Unacceptable Bradford City performance underlines need for major change

5 Apr

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Bradford City 2

Reach 35, Jones 90

Oldham Athletic 3

Wesolowski 22, Clarke-Harris 45+58

Saturday 5 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

The relegation issue just won’t be put to bed, and the real concern for Bradford City is that they are running out of opportunities. How they could be left to rue this costly home defeat; one that narrows the margin for error considerably with just five games left to play. That the next three are against teams with promotion aspirations means no-one should be sitting comfortably on that six-point cushion.

Survival is within touching distances and yet – after another wretched performance from the players – any sense of achievement looks increasingly likely to carry a hollow feel. No one was planning to order an open top bus to celebrate successfully avoiding relegation, but this feeble crawl over the line lacks dignity and deserves to have serious repercussions. Because as City allowed themselves to be easily beaten by an Oldham side who sit below them, there’s a growing stench that is becoming difficult to avoid.

This team is past its sell-by-date. It needs a radical, radical shake-up.

That Phil Parkinson will be the man tasked with that considerable close season challenge is entirely right, but he did much to harm his standing with City supporters today. After speaking in the build-up about knowing exactly what to expect from Oldham, there can be no excuse for the disorganised and ill-thought out approach that his team took. Opposing teams that play a three-man midfield has long been the manager’s Achilles Heel and it beggars belief that he still cannot find a solution. Oldham hunted in packs for the ball and then worked in groups to keep hold of it. City were chasing shadows.

Yet equally, Parkinson has every right to feel let down by his players. From front to back they were awful today and it’s time that they came under the firing line rather than aiming all criticism at the manager. Parkinson needed his senior players to step up and perform, and he needed those who want to be at Valley Parade next season to demonstrate their desire to earn a contract. It didn’t happen. Today’s City XI contained just two players – Andrew Davies and Aaron Mclean – who don’t go into the summer facing an uncertain future. After this showing, Parkinson’s released list may have grown in length.

Oldham looked more confident, more determined and more comfortable in their game plan. In James Wesolowski they possessed the best player on the park (it was the same story in the reverse fixture). The Oldham number four was up and down the pitch with boundless energy. When no one picked up his late run onto Jonson Clare-Harris’ knock down, the 26-year-old was able to smash his team into a deserved lead midway through the first half.

Jon Stead, making his home debut up front, had glanced an early header wide of the post, but that had been it for City. The initiative was passed up in a way that has been depressingly familiar of late. Parkinson sought to combat Oldham’s dominance of possession by switching to a 4-5-1 formation that had Mclean on the right wing and Kyle Bennet tucked inside, but the results were decidedly mixed.

For the game was retrieved – but then ultimately lost – during the 10 minute run-up to half time. Firstly, City equalised after some excellent work from an otherwise disappointing Matty Dolan. He won the ball high up the park, before spinning and producing a defence-splitting pass that enabled Adam Reach to race past a defender and slot the ball home. But then just as the board was to go up for injury time, Gary Harkins played an offside-looking Clarke-Harris through on goal. Rory McArdle, Jon McLaughlin hesitated and the ball was in the back of the net. As the cliché goes, you play to the whistle and City did not.

Yet the passage of play at 1-1 was equally crucial on the game. Having been pegged back, Oldham retreated and City began to dominate the ball. Their 4-5-1 meant plenty of players available for a short pass but no one to support Stead. A wall of blue shirts stood firm, and the home crowd grew frustrated. It was in some ways proof that – for all the complaints from some about City’s style of football – deep down most people cannot tolerate a passing game and want to see direct football. Parkinson decided to abandon the approach almost as quickly as he’d switched to it. Such indecision is out of character. He was streets behind Lee Johnson in the tactical battle.

And it meant a second half depressingly familiar. Oldham bossing the middle of the park, as City went 4-4-2 and Dolan and Gary Jones were found wanting. Mclean and Stead were starved of possession yet completely failed to make anything that did reach them stick in the final third. Reach stood out more than most as lacking commitment for the cause – he was a loanee playing for himself, which is unacceptable – whilst Bennett regressed back to old ways, following promising displays of late.

The Doncaster loanee stood ball-watching as a pass was played up to Clarke-Harris, who ran clear of the back four and slotted home impressively despite Davies’ late attempt to block him. A really bad goal from a City perspective. Whatever the huge failings in midfield and up front today, everything was undermined by some incredibly woeful defending. I have never seen Davies have such a poor game for City, and he and McArdle made numerous mistakes.

With 32 minutes left on the clock, you hoped to see a determined fightback from the home side. Worryingly they looked defeated and – substitute Oli McBurnie aside – fearful of receiving the ball. McBurnie’s introduction for an underwhelming Stead saw boos directed at the manager that were repeated when he later brought off Mclean for Yeates. Whilst the frustration was easy to understand, as Parkinson simply didn’t have adequate options on the bench to take off his two senior strikers, performance-wise both players merited their withdrawals.

I’ve tried to retain judgement on Mclean and it is still too early to make a call on him, but to date he has been a long way short of expectations and – if rumours of his wage packet are to believed – we are entitled to demand a lot more from him. James Hanson was hugely missed and City need to get to the root of his fitness problems as a matter of urgency. In the circumstances Stead is a good signing, but City need their Plan A back, fit and firing.

As Valley Parade emptied long before the end, a late flicker of hope was ignited by a second City goal, deep in stoppage time. Yeates raced clear of the back four and struck a shot from an angle that smacked back off the post. The rebound fell to Jones, who picked his spot to beat the defenders rushing back. It was too little, too late. Within seconds, Oldham’s terrific away support were able to celebrate the final whistle and a deserved three points.

