Tag Archives: Gary Jones

2014/15 previewed: Stephen Darby will go from consistent performer to true leader

8 Aug
Image by Kieran Wilkinson

Image by Kieran Wilkinson

By Katie Whyatt

In a transfer window moulded by the infamous budget cut, retaining the services of Stephen Darby was high on Phil Parkinson’s priority list.

On the back of a campaign in which the defender had played every single one of Bradford City’s games, the elevation to club captain was the reward Darby’s stellar season had merited. For every City fan, this was the news they had been waiting for – the promise of three more years felt like a dream, the captaincy the fitting icing on the hugely satisfying cake. In your mind’s eye, you almost saw Gary Jones look on with a smirk of pride, handing the armband over to his Scouse counterpart: “Go on, Darbs. Polish your crown further.”

For Darby, this marks some sort of watershed moment in his City career. For the first time since his arrival, his role in the team is truly changing. Despite two years of consistent excellence, culminating in him sweeping the board at this year’s awards night, the full back has preferred to remain hidden beneath the radar. Now, however, his quiet composure is about to be superseded by a slightly larger sense of responsibility.

Previous squads were almost shaped by the fickle allegiance of the captain’s armband, characterised by the lack of a real leader and true continuity. For two or three seasons, it seemed the honour belonged to no one; instead, it was banded around with a blasé uncertainty, passed about with a last-minute ‘if the hat fits’ mentality. For most of Peter Taylor’s tenure, the absence of a strikingly genuine leader meant there was a feeling the captain had to do little but turn up.

Then, Gary Jones redefined City’s previously undervalued captain’s role. A leader in every sense of the word, Jones physically raised the performances of those around him, demanding an extra 10% from everyone as he wrestled to push his team over the line – and beyond. In a squad all about character and a winning mentality, Gary Jones personified those traits more than anyone.

Every manager has an avatar on the pitch, and Gary Jones was Phil Parkinson’s younger embodiment, playing with the same impassioned determination and guile the City chief showed as both a player and manager. Jones’ trial last week at Notts County (one of Darby’s former clubs, incidentally), during which the ex-City skipper enthralled with a goal and an assist, only served to reinforce the adoration many felt towards him. One of the best captains of recent history, if not the best, Gary Jones is truly a tough, tough act to follow. Succeeding him will be a challenge, but undoubtedly one Darby will relish.

So, what do City need from captain Darby? As the club prepare to enter the new season, the back line is the only element of the squad not shrouded in mystery and uncertainty: already one of the most commendable defences in the league, the arrival of Sheehan has served to bolster the most impressive section of Parkinson’s side. Unlike the new midfield, alive with competition and still gelling as the diamond is perfected, and the question marks hanging over the injury-plagued forward line, we just about know what to expect from this defence.

The back four is pretty much the only area of continuity between last season and this, packed with not only the majority of the experienced heads, but those familiar with Valley Parade life. Over the next few weeks, the likes of Darby, McArdle and Davies – the newly appointed captain particularly – will shoulder some of the responsibility for ensuring a smooth transition into the new-look Bradford City, sedating some of the unfamiliarity around them.

For a team defined so strikingly by its character, the onus falls on the experienced heads to inspire those around them from the outset, both by their performances on the pitch and the way they conduct themselves off it. It is here we will see Darby truly come into his own as a leader.

For sure, Darby’s quiet demeanour and no-frills style demands a slightly contrasting approach to the all-action, commando verve of Jones, but they both share at least one thing: a drive for nothing but the very best. Like his predecessor, Stephen Darby is representative of the mentality Parkinson has implemented so forcibly – perhaps not in the manic, commanding way Jones was, but silently, constantly, with the defender staunchly refusing to fall below a 6 or 7/10 every week. Never demanding the spotlight, but demanding the best of himself, subtly, every single game. The conversation may focus on how different the relatively young Darby is from Jones, but they the same where it really matters.

The difference is Jones pulled the team to results – sometimes with both parties kicking and screaming – by setting the tone in the middle of the park, and through his movements; Darby is more likely to push steadily, leading by example. Jones would dictate the play, moving the ball with Doyle and determining the way others read the game. As a defender, Darby can’t necessarily match Jones’ hands-on ethic, but that doesn’t mean responsibility can be shirked.

At the end of the 2012/13 season, as Phil Parkinson reflected on his marathon year, he noted the importance one of the campaign’s opening games, Fleetwood at home, in cementing the team’s trademark stoicism and resilience. James Meredith had delivered a crunching tackle to stall an attack, and the Valley Parade faithful had immediately erupted with cheers of admiration and gratitude. At that moment, the tides shifted. His players realised their crowd would get behind anyone who really gave their all, and that this support would not waver as long as they worked for each other. It was then the new recruits grasped what the club was all about. In that moment, every single one decided they had to give everything to the cause.

Darby has to set the tone in the same way. The band on his arm means he is now a constant point of reference, of inspiration. He has become a new role model, tasked with spurring on those around him by serving a captivating performance every single week. Like on that distant summer night in August, he must make his charges want to perform for him. His method will be by establishing an example, a precedent, always raising the bar. The team will have to mimic Darby’s tone-setting performances, and will have do so with the same consistency that earned him those awards last year. Darby may be less loud and overt in his leadership style, but his influence will be the same.

And it has to be. It really does. What Gary Jones’ workmanlike approach proved was that, contrary to whatever City’s chequered recent roll of captains suggested, the importance of the captain can never be underestimated. Think of the times Jones single-handedly hauled Bradford to points they had not necessarily deserved – simply Gary Jones, we’d said at the time; another day at the office for him. On days like those, his presence and influence were vital. Gary Jones was most striking when City needed a man to drag them over the line.

Will Stephen Darby be that guy? Or, more accurately, in what Parkinson bills a “team full of captains”, does Darby need to be that guy? It may come down to what we’ve just explored – that is, players performing simply because they want to do their captain justice – but it’s not too difficult to imagine a scenario at some point this season when a Gary Jones rallying call is urgently needed. Darby’s real test will come not in his performances – they are never an issue – but when the team are rolling through a rough patch, and someone needs to trigger a change, to spark a bang, to command his side the way Jones did.

Whether this is done through quiet composure and tenacity, the kind he is famed and revered for, or via a more direct and demanding route, remains to be seen, but it could potentially characterise a large portion of his season.

But Darby can be the one to give that rallying call, in whatever form it manifests itself. Having previously captained a Liverpool FA Youth Cup winning side, as well as the Reds’ reserve team, this is by no means completely uncharted water for him. Time playing under Steven Gerrard, one of the most prominent Premier League captains of the past decade, plus his personal closeness to Gary Jones, can only work in his favour.

2014/15 will be Stephen Darby’s most important year as a Bradford City player. As well as the new duties that come with that coveted armband, his function changes slightly because of the diamond formation. The lack of real width means the full backs now have to get forward more, potentially acting as wingbacks – note the arrival of Sheehan, and his attacking vigour against both Blackburn and Hartlepool. What’s more, the centrality of the midfield means there’s a new vulnerability about the flanks, too – there is even more defensive responsibility on the shoulders of the full back pairing. It’s not something either Darby or Sheehan should have a problem with, but it will nonetheless be interesting to observe those change in roles.

This year marks the start of a three-year deal that should, all going well, see Stephen Darby step out for another promotion-winning Bantams side. Entering the peak of his career, Darby now has a chance to solidify his position on the pantheon of City greats – a platform he is already well within touching distance of, if not on, for obvious reasons. Comparisons to Gary Jones will be inevitable, as this entire article can attest, but Darby is widely loved by his public – a public that desperately want to see him do well.

A new chapter is beginning. Books one and two are now finished, the curtain falling on the first series of Darby’s time as a Bantam. But on Saturday, the story re-starts, and the focus shifts to a new trilogy: a Bradford City revolution, and one that will be spearheaded by Stephen Darby. Because he can, and will, succeed.

Stephen Darby becomes Bradford City’s leader

10 Jun

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By Gareth Walker 

Stephen Darby on Monday committed his long-term future to Bradford City – and in doing so made every single Bradford City fan’s day. The three year contract signed by Darby, similarly to Rory McArdle, means he is committing his best footballing years to our football club.

