The character of Bradford City’s goalscoring problems

To understand the problems Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are having scoring goals at the end of the League One season – a season which has gone far better than one would have thought for much of it – one has to go back to the problems that marked the start of the season.

By August 2015 Parkinson had put the final nail into the coffin of his 4312 playmaker formation by signing Paul Anderson to add to other recruit Mark Marshall to give his team two out and out wingers.

Marshall and Anderson would be Jamie Lawrence and Peter Beagrie for the 2015 generation and City would rampage through the division with an attractiveness which joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes have asked for previously.

However in the opening week trips to Swindon Town and York City, and the game at home to Gillingham, Parkinson’s plans faltered and they faltered because his team were vulnerable to counter-attacks and crosses and these vulnerabilities were caused by a hole in City’s defence.

Joke Hole

That hole was an key. The hole was a gap between goalkeeper Ben Williams and the centre of the defensive line. Whenever a ball would come into the City box Williams and the defenders would struggle with one being too far from the other and as a result opposition strikers being given the freedom of the penalty spot to exploit City again and again.

This coupled with the counter-attacking problem in that Swindon Town exploited ruthlessly. When a City attack broke down the opposition recycled the ball past the wingers and brought the ball into dangerous wide positions challenged by only the City full back, or took it past the central midfielders.

Parkinson’s first solution to this problem did not work.

Brad Jones came and left very quickly and is widely considered to have been a failure at the club. After Jones’ exit a kind of media spin was given to the remaining keeper Ben Williams – that he had “seen off” the more experienced Jones – and so could be considered solid number one material. Williams bought into that and his grown since.

Williams’ record breaking run of clean sheets has written him a paragraph in the history of Bradford City and he deserves credit for it. But how those clean sheets came about is the root of the current goalscoring problem.

Because as Jones left and Williams stayed Parkinson changed City’s approach to games, or their tactics if you will.


(Brian Clough used to say there is a lot of nonsense talked about tactics by people who could not win a game of dominoes and I’m very aware that I may add to that but I’m not a believer in the reductionist view of tactics which had taken hold at all clubs in modern football where tactics can be boiled down to how the ball is delivered to the final third of the field: long pass or series of short passes; and I’m not a fan of making the word synonymous with the word formation which is also too inexact for our uses. For the word tactics to be of use it has to be nuanced, else it is a nuisance.)

Staying with his philosophies on the game Parkinson changed how City played to stop them conceding goals. His five years at the club have shown us that Parkinson works from a solid defence forward. To this effect the midfielders would take a step back in the course of play and not commit to attacking in forward positions when City had the ball.

Flash your mind back to 1999 and Jamie Lawrence crossing from the right. In the box Lee Mills would be in the six yard box, Robbie Blake would dally at the penalty spot and Peter Beagrie would be just past the far post, just out from the touchline. That season Mills, Blake and Beagrie scored 75% of City’s goals. In addition Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley – one forward one back – would offer short options and there would be a full back in attendance.


Consider last night at Coventry City when Kyel Reid had the ball and in the box was Jamie Proctor, and that was it.

Billy Clarke offered a short option but staying outside the box and both Josh Cullen and Lee Evans were back down field. The support from the full back was there but on the opposite side of the field Tony McMahon was not in the box looking to add to the forwards, or forward if one were more honest. Instead McMahon is stepped back making sure that if the keeper catches and throws the ball out City are not exposed.


Reverse the wings and the story is the same. This is not an issue with personnel it is a part of the way that City are playing. Everyone is a step further back than they could be, and the are further back because when they stepped forward at the start of the season they left holes which were exploited and results were terrible.

That Williams and the back four can claim a record number of clean sheets is a function of the fact that they are not fielding as many crosses, or taking on as many shots, because the midfield is balanced towards making sure that defensive holes are plugged.

Being Reice Charles-Cook


When Reice Charles-Cook – the Coventry City goalkeeper – caught the ball on Tuesday night he looked to get play started quickly for the Sky Blue team that make a fetish of possession but the quick throw to a midfielder on the wing or a player in central position in zones 4-6 are not possible because Reid, McMahon and Clarke are already in zones 4-6 getting back to zones 7-9 while – by contrast – Blake, Lawrence and Beagrie would be in zones 1-3.

Likewise when City attack Cullen and Evans do not need to venture to zone 14 – Billy Clarke lives there – so they stay in zones 8 and 11 making sure that any breakdown of play does not leave the defence exposed. No counter attacks through zone 8/11, no wide attacks leading to crosses through 4/7 and 6/9.

This approach has done wonderful things for City in the last few months – the move from struggling in lower mid-table to third in League One is a result of this approach – but were Parkinson to alter it now for more of an attacking focus then the defensive issues that mandated the approach would no doubt reappear, or at least Parkinson might worry they would.

