Tag Archives: Gary Jones

The Midweek Player Focus #57: Jason Kennedy / Matty Dolan

16 Apr

shrewsbury away march 2014

By Jason McKeown

One of the key lessons taken from the 2013/14 season is that a football club’s continued progression is not simply dependent upon keeping hold of the best players, but on adequately replacing them when their time comes.

Bradford City’s future fortunes look set to be intrinsically linked with how well this is taken on board, especially when it comes to planning next season’s central midfield. It is the area of the team that carries by far the biggest question marks, and undoubtedly there are some difficult calls to make.

Chiefly there is the longevity of the man who has made the whole team tick for much of the past two seasons. The joy of watching Gary Jones still delivering influential performances is tempered by his increasingly limited shelf life. If only we had signed him when he was 25, not 35. His considerable impact in claret and amber has raised standards in the centre of the park; standards that have fallen and fallen ever since Stuart McCall was released far too early from Valley Parade, 10 years before Jones’ summer 2012 arrival.

Jones will be 37 in June, by which time we will know whether he has at least one more season in West Yorkshire or will be looking for another club. If I was Phil Parkinson, I’d be signing him up for another 12 months as a squad player. But the dilemma is muddied somewhat by the likelihood that Jones will be one of the club’s highest earners, and we cannot build next season’s team on the assumption he can play another 40+ games.

Despite some indifferent performances at times, Jones has continued to prove very reliable this season. It’s a good job too, because I doubt that the plan was for Jones to get to mid-March as a League One ever-present, with few credible options to take his place.

Perhaps, by this point, Parkinson would have envisaged Jason Kennedy would be driving the central midfield. The former Darlington man spent three years playing next to Jones in one of the most successful teams in Rochdale’s history. Kennedy’s ability was demonstrated to an impressed Valley Parade faithful 15 months ago, when Rochdale battered City’s 2012/13 vintage – Jones and all – in a shock 4-2 victory. A month later Parkinson had agreed a deal to bring Kennedy to City, only for the player to have a last-minute change of heart as he drove along the M62 to sign a transfer deadline day deal. Nevertheless he rocked up last summer on a two-year contract, either to play with Jones or to be his heir.

There has no question that it has proven to be a wretched, career-stalling move for Kennedy. He looked very poor on his debut at Huddersfield in the cup, continually going for an easy inside pass rather than taking responsibility in driving the team forward, Jones-style, or offering any genuine creativity like Nathan Doyle. Such an approach may have found Kennedy favour in a slow tempo passing side such as Rochdale, but did not suit the direct style of football that City play under Parkinson, centred around getting the ball up to James Hanson and Nahki Wells as quickly as possible.

And it never got any better from there. Kennedy had to wait until early October to appear in the league for the Bantams, at Walsall, and his full debut – a week later against Tranmere – saw him similarly ineffective. Start number two in November did at least see him score the winner at the MK Dons, but when in the next game, against Notts County, he was hauled off at half time, it already seemed that the writing was on the wall for him. Parkinson would talk him up off the field, but had very little faith using him on it. It just didn’t seem the right fit, for all concerned.

His loan move back to Rochdale, in January, was no surprise – his last game for City, at Sheffield United, had been a particularly dismal affair for the midfielder. But even back ‘home’ at Spotland, Kennedy has not got going again. Four starts (the last two of which saw him replaced after less than 70 minutes), but since then a permanent place on the bench that has only occasionally seen him introduced (and even then, very late on in games). 66 minutes into Rochdale’s game at Mansfield on Saturday, Kennedy was summoned from the bench with the score 0-0. They were ultimately beaten 3-0. Unlikely to be Kennedy’s fault, but he will hardly have made a great impact.

With Rochdale on the brink of promotion, there appears to be no chance of him being offered a permanent deal at Spotland during the summer. There is still one year left on his Valley Parade deal; meaning Kennedy will either give it another crack at City or probably have his contract cancelled.

At 27-years-old, Kennedy is at the age we wish Jones could be. And, perhaps, a 27-year-old Jones endured his own career dips. Kennedy has played almost 400 senior games (including four Premier League and three UEFA Cup appearances at Middlesbrough) and clearly hasn’t become a bad player overnight, but he looks a long, long way off being a regular for a club harbouring medium-term ambitions to be playing in the Championship.

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As Kennedy exited stage left, in came another Middlesbrough midfield youth graduate in Matty Dolan. At 21-years-old and having failed to make a single first team appearance for the Teesiders, Dolan’s future already appears to lie in West Yorkshire. If Middlesbrough hadn’t dragged their heels in over a sell-on clause, Dolan’s January move to City would have been a permanent one. Instead, with no agreement sealed in time for the deadline, Dolan ultimately arrived on loan. We can reasonably speculate that something more concrete is already in place for the summer.

Dolan’s arrival coincided with a shift in City’s overall approach. Wells’ January departure saw him replaced with Aaron Mclean, and it very quickly became clear that he is a different type of striker. Mclean does not play on the shoulder of the last man; and some of his better work takes place outside of the box, linking up the play with others. As such, he needs more support.

With Hanson/Wells, the deeper positioning of Nathan Doyle and Jones worked terrifically well. They could set up attacks with their superb range of short, medium and long passing skills, and position themselves to win back possession from the opposition. But Mclean needs an attacking midfielder to provide him with an option as attacking moves develop. Hanson has become the most forward-positioned striker, but his flick ons to Mclean are too predictable if he is the only team-mate available to pass to.

So Dolan’s debut, against Crewe in February, saw him eventually take up a holding midfield position, with Jones given greater licence to get forward. The result was two goals from Jones – both set up by Mclean’s lay offs – that leave the veteran as City’s second top-scorer. From having two central midfielders who defend and attack together, greater distinctions are now needed between the two who patrol the centre of the park.

Clearly Jones can play the attacking midfield role. In 2010/11, then in League One with Rochdale, he netted 18 goals (including penalties). But we come back to that age problem, and increasingly you feel that City needed someone more youthful and sprightly to take on the attacking midfielder role that the evolution of the team seemingly requires. There’s a lad at Scunthorpe, goes by the name of Syers or something, who I’d re-sign in a heartbeat.

