Arm / Trap / Stone

There are three types of win in a football match, and City’s 0-0 toil with AFC Wimbledon was not any of them.

Not any because, most obviously, the game ended in a draw. Neither City – who under vague manager Graham Alexander, and to no effect, dropped last season’s top scoring Andy Cook for returning high goalscorer Jake Young – nor the visitors troubled the scoreboard.

Following the game, Alexander said he felt City should have won the game 1-0, which is a little like wishing that you won £1,000 on a million pound lottery.

<h5>One</h5>

The arm wrestle win, or positive win, is when two teams play a similar way and one is more effective than the other.  If you are of a certain vintage you’ll recall great football matches which could be described this way.

The 1986 FA Cup Final saw Liverpool beat Everton 3-1 and going through the two sides one could pass players between the two sides and there would be little difference.  The Merseyside Cup Final was two versions of the same team – more or less – playing in the same way – more or less – and the winner was the team which did better on that day.

This sort of win is about a team setting a goal, and being excellent at achieving it.  It is not about out thinking, or even out fighting, although both those things are important, so much as it is about having a greater efficiency.

<h5>Two</h5>

The trap card win, or negative win, is something which City have more of a relationship with, especially under Phil Parkinson, and it operates as an opposite to the arm wrestle.  In a trap card win, the strengths of the opposition is acknowledged but used against the opposition.

This is Bradford City vs Chelsea.  Chelsea’s strengths are turned to be weaknesses.  Their expectations to be better become source of frustration as City nullified what they could, and leading Chelsea to commit more, leaving City to counterattack against a team that feels like it is an affront to even have to defend.

This is one of football’s more glorious versions of a trap card win, but there are many, many others.  Saudi Arabia beat Lionel Messi’s Argentina on their way to the World Cup.  Most of the time the trap card win is about a worse team allowing a better one to tilt their resources into one area, while equalising battles in others.

Trap card wins are rarer in football because they start from an imbalance which is not often seen in league football but, when watching Manchester City trying to pass around Crystal Palace, or Norwich, in recent years one can observe this in action.

<h5>Three</h5>

In contrast to those two methods of victory, the scissors/paper/stone win describes a game in which one team deploys a way of playing which is fundamentally different to the opposition.  This way of playing football is increasingly the linga fraca of the game.

When people talk about Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton, Henrik Rydström’s Malmo and Xavi Alonso’s Leverkusen they rarely talk about the players being better, but it does not matter, because it is not the quality of players which is important so much as what those players are doing.  Does it matter if you win your one to one battle with Leverkusen’s attacking midfielder when they back those players up with central defenders stepping past holding midfielders?  Did it matter that you nullified the 2008 Messi when the space you left was exploited by other players?

A scissors/paper/stone win is part of top level football, but not exclusively.  During the early 1990s John Beck of Cambridge United had his team hoof the ball seventy yards and progressed not by being better, but by being different.

<h5>Indeed</h5>

It was this kind of approach which animated City’s former manager Mark Hughes.  Whereas Phil Parkinson largely performed arm wrestle wins in league games, and the Welshman tried to win by being different.  His scissors/paper/stone was about maintaining possession and controlling the ball.  This worked, to a certain extent, but came unstuck in the play offs just as Parkinson’s attempts had against Millwall seasons before.

Neither approach is inherently better – although scissors/paper/stone is more interesting to discuss – and all three have their merits, with most teams attempting some combination, but rarely are successful teams not attracted to one of these pillars.

Which brings us to Graham Alexander, and Bradford City.

<h5>How</h5>

Alexander is new at the club, although given the expected life span of a City boss not that new, and has so far done little to suggest that he has a way of playing in mind.  His teams play wide, sometimes, but often not, and they mostly play three along the back, but originally they do not, and they play two up front, but sometimes they play one up front and so on.

As a pragmatist, Alexander is struggling to show the ability to recognise and retain pragmatic success.  Formations which start to work are changed for formations which might work.  Players who have found a place, are moved out of place, and it is all very without flavour.

Which is not to suggest that Alexander does not know how to be a success, or that he will not be, but that he will not be unless he can decide a way that he wants his team to try win games.

Are City going to out run, out fight, out battle?  Are City going to out think, out plan, and out smart?  Are City going to be and out and out better team that the rest of League Two?

All these things are possible, but the past three months of football have been beige, and the expectation that City will outperform their rivals but being so featureless seems to guarantee mediocrity.

Swindon / Flattened / Outside

The perception of Mark Hughes from outside of Valley Parade is something which we – as people within Bradford City’s bubble – struggle to understand, but as he exited we were able to glimpse through him an unflattering view of the club.

Regardless of what you thought of Hughes, and his time at City, with distance the complexities are flattered out, and Hughes’ name is added to a list. That list includes Simon Grayson, David Hopkin, and Gary Bowyer, and it is a list of people who are said to have tried to but that ultimately were incapable of managing an unmanageable football club.

The distinction between the people who have run the club: Ryan Sparks, Julian Rhodes and Edin Rahic; is also flattened out and while we might think this is unfair to all concerned what riposte is there to the idea that untried Kevin McDonald, 32, is looked on as the same type of appointment as untried Michael Collins, 33.

Popularist

The few weeks when Collins was Bradford City manager were a symptom of the unmanageable club, where a CEO – tired of an experienced, truculent manager – decided that he wanted someone with less experience who was less truculent, and who he could impose his will on.

That Sparks is fundamentally different from Rahic is a given, but what value that difference if the outcomes are the same? If it is obvious that the Collins appointment and the McDoanld one are different, then why are those differences not observable by people outside the club?

Sparks, ever the popularist, is not imposing his will in the way which Rahic was reported to have, but rather the will of a vocal section of supporters who had decided that Hughes – experienced, truculent – needed to be replaced by a manager who do the things they wanted him to do. Play the players they wanted, play the formation they wanted, play the way they wanted.

Mewing

As Richie Smallwood – superb against Swindon Town – played a pass across the back line to Brad Halliday to rapturous applause, it was difficult to know where those demands made of Hughes stood. The charge sheet against Hughes had included his playing Smallwood at all, and when Smallwood played, the player’s sideways passing, yet the here those two things were to be cheered.

Hughes also stood accused of trying to – to borrow the simpering mewing of client journalist Simon Parker – “play Premier League football in League Two” which we were told on Wednesday was not possible only to watch on Saturday as Swindon Town in the first half, and City in the second, passed the ball at speed and accurately through the lines.

McDonald’s first team as Bradford City manager could have been picked from any starting line up Hughes put out in 2023. The seven players at the back were the same as would have played in last season’s push for the play-offs, as was Jamie Walker, as was Andy Cook, and the team played in the same way. During the first half City played 25 passes from the back third to the front and only four of them resulted in retained possession, in the second half the number reduced and City looked better for it.

Pointing

Finally, Hughes was accused of failing to play Bobby Pointon – goalscorer yesterday – who Hughes had played four times, so perhaps the charge is that he should have played Pointon more. Hughes talked about how Pointon was being educated in the game, and certainly he was right to do so.

Pointon – in keeping with a lot of players who have jsut come out of Academy football – is largely focused on football in one direction and his crossing and his build up play is good, and sometimes very good, but his failure to take up defensive positions is a problem and one which right back Brad Halliday spent most of the afternoon coping with.

This is not a bad thing. It is how young players develop and is good to watch. The capacity for the young player to retain their game while becoming a more rounded footballer is definitive in them having a career in the longer term but in the short it adds to the cognitive load for the surrounding players. At times, Halliday operated Pointon as a puppet, demanding him come back or move forward, and it is to Pointon’s credit that he did as his full back said.

Pointon took his goal well enough – a kind of thrust of the Pelvis that The Alhambra would have recommended – and can reflect on a good performance. Reflect he must.

Respect

My experience watching Bobby Pointon play football is largely unpleasant, in the same way in which it would be watching a twelve-year-old play a local pitch when his aggressive parent was watching. The problem with aggressive parents at youth football is well documented and the FA’s response is a Code of Conduct which bares reading. “Encourage all the players (not just your child)” stands out as having some relevance here.

Nothing Pointon does can ever be wrong. He misplaces a pass and while he holds a hand up to apologise the anger directed at the player Pointon is apologising too for “being in the wrong place” is all around. When he crosses to no one, the forward should have got it.

If Pointon does not play, the players who are on the field are viewed with suspicion. Pointon comes off after an hour of running, “Why is he taking Bobby off?” You can almost hear the engine starting and the words “Get changed in the car, lad.”

Toxic

Support is good, but this seems like a toxic version of support in which Pointon has been both weaponised against the manager, and has had his learning environment shattered by wishful thinking which has already manifest the potential he shows.

This being gravamen of the problem is that it does Bobby Pointon no good at all to be told after a good performance that he has put in a great performance. The difference between Pointon and Adam Wilson yesterday was that Pointon’s close range finish went in and Wilson’s two chances resulted in a ball screwed wide, and a well saved shot.