 

Of all of the players who were out of contract this summer, Darby was the one who City supporters were most desperate to see sign up. The fact that retaining his services was seen as more important than keeping hold of Gary Jones or Nathan Doyle (who also left the club on Monday) shows just how far the right back has come during his time at City.

 

Signed from Liverpool in the summer of 2012, he started life as the odd man out in the City defence, as he was pushed to the bench in order to accommodate McArdle at right back with Luke Oliver and Andrew Davies playing in the central defensive positions. Nobody could have imagined that, two years later, Darby would sweep the board at the club’s player of the year awards, and would also be taking over the captaincy. The club has been on a tremendous journey during that time, and so too has Darby.

 

From a Bradford City perspective, keeping Darby represents something of a coup and a sign of intent, as there was known to be at least a passing interest being shown in the defender’s services from a couple of Championship clubs. This seems to have been combated by handing the player the captaincy and a long-term deal.

 

Three years is a big commitment for a third tier club to make, but it is one that City have previously shown they are willing to take in order to reward stand out performers. City’s number two was an ever-present last year, only being subbed once and captaining the side on two occasions. He now joins James Hanson (whose deal is four years long), McArdle and the management team in being committed to the club for the long-term.

 

There is a clear statement here about who Parkinson trusts. He has identified these individuals as key ingredients that are required if he is to be successful in his task of getting the club promoted into the Championship.

 

For Darby himself, it is also a big commitment. He will turn 26 during the coming season – and as such this can be seen as being his ‘career contract’. By the time the deal runs out, he will be almost 29 and might only have one long-term contract left in him. This deal allows him to put down roots and commit to a project with a club where he is clearly very happy.

 

Before coming to West Yorkshire, Darby had enjoyed somewhat of a nomadic start to his career in football. As Liverpool reserve team captain he only made one league appearance for the Anfield giants and was instead farmed out on loan a couple of times to Swindon and Rochdale respectively. If he sees his three-year contract through to completion, he will have been plying his trade at Valley Parade for five years in total.

 

Darby has finally found somewhere where he feels settled and appreciated, and that shone through during his interview when he spoke about how happy he was to sign his new deal. It was clearly something that he wanted to cling on to. It must be hugely rewarding for him to hear his name sung loudly and so often from the terraces.

 

The fact that he has been handed the captaincy shows how highly he is appreciated by Parkinson who sees him as the man to take over the reins from Gary Jones in leading by example on the pitch. Darby and Jones were known to be close friends at City and we can fully expect our new captain to mirror our old one in the way that he approaches his job with absolute professionalism. Hopefully this will continue to rub off on the rest of the team.

 

The bond between the two Scousers was briefly touched upon by Darby in his interview, when he described Jones as being the best captain that he has ever played under. That is some praise to give out, considering he was part of the last Liverpool side to play a Champions League game – a side captained by England skipper Steven Gerrard.

 

Indeed, Darby has decent experience of playing in big occasions. That Champions League appearance stands alongside being part of City’s 2012/13 cup and promotion heroics, as well as appearing in the play offs for Swindon – a so-far impressive CV for League One right back. If he can continue to enhance it further by adding another City promotion to it, Stephen Darby Baby could be well on the way to becoming a City legend.

The changing face of Bradford City’s midfield

9 Jun

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By Jason McKeown

If ever there was confirmation that the ‘We Made History’ era has been consigned to history, it comes with the news that Nathan Doyle has left Valley Parade following the expiration of his contract, with midfielders Billy Knott and Gary Liddle joining the club from Sunderland and Notts County respectively.

Accepting that Kyel Reid may still have a future at Valley Parade (the long-term injury victim has been invited to pre-season training), it seems that the Bradford City that begins 2014/15 won’t feature a single midfielder from the double Wembley side of 2012/13. The engine room, and the heartbeat, of one of the most important teams in the club’s history is no more. The summer rebuilding job looks set to be all about the middle of the park.

Knott and Liddle both arrive with decent pedigree. Knott, a 21-year-old left-sided player, spent last season on loan at Wycombe and Port Vale, earning plenty of praise from the Valiants, who had wanted to keep him this summer. Knott has been on Phil Parkinson’s radar since impressing during an earlier loan spell at AFC Wimbledon, in 2011/12. He has an eye for a spectacular goal, which we will hope to see plenty of over the duration of his two-year contract.

Meanwhile Liddle has a vast amount of experience, having also started his career in the North East (with Middlesbrough) and establishing himself as a solid League One player with Hartlepool. Liddle spent six seasons at Victoria Park where he made almost 250 appearances, before turning down a move to Valley Parade in the summer of 2012 and joining Notts County. The 27-year-old is keen to move closer to his North East roots, and turned down a new contract offer at Meadow Lane. He has stated how pleased he was to find Parkinson instantly on the phone expressing his interest.

With Knott and Liddle joining Matty Dolan – who has made his loan move to Valley Parade permanent – next season’s central midfield will have a very different look. Parkinson will presumably expect to have a fourth central midfielder to call upon, and may give another opportunity to the forgotten Jason Kennedy. Mark Yeates can also play in the centre.

But there will be no Gary Jones, and now there will be no Nathan Doyle. The 27-year-old Doyle was heavily rumoured to be on large wages that the club were not prepared to continue, as the effects of the £500k wage budget reduction begin to be felt. Doyle had experienced a mixed second half to the season and the silence over whether he would be offered a new deal has proven deafening. It is unclear if Doyle himself wanted to stay, but certainly Parkinson appears happy to let him go.

Personally, I am very disappointed to see Doyle leave Valley Parade. Eight years ago, as a 19-year-old on loan from Derby, Doyle made a huge impression as right back that was fondly remembered. His 2012 return was warmly greeted, and he quickly re-established himself as a big favourite.

The midfield partnership with Gary Jones was curious in that, on paper, it didn’t look like it should work – yet it was the most effective pairing that City had fielded in over a decade. They suited Parkinson’s preference for deep-lying midfielders who began attacks but who were also suitably positioned to regain possession if it was lost further up the park.

Jones’ all action running style deservedly won him huge acclaim, but the calm and methodical passing of Doyle was just as crucial during the marathon 2012/13 campaign. No one could pass the ball like Doyle; he possessed superb vision and the capability to quickly switch the play. He wasn’t the player crossing the ball or finishing opportunities, but invariably had played a role in the build up to a goal. One of my favourite Doyle moments was a crossfield pass he played for Reid, that saw the winger net a crucial second goal in a September 2012 home win over Morecambe. Reid’s run and shot were impressive for sure, but the inch perfect ball from Doyle, that meant his team mate didn’t have to break stride, was a thing of beauty.

And I guess, as supporters, we are all different in what we like about football and the type of players we take to our hearts. Increasingly last season, you became aware that a negative viewpoint of Doyle was growing and that a section of support were ready to write him off. For sure, Doyle could drift out of games and on occasions his form could dip. In the latter case, he would be jolted back to his best by a relegation to the bench and then return in a future match as a sub.

After the incredible League Cup run ended against Swansea in February 2012, Doyle looked shot to pieces and was rightly dropped for Ricky Ravenhill, who played a key role in the promotion run-in. But when City went 3-1 down to Burton in the play off semi final first leg, it was the introduction of Doyle that changed the tie. His calm, assertive approach was exactly what was needed, and was undoubtedly a driving factor in City coming back to ultimately defeat Burton and then earn promotion at Wembley.

Doyle was my kind of player. I love central midfielders more than any other position, and I love my Stuart McCalls’ and Gary Jones’. But the environments where I have seen both thrive best is when their all action style was complemented by a disciplined, steady player alongside them, who can produce magical passes. Doyle was the straightman that Jones’ cover-every-blade-of-grass act needed. Stuart McCall needed Gareth Whalley.

I don’t think all supporters notice this type of player, and certainly don’t fully appreciate their qualities. Over recent days I have heard so many negative comments about what Doyle couldn’t do and why we therefore needed to get rid of him. But the way that City ended the season with the 4-5-1 or diamond formation brought out the best of Doyle. If that is the way we plan to play next season, I fear we will miss him badly.

Whilst Doyle’s inconsistency could frustrate me, I didn’t see the other criticisms directed his way. Some people say he was arrogant, for me he was confident. Some say he was lazy, for me he was playing intelligently. At City’s worst under Parkinson, they have played too direct and all but negated the need for a central midfield. At City’s best under Parkinson, Doyle has been instrumental.

