Tag Archives: Craig Fagan

The Midweek Player Focus #56: Kyle Bennett

9 Apr


By Jason McKeown

After a dismal performance in which all 11 starters were culpable, it was curious to see Kyle Bennett singled out by many for the 3-2 loss to Oldham. The on-loan Doncaster winger was certainly culpable for the Latics’ winning goal, buckling out of a 50-50 challenge that allowed the visitors to score on the counter attack. But on a day in which no one could have been rated any higher than 5 out of 10, Bennett was hardly the root cause of a defeat in which the blame deserved to be evenly dished out.

Six minutes after his mistake, the board went up to signal his hook and cheering could be heard from the stands. Bennett’s recent performances had showed steady signs of improvement, and there was growing talk from some supporters that he would be worth offering a contract to during the summer – but he didn’t have enough goodwill in the bank to escape the derision. Perhaps we could do better than Kyle when it comes to rebuilding this squad, but I personally still see something there that, for now, means the jury is still out.

He couldn’t really have made a worse start to life at Valley Parade, getting sent off less than 30 minutes into his debut, against Preston. And the impression he made prior to raising his hands at Neil Kilkenny was a disappointing one. At the time there had been much talk of Phil Parkinson refreshing his approach by recruiting two out-and-out wingers, instead of the tried and tested formula of one direct wideman (Kyel Reid, who had just been ruled out for the season) and one inside-right midfielder (Garry Thompson) who was relied upon to tuck inside and support the central midfielders.

Yet while Adam Reach – who also made his debut against Preston that night – was a like-for-like replacement for Reid, albeit lacking pace, it quickly became evident that Bennett was no direct winger himself, and would take on the Thompson role from a player who for several months had struggled for confidence. Bennett picked up possession out wide: but rather than trail past defenders and charge to the byeline, he would cut inside and into the more congested centre of the park. Oh…right…we didn’t expect that.

(And as an aside, I guess at least our expecations weren’t as misplaced as former Doncaster chairman John Ryan, who on signing Kyle in 2012 offered him his Bentley if he scored 20 goals that season, he managed three!)

It was not hard to remain underwhelmed, as Bennett returned from his one-match ban and carried on in the same vein. You’d see people screaming at him to take defenders on and hog the touchline, but that was either not his game or not what his manager was instructing him to do. Our expectations had to change, because here was a player much more Will Atkinson than Kyel Reid.

Yet as City’s season settled down after the ‘one win in…’ run finally came to an end, Bennett slowly but surely began to impress. He has ability on the ball and can pick out a good pass; he possesses good energy levels that see him get up and down the pitch well; and his link up play with the front two enabled one of City’s central midfielders to get further up the park in support. Industrious, intelligent and, increasingly, influential. A superbly taken goal in a 2-0 victory at Colchester was Bennett’s high watermark.

The downside is that Bennett is rarely going to leave you hanging on the edge of your seat. He is not on out-and-out flair player who is going to win football matches on his own, and he is probably not going to be someone you immediately look to when the chips are down and inspiration is required – more likely, and it is proven, he is the first player to be subbed. Bennett is the support act, not the headliner.

Managers love this sort of player; fans sometimes shrug their shoulders and wonder why he is in the team. It is no surprise that there has been a recent pining for Thompson to come back into the fold, because the 33-year-old has proven in the past that he has more of an end product than Bennett has thus far shown. Yet Thompson himself spent the first half of the season as the scapegoat for the team’s failings, and with many fans urging Parkinson to quickly replace him. Bennett might not be enough of an improvement, but much of the frustration lies in a misunderstanding from some of the role these players are asked to perform. And three years of Parkinson at the helm suggests he will continue to recruit this type of player.

In his year one, Craig Fagan played the wide-midfielder-who-tucks-inside role, after Parkinson quickly ruled that Chris Mitchell wasn’t up it. When Kyel Reid, on the other side, suffered a bad injury in December 2012, a range of loanees were brought in to fill the direct winger void but struggled to impress. Andy Haworth, Charlie Taylor and then – in one of the worst debuts I have ever seen – Will Atkinson, who looked awful in a 2-1 defeat at Bristol Rovers.

Yet while Atkinson was no Reid and did nothing during his four-month loan spell to suggest he could be the player who – a year later – would be walking out for Bradford City at Wembley to face Swansea City in the League Cup Final, Parkinson saw enough in him to believe he could perform the wide-midfielder-who-tucks-inside position (in competition with Thompson). And so Atkinson was offered a permanent deal during the summer, and became a first team regular for the middle half of the season. Atkinson was simply outstanding in the League Cup successes over Arsenal and Aston Villa. I can still picture his box of tricks against Arsenal that had international defenders flummoxed. On that cold December night, where City found success playing two banks of four, Atkinson was a hugely important figure in the shock Bantams’ victory.

The lesson here, of course, is that, Bennett’s less-than-perfect loan spell audition for this role does not mean he isn’t the answer. There is every chance he could be 2014/15’s Will Atkinson. The two players are remarkably similar in style and technique, and there is little doubt that Parkinson is going to be in the market for one or even two of these players during the summer. For Bennett, who has another year’s contract at Doncaster but is out of favour, you would assume he would jump at the chance to be at Valley Parade next season.