For the Bantams, the last four home games have yielded just one point and it is their away form – one loss in four – which is keeping them above water. But while this terrible performance probably doesn’t change the fact that one more victory should be enough to seal survival, this defeat should be viewed as a watershed moment.

Because this team simply isn’t good enough for where we are and where we want to be. It needs wholesale changes, if a more credible promotion push is to be realised – heck, just to make sure that relegation is avoided next season also. Parkinson has to make some tough decisions over the next few weeks over who to keep and who to let go, and he needs to be ruthless about it.

Sentiment clearly clouded too much of the planning for this season, and for that Parkinson has been rightly criticised. We will never forget the contributions of those 2012/13 History Makers and they will always have a place in our hearts, but the time has come to move on.

The bar has been lowered of late. Every single person in that Valley Parade dressing room shares some responsibility for allowing that drop in standards to happen. In the short-term, what matters is to get those final few points needed to confirm a place in the 2014/15 League One. But the inquest into what has gone wrong has already started and, whatever division City are in next season, sweeping changes need to be made.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury, Bennett (Thompson 64), Dolan, Jones, Reach, Stead (McBurnie 64), Mclean (Yeates 83)

Not used: Barker, McHugh, Bates, Stockdill

City on the brink of surviving The Oldham Division

4 Apr

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Bradford City vs Oldham Athletic preview

@Valley Parade on Saturday 5 April, 2014

Written by Jason McKeown (images by Mike Holdsworth)

It is just short of seven years since Oldham Athletic last visited Valley Parade – an Easter Monday afternoon where both sides were heading in polar opposites.

Bradford City, desperately fighting relegation from League One, took a surprise 65th minute lead when Moses Ashikodi (remember him?) smashed an unstoppable half-volley into the top corner. Perhaps if Joe Colbeck hadn’t got himself stupidly sent off for kicking the ball away, or if rookie caretaker manager hadn’t sacrificed strikers Billy Paynter and Ashikodi to play Spencer Weir-Daley (remember him?!) on his own up front, or if the defence hadn’t played so deep, City would have held out for a vital victory. But with three minutes to go, promotion-chasing Oldham equalised through Luigi Glombard. Their near 3,000 visiting support went wild.

City ended that season in the bottom four, relegated, Oldham finished in the top six, defeated in the play off semi finals. They have remained in League One ever since, but that doesn’t tell half the story of their Groundhog Day existence. Flash back even further – 1997 – and City had an even bigger impact on the Latics’ future. Both clubs – and Grimsby – were locked in a relegation battle in Division One (now the Championship). City survived, Oldham (and Grimsby) went down to the third tier. Athletic have not changed leagues since.

That makes the 2013/14 season Oldham’s 17th consecutive campaign in this division. 17. SEVENTEEN. When they went down in 1997, Tony Blair had just become Prime Minister, Hong Kong was still part of the United Kingdom and Titanic had just hit the cinemas. That 2006/07 season was Oldham’s best finish in the intervening years (sixth) and they have only finished in the top half of the table in five of the other 16 seasons. Similarly, they have only come perilously close to relegation on three occasions.

It must be somewhat unsatisfying to be an Oldham supporter then. A much of nothingness year in, year out. It scarcely seems credible that they were one of the founder members of the Premier League (voting for the breakaway top flight that has had such a dramatic effect on the distribution of wealth in football). 17 years in this division. The bottom tier often gets cruelly named ‘The Rochdale Division’. Surely League One deserves a similar nickname concerning Oldham?

For Bradford City, the job of staying in ‘The Oldham Division’ is almost complete. Tuesday night’s 0-0 with Coventry City took the Bantams up to 49 points, and with most teams having six games to play and the gap to the dotted line nine points and nine teams, the reality is that we are probably safe now. Still, a win tomorrow would take City past the 50-point mark and all but rubber-stamp survival. It would be nice to get the job done on home soil.

You can start to split City’s 2013/14 season into three different phases. The first, covering the opening 10 matches, saw City fly out of the blocks and produce promotion-standard form of one defeat in 10. Phase two – which lasted almost half a season – was that dismal one win in 20 league matches. That horrendous run ended with a 1-0 victory over Port Vale in mid-February, and the last 10 games (phase three) has seen four wins, two draws and four defeats.

Mid-table form, for a side which is surely set for a mid-table finish. Banish that lingering relegation question mark, and it’s all about finishing as high up the division as possible. After Port Vale’s midweek victory over Crawley, 11th is probably the best finish that City can hope for. At which point, we will very quickly start to plan for season two in League One, and the long-term challenge of not becoming the new Oldham.

It seems churlish to be talking about getting out of League One as quickly as possible on the weekend that its permanent residents are in town, but no one wants to stick around here for too long. The only thing we want to have in common with Oldham is that we are also an ex-Premier League side.

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The final six games offer plenty to play for, given there are so many players needing to demonstrate they should remain a part of the Bradford City journey next season. James Hanson, Adam Drury and Nathan Doyle remain fitness doubts, but for the rest this is not a time to stand still.

Jon McLaughlin is certainly under the spotlight. On City’s last Valley Parade appearance, a week and a half ago, the poor opener he conceded to Walsall saw him the subject of plenty of post-match criticism. Yet McLaughlin has responded with back-to-back clean sheets that included some important saves. In front of him will definitely be Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle – both out of contract in six games time – and Andrew Davies, with Carl McHugh (another whose deal is about to run out) likely to continue covering for Drury, should the Leeds loanee not make it.

There is no doubt that McHugh’s season could have gone better, and the irrepressible left-sided defender in the team ahead of him, Davies, looks set to continue blocking his first team path for at least another season. I love Carl, but I suspect that for his own good he needs to look for another club this summer. Tomorrow could be one of his final Valley Parade appearances.

