-loved for his close relationship with this club, but a certain detachment is needed from him in order to worry less about letting people down and focus solely on doing the right thing. City may be out the cup, but against higher division opposition on top form it’s difficult to muster any meaningful reasons to criticise Stuart for that. Instead, like Stuart, the focus should be on the next game and the much work needed ahead of it towards getting the season belatedly going.

Not a great night in City’s history, but the biggest positive may prove to be that Stuart is not attempting to apologise for it.

Former England manager gives City a lesson

The opening day of every season is about learning lessons after three months of playing football in a hypothetical context give way to ninety minutes of reality and sometimes that reality is cold and sobering.

Bradford City’s lessons today were sobering. The afternoon started with a minute’s applause for the late Sir Bobby Robson. Robson had a lesson which he passed on to another manager who like Magpies boss Ian McPartland had seemingly endless riches to spend – a young Jose Mourinho – who relates the story as “One of the most important things I learnt from Bobby Robson is that when you win, you shouldn’t assume you are the team, and when you lose, you shouldn’t think you are rubbish.”

The World’s media came to watch Sven Goran Erikkson and the millions which are being pumped into Meadow Lane and went away purring about the home side caring hardly at all for the visitors who were but ballast in the story.

When Brendan Moloney pushed forward from full back leaving Lee Bullock to simply not track him back and allow him to score. Bullock’s head was down with the Bantams 4-0 down but he should have done more, put in more effort.

That he did not came after a grinding ninety minutes. City began brighter than their visitors with Stuart McCall having opted to send his side out to try upset the home team with a high line and a pressing forward line. The theory that McCall employed was – one assumes – that being at home and under scrutiny County would play similarly but alas they did not preferring to approach the game almost as an away match and sat back to play on the counter-attack.

So City pressed and as the season with fifteen minutes old Joe Colbeck had been unlucky to see his header saved after some great approach play and Peter Thorne look menacing on the far post with the ball under City’s control and City looking easy on the ball. County’s responses seemed to be entirely physical with Moloney especially guilty of some fearsome challenges with studs showing. City faced a midfield battle and bit by bit were edged out.

Edged out perhaps because while Bullock and new signing Michael Flynn looked tidy in possession and decent in the scrap they often found the ball pumped over their heads and when it was pumped in between Matthew Clarke and Luke O’Brien City were incapable of dealing with the ball across and expensive import from Shrewsbury Ben Davies finished on the far post.

It was not especially deserved and City should have kicked themselves with Clarke and O’Brien – not for the only time today – incapable of stopping the ball getting across the face of the box. New keeper Simon Eastwood hardly showered himself in glory with his control of the backline – very little – but collectively this was the beginning of errors that continued all afternoon.

That said City should have been level – or had the chance to be level – when Peter Thorne was shoved with two hands from behind by keeper Russell Hoult at a corner minutes later but the referee was curiously unmoved. The game was littered with pushes and free kicks many of which were given for much more malignant offences and not giving a penalty there was pre-season refereeing.

One had thought that the studs showing challenges were the results of being rusty – rather than a desire to be rustic – but they continued throughout the game with Graeme Lee engaging on any number of lunges h simply did not do for the Bantams last year. Anyone who wondered what Lee used to do at City and thought he would not be missed will not have hung their head when another long punt bounced in front of and over Zesh Rehman – who had a poor afternoon – and fell into the path of Lee Hughes who rounded the keeper and scored.

On to Lee Hughes now who rejoiced in his goal celebrating in front of the City fans who were taunting him with chides about his conviction for Causing Death by Dangerous Driving four years ago. Hughes faced the boos and on scoring pranced in front of City fans with delight.

There is a misunderstanding around Hughes when he is booed and responds to that jeering with his self-congratulatory dancing which would eventually get him booked in this game. Hughes is not booed as a former player like Graeme Lee or because he has long hair and is dubbed “Gypo” or because he has dived in a previous game. Many, if not most, people find Lee Hughes and his actions when arrested as being despicable and have the opinion that his playing cheapens the game of football. I think a man has a right to earn a living and Hughes does so but what is he trying to say when he goes to away fans and taunts them?

He has not proved fans wrong as a former player putting one over his old team mates would or silenced the people giggling at his hair yet he acts like Dean Windass returning for Sheffield United did. Frank Leboeuf said “He might be a good but footballer but he is a shit man” and no matter how many goals Hughes scores in this or any other season he has not proved anybody wrong. His prancing leaves a bad taste in the mouth as do the County fans who praise him. One can only hope that Sven and the Munto Group asks why their centre-forward is being called a murder and is as repulsed by the behaviour as I am.

Hughes got his second goal through another failure by Luke O’Brien to cut out a cross from the right. His third from a shameful dive from Luke Rodgers prompting the question of if County are going to be so good do they have to cheat? Seemingly so but the fourth goal killed City’s hopes off.

Steve Williams, James Hanson and Gareth Evans all made debuts off the bench and performed well with Williams looking mobile at the back coming on for Clarke who had had a better game than Rehman but had been replaced anyway. Evans and Hanson took the flanks coming on for Colbeck who had looked good in the first half and for Chris Brandon. Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding combined well with Brandon to see Boulding flash a shot wide.

The fifth goal came as the game dragged to an end leaving City looking back at ninety minutes of a defensive performance littered with individual mistakes – although Simon Ramsden looked good and pocketed Jamie Clapham – and a choice of approach from McCall that got it wrong and flew in the face of the manager’s talk of the Bantams learning to go away from home and play ugly, shutting up shop and being hard to beat.

County seem to be going onto bigger and better and perhaps their is no better illustration of the future for the Magpies than Hughes. Sneering success, at at any price, no matter what.

For City’s part though the short hop over the Trent to Nottingham Forest for the League Cup – bizarrely we parked next to the Brian Clough stand this Saturday afternoon – and then to Port Vale in League Two on Saturday looking to start the 45 game season anew.

The media beyond League Two are calling Hughes sparkling and toasting Sven’s perfect start but rather than the Swede one recalls the other former England manager and the lesson he would give for both teams today “When you win, you shouldn’t assume you are the team, and when you lose, you shouldn’t think you are rubbish.”

It’s Here

The League Two season is back with a bang on Saturday as Bradford travel to Meadow Lane in a reverse of the opening fixture of last campaign. And for Bradford faithful still reeling from last season’s disappointment, this is all that matters. Forget the long running saga at Newcastle United with an untold number of messiahs. Forget Leeds United’s third season in the third flight of English football. And please, forget last season.

Stuart McCall decided to stay with the club this summer despite suggesting otherwise last term. Managing at a young age is always a learning curve and there isn’t a manager out there that hasn’t made mistakes at some time in their career. But in my opinion, this club and it’s fans would rather have somebody with a loved for the club at the helm taking it one step at a time, than a manager with no passion who will come and go within two seasons at the most. The fans have cried out and it appears that stability is the way forward.

McCall has been busy this summer with his dealings in the transfer market, with no less than twelve players departing, not including Dean Furman, Steve Jones and Nicky Law, and nine coming in. Only goalkeeper Simon Eastwood has so far come in on loan as McCall plays the waiting game with the clubs in higher divisions to see who is available following pre-season. Eastwood’s arrival at the club shocked many, with an experienced keeper expected to come in alongside Jonathan McLaughlin. Only time will tell if this turns out to be a bad decision, but it is telling that Eastwood’s contract is only until January rather than a full season, with McCall preparing himself should the opportunity to bring in somebody different arise. Quite who will be playing between the sticks for City also remains a mystery with Eastwood not doing himself any favours with a nervous display in the final pre-season game against Carlisle.

Zesh Rehman has made his move to Bradford permanent and has been rewarded with the club captaincy. Much has been made of Rehman’s work in the community following his loan move last season and it appears that the club see Rehman as the ideal role model for youngsters in the local area. At a time when club finances are tight and extra revenue is a priority, it will be a challenge for Rehman, along with Omar Khan, to influence the Asian population to make Valley Parade their second home.

Jonathan Bateson, Simon Ramsden and Steve Williams join Rehman as new signings in Stuart McCall’s new look back line. Ramsden in particular looks like he could be the solid right back that has been missing at Bradford for a while now, though Paul Arnison will feel disheartened that his efforts last season resulted in his exit from the club. When Arnison played last season, City tended to fair better defensively. The facts don’t lie. However, it was apparent that McCall was unsure about him with Tom Moncur and Zesh Rehman preferred at times in what was evidently not their strongest position. Ramsden looks composed, strong in the tackle and fairly good in the air. Add to this that he can also play in the centre and has featured regularly for Rochdale in three successful seasons by their standards and you can understand why McCall has brought him to the club.

Gareth Evans and James Hanson, dubbed The Co-op Kid (I prefer The Idle Working Man – Ed), have bolstered McCall’s striking options. Both are young and play with a real desire which is a joy to see. McCall has high hopes for both and this is supported by the clubs willingness to pay a fee to Macclesfield for Evans services. Hanson looks like he can offer height in the attack, in the absence of Barry Conlon, and comes to the club with a decent scoring record in the last two seasons. Experienced duo Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne are still with the club and both agreed to cut their wage bills accordingly, with Thorne rewarded for his loyalty by becoming team captain. Up front, City look a lot stronger this season and it may be a weight off Peter Thorne’s shoulders. Michael Boulding openly admitted his disappointment at his goal tally last season and will be expected to do better this time around.

Following a fluster of activity in the days before the season opener, Stuart McCall has brought in three central midfielders, an area which he was keen to improve on. The signs are that Michael Flynn, City’s second signing from Huddersfield this summer, will slot in alongside Lee Bullock to form what looks like a solid pairing. Flynn ranks alongside Simon Ramsden as McCall’s best signing in my opinion and his ability to score and create goals from midfield will fill the void left by Nicky Law. Michael O’Leary and energetic James O’Brien have also signed, albeit on short term contracts. Luke Sharry missed the chance this pre-season to stake his claim for a place in the team and may now find himself the odd man out with many feeling Chris Brandon is also above him in the pecking order.

Omar Daley’s absence may be missed, with City only having the aforementioned Chris Brandon, Joe Colbeck and Leon Osbourne to turn to on the wings. Arguably Rory Boulding, Gareth Evans, Michael O’Leary and Luke Sharry can all play in this position too, but City do look thin in this department. Rumours of a loan move for a winger from an unnamed SPL club allay fears somewhat though undoubtedly Daley’s comeback will be in the back of everyone’s mind. Osbourne has looked impressive this pre-season and looks ready to make the step up to first team duties. Chris Brandon will be looking to make up for a torrid season last time round and will be a very important player for City should he stay free from injury.

When you thought things couldn’t get anymore unpredictable, Sven-Goran Eriksson appeared at Notts County and shook the football world to the core (or League Two at least). His arrival at Meadow Lane marks one of the most bizarre appointments in history and mounts the expectation on County to achieve things in the short term. Ian MacParland’s job will be under scrutiny with the media circus that unmistakably follows such a high profile appointment. In the last few days, Stuart McCall has claimed he is not envious of the position County find themselves in, words which as a fan I cannot help but agree with. Clubs in the situation Notts County now find themselves have the potential for success, but also dramatic failure. Should County fail to gain promotion this season, they will probably find themselves starting from scratch with a new manager and possibly a whole new team next term. It is once again easy to see why fans at this club, who have suffered the repercussions of bad decision making by the money men in the past, strive for stability and a realistic approach.

Last season’s skipper Graeme Lee will probably be coming toe to toe with former team mates and, unfortunately, may receive a hostile reception. The culture of booing ex-players and managers is one that I’ve never understood, though there are factors in some cases. It is understandable that a Crystal Palace fan would be annoyed at the sight of Iain Dowie, not for the obvious reason, but for the way in which he departed the club to become manager of Crystal Palace. Lee, however, put in some solid displays last season, though he did have a dip of form which coincided with the teams inability to win games and keep clean sheets. Nevertheless, any players that represents our club should have our support and his departure was not turbulent and instead was a financial decision. It must be hoped that his exit from the club will suit both parties, with Lee himself wishing the team luck in the coming season. I will leave the defence of Lee Hughes to somebody braver than myself.

How the tables have turned from this time last season when County came to Valley Parade and suffered at the hands of a superb solo performance from Peter Thorne. The City captain has a tendency to score against County, something Graeme Lee may be given the duty of preventing happening on Saturday. I would be happy with an opening day draw in all honesty, but the optimism of the travelling Bradford fans says otherwise. City are out to ruin the party celebrations for Sven’s men are will make themselves heard – win, lose or draw.

The new season is here.

The route to success for Notts County or Bradford City

When last we kicked a ball in anger there was anger after the Bantams promotion push had fizzled out and beating Chesterfield was an inglorious end to a year of promise.

Three months later and while it seems that much has changed the Bantams start the season with six players who would have featured in the team which kicked off last year with Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding leading the attack a good example of how Stuart McCall has been able to cut costs while retaining the integrity of the squad.