Dolan looks even less suited to the role. His strengths lie in winning back the ball and setting up attacks. He is full of energy and gets around the park well, but has particularly excelled when asked to play in front of the back four. Given his age, Jones would suit the defensive role well also, and two years of watching Doyle play in the centre of the park suggest that – when on form – he would be an even better option than Jones or Dolan, playing as a tough-tackling quarter back. A latter-years David Beckham.

But three into one role doesn’t go (or four into one, if you count Kennedy). If City are to evolve in the way that truly gets the best out of Mclean and Hanson as a pairing, Parkinson needs to find room for an attacking central midfielder in his plans, knowing he will be well-stocked in the defensive holding role. It is hard to imagine that all three of Jones, Doyle and Dolan will be here next season, and so here is where the dilemma grows: who to keep?

For Dolan in particular, he is competing against two of the club’s best central midfielders in a decade, as he tries to prove he deserves a role ahead of them next season. There is undoubtedly much promise about his performances, such as his first half showing against Gillingham before injury; but nagging doubts have been raised from other displays. He was truly wretched against Shrewsbury, for example. His poor display against Oldham a week last Saturday did feature a superb assist for Adam Reach. Inconsistent is the word. Is he ready to be a week-in, week-out starter next term? Not for me.

If Dolan is penned in to remain beyond his loan spell (and we don’t know for sure that something is lined up), then a big call will need to be made on Doyle or Jones’ futures. The mistake in stock-piling central defenders this season underlines the need to be ruthless on this one.

Just like McCall’s exit in 2002, the club faces a hugely challenging task in ultimately replacing an inspirational but ageing figure in Jones. Matty Dolan has a look of Tom Kearney – the man charged with replacing McCall 12 years ago, before unfortunately suffering a really bad injury after which he never looked the same player – and the young midfielder has between now and the end of this season to prove that he would be ready for greater responsibility.

More realistically, Dolan can expect to go into 2014/15 at City, with either Jones or Doyle as his mentor, and being gradually eased into the team. Bring Dolan on slowly, allowing him to make mistakes and giving him the guidance to improve, and we might just have ourselves a real gem who can dominate the City midfield for years and years to come.

A gem who is a long, long way from being 37-years-old.

Who should stay and who should go?

14 Apr

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Written by Gareth Walker (all images: Mike Holdsworth)

It’s that time of year again where thoughts are turning to which names will be on the retained list and, conversely, which players Bradford City fans will be waving goodbye to during the summer. Whilst City aren’t yet mathematically safe in League One, Phil Parkinson will privately be considering the make up of his squad for next year, depending on which division we are in.

Here I get to play manager: discussing each current member of Parkinson’s squad and what decision I would make over their future if I was the in the hot seat.

The players who will be out of contract:

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Jon McLaughlin: KEEP

He probably splits opinion more than any other player currently on City’s books. My own opinion is that he is a very good shot stopper, but the other areas of his game – in particular his distribution and the communication with his defence – are below average.

This means that on the occasions when the standard of his shot stopping drops, such as the games against Huddersfield (away), Wolves (home) and Walsall (home) this season, he looks to be a poor goalkeeper. Personally, I think he is a decent League Two keeper, but that if we have aspirations of getting promoted to the Championship then we need a better number one.

I’d offer him a contract as our back up. Whether he would accept that role is another question.

Stephen Darby: KEEP

He should comfortably win the player of the year award this season, and I doubt that any City fan would want him to leave the club. When considering all the players whose contracts are up, Darby is the only one who I would be really desperate to keep. Let’s hope that he feels the same way about staying at City.

James Meredith: KEEP

For the second year in a row, Meredith has been missing through injury for a large part of the season. Prior to this his form was average to say the least, when compared to his performances last season.

Personally I feel that he has suffered from not having any out and out competition for his place at left back. This has been highlighted by how much we’ve struggled to fill the role in his absence. When he is fit, he knows that he is a guaranteed starter and this cannot be good for any player. I think that it’s imperative that we sign some competition next season, to push him all the way.

Rory McArdle: KEEP

This is a really tough call for me. I think that last year’s ‘Marathon Man’ has struggled with the step up to League One. I’d keep him, but he would no longer be my first choice partner for Andrew Davies. I’d bring in a new right-sided centre back to succeed where Matt Taylor failed, and at the very least by competing with McArdle for a starting role. However, if the under-contract-Taylor can’t be moved on, the out-of-contract-McArdle might have to make way for an upgrade.

Carl McHugh: KEEP

‘Carlo’ is arguably my favourite player at City at the moment. Parkinson has gone on record as saying that the Donegal-born centre back would run through brick walls for the manager and the team. He is a vastly talented defender, who never lets us down.

He suffers because his main position is as a left hand sided centre back, and as such he is in direct competition with Davies for a place in the team. He is not a left back, although has often had to fill in there due to the lack of options to cover Meredith’s absence.

Considering Davies’ injury record and up and down form since returning to the side, I’d keep McHugh; possibly even fazing him into the side as Davies’ long-term replacement. The problem we may have is that if McHugh knows that he is only being kept as an understudy, he might think it better for his own career that he moves on.

Matthew Bates: RELEASE

Brought in as a utility player who can be used in a variety of positions, Bates has suffered by mainly being employed as the stand-in for Davies during the latter’s prolonged injury absence. As a former Middlesbrough captain and England U21 international, Bates certainly has the pedigree. Unfortunately, he hasn’t really impressed anyone.

Bates’ tendency to back off from attackers and bark orders at others, whilst seeming to do very little himself, has seen him targeted by supporters. I think it’d best for everyone if he moved on, and that his wages are freed up to use elsewhere.

Gary Jones: KEEP

‘Magic Man’ has bounced back from an indifferent start to the season – when many people were questioning his performances and writing him off – to re-establish himself as one of our most important players. Jason Kennedy’s failure to hit the ground running has meant Jones has played far more games than he or Parkinson would have expected. Being another year older, we really cannot afford to put off finding a suitable heir to his throne. However, he would still be a fantastic player to have in the squad and play half of the games, or to come off the bench to see matches out when needed.