But then, we come back to the non-tackle against Oldham. Watch it back (see above, two minutes in),  and you cringe at his feeble attempt to win a challenge that, positionally, he would have been favourite to emerge victorious from. He couldn’t have known that in less than 10 seconds the ball would be in the back of his team’s net, but the angry team mates he faced had every right to let their displeasure known. Bennett let down the team on a day when the whole team let down the club. And as that board went up for his withdrawal and the cheers began, there went his opportunity to make up for his error.

Some people blame his lack of courage on his loanee status. He didn’t care, we aren’t his club, he’s not going to put his body on the line. I don’t agree with that call, and I think that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Whether he sees his future in West Yorkshire or elsewhere, Bennett is playing for his future. He is, in effect, an out-of-contract player looking for his next deal. There will be hundreds more like him in the queue come the summer, and he knows that.

I think his indecision was more a case that he is not the type of player to get stuck in. He is not the sort to fly into challenges. And what’s more, there are other players at City who are the same. Would Kyel Reid have gone into that tackle, for example? What about Reach? The strengths of Bennett – and Reid and Reach – lie elsewhere. They are ball players, not ball winners. Alas for Bennett, not being that type of player could determine his fate at City.

For while Reid and Reach can get away with that, playing the out-and-out winger role, Bennett is auditioning for that wide-midfielder-who-tucks-inside position that demands defensive ability as well as attacking. Bennett’s positioning has been good and he can disrupt opposition attacks; he also provides his full back with good protection. But this role requires more than just that good positioning. If Bennett cannot tackle and, therefore, cannot be relied upon to stand tall in moments such as the one against Oldham, then he probably isn’t the man for the job.

So over these final five games, Bennett has the opportunity to disprove that. To show that his below-par performance against Oldham was part of a team failing, not a cruel exposure of his personal weaknesses. The next time Bennett faces up to a moment where he needs to put a foot in, he had better not duck out.

I like Bennett, and with his attacking skills I can see him prospering at Valley Parade; but it’s down to him to remove those lingering doubts over the next five games. It’s down to him to show that he can win a contract by winning the ball.

The return of Peter Taylor as Bantams welcome Gillingham

14 Mar


Bradford City vs Gillingham preview

@Valley Parade on Saturday 15 March, 2014

By Jason McKeown

Peter Taylor is back in town this weekend, as he brings his current team, Gillingham, to Valley Parade. It is probably no big deal to a man in his 12th club job – the 61-year-old has experienced plenty of returns to former haunts over his long managerial career – but for Bradford City fans, it is highly unusual to be welcoming back an old manager into the away dugout.

The last return of a former boss came in December 2006, as Roy McFarland’s League One Chesterfield suffered a 1-0 defeat. It had been 24 years since the former England international was in the Valley Parade hotseat, meaning his status of ex-manager meant very little to a large percentage of the crowd.

More memorably – and almost exactly a decade ago to the day – was Paul Jewell’s 2004 homecoming, when his Wigan charges came to Valley Parade for a 0-0 second tier draw. The Latics were on their way up the divisions, we were on our way down. With each year that passed after Jewell’s shock 2000 Valley Parade departure, the job he had performed had looked more and more incredible. Needless to say, on that March afternoon he was welcomed back as a hero.

A few months before that, Lennie Lawrence (Cardiff manager) also made a return to Valley Parade, securing a 1-0 victory. Two years earlier, Terry Yorath achieved a 2-0 success on his old stomping patch for Sheffield Wednesday. And prior to then, you’d have to go back to the mid-90s and Terry Dolan’s Hull City (a 1-1 draw). Small wonder then, that a former manager in Valley Parade’s opposition dug out is a rare occurrence.

Which – considering 22 managers or caretakers have followed McFarland into the City hot seat since his 1982 departure – is a curious state of affairs. Of the 22, only Peter Jackson and caretakers David Wetherall (2007) and Steve Smith (December 2001) have not secured another shot at British league management elsewhere. Some former managers went onto better things (Bryan Robson to Premier League West Brom still bewilders me) while others had to start again from the bottom (although Nicky Law’s Alfreton Town currently lie in the Conference play offs).

It means we supporters are not particularly practiced in welcoming former managers. Do we applaud Peter Taylor at 2.55pm as he walks down the touchline? Or, more likely, do we boo him for his underwhelming performance as City manager? It’s hard to imagine that Taylor will be ignored, given how relatively recently it was that most of us were slating his tactics, as the Bantams failed to mount an expected League Two promotion push under him.

Will we know what to expect from Gillingham this weekend because of Taylor? Can we predict a 4-3-3 with no flair players and 11 men back to defend corners? Will he celebrate Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over Coventry by unexpectedly signing two kids from Manchester United and ripping up his back four to accommodate them? If they score early on will he play all out defence to hold out? And we haven’t even got round to talking about the return of another ex-Bantam, who may figure in Taylor’s starting XI. Mention the words ‘Craig’ and ‘Fagan’ to some City fans, and watch them shudder in horror.

For the current Bradford City building on Tuesday’s impressive victory over Colchester is the task in hand, as the magical 50-52 point mark creeps into touching distance. A victory this weekend would be a fourth in six, which is a big incentive to aim for. From being the division’s most out-of-form sorts team, we would suddenly appear near the top end of the form table.

Expect the team to remain unchanged in view of how impressively it performed in Essex. There might be a temptation to bring back Gary Jones in place of Matty Dolan to play next to Nathan Doyle, if the veteran is back to fitness. However, Dolan played well midweek in an audition to replace the club captain in the heart of midfield next season, and it would be harsh to reward such efforts with a quick return to the bench. Either side will be the loanees of Kyle Bennett – off the mark midweek – and Adam Reach, while up front is the in-form James Hanson and goal-shy Aaron Mclean.