The five forwards this year swap James Hanson and Gareth Evans for Barry Conlon and Willy Topp which is easily argued to be no worse and perhaps better with Barry’s rambunctions being matched by Hanson’s vigour, at least in theory.

If such claims of parity could be made for the strikers then they would not be applied to the two keepers who combined are not as old as Neville Southall was when he kept goal for City and the worries over that inexperience are rumbling.

Simon Eastwood seems favourite to start as he battles Jon McLaughin for the gloves and I am forced to say that I have never seen competition for the number one shirt bring about anything but uncertainty in the past.

One can only hope that one of the two claims the spot which Rhys Evans grew to suit. Evans exit remains a mystery with the obvious hole left behind by his exit but last season’s failure has been attributed to poor morale and one can assume that some of those who exit do so because of what might be known as “off the field reasons”.

Paul Arnison’s exit was down to such and Simon Ramsden is considered a more than adequate replacement playing right back more like a central defender than a winger. Again McCall has cut while not losing quality, although the people at Rochdale take issue with the statements that Ramsden has joined the Bantams on comparable terms to those he was on at Spotland.

Zesh Rehman has joined the club full time and replaces Graeme Lee – who may very well take the field for Notts County after his summer move – and it is hard to see that exchange as worse for City. Rehman has played at a higher level than Lee and on the evidence of last season is no worse a player and much more of a talker. Good player Graeme Lee but not the lynchpin we hoped for. Rehman could be.

Matthew Clarke is still Matthew Clarke although this year faces competition for his place from Steve Williams who impressed more than any in pre-season. Expect Williams to grow in ability over the opening months at City has he gets used to the ways of professional football. He promises a mix of Clarke’s physical play and the mobility of a Dean Richards or Andrew O’Brien.

At left back Luke O’Brien has a one deal and little immediate competition for the role however cover is provided by Louis Horne who is making similar progress to last season’s player of the season.

The midfield has been talked about at length over the summer. Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock are the two senior men with James O’Brien, Stephen O’Leary and Luke Sharry offering a much shallower depth of quality that last season’s midfield which of course assumes that one believes that last season’s midfield had quality.

Objectively the choice of Nicky Law, Dean Furman, Paul McLaren and Bullock is incredibility strong however wise man say that team with a strong midfield get promoted and obviously we did not. Stuart McCall has to make changes to move the team on from that and so he has.

On the flanks Omar Daley will be missed – he is “out until Christmas” but rumoured to be on course to join the squad before that – but Chris Brandon comes into the season fit and looking useful. Joe Colbeck is on week to week contracts but as long as he plays well this week, and then next week, few will have a problem with him. Cover on the flanks is thin on the ground although Rory Boulding and Leon Osborne are available.

City’s summer of cost cutting has been far from mirror at Notts County. Sven – of course – has arrived but it is said has spent much of the week talking to lawyers about a story that concerns a blonde which reminded me of another story about when Eriksson left England but I’m far too in fear of legal action to even mention that…

So we shall move past him onto a squad that has been bolstered by the signing of Lee midfielder Ben Davies from Shrewsbury and – more notably – forward pair Lee Hughes and Karl Hawley following a significant investment from a consortium of mystery which could not be held in more suspicion in the football world outside of Meadow Lane if they were gruff looking sortd who owned disused Theme Parks in episodes of Scooby Doo.

It is said that at some point they will be signing Dietmar Hamann and Sol Campbell. Let us hope that is after the weekend.

What will be at Notts County will be and there is very little that football fans can do to stand against the cavalier attitudes taken to ownership in the modern game.

City tried spending to get out of the division and failed. Notts County’s owners are unlikely to balance risk and prudence as Mark Lawn says City have which may see The Magpies to achieve what City could not last season.

The long term effects on County will be seen in time – the other Magpies though that they were going places when they got big investment – but City start out the season with a mix of players: some young lads, some old heads, some local lads made good; and if that is not the recipe for success then success is not worth having.

Now though football starts again. Great.

The 47th game

In seven days time City will have faced Notts County in what is game one of the new season but in a rain soaked Valley Parade the Bantams seemed to have started the season early in a 3-3 draw with Carlisle United.

To suggest that the friendly between Stuart McCall’s City and a Carlisle side managed by his former midfield partner Greg Abbott was “competitive” would understate the content that saw the visitors copy their manager’s combative style and at one point boiled over into typical Abbo violence.

Richard Keogh swung for Joe Colbeck and in a proper game would have been sent off no questions asked leaving his team to play with ten men for seventy odd minutes. Keogh missed Colbeck’s square jaw just as Brandon missed with a kick at Michael Evans in the dying minutes which would also have resulted in red and followed on from the sort of tackle by Evans that littered the game. Too physical, too much, and never allowed in the season for real.

So in that way the work out for City was perfect – bad refereeing of the league season being substituted by soft pre-season officialdom and City responded to that work out well.

Another number four got a run out for the Bantams with former Luton and Hereford midfielder Stephen O’Leary wasting no time in pressing his case for a contract by finishing tidily a headed cut back by Michael Boulding who got on the end of a superb Joe Colbeck cross deep on the right.

Carlisle reacted poorly with Keogh swinging at Colbeck who spent the first half tormenting former Leeds man Ian Harte and looked distinctly second best. City’s second goal came from another Colbeck cross – a corner – which headbanded Matthew Clarke jumped for and may have connected with but landed at the feet of Peter Thorne who finished easily from close range. It was – at that stage – comprehensive.

Nevertheless twenty minutes later City were losing. Firstly Graham Kavanagh was allowed to turn on the edge of the box dropped away from the central defenders and not being picked up by the midfield – one of Stephen O’Leary and Lee Bullock should have been there – and was allowed time and space to fire in impressively from thirty yards.

Secondly the rain became torrential taking away Zesh Rehman’s legs as Joe Anyinsah played the ball to Matty Robson and was shown enough of the goal by Clarke to be tempted to shoot and duly did giving a second goal in two minutes. It was unimpressive defending and seemed to snap City right back into last season’s lower moments.

The spine of the team was found wanting, and the heart. Things went against the Bantams and the Bantams responded by sulking. It was Morecambe at Easter or Barnet away all over again and City visibly wilted.

The third goal came eight minutes later when a corner headed in by Joe Anyinsah with Simon Eastwood left flapping at the ball.

Eastwood has yet to impress and will need to communicate more with his backline to become a better keeper while his judgement at coming out to try collect this corner was curious to say the least. At the moment all he offers over Jon McLaughlin is that he is someone else.

So the black shirted Bantams trudged in at half time having been the best for thirty minutes but mostly through errors ended up losing. So far, so last season.

Nevertheless something that Stuart McCall said at half time reminded the team that they had been comfortable in the game for a long time because what one would hope is normal service was resumed with Bullock and O’Leary combining well with the attacking pair of Thorne and Boulding and Colbeck and Brandon coming inside and working the ball forward well with sudden, tight controlled football. Eastwood’s first half display may have been duplicated in the second had Carlisle mustered a shot worthy of the name in the second half but aside from a shot that flashed across the goal they threatened rarely.

City on the other hand revealed an alternative to the 442 which McCall favours with a 4231 that saw two holding midfielders in Bullock and O’Leary, Gareth Evans lead the line ahead of Colbeck, Brandon and James Hanson who lot a header today – a thing that is notable only for its infrequency such is the impressive abilities of the Idle Working Man.

Before the change in formation Michael Boulding had flashed a Peter Thorne chest down wide and Colbeck did similar following an impressive nutmegging of the referee but it was a breakaway from Evans which won a corner that when slung in the former Macclesfield man tucked away from close range despite a heavy first touch in a crowded penalty area.

Three all it finished and while Keogh would never have finished a league game and some of the tackling used the weakness of pre-season refereeing to avoid bookings and neutering giving both teams a good work out but causing worry for City.

Abbott’s side too easily bullied City – especially in that fifteen minute spell before half time – and the Bantams were not able to counter that physical play or that sudden burst of (for want of a better phrase) “wanting it” which undermined a performance that was worthy of a win.

O’Leary looked no better or no worse than other number fours we have tried but one of he or James O’Brien would seem to be about to be offered a contract this week and making a debut next but the Bantams need someone to sit in the midfield and someone to prompt and inspire in the way that McCall did when he rejoined City in ’98 galvanising a team that had lead the league in ’97 but faded into a genuine promotion side.

One would hope that City could find this type of leader from within the club – Peter Thorne seems to be captain apparent – and Zesh Rehman and Lee Bullock also hinting that they could emerge as characters but leadership is lacking and when City trudged back to the centre circle after the second and third goals there was no geeing up, no encouraging, no leadership pulling up everyone else’s game as McCall The Player did.

Brandon’s ill tempter kick certainly was not it and he needs to wear his status as City’s senior player with more conscientiousness and sobriety.

Ultimately though football is a game of balance in flux. In a match which was competitive this game was the 1st of 47th in a season that starts next week and may be no different to last with the collapse before half time so reminiscent of last year but perhaps it will be the 47th of 2008/2009 and in a week when the season kicks off City will be a team a year older, more experienced and able to drag a draw out of a game in which a lead was surrendered in contrast to last season.

One can but hope. Either way the phoney war is over and the season – nine months of elation and agony, anguish and exhilaration – starts now.

Where we will feel the pain as the cost cut squad is shaped

Seventy minutes into the friendly with Barnsley looking over the City side the shape of the squad for next season post £700,000 cost cut emerged and with it the nature of the squad and season.

Around the field City had replaced first teamers with younger players and Luke Sharry was making a case for being considered a central midfielder rather than a wide man to be back up to Lee Bullock when the thinness of the squad to come became apparent.

Not that you would see this from looking at the front players. Massive kudos to Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne who have both taken pay cuts to stay and form part of a four man team up front with Gareth Evans and James Hanson.

I confess I miss Barry Conlon’s robust style and the idea that Willy Topp might have been good but individually James Hanson and Gareth Evans offer no less than Topp and Conlon – well – is Hanson puts in the energy that Conlon did as his pre-season performances suggest he might then their is no reason why he can not be equally well thought of (assuming one thought well of Conlon that is).

Likewise out wide Joe Colbeck this season is no worse than Joe Colbeck last when he came into the year as a well thought of player of the season aside from the fact that the wide man is on week to week contracts and has had a half year of “atmosphere” at Valley Parade. Colbeck, like Chris Brandon, is an able footballer and Omar Daley (unloved, again, but his importance was shown in his absence) create a threesome of players who should be at the top of the division but starting with one injured City are already down to bare bones and hoping for the impressiveness of young players.

Luke Sharry – as mentioned – could be great back up for Lee Bullock and could be the player he hints at being in reserve games but hoping that Sharry can perform is not the same as dropping in Nicky Law Jnr to cover an injury. At one point last season we had six midfielders out (Colbeck, Daley, Bullock, Furman, McLaren and Brandon) and put together a team that beat MK Dons whereas this season it would be hard to see us being able to withstand such losses.

The hit of cutting costs is felt not as much in the quality of the squad but the strength of it. Good players but one worries if we got injuries and – two seasons in League Two tell us we will get injuries.

Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Matthew Clarke are covered by Simon Ramsden who is covered at right back by Jonathan Bateson. Luke O’Brien faces competition at left back from Louis Horne but both are young players and we are hoping both will transfer potential – to greater and lesser extents – into performances. Good players, little back up.

The signing of Simon Eastwood came with confirmation that he and Jon McLaughlin will be given the chance to fight over the gloves at Notts County and for the first half of the season.

Two inexperienced keepers is worrying – I have seen few good teams without a settled goalkeeper – as is the gap at number four.

City are closer to finding someone to fill the hole only in seeming to have decided that Grant Smith, Joe Keehan and a few others are not “the man”. Last season Dean Furman only signed at the end of August and perhaps in a month we might all be marvelling at John Fleck running riot in midfield.

Perhaps not though. This morning comes news of a bidding war for Leeds United’s Fabian Delph between Spurs and Aston Villa which City would take 12.5% of and as last season’s other big money side Shrewsbury Town sell Grant Holt at a £100,000 loss while Joe Hart – who they get £500,000 for should he play a full England game – so City are in a position of trimming the cloth today but perhaps being affluent tomorrow. Sign up a rookie keeper now and it we are in the top half at Christmas and find ourselves well off go get someone else perhaps.

Last season was budgeted as promotion or Delph leaving – this season it is assumed (sensibly) that neither will occur and the cloth is cut accordingly. Delph may stay until Christmas, until next summer, until he retires and City do well to not push out boats on the strength of his transfer status.

Nevertheless it is probable that at some point City will have over half a million coming in to the club and perhaps the season is shaped by staying in and around contention for as long as possible until that occurs. Should Delph leave at Christmas then the Bantams could move through the league in the last four months just as we did last year – only in the other direction. Similarly is we get that windfall on the last day of the Summer transfer window we are left with a squad and money hanging over us Notts County style for months.

There is a school of thought – which I subscribe to – that money in League Two is largely wasted and the teams rise and fall through spirit and morale.

That and keeping fingers crossed than injuries do not hit as hard this year as last.

