A little patience can go a long way

24 Apr
Picture by Claire Epton

Picture by Claire Epton

By Matt Birch

It is around this time of year that we hear which of our youth players have been given contracts and which have been released (last year it was the 10th of April this information was released). It is also around this time of the year that, if we have nothing to play for, we are clamouring for our youngsters to be thrown into the deep end with the first team.

There is nothing most fans would like to see more than one of our youth players making it in the first team and I am no different. We get excited about the latest player we believe to be a potential future star, and we get disappointed when yet another crop of youngsters gets released from the club.

Right now, we have undoubtedly the best crop of youth players we have had since the mid-eighties. This can be seen in the performances and of course with the youth team being one match away from a league and cup double. A pretty impressive feat, made all the more grand when you factor in the amount of under 16s that have been playing in the youth team. Much credit must go to the chairmen and of course Peter Horne and his team of coaches. The club’s youth set-up and scouting network has come along leaps and bounds over the past few years and the likes of Jack Stockdill, Oli McBurnie and Niall Heaton are just the tip of the ice-berg.

With the talent we have, should we then be frustrated that only McBurnie has featured in the first team this season? No. Rather we should actually be delighted that one 2nd year apprentice has played nine first team games, including a couple of starts. We should also be proud that a number of 1st and 2nd year apprentices have even made the bench this season, as well as the honourable mentions of those who have travelled with the first team squad. These are tremendous achievements and Phil Parkinson should be commended on his faith in the youth team players.

To put things into perspective I have put together a random list of 41 past and present City players and tracked the point in their career in which they had their “breakthrough” season - and the results are rather surprising. The players are a mixed bunch who have had varying success, from those who found their level in non-league to Premiership players, full internationals and everything in-between:

The jail-bait (2nd year apprentices, 17-18):

Simon Francis, Oliver McBurnie, Graeme Tomlinson, Dean Richards.

The early birds (1st year pro, 18-19):

Nathan Doyle, Andy Gray, Rory McArdle, Danny Forrest, Stuart McCall, Mark Bower, Andy O’Brien, Des Hamilton.

The average:

(2nd year pro, 19-20): Matthew Bates, Jason Kennedy, Mark Yeates, Kyel Reid, Adam Drury, Andrew Davies, Emile Sinclair, Joe Colbeck, Luke O’Brien, John Hendrie, Wayne Jacobs, Tom Cleverley, Andre Wisdom.

(3rd year pro, 20-21): Kyle Bennett, Chris Atkinson, Jon Stead, Aaron McLean, Fabian Delph, Matthew Dolan.

The late bloomers:

(4th year pro, 21-22): Nahki Wells, Raffaele De Vita, Stephen Darby, Ian Ormondroyd.

(5th year pro, 22-23): James Hanson, James Meredith.

(6th year pro, 23-24): Jake Wright, Scott Kerr, Jon McLaughlin.

(8th year pro, 25-26): Matt Taylor.

Based solely on this list, you would therefore expect players to make their mark in either their second or third season as a pro. As fans we have been waiting patiently for so long for a good crop of youngsters to come along that we pray they are ready to be thrown into the team right now. Having seen it already with Oli McBurnie, our appetites have been whetted. But let’s take a realistic view and give these lads time to develop and when the manager thinks they are ready, they will get their chance.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the larger clubs, especially those with category 1 and 2 academies have their youth development extended three years longer than ourselves. If Bradford City have serious aspirations of becoming a solid Championship club, I think it is essential that we aim towards becoming a category 2 academy (category 1 is way beyond our financial means for the foreseeable future).

Expectations will be more manageable should we eventually have an Under 21 Development Team (and I see no harm in forming a closer partnership with our RIASA partners who currently use that name) and being part of the U21 Development League will be a much fairer test and help develop the players in the 18-21 year old bracket.

I do not see our academy reaching category 2 level in the next couple of years, but look forward three years and you can see we could well have a large enough crop of decent youngsters who would fit into such a development squad: Heaton, Stockdill, O McBurnie, Curtis, Mottley-Henry, Brennan, King, Chippendale, Wright, Barker, Jenkinson, Pollard, X McBurnie, Devine, Omolokun, Mellor, Foulds, Webb-Foster, Cissa. We could be seeing a golden generation coming through over the next few years, but we need to play things smart, we need to be thinking ahead and we need to have patience and invest in the players’ futures.

While the recent standard of youth player we have produced may not in general have been up to scratch, I do not feel we have been doing enough. We have had players we were not sure about and released them. In hindsight, we have been proven correct to have released them in that they have ended up plying their trade in the non-league. But what are the chances for youth players released? It took the likes of Jake Wright and Scott Kerr six seasons to finally make it into the Football League and they are by far the exception. Non-league football is ruthless, but had these players been given that extra year at a professional club, who knows what difference it would have made.

This year it is widely expected that Stockdill and Heaton will join McBurnie in the pro ranks; however, big question-marks remain over Jack Bentley and Nathan Curtis. But what would it really cost to give the former both three years, taking them to under 21, while gambling on a year each for the latter? In terms of the first team budget, these lads will cost peanuts and having seen McBurnie’s shock massive rise over last summer, if there is any doubt about keeping a player then keep him and give him the chance to take that next step. If there is no doubt then it is clear of course.

To cut a very long story short then, let us the fans, the management and the board all be more patient with our home grown prodigies. If we can produce just one first team player and one squad player per season then we can feel very happy with the youth program. But they don’t always have to be produced and be ready today.

The Midweek Player Focus #58: Aaron Mclean

23 Apr

Image by Alex Dodd

By Alex Scott

There are good reasons why we have waited until the penultimate Midweek Player Focus article of the season to talk about Aaron Mclean, and moving into this important summer, the forward from East London may be the most pivotal.

