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.

Hopes and expectations

So here it is, the dreaded promise that pre-season brings and as a result, usually for Bantams anyway, the increased disappointment come May. Already on various message boards, across the web, fans are claiming how promotion is a must this year, as it was last year and what seems like every year since we tasted Premier League football and decided we were a big club.

In fact the last campaign I remember, outside the top flight, where fans weren’t widely expecting a successful season was 11 years ago. That year around this time I was sat in a pub in Wales with my dad and a high profile football magazine had predicted Bradford City would finish 24th out of 24. Being a naive young boy I refused to accept the prediction and the following conversation ensued;

‘They’re wrong dad, I bet you we get promoted’ a bold statement to which my dad replied ‘Unfortunately there’s not a chance’

Ever the optimist I insisted, ‘I bet you we do’.

‘Ok then, if Bradford get promoted this season I will buy us season tickets for the Premier League.’

That season a 3-2 win against Wolves on the final day secured promotion to the Premier League and the most expensive bet of my Dad’s life was lost, but unsurprisingly he didn’t care one bit.

Other than being young and not yet having faced the cruel realities of the footballing world, that year I had no reason to be sure of promotion. What reason have Bradford fans now got to be so sure of promotion this season?

Perhaps it is that the wage budget from a side who failed to win promotion last year has been halved? Or perhaps it is, as I suspect, that Bradford are too ‘big’ for this league. Surely the past few years have taught us, and also our neighbours down the road that this means nothing. I am sure there is very little that the fans can tell us about signings such as the ‘Barber from Bamber Bridge’, Steve Williams, or the possible signing of Guiseley’s James Hanson yet at the same time these two are expected to come from non league football and hit the ground running on the way to promotion to the third tier of English football.

Manager Stuart McCall one of the biggest culprits of this pre-season optimism over the past two years has told the fans to get real. He has told us the funds aren’t there to make dream signings such as Nicky Law, Dean Furman and Lee Hughes, the sort of players that will get you promoted from this division. The sort of players teams such as Notts County and Rotherham have got the funds to secure.

However, on the bright side a word of caution to these clubs and their newly found riches. Money meant nothing to the likes of ourselves and Shrewsbury Town last season as promotion was unable to be secured and little Exeter City – freshly promoted from the non-league – went up in both our places.

This is a reason for the optimistic Bradford fans to keep the faith. It is possible that James Hanson and Steve Williams could prove to be real gems and should we stay clear of injuries to key players such as Peter Thorne and Omar Daley, two of the major reasons for the collapse last year, we should be fighting at the right end of the table once more. Perhaps then come 8th May 2010 we will be sitting pretty in one of the top 7 spots.

I hope that these fans expecting promotion have those hopes fulfilled and like I did 11 years ago and all Bradford fans taste the sweet taste of promotion once more. Hopefully this time, for me, it will be that little bit sweeter because it’s unexpected.

Remembering Wolves and promotion

I tell the story after a drink or two in the bars of Leeds to colleagues – everyone in Bradford has heard it I guess – or when I want to impress on people the relationship that I have with Stuart McCall.

It goes like this. Wolves, 1999 ten years ago today and the home side have hit the post but that was cleared and the Bantams clad in white come away with the ball – half way into the Wolves half – and Gareth Whalley is dribbling and I’m sure I can see Paul Jewell shouting at him to keep hold and run with the ball but I don’t see how I could have known that cause my eyes are fixed on Whalley and the ball.

In retrospect Wolves had probably considered the draw gone once the free kick came back form the post because Whalley did not seem to be under tight challenges but the skillful Irishman as he dribbles the ball away. Perhaps the Referee is the closest man to the midfielder because I seem to remember seeing both at the same time and I remember seeing the Referee blow his whistle.

Frantically my eyes are searching then – darting around from white shirt to white shirt in something of a panic. Matt Groening says that a good character can be recognised by his silhouette and mine are looking for the short man, the shoulder length hair, the gap between sock tops and shorts being unusually small, the black number four on his back.

Stuart McCall at Wolves

And they pick him out arms aloft at 135 degree angles to his body in a pose that would become famous.

Overwhelmingly that is my memory of the 9th of May 1999 at Wolves when Bradford City were promoted to the Premiership.

The club is now split into the years BC/AD. After that day everything changed at Valley Parade and the current slump ten years on marks a stark contrast to that year of rise to the top flight and retention of top flight status that followed rather than many years when finishing in the top half of the fourth division would have represented a good return.