Ahh Aaron. What can we say about this goal drought? Well, fellow Width of a Post writer Alex Scott has uncovered this troubling stat. You have to go back to 1 February, 2013 to find his last league goal for anyone (while on loan for Ipswich against Middlesbrough). After once again failing to find the net midweek, it’s exactly 1,200 minutes since he last scored. That’s 20 hours of football. Poor Aaron. It has to happen for him soon, surely?

The defence once again improved with Andrew Davies back to fitness. It’s still only two defeats all season when the former Middlesbrough man has been on the pitch holding it all together, and only one goal conceded in the five games he and McArdle have played as a pair since the turn of the year. The fantastic Stephen Darby – selected as captain on Tuesday ahead of arguably more obvious candidates such as Davies – is at right back whilst Adam Drury prepares to make a home debut on the opposite side. Jon McLaughlin keeps goal, with recent criticism of his performances fading to muted acceptance.

McLaughlin and Hanson are the only two survivors of Taylor’s reign in charge (and he inherited them both from Stuart McCall). We have been through so much – good and bad – since his dramatic exit in February 2011 that followed a 3-2 victory over Stockport. Time is a great healer, and though I have little affection for Taylor in view of his dismal results in charge, and misgivings about the way he handled certain players, the progress of the club since those dark days has defused any ill feeling I once felt towards him.

Nice to see you again Peter, although I’m glad you’re only making a flying visit.

PP clearout begins: but what does it say about the club?

29 Apr

By Jason McKeown

As Bradford City slumped to a disappointing defeat to Cheltenham Town on Saturday, much of the talk before, during and after centred around the unexpectedly early beginnings of manager Phil Parkinson’s summer clear out. Michael Flynn, Craig Fagan and Chris Mitchell have departed the club, with Mark Stewart and Steve Williams expected to follow suit. There is also a worrying question mark over David Syers.

It is a great shame that Flynn – a player who has always made such a big deal of applauding supporters at the end of matches – will apparently not be part of the end of season lap of appreciation around Valley Parade after Saturday’s match with Swindon. Three years at the club, and after 104 appearances where he never once gave anything less than 100% – that we fans will not even get to say goodbye and thank him for his service is a damning statement of the lack of sentimentality football clubs carry towards their employees.

Flynn was a great signing by Stuart McCall back in 2009 – exactly the kind of experienced head that was needed as a younger City team looked to take the club forwards, following cut backs during the summer. At 28-years-old, the energy and drive Flynn provided quickly made him popular with supporters, with a number of inspirational performances and collection of great strikes to remember.

Similar to Lee Bullock, the longer Flynn has been at the club the more withdrawn his role became. The Michael Flynn of the 2011/12 season was very different in terms of responsibility to the Michael Flynn debuting in 2009/10. Now it was Ritchie Jones who was the man to bomb forwards, with Flynn protecting the back four. He excelled in this new role and was one of the club’s best performers during the first half of this season.

Indeed when I was fortunate enough to spend 15 minutes talking to Parkinson back in September, the recently installed City boss made a point of outlining his vision of building a squad with strong characters who preach good habits and ethics to the younger players. It is hard to imagine a finer senior pro to have in the dressing room than Flynn, but now that experience will be lost and another club will benefit from it.

Testimony of that character and attitude came from Flynn’s recovery from a difficult second season (Syers take note). Out injured for months, he struggled to find his form during the second half of 2010-11, after he eventually returned. Peter Jackson looked to offload him during the summer, but the Welshman turned down a move to Bristol Rovers and didn’t allow the demotion to the Development Squad for a friendly with Silsden to push him out the door. Instead Flynn proved over pre-season what a good player he is – and how much he still had to offer – to change Jackson’s mind and stay at the club.

However, Ricky Ravenhill arrived at Valley Parade in November looking every bit a replacement for Flynn, and – after an injury-hit second half to the campaign – he has ultimately lost his place in the team, and at the club, to the 31-year-old. The writing was on the wall in recent weeks, but whether releasing Flynn is a call you agree or disagree with, surely no one can argue that the way he has departed is fitting. Get him at Valley Parade and on the pitch after Swindon on Saturday, he fully deserves that honour.

The next time Fagan sets foot on the Valley Parade pitch, he will probably be booed. Departing alongside Flynn, Parkinson revealed that Fagan is the subject of interest from clubs down South and so has left now. That could easily include League One clubs – he has the talent to play at that level – or a team who will visit this part of West Yorkshire next season.

What to make of Fagan’s time at the club? His pedigree suggested he was an outstanding signing by Parkinson, even though a quick look at his goal record hinted that he would not be prolific up front for the Bantams. He was not, and ended up moving to perform a wide right role which provided balance to the team and ensured Parkinson also had the added defensive covered he craved.

Fagan did not do a bad job at City, in my opinion; but, in return for his likely high wages, we expected more. Ultimately it is hard to re-sign him for next season if he is going to continue receiving a considerable salary while not performing a role to the team that befits being a high earner.

Yet you still shake your head at seeing him leave, and wonder what was the point of signing him in the first place? One obvious affect from his time at Valley Parade was it also ended the Bantams career of Chris Mitchell. A player of real potential early season who was quietly impressing, Fagan took Mitchell’s right midfield spot and the 23-year-old has not featured since the Oldham JPT defeat in December.