Barnsley beat City 2-0 in pre-season showing the sum of the things we already knew

The warmth of the sun and the warm glow of pre-season continued as Barnsley beat Bradford City 2-0 at Valley Parade the visitors being good value for the win which – of course – is utterly meaningless.

Meaningless of course but all we have at this point and from that point of view the defeat gave City and Stuart McCall the same lesson which Burnley and Owen Coyle got when the men from Turf Moor arrived at Valley Parade for the start of pre-season. That any game at any level is lost by mistakes.

Those two mistakes from the Bantams came either side of half time the first being a corner that was allowed to pass in front of Jon McLaughlin in goal and behind the central defensive pairing of Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams and when none of the three claimed it opposition centre half Steve Foster did and the ball nestled into the back of the the goal.

Barnsley’s goal came after a decent first half for City that saw some good work with the forward players Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne combining well with the three forward midfielders Lee Bullock, Chris Brandon and Joe Colbeck with Bullock good all afternoon and Colbeck quiet but disciplined.

Brandon and Boulding combined well working the ball around a returning Darren Moore for Boulding to drag his shot wide. The punishment for allowing a corner to travel across the face of the goal aside a level scoreline at half time would not have been unfair.

Nevertheless Rehman and Williams seemed determined to make sure that that error never reoccurred and next corner both went, both made good contact, both ended on the floor. Rehman wandered off looking groggy to be replaced in the middle by Simon Ramsden who was giving a good account of himself at right back. McCall seems set to have his right back hang back and his left back go forward and Ramsden and Luke O’Brien are his players for that tactic.

Likewise his wide midfielders suit those roles with Colbeck covered and Brandon able to – and willing to – drop back and combine with a full back. All well save the gap at number four that yawns wide open. Grant Smith took the position in the first half and was not able to stamp his authority on the game nor was second half replacement James O’Brien.

The second mistake in the second half ended the Bantams realistic chances of winning when a lose pass from Luke O’Brien (Although it may not have been the left back, the view being spoilt by Stuart McCall blocking my view so James O’Brien or Chris Brandon may have been the man) being picked up in midfield by Jacob Butterfield who put the ball in for Jon Macken – a player Kevin Keegan once paid £5m for – to finish coolly. Give the ball away cheaply and you will lose matches.

City gave run outs to James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Leon Osborne – Hanson looked full of running and his a cracking attitude – while Luke Sharry got a chance to play central midfield showing no little ability. Should Sharry be dubbed first reserve for Bullock going into the season I would not be unhappy at all.

However the number four gap continues two games and two weeks away from the start of the season. James O’Brien and Hugo Colace got involved in tackling that would result in booking and O’Brien looked frustrated by his inability to grasp the chance and take the position that begs for a player.

Back to football as City take on Barnsley

The season, or should that be the open season, started early this year with Stuart McCall and Mark Lawn facing City fans in a forum leaving them happy on the way out but foaming at the mouth when typing.

It was one of those weeks where one is happy to get to the football as we do with the pre-season visit of Barnsley on Saturday.

City face the South Yorkshiremen in good pre-season form with the XI loss to Manchester City being largely forgotten about and McCall is able to further shape a squad that tellingly is numbered for the season but lacks a 1 and a 4.

Andy Holdsworth was to be that four before he jumped on the midfielder pile at Oldham. Some say that as a decent ball player with League One experience Holdsworth should have had the boat pushed out for him – the HMS Infinite Money one assumes – because he was obviously the missing piece in the puzzle.

These people have heard of Paul McLaren and, one assumes, know the concept of irony but these two things do not link.

Holdsworth joins Joe Keehan in exiting with the tanned man not making the grade and going home. Jordan Hadfield and Grant Smith have much work to do before being considered the man for the four but one recalls how Dean Furman did not sign for the club until August and wonders if similar might be in the works.

Hadfield, Smith and Estonian Jevgeni Novikov will have a run about alongside Lee Bullock for City against the Tykes. Joe Colbeck gears up down one flank, Chris Brandon the other although Rory Boulding and Luke Sharry will get runs out.

Behind Colbeck will not be Paul Arnison who formally ended his Bantams career as his contract was cancelled by mutual consent. Arnison and Mark Bower look set to join Darlington and while any miss Bower – I believe that that as good as a player as he is the team needed Matthew Clarke in it in League Two – we will miss Arni who was never massively popular.

As a full back I liked Arnison. He supported his winger going forward better than almost any right back player since Brian Mitchell left the club in the early 1990s which I thought made up for his failings at the back which saw him often too advanced but tellingly played in the City sides that performed well last season. Judging his performances on the field I would say that McCall made a mistake letting him go but the rumours dogging the North Easterner are that he is not a good character to have around the dressing room and so he exits.

Simon Ramsden takes the number two shirt from him and will – with Jonathan Bateson backing up – play alongside the pairing of (Perm two from) Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Matthew Clarke. Luke O’Brien and Louis Horne are the left backs and both will feature.

The number one shirt is up for grabs. Jon McLaughlin may take the gloves but with McCall stating his desire to bring in a loan keeper City might have a new man signed to play between the sticks by the time the teams run out on Saturday.

At the other end of the field James Hanson celebrates his professional contract he signed this week and is looking to continue his good form. Gareth Evans, Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding complete what looks to be a stronger striking line up than last season.

City kick off the season in two weeks – Sven is waiting – and already the season long debate over management has started. The best answers for all are victories.

Trusting the outcome of friendlies is like trusting the weather forecast – but what else do we have to go on?

The forecast for today had been heavy showers and a heavy Bradford City home defeat to Premier League Burnley, but the unexpected bonus of bright sunshine shoving through the grey clouds and City coming from behind to earn a deserved victory offers a timely reminder against fearing the worst and taking too much notice of what others say.

Expectations for the new season have been dampened by player sales, wage budget slashing and the glass half empty attitude your average City fan seems to typify, so the prospect of a Bantams side peppered with trialists achieving anything better than a respectable defeat seemed remote. Come 5pm the grey clouds had at least been temporarily pushed into the background – both above and inside Valley Parade.

It would be premature to make too much of this result and performance, but it’s certainly a better start than the 3-0 half time scoreline that City began last year’s pre-season with. It should also be noted that one team performed in front a large number of their own fans, undertook a team huddle prior to kick off and reacted with anger and petulance when things began to go against them – and that team opens the new season playing Stoke and Man United.

Not that it had looked that way after an opening 20 minutes which saw Burnley pass the ball around with a nonchalance that reflected their elevated status, posing plenty of questions of a nervous-looking backline which included trialist Steve Williams. The returning Robbie Blake, again curiously booed by some City fans, looked a menace on the flank and, from his burst towards the box, 37-year-old Graham Alexander was able to unleash an unstoppable shot past youth keeper Matt Convey to put the Clarets in front. City looked disjointed, with the central midfield of Lee Bullock and James O’Brien – another trialist – pushed too far back and the Boulding brothers isolated up front.

Yet City were able to turn the tide largely thanks to two widemen who’ve come in for criticism for much of this summer. Chris Brandon is somewhat unfortunate to be bunched into the ‘big four’ group of high-earning underachievers the club has been trying to discard. He missed almost all of the season through injury and his return coincided with the team’s damaging March collapse in form. Having only made four starts, he has barely had a chance to make his mark. On this evidence he can offer much to City in the coming season, if, as appears likelier, he stays. He worked hard to harry for possession and charged forward to good effect, always looking to play an intelligent pass.

Meanwhile Joe Colbeck, who also suffered from injury problems and the expectation of instantly being able to rediscover form, has upset some with his refusal to sign a new contract. Any doubts about his commitment were quickly dispelled with an encouraging display which saw some surging runs down the right and some threatening crosses into the box. Both Brandon and Colbeck’s willingness to track back, win the ball and then keep it helped Bullock and James O’Brien become more influential, thus creating opportunities for the Bouldings.

It was from good hustling on Alexander by younger brother Rory that City were able to equalise. After winning the ball he charged forward and played a perfect pass to sibling Michael in the box, who pulled the ball back for James O’Brien to fire home. With each passing minute in the first half, the young midfielder looked more at home on the Valley Parade pitch.

Shortly afterwards the other O’Brien, Luke, played Michael Boulding through on goal to fire past Brian Jensen for 2-1. Luke is another player who it’s perceived has messed the club about with contract negotiations over the summer and some appear to want him to fail this season. The excellent way he had charged forward and released the ball at the right time was only surprising for how unsurprising it felt. This kid has come a long way from getting skinned alive by Gareth Grant in previous pre-seasons to become the type of forward-minded full back Stuart clearly craves.

Burnley responded to things going against them in the same manner as last year’s pre-season meeting – strong tackles and petulance. Left back Stephen Jordan deserved more retribution than referee Chris Oliver’s disapproving wiggle of the finger after a string of poor challenges. Maybe it’s this type of will-to-win spirit that City should aspire to emulate, though the resultant lapsed focus saw the previously-confident looking visitors become increasingly ordinary. Record signing Steve Fletcher might have equalised following a goalmouth scramble, but managed to blast the ball into an empty Kop from barely two yards out, while Convey made a decent save from a Wade Elliot shot.

City in contrast looked increasingly assured. New signing Jonathan Bateson impressed at right back, Williams and Matt Clarke were solid. The Bouldings were both lively and Michael in particular looked a different player from the one who too often sulked anonymously for long spells during home games last season. A bit more composure in front of goal would have seen a bigger half time score.

But if there was much from the first half to encourage manager Stuart McCall, watching from the press box, it was the second half that provided the strongest evidence yet that it can be third time lucky this season. The entire team was swapped around, with a higher number of youngsters and trialists, but the apparently weaker side continued to take the game to Burnley and knocked the ball around impressively.

The star performers were again on the wing. We’ve seen Luke Sharry impress in pre-season last year, and in an unexpected right wing role he shrugged off a nervy start to make an impact with some dangerous runs and clever use of the ball. Meanwhile Leon Osborne, who has enjoyed more first team football than Luke, was in excellent form down the left. Never shying from possession, he was regularly charging down the byeline and creating chances for front two Gareth Evans – strong and purposeful on his debut – and trialist James Hanson.

Chances were created and wasted, with almost every second half attack seemingly involving either Sharry or Osborne. There are fears the decreased wage budget will mean City have to rely more on their younger players next season, but if the price of tighter purse strings is the positive development of these two promising footballers joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes would do well to keep the piggy bank hidden. After all, who would have expected Luke O’Brien’s stunning progress this time last year?

Alongside Osborne and Sharry were the much talked about trialists Jordan Hadfield and Grant Smith – most of this talking from them bellyaching about past injustices. They had a chance to show what they can do and both displayed promise in winning tackles and setting up attacks, as well as making some effective forward runs. It will be interesting to see how they both progress through the other friendlies, but the early indications are that both are strong contenders for a contract. Simon Ramsden made his debut as a centre back alongside Zesh Rehman, while Paul Arnison and Louis Horne looked solid at right and left back respectively.

As impressive City were, it must be acknowledged that Burnley’s performance became more and more disjointed to the point that even threatening a late equaliser would have felt an injustice. The only City player who would have trooped off disappointed at the end was second half keeper Alan Mannus, who had nothing to do in his first trial game. The fact so many City players had something to prove – be they on trial or from the youth set up – must also be a factor. Few Burnley players had stronger motivation than building up their fitness in the final stages, a place in the team against Manchester United is not going to be achieved by busting a gut at Valley Parade.

But if it’s too early into pre-season to be excited by how easy City made it look, the positive signs should not be discounted. At the very least, a revised forecast for what City can achieve this season might be in order.

Evolution meets revolution when Burnley arrive at Valley Parade

Before the start of last season when a should have been ten men Burnley squeezed a last minute pre-season win once City has brought the kids on few would have predicted that in twelve months time the length of professional football would separate the clubs.

Nevertheless Burnley took that scrapping spirit, one supposes, into all their games last year and ended up winning the play off final. One would rather they were in the top flight over Reading so more power to their elbow. There Premier League is a maelstrom and change becomes revolution fast. Two years in the top flight changed Bradford City forever and tomorrow marks the end of that old Burnley.

In contrast City rumble onward after last season’s late collapse put pay to all that justified early season promise and arriving into this season are blessed with the stability of not having replaced manager Stuart McCall at the end of last.

McCall has enjoyed the near unheard-of luxury for a City boss of being able to continue crafting his squad as a work in evolution rather than the club throwing all away and starting again and as such will only be in a stronger position this year than last, and than a manager who would have replaced McCall would have been in.

Such is the virtue of stability – not to be confused with indolence – which allows for the exit of Graeme Lee for financial reasons and his replacement by an already bedded in Zesh Rehman. Rehman plays his first game full time for City and his reaction to the element of the Burnley support who shamed their club last year may give an indication for his readiness for the available captain’s arm band.

Lee was joined in exit by Paul McLaren although Michael Boulding talks of reducing his wage to allow him to stay and Chris Brandon, the last of the expensives, is training for his first season proper for the club he supports so should need no encouragement to provide good value, value being the lesson learnt from last season. Value and the need for harmony.

