Tag Archives: Jon McLaughlin

Who should stay and who should go?

14 Apr

SAM_2615

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:

SAM_2754

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.

SAM_2626

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:

SAM_2322

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

SAM_2760

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.

City on the brink of surviving The Oldham Division

4 Apr

SAM_2754

Bradford City vs Oldham Athletic preview

@Valley Parade on Saturday 5 April, 2014

Written by Jason McKeown (images by Mike Holdsworth)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SAM_2760

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time and Again

30 Mar

Leyton Orient

Leyton Orient 0

Bradford City 1

Mclean 27

Saturday 29 March, 2014

Written by Alex Scott (image by Gareth Walker)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not used: Bentley, Yeates, Stockdill, De Vita

The bubble

28 Mar

SAM_2615

Leyton Orient vs Bradford City preview

@Brisbane Road on Saturday 29 March, 2014

By Mahesh Johal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The true measure of progress

15 Mar

Bradford City 1

McLean 10

Gillingham 1

McDonald 56

Saturday 15 March, 2014

By Katie Whyatt

My mum has a well-worn saying that the best thing about going away is coming home at the end, and I agree – there’s nothing quite like the warm familiarity of your bedroom.

It must have been an odd ‘homecoming’, though, for Peter Taylor, given he was returning to a stadium in which he’d enjoyed very little success and had practically been hounded out off, when it looked like relegation from the Football League was a genuine possibility. Reading interviews with the former City gaffer prior to kick-off brought all the memories flooding back: the false dawns, the broken promises, the total dependency on loan players to plug the gaps, the reliance on O’Brien, Flynn and Syers to paper over the cracks.

Those were dark times. Times I’m not too keen to return to. The only thing I can really say is thank goodness we’ve got Phil Parkinson.

You’d often put the two at odds with each other: the juxtaposition of Taylor with his gawky, ugly, it’s-not-fancy-but-trust-me-on-this pragmatism, and Parkinson with his reliance on creative flair players in the form of two out-and-out wingers, presents a dichotomy seemingly destined to swing only in one team’s favour from the outset. Some find it easy to take umbrage with Parkinson’s alleged lack of a plan D or plan E, but what about Taylor’s lack of an unregimented plan A? What about the implacable lack of creativity and structure within his teams? What about the fragmented movements and misguided directness, exhibited so clearly in blue and white today?

While the second half devastatingly saw City slip down to the visitors’ level and relent the steely grip they’d exerted over proceedings in the first half, the gulf between the two teams was there for all too see. It wasn’t so much a new sighting as a flashback to the days of old: Gillingham used all the cards pervasive during Taylor’s tenure.

Which is undoubtedly why Parkinson’s initial game plan was so ruthlessly effective. Gillingham sat deep and allowed City time on the ball, and the use of the hugely influential Kyle Bennett and Adam Reach helped to exacerbate jitteriness within the visitors’ back four. To a man, the Bantams were faultless: Adam Drury excelled on the left and provided the seamless service to Reach that Carl McHugh can understandably struggle with, and Matty Dolan and Nathan Doyle once again dominated the centre of the park with dogged displays.

Everything was clinical and organised, Bradford’s hugely impressive tap-and-touch movements baffling a Gillingham side that seemed incapable of keeping it on the deck. Doyle, significantly, looks to have recaptured the form of yesteryear and his cutting vision and tidy distribution complimented Dolan’s runs and tenacity perfectly, and an unstoppable City midfield ran the show. Poor Craig Fagan looked as though he couldn’t wait to get to the break.

It was a Drury and Reach movement that opened the scoring. Following a period of hugely engaging build-up play from the Bantams’ left side, James Hanson typically won Rory McArdle’s long ball through from the back, and Reach laid off for Drury. The full back’s teasing cross fell perfectly into the path of the goal-shy Aaron Mclean, who keenly fired home from close range to open his Valley Parade account.

The goal was nothing less than the City performance had merited, and the lead could have been extended just minutes later. Reach sliced Fagan and Adam Barrett right out of the equation, but skewed his shot a metre wide. Mclean also converted Reach’s ball through a minute later, but the offside flag had been up long before the winger had collected the ball. Gillingham tried, but their frenetic stuttering was no competition for a rigidly composed City unit, and Bennett mirrored his left-sided counterpart with similar effectiveness and fluidity.