The argument rages that City were in too desperate a league position to invest time and patience in players like Mitchell, who are not the finished article but could clearly become very effective by receiving that support. Moving to City could ultimately prove very damaging to his career – it appears no one has tried to sign him on loan, for example – but hopefully he can re-establish himself somewhere next season and build on his obvious potential.

Former Falkirk team mate Stewart looks set to join Mitchell in moving elsewhere this summer. After the Cheltenham defeat Parkinson stated he will look to move Stewart on – apparently this was news to Stewart, hinting at poor man-management. Williams too is on his way out, with the former hairdresser apparently enjoying a successful loan spell with Inverness that the Scottish club are keen to make permanent.

Williams was at Valley Parade for the same length of time as Flynn, and the first 18 months of that period were full of great personal promise which included speculation of Championship club interest. Williams was a very assured, composed and intelligent player under McCall and Peter Taylor, but he struggled under Jackson and never seemed to be in Parkinson’s long-term thoughts.

You can’t help but feel that – like Mitchell – City have wasted rather than nurtured Williams’ talents. They had a very promising player with some rough edges, yet ultimately didn’t have the inclination or the ability to build upon them. That depresses me, because Williams 18 months ago was a silver lining on top of ever-darkening clouds. He was supposed to eventually leave for better things.

Which leads us on to Syers – whom Parkinson claimed has rejected a new contract, which the player himself has denied via Twitter. The first instinct is to criticise the manager for risking Syers walking out of Valley Parade this summer, but the more I think about it the more I believe the player should be careful over his future.

First, what is Syers’ role next season? Over the last few weeks, Ricky Ravenhill and Ritchie Jones have proved themselves first choice central midfielders, probably for next season as well. They are very well balanced together, with only the lack of goals a slight worry. Bullock is probably third choice and – right now – Syers fourth.

Will this change next season? And if not, just like with Fagan, will Syers be earning a wage that reflects his status in the squad? Width of a Post is going to cover Syers and his contract situation in greater detail this week, but for now it’s worth noting that the young midfielder’s stock has fallen over the season and he will not be as in demand from other clubs as he might have been if he was a free agent a year ago.

Whatever is the sticking point over the contract dispute, it’s to be hoped an agreement can be reached so Syers can stay. If Flynn’s unemotional booting out demonstrates the lack of respect football clubs can harbour towards players, and if City indeed are an outfit who cannot develop their own to the next level – we might one day look back with huge regret if Syers is allowed to leave the Bantams this summer.

Stuck in a moment you can’t get out of – trying to make some sense of the season

28 Apr

Cheltenham Town 3

Spencer 46, 63, Burgess 71

Bradford City 1

Wells 8

Saturday 28 April 2012

By Damien Wilkinson

“Don’t say that later will be better, now you’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it”

With apologies to U2, it certainly feels like City are glued to their current position of 18th in the League table.

Indeed, as the 2011-12 season draws to a close there is a mixture of opinion amongst City fans as to what conclusions to draw from the campaign. The upheaval following the departure of Peter Jackson and arrival of Phil Parkinson, the rebuilding of the squad, including numerous loan players, the use of 39 players before the start of today’s match, and inconsistent stop/start form have meant that an almost limitless permutations of opinions can be formed, as to whether we are better or worse than at the start of the season and perhaps more importantly now, how this may or may not translate into next season.

So against this backdrop, a noisy and impressive City following of some 356 supporters made the trip to Whaddon Road (or the snappily titled Abbey Business Stadium if you prefer). The ground, which has undergone a number of improvements in recent times, is compact and fit for purpose with chanting curiously confined to one corner block of the stand of the ground next to the away end! The crowd of 3,939, whilst above the average crowd this season of 3,401, was accompanied by a somewhat over the top police presence outside the ground.

Despite mathematically confirming survival in League 2 in the previous match, Phil Parkinson has spoken of the desire to finish the season as well as possible. Accordingly, City fielded a strong side, making one change (Will Atkinson replacing Craig Fagan, whose contract it was announced earlier, had been cancelled, along with that of Michael Flynn and Chris Mitchell, as the pre-season clear out begins). This also respected the importance of this fixture to Cheltenham, who at the beginning of the day stood in 6th place in the division with 71 points, and needed a win to cement their place in the play-off positions.

A place on the bench was afforded however, to young striker Adam Baker, a perfect end to a week which saw him earn his first professional contract and win youth player of the year. Despite serving his 5 match ban Andrew Davies didn’t travel with the squad, perhaps suggesting his time at the club may have come to an end.

Cheltenham, who have spent a good part of the season in the top two, have experienced somewhat mixed results, certainly since the start of 2012, resulting in them dropping into the play off positions. On a more depressing note to City fans, and as an illustration of Cheltenham’s dipping form, Cheltenham managed to match City’s current point tally before the match, some 20 matches ago on 2 January 2012! Cheltenham manager Mark Yates made three changes to the team to that which lost 1-0 away to fellow play-off contenders, Crewe, in the previous match, bringing in Bennett, Low and Burgess.

Interesting to note that for a well-placed side, their joint top scorers, Daryl Duffy and Kaid Mohamed (both starting on the bench) have scored 11 goals in 40 and 44 league appearances respectively, before today’s match. Contrast this with James Hanson (13 goals from 37 appearances) and Nahki Wells (9 from 34) as evidence that the requirement for a “20 goal a season” striker is perhaps not the necessity some may believe for a tilt at promotion.

