Tag Archives: Jon McLaughlin

2014/15 previewed: A busy summer for David Baldwin

28 Jul
Picture courtesy of Bradford City FC

Picture courtesy of Bradford City FC

By Jason McKeown

David Baldwin used to be long retired, living a relaxing life in Spain. Yet whilst the West Yorkshire weather on the afternoon of Bradford City’s pre-season friendly with Blackburn Rovers would rival temperatures in Madrid or Marbella, for David there are no Sangrias by the beach to enjoy, and instead a meeting with Stephen Hawthorn-Emmott, the club’s Head of Marketing, inside one of the Valley Parade boxes, followed by a pile of paperwork to get through and a further meeting with a scout in half an hour’s time.

It is 2pm, and in the Valley Parade main stand outside, City fans are beginning to take their seats, but David is working up to the last minute, before he can take in the entertaining 0-0 draw – today’s task list including an interview for Width of a Post. The close season is a frantic and unrelenting period for the Bradford City Chief Executive – persuaded out of retirement by Mark Lawn in 2007 – who amongst the many plates to keep spinning has the small matter of helping Phil Parkinson to rebuild the squad.

During a summer of vast change in the playing staff, it is no small challenge. Two weeks before the big kick off, many of the holes have been filled but there still gaps to address. Those lazy retirement days must seem a lifetime ago.

The retained list

One of David’s initial summer duties included the negotiating of new deals for the out-of-contract players who Parkinson wanted to keep: namely Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and, initially at least, Jon McLaughlin. David explained how the process of offering new deals works.

“When you do an offer of re-engagement with a player, the player has one month from receiving the offer to make a decision,” stated David. “There are two conditions of the offer; firstly that it must be an improved offer or at least matching what they were earning. Secondly, we have to give them a month to decide on it. That is then their protection and, if they want, they can go and test the market to measure if it is a good deal for them.

“Rory McArdle was the first one back from holiday and we sat down with his agent to sort his deal quite quickly. Some amendments were made to the original offer, and he signed on those terms. Stephen Darby received his offer then went on holiday a couple of days later. So it was longer before he came back, but then he very quickly came into the building wanting to sign, which was good news.”

Yet whilst these two players re-signed relatively promptly, it proved to be less straightforward with James Meredith and Jon McLaughlin, who failed to sign the deals on offer before the 30-day deadline, meaning the club had the right to withdraw them. The bottom line being that the club have ultimately brought in replacements for these positions, with Meredith re-signing to take up what initially looks set to be a back-up role, and McLaughlin departing altogether.

Image by Mike Holdsworth

Image by Mike Holdsworth

“Jon McLaughlin’s offer had elapsed, because I don’t think he was happy with the offer we had made,” revealed David. “And that’s when the positioning with him changed. With James Meredith it was the same scenario; he didn’t come back to us in time, although later decided that he wanted to be here.”

On McLaughlin, Baldwin admitted that the decision not to make a further contract offer was due to finances and the manager’s choice to bring in Jordan Pickford as his new number one. “You are balancing the economics of a playing budget with the positions that you need to fill,” he stated. “And the dilemma for the manager was, who is he going to hang his hat on to be his first choice goalkeeper? He’s looking at all the permutations.

“What you have to consider is that, if you can’t afford two first team goalkeepers, it becomes an expensive thing to have one of them sitting on the bench. Now if the manager was in a position where he was making Jon McLaughlin his first choice, then the offer to him would be a first choice offer.

“From Jon’s perspective, his expectation will be that he would receive an offer as a first choice. And understandably so, he was an ever present last year. But the manager picks the team. From a Board perspective it is simple economics of saying to the manager ‘you can’t afford both’. So he had to make a choice. We don’t tell him which choice to make, it was a decision he had to make balanced against making sure there is money set aside for other parts of the team.

“We can’t afford to have a keeper on a first choice budget sitting on the bench.”

And what of James Meredith? “We made James an offer; obviously he was weighing up his options, like anybody would. It probably didn’t help that James was over in Australia, but once the offer period had elapsed, we then targeted Alan Sheehan, who we had been discussing as well.

“Alan obviously comes with a good pedigree and was being chased by a number of clubs, including clubs who are favourites to go up this year. We kept it very much under the radar and brought him in, which was very much a disappointment to James. He felt that whatever options he was considering elsewhere, they hadn’t come to fruition as he had wanted them to, so we sat down and re-negotiated a different deal with him. I think we now have good competition for that position.”

Another ‘We Made History’ player to leave, despite the club keeping the door open, was Kyel Reid, who has signed a two-year deal with League One rivals Preston North End. David confirmed that City were not in a position to offer Kyel a new contract as they were still evaluating his recovery from long-term injury.

“With Kyel Reid we hadn’t made an offer at that stage, because we were assessing what his fitness situation would be. But in the meantime, his agent got him a good deal elsewhere. We wish him well. But Omar Daley didn’t come back quite the player he was, and we can’t afford to be in a position of paying wages if a player isn’t going to play.

