The development squad and a plan to improve the club

Blame it on Silvio Berlusconi. Back in the early 1990s the man who would bring the term bunga bunga into common usage was the flamboyant chairman of an AC Milan team which sported Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard as the allowed three non-Italian players.

UEFA and Serie A rules mandated that a club could only have three non-Italians and so the practice was that the Lira went to a chosen trio of outsiders. Clubs were defined by the foreign players they had and Milan were the Dutchmen, across the City Inter were German with Jürgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme. It was a simpler time to watch football, and to be Silvio Berlusconi.

The future Italian PM announced though that Milan would be signing three more World Class non-Italians and – starting with the unfortunate Gianluigi Lentini – eight more Italians to create a second team which would play in European competition in the week. The one would be fresh for the weekend, the other fresh for midweek, and players would swap between the two teams.

And so modern squad football was born.

Bradford City’s own Phil Babb was a part of the emergence of the squad in the English game. in 1994 Babb and John Scales joined a Liverpool side managed by Roy Evans who already had the beloved Neil Ruddock at the heart of the back four and the maths did not match. Was Ruddock for the chop? Would Babb be out at left back (or up front, as he was at City)? What was Evans doing signing more than two top quality central defenders?

“Moving to a back three and wing backs” turned out to be the answer to the question poised by the question itself was illustrative. Growing up in the eighties my brother and myself could name the one to eleven of every team in Division One and that one to eleven was set in stone, seemingly unaffected as today’s line ups are by loss of form, injury and failing super-injunctions.

A team like Liverpool seemingly had no need for a spare defender – one sub, four four two and all – but soon the idea verbalised by Berlusconi would make the sort of questions that Evans face irrelevant. Within two years and in the run up to Euro ’96 Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United were signing Tino Asprilla when they already had Les Ferdinand, Andy Cole, Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer, Super Mac, Wor Jackie Milburn et al.

In 1981 Aston Villa won the League using only fourteen players all season. The modern football squad demands eighteen per match and a host of others to insure that even the League Two player is not required to take the field with the sort of injury which was played through in earlier eras after which players retired at thirty, and could not walk.

So we have a situation where Manchester City have over forty players in their first team squad as an extreme example and most teams could put out something approaching Berlusconi’s two teams a week. If you are on the edges of one of those huge squad – and Bradford City’s is 21 strong at current assessment – then you seem a long way from the first team. Unless you get to do something special from the bench you are a long way from the first team.

So while the dozen and some who regularly feature in the first team focus on getting from game to game the players on the edges – especially the younger ones – should be focusing on improvement. Enter the development squad.

It seems to have come from Archie Christie who came to Bradford with John Still when the Bantams interviewed the entire Dagenham and Redbridge backroom staff for roles at Valley Parade. Something had powered the Essex club’s rise from non-league compound to League One club and it seems that Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes believe that Christie is it.

Chief scout and he brings in some young lads from Falkirk which seems a sensible move but not an unexpected one but as Head of Football Development Christie’s Development Squad offers something new.

Wayne Allison approves and has been recruited to coach “The Developments” as they shall be hamfistedly dubbed with his aim on taking players who have signed professional contracts after their two year apprenticeships but are not in the first team picture week in week out, or who are falling in the limbo between young player and first teamer, and concentrate on improving them as players over getting them ready for matches as the first team squad do.

Squad sizes have increased massively in the last fifteen years, but the focus of training is on preparing a group of players for the next game leaving those who play ready, and those who do not having wasted that time. The Development Squad offers a chance to make better use of those players allowing the first team to focus on preparation, and the fringe on improvement.

Of course the idea could be a failure. Dag & Red’s success might be down to something else entirely, Christie’s ideas might not be relocatable, it all just might not work but for once Bradford City have come up with a plan to improve the quality of the footballers at the club rather than trying the tried and failed method of trying to buy in promotions or assemble squads on a season by season basis.

A plan on improving footballers is a plan to improve the football club and, in effect, the first time since the Premier League that Bradford City have had a plan to improve the club that might work.

The kit – is it a problem?

For a number of years some Bradford City fans thought that the club could move to wearing an all claret shirt putting the style and attractiveness of an AS Roma over the traditional stripes which the Bantams wear most often.

Those people have had twelve months of watching City wearing such a strip and it looked respectable. Some say they preferred to watch City wearing such muted attire but most were less impressed, happy to give the claret shirt a go, but keen to move back to something more, well, Bradford City.

No one seems to have asked for an all amber shirt.

Yet an all amber shirt with claret shorts and socks seems to be what Bradford City will be wearing next season and owing to reverence of Saturday’s tributes, the blinding quality of Gareth Evans’s goals and the eye-splitting idiocy of the pitch invaders the new shirt hardly got a mention.

Of the mentions one heard of it few could find anything positive to say. It looks like Watford and while closer examination shows it has claret pinstripes that only serves to make it look more like a Hull City top.

Lots of people wanted stripes, some people fancied claret but no one wanted amber and it is amber which we have.

Two questions emerge. Firstly, most obviously, is the question of who decided this design and who at Valley Parade had the chance to veto it. These are practical questions and ones which – if one were of a mind to – one could put down to a malaise at the club – a narrative which piles poor decision onto poor decision.

Secondly though one is forced to ask if a club’s football shirt really matters? To the outsider one gaudy outfit looks much like another and the mums that have washed football shirts for the last couple of decades of rapid change will probably tell you that none of them have any sartorial elegance.

No sartorial elegance but plenty of tradition which is what a shirt encapsulates. It is a tribal identifier, colours if you will, which is no about looking good just about looking like you belong in a sea of similar coloured scarves. Some clubs have changed colours and built new traditions – Leeds United wore blue and yellow but won the league in a Real Madrid inspired all white and not are indelibly cast in that colour – and perhaps had Stuart’s City romped to League Two last year City would have done the same. We did not.

So does it matter? To those interested in history and tradition it does but those people are already writing a line in the books that says (once again, for we have been here before) “for two seasons City wore alternatives to stripes…”

Does it matter to supporters? Since the rapid changing of shirts began City have been in amber pinstripe while the likes of Robbie James and Phil Babb wore a similar and equally un-City like top and no lasting effects were felt, or so we assume.

Ultimately question of how much a shirt matters is measured at the tills of Valley Parade. There was no rush to buy this new top, there was no huge interest in it. If the average shirt buying man of Bradford decides that he will spend the £30-odd on something else and wear the top from two stripey seasons ago simply because they do not fancy being asked about The Tigers’ chances of promotion bouncing back to the Premier League as they wander around on their summer holidays then matters of sartorial elegance are of less importance than financial concerns.

If we need all the money we can get why put out a shirt which fewer people are going to buy?