I’ve no idea of the character of Bobby Pointon, but both he and Wilson need to be in training on Monday and trying to improve, and this probably becomes substantially more difficult when you get a man of the match award for a developing performance. If Pointon can do that, he will do it despite his thousands of aggressive parents.

Return

Defenders of Rahic are rightly rare, and I am not one of them, and those who are critical of him can largely be assigned to two camps. One camp suggested that the footballing side of a football club should be in the hands of people with football expertise.

Those people – and I probably include myself in them – looked at the Dortmund model of Michael Zorc as a Director of Football working with Jurgen Klopp and saw much that was good. Football decisions were to be made by the manager but could have collective input, although that that input needed to be qualified, and Rahic lacked that qualification.

The other camp agreed about Rahic but thought they should be allowed to pick the team or rather that the team should be picked along the lines they wanted. It was not that people other than the manager should not input on tactics, formations, how the team should play and who should be in it, it was that specifically Rahic should not.

Lennon

So Kevin McDonald beat Swindon Town with Mark Hughes’ team playing Mark Hughes’ formation in Mark Hughes’ style, getting the sort of one-nil result which Mark Hughes used to get. I enjoyed it, but I’ve no idea why the people who did not enjoy watching Mark Hughes’ team did.

Wandering away I was reminded of listening to Oasis having grown up with my parent’s Beatles albums as my first music. The former being derived so clearly from the latter that it was very obviously able to replicate what had gone before – “I Am The Walrus” – but incapable of coming up with evolving on that work. “The White Album” is an endlessly fascinating work, but “Be Here Now” is almost unlistenable.

Hughes left City as his attempts to evolve the system led to a patch of poor form, and that poor form was viewed as being definative. It was a grievous fault, and grievously hath he paid for it. Now honourable men write newspaper columns about honourable men looking for a new manager, but do so in a climate of absurdity.

Wanted

Bradford City will have a new manager soon because the same logic that tells the world that the club is a place where managers can only fail, tells it that if one gets it right at Valley Parade, the potential is more significant than it is at most League Two clubs. Hughes knew this, Sparks knows this, the next manager will know this too.

And as with Smallwood’s sideways pass, the charges brought against Mark Hughes will be forgotten and Sparks will be sitting opposite Real Football Managers talking to them about wanting to play exciting football, and nurture the club’s talent, and we are not sure if we like three at the back up here, and retaining possession isn’t that just passing the ball around the back, and will you always play Bobby Pointon…

We are all very certain that this is far distant from the club as run by Edin Rahic. From the outside, though, you could understand why some might not care to make the distinction.

Shadow / Anima / Decisions

We live split between two worlds.

There is the real world in which on the second of October it is raining as Bradford City head over to The Wirral to play Tranmere Rovers having lost 3-1 to Walsall at the weekend. This is a world in which football supporters, like everyone, feel the rising costs caused by economic mismanagement and poorly aligned incentives within that economy. This world feels increasingly hostile and increasingly unforgiving.

The real world has a duplicate self. This Doppelgänger world is a creative fantasy of a million minds working independently, but with the freedom to add almost any construct which can be imagined to explain the actions of the real world. It is the shadow of the real world.

At its most harmless, this shadow world is a fun place to be. It is a place where dogs and cats talk to each other, where cars have names and respond with ignition when asked nicely, where picking six numbers of significance to you will win you a fortune.

At the extreme, it is a terrifying place where the world is run by Satanists who use their power to do unspeakable horrors to children. In this world you are poisoned by the people who present themselves as helping you, and you are to be the subject of a cull in the population.

But we, all of us, live between those points.

Lacking

When 3-1 down to Walsall, Bradford City were playing poorly, and it seemed that they were playing poorly for want of on the field leadership. It seems true to say that if a team wants to win a football match then the sine qua non is to work hard, and that hard work was lacking.

No player, it seemed, could be accused of having played poorly, though. Match Magazine would not be giving out fours and five because no player was exceptionally poor, but none was especially good and none were making the effort to ensure the quality of the performance.

For a long time, Bradford City used to venerate former captain Stuart McCall. McCall was the definitional player who made those around him better. That kind of presence was conspicuous by its absence as the Saddlers rode to victory, untroubled.

Barcelona

The result of this result was a booing of manager Mark Hughes which made the papers, so to speak, but was probably not something which a man who has played at Bernabéu for Barcelona will lose much sleep over.

Hughes’ failure was distinct from the vitriol. He was being booed for losing a football match in which his team had shown a lack of leadership, and spent a good deal of the match hitting the ball hopelessly for two forwards to ineffectively chase. His failure was to attempt to graft the solutions of the shadow world onto reality, and to have allowed his thoughts to become confused between the two.

As such, Hughes is condemned to the fate of all in public life, in which he has to indulge the fantastic constructs of others while maintaining the hard grip on the reality of playing a football match.

Weather

There is a logical fallacy known as post hoc, ergo propter hoc – “it came after it, therefore it was caused by it” – which has it that anything which follows an event is the result of that event. Putting the washing on the line did not cause late afternoon rain, it is just a related coincidence.

The world which sits alongside the real one is heavily invested in this version of cause and effect, and much of the imagination that world demands comes in addressing the cognitive dissonance that results from the unreliability of this way of thinking. It did not rain this time, because I only put out jumpers, and no jeans.

That imaginative combatting of cognitive dissonance only works within the other world, though, because the hard logic of the real world reveals it. You can tell yourself all you want that the washing you have hung out and global weather patterns are connected, but they are not.

Removing

So a world is constructed where dropping Richie Smallwood is removing the player who holds back the long sweeping passes from back to front that would free up City to play two rampaging strikers, but a reality governs in which eleven players have lost the leader on the field.

A team which shod of a man who can take the ball under pressure – as was Smallwood’s role – end up whacking the ball forward towards Andy Cook and Tyler Smith only for Walsall’s Donervon Daniels to head clear.

This is the real world. Smallwood is not the problem which fiction creates, and having possession at the back is not football denied or delayed, it is the way the game is played specifically because of the ineffectiveness of rapid delivery to the final third for most teams.

Untethered

This is the hard problem which much of culture, including football, grapples with. As the unforgiving real world grinds and the enjoyment of fantasy becomes near limitless, the conversation has become dominated by the fanciful, the ephemeral, and the untethered.

It is the job of Mark Hughes, and the people who employ Mark Hughes, to know the difference between those two worlds.

Solutions / Shifting / Easy

And then he said he had a solution to the problem, after outlining the problem. “Modern football”, he said, in the tone he used when he wanted to express something he thought I would not understand, “is about finding space in the vertical gaps between players.”

He continued. “The problem that Bradford City have, and will have until this problem is solved, is a lateral one.” I think he thought the phrasing was good, because he left it in the air, but eventually added. “To make space between players, you need the capacity to have space between players.”

“At 73 yards across, with four players and two touchlines you can maintain gaps or at most twelve yards between players, but probably less. Most League Two players can cover that ground.”

With the firmness of a man possessed with an idea he concluded “The aim of modern football is to make space between players to exploit, and there is no space to be had, and so there is only one solution.”

Boring

Valley Parade in 2023 has become a boring place to watch football. It has become imperative – according to some – that the manager Mark Hughes is replaced, but the reasons are unclear and uninteresting.

There is no manager who will arrive at the club bringing the 1990s, the ability to play a four at the back with two on each flank, and two up top, and the days when crossing worked more than one in every ninety attempts.

When Hughes removed Richie Smallwood he removed City’s capacity to convert possession from defence to attack. Other than punting the ball it seemed there was no idea of how the likes of Matty Platt and Sam Stubbs would get the ball to the line of many forward players. Hughes seemed to be underlining this point by taking off Smallwood, which was applauded for reasons which are largely beyond me, and illustrated the problem.

I’ve watched a half dozen games this week, from England internationals to a Latvian First Division match. I watched the top of the J League, and I watched football’s most exciting tactical innovator at Bayer Leverkusen. Nowhere, other than at Bradford City, did I see the idea that you might not need players in the midfield who could get the ball and pass the ball.

Napkin

It was drawn on a napkin, in a bar with pretensions, but it would be made into CAD layouts. The solution was to move the front rows of the Midland Road stand away, and build up the land over the Holy Well and the smaller side of the ground. Build, seed, turf, stretch, grown, improve.

“A bigger pitch, and more space on the pitch, because modern football has left Valley Parade behind. It is too easy to defend, and so City are playing football without home advantage.”

The point was compelling, if not the solution, “Everyone else has home games which are a chance to get three points, but the way that football has changed in overloads, and covering space, City are trying to get three on a pitch that is so easy to defend.”

“The only solution, the only one” said with timber, “is to spend millions of pounds to redevelop Valley Parade to increase the size of the pitch, to make it easier to move the oppositions back four left and right and create space between players.”