“Other clubs might see it differently and will take that risk, but it wasn’t a decision that we could make at that particular time.”

sheehan

Image by Kieran Wilkinson

The incomings

Beyond the futures of last season’s playing squad, David has also worked with Phil Parkinson in bringing in new faces, and he highlighted midfield as the key area of change. “The ethos was that the midfield needed more running power and a bit more craft, to play a different way when needed,” David said.

“The positive is that, of the players we have brought in, they have got good pedigree. You look at Gary Liddle. I spoke to the Hartlepool Chief Executive about him, and they could not speak more highly of him. We spoke to Notts County about him, and they obviously desperately wanted to keep him, but I think he was ready for a new challenge. He’s a player’s player and a fan’s favourite.

“Then there is Matty Dolan. He was only on loan with us because we missed the January transfer deadline by three minutes, because Middlesbrough were trying to sort out the international transfer of a goalkeeper at the same time. Matty came in last season and found his feet at the club. It takes time to adjust, as he is only a young lad and has only just turned 21. What he has done is listened very intently to the instruction of the close season fitness programme set by Nick Allamby. We’ve spoken with him at length about the benefits of the sport science side of things that we offer, and he has taken it on board and come back in fantastic shape.

“You look at the midfield now as having three fresh new players in: Gary Liddle, Billy Knott and Matty Dolan, who are all good footballers. There’s a decent amount of athleticism in there, and there’s a good amount of craft too.

“Depending on formations, we also now have the typeset of a typical number 10 in Billy Clarke. He can play up front, and he can play on the wings. He’s played at a higher level. I think he is a good addition to the squad. But midfield is certainly the biggest fundamental change.”

In contrast, the defence from last season has been largely retained, with the addition of Sheehan at left back and the replacing of McLaughlin with Pickford. “The seventh-best defence in the league, and we have retained the entire back four,” smiled David. “And we’ve added another quality player to it. And we’ve added a real up-and-coming young talented goalkeeper.”

On Pickford, David was keen to highlight the young shot-stopper’s glowing reputation within the game. “The people that we talked to – people with decent reputations as goalkeeping coaches and managers – have said that we have got a real starlet there.

“The bottom line with Jordan Pickford is that he is highly rated as the next young talent coming through. Sunderland have given him a long-term contract, and Sunderland want to see him playing. This is a good stage for him to demonstrate to them how good he can be.

“Is he motivated to deliver? Of course he is. People say he is a loan keeper, so how committed will he be? Well – with the four-year contract he has signed at Sunderland – he is committed to making sure that, a year down the line, he is knocking on the door for their first team. I think that is the reality of it, and it means we get a good player along the way.”

Despite the six arrivals, there are still other new signings needed and time is running out. So how is recruitment progressing? David explained, “The end of the transfer window is probably a more important measure than the start of the season, because you can rush people in, not quite getting the people you wanted, and they end up sitting on the bench. And then a week later the person who you really wanted becomes available, and there is nothing you can do.

“As we stand at the minute, I would expect three or four (new signings). Three at the absolute minimum, possibly four, maybe even five depending on the deals.

“No one is rushing into a panic and we are monitoring the situation carefully, these players and their availability. And some things are just worth waiting for.”

One of the key considerations behind the new arrivals is the planned change of playing style this season, which was first mentioned by Julian Rhodes in May. I have been intrigued all summer about how this new direction was agreed and whether this decision has been placed upon Parkinson, similarly to how the West Ham board have laid out certain demands of Sam Allardyce. David confirmed that the new approach was in fact a joint decision between the Board and manager.SAM_2083

“It’s a collaborative decision. We discuss it as a collective group. You digest what went well last season, what didn’t go so well, what things we need to improve and how we can go about it. Now I would highlight the Peterborough home game. We saw a change of system, and it was effective. Although ironically, in the Peterborough away game, the system change that day wasn’t as effective!

“We can still drop to the core 4-4-2 if needed. But the difference now is we have got players who can play both that and the diamond formation. Ultimately the one thing that came out of these discussions is that more mobility and versatility is needed in League One. And so, with the new players, what we are seeing is that coming to fruition. And it’s something we want to supplement further.

“There will be times when we want to go for pacy wingers, so that’s why we are looking for pacy wingers.”

The budget cuts

An ongoing talking point all summer has been the news that the playing budget has been cut to the tune of £500k – a considerable sum of money, with last season’s wage bill rumoured to be just over £2 million. David stressed that he believes the revised budget is nevertheless competitive, and highlighted a wide-ranging focus on delivering greater efficiency in how the club operates, which includes the playing staff.

“There has been a lot of talk about the budget being hacked back by half a million. The bottom line is that, over the last few years, we have had players in the building that have not come in on cheap wages, and yet their game contribution to the team has been sporadic to say the least.