Mclean arrived in early January, the chosen one to replace the departing Nahki Wells, attempting to fill his shirt number and his boots. Before an extended spell on the sidelines in the East Riding, Mclean had been a relatively prolific lower league forward over much of his career but was unable to make the leap to the Championship with the Tigers.

Mclean has struggled for consistent time on the field over recent years, with only loan spells at Birmingham City breaking his time in Hull reserves. In spite of this relative inactivity, a career record of almost a goal every other game in League One (27 in 58) was good enough to convince Phil Parkinson that he was the man to replace Wells and drive City to the next level.

At this point, things cannot have been said to have gone to plan. Two goals in 16 appearances for City’s new man; a revamped team no improvement over its predecessor. Mclean himself appears to have slipped down the pecking order behind loan recruit Jon Stead.

Mclean isn’t helped by how prolific his predecessor was, nor how completely the team was built around the strengths of Wells – strengths that he does not possess. However, his level of performance over the past few weeks will not be how he will be judged. Aaron Mclean will be crucial for next season and will play a pivotal role in how high the ceiling of this team can be. Whether he can live up to that responsibility will define his tenure here.

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Nahki Wells was the tip of the spear. I’m pretty sure that is doing him a disservice, but for the sake of the metaphor, he was the tip of the spear. For a spell of almost eighteen months, City were an impressively well-oiled machine, efficient and at times devastating. Wells was a key component that made the whole thing work. Even at this higher level. More so, if anything.

The replacement of Wells with Mclean quickly hastened the shelving of the spear altogether. City, after initially attempting to prod opposing teams with a blunted stick, have had to evolve into a form of combat with a bit more guile. A change that may have been on the cards at the end of the season anyway, but that would have been the optimal time to make it. A time that wouldn’t leave the squad bloated with now-redundant javelin throwers, not suited to the new reality.

Tottenham are suffering comparable woes at the moment, trading away a pound coin for four twenty pence pieces and some shrapnel. They may be worth the same on the surface, but you win leagues with pounds, not pennies. City gave away their pound coin to pay for the host of silver coins they hoarded over the summer, and only replacing him with Mclean. A man who has the potential to be a valuable contributor, but in truth has never been a pound.

It isn’t really fair to judge Mclean against Wells. Wells went for over a million pounds four months ago, a number which probably understated his market value given the club’s unwillingness to actually open up the sale to the market. The club didn’t disclose the fee they paid for Mclean, but we can be sure it wasn’t in the same tax bracket as the sale of Wells.

It also probably isn’t fair to judge Mclean until next season. But not being able to judge on his recent past – he hasn’t had a consistent run of league games in three years, not a successful one in four since leaving Peterborough – we haven’t really got anything else to go on.

My experience watching him has been primarily at away games, where the fans have been encouraging, if not effusive. I can’t speak of the entirety of the home fans, but during the couple of home games I’ve seen him, the feeling is mutual. Fans are giving him time. The jury is remaining out only because they want to be. The true test of Mclean will come next season, but anything in the stratosphere of his predecessor will be a surprise at this point.

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To be fair to Mclean, coming into a new team mid-season often proves tough, especially coming into a team that had earned 11 points in their previous 15 games, only scoring 15 goals in the process.

Due to the injuries and disillusionment of James Hanson and Nahki Wells respectively in the build up to Christmas, the rot had absolutely set in before Mclean’s arrival. Kyel Reid was by far City’s most dangerous attacking player at the turn of the year, and he has been missed just as much as Wells. He and Mclean only crossed paths for 32 minutes at Bramall Lane.

Without Reid’s pace to stretch the field, City have struggled painfully. If the winger had been injured the week before Mclean’s capture, rather than the week after, it begs to question whether Phil Parkinson may have just held fire and placed a higher priority on replacing the raw pace of Reid and Wells that his side have so sorely missed?

Adam Reach and Kyle Bennett have been brought in on the flanks and, whilst the latter does have a quick burst, neither has the intimidating pace of Reid, and City have duly struggled to gain a footing in games as a result.

If Kyel Reid had been stationed on the left flank for this second half of the season, preventing opposition defences pressing up on Mclean and Hanson, it does stand to reason Mclean would have had more room to operate, and rather than a cause of the side’s ills, his lack of form may rather be a symptom.

City’s run in the games following Mclean’s arrival has been essentially the same as the fifteen games which led up to his signing. The team has gone through a lot of reform since January, but none if it has moved the needle. With Reach, Matty Dolan, Bennett et al arriving, the overall quality may have risen, some 10ps turned into 20s, but none have come close to bridging the gap to the loss of Wells and Reid.

The only reason City are staying up this year is the run at the outset which had them in the play off spots in October. In the games started by Hanson and Wells this season, City earned six wins and nine draws, suffering only one defeat. Without the striking combination on the field together, that record falls to won six drawn eight, lost thirteen. The value of a pound.

But as noted earlier, the squad at the beginning of the year was unsustainably expensive. There are too many silver coins around the club, and without a cup run to rely on for funding, it was Wells who had to be sacrificed.

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I have found Aaron Mclean as a player is frustratingly difficult to pin down. I don’t really know what to make of him. I’ve seen him border on the excellent away at Orient, show a real poacher’s instinct at home to Gillingham, and work hard and graft throughout. He can hold the ball up well at times; and even on his off-days looks like a hassling presence to opposition defenders. But those off-days are alarmingly frequent.

Only recently has the side been able to move away from the framework designed for Nahki Wells, with which Mclean has improved. Before that point, Mclean often looked lost. He may be effective in a team built around him, but let us be clear, this is not that team.

And let us also be clear about something else, Nahki Wells earned the right to have a team built around his strengths. Toward the end of the 2011/12 season, as an inexperienced 21-year old, Wells played a huge part in keeping City in the Football League, scoring fourteen goals including a crucial hat trick away at Northampton late in the year. He showed a promise that gave Parkinson a reason to build a side around him. Mclean has so far shown little in City colours.