In midfield the partnership of Gary Jones and Matty Dolan impresses – Width of a Post has more to say on it next week – and on the flanks, Adam Reach’s strong start to life at City continues to slowly fade and Kyle Bennett’s slow start continues to be strongly improved upon. Bennett looks very similar to Will Atkinson and is likely to be recruited during the summer to fill that wide-player-who-tucks-inside role. Behind him on the bench, Garry Thompson’s farewell lap will shortly begin.

Up front is likely to be Jon Stead – making a home debut against a side he was playing on loan for earlier this year – and the improving Aaron Mclean. It would be nice to see some of the youngsters given a chance over the final weeks when the right moment arises, and the sight of Oli McBurnie, Jack Stockdill and James Pollard on the bench recently would suggest they may get their opportunity before the final ball is kicked at Prenton Park in a month’s time.

By then, City will surely be playing only for pride while today’s visitors will have hoped to put their lingering relegation fears to bed. A loss to the Bantams tomorrow would certainly cause them unease, although after 17 years of this division you wonder if, on some level, the opportunity to visit some different grounds next season would cushion the blow of relegation to League Two.

More likely, next season’s The Oldham Division is going to include a repeat of tomorrow’s fixture.

Missing a trick?

3 Apr

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By Matt Birch

Throughout this season I have had this nagging feeling that scrapping the reserve team was a bad idea. I understand the reasoning behind the decision: for the management team to focus on the first team squad, to arrange their own reserve friendlies on their own terms and to save a little bit of the budget which would have been spent on a reserve team set up and administration.

One further argument was that it was detrimental to the younger players to be playing week in, week out against other team’s senior reserves. This, however, was a one-time thing, a freak occurrence. Last season saw Bradford City play the most domestic games in a season of any team from any division in the history of English football. And by a good distance. In a season like that, the whole first team squad would be featuring regularly and not be risked in reserve team games. But 2012/13 will never be repeated by any team ever again.

Take a good look at this season, however, and I believe the blame for our mid-season slide from play off contenders to relegation battlers can partly be put on the lack of a reserve team. Players out of the match day squad need to stay match fit and be ready to step seamlessly into the first team when called upon. This season that has not happened at all.

The fringe players have all had the odd glimpse of promise, but have been inconsistent to say the least. I am talking about the likes of Carl McHugh, Matt Taylor, Jason Kennedy, Andy Gray, Mark Yeates, Luke Oliver, Ricky Ravenhill, Alan Connell and Rafa De Vita. Add to this the likes of Lewis Clarkson, Oli McBurnie, Niall Heaton and Jack Stockdill: who would benefit from regular games against opponents stronger than the youth team in order to prepare them physically and mentally for senior football.

Is it a coincidence that we have had a particularly barren run when struggling to find fit and ready replacements for the core first teamers? Key injuries to Andrew Davies, James Meredith and Kyel Reid, international call-ups for McHugh and Rory McArdle, as well as the sickness bugs and niggling injuries you have over the course of any season, should not have such a marked impact on results if you have players ready to step in. Furthermore, there is a level of complacency that creeps into players when they know they are undroppable. With all this in mind, should we really be that surprised by the way this season has panned out?

If we look forward to next season, I think the board and management team really need to reassess the merits of a reserve team, or as they are now officially called U21 Development Team.

The club is making huge strides off the field with the training facilities, fitness regime and in particular with the youth team. The scouting network also seems to be broadening, as can be seen with the signing of Clarkson, the potential signing of Craig McGillivray and the noted interest in numerous other non-league players. There is also the anomaly of RIASA using the name Bradford City U21 Development Team for a number of exhibition friendlies this season. Half-baked is a term I would use to describe this part of our club.

There is no need to worry about our reserve team getting hammered every week and damaging morale. Get it right, and there will be a good blend of senior fringe players, new signings, first year pros, the most promising apprentices, and the odd RIASA player featuring. Other clubs are switching their focus more towards U21 development too, so the leagues should be fairly matched. I also put it to the board that we have the perfect reserve team coach in the building already. Who better to take charge than Captain Marvel himself, Gary Jones? Heading into the twilight of his playing career, he is a player trusted by the management team and one who leads by example and displays all the characteristics needed for the role.

Let us keep up the club progression on and off the pitch, and let us not miss this trick again.

This Ground is Coming Like a Ghost Ground

2 Apr

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Coventry City 0

Bradford City 0

Tuesday 1 April, 2014

Written by Kieran Wilkinson (images by Mike Holdsworth)

Since the last meeting between Bradford City and Coventry, both teams’ seasons have followed similar paths. Each has lost their star striker in the January transfer window. Both teams have only gained 20 odd points since that November meeting in front of the Sky cameras, thus putting paid to both teams’ ambitions of a play off spot (though were it not for their 10 point deduction, Coventry would be very much still in the mix). Equally, both teams look reasonably safe after Saturday: City after the magnificent win in E10 and Coventry after a late winner against Crewe.

 

Adam Drury and Nathan Doyle were ruled out for City by injury (the former being a particular blow, given his recent form and the much-discussed lack of cover in the position) with James Hanson also failing to make the squad, as the club look to resolve his back problems. The only change to City’s starting eleven from the weekend was Carl McHugh slotting in at left back.

 

Callum Wilson (scorer of one of Coventry’s three goals at Valley Parade earlier in the season) and Dan Seaborne – both of whom had played in Coventry’s weekend win – missed out through injury and there were also two other changes for the Sky Blues.