Will the budget allow us to keep him in a diminished role? Maybe a player-coach type position would facilitate this move.

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Nathan Doyle: KEEP (just)

I really can’t make my mind up about Doyle. He is still one of my favourite players. He should be our best player. He is arguably the most talented player at the club. So why doesn’t he show it on a consistent basis?

Doyle came back from the summer rest in great shape and put in some of his best performances since he rejoined the club. However, similar to last year, his form dipped considerably and his influence on games diminished. I don’t know whether this was down to fatigue or the injury that he was said to be carrying. Whatever the case, he needs to be more consistent.

We certainly miss Doyle when he isn’t in the side, but he splits opinion amongst fans, with some seeing him as a favourite and others thinking that he doesn’t contribute enough. Parkinson is known to like his versatility, but he is rumoured to be one of the highest paid players at the club and, as such, it will be interesting to see if he is considered a luxury that we can no longer afford.

Kyel Reid: KEEP

I like Reid. Although he infuriates supporters sometimes with his erratic-ness and sometimes poor decision making, it is undeniable that he is a major threat to opposing teams, who are often so fearful of him that they double or triple mark him.

I feel Reid is an upgrade on our previous enigmatic wingers. When he is out of the team injured – as he has been for a long time this season – we carry much less of an attacking threat. He is still our main outlet, and I would like to keep him in our squad; albeit with players brought into provide him with better competition for his place.

The problem we may have is that Reid has a young family down in the London area and he may decide to move on for personal reasons.

Garry Thompson: RELEASE

Thompson’s City career has seen more highs and lows than most. His form has varied vastly, but who could ever forget his goal against Arsenal? His commitment to the cause has been questioned in the past, but this season we have seen him show commendable fight when he has come on as a substitute – desire that has put newer signings and younger players to shame.

He is a favourite of Parkinson’s because he facilitates the high diagonal ball to his wing. It will be a shame to lose him and it is a big call, because we need characters such as him with experience if we were to avoid another season of struggle. However, I feel that if we want to move forwards and progress as a club, we just need slightly younger legs and that little bit of extra quality.

Thanks for the memories Thommo!

Rafa De Vita: RELEASE

Barring a brilliant assist for James Hanson’s finish against Preston in October, and a goal at home to Wolves a few days later, De Vita has been totally anonymous in the few games that he has played. He has spent large parts of the season on the treatment table, but his limited contributions when he has been in the side have meant that we haven’t missed him.

De Vita has been a disappointment, because I was impressed with him in pre-season and Swindon supporters speak relatively highly of him.

Andy Gray: RELEASE

It’s difficult to argue that Parkinson has made a successful signing in the last three transfer windows, but Gray really does take the biscuit as the worst of the lot. A high wage earner, who simply hasn’t provided the competition to Hanson that he was supposed to – and the veteran has spent most of his time injured.

Gray’s second coming at Valley Parade has been a major failure.

Louis Swain: RELEASE

Has anyone seen Swain since last summer, when he was given his one year contract? Being farmed out on loan to non-league wasn’t really a surprise, but the lack of updates on his progress makes it look like he is surplus to requirements. 

The players who will still be under contract:

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Andrew Davies: KEEP

Signed a two year deal last summer and, despite his injury problems and up and down form since his return, Davies is still our best centre back by some distance. If he wasn’t under contract there may be a discussion to be had as to whether we are getting value for money – and whether someone who is, say, 75% as good as Davies but always fit would be a better signing. For next season, we have to hope that Davies’ injury problems are behind him, so we can build a team with him in it.

Matt Taylor: MOVE ON

We know so little about this player, partly because he has been injured for such a long time. However, when Taylor has been fit, Parkinson clearly hasn’t liked what he has seen.

A fleeting appearance in one league game, along with starts in cup competitions at Huddersfield and Hartlepool, are his own appearances, which made the decision to recall him early from a loan spell at Colchester – where he was getting game time – a strange one.

His signing was initially well received, because of his reputation and promotion history when he was captain at Charlton; but these all now point to the fact that his wages are likely to be high and unaffordable for someone who rarely plays. With one year left on his contract, hopefully we can find a club willing to take him off our hands.

Jason Kennedy: MOVE ON

A dazzling performance at Valley Parade whilst playing against for Rochdale last season convinced Parkinson that Kennedy was the long-term successor to Gary Jones. Unfortunately, it simply hasn’t worked out and Kennedy finds himself warming the bench back on loan at his old club.

This is one disappointing signing where the blame cannot be solely laid at Parkinson’s door. Some fans at Spotland regarded Kennedy to be a better player than Jones, and most of the Valley Parade faithful were delighted when he decided to finally make the journey down the M62 to West Yorkshire.

However, in claret and amber, Kennedy looks half the player that he did in black and blue. Hesitant on the ball and avoiding responsibility are just two of the criticisms levelled at him. Again, with one year left on his contract, I hope that we can find someone who wants to take him.

Mark Yeates: MOVE ON

The biggest disappointment of all of last summer’s signings. 12 months ago, Yeates was a regular player for Watford as they marched towards the Championship play off final. He started this season well, scoring a great goal at home to Carlisle, but that was as good as it got. Yeates soon lost his place to Reid, and found himself reduced to being a bit-part player.

Along with Doyle, he should be our best player. However, many supporters have questioned his attitude and commitment – and as one of our highest earners, with another season to run on his deal, I expect him to be moved on. That is unless he can show us some real form over the last few weeks of the season.

James Hanson: KEEP 

The fulcrum of our side, and arguably our most important player due to Parkinson’s Plan A. Hanson is getting better and better, and I am delighted that he has committed his long term future to the club. We do, however, need to find a way or a style of playing without Hanson, for the times when he is injured or ineffective.

Oli McBurnie: KEEP

The cream of the crop of our talented youth team, McBurnie is being handled with care and I expect to see him being continually drip fed into senior action next year. He has shown enough potential so far for me to think that he should have a bright future, and I’d like to see him as our fourth striking option next year.

Lewis Clarkson: KEEP

Another player who has suffered with injury since signing, we have so far seen very little of Clarkson. Brought in as one for the future by the current coaching staff, I see him as striker number five next year; possibly being loaned out for experience if the right opportunity arrives.