It was easily the best Bantams performance in months – I’d even plump for the whole season – and, though Gills’ reluctance to engage probably afforded City more space and thinking time than a clash against the likes of Wolves or Brentford would gift, take nothing away from the hosts, who enjoyed a hugely disciplined 45 minutes in which they had staunchly refused to surrender their principles. Add a tongue-in-cheek wave from Peter Taylor to the mix, and what you’re left with is a satisfying and positive first-half showing.

So where did it all go wrong?

Until the second half, City’s play had been nothing but laudable. I’m genuinely struggling to remember the last time I’d seen them so rampant and in control, looking, all over, to so plainly be head and shoulders above their opponents – the play off final is the game that immediately springs to mind. The home side’s dominance had seemingly eviscerated all hope of a Gillingham equaliser.

So, where did it all go wrong?

The introduction of the notorious Adebayo Akinfenwa, finally released from Andrew Davies’ back pocket after a lengthy and tortuous stint inside, will be an obvious talking point, and the striker’s pinpoint passing played through Cody McDonald for the visitors’ leveller. A moment of hesitation and indecision on the part of Jon McLaughlin cost City dearly, and Taylor’s side found themselves celebrating a goal they’d had absolutely no business in earning.

It was a mistake the hosts couldn’t bounce back from. City imploded and were frantic, scared. McArdle, who probably enjoyed his best game of the campaign, looked the most comfortable of the back four and fiercely repressed the hulking Akinfenwa, but it was generally staggered from the Bantams, with Bradford struggling to get the bodies in the final third to capitalise on Bennett’s runs forward. Only Gary Jones, introduced with 17 minutes remaining for the captivating Dolan, formed any real tonic, and City’s broken play reflected their opponents.

Gillingham looked to have finally found their feet and there was more conviction about their play, with Akinfenwa testing McLaughlin from 30 yards. Ultimately, the hosts paid the price for not finding that crucial second – proceedings finished 1-1.

It was a display representative of City’s entire season: calmness and resolve reaping lavish rewards initially, but the game plan eventually disintegrating and leaving the home side with more to do than they should have. Factor out that second half and you’ve got the performance of the day; factor out the first half and you’ve got something you’d want to forget.

As this season races towards its conclusion and the clamour to reach 50 points naturally grows louder, the best thing we can do now is continue to remain behind the team and maintain the positive feeling today sparked – the opening quarter seems to have silenced the ‘Parky Out’ brigade, and relegation fears, though mathematically holding weight, have been temporarily assuaged.

We’ve come a, um, way since the unbridled hedonism of the cup run, and not all of it’s been something you’d be hankering to write home about, but we’ve moved. There’s been stagnancy at times, but we’ve moved up the ladder and we’ve moved convincingly in most games. For a newly promoted club, there’s nothing alarmingly anomalous about any of this season. What it’s easy to forget following that unnaturally bright start is that the Bantams are still moving through a natural period of calibration and consolidation, and Parkinson is learning this division along with us.

The rudimentary Hanson-Mclean partnership is still in its infancy, which is what makes general performances – with the addition of the latter’s cool finish today – bode hearteningly well for the future. Equally, the left-side combination of Reach and Drury is still inchoate, yet it’s proving hugely effective and left the Gills defence with nowhere to hide.

Parkinson’s recruitment wasn’t perfect at the start of the campaign (De Vita and Taylor’s Bantams careers haven’t been helped by injuries, though, so I genuinely believe we still haven’t seen the best of these two), but he’s more than made up for that with five excellent acquisitions in the form of Reach, Bennett, Atkinson, Dolan and Drury, which, for me, means things are only looking up.

But if you need any further affirmation of the progress City have made under Parkinson, it was sat just a metre away in the dugout today.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury, Bennett, Dolan (Jones 73), Doyle, Reach, Hanson, Mclean (Thompson 80)

Not used: Bentley, McHugh, Bates, Atkinson, Gray

The outlook changes as Bradford City record second straight victory

22 Feb

Bradford City 1

Hanson 71

MK Dons 0

Saturday 22 February, 2014

By Jason McKeown

From such thin margins have come such considerable returns. Two 1-0 victories, two sets of three points. The league table suddenly looks so much healthier for Bradford City, who if not fully satisfying relegation concerns have certainly eased them. Nine points above the bottom four, with nine clubs between them and the dotted line.