I recently did an article in the T&A about efficiencies. This budget is not a hack-back, it is still a very strong budget. And as part of doing that, we are checking the efficiencies of each transfer so that we aren’t paying, for want of a better word, dead money.”

But does that mean there are going to be further outgoings? “Never say never. What’s very important is that we still need to add to this squad. If you have a player leave, you’ve either got to bring in a better player or you’ve got to be in a situation of being made an offer that is too good to turn down that can create funds to improve the team further.”

This leads us onto the future of James Hanson, who has been the subject of tabloid speculation about a £300k transfer offer from Millwall. David confirmed that no bid has been made for James or any player. “There have been no offers. As far as I am concerned, everyone who is here is here and staying, but the picture can always change.

“As far as we are concerned, James Hanson is a good asset to this football club. And we would not want to see him go. However, somebody might make an approach that is too good a deal for him and too good a deal for the club to turn down. That could happen tomorrow, or it could happen in two years’ time.

“From our point of view, we are conscious that we only have 17 professionals in the building. There is enough to start and on the bench, but we are conscious that we need more players to strengthen this team.”

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Off the field matters

With ‘efficiency’ the phrase of the moment, I asked David for examples of where else this has occurred within the club. “We’re in a process of outsourcing to a third party the corporate side of the catering. The company has a good reputation out there in the market place. That arrangement starts on Friday. On a match day, what they will be managing are the Hendrie and McCall suites, Boardroom, 2013 Lounge, Bantams Bar and the boxes. They will also be running events on non-match days.

“It’s a better return for us without all the associated costs of managing it ourselves. I think they will drive the business on, and we – like with the shop – will be rewarded through greater turnover. We get a minimum guarantee and a percentage of sales on top of it, which is the way that the shop deal is structured.

“There is also the closing of the 1911 Club during the week. We haven’t closed it down, it just wasn’t running efficiently on a Monday – Friday basis, and however many people we get in there, versus the labour costs, it’s not going to generate enough income. And it can also detract from the service we offer on midweek match days, which is something we don’t want to do. Unfortunately there have been some redundancies as a result.

“The maintenance of the training ground has also been looked at, and the recruitment of the match day stewards. It’s all about counting the pennies, and no one has been immune to it.”

Another off-the-field developed this summer was the news that long-serving head of youth development, Peter Horne, had left the club. David was guarded over the reasons for this parting of ways but did reveal, “The facts are quite straightforward. Peter offered his resignation, and we accepted that resignation. There is nothing more than that. The reasons why people give their resignations I think it is private to them.

“From a transitional point of view, we have had natural progression of internal staff being promoted, with Alan Nevison taking over the academy. And I think that is testament to the quality of the people we have in the building.”

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The season ahead

Over the previous two campaigns, the Board has set a playing budget higher than the club’s true break-even point, with variants that can be considered for making up the shortfall over the course of the season. David confirmed that the reduced playing budget has again been structured in this way, although added that the difference between the budget and break-even point is lower this time, making it easier to claw back.

“We have another speculative budget this year. The break-even point, and the level we set the manager – there is a difference between the two. You make those decisions based on calculated changes that could happen throughout the season, which I call extraordinary income. Extraordinary income includes cup runs, transfer fees of existing or youth players, add on fees in relation to players who have left who are playing – there are certain trigger points, such as when they play and when they score goals. The other aspect is sell on clauses from other players sold who are further down the line.

“You look at that combination, and our expectation is that we will claw back the overspend from this year to give ourselves, in 12 months’ time, a break-even budget. So we are not carrying debt into next year.”

Earlier in the conversation David had joked about the ongoing speculation over former youth player Tom Cleverley – with any transfer from Manchester United triggering revenue for City through a sell-on clause. “Those things that may exceed the break-even point, we will want to give them to the manager to give him an even more competitive playing budget, without undue risk,” confirmed David.

So with the new faces almost all added, and the new playing style showing promise during pre-season, it just leaves one big, so far unanswered question – what, exactly, are the expectations this season? David declined making any predictions, but concluded the interview his own thoughts.

“My personal view – and the proof will be in the pudding – is that it is a more adaptable and better football team this year compared to last year. I think we have more versatility. We are not reliant on one or two players to score the goals. We are not sitting on laurels as we are not finished yet with building the squad.

“It is a moving beast, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we have a better footballing team in place now. I’m conscious that we have gaps, but it would be nice to think that we could make improvements on last year.”

Jon McLaughlin’s departure triggers mixed feelings

23 Jul
Image by Kieran Wilkinson

Image by Kieran Wilkinson

By Jason McKeown

“We’ve come a long, long way together. Through the hard times and the good.” Praise You by Fatboy Slim

If there was one Bradford City player on the retained list who it would be assumed would re-sign with no problems, it was surely Jon McLaughlin, who has this week instead departed the club. As the longest-serving player, the Scottish keeper’s endurance was something to celebrate. He’d enjoyed a good season, where he’d finally proven himself the club’s number one. A new contract was offered to him in May, along with deals for Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and James Meredith. But whilst the others all eventually agreed terms to remain in West Yorkshire, McLaughlin has been stuck in limbo, unable to conclude a new deal.