Parkinson has made two huge calls in allowing Jones and Doyle to leave. If this is a sign that the playing style is going to evolve – from using deep-lying midfielders and into a more attacking-philosophy mentioned by Julian Rhodes – we will sit back and look forward to watching how it works. But if the plan is to play similarly to the last two seasons, then boy do Knott, Liddle and Dolan have some big, big shoes to fill.

In other news…

Stephen Darby has today signed a three-year contract to stay at Bradford City and has been confirmed as the new club captain. More reaction to follow on Width of a Post later this week.

The Midweek Player Focus #59: Nathan Doyle

23 May

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The final Midweek Player Focus of 2013/14 sees Katie Whyatt look at the future of Nathan Doyle.

ROTHERHAM: 11th March, 2014: Amidst the green-veined foliage, backing upon to the snaking river, the sun set behind the grey hulk of the self-proclaimed ‘Mini Emirates’, and the shadows of recent history cut an imposing silhouette against the darkening amber sky.

Among the travelling hordes rested the burden of staunchly guarded optimism, shouldered alongside nervous anticipation, edged by an agenda of damage limitation, all forced out by blind and naked hope. Do we have a chance? Are we playing for a point? Look at our track record here – what can we expect? Over 1,000 of them had shed the bruises of previous visits to meander into the orange evening. City on the brink of their half-century, their hosts pursuing second spot. With every tension-fraught step to the ground, the rumble of anticipation grew louder. The stakes, quite simply, couldn’t have been higher.

That night, Nathan Doyle delivered one of the most compelling individual performances of City’s entire season. From the first minute until the last, he was unrelentingly archetypal: the very embodiment of composure, guile and vision as he navigated an often congested centre circle. His distribution was textbook, his defending dogged, his movements intelligent as he utilised insightfully all the space available – he complemented Jones and Dolan perfectly.

Every pass was perceptive, pinpointed and precise, setting up the play for others while he anchored the shape of the midfield five. On a night where Bantams boys became men, where a Bradford side quashed allegations of a lack of spirit and Parkinson a lack of tactical nous, Nathan Doyle banished his individual performance demons and gave his brooding band of critics some serious food for thought.

As Evans festered in his pit of bitterness and spat lore about total domination and penalty shouts, Nathan Doyle toasted his best display of the campaign.

STEVENAGE: 1st March, 2014: The chance to put relegation fears to bed, potentially permanently. Confidence should have been high, expectation higher, but we’ve been here before. And what followed, hurt.

It was 40 minutes before Nathan Doyle touched the ball. 40 minutes. I’ve genuinely no idea what he spent those 40 minutes doing, if anything, and can only imagine that the more direct approach meant he was systematically bypassed every time, but why, against a side that wanted to keep the ball on the deck, did Doyle not make the interceptions the game obviously demanded?

Perhaps this is an unfair criticism to make – players simply perform what their manager asks of them, so it’s not necessarily Doyle’s fault – but his composure sedated City’s franticness in the second half, so why did he – hang on… 40 MINUTES! 40 WHOLE MINUTES! For a central midfielder! GUYS! I can’t be the only one alarmed by this, surely…

Stevenage’s status rendered them a stumbling block. Shaken by their track record, City were embarrassed by the embattled.

GILLINGHAM: 15th March, 2014: Peter Taylor’s return to Valley Parade, newly-promoted Gills in tow. In a game that was characterised by the contrast of the two managers’ styles as much as it was the contrast of the two halves, Nathan Doyle spent the first 45 as the centrepiece and the second as the invisible man. The pendulum was in full swing, and it was startling.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem facing City. On his day, Doyle is simply unplayable. But those days are not frequent enough.

There have been times this season where his influence has dulled. If the team play long ball, Doyle’s cutting vision isn’t needed, and he is simply reduced to the role of passenger. There have been times when quick opposition has meant City’s midfield has been bypassed every time. For sure, the blame doesn’t lie squarely at Doyle’s door, but, as the deeper-sitting one of the central midfield pairing, he has to shore his fair share of the blame.

This feels harsh, probably because it’s never really been my personal view. Footballers are, after all, human. Even the best players will have bad games. Inconsistency is a given at this level and Doyle isn’t alone in this squad with that problem – that’s your go-to excuse when someone asks why Reid isn’t in the Championship – and it’s something that’s hindered the majority of the teams in this division at some point, but, for a club harbouring medium-term Championship ambitions, it’s not ideal.

This obviously doesn’t count for everything – the step-up (which, incidentally, Doyle handled aptly and, on the whole, never really looked to massively struggle with), the aforementioned directness when scorelines have forced Parkinson’s hand and the ‘form follows function’ style to see City through the one win in 21 all will have had an impact – but it’s something to consider. With the budget about to be slashed, can we afford paying for a player who’s going to go missing for half a season?

In my opinion, we have to renew that contract. For me, it’s a no-brainer. To whip out that line again, for a club harbouring medium-term Championship ambitions, someone like Doyle is crucial to the development of the team, and talks of building the starting eleven around him next season are hardly ill-founded when one examines his influence over the last few months.

On his day, he’s one of the best holding midfielders in the division. His deft distribution is simply unmatched in League One. His composure provides the sedation that, going forwards, the Bantams need to take advantage of. The energy with which he screens the defence can make him unplayable. The potential is there for all to see. For individual ability, he’s already in the top echelon of players within this squad.

At League One level, it’s unfair to blast Doyle for being inconsistent. Every team has slumps and dips. The fact that the midfielder falls with the peaks and troughs isn’t necessarily a bad thing; you could, actually, read it as a marker of the influence he exerts on games. Looking at Doyle holistically, he’s the complete package for a holding midfielder at this stage. In many ways, we’d be foolish to let him go.

But it’s not even a question of Doyle’s form anymore. What became clear over the final few months of the season is that a major shake-up in style is looming. Once survival was secured, the experimenting began: the 4-5-1, 4-3-1-2, Dolan and Doyle, Jones and Doyle, Dolan and Jones.

It’s obvious Mclean doesn’t work how Nahki did, and we can’t expect him to win Hanson’s knockdowns: it would be cruel to force this style onto him when it’s evidently not his game, and he needs the support from the midfield to come into his own. Maybe positioning Doyle as a strictly defined anchorman is kind of a big deal (including an Anchorman pun – I immediately regret that decision), more than just holding out until Hanson is fit. Perhaps it’s a glimpse of the future, and it’s working – over the final few games, there was a larger output from the central midfielders, greater reliability and less predictability.

Placing three or five in the midfield, and therefore stamping Doyle exclusively in the holding role, might be worth looking at – the permanent signing of the mobile Dolan, plus the rumours about the hunt for box-to-box midfielder Knott, seem to suggest this could be a viable option entering into next year. There’s so much scope for Doyle to be worked into the centre of the park, and he’d slip seamlessly into either of those formations. Arguably the most striking difference between Leagues One and Two is that most teams insist on sticking five in midfield – why shouldn’t we try this ourselves?

For me, Doyle is the lynchpin of that Bantams midfield. McArdle’s deal proved Parkinson is trying to lay solid foundations; that he wants City to build from the base upwards. Secure his skeleton, then stick the flesh on. With his front two secure and his centre back pairing nailed, a strong midfield would complete the spine of the team.

*

Nathan Doyle’s contract expires a week exactly today. City have just seven days before he becomes a free agent. Seven days to pin him down, or seven days to let him go. Either way, the water is reaching the plug. Phil Parkinson has seven days to decide how he wants his midfield to work. He’s probably already decided, but the clock is definitely ticking.

Even with the ominous spectre of what he fortunately CAN be and what he unfortunately can be, City need that signature. Realistically, who else are you going to find to play that sweeper role? At this level, who can play it better than Doyle?

* Tumbleweed *

But I’m not the one making that decision – a decision that, in all likelihood, has probably already been made. Doyle is riding the fine line between the beginning and the end. Sign a new contract, either short or long, and he is here next season. He has a part to play, a part he can play well. Otherwise, we have already seen the last of Doyle in a Bradford City shirt.

I hope we haven’t. I really, really do.