One of the things that stands out in League Two this season is the lack of real difference between sides at the top and bottom of the division. Recent City matches and performances have illustrated the perils of predicting results, with any side, bar perhaps the bottom two, seemingly capable of beating the other. As a result, matches can often hinge around the narrowest of margins, such as chances being taken, refereeing decisions and sendings off. The “width of a post” never felt more relevant.

So on to the match itself.

City came storming out of the blocks, showing similar desire and commitment to the previous away fixture against Northampton. After both sides hitting the woodwork in the opening stages, it was no major surprise when Wells, turned sublimely and rifled a shot into the net to put City in the lead on 7 minutes. A great piece of skill from the Bermudan, illustrating his recent form, and he continued to torment the Cheltenham defence as City pressed forward in the first half.

A number of chances came and went with Wells again going close a couple more times, whilst City’s defence also looked comfortable in defence, with strong performances from Guy Branston and Luke Oliver again catching the eye. This domination looked set to reap further dividends for City and perhaps recognising this, with a few minutes left to half time remaining, Cheltenham sought to change things, bringing on forward Kaid Mohamed.

City were rightly cheered off at half time with hopes of a third successive victory looking well placed.

The second half was to make a mockery of such hopes. City managed to concede within a minute of the restart – soft defending allowing substitute Mohamed to cross for Huddersfield loanee Spencer to turn the ball past Matt Duke. Despite an almost immediate response with Hanson thwarted by keeper Brown, there was to be no recovery. City then struggled to string passes together and retain the ball for any meaningful pressure and this led to Kyel Reid, in particular, becoming increasingly marginalised, and snuffing out any attacking threat.

Parkinson sought to change things with Ritchie Jones, somewhat surprisingly, making way for Lee Bullock after 55 minutes.

Cheltenham, in the meantime stepped up their pressure and the City defence became under continued siege. Almost inevitably, the defence yielded, after the ball ricocheted to Spencer, who arrowed a fine effort into the top corner of the net on 63 minutes, giving Duke no chance.

At this stage the match certainly looked like it was slipping away, and this was confirmed 8 minutes later, when an over the top ball eluded Branston, leaving Burgess clear to lob the advancing Duke.

Further changes were then made with Branston and the again ineffective Atkinson being replaced by Dave Syers and Deane Smalley on 77 minutes and, in a last throw of the dice, Bullock dropping back into central defence as part of this reshuffle. This ultimately made little difference, and despite a couple of late City chances, Hanson hitting the bar with a looping header, and Syers going close, the second half came to a depressing end.

Cheltenham celebrated their confirmed play-off place and, as the City players trooped off, fittingly a good number of them shaking hands and mingling with the away fans, it was difficult to avoid frustration with another Jekyll and Hyde performance, and the wasting of an encouraging first half performance.

So the end of the season draws another match closer, leaving only the home fixture against newly crowned League 2 champions Swindon Town to contend with. City fans can only hope that the positive form within the last few matches can be turned into a more consistent start to the next campaign, but will be apprehensive given experiences over the last few close-seasons.

Indeed, until the season ticket uptake is known at the end of May, the retained players list announced, and so forth, it will be difficult to gauge what to expect. Furthermore, recent renewed speculation regarding moving Bradford Bulls to Valley Parade, potential investment channelled in from George Galloway and so on will no doubt also gather momentum over the coming weeks, adding to the uncertainty.

But then again this is Bradford City after all, so it certainly won’t be a dull moment we are stuck in!

City: Duke, Ramsden, Branston (Syers 77),  Oliver, Kozluk, Reid, Ravenhill, Jones, (Bullock 55) Atkinson (Smalley 77), Hanson, Wells

Unused Subs: McLaughlin, Baker

The importance of a strong ending

27 Apr

Cheltenham Town vs Bradford City match preview

@ Whaddon Road on Saturday 28 April, 2012

By Jason McKeown

My father-in-law and I share a love for Police documentary style shows, where the cameras follow the cops chasing the criminals. And whenever the bad guy is caught doing something stupid, Dad’s favourite phrase to yell is, “they’re not criminals because they are smart”.

The more League Two football I have watched this season, the more I’m beginning to think a similar type of slogan could be applied to many clubs within this division.

Just what on earth were Macclesfield Town trying to achieve at Valley Parade last Saturday? Three points away from safety, with three games to go, the relegation-threatened visitors defended deep in numbers, flooded the midfield and time-wasted their way through the match. Did they really think that a point would have been good enough in their position? Did they not view this as a must-win game and, as such, look to show some attacking nous?

After the match, Macclesfield assistant manager Glyn Chamberlain talked up the fact that, “I don’t think we were dominated by Bradford.” So what? Were we the team needing to win to avoid relegation? Were we the ones fighting for our lives? I find it hard to believe they would look upon the fact City didn’t “carve them open” as a consolation or a reason to score brownie points. Imagine City had lost, instead of won, at Northampton the previous week, and Phil Parkinson had come out and said, “I don’t think we were dominated by Northampton”? The T&A website would have probably closed down under the sheer volume of complaints on its message boards.

Macclesfield’s bizarre, conservative and low-ambition approach to last week’s match helped to create a strange atmosphere amongst City fans in the week after the 1-0 win. Although it was hardly a thrilling victory and no one was performing cart wheels down Midland Road after the match, the avalanche of criticism that some directed at the manager and players for their performance was somewhat joyless and largely over the top. 1-0 down with 20 minutes to go, Macclesfield barely switched tactics and were still time-wasting on occasions. City had no need to go for a second goal, but went for it anyway in a controlled manner; yet were criticised for not going gung ho.