Width of a Post understands that the player (or at least his agent) believed there would be a fair amount of interest from other clubs. So seemingly in a position of strength, he turned down City’s initial offer and apparently requested a substantial pay rise. If the rumours are true, McLaughlin was a relatively low paid player last season (and certainly a long, long way below the club’s highest earner, Aaron Mclean). However, his demands did not go down well with the club, who withdrew the original offer when it expired following the 30-day consultation period.

It meant that McLaughlin was left in a position of training with City in the hope of continuing negotiations; his hand further weakened by the signing of Jordan Pickford from Sunderland on a season’s loan. There was not the interest elsewhere that his agent perhaps originally suggested to him, although it is good to see him ultimately receive an acceptable offer from Burton Albion. As such, the player and club can shake hands on good terms, after going through so much together.

McLaughlin originally arrived at Valley Parade in 2008, awarded his big break by Stuart McCall. Over six seasons at Valley Parade, he has played his part in achievements big and small. But it didn’t translate into hero status, or even widespread appreciation. He was not unpopular with the crowd, but far from a favourite either. Whereas some of his predecessors in the Valley Parade goal have been big presences and demanding of the attention, McLaughlin always seemed something of a supporting character.

You didn’t always notice him, and sometimes it was hard to tell if that was a good or a bad thing.

You can certainly find plenty of detractors of McLaughlin. They will tell you he wasn’t good enough, that he has too many weaknesses and that his strengths are nothing special. Equally you will also find numerous supporters of the Scot. They will point to his overall ability, and his stats – which are undoubtedly commendable. But from the majority of City fans, there is a mixture of indifference and indecisiveness over his worth. The club’s longest-serving player, and yet many of us couldn’t make up our minds about him. Is he good enough? Could we do better? Could we do worse?

In 2013/14, McLaughlin was an ever-present in the league and can take pride in City ‘against’ column: they conceded the seventh-fewest goals in the division. McLaughlin kept 14 clean sheets – a record of almost one shut-out every three games – and only conceded more than two goals on five occasions.

That is impressive, but yet the credit for that solidity doesn’t seem to go to McLaughlin. Everyone agrees that Andrew Davies is the key figure in the back five, and the stats for a City side with Davies at the helm and a City side without him demonstrate his considerable value (just one clean sheet during his four-month absence). Stephen Darby won the 2013/14 player of the season award and is widely valued, Rory McArdle is generally rated. But what of McLaughlin? How influential was Jon McLaughlin in Jon McLaughlin keeping 14 clean sheets? And if the answer is ‘very’, why didn’t he get the credit?

The season before that, 2012/13, was a similar story. Parkinson interchanged between Matt Duke and McLaughlin, and the debate raged all season about who was the better player. I was a member of the #TeamDuke camp, yet the stats showed that Duke conceded twice as many goals as McLaughlin. Famously that season, a 4-1 thrashing to Exeter in March was a watershed moment that led to a late play off surge. Parkinson made two changes to the backline for the next game, against Wycombe, which began that run. Meredith was brought back in after injury and McLaughlin replaced Duke. Meredith received a great deal of credit for the subsequent upturn in the team’s form, whilst McLaughlin barely received a mention.

So what kept happening? Why does McLaughlin look such a good player on paper, but yet was unable to fully convince us when we were watching him live?

Like James Hanson, his background has both helped and counted against him. Signed from Harrogate Railway and a former University student. McLaughlin must have been initially grateful that a club like ours would give him an opportunity. He was fortunate to be here. And for that reason, there was always an element of looking down on Jon rather than looking up to him. He was around so long that he almost became first choice keeper by default.

It took Hanson, with his own non-league background, a long time to win over his critics and prove himself as a genuine star player of the team. McLaughlin failed to reach that same status. Part of my bias for Duke in 2012/13 derived from his greater pedigree that gave you the confidence to believe he was a ‘proper’ goalkeeper. If McLaughlin had similarly joined City from Hull, would we currently view and judge him differently? Certainly, Burton Albion’s fans will have a different perspective in how they welcome him, on account of his now-lengthy Football League experience.

What I’ve often felt is lacking in McLaughlin’s game were point-winning contributions. When you compare him to some of the best City keepers of the last two decades, there simply isn’t the same list of memorable McLaughlin performances and incredible saves. Yet on the other side of the coin, McLaughlin’s mistakes were not particularly frequent or dreadful enough to differentiate him from those who have kept the Bradford City goal before him. He is basically an ordinary goalkeeper. A good all round game, with nothing glaringly lacking from his range of abilities. Still, you sometimes wish that it was more evident just what a difference he makes.