Unsurprisingly, given the boycott of home games by a large number of Coventry fans, the atmosphere was non-existent (though the openness of Sixfields doesn’t help in the first place). The club’s attempts to rouse the home support by playing ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky fell not so much on deaf ears as absent ones. Perhaps Coventry’s finest band’s “Ghost Town” would have been a more appropriate song for the occasion. The attendance was 1,673, with 327 City fans. It must be soul destroying for Coventry’s supporters and it is hard to see how they can achieve any real momentum whilst playing away from Coventry.

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So, given the similar fortunes of both teams, was a goalless draw almost a foregone conclusion? Whilst on paper, the result would seem to have gone to form, Phil Parkinson will certainly be the more disappointed of the two managers given that, on their performance, City really should have taken all three points. 

All of the early creativity in the match seemed to come from City, with the midfield pairing of Gary Jones and Matty Dolan both having a couple of chances in the opening 20 minutes.

 

It wasn’t only the midfield two who were threatening – Jon Stead and Aaron Mclean continued their good work from Saturday, with Mclean forcing a smart save from the Coventry keeper Joe Murphy after a cross from McHugh (Parkinson describing the save as one of the best that he has seen this season). Stead also forced Murphy into action after some good work by Kyle Bennett.

 

City continued this good play up until the half-time whistle, with chances for Mclean, Stead, Adam Reach and Rory McArdle. However, Coventry could have snatched an injury goal but thankfully Jon McLaughlin was alert to an effort from the exotically named Cyrus Christie, this actually being their first real attempt on goal in the entire match (and, as it would transpire, their only attempt on target on the night).

A pleasing first half performance but, as always when such good play is not reflected in the scoreline, a lingering worry that City would pay for the failure to make the most of their chances.  

In the second half, with City shooting towards us, proceedings to a certain extent started where they left off, with the visitors doing the early pressing. The big chance of the half came in the 52nd minute when Bennett put in a dangerous cross which Reach was only able to head onto the crossbar.

 

Truth be told, the game fizzled out a little after that. Both teams had a few half chances with Coventry’s Marshall putting an inviting cross into City’s box that, thankfully, Coventry could not capitalise on. At the other end, Stead’s attempted piledriver from a Mclean flick on only troubled the City fans behind the goal. 

 

Both teams tried to inject some urgency with attacking substitutions – Coventry introducing midfielder Conor Thomas and Villa loan striker Nathan Delfouneso, City sacrificing Dolan and the impressive Bennett for the lesser-spotted Chris Atkinson and Garry Thompson – but none of the substitutions were able to tip the balance in either team’s favour.

 

Mclean had a chance in the last ten minutes after a McHugh header-on, but this was not a clear cut opportunity and Joe Murphy managed to deal with it fairly comfortably.

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The fact that I haven’t had cause to mention the referee is due to him having a decent game. Whilst the BBC website will tell you that the ref was Lee Probert, it was in fact fellow Premier League official Chris Foy who took charge. He officiated fairly, wasn’t over-fussy and kept his cards in his pocket all night. A refreshing change!

So, a goalless draw and, therefore, some mixed emotions at the final whistle. We really should have killed the game off in the first half and, to an extent, this is reflection of our season as a whole. Having drawn 16 matches this season, it is easy to see that we have at times lacked a killer instinct. Thankfully, it doesn’t appear that we will be left rueing those draws at the end of the season, but it would have only taken converting, say, five of those draws into wins to have seen us on the edge of the play offs.

There were plenty of positives to take from the game. A clean sheet and a solid defensive performance, especially considering the absence of Drury. There were bright performances again from Stead, Bennett and McLean. In respect of the first two, the remainder of the season should really be seen as an audition for next season. I have been impressed with Stead in his two matches so far, and he could potentially have the pedigree to offer us that “something different” that we have been lacking up front. Bennett also appears to be improving match-by-match to offer a genuine threat.

So, the status quo between both teams was maintained and it would take a calamitous set of events for them not to be facing each other again in League One next season. Plenty to build on, and to think about, for both teams.         

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, McHugh, Bennett (Thompson 85), Dolan (Atkinson 80), Jones, Reach, Stead, Mclean

Not used: Bentley, Pollard, Bates, Yeates, McBurnie

 

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Lessons in history as Bradford City go to Coventry

1 Apr
Picture by Claire Epton

Picture by Claire Epton

Coventry City vs Bradford City preview

@Sixfields (Northampton) on Tuesday 1 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

In the 20 years that the Sixfields stadium, Northampton, has stood, it has never been so overused and yet so sparsely populated as it has this season. Former Premier League outfit Coventry City moved in last summer, 70 miles away from their home city, with average crowds of 2,222 indirectly bolstered by protesting Coventry supporters on that large hill outside. Not since Wimbledon saw out their final days at Selhurst Park in front of one man and his dog, before relocating to Milton Keynes, have Bradford City embarked on such an unusual away fixture as tonight’s.

Yet it is the permanent proprietors of Sixfields who offer the more fitting perspective to the Bantams current struggles. Northampton Town lie second bottom of League Two, fighting for their lives to avoid relegation. The Cobblers were, of course, City’s play off final opponents 10-and-a-half months ago, crushed 3-0 at Wembley. After another 3-0 loss – to Bury at home, on Saturday - they are in deep trouble.

Only one of the previous 17 fourth tier beaten play off finalists have gone on to be promoted the following season – yet Northampton’s bouncebackability has been especially poor. They have gone from being disappointed not to leave League Two, to now desperate simply to remain in it. Sixfields is in serious danger of becoming a non-league stadium.

There but for the grace of God, and all that.