Mclean will get his opportunity to have a side tailored to his strengths – but not because of his talents or his play on the field, but because of his contract.

Now in late April that safety has been assured and City’s ever more disgruntled fan base can draw breath for a moment, thoughts can move toward next season. Looking at players of consequence in the squad, only Andrew Davies, Hanson and Mclean are sure-fire certainties for next year’s assault on League One. Mark Yeates appears likely to be “managed out” unless the new dawn suits his more passive style of play.

The City board have already admitted that the budget for next season will not be at the level of this campaign’s, and the last six months of this season have seen the club as almost the worst side in the division. Parkinson’s task will be aided by the fact 75% of his squad are out of contract, affording him the freedom to rebuild in the manner he wants.

However, this is counteracted by the fact such a large chunk of the budget is to be eaten by his two forwards. Two forwards which as a pairing have shown precious little ability to move this team to where he and the club wants them to go.

Given the form of Mclean, and the scarcity of goals of the team as a whole, Phil Parkinson cannot in good conscience go into next year with only Hanson and the former Peterborough man as his options up front. There will have to be a legitimate third option in case Mclean isn’t who he thought he was, or who we hope he might be.

It is to be expected that Mclean’s early misfires will lead to a major overhauling of the side’s midfield. They will need to contribute more goals. The ‘deep-lying, get the ball out wide’ approach so well suited to this team’s personnel and last year’s front line will no longer get it done. They cannot go into another season prodding teams with a blunt stick.

Parkinson will need to spend money bringing back the defence, with it to be expected that at least Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle are due relatively substantial pay rises. The entire midfield is out of contract, and it’s probably a stretch to expect any managing out of unwanted holdovers to happen for free. Without an extension of the mooted budget, it is hard to envision a scenario where Parkinson will be able to devote much salary to a third striker.

Maybe Oli McBurnie can grow into a reserve option over the coming months, although that evolution may be one more year away. Maybe some other youth players can be brought through into squad roles, but I’m clutching at straws. With all the areas of the squad needing work, it would be hard to justify more money going to the front line. But taking no action has to be seen as a gamble.

How successfully Parkinson squares this circle will likely define how long his stay at the club will be extended. Last year’s promotion, if anything, seems to have shortened the patience of large sections of the Valley Parade crowd, and if the side are still struggling for goals at Christmas, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to see the club move on. This club harbour ambitions of returning to the Championship, but that seemed a lot more attainable with that pound coin in their back pocket.

If City are to make a step forward toward the top half or maybe even a play off push next season, it will have to be on the back on Mclean and Hanson.

The table below shows the extrapolated 46-game profile of this City team, and the average 6th place League One team since 2003.

Team

Goals for Goals Against Goal Difference Points

Bradford City 2013/14 (projected)

57

56

1

56

 Average 6th Place (2003-2014)  74 54 20

74

As you can see, City’s defence is just about there. Given Andrew Davies and James Meredith have each been out for half the season, this defence is absolutely good enough for the play offs. Criticism of Jon McLaughlin may just justifiable on anecdotal evidence, but his aggregate output has been exceptional this year, especially given the chopping and changing in front of him. To argue otherwise is denial.

The numbers would argue that if Parkinson can bring back the starting back five and keep them fit next season, the City team as a whole could probably get away with being a bit more adventurous in their approach given the concession rates of standard 6th place defences.

What’s more, they may have to. City are a way away from scoring enough goals to challenge for the play off spots. Only five teams in my 66-team sample have scored fewer than 60 goals and finished in the top six, and only one team in the past seven years: Sheffield United, who came fifth in last year’s especially mediocre division.

Furthermore, if we ignore the Wells and Hanson sample, City have really only scored a goal a game since October 4. As a team, they are probably going to have to be 30 goals better over a season than they are at the moment, without giving much up on the back end. And that is a hell of a lot of goals.

League One is different to the other divisions. “Good” teams often get relegated from the tier above, and often mediocre sides make their way out of the division below. The dividing line in English football between ‘bad’ good teams, and ’good’ bad teams occurs somewhere in the middle of this tier, and at the moment, Bradford City are definitively on the latter side of that line.

Relative to other divisions, teams that get promoted out of this division tend to accrue a lot of points. This year is no exception. With only six teams making the play offs, you need to be good, consistently, to keep pace. Whilst City have had their moments, less frequently of late, good teams have a consistency about them City have not matched.

They need to score more goals. They need to score many more goals if they are to compete for promotion honours, and in truth, looking at where they are now, it’s probably a two-year job.

Either way, Aaron Mclean is going to be a huge part of that. If Parkinson and his men are genuinely going to be aiming at the top six next season, they need a revolutionary summer beyond the one they had in 2012. They are going to have to build a framework in which both Mclean and Hanson can flourish, and for that fundamental reform is needed, with some really tough decisions to be made.

Phil Parkinson’s gamble on Aaron Mclean is yet to pay dividends. The manager has a lot riding on the bustling striker, and if his team are to reach the heights required by the end of his time here, he needs his investment in Mclean to work. Aaron Mclean must become a twenty goal a season player. James Hanson, for all the will in the world, will not be that guy.

There isn’t going to be the budget for it to be anyone else. It must be Mclean.

Easter’s growing pains

22 Apr

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Swindon Town 1

Cox 64

Bradford City 0

Monday 21 April, 2014

Written by David Lawrence (images by Mike Holdsworth)

Gliding into the sunny Swindon station, the smell of the picturesque Wiltshire countryside wafted into the ex-holidaymaker packed train, reminding of spring, growth and hope. It was, after all, the end of Easter. Chocolate eggs and Spring Lambs had been consumed, and snooker was back on the BBC. For many less fortunates, including Bradford City, the Football League was just about ready to be put to bed for another year.