In September, McLaughlin will turn 27 and, like his former goalkeeping coach Duke, could in theory be playing professional football into his late 30s. These next four or five years in particular should be amongst his best, and there must be some sadness that they won’t take place at Valley Parade.

For a lot of investment went into developing Jon. Four managers trusted in him, numerous goalkeeping coaches spent a great deal of time improving him. The lessons learned from the mistakes he made will now be to another club’s benefit. It will be very interesting to see how both he – and the keepers who follow him in the Valley Parade sticks – fare over the coming years.

Whatever the disagreements over recent weeks, no one can dispute that McLaughlin made a very positive contribution to Bradford City. We are all better off for what he did for the club.

Pre-season gets more serious in Ireland

14 Jul
Picture by Kieran Wilkinson

Picture by Kieran Wilkinson

UCD AFC vs Bradford City preview

@UCD Bowl on Tuesday 15 July, 2014 

By Jason McKeown

Bradford City’s annual trip to Ireland occurs with the squad for the 2014/15 season largely formed, and with only a few obvious gaps left to fill.

As Saturday’s 3-0 friendly romp over Guiseley evidenced, Phil Parkinson has plenty of strength in most areas of the team. There are several options and combinations for the centre of the park, up front and across the back four that will ensure keen competition for places. Although the appearance of defender and striker trialists at Nethermoor suggests Parkinson is considering adding to these areas, his main focus will surely be on the positions where he is severely lacking.

Principally that is someone to play in-between the sticks for the Bantams. As it stands, there is no contracted goalkeeper at the club. With less than a month before the big kick off, that reality prompts some apprehension – given it is such a key element of the team.

The folly of placing goalkeeper recruitment at the bottom of the priority list can be observed in Stuart McCall’s final season in charge, where he had infamously budgeted just £600 a week in wages to tempt a competent keeper. Cue problems. (And though the player eventually brought in that summer, Simon Eastwood, promoted huge derision over his performances at City, it’s worth noting that he might be back at Valley Parade next week as Blackburn Rovers’ keeper.)

Parkinson will evidently be weighing more importance on filling the position than as to leave barely any of his reduced budget left over to sign the two goalkeepers needed, but he’s probably not going to splash out the cash on the number two keeper at least. Last season, with the larger budget, Parkinson relied upon loan keepers to sit on the bench for half a season as insurance for a Jon McLaughlin injury. There may have been some financial commitment involved in borrowing Connor Ripley and Aaron Jameson, but it would barely have troubled the salary cap. With austerity the order of the summer, it’s hard to imagine Parkinson dramatically altering that stance.

Which makes the situation with McLaughlin all the more curious. City’s longest serving player was offered a contract to remain at the club, but for one reason or another it wasn’t signed. Clearly the club wanted him to stay when originally offering him that deal, but something stopped the Scot from agreeing to it. Without any public comment from the player, speculation reigns as to why he didn’t take the offer. Was he holding out for more money? Would he have preferred a longer deal? Had he been told that he might not be number one next season and was therefore unhappy? Was he aware of other clubs showing an interest in his services?

For the time being, McLaughlin trains with the club, presumably unpaid. If he was attracting interest from other clubs, what has stopped them from signing him, or why isn’t he at least appearing on trial for them? For these reasons, you can only speculate that offers from elsewhere have not being forthcoming, or at least any previous interest shown towards him has faded, should the keeper have been holding out for this. McLaughlin may have appeared on other clubs’ list of targets, but if other names were ahead of him on those lists, and if the club in question succeeded in signing them, there would be no need to follow up any initial interest shown towards Jon.

Such a scenario would appear to have occurred with James Meredith. In May the Aussie was quoted in Four-Four-Two as saying that although City would offer him a new contract, there was interest elsewhere that he would also look at. “I’m obviously assessing my options…Before I got injured there was a lot of interest from Championship clubs, that interest has died down a bit but there’s still a bit there.” It would appear that, as Meredith stalled over signing the deal on the table, City opted to sign Alan Sheehan instead (and on the day Sheehan signed, Sky Sports revealed Meredith had rejected his original contract offer). However, Meredith ultimately came back and agreed a revised one-year deal.

If there was interest in Meredith, it never materialised or wasn’t sufficiently tempting enough to better playing for Bradford City. Yet had Meredith originally signed the deal offered to him, would Parkinson have signed Alan Sheehan? The net result is that City now have two excellent left backs for League One level, and Sheehan – who was probably given certain assurances when he signed – is set to be first choice. By seemingly stalling, Meredith is now left with a lot of work to do earning a place in the team and winning over a doubting public. He must now have regrets.

A year ago I was speaking to the late former City Head of Development, Archie Christie, who was working for Harry Redknapp at QPR and quizzed me about Meredith. Unknowingly, I was providing him a reference about Meredith (I’m sure he also asked better qualified people than me) as he was on QPR’s lengthy list of targets for that summer. Again, nothing materialised and – to the best of my knowledge – City never received a transfer bid from Rangers. But it underlines the point that, as clubs draw up their wanted lists every close season, appearing halfway down one is no guarantee it will lead to something.