Click here to read the Width of a Post Midweek Player Focus archive

Gary Jones and Me

13 May

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By Katie Whyatt

There was something unfitting about the way I found out. Sunday morning, freezing in a caravan 85 miles away from Bradford, glancing up wearily from a magazine, my dad pointing at the ‘news in brief’ section of a national newspaper.

Gary Jones. Released. End of story.

There was something devastatingly disparaging about seeing him reduced to ‘news in brief’. Gary Jones isn’t ‘news in brief’. A year ago, he was on the front page of that same newspaper, kissing the head of brave Jake Turton as he sobbed tears of disbelief into the cold Birmingham night. A year ago next week, in fact, he was at the centre of all the newspaper sport supplements, dancing on the podium at Wembley. And now, ‘news in brief’? That’s just not right.

And just ‘released’? Just like that? It breaks my heart. I get you can’t be sentimental here; I get that the budget isn’t bottomless; I get that this window had to be about revolution, not evolution; I get that ruthless saying that no one owes anyone anything in football. But just gone? Just, “Thanks, Gary, but bye.” That really stings.

He was in the programme for the final home game, telling us how much he loves it at Bradford, saying he wants to be here next year – “hang around here for a couple more years yet”, those were his words. I’d steadied myself for Connell’s exit, prepared for Nahki’s departure, steeled myself for Thompson’s swansong – but this? Gary Jones, just ‘released’? It’s that word I can’t stand. Released. It doesn’t do him justice.

Gary Jones is my joint-favourite ever player. These exit wounds won’t heal quickly.

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You close your eyes and it plays like a montage in your mind.

The first kick until the last, everything else between.

The Arsenal goal: raising his arm to the sky at the corner flag, slinking in, spinning his boot – the ball falling perfectly, Atkinson, Thompson. Jones’ penalty and the celebrations – the frantic fist pumping, the manic screaming peppered with “come ons” and “’ave its”, our captain doing everything we wanted to but didn’t dare to: believe.

Aston Villa: goals 2, 3 and 4.

Hoisting that trophy.

The opening day against Carlisle – charging forwards, overrunning the United midfield with Nathan Doyle, blasting home to open his League One account.

The fist pump.

The tears.

The spirit, the pride, the ability, the passion – the heartbeat of this generation, the pulse of this team.

Sheffield United and Crewe Alexandra. A heartbroken Gary Jones yelling, shouting, screaming, at his team mates, screaming at them to play, the hurt leaking from his face: show me it matters to you. Show me you care as much as I do. Gary Jones, single-handedly refusing to give up, refusing to surrender, refusing to hand over his spirit. Gary Jones hauling City to two points. Gary Jones, digging that inch deeper when the chips were down to drag Bradford through that winless run. The mark of a true winner.

The mark of Gary Jones.

Perhaps it was fitting his last Valley Parade outing came as it did. The delivery the same as always, curling in perfectly from the same corner flag at which he stamped his name into Bantams folklore. The Midland Road chant merging into his chant, his song, sung passionately enough to send every hair on his neck pricking upwards, his magical tune searing straight into his magical heart. The fan in the Kop throwing down a Gary Jones banner, Jones signing it, Jones weeping into Darby’s arms – an ending written months before, an ending perfect to the last note.

Every tear, every fist-pump, every crunching tackle, encapsulated in that emotional moment.

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But none of those are my favourite memories of Gary Jones. Vaingloriously, my favourite memory of Gary Jones is the night I got to interview him.

It was the week of the final game of the season at Cheltenham, two weeks before the Burton home leg of the play-off semi-finals. Shelf Bantams were hosting a ‘Darby and Jones’ night, a meet-and-greet type-thing at the Shoulder of Mutton pub with, obviously, Stephen Darby and Gary Jones. On the off chance I’d be able to speak to them for my blog, I stuffed my voice recorder and a set of questions into my back pocket, hoping that they’d say yes to me, that they wouldn’t be too busy, that you didn’t need some sort of magical media pass to interview two Bradford City players.

You didn’t. Mum asked Gary Jones for me (I was too shy to ask for anything other than his autograph on my Wembley poster) and he said he’d find me after the presentation – he even roped in Darby for me, too.

And so we sat, Jones and me, on a bench in the darkening pub car park together, me shivering in my City hoodie and hanging onto his every word as he talked about the cup run, the impending play-offs and the special sense of camaraderie in the squad. He was absolutely perfect: patient, serious, truthful, professional, humorous – he went above and beyond that night.

He and Darby asked for my blog address, asked when the post would be uploaded, asked about writing the blog, whether I wanted to be a journalist, said they’d have a look over the next few days. For them, it was probably quite a menial thing – they’ll do scores of interviews over a season, so my awkwardly rudimentary one ahead of the final few weeks was just another of many – but it meant the world to me. Though I cringe at that piece now, I was proud of the 800 hits it received.

I was prouder, still, of the fact Gary Jones was one of those 800.

We were standing behind the goals at Guiseley for the annual pre-season friendly, applauding the City side as we basked in the searing July sun. As the players left towards the tunnel, Gary Jones came over to the gate and stopped by my brother and me.

“Hiya! Y’alright?” he beamed. “I really enjoyed that! It was really good. I read your interview and it was really good.”

For an introverted and unconfident 15 year old who’d spent the last few months watching Jones’ every move in stunned admiration, genuinely struggling to believe we’d managed to acquire such a player, it was a dream come true to think that the skipper had even remembered me, let alone read my blog and, um, liked it.

But, by January, we all knew a cull was coming. I waited outside the players’ entrance on the last home game of this season (I’m coming across as such a huge fangirl here, but meh) for final pictures with the History Makers ahead of the anticipated departures, and my mum unashamedly asked Jones if he recognised me.

“Of course I do!” he grinned. “We did that interview together, didn’t we? It was good, wasn’t it? You’re a good interviewer.”

“Will you be here next season, Jones?” asked my mum.

“Oh, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the gaffer about that,” he laughed.

To me, Gary Jones will always be magic.

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I trust Phil Parkinson. Deep down, I know this is probably for the best, and there will be some reason why Jones isn’t here next season. Sentiment aside, I still would have kept him – for me, he’s never really looked out of his depth at this level, and the 4-5-1, with Doyle in the holding role, and the 4-3-1-2 deployed against Peterborough, were so excitingly effective, it was difficult to work out why we’d never tried them earlier. I would have retained Gary as a player-coach, at least, even if he’d only figured in a fraction of the games, but the consensus seems to be that the warchest couldn’t feasibly stretch that far. That’s a shame. You can’t teach passion; you can only instil it. Imagine a Gary Jones team talk before kick-off – motivational can’t even come close, surely.

I trust Phil Parkinson. I trust he’s got this right. I hope he has – this would be too costly, too expensive, too condemning a mistake to make. There will be something too wrenching about Gary Jones not being there at all, not even stood on the sidelines. In many ways, I’m really dreading August – I don’t want to watch a City team without that man in it.

I hope he stays in football. I hope he finds another club. I hope he can change their fortunes the way he changed ours, dragging a different team out of a rut with the same spirit and endeavour with which he set himself forever in our hearts.

But there’s only one thing I can really say. Only one thing could ever come close to what I want to say, yet, at the same time, remain so heartbreakingly far away from everything he absolutely deserves to hear. I’m not articulate enough to write a piece that sums up my hero well enough. Nothing I can write will even scratch the surface of what he’s given to this club, how his goals made me feel, how he made our dreams come true.

But I can try. Here goes.

Gary Jones: thank you for everything.

A (magic) man for all ages

12 May

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By Jason McKeown

As Phil Parkinson drove into work last Friday, he would have been mentally preparing for one of the most difficult meetings of his managerial career. Telling any footballer you are effectively making them unemployed is never easy, but it’s part of the job and the accepted reality. This one is a bit different. This one is going to really, really hurt the player.

Parkinson would not have known that Friday 9 May 2014 also happened to be the 15th anniversary of Bradford City’s promotion to the Premier League, and the finest hour of the club’s greatest midfielder, Stuart McCall. But the unhappy coincidence would not be lost on others. It was some anniversary upon which to tell the club’s second-greatest modern day midfielder that his contract was not going to be renewed.

