Chinese whispers

Despite Bradford City’s welcome 5-4 win at Cheltenham yesterday, there is talk from some quarters claiming things are far from rosy at Valley Parade.

Rumours and speculation are the order of the day, with a number of different sources pricking the BfB team’s ears that manager Stuart McCall went into Saturday’s game one or perhaps two games away from the sack. The evidence for this seemed to be that the three main members of the board had turned up to watch the team play Cheltenham. All three were City fans before City owners and – as the word from Mark Lawn suggests – if they did not turn up then there would be something to talk about.

Nevertheless such circumstances are the source of idle gossip. BfB has also heard from other, more reliable sources that the rumours of boardroom unrest with Stuart are if not a complete fabrication then very much largely untrue, leaving strong suspicion such rumours are the work of people with an agenda against the manager McCall. The agenda belonging to the people who regularly tell the rest of us that our manager is “not a manager” a proportion of whom step past the respectful mark of stating an opinion and into the realm of trying to agitate a scenario to support their views rather than speaking as is seen.

Recent history supports a view that the board are not looking to replace the boss. Julian Rhodes has previously backed his managers – it’s rumoured one of the triggers for the falling out with Gordon Gibb was over whether to sack Nicky Law and other chairmen would have sacked Colin Todd and even Stuart sooner. Mark Lawn’s outlook on managers is less known, but would have played a part in the decision to award Stuart a new contract last February.

Before the ink could dry, things had turned sour with the end of season collapse and near resignation of Stuart. The manager has started the season under pressure from a section of supporters and it’s unlikely a win which saw four goals conceded will be enough to quieten such doubters. The season is only four games old, but seems to already be approaching something of a knife edge. It can still be a campaign that ends in glory and there are plenty of positive indicators to support this, but the swirling rumours and lack of communication from the board could easily see fortunes take an entirely separate direction.

As a football fan, it’s common to return from a game to find other people have taken an entirely different view of the events collectively witnessed, but the attempted re-writing of history some are seemingly attempting to apply to the ‘Save our Stuart’ (SOS) campaign at the home game with Rotherham last April is pushing credibility. After the two defeats in Nottingham in the first week of the season, someone asked what happened to all those people who had displayed SOS banners in support of Stuart staying. It was quickly dismissed as an activity carried out by a small smattering of ten years old only which no one, certainly not the people demanding Stuart now be sacked, would admit to taking part in.

Odd, because I remember SOS signs held up all over the stadium in huge numbers (I also took photographs). Not everyone joined in of course, but it was a high enough participation to be considered a majority. When I looked immediately around where I sit, no one, even the blokes in front who complained non-stop all season about the lack of substitutions, failed to hold a sign up. I also looked over to the Kop, to the Main Stand and to the Bradford End and white pieces of paper with red writing were everywhere. Yet few appear willing to admit they held theirs.

Which suggests one of two scenarios. The SOS campaign was a unique and welcome opportunity for every supporter who attended the Rotherham game to vote on whether we should stick or twist with Stuart as manager. Everyone had the chance to share their view, by either holding up a sign or keeping their arms folded. This on its own was not how Stuart’s decision to stay on was ultimately made, but certainly a significant factor. I wonder if Julian and Mark held up their signs?

If you voted for Stuart to remain as manager, you surely have a responsibility to make sure your decision is followed through. Not by pretending you never held up such a sign a couple of defeats later, otherwise why should your opinion be taken seriously now? By holding up your sign to call for Stuart to stay, despite the fact he had offered to quit, you were making it known you wanted him to have another chance and four games into the next season he has not yet be given that.

If the fact everyone on message boards and T&A forums are telling the truth and genuinely didn’t hold up their SOS signs, it raises questions over how representative such sites are. A huge number of City fans did hold up those signs, but if the people who regularly contribute to message boards and forums are all people who didn’t it suggests they reflect only the opinion of a small section of supporters rather than anything close to the full picture.