“This must happen.”

Exacerbated

Hughes has a set of problems exacerbated by a weakness in the midfield where Alex Gillead, who is playing well in September 2023, is struggling to be the creator which City tried to sign in the summer before they returned with Kevin McDonald.

McDonald himself is a capable blocking midfielder, and can play a pass over distance, but struggles with the ball in close quarters and only the aforementioned Smallwood is able to move the ball between defence and attack with any frequency, but most of the time he is used by his teammates to take a ball they do not want, and return it to them which they feel more comfortable.

None of these problems are solved if there is no Mark Hughes at Bradford City, but that seems to have long since stopped mattering to anyone. The aim of football support – as with much of the post-Brexit landscape of the country – is to impose your will.

That your will is, at its heart, illogical is no drawback. Rather, it is a proof of your fervency. Your ability to believe, even against logic and evidence, allows you to defeat any argument grounded in such argil concerns.

End

“I don’t care what you say, the only thing we can do is expand the size of the pitch, and if you had any ambition, you’d say it too.”

Given the scope of what was discussed, it seemed unfeasible, but what did I know? This pint, and this conversation, was dragging on, but it was as good as any other.

Oppenheimer / Neal / Smallwood

In the 2023 film Oppenheimer, there is a scene in which the eponymous physicist and inventor of the atom bomb utters the line that will be his epitaph, but he says it during an adultery with a Communist he meets at a party.

The themes of the movie are explicitly on display here: Oppenheimer, the character, will not commit to an idea even when he is smart enough to know the ramifications of that idea, and that is because he is just a normal man who likes things that normal men like, such as sex with Florence Pugh, and the fair allocation of resources in society.

In the discussion of this scene, there are three vectors of argument. One group endlessly posts the same Simpsons meme, another insists that if you do not like the scene then you have not understood what it is trying to communicate about this American Prometheus’ fallibility, another that it fails in the attempt to communicate Oppenheimer’s weaknesses and is just out of place, and bad, and derails a great movie about men who smoke while inventing things.

It is rare for anyone to accept that someone may have understood the scene, and what it was saying, but just not liked it. This is what I think about when I think about Richie Smallwood.

Width

I visited my friend Jason’s website to watch the playing out of an argument about the colour of photographs. The argument felt like a time capsule from my life fifteen years ago, when I spent far too long worrying about the comments on this very website.

During those arguments I was told time and time again that I had to reflect views which I did not hold. My response then was too infrequently that the complainant should make a submission and if the argument was strong I’d publish it. The argument was never strong, but at the time seemed like it was the most important thing that had ever happened in the history of the world.

On following the argument about the chromatic scale of photographs, I read on to lengthy discussions about Richie Smallwood and a problem that he represents at Bradford City. Jason’s views are his own, as are the writers of various comments that are more or less graded on a level of nonsense, but in totality they suggest a way of looking at football with is at best out of date, and at worst a perversion of reality.

A Situation

To sum up The Smallwood Situation: His critics say that he does not do enough, that he does not pass forward enough, that he does not break from midfield enough, that he needs to score more, that he did not think about the consequences of creating the atomic weapon before handing it over to the Military, and that he has bad hair.

I would suggest that the reality of that situation is that Smallwood plays the role that Mark Hughes gives him in the City team. It is a role which involves ball retention, providing a pivot from defence to midfield, and pushing forward-moving attacks away from the centre of the field. I would say that objectively Smallwood plays that role very well, but that the remit of that role is the point of contention.

When Ryan East exited this week for a loan move to Rochdale there were screams from the Man-Baby land of Facebook that East should be given a chance to provide killer balls from Smallwood’s midfield role while being more dynamic going forward. If that were the case, East would not be doing a better job than Smallwood, because Smallwood is doing the role which Hughes asks of him in the way he asks.

Fantasy

Football has an evolving meta, and thirty or forty years ago it was probably the case that the players more defined how teams played than they do now. Glenn Hoddle, when slotted in the England team of Sir Bobby Robson, played his role in a certain way and Peter Reid played it another and by picking between the two Robson was picking how he wanted the game played.

The shape of that England team, of most teams of that era, largely stayed the same while personnel altered. When Reid got old, Everton turned to our own Stuart McCall to replace him, having fairly similar qualities which they wanted to see continue in the team. Had they signed Hoddle then they would have been changing how Everton played.

That approach to football changed incrementally, although the day that Roy Evans at Liverpool signed John Scales and Phil Babb – informing the Press he would not be selling Neil Ruddock, and would instead be having the option to change system they played – was as good a Jornada del Muerto moment as any.

You Fear Jazz

It is true to say that footballers play in the way that they are instructed to do so, in order to have interplay with other footballers who play in the way they are instructed to do. Football is not jazz, and while there is improvisation, it is set within constraints.

The number six role – often not played by people wearing six in the UK, but oddly played by City’s six Smallwood – is far from a mystery to City fans given that it was the one which the iconic and aforementioned McCall largely played, or would have played were he on the field today.

If Ryan East were to get the instructions Smallwood has, and then start spraying the ball and charging out of position, that would be a bad thing in a way which should not need explaining to anyone who watches football. Smallwood is in the team to do the things he is doing, which Hughes believes need doing, and which need doing. And he does them well.

However, people do not like that he does them well, because they do not like that those things need to be done, so they put him on trial for being a Red, or something.

Reality

What benefit is there of a discussion about Richie Smallwood which ignore these realities? What virtue is there for castigating a man playing the position he is assigned to do, and playing it well? Why indulge the group of people who would rather that the reality of football was this world of fantasy?

Football stands as escapism, a thing to do at the end of the week to blow off steam, and in that context it earns a romantic nod to the idea of individualism, but the grind of football between Monday and Friday is not unlike any other job for the people who do it, and has realities which can be ignored by others but are crucial to those involved.

Football isn’t wish fulfilment for footballers, and managers, players, and those who pay their bills cannot afford to live in the world of make believe. Oppenheimer is played by an Irish actor called Murphy pretending to be a Scientist. The Trinity test is special effects. The film stock changes from colour to black and white to make a point. It is a thing created by hard working people who deal in realities.

Digression

Why was Peter Shilton the England goalkeeper and not Ray Clemence? Clemence played for the best team in the country, Liverpool, and was one of a number of players who wore and won for the Reds but seemed to be second choice at International level.

If Mick Mills was better than Phil Neal, then why was Mick Mills not playing for the Champions? If David Johnson scored with such regularity for Liverpool why was he not playing for the national team especially as, when he did, he seemed to score too?

These questions animated my mind in its opening decade. There are answers to all of those questions too, but they are not found in Shoot Magazine or Roy of the Rovers, or asking your Dad or a Teacher for that matter. They are relieved through bas-relief, often, and without being spoken, and the truth is sometimes uncomfortable.

There

Football is a thing which can be known. There is a “there” there and there is something to be studied, and learned, and understood. There are people who analyse tactics and people who read statistics and increasingly people who write football philosophy.

Jonathan Wilson, to name the most celebrated, is not a Magician and one does not have to learn a new language to read his work. It is accessible to all. Michael Calvin’s books are an authentic version of the docusoap of All or Nothing, and Welcome to Wrexham. Tifo assume that the people who are listening are doing so because they want to hear discussion that goes deeper than having to point out that having a player who is good at ball retention in a role which requires ball retention might not be a bad thing.

The irony of football is that as a nation we spend so long talking about it, but seem to be opposed to understanding it to the point where we are enthralled with the idea that there is something wrong with those who do. We are a people who have had enough of experts.

In Action

On a podcast in which former footballers talk about being former footballers Steven Davies – once of City – told a story which he felt proved that his former manager Phil Parkinson was a “real geek”. In the story Davies called Parkinson on a promise the manager had made to play him, and forced Parkinson to change his stated team to include him.

Davies giggles as he recalls this story and enjoys the moment of speaking something which was hitherto unknown, but in doing so revealing more. It is not possible to know if Parkinson was delighted that Davies had shown that level of desire to try force his way into the side, or if he was caught out by Davies’ quote cunning unquote, or if it was exactly as Davies described.

Those who watched Davies could tell him why his five goals in twenty-five games did not give him a starting place in anyone’s team. The truth is in bas-relief and not fully formed, but not difficult to make out. Davies is a mood of football as emotion, and as a good laugh, ruined by those who would put down structures and read statistics that stop great lads, and top bantz, and giving yer all for da boyz.

Ink

So for all the ink spilled over the game it ends with people arguing about if a black and white photograph on a website is pretentious, if a player who is doing the role he is given should be dropped, if people really did put overmuch emphasis on the name of John Eff Kennedy when they said it in conversation.