Aaron Mclean: KEEP

Having arrived to much fanfare as Nahki Wells’ replacement, Mclean has so far failed to live up to expectations. However, with another two years to run on his contract I refuse to write him off after just six months. The effort is clearly there in his play, I just feel that he looks a poor signing because he doesn’t fit in with Parkinson’s tactics. Mclean is the player who I feel would benefit the most if we manage to develop a Plan B.

The players who are on loan

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Arron Jameson: SEND BACK

A token signing if ever there was one. With hardly any senior games to his name, Jameson was not the player that supporters wanted to see brought in to challenge Jon McLaughlin for the number one jersey. We might as well have put the youth team goalkeeper on the bench, and that is in fact what Parkinson has done when faced with the task of balancing the allocated number of loanees in his match day squads.

Adam Drury: SEND BACK

We were crying out for a proper left back after James Meredith’s injury, and it was puzzling that it took so long to bring one in. Drury has been steady if not spectacular in the role, and there is a chance he could be offered a deal for next year. Personally, however, I would question whether he has done enough to earn it.

Adam Reach: SEND BACK

When Reach signed for us in January, I spoke to a Shrewsbury-supporting friend of mine who revealed that Reach had been brilliant for his first month on loan at New Meadow, earlier this season, but that his form then dropped off spectacularly.

Unfortunately that seems to have been the case during his stay in Yorkshire, too. Reach was so good at the start that we were worried about Middlesbrough recalling him. However, his inconsistency probably explains why they haven’t done. Another player who clearly has talent, but doesn’t show it enough and recently has appeared to be playing for himself rather than the team. I don’t think that we can afford another squad member of that ilk.

Kyle Bennett: KEEP

In contrast Reach, Bennett’s City career started slowly but has improved considerably. He had a poor performance against Oldham recently, but I think that was more to do with the bizarre tactical shifts from Parkinson during the game. Bennett put a good performance in at Rotherham on Friday.

At times he frustrates by playing very narrow, but I feel that is partly on the manager’s instruction. If he can continue to improve, I would like to see Bennett as one of four wide players in next season’s squad.

Matty Dolan: KEEP

One week, Dolan looks like the best player on the pitch. The next he has an absolute stinker. Contrast his performances against Gillingham (home) and Leyton Orient (away) with those against Shrewsbury (away) and Oldham (home). However, even in the Oldham game, Dolan managed to produce the only bit of quality in a Bradford shirt, when he set up Adam Reach’s goal.

As a relatively young player I think that Dolan will continue to improve and become more consistent. I believe it’s pretty much agreed that he will join us permanently in the summer, and I am quite comfortable with that.

Chris Atkinson: KEEP

This is one where Parkinson and I would no doubt disagree. Along with Jameson, Atkinson has been one of the unlucky ones who have missed out when we have been limited to just five loanees in a match day squad. It’s a shame because I feel that he could provide the attacking impetus that we sometimes lack from central midfield.

Atkinson did well in brief cameo appearances against Wolves (away) and MK Dons (home), and would likely be a relatively cheap signing as a fourth central midfield option. I hope that Parkinson leaving him out doesn’t indicate that he isn’t intending on keeping him.

Jon Stead: SEND BACK.

I was impressed with Stead at Leyton Orient (away) and even more so at Rotherham (away); but he definitely isn’t the man to be Hanson’s understudy, because he doesn’t win enough in the air. I’d rather see Parkinson sign a different type of striker, especially considering the wages that Stead is likely to be earning at Huddersfield.

However, much will depend on whether Parkinson intends to try new tactics next year. Stead is ideally suited to playing the lone striker role, as he proved at Rotherham, because he has experience of doing this in the Premier League with Sunderland and Blackburn. I wouldn’t totally rule out him signing permanently.

The players in the youth team

I’d expect youth team captain and dynamic midfielder Jack Stockdill to be offered a contract. Deals may also be awarded to central defender Niall Heaton, wide forward Nathan Curtis and winger Callum Chippendale.

New signings

If the above decisions were to come to fruition, there would be spaces in the squad to fill and a need for several new signings. As a priority, I’d be looking to sign a first choice goalkeeper, some competition for Meredith at left back, a right-sided centre back to replace Bates and Taylor, and a third senior striker to compete with Hanson and Mclean

There would also be a need to sign a couple of wingers or wide midfielders, to compete with Reid and Bennett.

Regaining self-respect as Bradford City hit 50

11 Apr

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Rotherham United 0

Bradford City 0

Friday 11 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

Redemption begins in Rotherham. All of that negativity from the Oldham shambles was firmly blasted away here with a highly commendable Bradford City performance. The precious point gained leaving them on the brink of survival.

They have now reached the magic 50 point mark, and could arguably lose all four of their remaining matches and still avoid the drop. That losing run won’t happen, not playing like this. This was not the performance of a team destined to finish amongst the four worst in the division. After a third straight clean sheet on the road, mid-table beckons for City.

That League One status was all but sealed at the home of Yorkshire rivals, who have lorded it over us of late, makes it all the more sweet. That the bad guy, who was seemingly about to deliver a fatal blow, got a comeuppance of sorts was gleefully celebrated at the final whistle. Steve Evans stormed down the tunnel without shaking Phil Parkinson’s hand. In the build-up to the match the Rotherham manager had declared that his side’s automatic promotion hopes were over, and that is now certainly the case. The play offs are a nice consolation though, and they deserve great credit for the more comfortable way in which they have negotiated the step-up to League One this season.

It could even have been better for City. In the second half, they carved out several chances to steal a shock win. Adam Reach volleyed wide of the post, Kyle Bennett saw a shot from the edge of the area deflect over the bar. Reach, who was more influential in the second half, later won possession out wide and charged into the box, before forcing a decent low save from home keeper Adam Collin.

The Bantams carried a genuine goal threat, after Parkinson used the half time interval to address failings in their first half attacking play. As expected, City lined up 4-5-1, but the more congested midfield initially failed to adequately support lone striker Jon Stead.