In the 30 years that the City Gent fanzine has existed, they can scarcely have published a more bizarre reader letter than one which appears in the latest edition, comparing Phil Parkinson to Hitler. Oddly bemoaning that Parkinson is too good-looking and that “if he had a face like a bag of turds and dressed like a tramp waiting for chips, would we have given him this much leeway?”, the letter-writing supporter goes onto state, “He is eloquent I will give you that, but so too was Hitler, and we all know how that turned out.” If I were Mark Lawn, I’d be carefully searching Phil’s desk to check that those opposition scout reports aren’t really secret plans to invade Poland.

Such stupidity represents the far extreme of negative views aired about Parkinson by an increasing number of City supporters, in the wake of some of the worst performances of the season against Shrewsbury and Walsall. There is undoubtedly a growing thought that the manager has taken the club as far as he can, with calls for a change growing in volume, if quietened by Saturday.

Writing as someone still very much in the pro-Parkinson camp (although please don’t mistake my personal views as WOAP editorial policy, we welcome contrary views and articles), the tone of the criticism directed his way continues to sadden me. Read the Bradford City Facebook page, Twitter and the Telegraph & Argus boards – and, in so many cases, what you see is abuse and hatred. It should be easy to put together a constructive argument for why the manager should, at the very least, currently be having his future questioned; but those people who are attempting to do just that are largely being drowned out by outright abuse from others.

It is completely unfair that any manager of Bradford City be the subject of such nasty and vile anger. You think of everything Parkinson has given to the club, of the loyalty he has shown, and you wonder how there could such little respect afforded to him by some people. There is a big difference between no longer believing in a manager and hating him, or at least there should be.

In the 111 years that Bradford City Football Club has toiled, rarely has there been a season as memorable as 2012/13. The 64 game marathon featured a rollercoaster of emotions. The drama, the excitement, the joy, the pride. What a happy ending: a first promotion in 14 years. It meant so much.

As City celebrated reaching Wembley for a second time in three months with victory in the play off semi final at Burton, the 1,600 visiting supporters that packed out the Perelli Stadium serenaded the players with the words “We’re proud of you” and responded to Parkinson’s clenched fist celebrations with a round of “Parkinson’s Bradford Army”. The pride indeed. The glow of which only increased further after the Northampton play off final victory.

As form has fallen off a cliff over the winter months of this season, not unreasonably, several people declared that last season is now irrelevant, and how we all needed to stop talking about it. As Parkinson came under his first genuine spell of pressure in February, the early advocates for change went further, arguing that his 2012/13 achievements should not count in any debates about his future. But of course, that is impossible to do. When evaluating the ability of someone to lead the club forwards, his past record has to come into consideration.

And so, the new, recent theme from some has been to talk down the past. ‘We made history’ has now become ‘Let’s re-write history’. Suddenly, promotion last season is being dubbed a fluke by many people. One that was only achieved because of Exeter’s late collapse in their form; one that was only achieved due to the Bantams scraping a seventh-place finish. A decent manager would not have luckily taken City up last season, they say, but won the league.

Words fail me at such a miserable outlook. That all those warm memories of last season’s run-in are retrospectively downgraded by some as ‘lucky’ and, by association, the success achieved viewed as unmerited. Did people really feel that way at the time? Did they not enjoy those late season victories? That afternoon at Burton? That second trip to Wembley?

Only seventh? Not since 1999 have City finished higher in the division they are in. Only through the play offs? In the five previous League Two seasons, only once did we come close to achieving that basic expectation (and in that year, 2008/09, we did an Exeter and fell away at the end). And we haven’t even mentioned that first trip to Wembley. You could talk down Parkinson’s achievements if they were happening all the time to the club, but years and years of struggle and underperformance should serve to highlight just how incredible last season’s success was.

Yet equally – and let’s be honest – 2012/13′s late run-in featured more than our fair share of luck. Exeter did indeed collapse when they (or other challengers ahead of us in mid-March) should have sealed that last play off spot. But still, that doesn’t change City’s achievement of only losing three of their final 15 games post-Swansea; of picking up 15 points from a possible 24 to steal into seventh, when others dithered. They made the most of the luck that came their way, capitalising in clinical fashion.

Parkinson’s influence on that never-say-die run-in does not deserve to be downgraded 12 months on, simply to suit the debate of today. There is nothing wrong with arguing he deserves to go in spite of last season if that is what you believe, but please don’t attempt to say he deserves to go because of last season. After all, if you’re not happy about last season…well why bother supporting this club?

Not since 1996 have City enjoyed such a spectacular late run of form. Year after year we have either been nowhere near or choked. Last season should always be remembered with fondness – not twisted and distorted.

In the first two years that Phil Parkinson managed Bradford City, he impressed not only those inside Valley Parade but the outside world. Blackpool looked to him as the answer to their struggles, and other clubs would be linked with his services. Parkinson was one of the hottest properties in management, and City did very well to keep him.

“Three years? What were they thinking!” has been a recent grumble, in light of the contract that Parkinson was offered by the club – and signed – last May. It makes debates about his future seem somewhat worthless, given it will likely cost a six-figure sum of money to dispense with his services. We are stuck with him.

Which suits me just fine. I have long believed in long-term thinking. By plotting a future in terms of years and not months, the club has a much greater chance of being rebuilt on firmer foundations. The three-year contract is a three-year plan, one that needs to conclude with City knocking on the door of the Championship, for it to be extended further.

Year one’s objective of staying in League One is a fair and realistic goal. It has not yet been achieved, and crossing that 50-point mark is proving to be an unnecessarily laboured task, but it is progress. We can question the route to get here – the edge of survival – but not the destination. It is vital that City remain a League One club, and that target is within touching distance after Saturday’s impressive away win at Leyton Orient.

