Weekend preview part one – Team Bradford

Compare the mood prior to Saturday’s trip to Northampton with that ahead of the visit to nearby Gloucestershire, seven short weeks ago.

Bradford City headed to Cheltenham Town with a record of three defeats, one draw and zero goals scored. Numerous rumours were flying around that a defeat would see manager Stuart McCall dismissed, with the feeling the squad he had assembled was wholly inadequate to meet the season’s expectations. One 5-4 victory and a subsequent seven further unbeaten games later, the contrast could not be greater.

As distant as it now feels, it’s worth reflecting back on the atmosphere during those opening three weeks of the season. Stuart was on the receiving end of bucket loads of criticism from supporters, not helped by the unhealed scars from the previous campaign’s late collapse. Yet despite admitting the pressure was on, Stuart kept a clear head and a stronger sense of perspective compared to how he’d often reacted to set backs during his first two years in charge.

After the opening day hiding at Notts County, Stuart spoke as a manager who was in it with his team, holding back from slamming the players whose confidence he now had to repair. “It’s how we react in the short term to this defeat. Individually and collectively we’ve got to show some courage and determination to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” he stated. The use of the word “we” may seem minor, but is significant.

For Stuart and Wayne Jacobs kept faith in their players and began to slowly rebuild shattered confidence. Whatever was said in the dressing room and on the training pitch remained private. Matt Clarke had been hauled off on the hour mark and has yet to play again this season, but Stuart has deliberately held back from publicly slating the centre back.

A couple of weeks later Lincoln were enjoying a fortuitous win at Valley Parade and the criticisms from fans turned to the fact Stuart was apparently too close to his players, too desperate to remain one of the lads. The Official Message Board ran a poll questioning whether he should stop wearing his regular tracksuit top and shorts in the dugout, and turn out in a suit. But as the players struggled to overturn Lincoln’s lead and the abuse reigned down on them, Stuart’s bare legs could be symbolically viewed as him showing his team that he was with them, one team, Team Bradford.

And the eventual rewards is a strong team spirit and astonishing level of work rate which puts numerous recent City players – many with unquestioned higher ability – to shame. After the draw with Morecambe Stuart spoke of the joy he felt watching his team play the football they do – and he was speaking for us supporters too. That spirit is not something that can be easily manufactured, as we’ve seen in past seasons, but it’s worth wondering how big a factor going through such a difficult start to the season was on how well Team Bradford are now doing.

Compare and contrast with another City, Hull. This time last year, manager Phil Brown was considered the best thing since sliced bread. Hull were beating the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham in their own backyard, taking a place in the top four of the Premier League. Brown was rightly receiving the plaudits, but while most managers would keep their feet on the ground he appeared to let it all go to his head. Article after article praising Hull appeared in the media, almost always including a quote from the Geordie. Going a little too far, he even decided to publicly reveal he had once been turned down for the Bournemouth job. Given the Cherries were, at the time, struggling near the foot of League Two, it seemed unnecessary to kick a club heading down. It also seemed to escape Brown’s attention that Bournemouth’s plight was down to disastrous finances rather than some apparent foolishness in rejecting his application. Brown had done brilliantly to get Hull to the top flight, but he’d had the luxury of sizeable transfer funds along the way, too.

And when things began to go wrong, Brown apparently was more pre-occupied with making sure he passed on the blame than keeping the spirit high amongst his players. The now infamous half time telling off of his players on the Man City pitch was at the time widely viewed as a managerial masterstroke, showing he won’t tolerate the poor standards that had seen the Tigers 4-0 down. Yet at the time it was only their second defeat in seven games, and the public dressing down is now widely looked on as Brown making sure his players copped the blame, removing himself of responsibility to the Hull supporters and watching world.

The poor form got worse and Hull only survived relegation by the default of the season running out just in time, but even then he couldn’t resist stealing the limelight by getting on the KC stadium microphone to serenade the Hull fans. The message was clear, “Look at me, I’m the man who kept us up.”

Hull’s form has continued into this season, but it’s in Brown’s post match comments that suggest he’s only making the damaged team spirit worse among his players. Unlike Stuart in the same situation, it’s not a case of “we defended poorly today”, but “I was disgusted with some of the defending, individually and collectively. For me it was demoralising and I hope it was for the players as well.” Every week he seems to be lambasting his players via the media, and every week they seem to lose.

Which may have nothing to do with Stuart, but does  demonstrate two different styles of management which, for the time being, are delivering different results. City head to Northampton with plenty of confidence and with only one enforced change needed after the encouraging draw at Morecambe. Gareth Evans’ red card has not been appealed – a curious decision from City which it’s strongly hinted is down to the cost of appealing and lack of faith the TV pictures and opposition of an arrogant referee would clear the former Macclesfield striker. An unsuccessful appeal risks an extension to the three-match ban, which suggests the FA’s system is flawed and unfair on lower league clubs who don’t enjoy the benefit of their matches being covered by 50+ TV cameras. If a club appeals a sending off that was clearly a sending off, they deserve to pay the costs and have an extra game ban be slapped on. If it’s more borderline, and at worst City’s appeal would be considered that, there should not be such ramifications.

Evans’ absence affords Michael Boulding three games to stake a regular claim for his place. There remains a nagging doubt City’s squad will not prove sufficiently strong enough for the demands of a full season, but there is currently plenty of quality on the sidelines at the moment. Having taken a pay cut during the summer, Boulding can only be considered as positively contributing to the team spirit, though his work rate will need to increase from some laboured early season outings. His ability is not in doubt, but his desire to match the effort of Evans is. Boulding will only have himself to blame if his spell in the starting eleven is short lived.

James Hanson will take the central striker role next to Boulding with Peter Thorne – back in action for the reserves midweek – likely to take a place on the bench. This time last year Boulding and Thorne had netted 11 goals between them – four fewer than City’s total goals this season – and still have much to offer. Scott Neilsen seems to be getting better each game and will continue in the other wide striker role in Stuart’s 4-3-3 formation of choice.

In midfield, James O’Brien quietly impresses while the influence Michael Flynn is having on performances has not been seen from a City Number 4 since his manager. Lee Bullock plays the holding midfield role with increasing assurance. Simon Ramsden is hoping to be fit enough to take Jonathan Bateson’s slot at right back with Steve Williams, Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien completing the back four in front of Simon Eastwood.

Whether a ninth unbeaten game can be achieved against opposition which has just tasted its first victory in six and have a caretaker manager in Ian Simpson taking his last chance to stake a claim the permanent position remains to be see. Whatever the outcome, the journey back North will be undertaken by the same Team Bradford which set off to Cheltenham winless but still together seven weeks previous.