This was rectified in the second half, with Bennett and Reach delivering impressive performances, as they linked up effectively with the outstanding Stead. Nathan Doyle sat in front of the back four, enabling Gary Jones and Matty Dolan to push forward. How Doyle is suited to that defensive role, and he was excellent tonight after a rusty start. On this evidence, recent criticism directed towards his attitude looks wide of the mark.

City’s matching of Rotherham’s 4-5-1 nullified the home side’s attacking threat. They had plenty of possession, but could not find gaps in the claret and amber wall. The City back four recovered from last week’s collapse – Rory McArdle had his best game for a long time, and Andrew Davies returned to his previous high standards. The pair were like magnets to any ball flung into the City area, and Jon McLaughlin behind them looked much more assured. It was not a night for full backs charging forwards, but Stephen Darby and Adam Drury were nonetheless solid.

Rotherham enjoyed spells of strong pressure when they upped the tempo. Ben Pringle dropped deep in an attempt to dictate the play, forcing a good first half save from McLaughlin. He deserves to play in a higher level than League One. Kieran Agard’s dribbling skills also caused problems, and both he and Pringle provided good support to targetman Alex Revell. Rotherham created the majority of first half chances – City’s only effort of note during this period a Stead volley over the bar from a Davies knock-down – but never overwhelmed their opponents.

Once the Bantams emerged for the second half with the gameplan fine-tuned, they gave as good as they got and posed plenty of questions. City never attacked in numbers, but through Jones and Doyle in particular they began to play the ball on the deck. Stead held up the ball superbly. All that was lacking was the creation of that one big chance. Reach’s effort was the only save Collin was forced into all evening.

Rotherham pressed to the end, if lacking invention. Michael O’Connor hit the post a minute into the second half with a free kick that deceived everyone. Haris Vuckic spurned a great opening when presented with a one-on-one shooting opportunity, lifting the ball over McLaughlin but also over the bar. In the final minute of the 90, Karin Arnasan had a free header from a corner, but couldn’t hit the target.

A Rotherham winner then would have been incredibly harsh on City. The players worked so hard for this point, and were entitled to walk off the pitch at full time with smiles on their faces. It had been a long six days for them. Their commitment and ability has been questioned loudly, and this was the perfect response. Parkinson too deserves to feel proud. Time and time again, over the past three seasons, he has ensured his team recover strongly from what appear to be huge set backs.

Whilst no one deserved to emerge from the Oldham defeat with any credit, tonight they all merited a share of the acclaim. There remains a feeling that this has become a patched-up team whose shelf life is extremely limited and in need of an overhaul, but for now it is a team that is more than good enough to put to bed any lingering relegation anxieties.

As Parkinson argued midweek, inconsistency has blighted City’s results over the last few weeks. If they could play like this all the time, they would be grappling with Rotherham in the play offs. They are not good enough for that, but at the very least must eradicate feeble showings like last week. There can be no more repeats, and there certainly wasn’t here.

Instead, at the New York stadium, this group of players showed their worth. Now they must go out and do it again another four times, so that the newly-promoted Bantams can end the season on the high note that a mid-table finish surely merits.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury, Bennett (Thompson 90), Doyle, Dolan (De Vita 77), Jones, Reach, Stead

Not used: Barker, McHugh, Bates, Yeates, McBurnie

Nowhere to hide as Bradford City go to Rotherham

11 Apr

Leyton Orient

Rotherham United vs Bradford City preview

@New York Stadium on Friday 11 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

It is impossible not to fear the worst about tonight. It is difficult to envisage any other outcome but a home victory.

Rotherham’s defeat to Sheffield United on Tuesday was their first defeat in 17 matches – they had been unbeaten since New Years Day. During that run they averaged 2.44 goals per game and scored three or more times on six occasions. Despite their midweek blank, the Millers are the top scorers in the Football League, and the third highest of the 92 – behind only Liverpool and Man City.

The recent run has taken Rotherham from play off challengers to being in the hunt for the second automatic promotion place behind Wolves. They currently lie nine points behind second-place Brentford with five games to play, and recently crushed the Bees 3-0 at the New York stadium.

Be afraid tonight. Be very afraid.

Particularly when you throw in City’s wretched recent record against their South Yorkshire neighbours – six straight defeats for the West – and the Indian Sign that Steve Evans holds over Phil Parkinson, going back to the former’s Crawley days.

There is every chance that the Bantams could suffer a real hiding tonight. It is not the game we needed at this stage of the season, when there is still some work to be done to ensure survival. Had Oldham been defeated at Valley Parade last Saturday, tonight could have been considered a free hit for City. But it is not. It is an important match for both clubs.

The time for pragmatism

After enduring one of his worst days in office, Parkinson is undoubtedly under some pressure to produce a big reaction from his players – although he should not have to fear for his job. From where City were two years ago to where we are now, he has engineered a 30-place improvement in the club’s league position. In other words a climb of one-third up the 92.

When such progression stops over a meaningful period of time, we can certainly raise the question of his future. But for now he continues to hold plenty of credit in the bank, and the two remaining years on his contract would cost the club a pretty penny to settle up. And if we were hunting for a replacement, we’d be looking for someone with the qualities that Parkinson possesses to take us forwards. He deserves the opportunity to rebuild the squad during the summer, and nothing I have heard or read over the last few days has convinced me otherwise.

The local media chose to completely ignore the fact that Parkinson was booed twice on Saturday over his substitutions (a shame because, if nothing else, asking the manager about it would have allowed him the opportunity to explain the changes). In many respects Parkinson has done well to last this long without suffering the indignity of such booing before. I struggle to recall a single Bradford City manager over the past two decades who wasn’t booed for their choice of substitution (Peter Jackson perhaps, but he wasn’t around long enough).

Even Paul Jewell, during a City Premier League away match at Sheffield Wednesday in January 2000, was booed for taking off Stuart McCall. If the man who took the Bantams to the top flight for the first time in 77 years – and kept them there – cannot escape such booing, Parkinson should not be concerned.

And the most important thing that Parkinson can do right now is to continue to be his own man and not listen to the crowd. Worrying about such matters has been the undoing of past City managers – think of Nicky Law bowing down to supporters in 2003 by playing Ben Muirhead when he evidently wasn’t the answer. Parkinson is experienced enough to know that there is a big difference between doing the right thing and doing what the crowd believes to be the right thing. And over these last few games in particular, he needs to be pragmatic rather than popular.