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As he rolled up at Valley Parade ahead of the summit meeting with his captain, perhaps Phil Parkinson allowed himself a few moments to reflect back on the circumstances and reasons for originally signing Gary Jones, two years prior. It was the close season, and the manager was tasked with revamping a playing squad that had endured back-to-back 18th-place finishes in the basement division. He was working through a list of targets that included Liverpool right back Stephen Darby, who had spent the previous season on loan at Rochdale.

Parkinson was watching DVDs of Darby’s performances at Spotland, when someone else increasingly caught his eye. A distinctive, bald midfielder, known to everyone in the lower leagues: Gary Jones. He was everywhere on the park, dominating the games that Parkinson was carefully studying. And, in a misguided development that summed up John Coleman’s doomed spell at Rochdale, Gary Jones had fallen out with his manager. He was available on a free transfer.

Parkinson picked up the phone and called his assistant Steve Parkin, a man who happened to know Gary Jones very, very well. “What are your thoughts on Gary Jones?” asked Parkinson. After a pause, Parkin replied, “The best thing I can tell you about Gary Jones is that the only time he is ever happy is at 5pm on Saturday when his team has won.”

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As Gary Jones drove to Valley Parade on Friday to meet with Phil Parkinson, he was evidently hoping that it would be to thrash out another contract to stay for another year. He was happy at City, that much was obvious to everyone. And though realistic about his age, he was nevertheless confident in his ability to continue playing a part in the club’s rise.

The workmanlike, all-action style of Gary Jones, which Phil Parkinson was so impressed by when watching those Rochdale DVDs two years ago, was simply who Gary Jones was. Born on the out-skirts of Liverpool, Jones was a youth trainee at Anfield but never came close to making it, instead finding a route into football through Caernarfon Town of the Welsh league. 18 at the time, he quickly impressed enough to earn a professional deal at Swansea City, who were then lumbering in the basement division.

Still only young, Jones was loaned out for experience at what must have then seemed an inconsequential destination – Rochdale. And so began the love affair that would result in him becoming the club’s record appearance holder. After making the deal permanent, a first spell at Spotland saw him play 138 times in three seasons. Firmly on his way to legendary status.

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Phil Parkinson himself was something of a one-club man, after spending 11 years at Reading in the centre of the Royals midfield. They say that a manager should know his own position best. Now in 2014 and faced with the decision over Jones’ future, he must have called upon his own playing experience to help him make such a difficult call.

It wasn’t that we supporters assumed Gary Jones would stay, but the smart money suggested he would remain a Bantam for another 12 months at least. He wouldn’t start another 46 games, but could still play an important role. Perhaps even becoming a member of the coaching staff.

After all, Gary Jones had ended the 2013/14 strongly. Most of his team mates did. The season had been a struggle at times, and March had seen some of its worst performances, but a promising ending had banished relegation fears and ensured a top half finish. Jones was excellent during the final few games, none more so than at Tranmere in what would prove to be his last game for City. By some distance the man of the match, he had dragged his team over the line to victory in typical influential fashion.

Just another day at the office for Gary Jones. You thought it could last forever, or at the very least that it wasn’t about to end.

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From the very first moment I saw Jones in a claret and amber shirt it was obvious that he possessed star quality. Guiseley, pre-season, and he ran the show. Gary Jones was the leader even though Ricky Ravenhill beside him was wearing the armband. Jones struck the opening goal of a 4-0 romp and ran past me as he celebrated. I had been unsure what to make of his summer arrival, but was immediately won over. A special player, who offered everything we needed.

He made a strong first impression on everyone connected with the club. So many new signings have needed time to ease their way into life at Valley Parade, but straight away Jones looked like he owned the place. Linking up with Nathan Doyle (Ravenhill on the sidelines injured), Jones was full of drive and energy, getting up and down the park. Every City fan you talked to in the opening weeks of the season steered the conversation towards Jones. He was our type of player, and we instantly took him to our hearts.

Gary Jones was never about scoring goals, yet his first for the club stuck in the mind. Morecambe, a Tuesday night in September, City are 2-1 up in the closing stages and trying to further strengthen their promotion push. A free kick on the edge of the box, Jones lifted it over the wall and into the corner. Cue massive celebrations for a massive three points. Jones raced to the front of the Kop, leapt up and punched the air in celebration. That goal meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to us.

Phil Parkinson’s office overlooks the Valley Parade pitch that Jones had dominated for two years. As Gary Jones arrived for the Friday meeting, a rich tapestry of personal memories of this stadium might have been at the forefront of his mind. He was desperate for the opportunity to collect another 12 months’ worth.

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Just six months out of Gary Jones’ 17-year professional career were spent playing above the bottom two divisions. A month after jumping ship from Rochdale to Barnsley, Parkin raided his old club to bolster the midfield by bringing Jones to Oakwell. The pair couldn’t stop the slide, however, as Barnsley were relegated from Division One (now the Championship).

That, from a divisional point of view, was as good as it got for Jones. You wonder why he didn’t play more at a higher level. How could such a reliable lower league footballer not have been considered someone who could do a job in the Championship? There just aren’t that many Gary Jones’ around.

Perhaps the Barnsley move dented his reputation. Now in the third tier, the Tykes were saddled down by debts and would go into administration, resulting in Parkin being sacked to save money. Without his mentor, Jones increasingly struggled for game time. He was loaned back to Rochdale, where Parkin would shortly afterwards return as manager. There were no surprises when the move was made permanent, but it left Gary Jones back in the bottom tier, where he looked destined to spend the rest of his days.

A lifetime in the bottom division. As Jones sat down to hear the news from Phil Parkinson last Friday, he might have reflected on how hard he had worked to get to the position of captaining a club like Bradford City to 11th in League One.

If Phil Parkinson had bad news for him, it was back to square one. Looking for employment, and most likely a return to the basement.

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“His legs have gone” became a familiar and tedious criticism during the early months of 2014. Everyone is an expert, but when such bland and meaningless statements are uttered, you roll your eyes and politely try to change the subject. Football is more complex than this.

Gary Jones’ legs had not gone. Week in week out, the 36-year-old was still a key part of the midfield. If he couldn’t run around the park, as was suggested, Phil Parkinson wouldn’t be picking him every game. It wasn’t as though there weren’t other options. Jones was in the team on merit. He was wrongly blamed by some for wider team failings.

Post-Christmas, City’s style of play suffered from a range of injuries. From Nahki Wells’ head being turned. From opposition being more wise to the gameplan. After being an attack-minded team early doors, City were no longer creating enough opportunities. Blame the centre of midfield if you want, but as the January transfer window opened and players came in and out, no attempt was made to replace Gary Jones.

And why would Phil Parkinson have even considered it? Jones enjoyed some of his more famous games for City during this period, chiefly the Sheffield United and Crewe matches, where his leadership and drive were so important. I remember the Preston home game with everyone around muttering pre-match about how Jones would no doubt undeservedly get the man of the match award again. Yet Jones was outstanding that evening, and when it was announced that he was indeed man of the match, even his growing critics applauded.

Gary Jones’ performances weren’t flawless around that time, but nobody could claim that theirs were either. When the chips were down and character and courage were needed, Jones demonstrated it in spades. When the team was rebuilt in January, Jones remained a key figurehead and looked a better player for the fine tuning taking place around him.

He wasn’t going to let the season go down the toilet, not on his watch.

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The League Cup miracle produced so many heroic stories, but behind the headlines devoted to the exploits of Garry Thompson, Rory McArdle, Carl McHugh and James Hanson, there was one constant supporting act that featured in the stand out moments.

Jones helped to set up every goal that City scored against Premier League opposition. His set pieces were outstanding, as he planted superb balls over to team mates, who will go down in history for turning those crosses into goals. Jones was also a cool customer in the shoot out victories over Wigan and Arsenal.

As City lit up national TV, Jones’ striking appearance was a topic of conversation. “I love your captain” people would say to me, as he looked every inch the working class hero that personified the narrative of a Division Four team’s incredible adventure. Particularly, when in the midst of the Villa Park celebrations, he spotted first leg mascot and nine-year-old cancer survivor, Jake Turton in the away end and planted a kiss on his head. His father, Andy, was a survivor of the Valley Parade fire. The photographers caught the head kiss, and the most iconic moment of the League Cup adventure was assured.

