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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.”


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.


“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.