As for the three-year debate; whilst there is no doubt that some did question the wisdom when the contract was agreed last year, they were very much in the minority. Very few people were against it, in fact the majority were for it.

That’s why I find those who are now questioning the logic of the contract difficult to take seriously. If we, as supporters, believe we deserve a say in how this club is run, you have to share in responsibility for the decisions you previously backed. If you wanted Parkinson to remain as manager 12 months ago, only for the club to go and make sure that was the case, it is unfair to now pretend you didn’t agree with that decision. And let’s be clear, had Parkinson walked away from Valley Parade last summer, the chairmen would have copped it big style.

In the 11 years that Phil Parkinson has been a football manager, he has made mistakes but also enjoyed notable success. He is a smarter, wiser and cleverer manager for going through those bad times. And what he will have learned over the past 12 months will undoubtedly make him an even better manager. We should be confident that he can apply this greater experience next season.

When looking back on Parkinson’s achievements at Valley Parade, his success in steering the club away from relegation to non-league, during his first season in charge, seems especially relevant at the moment. Today is two years and five days since that horrendous evening against Crawley, where you really feared for the future. Parkinson was able to lift the club from such dark times, and the rest is history.

His first season seems especially relevant at the moment, given the task facing the manager this summer – rebuilding the squad. In September 2011 he took charge of a Bantams squad that was woefully lacking in quality and, in 18 months, had turned them into League Cup finalists. I have no fears that he can deliver the improvements that are needed for next season.

Yet the problem of the here and now is that the sweeping changes needed cannot be implemented until this season is over. Parkinson has made major mistakes in the transfer market which he is in no position to rectify in the short-term. He must continue to make do with a squad that has over recent months let him down on several occasions, and who over the final seven games will continue to deliver inconsistent performances. And poor results will continue to make Parkinson look bad, adding to the pressure now placed on his shoulders.

The short-term outlook is not great. Parkinson must get us over that 50+ point line, even if it’s an undignified stumble – and then he must prove that he can take the club forwards in line with our long-term ambitions.

I have confidence he can do just that, although there are no guarantees he will succeed. The bottom line, however, is that he has earned the right to get that opportunity. After everything he has done for this football club and all the wonderful memories he has provided, Parkinson deserves our support and backing during these more difficult times.

In the 39 matches that Bradford City have played this season, they sit right in the middle of the table. Currently eight points clear of the drop zone but 10 away from the play offs, this looks set to be a season where both promotion and relegation was never seriously on the table.

And all things considered – not least our recent history - that will do just fine.

 

Time and Again

30 Mar

Leyton Orient

Leyton Orient 0

Bradford City 1

Mclean 27

Saturday 29 March, 2014

Written by Alex Scott (image by Gareth Walker)

It was the surprise that was weird. The ease of it all. City have had to work so hard to score over the last few months, but as Aaron Mclean slotted home unmarked at the back post, it appeared almost simple. A deep corner over the crowd, a wheeling centre forward who has lost his man, and a carefree finish. City were in front, and it was all so simple.

Watching from afar in the depths of south London, there’s a frequent powerlessness about being a City fan. Things “happen” and everything changes. The last couple of weeks has been one of those times. I last saw City play at Colchester three weeks ago. An impressive, gutsy win which felt at the time to quell any rifts in the City camp, and reinforce again that whilst this team may lack for many things, determination wasn’t one of them. They would be fine.

The intervening weeks between leaving that service station on the A12 and jumping on the Central Line to Leyton appear to have changed everything. The grace period from last season is definitively over. The reaction to the past week’s defeats appeared to have mutated into something. We’re going down; we won’t get another point. This was either the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. After this troubled winter, the City fan in all of us had come back. It did feel like the end of something.

This hasn’t been helped by James Hanson’s back and a horror show at home to Walsall on Tuesday. Simon Parker noted the other day how we haven’t won in two years without Hanson and that really isn’t difficult to believe given his reliability, and after watching them struggle through so many times. In Jon Stead they may for the first time have an at least competent replacement. He looked rusty at Brisbane Road – and I imagine our, um, agricultural approach was a bit of a culture shock from what they play down the six-four-one – but he did fine. He didn’t particularly threaten, but away against 3rd in the league I suppose that’s an unfair metric through which to judge him. He facilitated City playing “their” way in the absence of Hanson, which I can’t remember happening since he first broke into the team under Stuart McCall.

Given the prevailing narrative, there wasn’t much optimism headed in. When there is talk of ambitions which are limited at just “getting a shot on target”, you know things aren’t going well. I’d wager, like myself, a large proportion of the 700 City fans who attended on Saturday were at the Brentford game a few weeks ago also, and as such were probably entitled to a little resignation headed in. All the talk of Orient’s wobbles were an irrelevance really, “I’m just after a shot on target”.

The game began with City immediately giving away a corner, but after that wobble, they were oddly comfortable for much of the first half. Not like they were threatening or anything, but they weren’t being threatened either. Leyton Orient did not look like a team chasing promotion, and given this performance, I’d be stunned if they made it out of the division come the end of the season. Frankly, they looked like us. They looked like us, playing against us, which was baffling, given we had Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle comfortably absorbing each long ball with an apparent nonchalance like winning the header was just a frustrating distraction from their engrossing conversation about True Detective or something. It was simple for the entire first half.

The Samaritan in me wanted to scream “Pass it round us! We can’t do teams what pass and stuff!”, but I kept my voice down as Davies battered another header into the stands. For a side as supposedly good as Leyton Orient, it was a truly baffling strategy to beat us.