Outside the station two City fans, one in a pink away shirt and one in this year’s ‘out-of-stock’ and ‘now reduced’ home jersey, were catching their lift. Shame, as it was a lovely day for a walk. Particularly as over the road from the station was The Queen’s Taps, inside which the more fortunate Leyton Orient and Wolves were battling it out in the early kick off TV game.

The skilful but yet predictable TV coverage couldn’t hide the lack of quality in the third division, and the close ups of Nouha Dicko and Chris Dagnall only served to remind what might have been for the Bantams. Richard Steadman scored a scrambled goal from a knock-down that could have for all the world been from a James Hanson assist and would have had Stephen Pressley-types Twittering ‘Dark age football’. Bombadier finished it was time to roll.

Distance to the ground from the station is as minimal as the architecture. Think the hotchpotch that is Birmingham, but on a smaller scale – with a muddle of office buildings, hotels and ton after ton of concrete. Design-by-greed inhumanity. In no time the ground nears and now it’s a wander through terraced houses that appear to be largely occupied by immigrants. The wealthier locals have long since moved out of this town. It’s a place that boast more jobs than city-based residents – a ‘fact’ that Robins’ supporters blame on their low average attendances. Similar circumstances don’t stop ‘the Faithful’ travelling down the Aire Valley.

Cricket comes to the rescue and provides harbour for those drawn to more aesthetic views. Head to the pavilion from the back of the County Ground, and enjoy good cheep beer in pleasant surroundings with friendly local football fans. There, the Reds were rather hushed about their play off prospects, but at least they had something to play for. They seemed quite pleased and quietly confident as they read their team line up via their smartphones.

City also appeared to be keen to finish well with the strong team that they were putting out. They’d be no room for experimenting with youth today, as Phil Parkinson had only made one change from Friday’s welcome victory over Peterborough – Kyle Bennett replacing the ‘resting and recuperating’ James Hanson.

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Over the cricket pitch outfield and into the throng of the crowds outside the ground the mood was similarly subdued. Some City fans cheered the place up with happy away-day smiles and good-to-see-you-again handshakes. It’s always good to see fellow supporters and feel part of a community. This time a communion of one short of three hundred would be held in the Arkells main stand. This is a seventies type stand that looks like it has been constructed by builders more familiar with the construction of local farm buildings, for which they had used similar materials. However, they’ve installed chairs and not hay bales and whilst they were quite tight there was no pillars obstructing a good view.

Quite a few Swindon fans choose the newer stand opposite that looks similar in size to the Midland Road stand. Both ends behind the goals are poor and would suit a tank, or even a local tractor, driven over them.

Mentioning tanks. What’s happened to Nathan Doyle? Has Nick Allamby been released? Oh Nathan. Stand out player for the wrong reason during the warm-up. Some timber fella. It seems City will have a young man trying to play as an old man and an old man trying to play like a younger man, as Doyle sits in front of the back four and Gary Jones tries to invigorate a strange looking midfield four. This consists of Bennett and Adam Reach playing out wide left and right respectively and the anomaly of Raffaele De ‘Rye’ Vita in the middle with our captain. This left Stead playing up front in a 4-1-4-1 formation.

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‘Pleasing’ is how the opening exchanges between the teams can be described. Swindon like to pass and look to slide the ball along the floor to onrushing attackers –the benched Aaron ‘goal machine’ Mclean must have looked on wistfully at some of their attacks. However, City were showing why they’d collected several clean sheets recently by defending magnificently and creating the odd chance on the break. The back four were all playing well in front of a confident looking Jon McLaughlin in goal. Stephen Darby was having a game of it with Pritchard, and the earlier-maligned Doyle was tremendous on his holding/quarterback role.

Legless or ageless (delete as your want, forum fans) Jones so nearly put City in front from a free kick on 14 minutes after Bennett was fouled, nearly catching keeper Foderingham out with a near post thunderbolt. Then on 23 minutes Stead – now looking sturdy rather than stealthy in his latter years – nearly gave City the lead with a curling effort that said much about why he hasn’t a high career strike rate. He was leading the line well though, and holds the ball up impressive in contrast to Hanson’s nod-on style, which was more beneficial as it gave City’s mainly deep seated midfield time to join the attacks.

Evening things up, Swindon were very much in the game too; but their passing game wasn’t quite making the openings that it promised. Perhaps this was nerves, perhaps they’d heard their play off rivals Peterborough had scored early on, but more likely it was how City were set up. Well done Mr P.

Xerox this: City looked a great side capable of promotion in the first twenty minutes. But it had to end and unfortunately it was at their own hands. Signs of things to come were evident when Darby got caught with the ball near his dead ball line and played a not-so-clever inside pass to McArdle. This left him rather exposed and soon dispossessed by Pritchard, who blasted a shot that only just flew over the bar. He should have scored. This affected an increase in confidence with the Robins’ young team who thereafter played to their potential.

Andrew Davies sensed this and tried to intimidate them by sliding hard into the back of Pritchard, which earned him a booking on 30 minutes. The City fans also realised the tide was turning and began the first chants of the day from either fans – it was sunny after all. Things picked up briefly and Darby put in some fair but firm tackles that drew chants of “Off to Brazil, he’s off to Brazil, Darby’s off to Brazil”. Brilliant.

That was about it for the first half apart from a few near efforts from Smith and Thompson for Swindon that didn’t really trouble McLaughlin. Also of note was Jones’ hard work that at one point got City a free kick as he raced (yes raced) thirty yard (yes 30) from a quick throw out from our keeper that resulted in him being up-ended by McEveley who was subsequently booked. As the half’s whistle blew both managers, who had stood diligently like rocks on the edge of their technical areas, uncrossed their arms and walked in contented. It had been a good contest thus far.