When those arguments are indulged, and I’m indulging them here, credence is lent to them and it allows the framing to be moved. What is the point of talking about football if discussion has to be framed around assumptions we know to be wrong? Why talk about what a movie means if we frame movies as documents of fact only, and reject any symbolic meaning?

Future

Richie Smallwood faces competition for his place in the team from Kevin McDonald, and the single pivot in front of a three could change depending on many factors, not least of which is a relenting of adding time at the end of games. Hughes could change the way that the role is played, and have different demands of the player in the role, which might change who is selected.

What probably will not happen is that Mark Hughes drops his captain for doing what he is told to do, and adds someone who looks at the role of moving the ball while keeping possession as a chance to hit sixty yard passes over the midfield line.

What you have, dear readers, friends, and editors, is three options: You can educate yourself in why that is, you can wilfully ignore it because you do not want it to be true, or you can obfuscate it or allow it to be obfuscated for bad reasons.

It is possible to watch the scene in Oppenheimer, understand it, and not like it because you don’t think it achieves the aims it presents.

It is possible to watch Bradford City, understand the aims that Mark Hughes has, and judge the team, and the players in that team, against how they achieve those aims.

Evolution / Ending / Gormenghast

Bradford City’s 2-1 win over Colchester United in the first game at Valley Parade of the 2023/24 season was the worst game of football I’ve seen and the future that it points to is dour, and depressing, and not worth my time.

This may be existential agast – I turn fifty this week – I’m going to argue that it is not. I’m going to argue that a set of bad solutions to unproblems have promoted a ludographic change in the sport which will damaged it fundamentally.

The theme of this discussion will be making changes to solve phantom issues. This theme will cleanse itself by discussion of Mark Hughes and his new tactical approach at Bradford City, but that will be a preparation for a broader, better, more interesting point.

Details

The details of the game hardly matter.

Joe Taylor gave Colchester United the lead when Harry Lewis was pressed into a turnover after six minutes. There was a pass forward in the finishing for the goal which looked to trigger an offside decision to me, but referee Marc Edwards set a tone for an afternoon where he was poor, but not the worst thing on show.

City equalised when a long ball to Andy Cook was headed down and after a fashion a rebound was put in from close range by Clark Odour. Odour had a part in the second after half-time when he played the ball onto Alex Pattison. Pattison scored a well taken goal.

I recommend watching the highlights. Indeed, all there is, is to watch the highlights.

Arrives

Earlier, Jamie Walker was booked for pulling an attacker’s shirt as that attacker breezed by the reduce City midfield. If it were so it was a grievous fault, and grievously has Walker answered it with the Yellow Card. Minutes later he was fouled, badly and again, and then substituted injured.

This arrives us at one of many problems within football today, albeit not the main problem,

Players are given the benefit of the doubt after making a bad tackles because the rules of the game are steadfastly opposed to the idea that one player may intentionally harm another. It is, the rules suggest and against the evidence of one’s eyes, unthinkable that the skilful player that is Walker would be targetted by some gnarled defender and, in being so, hampered. This does not happen, in the rules.

Yet those same rules see malice in almost all interactions which are non-violent. Every pulled shirt is a calculated attempt to prevent an advantage, every held ball the evidence of a planned operation to waste time, every mistimed stand up tackle is a player seeking to spoil the attacking flair of another.

It is, of course, a nonsense, but one that Referee Edwards plays the game within. Players are afraid to challenge for the ball, to pressure the opposition, to risk sanction, yet conversely they are aware that they will be forgiven the most egregious actions they can take.

Synecdoche

The rules of football have mutated into this form. One is always forced to ask what problems they are trying to solve? Later in the game, Emmanuel Osadebe featured a year on since the tackle which broke his leg six minutes into the first match at Valley Parade last season.

Both that violent lunge by Liam Ravenhill for Doncaster Rovers and Walker’s shirt pull on Saturday resulted in the same punishment. Without an evaluation of bad character, Ravenhill could not have possibly meant what he did, but Walker was obviously malicious because had it been accidental it would have been worse. There is only twisted logic to be found here.

Later Alex Pattison was tackled from behind and at distance by a Colchester midfielder who was uncautioned, leading to the obvious conclusion that Walker would have been better to make an aggressive tackle from behind on a player who had gone past him rather, than tug him back.

This is unexpected consequencies in action and I’m using it as a synecdoche for a wider problem. I’m building up a theme here.

Clean

So Hughes’ team won, but in an uninteresting way.

The shape is difficult to describe, but a 3-3wb-3-1 might cover it. The back three are struggling with their relationship with the two wing backs ahead of them, and Colchester had joy when they exploited that misunderstanding.

Richie Smallwood, the one in the middle, was more or less a spectator in the game watching the ball go over him to Cook, or around him as Hughes’ experimented with donut football. The game is played around the middle, or over it, but never through it. Alex Gilliead at left wing back showed more than most.

Gilliead’s job was largely to take the ball into possession from Ciaran Kelly and play it quickly with his right foot over the midfield to one of the three runners from the attacking midfield positions. While the unit shifted around the field only the three players in that line behind Cook needed to break from the donut, with Smallwood staying isolated in the middle, doing what Hughes asked, but being asked to do very little.

So the midfield was a lonely furrow, and Alex Pattison seemed to drop deep at times just to keep the captain company. Watching this system make short work of Colchester United with some ease as it and reverse the one goal deficit was interesting, although it did so without ever really revealing what the system would look like in the full flush of success.

Is this what a Donut 3-3wb-3-1 looks like when it is working? What problem is it here to solve?

Ninety Nine

It is a given that Bradford City 2022/23 were too predictable in that Cook was the focal point of attacking and if one stopped Cook, one stopped City. It seems that this newer vintage of Claret and Amber does not have that problem and is using the League’s top goalscorer as Big Jim Mark Two, or Barry Conlon Mark Three.

In Conlon, we have the apt comparison. Hughes’ team seems set up to play as if it were the last ten minutes football from the first whistle, but to do so at a glacial pace. Players are detailed to curious positions and then some are allowed to roam off-position to benefit from the chaos.

This is not Fernando Diniz or Henrik Rydström football, but it might be a projection of the same illumination, but begs the question as to what City will do when the game requires something other than sporadic firings of attacking football.

Measured, cautious, slow paced siege football requires a siege, and a wall, and a battering ram and City are often not short of any of these things, but what if the opposition want a game of football?

Gooseberry Season

I could have told him this, but didn’t bother. We ran a bath, and held him under.” Simon Armitage.

At the end of the first half that saw Walker withdrawn injured, the officials had added nine minutes of stoppage time. Referees are instructed to make games run longer, to make up for the time lost, and to ensure that there are more minutes played. This instruction drifted down from up on high.

When I started watching football earnestly in the 1980s a football match had fifty-five minutes of active football in the ninety minutes. That number increased in the 1990s thanks to a series of innovations masterminded by Maestro turned Bureaucrat Michel Platini to sixty of the ninety, and has remained at that number ever since.

The signal of the number of minutes yet to be played being held aloft at the end of each half was an innovation of this era, as was the back pass rule which did much to create the modern game, and which Harry Lewis spent time regretting after the first goal in today’s match. In 1988 Lewis would have just picked up the ball.

Starting this year, the requirement to add time at the end of the forty-five minutes is geared around solving the problem of time-wasting. If it is a grievous fault, then grievously have we paid for it with around ten minutes seeming to be the minimum addition to each League Two match.

That time-wasting is not evident in this game – or it seems in most games – is immaterial. The change seeks to punish offenders and with no offender to punish, punishment was meted out to us, the people watching the game, in the form of a tedious absence of football.

Legal Man

When creating law, it is of vital importance to look beyond the problem solved, to the consequences of the solution.

Time-wasting in football is annoying but it mostly happens within play. The type of time-wasting that adding nine or ten minutes to the end of each half seeks to combat is already subject to punishments which could be enforced, should referees choose to enforce them.

While it might waste one’s time in general time-frittering is not time-wasting. When England were 2-1 up over Denmark in the last minutes of the Euro 2020 semi-final Harry Kane et al frittered the time away with 72 seconds of passing the ball around the field away from the Danes, but they did not waste that time. That that move ended with a Danish foul was not something the rules of football need to look to stop. There is a difference here.

When one recalls the managers most infuriating in recent seasons: Managers like Rob Edwards, Mark Cooper and Steve Evans; one is forced to also recall those managers send out teams to keep the ball away from the opposition in play, to slow down games by drawing fouls, and play for stoppages. They waste time in that they fritter that time away, lowering the productiveness of it for both teams, but that is different to those teams stealing from the clock.

Adding nine, ten, fifteen minutes onto the end of the game will not stop a Crawley or Forest Green player falling over under a light touch to win a free kick and avoid their team coming under pressure. It does not have to, as pressure is released, or more accurately cannot build, because of the added time itself.