Whilst the City goal did come out of the blue, that wasn’t a result of overwhelming pressure on the other end. The game was quietly meandering its way to a 0-0 half time score when Aaron Mclean notched a volley at the back post. Against the club where it all started for the striker, Mclean had by far the best performance I’ve seen him play. The manager mentioned after the game how Mclean was singled out on Tuesday for his performance, but he has to be credited for his reaction today. Whilst some of the usual pitfalls were there, he showed glimpses of the player he could be for us. I’d wager little of that is to do with being paired with Stead (who really is a Hanson facsimile, poorer in the air but with a better touch), but that is a situation worth monitoring.

Ever since the ball went in the net, I’ve been wondering if it was planned. City had a couple corners early and they did “look” a bit different. The first dangerous one saw Jon Stead attempt to wheel around to the back post and get manhandled to the floor to no avail. Then for the goal Mclean pulled a similar move, losing his man just as the Orient keeper ran into a wall of players and was stood completely free at the back post to volley home into the unguarded net.

I’m used to the McArdle wheel to the front post. The long throw to Hanson on the by-line. The long free kick from the halfway line to Andrew Davies one-on-one away from the main action in the box. We may have a new move to add to the repertoire.

In a related note, the referee, David Phillips was incredibly – if consistently – lenient on aerial challenges which undeniably played in our favour. (Although it was hard not to wonder how impactful James Hanson could have been under similar oversight.) This absolutely was a factor in the goal. Many other days that could have been pulled back.

The key decision in the match came on the stroke of half time as a suspiciously apparent handball from Davies in the box was ignored by the referee who had just blown for half time before being surrounded by Orient players.

Whilst not as stark as the Jonathan De Guzman opportunity at the Emirates midweek, it looked like Orient had a right to be frustrated, and it was this catalyst which led to the “altercation” in the tunnel. (Like weather being “inclement”, I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word “altercation” in a context outside of “a fight between two or more grown men in a tunnel”.) Stories diverge on what actually happened at half time, but Parkinson never made it out for the second half.

That ridiculous encounter does illustrate how up for this game City were; this was not another Brentford-style sacrifice of three points with key men rested in the stands. There was a “steely” determination about the players which they tried to clearly illustrate before the match, Gary Jones running over the fans screaming maniacally before the warm-ups. There was also a team wide bear hug operation before kick off with every player forcefully embracing every other player in an intriguing showing of team unity. As it’s not a huddle – boo!!! – I’m fine with it, and it was quite endearing to see as a fan. It was reflected at the final whistle, surrounded by Orient players on their backs.

Orient came closest to an equaliser in the first period after a breakdown from a corner with the ball falling to Scott Cuthbert eight yards out. He fired a goal bound shot and the apparently stranded McLaughlin appeared from nowhere to save the day. Jonny Mac put in a very Jonny Mac performance, struggling with aerial balls from time to time, but let us not forgot how remarkable a shot stopper he is. The defence limited chances magnificently, but they still needed him once and he was there to save the day.

The only downside of the first half was to see Adam Drury hobble off. He has provided a sense of stability over recent weeks and started the game well, but he was replaced not long after falling awkwardly defending a dangerous corner. James Meredith absolutely has more upside than Drury, but the Leeds man looks just the candidate for a squad role that should have been recruited last summer.

He was replaced by Carl McHugh who put in maybe the McHughiest performance of his career. He spends so much time in the last ditch that he is paying council tax there, but there is no way to watch him and not love him. Every ill-timed dive makes me like him a little more, and after he poleaxed the dangerous Moses Odubajo midway through the second half the Irishman’s customary yellow card was on its way. As the game wore on McHugh’s introduction appeared more and more a blessing as the Londoner’s continued their direct approach, targeting him often in the air. The fools.

McHugh’s inclusion meant that Davies stayed back on the halfway line for corners in the second half. Something not planned as it was clear Davies told McHugh to go up in his stead. I’ve been watching Davies for a couple of years, and the only times I’ve ever seen him stay back in those situations have been when he’s been injured. There was no available defender on the bench at this point, and with City obviously placing a lot of importance on this game, he wasn’t going off even if he was hurt. There has been no mention of any knock, but it is worth monitoring with two games in four days on deck.

Another thread of the past few weeks has been about Matty Dolan as the heir apparent to Gary Jones. Saturday proved yet again that Gary Jones is this team. Dolan was competent and combative again, but there is no City without Gary Jones. As Parkinson was fighting in a tunnel – or getting fighted at, dependent on who you listen to – Jones was there throughout, on the front lines, forcing everyone to push. I try to think of myself as quite objective and avoid buying in to the intangibles, but Gary Jones’ effect on this team is there for anyone to see. It was tangible, if invisible. Reports of Jones’ demise have been greatly exaggerated.

With promotion hopes subsiding rapidly, Shaun Batt was unleashed by Russell Slade as the home side went in search of an equaliser. Replacing an anonymous Mooney, he was an immediate upgrade. There are definitive correlations with Jay Emmanuel-Thomas in his play, and the City defence spent the rest of the game on alert. He came closest in the second half for Orient, firing over the bar from 20 yards late on. That that was as close as they came tells the story.

As time trickled away and the crowd was getting more desperate on each end, Ol’ Reliable Garry Thompson was brought on up front and was an immediate upgrade, forcing two impressive saves from Jamie Jones. It’s looking more and more likely that he will be moved on in the summer as his contract expires, but this brief appearance showed again his value.

City wound down the clock with consummate ease and grabbed a well-earned victory away at a side third in the division. It was, weirdly simple. The vocal away support was delighted, but that didn’t have anything on the players. The spirit and the relief was there for everyone to see, a noticeable weight lifted. I haven’t seen them this happy all season. They wanted this so badly, and they earned it.