A lack of harmony seems to have cost Paul Arnison his his career at Valley Parade and Simon Ramsden and Jon Bateman both joined the club in the summer and can play right back. Luke O’Brien was the left back slot to himself while Rehman and Mathew Clarke seem to be the choice for the middle two but with only Simon Ainge at senior level as back up another body is needed.

A body is needed beween the posts too. Rhys Evans was moved on quickly at the end of last term and Jon McLaughlan is off saving penalties for Great Britain. It will be interesting to see who pulls on the gloves tomorrow.

Up front Peter Thorne returns but may not play, none of us are getting any younger, however M. Boulding and new boy Gareth Evans along with Rory Boulding will show their faces expect “that lad from the reserves” to play, scuff in a goal and not be shut up about for months.

Last season that oar was Luke Sharry who looked like an able midfielder and is, in my mind at least, worth putting in the squad as back up to Lee Bullock following the fruitless and pointless chase for Nicky Law Jnr.

The chase for Dean Furman was equally fruitless but much more required. Oldham signed him leaving City looking Jordan Hadfield, who looked up for a scrap when he played at Valley Parade, to try fill empty boots. We can but hope. Three of last season’s five central midfielders have gone and with one of them, Brandon, half out the door and needed to replace the still injured Omar Daley on the left it is not hard to see where City need to strengthen.

Joe Colbeck looks for a better season on the right with Daley injured and Steve Jones, last season’s sometimes effective winger back At Burnley after his loan giving him a free run at the side.

Expect that, a few kids, a pile of people you don’t know on trial and a lot of huffing and puffing that tries to extrapolate the most random ninety minutes over the next ten months.

Time for pre-season optomism?

There are times during the season where it’s neigh on impossible to get some City fans to say anything positive – but the prevailing mood amongst many so far this summer has been as dark as any last-gasp home defeat.

Some have gone as far as to believe the club faces a grim relegation battle next season, others can’t hide their envy towards clubs we were once able to look down our noses on. Within the last week though, it seems the new season is increasingly something to feel excited about. The fixtures are out, the majority of players we wanted to keep have agreed to stay and Zesh Rehman and Gareth Evans have joined Simon Ramsden and Jonathan Bateson on the ‘Players In’ list. It poses the question, is it time for pre-season optimism?

Those supporters who’ve taken a glass half empty look towards the future can fairly argue they are only following the club’s lead. At the end of last season, a gloomy picture of the playing budget for the next emerged. Manager Stuart McCall has consistently spoken of players needing to take wage cuts and played down the chances of capturing some of his transfer targets. Meanwhile the joint-Chairmen, Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn, have only been noticeable by their silence. No proclamations of targeting back-to-back promotions, no news of novel initiatives such as Lawn’s trip to Mexico last summer.

Undoubtedly, the uninspiring messages have been deliberate. Expectations over the past two seasons – much of which triggered by management and boardroom – have proved too high for the players to cope with. The feeling was that City had to get promoted in each of the last two seasons, but the much lower level of hype this time around may be about reducing the pressures of failure. The ambition is surely the same as the last two seasons, but the confidence in achieving it third time around is guarded against making public declarations.

Meanwhile some other clubs are spending significant money or at least talking about it. Rotherham have seemingly changed overnight from a club who end each season with an asterisk next to its name in the league table, due to points deductions, to big spenders. The seemingly terminally under-performing Notts County are set to acquire Middle East backers who are talking of lifting the club to the Championship within five years. That City and Shrewsbury began last season in similar positions of apparent affluence compared to others but still failed is forgotten by those who believe City can’t compete. But if a smaller budget rules a club out of triumphing over others, how on earth are Exeter City kicking off a League One campaign at Elland Road in a few weeks time?

Much of City’s finances depend on the future of the so-called ‘Big 4’ – Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee, Michael Boulding and Chris Brandon – who arrived last summer to widespread excitement. Their continuing employment is said to have severe repercussions over who else can be brought in alongside them, leaving McLaren, Lee and Boulding encouraged to take up their release clauses and Brandon free to talk to other clubs despite having another year left on his contract. Had any of these players not managed to disappoint last season, it would have been interesting to see how much their high wages really are an issue.

It’s not just getting them to move on that’s caused unrest among fans, but that plans to bring in new faces have apparently had to be delayed until their futures are determined. A couple of weeks ago Nicky Law’s decision to spurn City for Rotherham was seen as the fault of these players, by compromising Stuart’s ability to match the Millers’ offer. The arrival of Gareth Evans, who has turned down other offers, contradicts this and suggests City do still have the resources to compete.

That said it’s far from ideal that Stuart is trying to build his team for next season while not knowing if some of the positions are filled. It’s claimed Lee and McLaren are attracting interest from other clubs but, given the wage budget-cutting measures at City are far from unique in the bottom two tiers of English football, it s improbable all four will receive attractive offers to move onto pastures new. Will they be prepared to take a pay cut and stay? It seems unlikely and, while footballers can largely be tainted with the same brush of money-grabbers, it’s doubtful we supporters would volunteer to take a pay cut in our own employment and these players won’t find it that much easier to pay the bills than most of us do.

Of the four, Boulding and Brandon’s continuing presence in Claret and Amber next season would be the most popular – yet even if they all stayed it might not be the disaster some fear. We’ve seen plenty of players over the years disappoint during their first season but become well-liked players in time – Peter Beagrie and Claus Jorgenson spring to mind – and, given their previous careers, if they were joining us this summer as new signings we’d probably be excited to welcome them.

At least the futures of the rest of the wanted squad members have been largely sorted. For a club which ultimately only narrowly missed out on a play off place and can largely thank a dodgy run of form for undermining a top three challenge, tearing everything up and starting again makes no sense. With Omar Daley not expected back much sooner than Santa, Joe Colbeck’s role will be more significant. Despite suffering a disappointing campaign, only five League Two players set up more goals for their team last season. Lee Bullock and Matt Clarke get more stick than they deserve, and will hope to maintain their best form for longer periods next term. They may be at different ends of their careers, but Luke O’Brien and Peter Thorne were two of City’s best performers next season and can once again play a key role this time.

One player we won’t be welcoming back is the aforementioned Nicky Law who, along with fellow loanee Dean Furman, was one of the bright spots of an ultimately disappointing season. When on form Law looked too good for League Two level and, if not City, his next destination was surely at a higher level. Instead he’ll be plying his trade at Rotherham and, while the son of the former City manager might claim he doesn’t owe the club he was on loan to any loyalty, the fact it wasn’t long ago he was thanking its manager for saving his career leaves a bad taste. Still, his previous relative obscurity should give us confidence in Stuart’s ability to unearth more gems like him.

Whether there are many more like Furman is another matter. Said to have been offered a deal by Stuart, his acceptance or rejection may determine the level of pre-season optimism. If it proves to be the latter decision, it will surely be due to the offer to play at a higher level, which in its own way may make the pain easier to bear compared to Law’s defection. Whatever happens, the success of Law and Furman should give other clubs’ more talented younger players the encouragement to follow in their footsteps if offered the chance to move to BD8 on loan.

Furman signing would leave City’s central midfield looking strong, though there are still other areas of the team for Stuart to build. More faces will arrive, the pre-season friendlies will commence in three weeks time and pretty soon it will be time to head down to Nottingham for the season’s start. Between now and then, the excitement should only grow.

The reality of the last two campaign is we’ve felt better about our team when they’ve not been playing, through the summer, than during the season itself. Pre-season optimism can be dangerous, foolish and, when looking at the mood among other clubs, too wide-ranging to have any meaning; but during these long summer days it’s all we’ve got and it would be preferable to countdown to the start of another 10 months of ups and downs by at least looking forward to it.

It never Rehmans but it pours

The youthful small army that carried the “Zesh Rehman Fan Club” banner will return to Valley Parade to see their hero next term after that Pakistan captain signed a two year deal at Bradford City in a flurry of pen being put to paper.

Rehman joined Stuart McCall’s budget Bantams at the same time as Luke O’Brien, Joe Colbeck and Leon Osborne confirmed they would be staying and the shape of Stuart’s City team for next season emerged looking oddly familiar and increasingly like last season’s side.

Frank Fielding of Blackburn is said to be the number one choice for keeper. Fielding impressed as a loan player when at Wycombe but few would suggest that the problem with last term was Rhys Evans. Jon McLaughlin is on permanent stand by and now that first team squads include seven substitutes he can expect to be on the bench every game at least.

Likewise Simon Ramsden will line up at right back rather than Paul Arnison but the position was not leaky last year and left wingers did not constantly enjoy joy leaving one to wonder what will be different. Rehman and Matthew Clarke will make a good enough back two. I countenance little debate on Clarke’ abilities pointing instead to the fact that City’s back four are not longer bullied by big forwards as proof of that particular pudding.

McCall has a chance to make a difference with left back Luke O’Brien and right winger Joe Colbeck. He has one player doing nothing and another who is young player of the season and his aim must be to get O’Brien to have a better season than Colbeck did in his post-award year and to get Colbeck back onto the form that won him that gong.

It is man management and the City McCall and his management team get or lose for one they gain for the other. With Omar Daley out until Christmas – and it is the opinion of this parish that losing Daley that caused the nosedive last year – getting Joe Colbeck to terrorise defences becomes of paramount importance especially with Peter Thorne signed up for another season.

Thorne’s ability to play two games a week is questionable and so City chase Gareth Evans but at the moment their is a huge Barry Conlon shaped hole in the forward line. Michael Boulding has taken on the air of Ashley Ward with a mythical and specific way of playing that would suit him and probably few others getting the best out of the channel running forward. Boulding moved late in the summer last season, perhaps he will again.

Chris Brandon signed early but is not leaving in the same way. Interest in Brandon is low to none as befits a man who started only four games last season and while the left flank man is one of the expensive exiters do not be surprised to see him line up for the start and many game next year.

As with last season though the middle of the midfield is mutable. The attacking midfielder question of Lee Bullock or Nicky Law Jnr is answered with one signing and the other joining Rotherham United so once again the fundamental question about Stuart McCall’s team is who will be his Stuart McCall?

Since our number four left for Sheffield United anchoring, holding midfielders have come and gone from Valley Parade and few have settled in what is – in the humble opinion of this writer – the most important position on the football field.

Dean Furman is wanted by us and Oldham and Paul McLaren will do well to find another club. Nathan Doyle is no more likely to get games this year at Hull City than he was last and some would have him in on loan.

So we look at Bradford City 2009/2010 and see a gap up front next to Peter Thorne, a question mark over the midfield and a new keeper we are not sure about. Much to be confident about but still issues that need addressing.

So much of the same.

McCall’s next City squad starts to take shape

Pakistan skipper Zesh Rehman has been offered a deal by the Bantams but longest serving player Mark Bower has been freed as Stuart McCall starts building his squad for 2009/2010.

McCall’s side’s failure to make the play offs has led to budget cuts – that is the short and not especially representative version of long story – and as a result four senior players have been freed with Bower joining out on loan Barry Conlon, oft injured Paul Heckingbottom, bit player Keith Gillespie and – surprisingly – Rhys Evans out of Valley Parade with the goalkeeper being rumoured to be interesting League One clubs including Leeds United.

The City boss has also prompted Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding to try find other clubs – something they can do owing to oddly one sided clauses in their contracts – but worries that should they not do the wage budget will be restricted. With times tough for many, if not most, clubs at the moment it is hard to see who will take the players on. Michael Boulding was not short of offers this time twelve months ago but traded from a position of being the leading scorer in League Two, likewise Paul McLaren negotiated with City as the most creative man in League One. Now these players go to a depressed market with a line on the CV that is read as a failure to make the top seven in League Two.

Do not be surprised if we have not seen the last of this trio.

Another trio who McCall would like us to see more of are Nicky Law Jnr, Dean Furman and Steve Jones whom the manager is trying to recapture on loan. Matthew Clarke, Lee Bullock, Luke O’Brien, Joe Colbeck, Leon Osborne Jon McLaughlin, Luke Sharry and Matthew Convey have been offered contracts while Kyle Nix is welcome back to preseason one assumes to await news of an exit for Lee, Boulding or McLaren. McCall will talk with Peter Thorne tomorrow.

All of which leave City with a weakened version of this season’s team should these machinations come off. McLaughlin seems to be fancied to be the new keeper having kept a clean sheet in the final game of last term. At 21 he is young but League Two is – increasingly for City – a learner’s league.

Paul Arnison has a two year deal and one assumes will stick at right back although his unwillingness to relocate from the North East is rumoured to have caused problems for McCall. Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke in the central defensive roles with Luke O’Brien at left back is an inch worse than Graeme Lee partnering either one – Lee came out of the season with more credit than most in this writer’s opinion – but Rehman is a cultured player and one who one could have confidence in. Clarke will continue to have his critics for both not being able to spray a Glenn Hoddle pass – which defender can? – and for his defensive lapses but since he replaced Bower in the side City have stopped being bullied by the usual big men forward lines we face.