Homo Ludens

In his seminal work Homo Ludens Dutch Historian Johan Huizinga details the development of games and specifically how games separate themselves from the real world. Why is it that white paint on grass creates a space in which a set of rules are respected inside, which are not respected outside that space?

From that, we can ask why is it that one game is played while another is not? Why is it that the game played on a 100×70 field with 22 people is more played than one played on a 200×140 with 44? Both are constructs, agreed upon by the participants as ways of behaving.

Nick Hornby talks about this in the seminal man-culture novel of the 1990s Fever Pitch, but never gets to an answer. Bernie De Koven in his The Well Played Game gets closer suggesting that fairness, and parity, are important and that what is interesting in a game is the point of balance where winning and losing lies.

Batball

De Koven imagines a typical bat and ball game where one party is unable to return the ball as being uninteresting, as is one where both can return the ball every time, pointing to the idea that what is compelling is the moment where that return exceptionally does or does not occur.

In Tennis we might gasp at a great shot which the opponent stretches for but is unable to return precisely because of that balance. A slightly poorer shot would have been returned, and perhaps a slightly better player would have returned it, but this is where the balance lies, and where our interest is.

I would argue, and I believe De Koven, Huizinga and Hornby would support this, that football is popular because it has these moments of balance occurring with regularity. The size of the field and number of players on it minimise the importance of individuals while maximising competition between individual players.

The size of the goals create an importance around accuracy and positioning for attacking players, yet seem too large to fully cover for defenders. The value of possession is based on space which is never too small to be useless but never too big to be luxurious. Football is football because of accidents of creation which have made something which maximises moments of balance, and of interest.

Dawkins Again

Who knows what the homo habilis or homo heidelbergensis of football were? Football is football because of the balances it exists within. The single unit of the game – the goal – as Hornby notes, occurs at the right level of frequency to be celebrated every time, and regretted when they do not occur.

More goals would render them boring, fewer would render the game boring. Every change sits in this context and while it is not impossible to make those changes, they risk replicating those sports which have previously failed. Add more goals and a set of Sticks to football and you’ve made Field Hockey, and that is already a less fun game than Football.

Humans did not evolve to play football, football evolved to be played by humans. It is possible that the things we ask of players are well suited to the peak of their abilities while being well rounded in those abilities. When we ask footballers to have stamina enough to regularly play seventy-five minutes of active football in two hour long games twice a week, we ask for a different type of player, a less well rounded one who is more focused on stamina.

Football is a near universal game, and most can share a field. Shaun Wright-Phillips and Peter Crouch played in the same England team because their individual talents are of use to that team. As long as Wright-Phillips is crossing to Crouch and not the other way around a successful pattern can be formed.

Rory

A football where playing four hours a week is common has stamina as the sine qua non of each player and difference is removed. For sure, all footballers need a level of fitness, but fitness is not the defining qualities of a footballer. Each player has the scope to be defined individually. Beckham is skillful, Fowler is deadly, Bellingham is balletic, Mount is aware. One replaces all those with players who are defined as having stamina.

Rory McArdle, in City’s record-breaking 2012/2013 season, played almost every minute of every game. It was an amazing achievement from one of my favourite players, and I struggle to think of any other player I’ve watched who could match that. Extrapolate the first few games of this season and McArdle’s remarkable achievement is asked of every player in almost every team.

And I like Rory McArdle, but I don’t want every player – every striker, every midfielder, every winger, every full back – to have to be Rory McArdle.

Dilution

Following Alex Pattison’s goal to make the game 2-1 the clock showed sixty minutes, although seventy had been played, of which using the ratio of one in every three minutes of a game downtime suggests that at that point forty-six minutes of active football had been played.

The clock had thirty minutes remaining, but all knew that that be added to by another ten minutes. That equates to a further twenty-six active football minutes spread over the next forty. It is worth remembering now that these new rules do not try to change the ratio of active football to downtime. They just increase time with the effect of increasing active time and downtime alike.

The active football then becomes less attractive because players have not been gifted the ability to put in more than ten minutes more of running, tackling, crossing, shooting, and harrying over the course of the summer. The same level of football gets drawn out over longer time. There is more active football, but it is less attractive. It is football played with dilution.

Given that the time after the thirty minutes left on the clock is unknown – although we assume ten minutes – and that the players would at this stage of a normal game have fifteen to twenty minutes of football within them, they are faced with an indeterminate amount of play.

True to form the Referee added nine and played ten minutes meaning another twenty-six minutes of active football making over seventy-two minutes for the third time in eight days for players who have trained on that being an extreme rather than typical.

Marathon

A Marathon, but only after twenty-one miles does the runner find out if the finish line is in five miles, or in fifteen.

After sixty minutes, unsure of where the finish line was, both teams acted in a way which was entirely to be expected. They opted to conserve energy.

For Colchester United there was no sense chasing an equalising goal because were they to do so – and exhaust themselves in the doing – they would surely concede to the less exhausted team in the lengthy stoppage time period which was to follow. Better to send the odd outrider to try to steal something rather than mount an assault.

For Bradford City there is no reason to try to score to kill the game off because, again, they would face a lengthy and unknown period of stoppage time in which they would be exhausted and Colchester United not.

Pep Talk

This reasoning might seem to but overmuch emphasis on exhaustion as a motivating factor, but not only would I argue it was evident at Valley Parade on Saturday, but that a great deal of modern football’s meta is around exhausting the opposition. Pep Guardiola has made a virtue out of forcing the opposition to chase the ball as it moves between his players, the opposition working hard to close down, and then being exploited when tired legs cannot cover space and Guardiola’s teams profit.

At Valley Parade – and no doubt in many other games – conserving energy was the defining factor of the match and rightly so. Why bust a gut to get out of midfield to try to score when the liability of being exhusted is greater than the benefits of scoring? Colchester United had more chance of scoring as a team with energy in stoppage time than they did of not conceding as a team without it having equalised in normal time.

So every game becomes one of attrition or avoiding attrition. There are attempts at goal within the game, for sure, but there is no onus on either team to act in any way which is decisive. Better avoid being easy meat for a late feast.

Stoppage

When stoppage time comes City have a small flourish, Colchester United not so, but it comes to nothing with neither teams able to give that final push to make a fist of a game. After the whistle, a half a dozen players of each side are laying on their backs, in a way which broke the heart against Carlisle United three months ago. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

After giving one’s all, all season, only to lose a game, and feel like there was nothing left to give to avoid that loss tested the heart on the pitch at Carlisle. Eight months of hard work had gone to naught after extra time in a play-off defeat in late May.

But this is August, and after a win, and both sets of players look exhausted.

Random Weavings

The fundamentals of fifty years of football change before your eyes.

Why press an attack if the exhaustion caused by that will rob you in an attritional stoppage time? Why add to a teammate’s attack at a cost to yourself in the final recogning of the game? When Clark Odour charges out of midfield, why keep up with him, knowing that you need that energy for the unknown swathes of injury time? Better watch his random weavings while saving energy for yours. Fitness and tiredness will be decisive.

For many of the players, Saturday’s game is amougst the top three longest active football matches they have had in their careers, but the other two have been within the last eight days.

The Marathon, but only after twenty-five miles do the runners who have trained for twenty-six, find out if the finish line is after thirty-two miles, or thirty-nine.

Aimless

Odour or Pattison or Tyler Smith or Taylor or any other Colchester player make another unsupported run forward and there is something to enjoy in the weaving darts out of midfield, but this is not football of pressure.

Pressure is to football what Iambic pentameter is to Shakespeare. It undergirds, and important in a way which is significant. Shakespeare without rhythm is just kicking a ball about, and football without pressure is a talentless hack stumbling through Marc Anthony.

That pressure can only come when the balance between expending energy and the risks of exhaustion is well poised in the way that De Koven frames it. The risks of tiredness are greater than the rewards of applying pressure.

Without pressure, attacks become discreet memes of football, each one unconnected to the last. Defence becomes rest defence, aiming players away from goal, waiting for turnovers, but never forcing them.

This looks good on TikTok, a player dribbling past defenders in a twelve-second clip, but it is not the football we know and it forgoes afternoons for spectators in favour of clips for the swipers.

Old Man, Cloud

_(We are all doomed to dream in nostalgia. Elements of the past and elements of the future coming together to make something which is not as good as either. I do not know if this is mine.)_

_(I’ve seen changes come and go, and come and stay, and addressed them all on merit and found many to be good but this one to be alienating and bad.)_

_(If this is the rubicon I drift over in a sleep, then that is so, but being awakened I do despise my dream.)_

So What Now?

In a measured interview after the defeat, Ben Garner the Colchester United Manager said that his team had played two lengthy games this week and felt that that had contributed to the defeat in which he felt his team fell short of what was expected.

City had played three. There are murmurings that this cannot be the status quo. By the time Chelsea play Liverpool, the game runs to five minutes of stoppage time each half.

Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

Along one path, there is a pulling back to something more like previous seasons, where game time returns to something more reasonable most of the time, and what is asked of players is in keeping with what has always been asked.

The month of 120 minute games goes the way of walking free kicks forward and penalty shoot-outs at the end of draws in League games, and many other ideas that failed to evolve.

Along the other, a game called football continues, but it is changed, and changed to tedious afternoons like Saturday where deep sitting players conserve energy against opposition runners who push mostly two, in frequently three, forward and no more.

Then there are stories without structure, stanzas without rhythm, and games without tempo, or purpose, or point.

Post-Script

_(Making dinner and the radio is on. What was six-o-six is popularism pandered from unqualified former footballers. A Caller talks about how when supporters pay to watch ninety minutes of football, they should get ninety minutes of football.

Never mind the quality, feel the width. How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.

Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace; Leave gormandizing. Know the grave doth gape.

Memes / 2023 / Football

Football is a game played on a Saturday afternoon.

I’ve spent most of my life, which ebbs to a fiftieth year this month, watching it at Valley Parade and some of those ninety minutes have had a life changing impact. The game of football unfolds as a grand narrative of point and counterpoint, of disappointment and direction, of the drama of the real.

That decorated footballer and manager Mark Hughes entered the narrative was a curious moment in that drama, but that curiosity has given way to a metronomic, sincere competency. Mark Hughes’ Bradford City have become a watch word for stability.

Always Mark Hughes’ Bradford City. Never miss the prefix.

That prefix features frequently in previews of this season. Mark Hughes’ Bradford City are placed firmly in the five teams which could get one of the three automatic promotion places this season and their position is clear: Understudy.

Dawkins

When biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term memeification in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene he spoke of how culture could be passed in the same way that genetic code was. The useful was retained and propagated. It is useful if an animal can reach the higher branches, so the animals with long necks live while others do not, and then: Giraffe.

The rise of meme culture, inherently tied into online culture, it has grown to a rate where it has consumed Dawkins almost entirely. In Meme culture, an outcome of memeification, a concept’s complexity is stripped away to allow it to pass between groups without friction.

So memeification is changing culture, football, and next season will govern League Two as Wrexham return to the Football League.

Matthews

Wrexham are a proud football club, and have a proud history, and they are managed by the peerless Phil Parkinson whose name is a byword for better times at Valley Parade.

Wrexham have moments of knocking Arsenal out of the FA Cup, and of being knocked out by Rhyl. Sir Stanley Matthews wore a Wrexham shirt, as did Alan Hill. Ryan Valentine scored to keep them in the League, but they dropped out of the League.

None of that matters, though, because they were bought by Hollywood’s second-best Ryan and a guy called Rob from that TV show you always promise yourself you’d watch but never did.

Hamlet

I have not seen much of Welcome To Wrexham, in which Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney navigate the perils of being the owners of a small football club, but I’m told it is not without its charms.

The pair act as Stoppards’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern constantly away from the action while contemplating their importance to it. Phil Parkinson comes over as an honest, good football man, which is certainly my memory of him, and the player serve up a slice of their lives.

But Wrexham is not Manchester United, and football at this level is difficult even when one has more money, a path forward, and the will to succeed. Welcome to Wrexham, some of us have been here quite a while.

Not Crewe

So it is not Wrexham who are most fancied to win this League but Ryan Reynolds’ Wrexham, and they are followed by Notts County who are pulled into the swirl as the Baby Jane of Wrexham story.

Salford City, owned by a group of former Manchester United players seemingly headed of Sky TV’s Gary Neville make the mix, and so do Stockport County who are remarkable for being unremarkable in this instance.

This is the impact of memeification. The complexities of League Two stripped away to a list: Ryan Reynolds’ Wrexham, The Bad Guys Notts County, Mark Hughes’ Bradford City, Gary Neville’s Salford City and also Stockport County.

Stockport County are interesting. Manager Dave Challinor has a kind of minor note in post-technocratic football alongside the much more important new Brazil and Flumense manager Fernando Diniz and Malmo’s Henrik Rydstrom. These teams are less interested in creating the kind of preset patterns which mark out modern football and are more interested in harnessing creative thinking in attacking play. New signing Nick Powell’s role in that may prove decisive this season, and Challinor may break out of his meme as “the long throw man”.

Nigel Clough’s Mansfield Town, Just Stop Vegan Green Rovers, “Owned by a bunch of idiots” Crawley Town and so on. Maybe it has always been like this. Maybe it is not a bad thing.

Pitch

Often when talking about football we avoid talking about football. We talk about the football themed theatre that surrounds the game – and Wrexham are the prime example of this – but we avoid talking about what happens on the field. Transfers, quotes, filmed training, player interviews, speculation. These are all things around the football which are mistaken for, but are not actually, football.

The discussion is of a become a replaying of personal dramas tangential to the game itself. League Two offers these for Bradford City next season with Parkinson’s return a moment of reflection of how far we have come since he left for Bolton Wanderers, and Derek Adams‘ return a similar moment when Morecambe arrive.

Those moments, I imagine, will be used to define those games but have little to do with them. Increasingly, football is a more technical pursuit. Adams at Valley Parade brought a move towards player data performance at Bradford City which Mark Hughes continued without question.

The Bloke

Within the last generation all football has moved away firmly away from being defined by passion, and the laudable desires to give 110%, into a more scripted approach. Watching Brighton on the field is like watching a Musical, where actions give way to set responses. Watching Hughes’ City team play the ball away from the back has a similar feel.

City try draw on an opposition out of the resting defence, who set traps in passing lanes to quickly force turnovers, while the flow of players between the forward lines give a series of rotating options to disrupt that defence.

“No, we did not play 442 and boot it long to the big man, and we don’t smoke between games or have a pint before the match either.”

GAAaS

Key to how Hughes will play is the performance of Kevin McDonald who comes in to replace the departing Adam Clayton. Clayton’s fulcrum pivot role at the base of the midfield was key to City’s excellent second half of the season, and McDonald’s job is to do the same while being fitter.

The deep sit midfield has retained Alex Gilliead and Richie Smallwood, although the latter was under contract, and if every two players reflected the football of technical analysis rather than instinctual readings it is they. “Get forward”, “Get stuck in”, “Get it in the net” are heard, best passing rate, high win percentage, GAAaS are observed. It is Reals before Feels for Mark Hughes, and for football.

Ryan East suggests himself as the first reserve in those positions, although one might hope he might start to suggest himself more firmly, and many of the more forward minded players can drop in to the three-man pivot midfield.

The two-man double pivot where Smallwood and probably McDonald sit behind three forward midfielders is another option and the success of that depends on the progress of Jamie Walker. Walker was, at times and between the tackles, the best player in League Two last season, which seemed to be so noted by the opposition who focused him.

Scots-ish

If Walker plays well, City win, on the whole, but the key to him playing well would seem to be to have enough options around him that he is no longer the focus of the opposition’s attention.

Enter here Alex Pattison joining from Harrogate Town. Pattison and Walker are not similar players – Walker drifts into space to find the ball, Pattison picks it up deep and moves forward with it – but they perform a similar task of changing midfield possession into attacking and the hope will be that the one will distract from the other. Likewise, a fully fit Emmanuel Osadebe could do the same.

Alongside these three are the likes of nominal midfielders Harry Chapman and Bobby Pointon, and Tyler Smith and Matt Derbyshire of the forwards, who will be peopling the positions behind Andy Cook. Perm any two from four, and play the ones who are performing well.

In a world of memeification Cook is the Medieval Siege Engine rolled up to the Castle walls. It takes an age to get it where you want it to be, but when it gets there, there is no stopping it. Cook is terrific and has the kind of energy which a manager wants. For all the appearance of a blood and guts number nine Cook conserves his bursts, and can be trusted on the field.

And so Hughes’ trusts him with Bradford City’s season. Attempts have been made to add a few more goals from the midfield, but Cook’s thirty plus are factored in. Verdaine Oliver stands by, and is useful in that way.

Best

Footballer turned Podcaster turned Footballer Ben Foster turned up to play for Wrexham in a signing which was mostly a brand alignment exercise, and now he is being talked about as League Two’s best goalkeeper by people who probably do not know their Corey Addai from their elbow.

Harry Lewis is the best keeper I’ve seen in goal for City since Jordan Pickford, and perhaps the best City owned keeper since Matt Clarke and Gary Walsh. I would suggest that he is too good for League Two, but seeing Lawrence Vigouroux leave Leyton Orient to sit on the bench while Burnley blood England u21’s James Trafford is a sobering sight.

Vigouroux was the best keeper in League Two for some time and he may well claim the number one shirt at Turf Moor but if he does not then talent is wasted, and Lewis avoids that waste by keeping goal at Valley Parade. Long may it continue.