Gary Jones was vital in those games. His lead-by-example, determined style of play had seeped into his team-mates, who matched his never-say-die attitude and tireless work rate. If the old man of the team is going to cover every blade of grass, everyone else had better do the same, too. Gary Jones’ experience was invaluable in getting City to Wembley, in getting past all those illustrious teams.

A lifetime as a lower league player, you wondered if Jones might have been daunted to play against some of the most famous footballers in the land. Yet he took it all in his stride, even finding time to truly put Arsenal in their place by declaring Torquay United had given City a tougher game than the Gunners.

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The day before Gary Jones and his team mates were dancing around Villa Park, Rochdale had sacked John Coleman. The Dale were stuttering in mid-table of League Two, and envious eyes were cast towards Bradford City and the incredible role that Gary Jones was playing. Coleman and his assistant Jimmy Bell were said to have had a bust up with Jones the season before, and they went into 2012/13 believing they no longer needed the veteran.

Yet Gary Jones was Mr. Rochdale. Over 530 appearances during two spells at Spotland that totalled 12 years. In 2010 he became only the second Rochdale captain in their history to lead the club to promotion, with a second place finish in League Two. Gary Jones excelled in League One the year after, netting 18 goals and finishing the club’s top scorer in 2010/11.

This was the first half of a golden period for the ageing Gary Jones. 2009-2014 were five years of amazing personal success – with that uncomfortable Coleman/Bell bump midway through. What a mistake it would prove for Coleman. Gary Jones was not some relic of the past, but the future hero of Valley Parade. How Dale – and Coleman – could have done with him in 2012/13. But he was elsewhere, performing heroics and having the time of his life.

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The pinnacle moment of Gary Jones’ playing career was promotion for Bradford City at Wembley in May 2014. He described it as the happiest moment of his life, beyond the birth of his children. Mr. Rochdale was now Mr. Bradford. He had become the first Bantams captain in 15 years to lead the club to promotion. The first captain, in fact, since Stuart McCall.

We loved him, how we loved him. The Bradford public hero-worshipped Gary Jones. Everywhere we went during 2012/13, his name was sung. In pubs before and after games, on concourses, and on the terraces. “He’s magic, ya know”. And we truly believed that he was.

No one can ever touch Stuart McCall in the eyes of most Bradford City fans, but Gary Jones runs him close. His two seasons at Valley Parade saw unprecedented success and highly commendable progress. The club that he joined two years ago is transformed. We can, this summer, look forwards from a position of great strength, but we would never have got here without Gary Jones.