I was at Walsall, I was at Milton Keynes and I was at Colchester. Whilst not as polished a performance as the one at the Bescot Stadium in early October, or as all-action as the one in Milton Keynes, this win epitomised everything that we all love about this team. They have this ability in them. An ability to will themselves through tough times. The next time things get tough, when you want to turn and shout, think of this game. Think of them. Not to steal an aphorism from the manager, but this is what Bradford City are about. Performances like this. Again and again they have proven they will always come through.

Today did feel like the ending of something. This was a good performance and a deserved win away at a promotion contender. The clocks have moved forward; the weather has turned. City are back, and are in the top half again, a successful game in hand from seven points off the play offs. Seeing Kyel Reid beaming in the away end reminded everyone there of what has been forgotten. In the reflected shine of three points, with Joy Division ringing around the away end, it all came back.

That supporting City can be fun. It still is fun. If people take just a second to breathe and look around at where we are, they will see that the sun is shining.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury (McHugh 21), Bennett, Jones, Dolan, Reach, Stead (Thompson 75), Mclean (Bates 88)

Not used: Bentley, Yeates, Stockdill, De Vita

The bubble

28 Mar

SAM_2615

Leyton Orient vs Bradford City preview

@Brisbane Road on Saturday 29 March, 2014

By Mahesh Johal

With eight games to go it’s strange to think that I have watched my last game of the 2013/14 season. No, the sight of a toothless defeat to Walsall has not scared me off. Instead I am embarking on a month’s travelling around the States. I will be in San Francisco on the day of the Rotherham match. I have yet to research any British or Irish sports bars that might have Sky Sports, but one highly doubts that local Californians will see the importance of League One football in the same manner that I do.

It’s a shame that I finished this season on bum note, because I have genuinely enjoyed every aspect of it. The pre-season high and optimism, a bouncing Valley Parade, new away days, transfer window drama and of course all of those wonderful comebacks. I still believe we have enough for a strong finale and hope we can a secure mid table finish. However, with a tough away trip to high flying Leyton Orient, things may get worse before they get better.

City currently sit just outside what American sports pundits like to call ‘the bubble’. To give an example of ‘the bubble’, we can use this season’s Premier League. The current top three are all in the bubble to qualify for the Champions League. Arsenal – who are fourth – are also in it. Fifth and sixth placed, Everton and Spurs are on the bubble; whilst Manchester United could be described as outside it. Make sense? Looking at League One, I think it’s fair to say City are just outside the ‘relegation bubble’. We’re not in the thick of a dogfight; but only six points away, we are getting increasingly near it. One hopes Tuesday’s performance was a one off, because any more abject displays like that and we could be embroiled in a battle we didn’t want or expect.

I have seen enough bad Bradford City displays not to take it to heart, but it was the manner in which we performed on Tuesday that really hurt. For the first time in a long time, City’s performance lacked the Bradford DNA which is synonymous with this team. That being a side that is honest and hardworking. A team that runs for each other and grinds opposition sides down with their pure commitment and positivity. City lack the skills that some teams have in this league, but we have gained many a point from purely outworking opponents.

On Tuesday, I and twelve thousand or so didn’t see that. In all honesty, I think this is what caused so many to either leave early or boo at full time.As I was reminded on the way back to Manchester, only five of last season’s play off final XI started on Tuesday. Maybe that kinship and character has been broken up? Maybe it was a bad night? Either way, Phil Parkinson has to do something to get this side united and over the line.

Eyes will be on Jon McLaughlin; whose recent form has steadily been on the decline. I’m happy to admit I’m a Jon Mc fan. I like the way we’ve nurtured him and it’s nice to see someone we’ve developed succeed in our team. At times, he has shown flashes of brilliance and I would find it hard for people to argue against his shot stopping ability. However, he is prone to error, and this trait has come to the fore lately.

I look back to Tuesday at some of McLaughlin’s near calamity episodes. Whether it his miscommunication with Rory McArdle in the first half or his failed attempt to usher the ball out of play in the second that nearly cost us a goal. The much clichéd argument of a lack of a proper back up goalkeeper to threaten his position does hold weight, when comparing this Jon McLaughlin to the one we saw this time last season. An easy target throughout his tenure at City, I truly hope he succeeds and becomes our long-term number one. However his dip in confidence is worrying.
The target on Aaron McLean’s back is growing and the social media backlash seen after the Shrewsbury game demonstrated that some are already losing patience with him. Many expected Mclean to replace Nahki Wells’ goals instantly; but it’s clear that he is not a like for like replacement. With this in mind, I personally am happy to give him time and let the team work around his strengths, as we did Wells. However, with James Hanson unlikely to play on Saturday, more pressure will be on him to find the net. Mclean would expect to start but its unknown if he will be partnered by new signing Jon Stead, or if he’ll lead the line on his own in similar set up used away at Brentford.

Regardless of the formation, confusion remains regarding the selection for City’s midfield. The only definite is Nathan Doyle will not play. Gary Jones and Adam Reach are likely to be selected regardless of their off night on Tuesday, and Kyle Bennett will again battle it out with Garry Thompson for the right wing. After Matthew Bates’ inclusion in the holding role and his completion of the full ninety minutes against Walsall, will Parkinson continue to play him there again?

One must feel for Chris Atkinson, who has not had a look in since his move from Huddersfield. With the arrival of his former team mate, Stead, Atkinson will likely be left out of the match day squad due to a rule of a maximum five loanees in a squad rule. Matty Dolan looked sprightly in his cameo and could force his way back in the side. The back four completes itself, with Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies, McArdle and Adam Drury.

I leave the UK with City a League One side. I fully expect to return to see City a League One side. However the bubble is close. Which characters are going to get us over the line and secure our position in the third tier?

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