Sam Stubbs was the heart of improvements in the second half of the season and will in the back four alongside – probably – Matty Platt. Ciaran Kelly, Ash Taylor and perhaps Timi Odusina give Hughes’ the option of a three-man back line with two-man pivot and three in font of that. That formation is still a work in progress after some creaking pre-season but is seems obvious that Hughes wants to blood it to give himself more flexibility in how City play.

As wide defenders Liam Ridehalgh and Clarke Oduor on one side, and Brad Halliday and Daniel Oyegoke on the other fill out the options.

So Now Then

It is tempting to suggest after a full season that Hughes has to – in some way – “get it right” this season and CEO Ryan Sparks has talked about setting high standards as a quixotic mantra. My belief is now, and always has been, success is a product of good behaviours and not the other way around that Sparks seems to understand that too.

Hughes’ has City doing the right things and his changes in the squad seem to underline his belief in bringing in players with a high level of professionalism. Matt Derbyshire’s arrivial and Jake Young’s departure set a tone about seniority, experience, and what one does in the positions one is given.

The Mark Hughes name seems to be enough to get City mentioned in hallowed circles but seemingly only as the understudy for the likes of Wrexham who might fail. There is a stablity in what City have, and lack of variance, and that is not true of the other clubs in the division.

For what it is worth I think that Wrexham, and Notts County, may faulter but Stockport will not, but what do I know other than that everything will be decided on the 113 x 70 yard space on a Saturday afternoon where the noise around football drops away and there is just football.

Those afternoons are glorious. They are a moment where complexity runs amok, and where the simple is impossible. Every action, the result of and part of a chain of complex pre-actions which could never resolve in football, the cacophony of discussion is replaced by the symphony of the real.

Gibb / Rhodes / Honourable

It seems that when Bradford City are keen that a news item is quickly disregarded, it will emerge in the later hours of Friday afternoon. This is what twenty-four years of writing about Bradford City has told me, and is the spirit in which the notification of the reunification of relations between the club and Mr Gordon Gibb was received.

The Gibb Family’s Flamingo Land Pension Fund owns Valley Parade. Bradford City – the business which Gibb was at that time the chairman of – rent Valley Parade for an amount which was promised to be “peppercorn” but would seem to many if not most fair-minded analysts to be prohibitively expensive.

Flamingo Land – the business which the Gibb family own – is returning to sponsor the shirt sleeves of Bradford City – the business Gibb left some twenty years ago – as the lease on the tenancy of Valley Parade ticks down.

Pointedly, Gibb is impressed with the club’s new management, and probably he is right to be. A position of antagonism with the club’s landlord over a disagreement that dates back twenty years – and the cost of that antagonism – are obviously to City’s Chief Executive Ryan Sparks.

Wonder

In 2004, I was consumed with writing about Bradford City. It took up too much of my time, defined what I did, and seemed to be important in a way which I find unfathomable now.

This is not to say that I do not believe that football clubs, or the communities around them, are important, because I do. Rather that it seems so ill that I was the vox hominem of Bradford City and that the club’s representation on the World Wide Web – representation which would be important in the fundraising in 2004 to keep the club alive – would be largely in my hands.

To recall the early 2000s Internet culture is to recall a place before social media which, very obviously, had the potential for what was to follow. All that was good and ill about the next two decades swirled ominously in the air.

I still look back on those days with wonder.

Marc Antony

It is exhausting to recall even the details. Before one game Gordon Gibb walked onto the grass at VP, microphone in hand, to say that Bradford City would always have a home at Valley Parade and that he had taken action which would secure the future of the club.

Two decades of retrospect are stark. Gibb bought a business for £1, he ran it, and then left after he sold the biggest asset it had to – in effect – himself. The Pension Fund then went on to make an impressive return from that.

The soul of Gordon Gibb is not a subject I can speak with any authority on, nor want to. Gibb’s intentions might have been, and still be, pure. The material outcome has been that the Pension Fund which purchased Valley Parade has made a massive return on the investment it made in a business which three months later was in Administration with Gibb gone.

But he is an honourable man.

Interlocutor

Gibbs stands in contrast to his rival, and interlocutor in 2004, Julian Rhodes.

Rhodes’ involvement in Bradford City is long, and it is storied. Rhodes often kept poor company in the boardroom, and the years of his involvement are a map charted promise on the path to inevitable conflict, and conflict which ruined what was good.

Once again, these details are wearying to recall. The new starts that petered out, the failure to maintain promised stability in partnerships with bombastic people who needed to be controlled. The moments it was made clear that the deals derived from being involved in Bradford City were private affairs.

And always the wounded soul, there to remind us what he had sacrificed to keep Bradford City in business, and promising to walk away without “making a penny” on an asset that rankled into decline.

He remains, an honourable man.

Gore

That Gibb has a bank of support in the support at Valley Parade is largely for not being Julian Rhodes. Rhodes’ history is tarnished with the actual, while the Gibb era is an Al Gore Presidency. All potential, never dirtied by doing.

The “doing” was beyond Rhodes, but nevertheless he was able to sell his share in the club for half of £5.5m, with Mark Lawn taking the other half. That any of that was possible was a result of £500,000 raised during the summer of 2004 by supporters of Bradford City. Raised by donations, by charity events, by auctioning off, by raising awareness, but underlining to all the importance of the civic institution which hung in the balance. At the time, it was the biggest fundraising effort by a group of football supporters in history.

That there was a Bradford City for Rhodes to own, then sell, was because ordinary people of Bradford put hands in pockets and raised enough money to keep it going.

Pick a side: Gibb or Rhodes. History shows Rhodes hawking the club like a John Street Trader before selling to “a good custodian” who turned out to be The Man Least Suitable while describing Gibb’s actions point by point is – to the uninformed such as I – indistinguishable from that of an asset-stripper.

That is not the case, though, because they are both honourable men.

So Now Then

When I think back to the summer of 2004 I think of two men playing chicken with a football club that people cared deeply about. I think about people called Mark and Mike and Kath and Richard and others working very, very hard to make sure that at the start of August 2004 there even was a Bradford City.

I think about how irresponsible that is, and how counter it is to what both claim, and how pressured one is to take a side against one party and in doing so exonerate the other.

Then I remember that they are, honourable, men.

Hypercapitalism

This is a landmark Summer for football, in which petrochemical money appropriated from the people of Saudi Arabia has been spent on trying to recreate the NASL in Riyadh. It is a bellwether of the end of what we have known as late 20th century capitalism.

Finance in football has ballooned to a position where it is no longer capable of sustaining itself. The riches of fossil fuel, as they destroy the planet, are used to prop up entertainment product in places where people rely on charity to eat.

This is what the end of the Hume and Smith Capitalism looks like, and what replaces it, is a kind of hypercapitalism where money is untethered to value and what greater indication of that the reation of a entertainment product in which the amounts paid to consume it are irrelvant to the product itself?

Cristiano Ronaldo is paid an estimated £173m a year to play for Al-Nassr. There is no suggestion that Al-Nassr’s owners – The Public Investment Fund who declare themselves a part of the Saudi Arabian Government – will ever recoup that figure or any desire to do so.

Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem.

This seems far-fetched now, to suggest that the way the world is run will change, but in 2004 had I said that the Liverpool captain would leave Anfield in order to play in the Saudi Arabian Pro League you’d have looked at that with similar scepticism.

The economic flaw of hypercapitalism is the cycling of assets and money around the higher tier, which abstracts it from the value within the tiers, and this is the stage we are entering. Football Clubs are either uninteresting to wealth, or they are passed around without concern for the supporters who have so little impact on them that the are not worth factoring into decision making.

Football has gone beyond owner’s extracting value from clubs. This discussion about honourable men is finished. The industry of football has no use for club the size of Bradford City.

As supporters, we need to move to a more egalitarian view of the game. The honourable men of football have extracted the wealth out of all clubs, leaving a wasteland of looted nation states and billionaires towering over volcanic wastes where nothing will grow. Clubs will end up owned by supporters because only the supporters will care.

There will only be supporters who remain for Bradford City and our ilk, and I would suggest we hasten the moment we come to terms with that.

Review / Opportunity / Eden

Destiny is a story about Joe Carmody, a Boxer who becomes a Private Investigator. It opens American writer Ethan Coen‘s collection Gates of Eden and sets the tone of noir with a comic twist

Carmody, an intellectual too smart for pugilism, is pulled into an engagement spying on one Promoter as he indulges in a proxy affair with another Promoter’s wife. It is about smart people playing dumb and dumb people playing smart, and involves Joe taking a lot of beatings.

After his final pummelling, during which he has never landed a blow on an opponent, Joe wonders aloud what it would have been like to be a little bit better. “Always a beating, I don’t understand it.”

“I may be a little slower than the other guy, but not that much. I may be a little less strong, but I don’t get beat by a little, I get the crap pounded outta me. Why is that?”