Without wanting to delve into the stats of how many six foot two plus players have won headers in City game against Clarke vs Bower anecdotally one would suggest it is obvious that Clarke has plugged that gap. That he has other failings is a problem but in a League where physical prowess – bigness, if you will – is often the route to goal it is that no being bullied which is important rather than Bower’s more intelligent style of defending.

As with Andrew O’Brien before him Bower’s style suits the club less the further down the leagues we are. O’Brien’s man marking is superb on Thierry Henry but wasted in the Championship and Bower’s foot in play could – and would – do a lot at a Barnsley but does not at Valley Parade. One would have confidence that Bower could nick the ball from big men frequently but McCall obviously worries that the long serving defender would spend the rest of his time on his backside having been flattened and getting little sympathy from Referees.

Hearts are heavy though when a player with a service record like Bower’s leaves a club. He has given the lion’s share of his career to Bradford City having signed up on the 13th of May, 1999 four days after promotion and broken into the side a few years later with honest displays. He did his bit in administration and beyond and few City fans would not hope that he can establish himself somewhere else for the five or six years he could have in the game.

Uniting Dean Furman and Lee Bullock would seem to be the key to McCall’s midfield for next season with the City manager keen to see the Rangers midfielder back in the position he dominated last term – he played few games than Paul McLaren but made a more significant impact and was certainly more memorable – but Ibrox boss Walter Smith may have different ideas. Bullock is a useful player who has only shown his effectiveness in short spells while at Valley Parade. Next season McCall seems set to offer the former Hartlepool United midfielder the chance to make the position his own.

However McCall has struggled thus far in his management career to find a player to fill that number four shirt and role which he himself took at Valley Parade. Furman won the place from Paul McLaren whose season could be described as “middling”. McLaren did not take the mantel of senior professional with enough zeal and as a result on occasion looked a peripheral figure – especially when compared to Furman – just as Paul Evans the season before had failed to make the McCall slot his own.

Returning to Hoddle momentarily it is said that when England manager Glenn was frustrated with the players inability to match the magic feats of his own passing and one can only imagine the frustration that McCall – a player who lived by taking games by the scruff on the neck – has watching two players who have no shortage of talent in Evans and McLaren failing to control matches. Is Furman a better passer of a ball than McLaren or a better tackler than Evans? One could argue not but he has more cunning, more guile and it seems a stronger character that allows him to have more of a constant effect over a ninety minutes.

Defensive midfield – Furman’s nominal position and the one McCall had – is perhaps the most crucial role on the field and Furman represents a safe bet for City. We have seen that he will not shirk in the role unlike the previous two candidates who were on the face of it excellent choices for such a position and thus he is a tried and tested option for a job which I would argue the failure to fill correctly has cost us over the previous two season, and probably longer.

It should be noted that Luke Sharry has had a productive season and while not ready for the number four role should be expecting to feature in a dozen or more games next term.

The scenario on the flanks remains as it was this season: Joe Colbeck, perhaps Chris Brandon, Omar Daley when fit, Nicky Law should he return and Steve Jones if he is interested. Returning Colbeck from the jaws is poor form and the critics that wait for such to attack him is of paramount importance for McCall as establishing Omar Daley as a threat on the left was this term. McCall flits between preferring a pair of wide players such as Daley, Jones and Colbeck and wanting one wide and one more tucked in as Chris Brandon or Law offers and one can expect that method of trying to fill the middle of the midfield to continue.

Brandon has been unable to provide much of an indication as to his effectiveness this season and – based on last season – given a choice between him and Law one would take the younger man from Sheffield United. Should Brandon be edged out of Valley Parade – and indications are that the club would be able to keep him – then Kyle Nix would be an able replacement and I for one am surprised that the young Rotheraussie has not been offered a new deal offering the heart and ability the former of which was often lacking last season.

In August Stuart McCall would hope to line up with Joe Colbeck, Dean Furman, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon across the middle and few would suggest that represents a major shift away from this term with improvement inferred from consistency with all four players having spent long periods injured. Allowing whoever is in the number four role to build up a relationship with the defenders to feed the ball in ending the long hoof of the end of last term and with the three midfielders around him who would take the ball is crucial and Furman can be trusted to do that. If he is not retained we re-enter the lucky dip of trying to bring in a cog to be the most important part of our machine. Like good goalscorers – they don’t get given away.

Peter Thorne will talk to Stuart McCall in a conversation about “legs” and if the striker still has them and McCall will hope to move Michael Boulding on to no great distress from I. For all his hard work Boulding failed to build a partnership either with the forward he was alongside or the players supplying him from midfield. Barry Conlon officially left the club and Willy Topp is long gone leaving the City boss looking for three or four strikers for next term.

In this respect McCall is in the hands of the trio of players who may leave. Should Lee, McLaren and Michael Boulding all exit then pressure on his budget would be loosened and the City manager could get to looking for a goal getter or two – one would suggest he tries to find a fast one, a skilful one, a big one and one who can finish again but that is how we entered this year – but should this not happen then the Bantams manager will be left looking at scraps to find a feast. The ramification of Barry Conlon and Matthew Clarke’s fall out with McCall obviously preclude Conlon’s return despite a half dozen goals for Grimsby Town and one wonders if allowing the fighting Irish to leave is not going to haunt the Gaffer as he starts looking for players with passion, strength and a good track record and finds that Barry’s name comes top of the searches.

In such a situation Rory Boulding becomes an option although reports on him are mixed on the little brother while Leon Osborne and Sean Taylforth are no one’s idea of the player to lead you out of League Two. All three could be world beaters but the fact that they are – should Thorne not be retained – all that is in the cupboard for next term shows the problem Stuart McCall will have in building a side for next term.

In the season John Hendrie talked about the need for another striker and McCall tried Chris O’Grady and Paul Mullin in that role but ultimately when cutting the cloth to keep the club in business the side suffers and the forward line would seem to be where City are to take the hit.

So McCall is charged with three summer tasks. He must get the players he has offered new deals to to sign – some are given reduced terms – and will use the carrot of a smaller squad and a guaranteed place in the starting eleven achieve that with the likes of Lee Bullock.

Secondly he must work on ensuring he has the right man for the number four role with Dean Furman being nominated as the prefer choice. Filling this position is or paramount importance.

Finally he must find a set of strikers who want to play for the club and who have the ability but for some reason – probably as with Thorne it would be age – are not at a higher level and do not expect massive wages. Rumour has it David Wetherall is being moved to youth team coach. Wetherall never really got on with Dean Windass…

A tortured ending

This was supposed to be the perfect setting for the final scene of a glorious story.

Almost exactly two years since relegation to League Two was confirmed by a dismal 3-0 reverse at Saltergate, the resurrection of Bradford City was going to be sealed on the same spot. After the Derbyshire Police dogs had finished scaring away some of the chavviest opposition supporters you’ll ever see, City’s players would be presented with the League Two Championship trophy, or maybe only second or third would have been achieved which would still have given cause for wild celebrations. At the very least, we’d have sealed a spot in the play offs and be looking ahead with anticipation.

And if a film director was to tell the story of City’s triumphant 2008/09 promotion on the big screen, they’d begin it with a flashback to April 2007; to Steve Schumacher telling supporters to ‘eff off, to caretaker manager David Wetherall in tears, to tabloid newspapers proclaiming the club was going bust.

But there is no fairytale ending, not this time, yet again. It was an ending that saw City coast to the sort of 2-0 victory the backbone of promotion-winning sides are built upon. But the infrequency of such occasions – this was City’s first away win since beating Gillingham 2-0 in February and they have only won once more on the road, at Rotherham, during the last six months – is as much behind the anticlimactic ending as injuries and bad refereeing decisions. It was the sort of victory to raise spirits and prompt a good sing-along, but there is ultimately no feel-good story to the league campaign it marked the conclusion of.

City’s hopes of ending with a promotion party were effectively ended at Dagenham two weeks ago, and the feeling since has been one akin to a particularly stinking hangover. The glaring morning sunshine has forced the ramifications for failure into the spotlight. There is remorse towards what was done when the champagne was flowing, regrets when emptying the pockets and finding ATM receipts that recall how much money was spent along the way, despair at decisions made and the consequences that now must be faced. Even the good bits of news – of Stuart staying – can’t be cheered as feverishly as they perhaps deserve. The mind is occupied by so many what ifs and if onlys – and the best way of asking some now-unwanted guests to leave.

The line up for Saturday’s final game had a somewhat unusual feel, especially when remembering who had been left at home. There was no Rhys Evans, the keeper who began complaining about the lack of a new contract as long ago as February and who might now be taking Stuart McCall off his Christmas card list.

There was no Graeme Lee and Paul McLaren, two of those champagne signings who’s continuation with City next season compromises so much of the playing budget.

There was no Chris Brandon and Steve Jones, the former of whom’s City career is rumoured to be over before it ever begun.

There was no Peter Thorne, who we hope will be still scoring goals for City the next season.

There wasn’t even David Wetherall – the central character two years ago – which will do little to dampen rumours of him leaving.

But there was a team which displayed commitment, energy and guile. Jon McLaughlan took Evans’ place in goal and looked comfortable with everything thrown his way, though it must be acknowledged Chesterfield’s Jack Lester-less attack were toothless and failed to force a meaningful save from the former Harrogate Railway keeper.

Matt Clarke was recalled to partner Zesh Rehman at the back and was typically robust and strong. Occasional bouts of sloppiness apart, he and Zesh dominated their penalty area and would make for a good backline to start next season with.

Joe Colbeck was brought back on the right and looked more confident and lively than in recent weeks. A group of pathetic morons – apologies but that’s the politest term I can use – chose to chant “you’re not fit to wear our shirt” towards last season’s player of the season. That was during a rare moment they bothered to watch the game, such was there main interest in goading Chesterfield supporters. Joe did not resort to a Schumacher-style response, though that would have been too kind towards them anyway.

Up front we got to see the Boulding brothers and while the focus was mainly on younger brother Rory – making a belated debut and showing promise with some good link up play – Michael’s performance particularly caught the eye. This was every inch the player Stuart had worked so hard to pursue last summer, making effective runs here and there and charging at home defenders in a manner that suggested no one had told him this was a meaningless game. Michael was playing while the other two with clauses to leave were not, it’s to be hoped he’ll be willing to take a pay cut and remain a key player for next season.

After a first half of nothingness was shaded by City, with Colbeck shooting wide and an unmarked Lee Bullock directing a header the wrong side of the post, the visitors really stepped it up after the break and should have edged in front with Rory Boulding and again Bullock passing up presentable chances; but then Rory did well to set Nicky Law away down the left, who charged down the byline and delivered a purposeful low cross which was met perfectly by the on-rushing Dean Furman to fire City in front.

“Sign him up” was the chant towards Furman. When we reflect on where it went wrong this season, the injury that forced the influential midfielder to miss those crucial games against Morecambe, Lincoln and Dagenham will feature high up the list. In the last two games Furman has been simply outstanding and, if the rapturous reception he received at full time proves to be the last time we see him in a City shirt, we should at least be thankful we were given a season to enjoy his talents. Who knows what the future holds, but it’s not far-fetched to ponder that the next time we properly see him he could be playing for the host Country in the 2010 World Cup.

Chesterfield’s response was limited, with the only Blue passion coming from supporters chanting for manager Lee Richardson to be sacked. Drew Talbot should have equalised but fired woefully wide after charging through on goal. That would have been undeserved and, with four minutes to go, Michael Boulding sniffed out half a chance and smashed the ball into the net.

By that stage younger brother had been withdrawn and his replacement, Leon Osborne, arguably made a bigger impression after linking up impressively with Boulding senior and playing some intelligent passes. He also made clever runs, took up useful positions and might have grabbed a first senior goal had he not shot as hastily when a sight on goal opened up.

Kyle Nix also came on after Law, who was a menace on the left, took a knock. Law received a great ovation as he hobbled past the City fans with more “sign him up” chants. The odds are short on neither he and Furman being here next season, but even if one of the two could be persuaded to continue their fledgling career at Valley Parade next season there’d be cause for joy.

For now though, there is no celebration. The players came over to thank us supporters at the end, and the generous applause they received in return was well deserved. It can’t be forgotten that when it really mattered, these players choked. But at least a degree of pride has been restored following the last two performances and we don’t need to go into the summer feeling as miserable as we did a fortnight ago.

This victory won’t have cleared that hangover and the next few days promise to be particularly difficult, with tough decisions on player and staff futures needing to be made. Credible rumours are growing that Mark Bower and Evans have already left and it’s clear others will follow.

Quite how many do could yet be the key for next season, for there is enough quality and enough determination already in the dressing room to put right this season’s wrongs. The challenge is to keep those players and find new stars to deliver alongside them.

It’s also to be hoped that next season we get a more sympathetic script writer.

The budget announcement should not spell doom and gloom

In recent years, there’s being a growing obsession with playing budgets and the comparison to others. Every season one or two sides gain promotion on a shoestring budget, the achievements of which are used as a stick to beat failing clubs with larger ones.