Perhaps it is a feeling that having achieved on that day ten years ago nothing should be considered out of the club’s reach. On that day City had a Holy trinity of Stuart McCall on the field, Paul Jewell in the dug out and Geoffrey Richmond as chairman. Leadership and character which many would suggest that City lack at the moment. What would McCall the manager have done for a McCall the player on the field in 2008/2009?

Something to be considered some other time. Now Wolves and your memories – if you care to share them in the comments below – on that win at Wolves that happened exactly ten years and three, four, five spasms of the second hand ago.

Reboot, Reload, Rebuild? Should McCall take Championship Manager approach?

I’ve bemoaned to all the notion that Championship Manager is a blight on real football but Stuart McCall could do with learning the trick that used to save my seasons when I was a slave to the pixel hot seat.

When I was in a bad run – and that one “win in nine” talk has become McCall’s bad run – I’d be faced with three choices. The first was blindly tinkering with the team throwing in a player there and taking out someone here with the idea that the right combination would come.

This seems to be what Stuart McCall is doing now making ekes and tweaks to the eleven that finished the last game. Barry Conlon’s start on Tuesday recognised the need to win and hold the ball away from home and Steve Jones up next to the target man recognised the need for pace on the break that is so often the route to victory for away sides at Valley Parade.

Big man, little man. Brawn and speed. On paper it works until you look at the paper and realise you have just selected as your best two forwards Barry and a bloke out of Burnley reserves. The team becomes a version of a version of a version of what you started with.

Likewise the midfield becomes contorted around the players who were in it last week rather than the ones who were in it when you were doing well. Nicky Law Jnr or Dean Furman is the question but when City were winning games on a regular basis Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren were in the middle.

Which lead to McCall’s second option – and the one most often favoured after a re-load – which is to click down list of players in the side and pick the team again from scratch evaluating everyone again and ending up with what is your best eleven. In City’s case aside from a couple of options in the midfield this is obvious from results when they were in the side: Evans; Arnison, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien; Colbeck, McLaren, Bullock, Daley; M Boulding and Thorne;

One could argue about the two loan midfielders Law and Furman who both have been impressive but I have never believed in playing loanees over your own professionals. Certainly looking at the team who lost to Bury four of them – Zesh Rehman, Nicky Law Jnr, Dean Furman and Steve Jones – belong to other clubs and when the debate starts about why a team does not want it enough this factor cannot be ruled out.

I recall fondly that at Wolves on the day that City were promoted Paul Jewell entrusted the game to what was the definitive side of the season favouring Robbie Blake over Dean Windass, Jamie Lawrence over Lee Sharpe, John Dreyer over Andy O’Brien or Ashley Westwood. He favoured senior professionals with long term stake over new arrivals and young players and he was rewarded for it.

Which is the option that this writer would have McCall follow now. A couple of days on the training field and a decision as to who are the eleven players he would want to win a Wolves type game of which we have plenty if we want promotion at the end of this season.

That of he could go for option three. Turn off and go watch some TV.

Rhodes applies some pressure with a lofty promotions demand

Julian Rhodes arrived at Valley Parade to join a board and a man – Geoffrey Richmond – who fuelled progress with public high ambition and his demand that Stuart McCall try get back to back promotions to The Championship is straight out of the former chairman’s play book.

Rhodes has ratcheted up the pressure on McCall but with that comes an increase in resources at the manager’s disposal recalling Richmond would slip managers the money to make signings while banging the table for promotion. Indeed the current joint chairman joined the club and funded £4.5m spending for Paul Jewell as Richmond backed his manager.

While Richmond seemed to be tub-thumping his analysis of the First Division that year was good. Likewise Rhodes may have looked at League Two which has lost two or three big spending teams and gained through relegation a couple of financially troubled clubs. League Two is weaker this year than it was last and Rhodes has responded.

Looking at the season to follow then one might assume that Leeds will be promoted in May 2009 and Leicester will have followed them. Nottingham Forest and Bristol City have already exited the third tier of English football and – no disrespect – the likes of Scunthorpe have returned to it. League One 2009/2010 promises to be much less strong than the division does this year and like Richmond before him Rhodes has assessed the situation and aims to exploit.

How realistic Rhodes’s stated “realistic aim” is is anyone’s guess. Lennie Lawrence and Jim Jefferies both went into seasons with big resources only to perform averagely and football these days is only three defeats away from a crisis.

Nevertheless everyone at Valley Parade seems to be preparing for bigger things and – as his schooling at the shoulder of Geoffrey Richmond has taught him – Julian Rhodes is applying pressure up front and sliding resources in behind that.