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Unfortunately, something appeared to happen in the City camp over half time oranges. James Meredith, who was having a kick about with the other subs on the pitch, was hurriedly brought in just before the teams reappeared –minus Doyle. After his performance in the first half, it seems cruel to report what one wit in the crowd said but “had he gone on a late Easter egg hunt?” Mezza initially took up Doyle’s position in front of the back four. However, after a dodgy first touch and a blazed effort from an onrushing Pritchard, Parkinson moved him to the left midfield in a four and pushed Reach behind Stead in a similar formation to Friday night.

This appeared a strange move, given that it gave Pritchard even more room to play his attacking midfield role and left Jones and De Vita in the middle stretched and looking slow and inexperienced respectively.

Still, the City players were trying but the new tactics were very much playing into the home team’s hands. On 50 minutes Pritchard went close with a blast that went for a corner that resulted in two heroic blocks by Darby. Five minute later McLaughlin made possibly his best save of the season from Smith’s downward header. A friendly but nervous voice in the crowd said “their goal’s coming” and so it proved. After a shot by Pritchard was blocked, the by-now-pedestrian-looking De Vita failed to get to the rebound and Lee Cox neatly curled the ball low into the bottom left corner.

Sixty-three minutes had passed but in the time remaining City got worse rather than better. The goal signalled the removal of De Vita, who on this showing looks about as affective in this division as Connell did in the league below. On comes ‘Toothpaste’ McLean from the bench, taking up the behind-the-lone-striker role from Reach who moved to the left – his third different position of the day. It was all looking a bit like the desperate times when Luke Oliver was deployed up front. The changes were doing nothing to stem the flow of the game, as City were left chasing shadows – particularly Prichard’s, as he unleashed a volley around 80 minutes that should have seen the Robins ‘home and hosed’, but for another great save from McLaughlin who pushed it onto the post.

Other than that Swindon were restricted to half-chances while City played the role of no-hopers. Even the late but regular substitution of Garry Thompson for the very ineffective Bennett didn’t lead to much bar a couple of fruitless forays forward. From the loss of Doyle at half time until the final whistle, City had increasingly fallen apart like a cheap suit. Swindon were well worth their win, but had been somewhat handed it on a plate.

Walking from the ground in the early evening sunlight, the disgruntled City fans were soon caught in thoughts of summer recruitment. Solving the midfield problem surely has to be top of Phil Parkinson’s agenda after today’s near-debacle. Rumours already abound regarding signings being lined up, with Walsall’s classy centre-back Andy Butler being mentioned. Perhaps, however, after this showing he needs to deny his megalomania for centre-backs and recruit a more balanced squad, starting with a replacement for our brilliant but fading-like-the-Easter-sun captain. It pains to say it.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury, Bennett (Thompson 77), De Vita (Mclean 68), Doyle (Meredith 45), Jones, Reach, Stead

Not used: Jameson, McHugh, Bates, Yeates

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Somebody else’s cup final as Bradford City go to Swindon

21 Apr

Mike (6)

Swindon Town vs Bradford City preview

@The County Ground on Monday 21 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

The quirk of going into the Easter weekend facing the two sides vying for the same final play off spot was the effect that Bradford City’s Good Friday result would have on their Monday fixture.

As sixth-placed Peterborough United began Easter seven points clear of Swindon Town, victory at Valley Parade would have all but sealed them a play off finish, meaning the Bantams’ Monday game at Swindon would be largely meaningless for the home side. Instead, City’s impressive defeat of the Posh – coupled with Swindon’s win at the fast-fading Coventry – has cut the play off gap to four points. This is now suddenly a huge match for Swindon, who know that achieving a sixth victory in seven, coupled with Carlisle taking something from Peterborough at London Road, would put them right back into contention.

A good job, then, that the pressure is firmly off City. They stand nine points clear of the drop zone and will travel back from Swindon mathematically safe whatever the result in Wiltshire. The grim battle to avoid finishing in the bottom four probably still involves 10 teams – the Bantams are not one of them.

That is largely due to a run of defensive excellence that – the collapses against Shrewsbury, Walsall and Oldham apart – have seen Jon McLaughlin’s goal superbly protected. City’s last nine matches have featured five clean sheets – a run that has coincided with Adam Drury’s arrival on loan from Leeds United. Whilst the veteran left back hasn’t prompted much excitement, his steady performances have been exactly what was required for an area of the team that has been a problem since James Meredith endured a long-term injury on New Years Day.

Stephen Darby has continued to be Stephen Darby. Andrew Davies has largely being terrific, save for the occasional dip, and Rory McArdle has improved immensely. A difficult season for the Northern Ireland international is ending on a high note, just when it comes to the time of the club ruling on his future.

Expect this high-performing back four to remain in place at the County Ground (with James Meredith making a welcome return on the bench). Parkinson has talked of making some changes from Friday to freshen things up, and that will most likely occur in the midfield and striker positions. It is the last game in which Adam Reach will be available for selection, as his loan deal expires this week and cannot be renewed for the final two games. The left winger was a revelation in the hole behind the strikers on Friday, delivering his best 90-minute performance since joining the club in January.

Expect Kyle Bennett to be recalled on the right wing for a conventional 4-4-2 (although Phil Parkinson might opt for the 4-5-1 that worked so well against Rotherham in the last away match). Rafa De Vita surprised many people – not least myself – with his excellent display on Friday night. There is no doubt that he possesses great quality on the ball and his first half cross for James Hanson, at 0-0, was outstanding. It is perhaps too little too late for the soon-to-be-out-of-contract Italian, but he will hope to get a chance, over the final few weeks, to convince Parkinson that he could make a better overall impact next season.