With Rotherham prospering at Valley Parade on Boxing Day through a 4-5-1 formation, Parkinson needs to ensure that his side can match that system if Evans is to repeat its use. If that means going 4-5-1 also and leaving, say, Aaron Mclean  (who is struggling for fitness) on the bench, so be it. There’s a section of City fans who hate 4-5-1 and will criticise any manager who tries it. So what?

Parkinson cannot set up his team for another Rotherham thrashing. A point tonight would be a great achievement and there is nothing wrong with targeting that.

What’s needed

To have any chance of succeeding, Parkinson needs every single player to put in a shift ala-Leyton Orient – there can be no passengers like there were in the Oldham game. Parkinson needs Andrew Davies, Stephen Darby and Gary Jones to demonstrate their leadership skills and set the example for others to follow. Rory McArdle needs to quickly get over last Saturday’s woeful display and demonstrate why he should continue to be at the heart of next season’s back four. Jon McLaughlin has not been playing badly, but also needs a good night.

If City do go 4-5-1, Chris Atkinson or – if either are fit – Mclean or Nathan Doyle will come into midfield. Adam Reach needs to use the platform of being live on TV to impress, and I suspect we will get a better performance than recent feeble efforts. Kyle Bennett needs to forget last week’s no-show and get back to the level he had been building up towards before. That said, Garry Thompson’s promising cameo off the bench on Saturday could be rewarded with a start ahead of the Doncaster loanee.

If James Hanson is fit enough to play, it could change any such thoughts of a 4-5-1. Parkinson needs Hanson, but it would be asking a lot for the big man to start on his own up front if not 100% fit.

What hope?

If there is a chink of light to be offered, it is that Rotherham have been better on the road than they have away; winning nine, drawing eight and losing three at the New York Stadium, with no one in the top half of League One having conceded more goals at home, including the Bantams.

Small crumbs, on a night that seems to be about damage limitation and raised relegation anxiety. The heart fondly remembers recent shock away victories when no one expected anything from City – Leyton Orient, two weeks ago, Southend United, two years ago and, one my all-time favourite away games, Rochdale in February 2010 (Peter Taylor’s second game in charge).

I guess the minimum that we can expect tonight is an improved performance from Saturday, and to hope that the players show sufficient passion to demonstrate they want to still be wearing a claret and amber shirt next season. Whether that will be enough to avoid a seemingly inevitable defeat is highly questionable, but at the very least it would be nice to walk out of the New York Stadium at the end of tonight feeling more confident about the future than we did leaving Valley Parade last Saturday.

Unacceptable Bradford City performance underlines need for major change

5 Apr

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Bradford City 2

Reach 35, Jones 90

Oldham Athletic 3

Wesolowski 22, Clarke-Harris 45+58

Saturday 5 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not used: Barker, McHugh, Bates, Stockdill

Missing a trick?

3 Apr

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By Matt Birch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Ground is Coming Like a Ghost Ground

2 Apr

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Coventry City 0

Bradford City 0

Tuesday 1 April, 2014

Written by Kieran Wilkinson (images by Mike Holdsworth)

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Time and Again

30 Mar

Leyton Orient

Leyton Orient 0

Bradford City 1

Mclean 27

Saturday 29 March, 2014

Written by Alex Scott (image by Gareth Walker)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not used: Bentley, Yeates, Stockdill, De Vita

On the outside looking in

27 Mar

 

Image by Alex Dodd

By Luke Lockwood

I’ll mention it straight away – I don’t get to as many City games as I would like because I play football on a Saturday and would always pick playing over watching. I go when I can and was a season ticket holder for the majority of the 10 year decline in league position. I have seen the worst times of Bradford City and also the best, and right now – despite the terrible relegation form we are enduring – this is nowhere near the worst.

Perhaps I am less angry than others as I do not have to put myself through the pain of enduring another 90 minutes every week; and agreement amongst all is that the last two performances in particular have been completely indefensible.

I have no issue with people complaining following abject performances, as I have done on many occasions over the years, including many match reports and opinion pieces either here or previously to Boy from Brazil. However, I think the current criticism of Phil Parkinson is over the top, despite a very disappointing end to our first stab at League One and we are entering a stage where any reason to question him is jumped upon.

Some criticisms he has been charged with this year are absurd, and I’ll begin with those just to get them out of the way. Most ironic of all is that he is criticised for not bedding in more young players and building for the future, with Oli McBurnie being the obvious candidate. It’s quite frankly laughable that as fans we expect Parkinson to build for the 2-3 years down the line when he is coming under pressure less than a year after delivering promotion and a League Cup final.

When McBurnie has been in the side he has proved that – although promising and technically gifted – he is not ready for the step up yet and Parkinson is right to protect him. After scoring goals for fun in the youths, the immediate pressure and expectation of the large City crowd may prove too much for a 17-year-old boy.

The same applies to the following recurring argument, “Why doesn’t he sign that Gregory lad at Halifax who’s scoring for fun” – Jake Speight or Ross Hannah anybody? Who’s to say we do not have people watching him, or have had people watching him and have decided he is not good enough for league level, or in fact that he may cost too much? Crawley Town had three bids turned down in January. If Parkinson signed Gregory he would still take time to adapt to League One football and would not be the quick fix that all City fans crave.

Parkinson definitely deserves his fair share of criticism for this season, but he doesn’t have a magic wand to guarantee success. Did we all think it would be plain sailing back to the Championship now? Surely we have experienced enough heartache over the years for any of us to be foolish enough to think that?

He has got it wrong at times. Perhaps he put too much faith in those players that got us promoted and to the League Cup final. These include players from the same crop that were unanimously agreed upon as the best squad since the Premier League, and nobody complained when their contracts were extended.

We currently can’t even decide amongst ourselves who is good and who isn’t, and the only players we seem to get wholehearted agreement on are Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies (when fit) and Gary Jones – who himself came in for criticism earlier in the season. It also seems like James Hanson has finally won over his doubters, as Aaron Mclean becomes their target for not scoring enough.