At City we know this more than ever, manager Stuart McCall enjoyed what is widely recognised to be the largest budget in the division, but has not been able to use it well enough to claim even a play off spot. Meanwhile clubs such as Exeter and Dagenham have achieved more with less. Champions-elect Brentford have spent money they don’t have on gambling for promotion, though it remains to be seen if they will fall the way of Stockport next season.City have gambled to a point as well this season, and now we have to face the consequences.

There’s no doubt Stuart has had the luxury of a large squad to choose from this season, and the news the playing budget will be cut by a third for next season is understandably prompting concern. The noises coming from the Chairmen hardly seem the most positive, though given how often big budget results in big failure in football, it shouldn’t mean approaching next season in trepidation.

It’s traditional for City to release a high number of players at the end of each campaign and, with cuts to make and new signings to think about, Stuart’s attention will already be on which of his players deserve another contract in the likelihood of him staying on as manager. Rhys Evans made it known some months ago that he would like a new deal and the stability concept that has seen many of us argue for the man in the dugout to stay can also apply to the man between the posts.

All five of Stuart’s present centre backs could leave this summer, with captain Graeme Lee one of the four players with a clause in his contract allowing him to leave due to the club’s failure to go up. Lee has been criticised, but is a good League Two player and seems a committed enough person to stay around to me. Matt Clarke is unloved by many and it must be acknowledged that the previously struggling back four looked stronger in his absence on Saturday. Zesh Rehman took his place and was outstanding. His loan is up, but so is his contract at QPR. If it came down to a choice between keeping one of the two my vote would narrowly go to Rehman.

When Mark Bower signed the four year deal which is about to expire, back in 2005, it was for a club with ambitions of a quick return to the Championship. He is likely to be City’s highest earner, a position not befitting someone who has made only four appearances this season. If the long-serving defender is offered a new deal, it will be for far less money. Simon Ainge and Paul Heckingbottom are likely to depart.

In midfield Paul McLaren is another with a clause to leave and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took advantage of it and, with rumoured high wages, it would probably be for the best. Lee Bullock is out of contract but may have done enough in his last two impressive Valley Parade appearances to convince he could be a regular next season. Chris Brandon is rumoured to face an uncertain future, which is a shame as we’ve yet to see the best of him due to those injuries. Kyle Nix’s surprise inclusion against Rotherham looks too little too late, while we could only dream of keeping Dean Furman and Nicky Law. The former is reckoned by some Rangers fans to be ready for first team football at Ibrox next season, the latter’s future may depend on whether Sheffield United earn promotion to the Premier League. Even if surplus to requirements at Bramall Lane, he can play at a higher level than League Two.

Joe Colbeck’s sub cameo was uplifting and it’s unthinkable that he will be allowed to leave, Peter Thorne too has another year left in him and the 17 goals he’s bagged so far this season is impressive considering the number of injuries he’s picked up firing them in. If he stays, his decreasing fitness reliability means he cannot start the season as the main striker. Michael Boulding can leave but probably won’t. Rory too can go but again probably won’t.

Of the other loanees, Steve Jones was outstanding up front against Rotherham, but his inconsistency is maddening. Nevertheless an attempt to keep him should be made. Paul Mullin will not be missed by anyone but there’s little doubt another big forward will be signed up in his place. Keith Gillespie’s time at City will be quickly forgotten.

Stuart will be on the look out for new signings, but it shouldn’t be a case of ripping things up and starting again. This team has ultimately disappointed but it was the closest towards delivering promotion than any others we’ve had in recent years. Stuart has the summer to consider why it didn’t prove close enough and find the answers to ensure it goes closer next time.

For, while expecations may dampen for next season, there is no need to believe we can’t make a better fist of challeging for promotion with fewer resources. The economic climate that will start to truly impact on football next season, should result in clubs in a stronger position to negoiate with players over contracts. A smaller squad will hopefully result in a settled team. Injuries may undermine efforts, but the emergence of Luke O’Brien should provide confidence to try other youngsters. There may be less loan signings, but that would be no bad thing.

Stuart will hardly be left with a shoestring budget to build next season’s team, success as manager will come from making less go further.

The worst punishment

Putting aside debates over Stuart McCall’s ability for a moment, everyone should be horrified by the prospect of the Bantams manager leaving this summer. A managerial vacancy in May will mean the play offs have been missed and a resultant punishment no one connected with City will relish – more of the same.

Today’s 1-0 defeat to Port Vale was a bad advert for League Two and sadly something its biggest crowds have had to become used to. Not so long ago visiting teams came with clever game plans that often worked, this season the majority show up with limited aspirations of avoiding defeat. Five across the midfield, time waste as often as possible and, on occasions home players get through, bring them down by any means necessary.That they succeeded owed more to City’s lack of confidence than any better parking of the bus compared to others.

The only goal of the game came four minutes after the break through a neat low finish by David Howland, but the chance came seconds after City had been on the attack and Keith Gillespie, making his full debut, had produced an ill-advised short pass to Dean Furman which had too much power to control and allowed Paul Marshall to break forward. Graeme Lee stood off him too long and, when he did eventually put in a challenge, the ball spun into Howland’s path from which he beat Rhys Evans.

It was the only time Vale troubled City’s goal, though the territorial advantage the Bantams enjoyed didn’t manifest itself into many chances. Lee might have made up for his hesitancy for the goal with three attempts that were cleared off the line, Clarke had a decent half volley attempt which was straight at Valiant keeper Jon Anyon, Furman blazed over and Steve Jones stabbed a few efforts wide – but at no point in the game was momentum built up to the level of heavy pressure.

The biggest concern for Stuart will have been that the final whistle did not herald only the second home defeat of the season, his team looked beaten long before it. Confidence is draining from certain players who, only a matter of weeks ago, were in excellent form. Low confidence for City typically results in a more direct approach and an over-desperation to force a goal which was evident even during the early stages. The lack of composure in hurrying the ball forward rather than passing it around patiently meant possession was quickly gifted back to Vale, who tried their hardest to boot it back in the direction it came.

Stuart has faced the conundrum all season of two central midfielders being out numbered by three opposition and seemed to have found the solution in the boundless energy levels of Furman and Nicky Law, but even the on-loan pair looked jaded and unable to influence the game. Out wide Gillespie and Jones battled hard and caused problems, but the double-marking tactics left them struggling for space and the efforts of Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien to support were undermined by the former’s favouritism of his left foot and the latter’s struggle to handle the counter attack threat from his side.

Up front Paul Mullin made his debut after signing on-loan from Accrington and, though he showed some good touches and battled well, offered nothing Barry Conlon does not on a good day. The hope for Stuart will be that he has higher consistency levels. Michael Boulding looked useful with the ball at feet but finding space is a problem he’s faced at Valley Parade all season. With the ball invariably aimed at Mullin, he was forced to feed off scraps. Stuart introduced Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock from the bench, but neither had any impact.

Fortunately for City, this impact on the league table has been just as slight, with only Rochdale winning and the gap to third still only a mountable six points. Realistically the play offs are the target but the worry is this further dent on confidence will make it even harder for the players to achieve that. Next week’s game at Chester becomes even more must-win and, with The Blues winless in 17 and having fallen into the bottom two for the first time, it will be a pressure game for both sides. Losing is unthinkable and would bring the reality of missing out on the top seven and another season in League Two closer.

That we are even here in the first place owes a little to today’s whistle-happy referee who did as much to ruin the spectacle as Vale’s Marc Richards and his kicking the ball away time-wasting efforts. It’s almost two years ago to the day since Steve Bratt was last officiating at Valley Parade and on that afternoon he stopped a resurgent City effort against Blackpool by ridiculously sending off Steve Schumacher just as the Bantams were completely on top. The score was 1-1 but the game ended 3-1 to the Tangerines with the hapless referee later admitting he was wrong to dismiss Schumacher – in between City were relegated from League One.

Back at the scene of the crime, Bratt played completely into Vale’s hands by continually stopping play and awarding some bizarre free kicks. On at least two occasions City players were fouled, only for Bratt to give the decision the other way. He also displayed ridiculous inconsistencies with the advantage rule, at one stage pulling the game back ten seconds after a Vale foul hadn’t stopped Boulding charging into the area with just a defender and keeper to beat. No wonder the Vale players were so quick to shake his hand at the final whistle.

Stuart was yet to be installed as manager on Bratt’s last visit; as assistant to Neil Warnock, he had just witnessed Sheffield United lost 3-0 at Chelsea. The bright lights of the Premier League quickly became distant after the five successive defeats early into his City managerial career, last season. His immediate task is to make sure that record isn’t equalled next Saturday, as well as restore hope we might escape another year of punishment.

Deflecting viewpoints – Bournemouth v Bradford City – League Two preview

Deflections are habitually described as wicked, and the one which Dean Moxley’s cross took off Paul Arnison to loop over Rhys Evans for Exeter’s winner on Saturday was heinous in its contribution towards City’s promotion hopes.

City spent the remaining 70 minutes trying to neutralise its implication but in the end it was late drama 250 miles to the East, in Kent, which had the most telling affect. Grant Holt’s late equaliser may have pushed his Shrewsbury side above City, but the two points it cost Gillingham means automatic promotion remains a reachable three points away. Victory at Bournemouth tonight could shorten that gap to mere goal difference and deflect a season in danger of going either way back in the right direction.

Recent form is not good enough, no one would argue. Defeat at Exeter was City’s fourth in a row on the road and fourth in six full stop. It’s a measure of inconsistencies with City’s promotion rivals – Brentford apart – that a one point deficit City had after drawing at home to Darlington last month has only increased by two during a period of some of the Bantams’ worst performances of the campaign.

Much has been made online about the latest defeat with the extreme calls of Stuart McCall to be sacked aired by some. Normally I’d try to argue this is ridiculous but there seems little point, not least because their cries are not going to be acted upon by those who get to decide. Furthermore I – as, I would guess, are many others who defend Stuart – am tired of receiving the lazy and patronising put-down of wearing ‘rose-tinted glasses’ when I do.

There’s no room for debate with some supporters, if you disagree Stuart should be booted out it’s not because you rationally believe he’s doing a decent job, you are stupid; or blind and own prescribed magic spectacles – I forget which.

Back in the South, the City squad have remained from Saturday and one hopes the unusually long period of time spent together as a group will have benefited team morale and increased focus ahead of a vital encounter with Bournemouth. Stuart took a squad of 20 to Devon last week before facing a disciplinary problem with Barry Conlon and Matt Clarke, which hampered selection.

Reaction to Conlon and Clarke’s misdemeanours is like opinions on the best way to punish children – everyone has a view but no one ever agrees. Details are unclear, but it would seem Stuart chose to keep them grounded in the stand and stop their pocket money for at least a week. Some criticise him for cutting his nose to spite his face by leaving them out, others argue the pair should never play for the club again. Both players are expected to be back in consideration again with Stuart’s reluctance to publicly criticise them hopefully being rewarded with a determination from both to make amends.

Conlon’s absence and another little injury to Peter Thorne left Stuart selecting Nicky Law up front with Michael Boulding at St James Park. Stuart is often accused of playing Law ‘out of position’, though these critics seem to ignore the fact Law’s career at Sheffield United has so far involved playing out wide or up front. A central midfield partnership with Dean Furman results in Law ultimately ‘out of position’. Some might call it clever management by Stuart to get such great performances out of him in the centre this season. They will probably be the same folk wearing rose-tinted glasses, though.

Law should return to the midfield but perhaps on the wing with Lee Bullock or Paul McLaren partnering Furman in the centre and Steve Jones on the right. The club’s failure to get returning injured players looking anything better than rusty is troubling, though Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon may be considered for starts. As will Keith Gillespie.

Up front Thorne is definitely out so Conlon should partner the hit and miss Boulding. Stuart’s failure to bring in a fourth striker is been debated by some. Tellingly up to five clubs are reported to be on the verge of administration with talk of one League Two club being unable to complete its fixtures. That won’t be City, but the still tight finances mean the luxury of signing the mythical fourth striker who’d score lots of goals probably isn’t available.

Jones is the nearest to a replacement we had for Willy Topp in terms of space on the wage bill, and may play more regularly in the striker berth if other wingers can start matching his form out wide. Gillespie was clearly only brought in because of Omar Daley’s injury and whether he is on anything more than a pay-as-you-play deal is suspectable.

At the back Clarke will be expected to return with Zesh Rehman either switched to right back for Arnison or relegated back to the bench. Luke O’Brien and Graeme Lee will hope to better recent efforts with Evans keeping goal.

Bournemouth’s recent form is amongst the best in the league and stronger than most promotion-chasing clubs. From a seemingly hopeless position, their third manager of the season, Eddie Howe, has reinvigorated belief and ten undefeated matches from 12 has propelled the Cherries out of the bottom two. They are also the only club to win at Valley Parade so far this season and present a tough prospect for City to end their away woes against.

Defeat would prompt an even angrier reaction from fans and a win would largely bring calm. Whichever there will be eight games left to play and nothing to suggest the up-and-down nature of the first 38 will cease. This is going to be the most exciting end to a season in ages and as much as they may leave us sleepness and distraught on occasions they should also bring excitment and joy.