He has been such a joy to watch. Such an inspiration to everyone connected with the club.

~~~~~~~~~

Like all managers, Phil Parkinson should know his own position best. Gary Jones was his representative on the pitch, playing the game in the same wholehearted manner that Reading fans once loved Phil Parkinson for. Like all managers, Phil Parkinson should know his own position best – and he will also know just what will be going through Gary Jones’ mind as his career winds down.

Could Gary Jones have accepted the role of bit-part player at City next season? Would he have happily sat on the sidelines, playing 20 or so games, largely coming off the bench? If City were struggling for a result and he was not seen as the solution by Phil Parkinson, could Gary Jones have coped with that reality, or would his desperation to be more influential cause him to become a bad influence?

Which is not to suggest that Jones would ever be a disruptive character, but whole-hearted players of his ilk don’t cope too well at being handed half-hearted roles. Even Stuart McCall found it difficult and had clashes with managers such as Craig Brown, as he was phased out. Jim Jefferies was unbelievably stupid to once tell Stuart “your legs have gone”, but Stuart didn’t need to react so poorly to it.

Perhaps Jones deserves better than to spend his final couple of years on the sidelines; there is plenty of time for the coaching stuff, he still has a hell of a lot to offer on the field. If Parkinson doesn’t see Jones as a first team regular next season, maybe it is fairer on the player to offer him a clean break now. There will be a long queue of clubs willing to sign him this summer, clubs who will be able to provide the first team assurances that Parkinson clearly cannot.

Yet still, no one who has shared in the pride of watching Gary Jones play for Bradford City can feel anything but sadness to see him depart like this. The head might rule that it is for the best, but the heart feels the pain that Jones must now be experiencing. The numerous great memories we have of watching Jones reminds you what a huge loss he will be. The outpouring of devastation expressed by so many since Friday illustrates just how much he meant to people. Wherever he ends up, I’m rooting for him.

The heart of the 2012/13 team has just been ripped out. Clearly, Phil Parkinson is going to have to build a new side this summer. But whoever comes in and however they fare, Valley Parade won’t feel the same without the sight of magic man in the number 18 shirt.

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The 2013/14 Width of a Post Player of the Season

5 May

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By Jason McKeown

The Width of a Post writing team were asked to vote for their top five Bradford City players of the 2013/14 campaign. Here is the collective result.

In 5th place…Andrew Davies

Were it not for all those injuries (or, in his first season, numerous suspensions) Andrew Davies would surely have come very close to winning the club’s player of the season by now. When fit, Davies is a rock at the heart of the back four. Leading by example and also inspiring greater performances out of those around him (especially his regular central defensive partner, Rory McArdle).SAM_0512

The 28 appearances Davies made in the league is a season-best since he signed on loan from Stoke in September 2011. It was no coincidence that the 29-year-old was ever present during the club’s outstanding start to the season, and that form fell away after he unfortunately hobbled off injured at Walsall in October.

He didn’t figure again until January – in-between, City won just one game – and his return to fitness eventually helped to turn around the club’s drifting campaign.

Davies wasn’t flawless during the final third of the season, but he was vital in keeping the relegation wolves at bay. The suspicion that he is a Championship standard defender, playing below his natural level, remains. Davies is one of the club’s most important players and is someone who can ultimately take us to the Championship. Just please, somehow, stay fit next campaign, Davo.

In 4th place…Nahki Wells

He flew out of the starting blocks, and occasionally it appeared as though he was carrying the team on his own shoulders. Nahki Wells continued where he left off at the end of 2012/13 to score a glut of early season goals, and he remained impressive despite injury disrupting his campaign. There were numerous memorable moments along the way, and his superb hat trick against Coventry in November was arguably his high water mark.

Alas, City were only to see Wells for half a season. The January transfer window crept into view, Wells’ performances dipped and he was soon completing his desired move to a higher level with Huddersfield. The bitterness many supporters felt over the way he departed remains raw, and for some he will never be viewed in quite the same light again. Yet the fact that his 15 goals before leaving were enough for him to remain the club’s top scorer demonstrated just how vital his efforts before Christmas proved.

Wells was a joy to watch during the first half of the season; and his goals went a long way towards ensuring the Bantams are playing League One football next year.

Picture by Claire Epton

Picture by Claire Epton

In 3rd place…Gary Jones

Last season’s Width of a Post player of the season may not have hit the same heights, but his influence on the team has remained throughout the campaign, and he can take a lot of satisfaction for his performances. In particular, his displays since mid-January caught the eye. No one in the City team could have lifted everyone around him in the way the skipper managed at Sheffield United, when 2-0 down, in January. And what about that Crewe game, with his two important goals? Such moments helped to reverse a worrying slump in form, and Jones deserves as much credit as anyone for turning the season around.

In total, the 36-year-old played 46 times for City in 2013/14. There are many in the crowd desperate to pension him off and who continue clichéd criticisms that his “legs have gone”, but Jones has remained the heartbeat of the team, and has kept his place in it on merit. Some people just don’t see how his influence stretches beyond his own performances, and what a difference he truly makes.

It remains to be seen if this is the end for Jones; but whatever the future holds he can look back with huge pride on two seasons of great personal success at Valley Parade. Magical, in fact.

Image by Alex Dodd

Image by Alex Dodd

In 2nd place…James Hanson

It doesn’t seem that long ago that City were struggling near the foot of League Two and elements of the crowd were deriding James Hanson for supposedly not being good enough for professional football. Where are these people now? These days, Valley Parade has largely accepted just what an excellent player Hanson is, and the qualities he brings to the team.SAM_2321reduced

Hanson has taken the step up a division in his stride. At no stage has he looked out of place, and his performances have been consistently excellent. The partnership with Wells continued to pay dividends during the first half of the campaign, but to Hanson’s great credit he has not suffered from the mid-season loss of his sidekick. In fact, he has seemingly relished the extra responsibility and fitted in well with the tweak in playing style.

Without a striker like Wells playing on the shoulder of the last man, Hanson has become the side’s most forward-positioned player. I really hope that, next season, Parkinson builds a team with a midfield more capable of maximising from his knock downs and hold up play.

Without late season back problems, Hanson would probably have bettered Wells’ exploits. But 12 goals from 37 appearances (1 in 3) is still an excellent return for a first season in a higher division. This guy is capable of playing in the Championship, and hopefully the signing of a contract extension last October means that he will one day be doing so for Bradford City.

And the winner is…Stephen Darby

In many ways, the less-celebrated, low-key achievements of Stephen Darby sum up the club’s progress this season. It hasn’t been a year to shout from the rooftops, but quietly and unassumingly there has been credible success. Darby was consistently outstanding all season long. He has never let anyone down or given any cause for concern. Week in week out, the 25-year-old has been solid, reliable and enjoyable to watch.

He has come a long way from those early doubts about his height and stature, when he first joined the club in 2012. From having to settle for a place on the bench, behind a centre back shunted to right back. Last season, Darby was voted the players’ player of the year and he will sweep up on all the honours going this time around. He is hugely popular with supporters, and the only frustration has stemmed from the lack of recognition that his no-nonsense efforts have merited.

There are already rumours circling that Darby is attracting Championship interest, and that we have seen the last of him. Like Wells, he is ready to play at a higher level than this and there can be no hard feelings if he decides to further his career away from Valley Parade. Although let’s hope he is willing to stay at a club that he seems to love. He could be next season’s captain.

In a season of ups and downs, Darby has consistently kept the bar high. And for that, he was the runaway winner of the Width of a Post vote.

Congratulations Stephen Darby, baby.

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Special mention to Kyel Reid who also received numerous votes and only narrowly missed out on a top five finish. In total, 11 players received a top five vote.  

The 2013/14 Width of a Post Player of the Season was voted for by Gareth Walker, David Lawrence, Mike Holdsworth, Katie Whyatt, Omar Eliwi, Mark Danylczuk, Luke Lockwood, Jason McKeown, Andrew Baxter, Mark Scully, Ian Hemmens, Phil Abbott, Nick Beanland, Tim Roche, Mahesh Johal, Damien Wilkinson, Alex Scott and Matt Birch.  

The 2012/13 Width of Post Player of the Season

The 2011/12 Width of a Post Player of the Season

 

Always look on the bright side of life

3 May

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Tranmere Rovers 1

Pennington 7

Bradford City 2

Stead 81, Mclean 87

Saturday 3 May, 2014

Words and images by Jason McKeown

As I stood there in the Cowshed Stand, watching my beloved football club relegate another, it struck me just what a complex relationship each of us has with the team we support, and the incredible amount of emotional investment we have committed over many, many years.

Nothing in life – beyond my wife and child – has provided me with as much pleasure as Bradford City; and yet I also can’t think of anything that has consistently provided me with so much pain. All those hours spent not only attending matches, but fretting about results and performances. All the sacrifices I – and those around me – have to make. Compare the person that I am today to the one who first set foot inside Valley Parade and, beyond family and friends, there is not one aspect of what was important to me then that remains. Nothing, that is, apart from going to watch Bradford City.

And as another season of joy, frustration, delight, anger and excitement comes to end, we found ourselves laughing very loudly at the misfortune of others. Schadenfreude, as the Germans say. It is ludicrously cruel to react as we supporters did to Tranmere’s relegation – right in front of their fans, who were enduring arguably their darkest hour in decades. How they must surely hate us forever after this, and who can blame them?

But, well…so what? Excuse my language, but f*** it. This was a hilarious experience, and being part of some 2,000 City fans revelling in a party that had gone sour for the hosts will keep me chuckling throughout the summer. I have no axe to grind against Tranmere, really I don’t, and that’s kind of the point: it could have been anyone. If there’s any consolation, Rovers fans, it really wasn’t personal. Honest.

If this all sounds wrong to anyone who wasn’t part of the bouncing away support, I can only shrug my shoulders and weakly defend myself and others with the cop-out ‘you had to be there’. Or actually, you didn’t. Because relegation is something that every football fan in England, outside of the top Premier League clubs, has endured at some point. And it’s not so much the pain of relegation that blights the life of any football fan – it occurs only occasionally to most of us – but the greater amount of time spent fearing relegation. It dangles over so many of us so often, like a dagger from above ready to strike.

Following Bradford City for nearly two decades, I have been lucky enough to witness promotions and wonderful players and unbelievable goals and last minute winners and beating Liverpool and cup runs and going to Wembley twice. But more than anything else in my time following the club, I have feared relegation. Even in years of mid-table finishes, there has often been a moment where we got flustered over the league position and fretted over some unlikely collapse. In the midst of more serious relegation battles, I have genuinely lied awake at night feeling frightened. And of course, we have gone all the way and actually experienced relegation, several times.

So I – and no doubt most people around me in the Cowshed Stand – took a strange and perverse joy in watching someone else’s torture and pain. It really was enjoyable, partly because we knew what it felt like to be them. It will probably come back to haunt us on day – most things tend to in football – but on a lovely sunny May afternoon in Birkenhead, any long-term consequences of our glee failed to register. Sometimes, supporting a football club allows us to regress in our maturity and go back to laughing when people fart.