Depending on who you speak to, Rory McArdle is either a very good partner for Andrew Davies or a League Two player; Nathan Doyle is either easily a Championship player or a liability who will go missing for a third of a season; and Mclean is either a playmaking, assist machine who will eventually add goals or a past it 30-year-old looking for his final pay cheque.

Yes there are those who we have all identified as not good enough or surplus to requirements. Garry Thompson, Matt Taylor, Rafa De Vita, but Parkinson has most likely also come to this realisation and will either release them or try to move them on in the summer.

We can also look at his inability to plan for the inevitable departure of Nakhi Wells. Mclean could prove himself to be a top quality capture, but it obviously will take some adjusting either to fit him into our style of play or for us to build our game around his. Certainly, the slow progress being made does suggest Parkinson was inadequately prepared for how we would adapt to losing the focal point of our game.

However, it may be that Parkinson thought we had enough to maintain our League One status when Wells left, and was putting in preparations for next year. Mclean seems the player who is desperate for his midfield to get up in support or beyond him, as shown in how he created goals for Gary Jones at the start. Alas, Jones is no longer of an age where he has the legs to do so week in, week out. Parkinson looking at other options in the centre of the park would suggest he is planning for that.

On the other hand, Parkinson may have taken a gamble at the start of the season on Nakhi Wells, James Meredith, Andrew Davies, Kyel Reid and co being capable of mounting a better challenge this year than they have. Unfortunately gambling does involve an element of luck, which Parkinson has been without. Those four significant players have all missed a large chunk of the season – Nakhi Wells may have been on Bradford’s books until January, but he stopped playing for City in December.

We must remember that Parkinson was not in charge at this level last year, he wasn’t watching the quality and style required to be successful and it is a while since he was last managing in League One. He has had this year to assess what is required and make us upwardly mobile for next year.

We can all agree that his summer signings were not of the required quality, but this coming summer is when we should judge Parkinson on his signings. Remember this is the man who recruited Stephen Darby, Gary Jones, Nathan Doyle and James Meredith, following a less than convincing two-thirds of a season where he just about kept us in the Football League.

Indeed, if there is anything we can take from experience it is that Parkinson has shown us he is a manager who learns and adapts but not necessarily with immediate results. Look at the way he implemented tactics following the League Cup humiliation to produce the performance that steamrolled Northampton on the same Wembley pitch.

Then there is the most common comment of them all: “Phil Parkinson would be sacked if it wasn’t for last year”. But he did have last year. That is why we are fighting to maintain our position in League One status rather than potentially fighting to do the same in League Two. The ironic thing is had we stayed down we probably all would be much happier if we were competing for promotion from League Two and proclaiming what a great manager he is. I’m not saying anyone regrets getting promoted, but we wouldn’t have known any different and would still (hopefully) be experiencing that winning feeling.

It is much like Alan Pardew would have been sacked last season if it wasn’t for the season before that. The club stuck by him believing in his ability and look at his Newcastle side this year: back up the table in 8th place, behind only those sides who have invested millions upon millions and an extremely well-run Everton.

Everton, a side managed by a certain Roberto Martinez who was in charge of Wigan when they were relegated last year. Would Wigan have replaced him had he not been poached by a much bigger, more attractive club?

Further, look at the relegation fight this year in the Premier League and how much improvement a change in manager has provided these clubs

Position Team Change Manager?
11 Aston Villa No
12 Hull No
13 Norwich No
14 West Ham No
15 Swansea Yes
16 West Brom Yes
17 Crystal Palace Yes
18 Sunderland Yes
19 Cardiff Yes
20 Fulham Yes (Twice)

Apply the same logic to our experiences in recent years. Was replacing Nicky Law with Bryan Robson a success? Was replacing Colin Todd with David Wetherall a success? Was replacing Stuart McCall with Peter Taylor a success? Was even replacing Peter Taylor with Peter Jackson a success? Even more importantly still – did replacing Peter Jackson with Phil Parkinson produce immediate results?

Then the next question we need to ask is this: what would replacing Phil Parkinson with Mr.X – I can’t even think of a suitable replacement – achieve? Perhaps a short run of improved results, as players fight to prove themselves to their new manager, or perhaps not. Almost definitely a complete rebuild once more come the summer, as another new manager looks to implement his style on the team with no guaranteed success.

Besides, who do we want to replace him with? Another manager with some success and some failures on his CV; or an unproven, inexperienced manager desperate to prove himself. Because I believe we’ve tried both, and Dean Windass is waiting rather impatiently by the phone if not!

Then consider what keeping Phil Parkinson might achieve? Most probably maintaining our League One status – though perhaps not convincingly – and the opportunity for him to learn from his mistakes and experiences and build on his squad for next year. I know which scenario I would consider more likely to provide success next season.

Take a step back from the pain of the abject performances each week and look at a club: promoted last year under a manager who made them upwardly mobile for the first time in over a decade. A side that at this current time has a cushion between themselves and the relegation zone, in a division they worked so hard to get to. Fans that have experienced much worse in recent history than they are doing now and a manager who, given a bit more time, could prove he can progress them further still.

From bad to worse

26 Mar

Bradford City 0

Walsall 2

Westcarr 68+78

Tuesday 25 March, 2014

By Gareth Walker

From a Bradford City perspective, the game against Walsall was an opportunity to show that the ‘performance’ against Shrewsbury Town on Saturday was a one off. Unfortunately, they didn’t take it, and instead continued where they left off in Shropshire.

Listless, abject, uninspiring, insipid and abysmal are all terms that I have seen used to describe the fare served up last night and, in truth, it is difficult to argue with the use of any of them.

The problems filtered right down from the management team, who got the ball rolling with a strange decision to play Matthew Bates in central midfield alongside the returning Gary Jones. Did the changes send out the wrong message to the team? Who knows, but many of the players seemed to play like their minds were already on the beach for their summer holidays.

The fact that Nathan Doyle injured his groin at the weekend and Matty Dolan had a shocker of a game at New Meadow meant that Magic Man was certain to start this game, but the decision to play Bates alongside him, whilst leaving a specialist central midfielder Chris Atkinson on the bench, was somewhat of a puzzler.