Spectacles optional.

Conlon vs Clarke? McCall is the loser in that battle

There is speculation that the breach of club dicipline that saw Barry Conlon and Matthew Clarke dropped from the squad on Saturday was a punch up between the two biggest bruisers the Bantams had and frankly had tickets been sold for that event I can imagine it would be worth watching in that Clash of the Titans way.

This speculation might be filed next to Paul McLaren’s walk out and will never play for City again or Peter Beagrie’s famously broken leg on the 1st of April 1999 – “Which one is it that he hasn’t broke?” – or it might be grounded. I’m not one to speculate without fact on my side and the paid could well have been fleecing the young ‘uns at cards or staying out past curfew but for something will be proof that Stuart McCall lacks the strength to impose discipline.

His most famous moment – to many – is falling off a car drunk. One can see the problems he would have telling players how to behave but perhaps the punishment for the pair – of which McCall says We’ll keep it private but it’s over and done with now. They are both back in the squad. – is that strength being flexed.

Not too far away breeches of club discipline became an issue after the Oldham Athletic players were seen scrapping at Belle Vue Dog Track. John Sheridan paid for the problems with his job although a 6-2 defeat at the weekend would not have helped matters and now he has been replaced by Joe Royle.

McCall and Sheridan were on opposite sides of the camp in the 1980s with the Irishman Leeds United’s favourite midfielder and Stuart City’s. Both are in management at the same time and both have discipline problems to deal with.

Boundry Park provides an interesting test case for City fans. Oldham have fallen out of the play-off zone after looking good for promotion earlier and in Royle they have their totemistic manager – their Paul Jewell – back in charge replacing a young favoured former player. If the potato headed one can lift them into The Championship then those City fans who believe that the Bantams should be making a change in the big chair can point to that and make the point that the same should have happened at Valley Parade. If not then one could argue that there is some proof that changing managers does not equate to changing fortunes.

We watch with interest as we watch the reintegration of Conlon and Clarke back into the City side. Neither have enjoyed universal popularity but both have merits. Conlon never gives up and is an object lesson for the rest of the side – an example if you will – while Clarke’s abilities are evidenced not in singular moments but in a sea change in City’s modus operandi. It used to be that the Bantams were bested by big men bullying Mark Bower and now those days are over. That Clarke has failings in other areas one must balance against those benefits and the idea that Zesh Rehman offers similar, if not better.

Both players will live to fight another day – players always do and John Sheridan is out of work while his brawling players continue to be paid – and so will McCall who in having to wield discipline will be viewed by some as lacking it.

It is not plain which plan is being followed

Note: The following is Paul Firth’s report in the game with Exeter that was mailed on Saturday night but took some time to arrive leaving events to pass it with the news of the reason for Conlon and Clarke’s exclusion. The report makes interesting reading so is included.

Many words have been written on BfB earlier this season on the concept of ‘Plan B’ and, in particular, on whether Stuart McCall has one. At Exeter it was not plain which Plan or, indeed, if anything that might be dignified by the use of a term such as ‘plan’ had been put into action.

The obvious response to the Rochdale defeat was a reshuffling of the team. At kick off it wasn’t easy to work out what the team, as opposed to the eleven players, would be. Maybe this was the plan, to confuse the opponents. It certainly confused me for long enough. The Thorne/Boulding/Conlon debate took another twist with only the middle one of the three surviving. But what looked like a 4-5-1, with Boulding on his own, became a 4-4-1-1, with Nicky Law ‘in the hole’.

Zesh Rehman replaced Matt Clarke, who had been no worse than a few other defenders at Rochdale. But the midfield saw the biggest changes. Out went Joe Colbeck and back came both Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren. About the only description to be given to this section of the team was disjointed.

We all know how effective Law and Furman have been together and that there can be a problem if the opposition have a few more tall players. Disrupting that partnership can be justified, but not so easily. This was not so much a disruption as an earthquake. Furman looked lost. Not only was he without his partner, but he was no longer sure who his partner was. McLaren rarely crossed the half way line. Bullock’s function seemed to be to get on the end of any high ball from the back – and there were far too many of those again – and only Jones, in his spot on the right wing, seemed truly at home.

The bench contained no fewer than two more right wingers in Colbeck and the newly signed Gillespie, together with Brandon, Thorne and Ainge. The absence of a keeper should no longer be a surprise, perhaps, but do we really need two right wingers on the bench? Messrs Conlon and Clarke, sitting in the row behind me in the stand, looked in danger of tripping over their faces so long were they. I don’t think they liked not being in the sixteen.

The Cowshed roof at St James Park (the Exeter version) has an overhang that reminded me of the old Valley Parade stand. The football in 2009 also reminded me of the pre-1985 style. I lost sight of the ball for about a third of the game because either a stanchion obstructed my view or the ball was once more coming out of the sky above. The pitch appeared to be in very fine condition, but perhaps the groundsman had threatened both sides about wearing out his grass.

City without doubt are at their best when they pass the ball at pace along the ground and use the obvious skills of the front six. Instead they competed with the home team in a game of hoof-ball that was unedifying and rarely entertaining. It summed up the quality of the match that the only goal was a complete fluke. Dean Moxey advanced up the left wing, going past Arnison with some ease, despite the attempted hand-off. As Arnison returned for a second attempt Moxey crossed from near the corner. The ball was deflected up in the air over the head of the hapless (and capless) Evans and into the net. Whether the sun shining straight into his face made any difference only Evans will know. The Exeter keeper in the second half was not bare headed.

At half time there had been plenty of good work down City’s right, but the home keeper had had just the one shot to save, a half volley from outside the box hit well enough by Steve Jones, but requiring only a routine stop.

As the teams came out for the second half I couldn’t help thinking of the symbolism in McLaren’s change of shirt. His new top had neither number nor name. In every sense he would now be anonymous, any identity being revealed only when the number 4 came up on the fourth official’s board twenty minutes into the half. Enter Peter Thorne and another change of formation, with Law, Furman and Bullock vying with each other for the midfield area not covered by Jones.

As the second half progressed City had more and more possession in their opponents’ defensive third. Corners and free kicks were apparently endless, but the home keeper had very few saves to make, the best being with his feet following a Jones run and shot. In front of him Taylor and the wonderfully named Troy Archibald-Henville hardly put a foot wrong and dealt so comfortably with the string of high balls that they must have wondered if City’s defenders had been told that Barry Conlon was in the stand.

For a brief moment our saviour looked to be on hand. A long ball from Luke O’Brien found Peter Thorne between the central defenders and he was through into the area. Memories of that goal at Port Vale flashed through the mind, only to be wiped out in the next flash. Perhaps we should just say that there was a difference in pace, Thorne was put under pressure before being able to hit a shot and the move came to nothing.

Dean Furman’s confused day came to a slightly premature end when Joe Colbeck replaced him with five minutes remaining. There was still enough time for the entire team save for Luke O’Brien to go up for a corner and for Zesh Rehman to be yellow carded for an offence that might have brought a red – especially if it had really been an offence.

There had been much huffing and puffing, not to mention too large a portion of high balls. The effort was undeniable, but in truth neither team showed the skill level that would suggest they were capable of promotion. A disappointing result took City out of the play-off places n a day when a win would have done so much more. Messrs Conlon and Clarke were stony faced. Perhaps they shared my thought that, if we have to play so many high balls, it might be best to have someone their size to get under them.

Another bad repeat

Shortly after half time at Spotland, Bradford City’s players found themselves rueing missed opportunities and a two-goal burst from the home side which left them chasing a deficit. As symbolism goes it was a pretty fair analogy of City’s promotion challenge to date – and of the size of the task this defeat leaves them in achieving that goal.

Fortune certainly favoured Rochdale and the three-point advantage they now look down upon City from in 3rd place is less comfortable than this three-goal victory might suggest; but while manager Stuart McCall can point to a woeful refereeing display from Scott Mathieson contributing greatly to his side’s fourth away defeat in five, he will also know much of it was self-inflicted.

Quite how the evening went so wrong is something Stuart will be pondering for the next few days. Having spent the first 20 minutes under the cosh from a vibrant Dale side who passed the ball around with fluency and alternated attacks down both flanks, City were the better team for spells during the rest of the half and could easily have gone in at the interval one or two goals ahead.

Barry Conlon, recalled ahead of Michael Boulding, ably linked up with Peter Thorne and was effective in holding up the ball and allowing others to get forward. Steve Jones carried on where he left off Saturday with some teasing dribbles and dangerous crosses. Nicky Law and Dean Furman, while never able to dominate the middle of the park in the manner they’d succeeded in the last two home games, competed well against the industrious Gary Jones and Clark Keltie.

The best chances fell to Thorne, who twice saw one-on-one opportunities against on-loan Blackburn keeper Frank Fielding blocked. The first one stemmed from good play by Conlon which left City’s top scorer with time and space to do better than the scuffed effort straight at Fielding. The second was a more difficult chance but better attempt, which needed to be pushed wide of the post. Just after half time Graeme Lee’s header from a corner was superbly stopped again by Fielding and, with other half chances created, most of the goal action fell in Rochdale’s penalty area. Rhys Evans did see one headed effort flash wide of his post.

Yet shortly into the second half Rochdale scored after Joe Colbeck, who endured another tough evening, fouled the dangerous Will Buckley and the resultant free kick was nodded home by Rory McArdle. With new purpose to Rochale’s game the tide quickly turned, although it was the dubious help from the officials in adjudging that Conlon’s attempt to clear the ball from a corner included his arm which put them in a stronger position. Adam Le Fondre, twice scourge of City last season, dispatched the resultant spot kick despite Evans getting a hand to it. When an even softer penalty was awarded following Matt Clarke’s challenge in the box – which looked clean from my position – Le Fondre repeated the feat.

But whatever sense of injustice City felt, demonstrated by assistant manager Wayne Jacobs getting sent off from the dug out and Stuart holding a long conversation with Mathieson at full time, it should not disguise another poor response to adversity. A decent performance once again fell apart and the final 35 minutes did not make pretty viewing from a Claret and Amber perspective. Rochdale continued to attack with purpose while desperation became too quickly evident in City’s forward play. Having successfully harried home players into mistakes during the first half, it was now the away team who couldn’t get time on the ball.

A premature panic on the touchline didn’t help either. As soon as Le Fondre struck his first penalty a double substitution was made by Stuart which had little effect. I’ve been told all season that Stuart “never makes his subs early enough” – funny how Todd, Law, Jefferies, Jewell et all were just as bad at this – so maybe this action was applauded by some, but considering City hadn’t done a lot wrong up to then such drastic action seemed a bit much.

Certainly Conlon was unfortunate to be taken off and, though his replacement Boulding was a willing worker, the ball stopped sticking in the final third. Substituting Colbeck was probably the right decision, though some of the abuse he is getting from some fans right now is unfair. Somehow last season’s player of the year has become the “worst player ever” and jumping up to scream when he struggles to keep an attack going is hardly going to help him rediscover confidence that has been lost since returning from a first significant career injury.

Lee Bullock came on, with Law moved out wide and doing a decent job, but the likelihood of City coming back had diminished long before the second penalty. At that point change three had been made after Paul Arnison was rescued from the roasting Buckley was dishing him and Zesh Rehman brought on. With Lee’s form notably dipping, arguments for bringing Rehman into the centre or keeping him at right back and recalling Mark Bower from Luton are being aired. Stuart must be pondering how a defence which has looked so strong at home can be so feeble away.

Something which, with two important away games in Devon and Dorset this next week, urgently must be improved on. Results elsewhere still leave City in a decent position but the team’s failure to deliver extraordinary results rather than just good results may ultimately leave it facing an extended end to the season rather than a top three podium place. There’s been too many poor performances on the road and there was no evidence at Spotland to suggest this would be the last.

Stuart did an excellent job of ensuring his team responded positively to the Barnet and Notts County set backs and the immediate challenge is to do that again. But for City to achieve promotion this season – automatic or via Wembley – his ability to get to the bottom of why it keeps going wrong will need to come through.

McCall will hope City can start the way they finish

In eleven days – and three away games – time the promotion hopes for Bradford City will be much clearer but as a signal of intent and a send off on that decisive Odyssey the Bantams could hardly have been more emphatic.

Indeed it seemed 75 second after kick off when Peter Thorne was wheeling away following the opening goal of the game that the seven days since the defeat at Notts County could have been a lifetime of a span.

Thorne reclaimed his scoring touch darting into a hole that Michael Boulding had made in the defence to get on the end of an excellent low cross from the left by the increasingly useful Steve Jones and pushing the ball past a hapless Nicky Bull who would not get near any of the five goals he picked out of his net this afternoon.

Following on from Thorne’s goal City never wobbled. A minor incident involving Rhys Evans coming out of his goal as City failed to follow stay up centre back Anthony Charles which resulted in a not that threatening snubbed out shot at goal.