Some have argued that this is the way Parkinson wants City to play, and a preview of next season. There is no obvious evidence that this is going to be the case, based on the type of football and performances we have seen (we can call the football under Parkinson ugly, but it is largely attack-minded). Macclesfield were easily the worst side to visit Valley Parade this season and it would have been nice to have demolished them, but the simple truth was that City were below their best and managed to grind out a win.

The criticisms over Macclesfield’s tactics and lack of quality aside, it does not mean they were simply going to be rolled over. Their players were clearly displaying a level of commitment that saw bodies thrown at the ball to block shots and huge efforts to deny City’s dangermen time and space. They tried to stop City playing, and in that regards succeeded. City did well to win the match. Not great, but good enough. To use the performance as a criticism of the team and Parkinson seems incredibly harsh.

As for Macclesfield – well, as my father-in-law might say, they’re not about to fall out of League Two because they are smart.

Survival confirmed last week, there is nothing for City to play for during their final two games – and this in itself sets a much more interesting test of Parkinson and his players than earning a scrappy win over Macclesfield. On a number of occasions during the second half of the season, good form offered the opportunity for City to push on and start climbing the league – pulling comfortably clear of the bottom two. Each time they failed to take that initiative and build on good results, wastefully dropping points and sliding back into trouble.

All season long, City have proved that – when the chips are down and they really needed to get points – they were able to deliver. But over the course of a full season where we have ambitions of play offs, only winning when the pressure is on would not be considered good enough. So the challenge is not to switch off now, given there is nothing but pride to play for, and to ensure a happy ending to an ultimately disappointing season.

Not that it will be easy. Cheltenham tomorrow and Swindon next week sit amongst the top seven places that the Bantams will strive to achieve themselves next season. The Robins – arguably the best side to visit Valley Parade so far this season, especially because it is impossible to give Crawley credit for their far from smart tactics – currently lie in sixth, three points clear of eighth-placed Oxford. A win and they will just about be there play off wise, so it’s unlikely they will time-waste their way to a 1-0 defeat to the Bantams, while arguing we didn’t dominate them.

Matt Duke keeps goal having been part of a side that has won three from five games since he returned to it, despite having little to do overall and still not fully convincing all that he should be number one keeper next season. In front of him there will be a big question over the back four, given Andrew Davies is finally back from his five-match suspension. With Guy Branston filling in so superbly, and Luke Oliver – crowned official player of the season this week – still in strong form, a change to the centre halves would spark outrage. Instead, Davies is more likely to be accommodated at full back, where he has apparently played before in his career.

That would mean dropping one of Simon Ramsden and Rob Kozluk – both were below par last week and likely to depart during the summer. Davies could also be deployed in midfield like he was at Huddersfield in the JPT last October, but breaking up the in-form partnership of Ricky Ravenhill and Ritchie Jones would be pointless. Kyel Reid continues on the left and Craig Fagan on the right.

A word about Fagan. He came in for a huge amount of criticism for his performance last week, once again. As a supporter who is fortunate to get to the majority of matches home and away, I’ve personally noted a correlation between his performances and that of the team. Basically when City play well Fagan plays well, and when he is below par so too are City. It is strange that this is the case, because he is generally less involved with the play, especially for a player of his pedigree.

No one would call Fagan a match winner based on his performances this season, yet he quietly brings a touch of quality and assurance to the team which seems to make a difference – even if it is not always appreciated.

James Hanson and Nahki Wells remain up front; though Chris Dagnall and Deane Smalley may be in contention too given it is a meaningless game for City. The latter impressed greatly coming off the bench on Saturday, and is a bit of a wild card in terms of whether Parkinson will sign him this summer.

Interestingly, at the player of the season awards in midweek, it was apparently revealed that youth striker Adam Baker has been handed a professional contract because he is expected to get into the first team next season. Having scored two goals for the reserves in midweek, is there a place for him on the bench either this week or next?

Probably not, as Parkinson still has such a huge squad to choose from for now. Whaddon Road might have been the ideal location to give some of those fringe players one last chance before they surely leave, but all eyes are now on Parkinson and his players to end the campaign in a manner that can encourage pre-season optimism for next season.

Now is the time to be smart in League Two.

A job Well(s) done

14 Apr

Northampton Town 1

Carlisle 52

Bradford City 3

Wells 11, 39, 52

Saturday 14 April, 2012

By Jason McKeown

In the end it has become so easy that you wondered why we’d been making such hard work of it in the first place. Bradford City’s comfortable victory at Northampton leaves the club nine points clear of the bottom two – while holding a vastly superior goal difference over both – with three games to go. Only the most freakish and unlikely set of results will see the Bantams relegated now. One more point will guarantee survival.

Job done. Just about anyway. The win at Sixfields propelled the Bantams above their hosts, to match the season-best high of 18th position. And, as the City players strolled around during the closing stages, threatening a fourth goal to cap off a memorable afternoon, your mind drifts back to the despair of that night at Crawley, and you smile because it’s all working out in the end.

Far from self-imploding, we’ve dug in deep to complete the job – and maybe, just maybe, we can start looking forward to the future with greater optimism.

