Recognising a team

So far it’s been a season of two halves. For good or ill, forget about the cup games and concentrate on the league. Everything changed exactly half way through our six game season. I can remember the very moment I brought about the change.

We’d got to Whaddon Road early and I was passing the time with one of the stewards at the away end. He knew we hadn’t scored in any of our previous games and, once it became clear that Thorne and Boulding weren’t going to start, I told him with great confidence that we were obviously playing for a nil-nil. And there it was; everything changed from that moment.

Actually, it did change right from the kick-off at Cheltenham. City were quite literally a different side. James Hanson, previously a giraffe stuck on the left wing, reminiscent of Ian Mellor or even Stix himself, became a central striker. James O’Brien came in from the bench and Gareth Evans got a second start, very much as the experienced man up front, despite his years. But the main differences were in the approach to the game brought about by the change in personnel.

Suddenly City had energy that hadn’t been seen in a very long time indeed. City had players who just wanted that ball. OK, so from time to time they lost it. Even Arsenal, masters at keeping possession, lose the ball quite often in a game. But when Michael Flynn and the others lost it, they wanted it back straightaway. Not in a few seconds; not when the opposition gave it away; they wanted to win it back the moment they’d lost it. There was no standing around feeling apologetic.

And so it has been ever since, typified at Shrewsbury, where Flynn’s example has clearly rubbed off. Some of these opposing defences had better get the hang of being perpetually harassed by Evans and Hanson. There is no longer any such thing as an easy stretch of possession either for defences or midfielders. Opposing forwards can expect to see bodies flying across the path of any attempt at goal. Bradford City are a team of battlers. They challenge everybody for everything. They scrap all the time. And if one or two sets of legs get a bit weary, there are still some more battlers to come.

But there’s another point that needs to be made. Even since the sea change that brought the first goals and the first win, the cry still kept being repeated with less and less justification that there’s a reduced budget and that these players aren’t as good as some of those who were at Valley Parade last season. The response must now be short and not very sweet. Stop it. Shut up about the drop in quality of individual players. Talk instead about the rise in quality of the team.

Let us remember, this is the fourth division. After 25 years in higher divisions, this is our third season here, so we should be used to it by now. We do not expect the most technically gifted players to appear either in our team or our opponents’. They are playing in another division, possibly in another country. We are what we are; our expectations should match our position. We may not want to start from here, but we have no choice in the matter. We are indeed here, trying to be a good fourth division team, trying to be higher.

Bradford City have faced the player-team dichotomy before and the current manager surely remembers it well, since he was captain last time this happened. As one season followed another, City brought in better players and created a worse team. That better team, made up of less gifted individuals, had kept City in the Premiership.

The only difference this time around is that we’re doing it the other way about. It looks remarkably like we finally have a better team, regardless of the individual players. And, just like team spirit went a long way to preserving that Premiership status ten years ago, so it can go a long way to achieving promotion from the lower divisions. Again, the manager might have to cast his mind back a bit further, but he will surely remember the effort that Bradford City players put in for each other back in 1982, when he was only watching from the sidelines, and 1985 and 1988, when he was right in the middle of it all.

Work rate, hunger, the will to win; call it what you want. It goes a long, long way toward achieving something in this division. Even then, without sufficient ability nothing will be achieved. Maybe, for the first time in a number of years, Bradford City has returned to the right blend of youth and experience, enough ability and enough hunger, a recipe capable of producing something tasty.

Six games into a new season is far too early for predictions, but not too soon to spot signs. Then again, as the Cheltenham steward pointed out nine goals later, some of us are not especially accurate with our predictions. With a mere forty games to go, I’m not going to guess the future. But I do hope I see more of the recent past and that the team gets the recognition it deserves.