Matty Dolan will also come in either for Nathan Doyle or Gary Jones, or alongside them in a five-man midfield. Doyle’s return to the side has been typically understated but nonetheless impressive. For the last two games he has sat in front of the back four and looks so well suited for that role, dictating the game. It’s going to be interesting to see if Doyle is retained this summer, as inconsistency has blighted his season, but on form – and at a decent age – he is someone to build next season’s team around.

Up front Hanson will probably be spared two games in four days after being out for a few weeks, meaning Aaron Mclean returns to the starting line up to partner Jon Stead. Hanson and Stead led the line well together on Friday night. There is a growing clamour to sign Stead up for next season and I would certainly be in favour of that, although it needs to be highlighted that he is never going to score a hatful of goals for City – just look at his career stats. Stead would make a good third choice striker behind Hanson and Mclean, but let’s not turn on him if he signs and doesn’t trouble the leading scorers. No should be in any doubt about what we would be buying.

With survival all but secured (and no one can seriously suggest it is in any doubt now) the last three matches present Parkinson with opportunities to blood young players – at least from the bench – and to begin planning for next season. The manager might not admit it, but he and Steve Parkin must have gathered thoughts on who will be kept on and who is to be released, and these final few games offer those players with a question mark against them a chance to prove their worth.

There are certainly some borderline cases, and though whatever is achieved between now and the final whistle must be tempered somewhat by the fact the team is playing without pressure, there cannot be any let up from those who want to be part of Bradford City’s 2014/15 campaign.

Pre-season starts now.

A very Good Friday

20 Apr

SAM_1710

By Philip Jackson

Andrew Davies is harder than I am, much harder.

I’ve had a bit of a sore knee recently, ooh it’s been achy, lots of driving and that heavy clutch pedal has set it off alright, got a bit of a hobble on. I did stretch to chasing the kids (my kids) around the park, but you can’t push these things can you. An hour in and our blonde talismanic defender snuffs out another potential Peterborough attack with a beautifully timed slide to dispossess Brit Assombalonga, who then brings down his size 15’s on his knee right in front of us.

Aaaarrrrgggghh, look at him, I can’t look at him, it’s Davva, its knees, not again, there he is writhing on the floor, face red, arms flailing. This is BAD. I imagined him imagining months of rehab and physio, on comes Matt Barrass, a few leg stretches later and he’s getting him to his feet, don’t do that Matt, his leg is likely to fall off! OK he’s walking off, fine, no probs have a seat Andrew get Carlo on. The only thing that is going on, however, is a knee support onto Davies’ knee.

Ah yes the old knee support, I did that, my knee feels much better. But then I’m not about to go and carry on a professional football match after a large fully grown man has performed an impromptu tattooing on my knee using his football studs, I’ll just be able to get up the stairs more quickly.

No, this man is back and he’s fired up! Now if I’d been clobbered at footy and I got annoyed, I generally just run around faster and feel more inclined to kick people in the ankles, which seems to work for me.

This incident goes a long way to secure our victory. The 10 men of Peterborough have had us under pressure during the opening of the 2nd half, but we’ve been holding them back. Now Davies just goes ‘Not today, we’re having this’ and the rest of the team feed off that. It felt like he just willed us to victory.

~~~~~~~~

Stephen Darby likes practising judo at throw ins.

The man is like a slippery eel, arm holds, throws, blocks, his opponents seem to think, ’he looks a bit lightweight, I’ll push him out of the way’. You’d probably have said that about Bruce Lee if you saw him (I know Bruce Lee didn’t do judo, although I bet he was alright at it), Darbs looks skinny but he knows what he’s doing, reading your mind, that’s what he’s doing, predicting every move then moving in for the kill.

Now I tried judo for a bit, up at Richard Dunn back in the 80’s, but wasn’t very good. My best move was to lose but simultaneously give my opponent chicken pox (true story), I went back to football at Parkside sports centre, while Mr Darby would probably get a black belt if he didn’t spend so much time, clearing balls off the line, galloping up the right wing, shepherding wingers towards corner flags (if he was a dog, would he be a greyhound or a collie?), gliding in from nowhere to steal a ball he has no right in winning and generally being awesome all the time.

~~~~~~~

Adam Reach can strike a ball.

I was just saying how I’d love us to do something different at free kicks, decoys, lay it off, slip a diagonal ball in to an unmarked man at an angle, but let’s not just predictably blast it into the stand or into the wall as that’s what always happ…. Ooh he’s pinged it into the top corner!!! Yeeeessss!! Wonderful goal, saw Bobby Petta do something similar (honest, I actually did).

In fact most of the team are having a pop today, most do get it on target or close, but Reach knows he’s got it today so he’s having another crack, no son you’re not meant to hit the Bradford End roof! His mazy dribbling won us the free kick for the goal, although probably not a foul, and got their defender sent off, but he does need to try passing a bit more rather than ending up down a blind alley thinking he can do it all.

~~~~~~~

Away fans are good.

Peterborough have supporters, I have to say they did well with the noise level, and it certainly helped the atmosphere, they became their 11th man at the start of the 2nd half, although it did peter out, a bit like their team.

There is something special about two noisy sets of supporters that add a new dimension to a football match; you feel you are more involved, and I believe that intensity translated to the pitch as the action didn’t seem to dip at any point. It was a pretty clean match, good sportsmanship on both sides and the referee let the game flow, so allowing the energy to build and build.

~~~~~~~

Young girls may well prefer fairy stories.