City’s success in winning this afternoon was a reflection – and in some cases a verification – of what the club has got right over the past 12 months. Phil Parkinson can certainly take a great chunk of the credit, because the values, style of play and signings that he has introduced were evident throughout this win (only his 10th league success as Bantams manager). But even Peter Jackson and Archie Christie – assuming they are monitoring events – can allow themselves a wry smile, because players they brought in have delivered when the chips were down.

A stronger defence has been the most notable improvement Parkinson has instilled. Luke Oliver returned from suspension to slot alongside Jackson signing Guy Branston, with the pair acting as a brick wall to ensure there was no repeat of the familiar pattern of the hosts scoring first, which has re-occurred so often in away games over recent weeks. Parkinson buy Matt Duke kept his place despite Jon McLaughlin’s availability – a big call for the manager, given Duke’s notable nerves at Shrewsbury on Monday, but one that was proven to be well justified – and the Bantams started on the back foot, but with a resilience to withstand home pressure.

Northampton’s Aidy Boothroyd employed the sort of direct pressing football he has always been known for, but City seemed to excel at dealing with a style of play they too have produced in home games for much of this season – and once it was obvious the home team’s workrate and desire was going to be matched toe-to-toe, it was simply a matter of good players making the difference.

And City, for all the misery and underachievement, do have some very good players for this level. Craig Fagan had one of his better days – clearing an early Cobbers’ corner off his own line and linking up well with his midfield – and Kyel Reid was back on song after the understandable recent distractions in his personal life. He just ran and ran at players, beating them for skill and whipping in testing crosses. The Christie-recommended Ritchie Jones and Parkinson signing Ricky Ravenhill were the glue that held everything together in the centre, enabling the front four players to terrorise the Town defence.

Which brings us on to Nahki Wells. The find of the season, this year’s David Syers in terms of his impact from nowhere and in supporter adulation. The story goes that Jackson looked at trialists Nialle Rodney and Wells in pre-season (Wells having been recommended by Mark Ellis and David Baldwin) and ruled Rodney was the player to take on and Wells should not get a contract. Christie argued strongly to Jackson that he was making the wrong decision, and ended up signing the Bermudian for his Development Squad. That this development initiative has been quietly left to rot and be dubbed as a failure – while the first graduate Wells scores an outstanding hat trick to virtually guarantee survival – suggests a misjudgement by the club.

Wells opened the scoring for City after latching onto a terrific Fagan pass, beating a defender with clever footwork and calmly firing the ball past Neal Kitson. Six minutes before the interval, a scramble in the box led to Oliver nodding the ball into Wells’ direction – and the 21-year-old produced a stunning bicycle kick to smash the ball into the net. This guy is going to play at a higher level, and increasingly it is a question of how long City can keep hold of him.

In-between the two first half goals, it was full-blooded combat between two sides desperate to take that giant step to safety. Northampton attacked with pace to cause plenty of problems, with Michael Jacobs in particular impressing on the right. Yet Branston was once again absolutely sensational and Oliver showed no signs of rustiness, clearing anything that came his way. There has already been plenty of talk about the full circle season Branston is enjoying – a penny for Parkinson’s thoughts on whether to keep him next season would be fascinating – but Jackson’s wisdom in signing Guy last summer is belatedly being vindicated.

Northampton should have equalised at 1-0, and will be wondering how so many chances were spurned. Ben Tozer hit the underside of the bar from a few yards out; Adebayo Akinfenwa saw a half volley headed off the line by Oliver; and then at 2-0 Simon Ramsden – he and Rob Kozluk were excellent at full backs – kicked another effort off the line. City had chances beyond their two goals as well, but the Cobblers’ spirit to keep going was as commendable as it was worrying.

Sure enough they pulled a goal back early in the second half. Another scramble in the box should have seen Ravenhill head the ball away, but a misjudgement in direction caused the ball to drop straight back down into heavy traffic, with Clarke Carlisle getting free of Oliver to head home. With 38 minutes to play it was time to feel apprehensive, but within a minute the game was settled.

It was that man again, Wells, with another beautiful finish. The home defence got in a muddle clearing a long ball straight from kick off, and Nahki was able to complete his hat trick with a delicate lob over the advancing Kitson which dipped agonisingly slowly under the bar and then bounced over the line. Wells raced to embrace City supporters – earning a booking for his troubles – and an 11th goal from 34 appearances emphatically confirmed that City, for now, have that one in three goal striker they have been badly lacking since Peter Thorne left.

Today Wells’ standing moved up another notch from promising forward to important first teamer. Developed, you might say.

And although Northampton continued to attack, they suddenly lacked the conviction or energy to make life as difficult for City’s backline compared to the first half. They hit the bar again and can look back on the day knowing that – with 20 attempts at goal, hitting the woodwork twice and having three cleared off the line – they would more often than not win playing like this. But today was City’s day.

Indeed the spectre of a fourth always seemed more likely during the final 20 minutes. Wells went off to a standing ovation, with Deane Smalley making the most of his first chance in weeks to link up well with James Hanson, and Reid continuing to cause havoc every time he received possession – what a fantastic signing Kyel has proved to be. We relaxed, soaked up the limited amount of April sunshine that was still available and laughed as Northampton fans took their turn to be exasperated by a referee. And at full time the players and Parkinson came across to us to receive a brilliant reception.