If there was still a firm contract offer on the table for McLaughlin to be Bradford City’s number one next season, he would surely sign it. He would not be training with the club, risking injury by playing in friendlies unpaid, and travelling over to Ireland, if he wanted to leave and if there was a realistic possibility of him doing so.

He has being accused of messing around the club and that’s probably true (though he has every right to secure the best situation for his career, as are you and I in our careers), but it appears that he is the loser of the situation. Simon Parker has stated the player “is still no nearer to finding out if he will be part of the club’s plans for the new season”, revealing that the balance of power has shifted. McLaughlin must now wait to see if the club still wants him, when at the beginning of June they had offered him a deal that he chose not to take.

The two games in Ireland begin with against the University College Dublin AFC (UCD AFC) Tuesday evening, at the wonderfully named UCD Bowl (can a 1,500 capacity stadium really be called a Bowl?) UCD play in the League of Ireland Premier Division (currently sitting second bottom, midway through their season) and will offer a useful workout.

Having initially being ruled out of the start of the season, central defender Matt Taylor is expected to experience some action over the two-game tour and may be fit enough to appear from the bench in the second half on Tuesday. On paper, Taylor still looks an excellent acquisition and, if he can sort his fitness issues, will add competition at the back.

Aaron Mclean, who picked up a minor knock in pre-season training, is also expected to figure at some stage of the tour and will want to hit the ground running. Last season his partnership with James Hanson saw very mixed success, and these games should be the perfect opportunity for the pair to build up a stronger understanding for when the serious stuff begins. In what is a big season for Oli McBurnie, he can’t afford to miss opportunities to impress in pre-season friendlies and will hope to be fit enough to figure on Tuesday.

Beyond Angelo Balanta and Nick Arnold, who have travelled to Ireland, it is unclear if any of the trialists from Saturday will be offered another opportunity to impress, and indeed there may be new trial players brought in for a go. Beyond that, Parkinson has stated his intention to give half of his squad 60 minutes on Tuesday and the other a full hour on Saturday, as fitness levels are pushed harder.

This is the third year in a row that Parkinson has taken the team to Ireland and it appears to work well in developing team spirit. Those supporters who have been on previous trips – after they stop talking about how brilliant the nightlife is – have always commented on an enjoyable atmosphere of openness around the matches, with players and management mixing freely with supporters.

And though some of the new signings still remain unfamiliar to us, there’s a good opportunity to meet and have your picture taken with people who might in future become City heroes. Two of my friends went to Ireland in 2012/13, and approached Ritchie Jones in the club house, desperate to have their photo taken together with the midfielder. Looking around for someone to take the picture they spotted an unassuming bloke nearby, asked if he would mind doing the honours and handed him their camera. Snap, photo completed. “Thanks very much” they said to the bloke, before walking back to the bar. “Who was that bloke?” one of them asked. “Erm (long pause) – oh he’s called Stephen Darby.”

Pre-season preview part two: Back to Guiseley

11 Jul

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Guiseley vs Bradford City preview

@Nethermoor on Saturday 12 July, 2014

By Jason McKeown

Pre-season begins and ends against managers with Bradford City connections; as first Mark Bower’s Guiesley welcome the Bantams tomorrow, and Colin Cooper’s Hartlepool travel to Valley Parade a week before the season starts. In total there will be six friendlies played in the space of three weeks, all aimed at ensuring the team hit the ground running.

Cooper’s time at Valley Parade was brief. He was brought in by Peter Jackson to assist in 2010/11’s troubling relegation battle, and took caretaker charge of two matches – both won – following Jackson’s shock departure early into the following season. Yet from such a short time period, Cooper left behind quite a legacy which has being widely cited as a key factor behind the club’s success over the past two seasons: Nick Allamby.

Having known fitness coach Allamby during his time at Middlesbrough, Cooper invited him to assist with Jackson’s 2011/12 pre-season and his knowledge and expertise have really taken the club forwards in how it prepares for the season. Upon replacing Jackson and Cooper, Phil Parkinson instantly recognised the value of Allamby’s work and retained his services. When the manager’s contract situation rumbled on during the second half of the 2012/13 season, one of the main reasons for the delay was Parkinson’s insistence that Allamby and assistant manager Steve Parkin had their own futures sorted at exactly the same time. The trio sat down together to sign three-year deals.

 The benefits of Allamby should be obvious to even the biggest sceptic. 2012/13’s 64-game marathon is the stuff of legend and it is to Allamby’s credit that the team looked as fresh as they were the previous August during their play off final demolition of Northampton. Simon Parker recently provided a superb stat about City being League One’s fourth-best second half team of last season, and we saw it with our own eyes. Recall, for example, the recovery from 2-0 down at Sheffield United in January when the team had looked beaten. What could easily have developed into a 5-0 hammering was turned around in the second half as City claimed a useful point. Credit to Gary Jones and co for dogged determination, but equally such comebacks were the result of the scientific fitness approach that Allamby has instilled.