Put another way, when the anger is really rising among some supporters and the comments on the T&A forums are stacking up, they still total few in the bigger scheme. Around 100 comments per story seems to be the average after a defeat, but these 100 comments usually feature the same five or six people writing more than once. Even if it was 100 hundred separate supporters angrily saying Stuart should walk, that’s 100 out of 11,000 who turn up to Valley Parade every other week. A sample of opinion which has validity – but not enough from which to shape tough decisions without further and wider consultation.

At BfB we claim only to be representative of the the writers views not of the readers – though we are grateful to receive 1,400 to 1,800 unique readers most days and have had over 120 people have articles published over the last decade. How many City supporters regularly make their views known to others in a wider context than mates down the pub? The SOS vote was the most public democratic decision we supporters have undertaken in years and its results should not be quickly forgotten.

With the speculation Stuart’s future may be in doubt, those who still support him, who held up their signs and who chant Stuart’s name at every game have a responsibility to ensure their voice continues to be heard. Too often those who shout the loudest have been able to dictate matters and while they are entitled to shout loud the fact that City have slumped from Premier League to League Two is not something which can be fully blamed on six weeks of madness.

Publicly at least, Stuart has retained a positive persona and will have done much to ensure the players’ spirits are not crushed by the disappointing start. The gradual improvement is there for all to see and the players Stuart has brought in appear to be settling in well and making a difference. There is every reason to believe the bad start can be just that – a bad start. As supporters we have a part to play in helping the club go forward and to end the season with a long overdue taste of success.

Though the Valley Parade boardroom also has a role to play and, while there’s plenty we supporters can disagree on right now, we can all find common ground in a desire to hear what they’re thinking.

A tale of two dodgy defences

I have to initially confess that a combination of circumstances over the last few years have meant that I haven’t been a regular attendee at City games home or away, and indeed haven’t seen my beloved Bantams in action at all since the season before last. Guilty as charged your honour – I’m a slacker and a slipped fan.

So first, a bit of preamble. My journey of residences in t’South (since migrating from t’North some 10.5 years ago) has taken me from Watford to Reading to Swindon and most recently to the delights of North Somerset, where I’ve been by the seaside for the last 1.5 years and think I’m finally settled.

When the fixture list was published in June, I was determined to look up my local fixtures, clear the appropriate weekends and get my best mate and his missus down here for at least one away day. With due consideration to the “grounds not visited list” and not being enthralled by the idea of Torquay away at the end of January (though I’ll be there), it came to pass that Cheltenham in August was favourite – the girls were to go on a shopping expedition and the boys were to dutifully support the mighty Bantams at Whaddon Road. Pre-season had me looking forward to the day, but after City’s inglorious start to the season, well… I’m sure you can forgive some trepidation when the day finally came around!

A lovely sunny West Country day was on the cards and we set off from Clevedon at around 1245hrs, doing the 50 miles up the M5 in reasonable time and arriving at Cheltenham town centre. The girls were dispatched to shop shop shop, whilst Jamie and I found directions to the ground and set off, with the aim of stopping off in a watering hole on the way. Within moments we’d come across “The Conservatory” where a pint of “Hooky Bitter” was definitely hooky, being like vinegar, and was replaced with a pint of John Smith’s Smooth without a problem (the barman even refunded the 30p difference). After this, we wandered further towards the ground and stumbled across the delightful “Sudeley Arms” – a bit quiet, but a lovely welcome and a cracking serving of “Black Sheep” bitter would see this as a recommended pub if any future visits to Cheltenham are required.

All too soon it was about time to head on up to the ground if we weren’t to miss kick off – with hindsight, we’re glad we didn’t! Whaddon Road, or rather, the Abbey Business Stadium (I hate these sponsored ground name changes) is a compact ground in the middle of a nice-ish residential area, not a bad place to walk through. Away end is covered, but costs £20 to get in and there’s nowhere to smoke at half-time – sheesh.

Took our seats in a sparsely-populated away end (official site confirms only 297 away followers – understandable given the start to the season and the distance involved), just as the teams were coming out. A quick look round saw that Stuart was making some changes – no room for Brandon (apparently ill), Boulding or Thorne in the starting 11.