The defence – and specifically the control gap between Williams and the defensive line – has not been solved just been filled up with players sitting back. It is control through numbers. Shrewsbury Town’s equaliser will remind you that that issue between Williams and his defensive line has not gone away.

And Parkinson knows this.

Character and confidence

He knows that if he were to add – for example – Filipe Morais to the right flank over McMahon with instructions to get into zone 17-18 then the team would return to the same concession problem it had at the start of the season. He knows that if he had Billy Clarke (or someone else) press alongside Proctor in zone 17 rather than staying in zone 14 then the result without be that Cullen and Evans came forward, making the entire defensive unit harder to control, and the concession problem would emerge again.

Parkinson might try beat opposition sides in a scoring contest a la Kevin Keegan trying to win games 4-3 but considering the statistic talked about about City’s forwards scoring one goal in thirty shots over the last two games – which I would argue were low quality shots, because of the options in the zone 17 mentioned above – one doubts that the manager will change his approach so drastically.

And why should he? That approach has taken a team which struggled badly at the start of the season into genuine contenders for the play-offs. That prospect did not look likely at Gillingham when the third goal without reply went in back on the 2nd of January. Parkinson has shown that he can build confidence from teams that do not concede, and that is what he has done this time.

The arguments over Billy Clarke’s missed goal at Coventry – it never looks any better – or his goal should have stood goal at Shrewsbury – it never looks offside – can continue but on a longer timeline City’s goalscoring is not about players missing the target but rather about decisions made to patch defensive weaknesses and to give the team the chance to build confidence by not being beaten.

Like it or not that is the character of Bradford City 2015/2016.

Why all football managers will be hoping Newcastle United are relegated

It didn’t take long, in the wake of Newcastle United’s shocking decision to sack manager Chris Hughton, for Bradford City’s own managerial situation to be brought up in comparison. Looking ahead to a big month which could determine the Bantams’ season, one message board commenter declared that the club should sack Peter Taylor if results go badly, because (paraphrasing) “If Newcastle are going to sack a manager when 11th in the league, why shouldn’t we also take decisive action?”

And that, above everything, is the real damage of Hughton’s departure.

The world of football is looking at the Newcastle situation with despair. Ever since the knee-jerk decision to sack Sir Bobby Robson just four games into the 2004/05 season, the Magpies have been on a downwards spiral that surely required a revolving door to be installed on the manager’s office – to keep up with the huge turnaround. Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer all arrived and quickly left.

Goodbye Champions League hopes. Hello Championship.

Then by luck rather than judgement, it seemed, the rolling of the dice proved successful for once and the unassuming Houghton led Newcastle to an instant return to the Premier League. And what’s more, they’ve been doing rather well for a newly-promoted side which has barely had any money to spend. Thrashing rivals Sunderland and winning at Arsenal in recent weeks. Hughton’s last home game in charge was a credible 1-1 draw with Champions Chelsea, for goodness sake.

Media rumours of Hughton’s departure have circled for weeks, and the club did a poor job of dismissing those stories. It would seem owner Mike Ashley was simply waiting for an excuse and a run of five games without a win proved to be that window of opportunity. And so the club which seemed to have found stability and prospered is thrown back into turmoil.

But as the outrage and ridicule dies down, it is the ramifications of this sacking to the rest of football that carries the greatest concern. History tells us that – unless Ashley was holding out on Hughton and will give his replacement millions to spend in January – Newcastle will do no better for changing managers mid-season. Those same players will remain good on their day but lacking in other games; those inconsistent results will continue. Newcastle will not be ending the season back up to the late Sir Bobby’s Champions League standards.

Yet even in the high likelihood of this compelling evidence, other managers will find themselves under pressure and their Chairman compared unfavourably to Ashley for not having the balls to get rid of them. That Newcastle can sack a manager when the club are 11th surely means West Ham should dismiss Avram Grant for being bottom, that Wolves should fire Mick McCarthy as the club has been overtaken by the likes of Newcastle, and – yes – that City should ditch Taylor because recent results aren’t good enough for an ambitious club like us.

Because in time some will argue Ashley’s actions in sacking Hughton were not ridiculous, but the mark of an ambitious club owner.

Managers up and down the land must surely now hope that Newcastle are relegated from the Premier League this season, so that the folly of sacking the gaffer on the back of a couple of poor results can be emphatically rammed home. A Newcastle relegation won’t bring an end to unfair managerial sackings, but they could at least lead to a great deal more thought being applied than is often the case now.

Newcastle have raised (or perhaps lowered) the bar for the patience afforded to managers and lack of sentiment over any previous success they may have delivered. Taylor and co will have their own personal reasons for hoping it proves to be a monumental mistake.