It has helped to give pre-season a more serious edge to the days of old, and the friendlies – particularly the week-long stay in Ireland – are all part of a tried and proven plan. We have come a long way from going to Guiseley under Stuart McCall, with the manager, his assistant Wayne Jacobs and Mark Lawn’s son getting a run out. Allamby is a key figure all year round, none more so during pre-season where City do everything on their terms without a fixture list dictating the schedule. Nick told Width of a Post’s Nick Beanland last summer, “I try to give them ‘football intensity’ so we get them straight into playing football – there’s none of the old fashioned stuff where you’ll just run for two weeks before you get to see the football.” As the previous two seasons have proved, the work taking place now will stand this group of players in good stead for the battles ahead.

Beyond that, pre-season can from the outside appear fairly chaotic. The gaps waiting to be filled by new signings, the early judgements to form on new players, the uncertainty over who will be in the manager’s first choice XI when the season begins, the youngsters given outings, the trialists, the endless substitutions. Games, especially early doors, lack rhythm and tempo. Goals are applauded rather than cheered. Inevitably, someone will get injured and it often sets back their entire season.

Tomorrow will be the opportunity to take a first look at the new arrivals, with Billy Knott, Alan Sheehan, Gary Liddle and Billy Clarke expected to make their first outings in claret and amber. Matty Dolan is another new signing, but a player we are familiar with following his low-key loan spell last season. By 5pm there will probably be much talk about names that, at this moment, we have never heard of – the joy of trialists.

Other players who figure will have a point to prove and will aim to make the most of the fresh start. Jason Kennedy and Mark Yeates have a lot of people to win over and will want to impress – whether it be to figure more in Parkinson’s plans or to attract interest from other clubs. We’re looking for signs of a sharper and more settled Aaron Mclean up front, and that Rafa De Vita – who made a big impact on trial in this fixture last summer – is worth awarding another contract to.

The focus will also be on the man between the sticks. Jon McLaughlin continues to train with the club but has still yet to agree a new contract. Is he hoping to secure a move elsewhere or simply unhappy with the terms offered by Parkinson? His presence – or lack of – at Nethermoor tomorrow will offer some indication. Either way, expect a trialist of some sort to figure for 45 minutes at least.

Beyond that, it will be great to re-acquaint with the familiar faces of those who have done the business for City over the past two years and who remain a part of Parkinson’s plans. Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith and James Hanson – all know the Guiseley turf well from previous pre-seasons, and the journey ahead. As the warm up to a campaign full of unknowns begins, it is comforting to know that we have a core group of players who have consistently proven they can be relied upon.

For Guiseley – who over recent years have become a home for discarded Bantams players – there will be a few blasts from the past. Kyle Harrison and Danny Ellis were once in City’s youth ranks. Ben Parker spent the 2006/07 on loan at Valley Parade from Leeds. Danny Forrest made an explosive impact 11 years ago, scoring on his City debut. Andy Holdsworth was on trial at City under McCall in 2009 but was snapped up by Oldham before City could act. It will also be a special day for Bower, as he takes charge of a team against the club that he grew up supporting and represented for over 10 years. Last season, Guiseley were unfortunate to once again lose in the play offs.

At this stage of pre-season, Guiseley offer the ideal first test. Not least due to Nethermoor’s close proximity to Leeds-Bradford airport – last year the team flew straight to Ireland after the match.

The high stakes of high player turnover

24 Jun

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By Jason McKeown

Kyel Reid has joined Preston North End. James Meredith has removed “plays for Bradford City” from his Twitter profile. There is still no indication over whether Jon McLaughlin will sign the new contract he has been offered.

Should all three end up leaving Valley Parade this summer, the rate of player turnover will become eyebrow-raising.

Consider this. Of the 2012/13 squad that delivered the historic double Wembley season, just 12 months ago, only four players may remain at the club when the season begins in August: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies and James Hanson. It is often said that there can be no room for sentiment in football and that must certainly ring true of those tasked with making tough decisions, but we supporters are allowed to be different. There have been a lot of sad farewells over the past few weeks, and you wonder if ultimately there will have proven to be too many.

For beyond the 2012/13 heroics, it should not be forgotten that the bulk of the players departing this summer helped the club achieve a top half finish in the higher division of League One in 2013/14. During the best period of the campaign (which admittedly was early doors) the entire XI was the same as the one that had won promotion in the League Two play off final the previous May. We are not talking about people who were out of their depth, or who simply had to be replaced. This turnaround is either ruthless or premature – and only history will be able to tell us which one. The upcoming season is going to be very, very interesting.