The young lass just in front of us was thoroughly engrossed, not in the game, but with the Disney Princess comic she was reading. I read her match report, apparently Snow White worked hard for her team, providing a much needed aerial presence, but then choked. And when Cinderella got the ball, she played a blinder, but had a problem with her boots in extra time.

~~~~~~~

Jonny Mac is a socialist.

Whilst being employed full time by Bradford City, Comrade McLaughlin cannot forget his brothers around the Football League and has taken up the role of Shop Steward for The Goalkeepers Union.

This was very much in evidence during the closing stages of the match, when the hot headed firebrand that is Joe Day, the stand-in Peterborough custodian, chose to race up for the last two corners of the game.

On retrieving the ball our Jonny’s mind drifted back 12 months when up for a last minute corner against the tsarist forces of Rotherham he was caught out for their 2nd, and he couldn’t bring himself to inflict a similar misfortune on young Joe.

Run free young man, run and enjoy life, I cannot left a fellow goalie suffer in that way, said he (possibly). Gentleman Jon held on to the ball, safe in the knowledge one goal was enough for us before playing it out. Actions, which no doubt he will be recognised for by the Gordon Banks and Peter Downsboroughs of this world.

~~~~~~~~~~

‘Some of us Made History’.

One of the themes of this ‘transition’ season has been the break-up of last season’s team, this game felt as if this spirit has not been distinguished and a new spirit may well be growing. They were defending higher up the pitch, both sides of the pitch covered and closed down well, I was impressed with the work rate of all, especially seeing ‘skill’ players who are sometimes seen as lazy doing this also, glad to see De Vita, Stead and Reach all join in with this ethos.

Peterborough slid the ball left and right but were covered at most points, tackles, blocks and interceptions (many involving sliding) were made and our harrying led to some good openings, two of which got their man a red card.

If that can become the norm, the basic level this team works at, then a little more adventure up front could reap the rewards which would turn those 600 draws this season into a few more wins next.

I’ve already said I thought it was a clean and fair game, although there were plenty of ‘proper’ tackles, going in, Drury, Stead De Vita etc. all joined in with this and I hope that the post 2012/13 players see what we had last year and that that came about for a reason, and I hope are buying into the same ethos.