You’re going down? Ha ha!

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The cruelness of Tranmere’s harrowing afternoon was amplified by the fact much of it must have been spent believing they were going to get out of trouble. In a game they realistically had to win, Rovers took the lead after seven minutes and held onto it until there were less than 10 on the clock. And then, they managed to lose the match.

Matthew Pennington scored Tranmere’s precious early goal, although a huge slice of credit went to Jon McLaughlin, after his weak hand to a wayward shot completely changed the ball’s direction so that it bounced into the net. Ahead of a week where McLaughlin finds out if he is to be offered terms to remain at Valley Parade, this was a horror moment for the Scot that he must hope won’t affect Phil Parkinson’s decision. That McLaughlin subsequently made two brilliant saves may redeem him.

Nevertheless, as the home side found success in keeping the game’s tempo slow and expertly defending mostly disjointed visitor attacks, for a long time it looked as though McLaughlin’s mistake would win the match and, potentially, keep Tranmere in League One. They still needed results elsewhere to go their way, and on that front Crewe’s lead against Preston and Notts County still drawing at Oldham meant fate remained out of their hands.

Junior Brown is red-carded.

Junior Brown is red-carded.

The heavy tension saw an increasing edge, and tackles grew fiercer and fiercer as referee Graham Scott seemed reluctant to clamp down on the rising anger. It reached boiling point when Junior Brown went in late on Nathan Doyle. The on-loan Fleetwood winger was somewhat harshly red-carded and Tranmere faced up to playing for over an hour with 10 men.

That it took so long for City to make the numerical advantage count is something the home defence in particular deserves great credit for. Ian Goodison might have a questionable character in view of his horrendous elbow on Kyel Reid, in the reverse fixture, and the criminal charges against him – but the veteran defender was outstanding at the back. City pressure came largely from set pieces rather than through open play, and on another day – with a lot more at stake – these failings would have triggered greater frustration from the away end.

For a few brief minutes – seven in fact – Tranmere climbed out of the bottom four. A huge cheer rang out from the opposite side of the ground, as news emerged that Notts County had fallen behind at Oldham. Crewe were now 2-0 up but it didn’t matter to Rovers, so long as Oldham held out. Alan Sheehan’s 75th minute penalty equaliser for Notts County at Boundary Park also triggered loud cheering – this time from those of us in the Cowshed Stand. We were losing this game, but boy were we having a good time.

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A red card for Notts County suggested Tranmere could realistically hope for an Oldham winner, but the only team with 10-men to fold was their own. Finally, with nine minutes to play, Jon Stead equalised with a low finish that was deflected into the goal by, of all people, Goodison. It was ironic that the on-loan Stead finally broke his duck during his least effective performance for City. We went wild celebrating – Joint-Chairman Mark Lawn, stood on the row behind me, included. “Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, you’re going to Shrewsbury, que sera sera.”

Tranmere folded at that point, as City pressed for a winner. In what was in truth an average Bantams’ performance, only Gary Jones really stood out and those around him struggled to make any impact. This included Aaron Mclean, but then – after a poor goal kick from James Mooney – the City striker was presented with a shooting opportunity and clinically drove the ball past the keeper and into the bottom corner. Cue pandemonium. Mclean’s last two performances have not been great, but a goal in each bodes well for next season. “Aaron Mclean, goal machine!” boomed out. Indeed.

Mclean might have made it 3-1 when another shot was well blocked by Mooney, but even an improbable two-goal swing for Tranmere would not have saved them. Notts County had secured the point they needed, and Crewe had defeated Preston despite the scare of a late North End goal. Home fans streamed out of the stadium before the end, as we continued to rub it in.

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The final whistle brought strange scenes, as a Tranmere player appeared to have an almighty bust-up with a home supporter, where he had to be dragged away, and teenage Rovers fans invaded the pitch for reasons unknown. The stewards ensured they couldn’t cross the halfway line, which meant the City players could come over and thank their supporters. All but Mclean gave away their shirts.

There was some sadness at seeing them eventually head to the dressing rooms, as it sunk in that many were saying their goodbyes and will be plying their trade elsewhere next season. Nine of today’s 18-man squad were part of the ‘We Made History’ team, and eight of them are now out of contract. We have come a long way together, these players and us supporters. It truly feels like the end of an era.

And a very joyful era at that, one of the greatest in the club’s history. Perhaps that partly explained the overriding mood of happiness that emanated across the entire Cowshed Stand all afternoon. Relegations, administrations and other, even darker times: we’ve had more than our fair share of pain, misery and upset following Bradford City, and we shouldn’t pass up on opportunities, such as this, to smile.

Through the never-ending narrative of football, what can often be overlooked is that supporting your team is supposed to be fun. There was no danger of forgetting that here.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury (Meredith 59), Thompson (Bennett 59), Jones, Doyle (De Vita 74), Yeates, Stead, Mclean

Not used: Jameson, McHugh, Dolan, McBurnie

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Last day fun and games as Bradford City go to Tranmere

1 May

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Tranmere Rovers vs Bradford City preview

@Prenton Park on Saturday 3 May, 2014

By Jason McKeown

I’m really looking forward to this one, and for that I feel I should almost be apologetic.

What is a largely meaningless game for Bradford City could not be more vital for Tranmere Rovers, who are teetering on the brink of relegation. The anxiety, the fear, the misery – we have a box office seat to the range of emotions that Tranmere will be going through. Around 2,000 of us are set to pack out the Cowshed stand, and many of us are openly relishing the close-up viewing of the home side’s torture and anguish, in an almost perverse manner. People who slow down for car crashes and all that.

All I will say is that – ignoring, for a moment, being a Bradford City supporter and our own end of season experiences – I am a big football enthusiast. I love this time of year, where you get to observe other teams concluding their promotion or relegation battles. The agony and the ecstasy. Normally, you only get to see these highly charged, emotional moments on TV. This weekend, I will be watching a high pressure match live without the added burden, or joy, of my own feelings being heavily invested in the outcome.

I have no malice towards Tranmere whatsoever, but I am desperate to see my football team end the season on a high with a final day victory. But whatever happens, we are the sideshow to a huge day in the history of our hosts. I’m sorry, Rovers, but I’m going to enjoy watching you squirm.

After losing 2-0 at Leyton Orient last weekend, Tranmere fell into the bottom four at the worst possible time. A defeat to the Bantams on Saturday, and they will be relegated and have to play in the bottom tier for the first time since 1989. A draw would be enough to keep them up should Crewe – one point ahead but with a worse goal difference – lose at home to third-placed Preston. A win would secure League One football should Crewe fail to win or Notts County lose at Oldham.

If you were in Tranmere’s shoes of needing to win on the final day of the season, a home game against Bradford City would feature reasonably high up your preferred list of opponents. At this late stage, you always want to be playing sides with nothing to play for, rather than those with an equally big incentive to win. In theory Tranmere should be able to bring greater intensity and determination onto the field, which will count for a lot. We’d like to win, they are fighting for their lives.

Rovers caretaker manager John McMahon has viewed the fact that matters are out of their hands as the “worst case scenario” but at least they know what they have to do. “We’re at home and I’m calling on the spectators to come down in numbers and really get behind the players – they will give it everything they’ve got,” he said after the Leyton Orient loss. “We’ve got to be disciplined. We can’t just play six or seven up front. We need to play with our heads as well as our hearts.”

If McMahon could have had one further wish in terms of their opponents, it would surely be that Phil Parkinson would have revealed his retained list prior to the game. A final decision on who can stay and who will go would have a huge impact on the team’s morale, with those who are to be shown the door probably not in the right frame of mind to play and those who are to stay perhaps relaxing. Quite sensibly, Parkinson has made sure that’s not the case. Whilst final decisions have probably been made on every single out-of-contract player, the lack of disclosure means that everyone affected still needs to do what they can to impress, just in case.

Jon McLaughlin is one such example. The statistics show that this has been his best season at Valley Parade, and that has coincided with a step up the divisions. Up until last August, doubts have persisted over whether the Scot could sustain his form over the course of the season – he most certainly has.

I am sat right on the fence when it comes to McLaughlin. He has done little wrong this season, and yet there is a nagging feeling we might need a better keeper to push higher up the league. He lets no one down, but lacks the star quality that sees him earn the club points on his own. Still, this is now six years we have invested into McLaughlin, and I’m not sure if we should throw that away.

There are also question marks against three of the four back four positions, with only Andrew Davies in Saturday’s likely defensive line up contracted to play for City in 2014/15. Stephen Darby will be here next season if he wants to be – although rumours of Championship interest suggest he might have his sights set on a move. Rory McArdle has not enjoyed a perfect campaign but is ending it very strongly. Keep Davies fit for a season – a big if, admittedly – and we can have another brilliant year out of McArdle. It would be a major shock if he was on the released list. James Meredith will probably come in for Adam Drury, as he bids for an unlikely place in Australia’s World Cup squad. Drury has been an excellent addition.

In midfield, Garry Thompson’s match-winning cameo from the bench last week could be rewarded with a start before he is surely released, although the opinion-splitting Kyle Bennett (I personally like him) could come back into the side. Mark Yeates or Rafa De Vita will probably start on the left, with a central two (or three, if Parkinson goes 4-5-1 once more on the road) featuring Nathan Doyle or Gary Jones. My heart sinks that this could be the last time we see either or both of Doyle and Jones. The City skipper was born less than 20 miles away from Prenton Park, and if this is his farewell then I’d be recommending Tranmere bring him ‘home’.

Up front, James Hanson is not expected to be risked and will spend the summer getting over his back problem, meaning a final day outing for Jon Stead and (if 4-4-2) Aaron Mclean. Opinion is split amongst supporters about Stead. For me he is a Ronseal player – he does exactly what you expect, and nothing more. He will never be a big goalscorer, but has other excellent qualities that have made a difference. I’m not saying that I think Parkinson should sign him during the summer – he probably needs to find a wider range of striking options to complement Hanson, Mclean and Oli McBurnie – but I personally feel that Stead has proven to be an effective loan signing who has made a real difference.

For Tranmere is has been a troubled season to say the least, with McMahon recently commenting that mistakes have been made from day one. Ronnie Moore was sacked earlier this month after he admitted to breaking FA betting regulations. Over a three-year period, he apparently betted £1,100 and won back £900, although has stressed that he never once betted on Tranmere to lose. Rovers’ captain Ian Goodison, plus striker Akpo Sodje, have also been arrested over allegations of spot-fixing. Sodje is no longer at the club, but Goodison has continued to feature.

Both Moore and Goodison were the villains of Bradford City’s 1-0 home defeat to Tranmere last October that did much to derail the Bantams’ season. Bitterness over that afternoon has lingered, and it would have been fantastic to be going to Prenton Park on the final day and relegating the pair. But with Moore gone and Goodison uncertain to play, we instead face a very likable football club, going through a horrendously difficult afternoon that will have huge, huge implications for their future.

I cannot wait.

Easter’s growing pains

22 Apr

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Swindon Town 1

Cox 64

Bradford City 0

Monday 21 April, 2014

Written by David Lawrence (images by Mike Holdsworth)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not used: Jameson, McHugh, Bates, Yeates

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