We will back here next season. Probably not with quite the same personnel, though in achieving the first objective he was brought in to complete – avoiding relegation – Parkinson, who received the dreaded vote of confidence from Mark Lawn two weeks ago, will surely continue to oversee where we go next. And when the manager does come to draw up next season’s strategy during the summer, a re-run of the video from this game will serve as a worthwhile reminder of the good things in place at Valley Parade, which now must be built upon.

City: Duke, Ramsden, Branston,  Oliver, Kozluk, Fagan, Ravenhill, Jones (Bullock 88), Reid (Flynn 90), Hanson, Wells (Smalley 78)

Unused Subs: McLaughlin, Syers

Away Day Blues, or is it just Cobblers?

13 Apr

Northampton Town vs Bradford City preview

@Sixfields on Saturday 14 April, 2012

By Mark Scully

Easter Monday’s narrow 1-0 defeat away at Shrewsbury Town added to the misery the Bantams are currently enduring on their travels at the moment, the last away goal was in the defeat to AFC Wimbledon on Tuesday 13March and that was an own goal from the Dons. The last time a City player found the back of the net away from home was Nahki Wells at Barnet in the 4-0 rout way back on Tuesday 28 February.

After beating the Bees, I generally thought Bradford would kick on – but failings against so-called lesser sides has undermined the season as a whole, both home and away.

The defeat against the Shrews followed on from fruitless trips to Dagenham, Wimbledon, Aldershot, Crewe and Plymouth. Aside from the Wimbledon match, all the others have been narrow 1-0 defeats which would suggest City are not a million miles away from being a successful side. You look at the goals City have conceded, against the Daggers it was a stunning free kick that beat City; Aldershot was a scrappy effort, as was the goal Shrewsbury scored on Monday. Crewe was a penalty and at Plymouth the lad had the freedom of Home Park…it’s not as if sides are having to work overly hard to put the ball in the back of Bradford’s net.

Looking back at Monday’s game once again I left feeling frustrated. Our opponents, up at the top challenging for promotion, to be honest looked quite average. A soft goal decided the match; in a game where both sides failed to create much. The best chance of the game fell to Craig Fagan who missed a sitter shortly before half time, when it looked easier to score than miss. If that had gone in it might well have been a different game.

The arrival of Kyel Reid in the second half didn’t really muster the impetus that both the manager and fans would have liked. In my opinion, probably ever since Jack Compton left at the turn of the year, 9 times out of 10 it is Reid who is the side’s main creator. If that doesn’t happen then the Bantams are stumped; no surprise City struggle scoring goals with a team so un-balanced. The likes of Deane Smalley, Will Atkinson and Fagan haven’t produced the goods on a consistent basis down the right hand side, if they had then the pressure on Reid to produce wouldn’t be as strong as it currently is.

People that know me will be aware I’m not a member of the Craig Fagan fan club. At times he has looked the part and played well. And whilst he isn’t a right winger, he has had to play there for the good of the team. To be honest, in the few games he has played up top he has looked a threat, but is he any better than the James Hanson/Wells partnership that I believe works quite well? I suspect not.

I find Fagan a frustrating player. Clearly he has ability and, having played at a much higher level, I would have thought his contribution to a side in League Two would be more than he has provided. Compared to that of Andrew Davies, who might well have been sent off three times this season but is a classy player who stands out at this level…why can’t Fagan do the same?

Fagan and City travel to fellow strugglers Northampton Town tomorrow, who only a few weeks ago looked destined to be kicking off next season in the Blue Square Premier but have now found some form. It took Cobblers Manager Aidy Boothroyd a while to shape the side, but the influx of January recruits he signed appears to have done the trick for them.

Our very own Matt Duke apparently played very well in his loan spell. Boothroyd also signed Preston defender Clarke Carlisle, who has helped shore up a defence that was leaking goals for fun. Up front the powerful figure of Adebayo Akinfenwa has been amongst the goals and has propelled himself into the top three of the divisions scoring charts.

There’s no doubt this will be another tough game and, given Bradford’s current away form, the bookies would probably have this one down as a home banker. But given the news earlier this week that City have only received a £9,000 fine for the fracas that marred the Crawley Town game, and no points deduction, there must be a weight off the club’s mind. Maybe the pressure might be eased slightly and City can go out and play their own game.

A win for either side will secure safety and, even if Bradford, lose the fact that they go into this weekend’s game 7 points clear of the relegation places with 12 points to play for – and with a significantly better goal difference than their rivals – I have no doubt they will stay up.

The Cobblers come into the match in decent form and are unbeaten at the Sixfields since Saturday 25th February, when Port Vale walked away with all three points. Bristol Rovers, Aldershot and Oxford have all since left empty handed, whilst Plymouth only took a point. The hosts are currently in decent form, beating Oxford on Good Friday before losing last time out against champions-elect Swindon 1-0 on Easter Monday.

Normally I’d be suggesting Phil Parkinson would make changes galore as he has previously done, but having seen both games over the Easter programme I don’t see the need to alter the team that much.

I’d personally bring Luke Oliver back in for Lee Bullock. The latter has done a decent job covering in the absence of both Oliver and Davies, but given how well big Luke has played this season I think it would be difficult to leave him out now he’s available again. Aside from that the only other change to the starting eleven from Shrewsbury would be to bring Reid in for Michael Flynn, so City can have that attacking threat down the wing.

City can go down to Northamptonshire and return with maximum points, hopefully Parky will set out the team to attack and I’ll go for a 3-1 win that will effectively secure Football League status ahead of a promotion push next season.


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