Review

When thinking about Bradford City in the 2022/2023 three stories in Coen’s Gates of Eden came to mind. The season was the club’s first under manager Mark Hughes and concluded with a sixth placed finish. In Andy Cook City had League Two’s top scorer, and in Harry Lewis they had the best goalkeeper since Jordan Pickford learned to shout between the sticks.

To iterate through results, but more so to recall, there was improvement. The mid-season arrival of Adam Clayton and Sam Stubbs saw Hughes able to be flexible in the shape he set his players with and increased competition for places.

From 62 miles up Hughes is contesting with a mental frailty in League Two players which his career in the Premier League has not prepared him for. It feels unfair to draw a line and suggest that the players on one side of it are bad mentality, and the others good, but Lee Angol’s exit for Matt Derbyshire illustrated this point. They both enjoy being footballers, but probably Derbyshire enjoys it for the reasons Hughes finds useful.

Minnesota

Costa Minapolidan feels like an abandoned idea from Fargo oozing as it does with Minnesota Nice. It tells the story of a group of Gangsters who move to the snowy cold from Chicago’s South Side, competition having become a little fierce, and decide to bring this thing we do with them.

On arriving in the 1960s Joe de Louis, the head of the small crime family, “don’t care about your problems” but over the decades as he attempts to make the environment a product of his will, the environment shapes him back. “Nudsun” is murdered, but the locals assume it was a terrible mistake, and one by one the Gang begin to assimilate into the community.

Joe de Louis opens a barber shop, he dies an old man, found by one of his customers and buried in a pauper’s grave.

Bratfud

Hughes does not seem to be especially interested in leaving Bradford City. Hughes standards taller than most and things develop well alongside him after a long career, he has found a place where football is more malleable, and he can be more the author of his destiny.

Slowly his squad begins to tend towards interesting shapes. He uses players in interesting ways, and pushes those players to their edges. Alex Gilliead, who Hughes has played in a few positions, has been taking on roles within those positions which the manager asks him to do.

One game Gilliead is moving into any pocket of space he can find to be given a pass to feet, the next he is pressing forward and taking the ball on a half turn to get away from a midfielder, while the next he is tucking in to defend a lead. The latter often ineffectively, but given Gilliead was the inefficient winger, we should recall Dr Johnson in these matters.

Without wanting to be critical of him, Gilliead shows the heart of Hughes’ problem and the 2022/23 season. A limited player played to his limits, the regnant assumption is that there was a possibility that City could have been better, perhaps should have been, and that this season represents a missed opportunity.

Free

Opportunity, as a concept, relies on the assumption that there is a better outcome that one could have had in some situation and that outcome was forsaken, and looking at 2022/23 I struggle to see that. Of course, one can look at moments in games and spot mistakes and wish that those mistakes had not happened, but that does not seem to capture the idea of a missed opportunity.

Was it a missed opportunity that Jamie Walker was out for four months? Was Emmanuel Osadebe’s sixth minute leg break on the first day of the season a missed opportunity? What opportunity does losing two significant players afford for a club? What opportunity did Alex Gilliead pass up in playing as well as Alex Gilliead has ever played? Was there an opportunity to get more goals out of a 32-year-old journeyman Andy Cook?

Lest this be seen as a needling of superficial language, I use the phrase as synecdoche for an attitude ill fits the season played. Bradford City were not the default success of 2022/23, there was no opportunity other than that which represented the peak of City’s performance.

City, Hughes, We, did as well as we were ever going to do, and it is fine to regret not being lucky, but I may be a little less strong, but I don’t get beat by a little, I get the crap pounded outta me.

Spanish

In The Boys a Father takes Davey and Bart, his two young sons, camping, trying to navigate the road and the whims of the children he sometimes sees. One will not be separated from a Sesame Street catalogue but shows no interest in the Sesame Street characters, the other repeats his phrases in a way which Father is obviously more irritated than flattered by.

Spanish Rice, a dish that Davey claims to like, leads Father to take his son to a restaurant to try an interesting meal, but Davey casts the dish aside. Spanish Rice, it turns out, is just a name for White Rice with Ketchup mixed into it. Bart wants an omelet. “Can’t they make Bart an omelet, huh Dad?” repeats Davey.

The last line is contraception: “What did they want with him? Who were they?”

Defeat / Carlisle / Soul

Donde termina el arco iris, en tu alma o en el horizonte?” – Pablo Neruda

Chile

The Soul, Pablo Neruda writes, is earned through suffering and thought and prayer, and perhaps it is the lack of those things which made Manchester City’s title celebrations such an unwatchable affair.

There is suffering of course – Amnesty International have views on Manchester City’s owners – but not in the Nerudian sense of the word. Manchester City’s success feels like casual background lore written for a forgotten Science Fiction, or what success would look like if it were filmed as background scenes for a movie.

Football’s search for a soul has been documented best by David Conn, himself a Manchester City supporter of sorts, but in the two decades since his seminal The Beautiful Game this search seems to have failed, and failed again, leading us here.

Carlisle

Bradford City’s attempt to be promoted from League Two wilted in the heat of Carlisle. A single goal advantage earned at Valley Parade was turned around by Paul Simpson’s Cumbrians who were able to counter and nullify Mark Hughes’ side’s play.

Simpson reflected after the first leg that his side had performed well in the second half of the first leg and the learnings from that rolled into the Saturday afternoon second leg encounter. Jamie Walker was kept away from the ball with a defender dedicated to cutting off passing lanes to the playmaker. Fellow Scot Scott Banks was pushed wider and wider by a capable backline and going wider saw him further from Andy Cook. Simpson’s success – a success which has eluded many a manager this season – was knowing that to keep Cook quiet, one isolates him from his teammates.

Callum Guy, a bit part player in the recent decline of Bradford City, found positions between City’s midfielders breaking up the play in that area while the two wing backs came inside to create a structure that broke the lines between City’s players. Good football is making the other team play badly.

Scunthorpe

In contrast, Hughes’ City struggled to play in the second of the two styles adopted this season. That style, which saw Adam Clayton shielding a back four and moving the ball to two Mezzala midfielders, represented an alternative to the Double Pivot which had marked out much of the rest of the season. Neither worked, and the shortcomings of the team were exposed.

Hughes has created a squad largely from the scraps left over from previous managers. Players like Cook, and Alex Gilliead, and Liam Ridehaigh have been a part of a team which on the whole performed better than could be expected given their careers. Gilliead’s time as captain of a pathetic and moribund Scunthorpe United side did not suggest he would be a leading midfielder for a team pushing for promotion, but he was.

Simpson’s Carlisle were made of more flexible materials and that difference showed as City were exhausted of ideas but maintained a position in the game that might have given a win on penalties. It was a small return on a season, but it was better than the conclusion of most seasons.

Ultimately, the message was clear. City had lost to a better team, and nobody needed to tell Mark Hughes that. Hughes’ regime is one of competency, and in that spirit he was able to create a team which of metronomic point gathering rather than smashing opponents in single games.

London

A day later, and West Ham United seemed to all but end Leeds United’s hope of Premier League survival with a 3-1 victory at Not Upton Park. There was humour in the Leeds United support dressing as Sam Allardyce, but it was largely for others. The rivals from West Yorkshire made another desperate lunge for a manager, and that lunge obviously failed.

As retrospect dawns East of Pudsey, that failure is obvious. Leeds United were seduced into sacking Marcelo Bielsa with the temptation of extending their time in the Premier League. The mistake was made at that point, not with Large Sam, and the Faustian bargain is in the process of being paid.

There is little sympathy afforded to Leeds United from BD8, but Bielsa was an iconoclast and a far better manager than most, and to have him and lose him feels like an era defining mistake. The cost, for seven wins from thirty-seven, seems too high.

Queens

American film director Martin Scorsese describes the last scenes of his 1990 release Goodfellas as being of a man who has sold his soul and is left with the regret that there is no more soul left to sell. Football seems to be a succession of this type of auction.

Which is to say that Leeds United, in whatever way one defines that entity, sold their soul in the same way which Manchester City did albeit for a smaller price, and the same way that most clubs do and will.

Where does football earn a soul? On the Horizon, as Neruda would suggest, or in the moments when success is denied? Manchester City’s vacuous celebrations suggest that there is no soul at that horizon. That success is not a goal so much as an end of goals.

The landmarks of football are found on the roads that pass hills too low to name. The Wasteland. Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Manningham

Bradford City 2023/2024 feels exciting to me, but I have long since realised that what I like and what normal football supporters seem to enjoy often do not overlap. I’m eager to see the continued development of the set of ideas which animate the club, and confident in those developing it.

Freely, I will admit that I don’t understand the agitation of many of my peers. I read that City “did not turn up”, or that “optimism is gone”, or that have spent the season in the time-honoured tradition of being a grown man bellowing at young footballers.

I have no way of relating to those thoughts. They feel like missives from people so long fighting a battle that everything resembles an enemy. They feel like the soullessness that would consume us all.