Because make no mistake – expectations are increasing. Alan Sheehan’s arrival came under the T&A headline ‘Alan Sheehan signing gives rise to hopes of promotion’. Aaron Mclean was quoted in the T&A today stating the aim next season was to be “pushing for promotion”. This for a club with the playing budget cut by £500k (a-not-inconsiderable sum of money – with the club said to have had a wage budget just over £2 million last season, £500k represents a large chunk of money).

If the new-look side struggles to live up to the hype, you can easily imagine the fall out. If the players who have been let go flourish in their new homes, the wisdom of failing to keep them will be questioned. For as well as City ended last season, it wasn’t a happy ship in March and early April. Similar negativity will quickly return if things don’t go well.

Which is not to talk down City’s chances, but simply to observe how high the stakes are. Keep those heroic players past their ‘best before’ date and Parkinson would have been criticised. Let them go when they could still do a job – and a better job than their replacements end up doing – and Parkinson will be criticised. The potential departures of Meredith and McLaughlin would not be his choosing, but it all adds to a lot of experience being lost.

Parkinson knows what he is doing, and the team he is letting go is one that he originally built two summers ago – demonstrating his capability to build another successful team. But he needs a summer like 2012, not 2013, otherwise the coming campaign could prove to be an uncomfortable one for the manager.

For me, a promotion challenge in 2014/15 would be welcomed but shouldn’t be assumed. If City are not in the top six, it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure. Parkinson has two years left on his contract and is signing players on a similar length of deal – that should be a timeframe for a promotion push. Move forwards next season, absolutely, but it needs to be part of a bigger plan.

The pace of change is rapid, but we need to give it plenty of time to work. I just worry that patience is not going to happen, and fear the consequences of failing to realise potentially unrealistic expectations.

McLaughlin and Meredith continue to mull over their futures as De Vita invited back for pre-season

17 Jun

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By Jason McKeown 

For the second close season in a row, the who-stays-who-leaves uncertainty has become a drawn out affair. Whereas in previous years we pretty much knew the retained/released list within a week of the final game of the season, this time the futures of out-of-contract players has rumbled on with the dots slowly joining up.

The remaining questions surround Jon McLaughlin and James Meredith, with Rafa De Vita set to be invited back for pre-season training. Should the Italian wideman accept this offer, he will effectively start back where he was 12 months ago – on trial at Bradford City, with the jury still out.

Which seems appropriate for a player who barely made an impression during the first half of last season, but who enjoyed a couple of promising run outs during the final month. In particular, he impressed when starting in a narrow three-man midfield against Peterborough, playing a key role in an important 1-0 Good Friday success that banished lingering relegation talk.

Were it not for a bad injury that ruled De Vita out for some five months, Parkinson would undoubtedly have made up his mind on a player who clearly possesses quality on the ball but who can be guilty of poor decision making and drifting out of games. It seems likely that, should De Vita accept the trial offer and ultimately win a new contract, he would go into the season as back up.

Elsewhere, McLaughlin and Meredith are both pondering new deals with no inclination over whether they will stay (both are on holiday). It is curious why McLaughlin in particular appears to be taking so long to decide. The club’s longest serving player enjoyed a good season overall, where he started every game, albeit with no serious competition due to the playing budget not having room for two permanent goalkeepers.

During a sticky spell for McLaughlin last March, it is known Parkinson tried to sign Leeds keeper Paddy Kenny on loan. The deal never materialised, McLaughlin ended the season strongly and – in view of the budget cuts surely ruling out Parkinson bringing in a keeper to play ahead of him – we can assume that by signing the deal on offer the Scot will be first choice keeper again. Perhaps, as someone likely to be amongst the lowest paid, McLaughlin is unsure about the new terms on offer.

Parkinson is said to be keeping other options open in case, with a couple of sources telling Width of a Post that talks have been held with a Championship club over their keeper (we will do our bit to avoid risking scuppering any such deal by keeping the name of the keeper to ourselves for now).

Similarly, City are said to be looking at other left backs in case Meredith rejects the deal. His agent has been quoted saying Championship clubs are also in for the Aussie, although the T+A’s Simon Parker has thrown doubt over this claim.

The difficulties Parkinson experienced replacing Meredith, when he was injured last season, would emphasise the importance of keeping hold of him; although it should not be forgotten that – prior to his long absence – Meredith was not having a brilliant campaign. For me, he should stay at least another year, with the guarantee of first team football.

Meanwhile Parkinson will be continuing to target new signings and is probably in the market for two wide players and a striker. A source close to Adam Reach has informed us that the Middlesborough winger would be interested in returning to Valley Parade on loan next season, although understandably he is hoping to figure in Boro’s first team plans first and foremost.

Last day fun and games as Bradford City go to Tranmere

1 May

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Tranmere Rovers vs Bradford City preview

@Prenton Park on Saturday 3 May, 2014

By Jason McKeown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cannot wait.

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