The end of the game saw the players exultant, truly pumped, loving the atmosphere and the camaraderie, it’s what you want to see in the team and I hope that I can see it blooming. Maybe Parky’s new baby is starting to develop?

~~~~~~~~~~

Its games like this that just feed that drug a bit “You’ll never escape me boy, I’ve got what you need, feels good doesn’t it?” Yes it does, the bright sun, followed the bright floodlights and the glorious claret and amber everywhere to be seen.

What a sport, great company, great club, bit of banter and that warm glow of three vital points in your pocket, it puts a new spring in your step, that knee feels as good as new.

Job (all but) done for Bradford City

19 Apr

20140418_195703

Bradford City 1

Reach 26

Peterborough United 0

Friday 18 April, 2014

By Mark Danylczuk

Well we didn’t make it easy for ourselves. Playing over 45 minutes against 10 men and failing to net the crucial second goal to kill the game, it was a nerve-racking end which finally saw Bradford City all but secure safety and League One football next season.

I had been fortunate in that my last two City games were fantastic away victories at Colchester and Leyton Orient respectively; and yet I had heard about the two, what some called ‘horror’ shows at home against Walsall and Oldham. With Peterborough fighting to ensure of that last play off spot and being the form team, taking 12 points from the last 15, I didn’t expect an easy game at Valley Parade for City. With other teams below us picking up points earlier in the day, anything but a defeat would have sufficed in my opinion.

City started with two changes from the team that drew with Rotherham a week ago. In came the fit-again James Hanson and, more surprisingly, the forgotten man Rafa De Vita, replacing Kyle Bennett and Matty Dolan respectively. I had to take a second look at that team sheet believing that De Vita could get the nod above both Bennett and Thompson, but with contracts to play for, De Vita had a point to prove in only his 17th league appearance this term.

Both teams opted for a 4-4-2 formation and the opening of the game started with direct styles using the long ball to the target man to hold up and bring others into play – Hanson for City and Britt Assombalonga for Peterborough. With 21 goals to his name as the league’s second top scorer, the City defence certainly had to keep him quiet. As the game settled down and the teams began to play it on the floor, Peterborough had the best opening chance. A nice passage of attacking play with a flicked ball inside from winger/striker Nick Ajose saw midfielder Tommy Rowe strike a shot just wide of Jon McLaughlin’s post.

City then started to come into the game, with the effective defensive pressing of Hanson and Jon Stead forcing the early ball and errors from the Peterborough defence. Adam Drury was providing good support to the attack on the left hand side and it was his long throw which resulted in City’s first real chance – the throw coming to Gary Jones, whose looping volley went just over the bar. De Vita followed this up with another chance a few moments later with a wonderful, fizzed low ball across the box which the sliding Hanson failed to connect with.

It was crucial that Drury was providing support on the left as Adam Reach was given a free role, switching across the midfield but mainly slotting in behind the front two. The Peterborough defence were struggling to pick him up and Reach was getting the space to run into the key attacking areas. It was one of these runs that resulted in City getting the game’s only goal, as Reach drew a foul from the Peterborough defence midway through the first half and picked himself up to wonderfully float a 30 yard free kick into the keeper’s top left corner.

This notably gave City a confidence boost and increased the volume level of the faithful inside Valley Parade. It also gave Peterborough the impetus to force an equaliser, and the right wing threat of Ajose and Mark Little were keeping the City defence busy.

It was then the turn of Peterborough to shoot themselves in the foot with the sending off of defender Sean Brisley for two virtually identical yellow card challenges inside the City half within two minutes. You couldn’t argue with the bookings, as first Stead and then Reach had turned the Posh defender and were away before contact was made. You can say they were stupid challenges, but arguably in the heat of the game situation, it seemed as though Brisley felt like he had to make the challenges to prevent the City attack. Going into half time, it felt as though City now had the momentum to dominate and kill the game against the 10 men.

The second half was quite a different story though as Peterborough came out all fired up with more attacking promise and it became a more entertaining contest, with both teams pressing for the next goal. It was United who had the best chance with Assombalonga receiving a slide through ball breaking free from Drury, but his cross into the box was well cut out by Stephen Darby and scrambled up by McLaughlin.

Peterborough continued to press and with the last 25 minutes to go, City made two like-for-like changes to freshen up the attack with Aaron Mclean, back against his old club, replacing Stead and Kyle Bennett on for De Vita. Bennett almost made an immediate impact a few moments later with a surging run down the right and a beautifully floated ball to Hanson who failed to connect strongly to put the header towards goal. It was then the turn of the other sub, Mclean, to slip in Reach on the left, who forced the keeper into a save with a low shot towards the near post.

As effective as Reach was in the first half, the left midfield still felt unbalanced in this period with Hanson often moving out of position and drifting wide to balance the play. With these second half substitutions and Reach returning back to the left wing, the team had more shape and Jones and Nathan Doyle were controlling the midfield area, as City began to edge the possession and offensive play. City should have wrapped up the points with arguably the half’s best chance. It was Reach who floated a ball through the centre and Bennett unfortunately headed straight at the keeper, when an inch or two either side would probably have resulted in the killer second goal.

It was Peterborough through who provided a nervy last 10 minutes or so, as City were keen to sit back and were not helped by some defensive uncertainty: notably one misplaced, suicidal ball across the back line from Rory McArdle, forcing the pressure on the Bantams. It was not a poor defensive performance by any means, but the odd loose pass and, at times, slow passing to move the ball into the midfield, were not helping matters. Peterborough pressed for a last gasp equaliser with a flurry of late desperate corners in which even the keeper came up, but it was not to be.

A gritty, solid if unspectacular, team performance had heralded a much needed three points to ensure breathing space between City and the lower placed teams. It’s not mathematically safe yet, but barring an extraordinary and a frankly ridiculous set of results it will thankfully be League One football for Bradford City next season.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury, De Vita (Bennett 67), Doyle, Jones, Reach, Hanson, Stead (Mclean 67)

Not used: Barker, McHugh, Thompson, Yeates, Dolan

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Looking for a good, Good Friday as Bradford City welcome the Posh

18 Apr
Image by Kieran Wilkinson

Image by Kieran Wilkinson

Bradford City vs Peterborough United preview

@Valley Parade on Friday 18 April, 2014

By Ian Sheard

“I expected them to do better and, for one reason or another, they haven’t.” Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson’s assessment of Bradford City’s season perhaps echoes what a lot of fans have been saying about their own. Particularly after the decent start that was made to the campaign.

The Bantams are looking to get back to winning ways and replicate the home form of last season, against one of the early favourites. Peterborough, who are currently residing in sixth and who look a decent outfit, are a couple of victories away from securing the last play off place alongside Leyton Orient, Preston and that lot down the road. I think everyone expected the top two (Wolves and Brentford) to be there at the start of the season, and they have kept true to form. The play offs will be interesting to watch this year, as I can’t see much difference between the teams. My gut tells me it will be Rotherham – but I hope it isn’t!

So what is it that has prevented City from being part of this end-of-season shootout for promotion? I can say, but not prove, that the only thing I wanted this year was to stay up. It looks as though we will achieve that feat and won’t get sucked into the relegation battle at the wrong of the table over the final few matches. Most City fans would probably agree this season was about achieving stability and taking careful steps forwards. Would we have been in a position to compete in the Championship, had we performed better and got promoted? No, is the honest answer.

That said, it would have been nice to have been up there with Peterborough right now, and Phil Parkinson has a lot of thinking to do going into the summer – as fans expect more next season.

I could be rousing an argument here, but we were told at the start of the season that one thing we weren’t going to do was to dip into the loan market. It was interesting to note, in the last home game against Oldham, that half of the team were borrowed from different clubs. I know we have had a few injuries this season, but is there a lack of faith/confidence in the likes of Garry Thompson, Mark Yeates and Carl McHugh, or are they not good enough?

Whilst I am happy for loan players to come into the squad and show their parent club what they are worth, I don’t think there should be five in your starting line up when there are people on higher wages and with more experience sat on the bench. It’s a tough, tough call for Parkinson, and I’m sure everyone has their own views on this issue. However, the ‘make do’ feel of the team right now does leave him with some big decisions to make over summer, as a lot of players are coming to the end of their contracts.

Another reason for failing to mount a sustained promotion push is the lack of creativity we seem to have within the team. It seems as though we have lost the ability to pass the ball around sharply, particularly in the opponents half, and have suffered as a result. I think James Hanson is a wonderful player but, whilst he does win every ball in the air, we need to find another tactic beyond launching it to him. I don’t know whether it is panic mode or not, but we need to keep hold of possession more – like we did during the first 30 minutes against Gillingham.

Friday’s encounter with Rotherham was a good game. I thought City played well, and that having five in the midfield seemed to help us out a little bit. I am a fan of Jon Stead and think that, if he is available at the end of the season, then he should be signed up. Some may say that playing five in midfield is a bit negative at home; but with Aaron Mclean and Hanson potentially still injured, Parkinson would probably be best playing the same way with Stead up front.

Peterborough will no doubt look to win the match rather than play for time and try to wear us down to a 0-0 draw. Hopefully this will help us, as we always seem to play better when opponents bring the game to us and we catch them on the break. Having read Ferguson Senior’s autobiography, it worked for Man United and I believe Darren has the makings of a good manager too.

I hope it’s a good game tonight, as it seems as though the season is petering out somewhat. I would be more than happy with a draw that would all but nudge us over the line of mathematical safety. But recent home failings are still raw, and so a good start is vital in making sure that this proves to be a very Good Friday for Bradford City.

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