This was as much of a chance as the visitors had to get back and within minutes Bull once again picked the ball out of his goal following Dean Furman’s deflected strike which was just return following a corner which saw Matthew Clarke shoved unceremoniously from under the ball in what was an obvious penalty denied.

That it was denied was no surprise with Referee Graham Salisbury in charge. Salisbury had once denied City a goal against Yeovil following a defender pass back and sent off Jermaine Johnson in the same game in what was the wingers last game for the Bantams. Salisbury makes a habit of sending off City players but today restricted himself to ignoring that penalty and allowing Marvin Morgan to get away with the kind of loose arm across the face on Clarke which is exactly the sort of thing that he sends City players off for.

Nevertheless – and to paraphrase Sean Connery – losers moan about the Referee and winner go home with the match ball. Or the prom queen. Dean Furman deserves both for another superb display controlling central midfield. Much of how City do in the forthcoming games at Rochdale, Bournemouth and Exeter will depend on how much Furman can break up play as he did so well at Valley Parade today.

With his club Rangers making people redundant and looking for ways to save a bob or two I would not be at all surprised to see Furman starting SPL games next season – nor do I think he would look out of place – but in the years since Stuart McCall the player left the club and Stuart McCall the manager returned we have (any club would) been crying out for a replacement and in Furman we have one.

My erstwhile colleague Jason sings the praises of Nicky Law Jnr who delivered the perfect corner for Peter Thorne to glide through the air to head in the Bantams third, again Charles – conspicuous with his Afro – stood still as his man reeled away in celebration.

Rochdale’s defeat to Bury at midday had seen the Shakers go third and Rochdale drop to fourth. A 5-0 win would put City fourth and at the start of the day the task was to keep fifth as the Bantams supremacy continued it looked feasible.

A note at this point to the school who had turned up with a banner in support of “Bradford City and Zesh Rehman” and a country flag in tribute to the defender who unfortunately for the kids spent ninety minutes on the bench watching another excellent display by Paul Arnison at right back.

Arnison has not enjoyed universal support from City fans but it seems that when he plays the Bantams have another dimension and the support that Arnison offers to right winger Joe Colbeck is important.

Colbeck is getting back into the swing of things and looked dangerous in the second half rampaging forward getting a reward with two minutes to go putting in another low cross that skimmed past Charles and to sub Barry Conlon who touched the ball past Nicky Bull from seven yards out (Edit: The cross was by Nicky Law Jnr). Target man Barry using his head to stay on side by coming onto a ball which seemed to elude Shots left back Anthony Straker who chewed the linesman out all second half and never was spoken to about it unlike JJ three years ago.

Spoken about but never seen was Chris Brandon who – some two thousand years after signing for City and getting injured – made his début coming on for Michael Boulding seconds after the hard working striker had been unlucky not to add the fourth that Conlon got and would have had the fifth with what would have been his first kick for his home club following Colbeck’s low cross but Rhys Day stuck out a leg and Aldershot’s afternoon was all over, as was the game.

The Bantams up to fourth and on to the road to far off places on the South Coast following a short trip to the team we jumped over in Rochdale. When City return to Valley Parade in two weeks time the reminder of the season will have been shaped.

Realists would say that to expect more than a point away from home is too high an expectation and should City get three from three or less then it would seem that scrapping for play off places is the order of the day.

If we can score at a rate near two points a game – two wins, a win and two draws, one of each even perhaps – then we would be looking at the ability to challenge for the automatic promotion places and the play offs would be fall back.

The criticisms of City’s manager – as with the defeats – seem a long time ago with proposed successor Peter Jackson spending the afternoon watching his Lincoln City get pounded by Grimsby. McCall has got City into a position where the finish to the season defines the season.

Last year the Bantams approached the last months looking to find form and a run, the last promotion side the Bantams had were looking to hold onto faltering form. McCall’s City are well placed and pick up points at a consistent rate on the whole. The season enters end game with the Bantams firmly in the position where should we perform well then we can manufacture our own destiny.

He will hope that the finish the season as we started this game and that the start of that finish is as complete as the finishing today. As a signal of intent this – the tenth home win of the season – is as telling as they come.

What should happen next – Bradford City vs Aldershot Town – League Two 2008/2009

It’s March, which in recent years for City fans has meant either anxiety over surviving relegation or disappointment at having nothing to play for.

It’s been exactly 10 years since credible promotion hopes have lasted this long into a campaign and there’s a sense of excitement at what might lie ahead. City welcome Aldershot to Valley Parade tomorrow and then travel to promotion rivals Rochdale and Exeter a few days later. It’s time for our bums, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson, to start squeaking.

Credit for what the management and players have achieved so far this season is often in limited supply from some quarters, but they have delivered more than other recent City teams in getting this far. Though there is perhaps one mental block that it’s still questionable they’ve overcome this season which will be put to the ultimate test tomorrow – the comfortable home win.

City should win tomorrow, although should is a dangerous word. In our first season out of the Premiership we should have beaten Stockport, Millwall and Sheff Wed at Valley Parade. We should have earned home victories over Gillingham and Walsall in 2002/03, Derby and Rotherham 2003/04, Torquay in 2004/05, Bournemouth in 2005/06, Northampton 2006/07 and Accrington 2007/08 – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When we should win, we invariably slip up and it’s such habits which could be looked back on with regret if promotion is not achieved come May.

City’s home record is much better this season and only Bournemouth have taken maximum points, though that was a game we should have won. There have also been draws with Luton, Barnet, Dagenham and Accrington which the team and us supporters went into confident we should win. Aldershot may have a woeful away record and go into their March with nothing to play for, but they should not be taken lightly as any points dropped by City would undermine whatever’s achieved in Lancashire and Devon next week.

After a much-needed and well deserved win over Macclesfield Tuesday, manager Stuart McCall will have a more confident squad to choose from and is likely to keep it similar. The biggest question lies up front with Peter Thorne rested and now vying for a recall and Stuart debating whether to hold him back for Tuesday. Barry Conlon came in and had his best game for some time while Michael Boulding was much improved after his frankly pathetic showing at Notts County. One may drop to the bench and the other may face that prospect a few days later.

In midfield the partnership of Nicky Law and Dean Furman did more than most to earn the Macclesfield win and both are a joy to watch at present. Furman has revealed his celebration for Tuesday’s winner was dedicated to the injured Omar Daley which is not what you might typically expect from a loan player, it also seems to go against rumours of dressing room unrest which have been circulating.

Steve Jones frustrates me for his less-than-committed attitude and it will take a while to forget the disgraceful manner he left Zesh Rehman to be slaughtered by Myles Weston at Meadow Lane last week. He is popular with some fans and can be excellent when he wants to be, but his style of running down blind alleys and woeful crossing is a little too reminiscent of Ben Murihead 2003 for my liking. He will keep his place on the left with Joe Colbeck continuing to find form and fitness on the right. The flurry of games over the next fortnight make it a good time for Chris Brandon to be almost back as it may prove too much for last season’s player of the season to start them all.

The defence should continue as they were. On Tuesday Graeme Lee appeared to be the target of the boo boys with previous victims Matt Clarke and Paul Arnison passed over, probably due to how well they both played. Such ‘support’ has yet to be directed towards Luke O’Brien, who was much better after a slight wobble of late. Rhys Evans keeps goal and will be proud of a home record that has seen him beaten only once – a deflected free kick – between the sticks at BD8 in nine games.

Aldershot seem to be enjoying the kind of season newly-promoted teams regularly enjoy in starting well before drifting off towards the end. They’ve won one in 11 and none on the road since November, although did cause Gillingham a few problems recently when they drew 4-4 at the Priestfield. They also inflicted City’s first defeat of the season back in August.

Which means there is that usual danger lurking behind thinking City should win tomorrow. We’ll turn up that bit more relaxed, get behind the team that bit less and get frustrated that bit sooner. A home win wouldn’t be earth shattering but, though we’re not used to games meaning something in this way come Spring, we shouldn’t forget that picking up maximum points as often as possible is what’s vital at this stage – whether it’s a fixture we should or shouldn’t win.

Significant? We’ll soon know

The impact of this dismal defeat on Bradford City’s season will ultimately be discovered during the next few weeks, although the immediate signs are far from good. The distance from the automatic promotion spots has increased furthermore and it would be optimistic to believe City can even make the play offs given the evidence presented at Meadow Lane. Hot on the heels of the Barnet debacle, a season of promise is suddenly falling apart.

This was supposed to be different. What happened at Barnet a one-off with manager Stuart McCall admirably stating he wouldn’t allow it to derail what the club is trying to do. By 3pm in Nottingham that had translated into giving all but Joe Colbeck – still struggling for fitness – the opportunity to redeem themselves. With strength in depth there should be no assumption on anyone’s part that their place in the team is secure. Sadly it appears too many aren’t paying attention to what’s over their shoulder and did nothing to repay their manager’s faith. Tuesday’s starting line up against Macclesfield will be very interesting.

City’s performance didn’t start off badly and for the opening 10 minutes there were plenty of indications the team was going to respond well to last week’s hammering. Matt Clarke headed a decent chance over and there was a crispness to the passing and movement with the recalled Lee Bullock adding some bite to midfield and Nicky Law, switched to the left-side, a threat.

Then on 11 minutes a City free kick was swung into the box, the ball was cleared to the edge of the area where Graeme Lee battled for it but lost out to a home player who then put Jamie Forrester through on the counter attack. Only Luke O’Brien seemed to be back for City and his tentative attempt to close down the former Leeds striker allowed the ball to be rolled into Jonathan Forte’s path to fire home. A worrying way to be caught out considering City were the away side.

The test was getting bigger for the Bantams, though the goal against the run of play was initially met with a resumption of attacking intent. Yet slowly the passes began to break down, the off the ball running featured less, County’s double-marking of the widemen tactic began to have a greater effect. Dean Furman flashed an effort narrowly wide and Peter Thorne might have done better after he cleverly worked some space but fired weakly past the post with Steve Jones in a better position. Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to conjure up something.

Something came at the other end instead with the impressive Forte striking again after some good close control – though the ball should have been cleared before it reached him and even then he was afforded too much time and space. A third followed just before half time through former City loanee Delroy Facey. He is best remembered for poor shooting skills and generally not caring when temporarily employed by City, a description which could be aptly applied to Jones here.

Although he certainly wasn’t the only one to display a disturbing lack of fight. Quite what has happened to the impressive defensive efforts which had seen just five goals conceded in 11 games is a deeper mystery than a niggling injury to Evans, who again did nothing wrong. Clarke and Lee were both shaky, particularly the latter who seemed to play in a trance as he often cheaply coughed-up possession and struggled to clear his line. Not a captain’s performance. O’Brien had a difficult first half and, though Zesh Rehman started his loan spell looking a class above most of his team-mates, he is worryingly sinking to their level.

In midfield Bullock and Furman are good players but did not make a cohesive partnership. A moment in the second half where they both went for the same ball summed up their disjointed influence. Thorne and Michael Boulding have forged a good partnership previously, but neither did much in possession other than lose it. Not surprisingly there was an angry reaction from the 1,200+ travelling fans with the dreaded “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” aired as the players trudged off at half time to face an equally upset Stuart.

The second half was slightly better with some players – O’Brien, Law, Furman and Thorne – restoring a degree of pride. Joe Colbeck was brought on for Boulding with Jones switched up front and there never appeared too much danger of County extending their lead. Perhaps most concerning for Stuart though was the lack of urgency and belief towards engineering an unlikely comeback. It was as though the game had been written-off and the second half was about preservation of a first team shirt for Tuesday. There were occasional good moments and Bullock and Furman did go close, but it was still largely poor.

Thorne did at least find the net with five minutes to go after good work from City’s best second half player, Colbeck. As consolations go it was pretty good too as it allowed last season’s top scorer to finally end a near four-month drought. A seventh goal in four games against the Magpies could prove significant if it leads to a return to the scoring form that his team so badly needs.

Not that Thorne, along with his team mates, could escape the angry abuse of many City fans at the final whistle with the atmosphere long-turned ugly. Passion is one thing but telling players to f*** off is a little strong no matter how deserving they were of receiving it. There was clearly a look of shock on many players’ faces as they attempted to applaud supporters. Reacting in the right manner now is going to be critical.

All season long there has been this feeling that City are going to gain promotion no matter how many soft goals they conceded and how many average performances they put in along the way. There was plenty of time to find top form and plenty of ability in the squad. Well there is no longer much time left and we cannot hope players will find their best form soon. It must happen now – and carry on.

City have not looked as less likely to gain promotion as they do right now and it has to be hoped this will be the moment the penny drops. No longer can the players think it will happen, they must make it happen. Six points from the next two home games will only be a start and they must then kick on in crucial away fixtures at Rochdale and Exeter. And then keep going.

Should that be achieved this defeat might be looked back on as significant because players would have learned some harsh lessons, got back into the promotion hunt and proved they were fit to wear the shirt. For now at least, few fans will be holding their breath.

How fragile is this life as City prepare to face Notts County

If perspective were needed on last week’s 4-1 defeat by Barnet then City did not have long to wai