Bates has been much maligned by City fans whilst playing at centre back since he joined the club, and unfortunately the former Middlesbrough captain didn’t do much to change that opinion whilst plying his trade in a new position. Bates appears to me to be someone who doesn’t do much himself, yet is quite good at shouting and laying blame at teammates’ door.

The other change from the weekend was the restoration of Andy Gray to the starting line up in place of the injured James Hanson, who was only fit enough for a place on the bench. Phil Parkinson revealed afterwards that Hanson was only 60% fit and, oh, how we missed him!

Since Nahki Wells left the club in January, Hanson has really stepped up to the mark as City’s main goalscoring threat; with Aaron Mclean struggling to hit the ground running. But last night showed more clearly than ever how reliant we were on the departed Bermudan’s pace, in particular.

It is difficult to knock Mclean because the lad is clearly a trier – and his failure to make an impact so far is definitely not through lack of effort. However, the former Peterborough and Hull player just looks completely lost. He runs around like a headless chicken because he simply doesn’t seem to fit in with our style of play. However, strikers will always be judged on goals and his and Gray’s failure to test the Walsall keeper even once last night was a damning indictment of their time at City so far.

It wasn’t all the front two’s fault however, as the midfield and, in particular, Adam Reach completely failed to create anything for them. Parkinson was right in his post match assessment when he said that we created nothing in the final third. It was strange, therefore, when the manager took off the only two players who were looking remotely interested in trying to create something. Kyle Bennett was having a much better game than Reach, and Jones was giving 100% as ever, but it was these two players that Parkinson sacrificed in the second half in order to introduce Garry Thompson and Dolan to the action.

I am told that Jones in particular didn’t appear to be happy at being withdrawn from proceedings, as he completely failed to acknowledge Dolan when he came off and he threw a water bottle out of the dug out. He also apparently didn’t do his usual lap to applaud the crowd at the end. As City supporters, we can only hope that this was out of frustration rather than being a sign of deeper-rooted issues at the club.

Reach and Bennett’s careers at City have contrasted each other to date. Reach started like train when he first came to the club and many supporters were asking how he wasn’t getting a regular game at Middlesbrough. His more recent performances, however, have seen his contribution to the team diminish considerably and it makes one wonder if it is this inconsistency that has prevented him from establishing himself at a higher level, so far in his fledgling career.

Bennett on the other hand had a slow start to life at Valley Parade having hardly played any recent football for parent club Doncaster Rovers, and he then got sent off on debut. His performances in recent weeks have improved considerably, however, and it was him who provided any slight glimmer of a threat to Walsall last night. The fact that he is out of contract at Doncaster this summer means that he has a point to prove, and he is showing the desire that you would expect from someone in his position.

Walsall for their part are known to be a very decent footballing team and they will consider themselves to have put in an almost textbook away performance. They dominated possession from start to finish, as they implemented their neat passing game. Although in reality they didn’t really have too many goalscoring chances.

I texted a friend during the first half to say what a dull game it was and how, in the stands, most people were already discussing how it felt like a 0-0, simply because there really hadn’t been that many shots on goal. The nearest that the first half came to breaking the deadlock was an awful mix up between Jon McLaughlin and Rory McArdle that almost gifted The Saddlers the lead.

Unfortunately, it was the away team’s greater cohesion in possession when contrasted with our long ball tactics that made them look a class above us. When we did get the ball off them, we were too quick to squander it either through sloppy play, through not holding it up well enough or through the midfield simply not getting involved enough.

Romiane Sawyers, Craig Westcarr and Fabien Brandy had looked to be a threat to us throughout, and it was these three players who combined to open the scoring in the 68th minute. From a City point of view, it was an incredibly soft goal to concede as what looked like a totally innocuous low ball to the near post was turned home by Westcarr who somehow got in front of McArdle and McLaughlin, neither of whom covered themselves in glory.

McLaughlin did make amends for his error less than five minutes later, however, when he made a fantastic full length save to deny Brandy adding a quickfire second. But it was the compete lack of a reaction from the rest of City side that was the most worrying aspect to see from the stands, and many supporters started to vent their frustration.

When the second goal did eventually arrive, it had a certain air of inevitability about it. It came just ten minutes after the first and from the best move of the match which Westcarr finished with a fine curling effort from the edge of the area. The City players looked like strangers, whilst the crowd booed and started to head for the exits in their droves.

Many supporters who I normally consider to be positive about the team were worried by the complete lack of effort, desire and fighting spirit on show last night. These are issues that we don’t normally identify with a Parkinson team; we thought that we had left them behind in the dark days of Peter Taylor’s tenure. However, the number of players who simply appeared to be going through the motions has led many to again question this manager’s tactics and his record in the transfer market. Even on his best days, Parkinson has appeared overly reliant on Plan A and the same old faces in the team.

The boos that echoed around Valley Parade at half time and at full time were noticeable because it has been so rare to hear them during Parkinson’s tenure. Most of the dissent probably came from people who were shocked at how bad we were. The only people who weren’t shocked will have been those who, along with me, were unfortunate enough to travel to Shrewsbury at the weekend.

After the game, Parkinson didn’t come out of the dressing room in time to speak to the radio before Pulse Sport went off air, and Sticks speculated that there would be a few players getting a dressing down. When he did eventually emerge, the manager was extremely subdued and said that he didn’t blame the crowd one bit for voicing their discontent.

It’s sad to say, but the complete lack of a goal threat makes this game as bad as any I have seen under this manager. It is true that this group of players and management have dug us out of holes in the past, but they need to show the fight that made them famous in order to do it again.

The gap to the relegation places is currently six points, but it will be down to five if Stevenage win their game in hand. City’s next two games are both tough looking away fixtures to Leyton Orient and Coventry, and we will have to perform a damn sight better than we have in the last two games if we want to pick up any points from them.

Somebody needs to get us going again, because a return of zero points would leave even the most ardent optimist amongst us having to admit that we are in a relegation battle.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury, Bennett (Thompson 56), Bates, Jones (Dolan 81), Reach, Mclean, Gray (Hanson 60)

Not used: Bentley, McHugh, Atkinson, Yeates

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