We’re off and running on time, and before we’ve really settled back down into our seats, Evans collected the ball just inside the Cheltenham half and went off on a storming run to the byline before crossing into the box – the ball was only cleared as far as James O’Brien, who rifled in from the edge of the area. The second minute and City are 1-0 up after not managing to score in 4 games – brilliant.

Oh wait, within 2 minutes, Cheltenham were level – poor defending doesn’t pick up the man coming in at the far post, who’s a little lucky when he almost scuffed his shot and it looped over Eastwood and into the corner of the net.

3 minutes later and City were 2-1 up! Luke O’Brien played the ball through for Evans, who went on another storming run down the left, taking the ball forwards before cutting inside the defenders, making space for himself in front of goal and coolly slotting the ball into the left hand side of the goal. Joy, rapture, sheer brilliance…

….and within 5 more minutes, Cheltenham were level again – a disputed free kick (the referee gave us nothing through the whole game – yet Cheltenham only seemed to have to lose their footing and they got a free kick) about 30 yards out was played into the box and their guy got a free header that flew past Eastwood into the corner of the net. Woeful defending again.

Not long to wait for us to go ahead for the 3rd time though – on 20 minutes, a Luke O’Brien corner was nicely floated into the box and Hanson was rising to put away a glancing header. Lovely stuff, and I wondered where the City that couldn’t score was?

Question was, could we defend this lead for a bit longer? Answer was…!Well, we did alright up until 2 minutes before the break when more poor defending saw us not able to clear the ball properly, Cheltenham played the ball into the area and their guy scored with an overhead kick (his arrogant swaggering celebration towards the away end afterwards should’ve been classed as inciting the fans).

Well, at least we went into the break level…I got a text from a mate of mine saying “3-3 at half time, must be great to watch”….ummm, not really – our goals were well taken, but you never got the feeling that we could defend the lead. On the way up when I’d joked to Jamie that if we hadn’t gone, City’d score 5 – that was looking on the cards, but it was looking equally likely that we’d concede 5 too. I texted my mate back to say I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 5-5 at full time.

Anyway, half-time was pie-time, and trying to keep my mind off the nicotine monster growing inside, I wandered up to the tea bar thingy and paid £5.10 for a coffee, a bovril and a meat & taty pie. The pie wasn’t good – the pastry was too flakey and wasn’t really firm enough to restrain the contents when picking the pie up – the filling wasn’t exactly tasty either, some grey mush with potato-looking lumps in. It filled a hole, but then so would a bale of hay….

Time for the 2nd half to start and we wondered what joys this would bring. We didn’t have to wait long to see City take the lead for the 4th time – about 5 minutes actually – a long free kick from Ramsden to the left hand side of the area to Hanson to head across the area for Williams to power home a header from the edge of the 6 yard box. 4-3 to the City – come on!

21 minutes later, City extended the lead to 2 goals by virtue of an own goal – though not before Cheltenham had given us a scare and had a goal ruled out (didn’t see much wrong with it myself – Eastwood not communicating with Williams caused the problem).

We still looked like scoring again, but of course, the game wasn’t done giving us scares yet – in the 89th minute, in lovely sunshine, Cheltenham scored their 4th to give us some more minutes (3 added at the end of each half) of anxiety, ’til finally the referee ended the nervousness with his whistle. We were off back to the “Sudeley Arms” for more nice ale and a chat with the locals – good atmosphere, great people – pop in if we ever have to go back to Cheltenham!

Brief thoughts – Evans was an absolute star. Colbeck does good running the ball out from defence – he’s got some pace and some skill and seems to tie in nicely with Evans and Hanson. I quite liked the look of Flynn too. I have to say though that Eastwood doesn’t appear to have any command of his area, or be able to communicate with the defence

On balance, I think we deserved the win and more probably by a greater margin.

I notice the official website says that it was a “superbly entertaining affair” – perhaps it was if you were a neutral, not so much if you’re a faint-hearted or loose-bowelled City fan! Really a tale of 2 dodgy defences – but no matter, it’s still great to see City on the right side of a scoreline with a 5 on it – oh what fun it is to see City win away.

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.