Today was a different type of victory requiring a different type of performance. The attacking exuberance of Tuesday, which eventually wore down well-organised opponents, was less of a feature, as tired legs had to stand up to a talented-if-flawed MK Dons side. It was about grinding out the points rather than winning through greater intensity. Being dogged when you couldn’t be dominant.

Luck played its part too, none more so than for the game’s only goal. A long ball over the top was chased down by James Hanson but should have been cleared by David Martin. The visiting goalkeeper’s wild swing failed to make contact with the ball, and it rolled past him. Hanson continued his run and finished low into the unguarded net from a tight angle. A stroke of fortune, even though Martin’s hesitancy all afternoon made him seem like an accident waiting to happen.

You could make a strong case that the goal – which came in the 71st minute – was undeserved at the time, given it followed a spell of strong MK Dons’ dominance that saw them threaten Jon McLaughlin’s goal on several occasions. But the turnaround from second-best performers to ultimate victors was a triumph for Phil Parkinson. The Bantams manager reacted well to the threat of the opposition over-running his struggling midfield, replacing Aaron Mclean with Chris Atkinson and going 4-3-3. Suddenly the Dons weren’t passing the ball through claret and amber shirts so easily.

Let us not be romantic. Had City failed to earn this victory, Parkinson’s tactical change would have been heavily criticised by an increasingly sceptical section of Bradford City support. To swap a striker for a midfielder brought a confused reaction from many at the time, and it could easily have turned into dissent. That the switch brought such notable success deserves to go down as a big tick in Parkinson’s favour. As lucky as the goal might have proven, the improvement from City in the final 25 minutes was no coincidence.

Prior to that 65th minute re-shuffle, the home performance had been mixed. City started the game on the front-foot and Mclean should have belatedly broken his duck, tamely firing a one-on-one shooting opportunity straight at Martin. There was some promise about the way he and Hanson linked up, but this was by some distance Mclean’s least effective game for City. His first touch is often impressive, but he plays too much with his back to goal and several attacking moves broke down due to the former Hull man’s hesitation.

Hanson was certainly faring better. The MK Dons knew all about him from the 3-2 City victory in the reverse fixture last November, and clearly made plans to combat his threat. But even being double and – on some free kicks – triple-marked failed to curtail the big man’s dominance. He won everything in the air and showed some good touches bringing the ball down.

Hanson was involved in everything good about City. Clever link-up play with Mclean saw him charge into the box from a wide position and lay the ball off, via a deflection, into Nathan Doyle’s path. Doyle – easily the pick of City’s midfield four – should have made more from the opportunity than lashing a shot well wide. Hanson also teed up the promising Kyle Bennett for an effort straight at Martin, and finally had the best chance of the half himself with a fierce volley that smacked back off the crossbar.

Yet the MK Dons had chances too, with the 4-5-1 formation employed by Karl Robinson offering the flexibility for different midfield runners to support targetman Izale McLeod, and Daniel Powell pulling the strings in a holding role. Their best opportunity saw McLeod break forward after Carl McHugh and Andrew Davies collided going for the same ball. After a jinxing run, McLeod struck a low shot that beat McLaughlin but not the outstanding Stephen Darby, who heroically blocked the shot on the line.

Having ended the half stronger, the MK Dons continued to edge proceedings in the second. McLaughlin made two important saves and the back four – again very impressive, with Rory McArdle firmly back to his best – cleared a succession of corners. Cue Parkinson’s reshuffle midway through the second half, which was soon after followed by Hanson’s goal. A Valley Parade that had been almost mute for 20 minutes sprung back into life to help the players through the closing stages.

Perhaps the MK Dons were their own worst enemy, stubbornly refusing to deviate from their short passing principles and patient build up play – despite the greater urgency required. City looked far more likely to claim a second goal than concede their slender advantage. Doyle’s powerful drive from distance flew narrowly wide, substitute Garry Thompson had a reasonable penalty shout turned away and Hanson forced a smart save from Martin after getting on the end of a Jones cross.

Despite eight minutes of stoppage time to negotiate, City held out for a victory which keeps them in 11th and closing in on the top 10. With the third of three successive home games seeing bottom-club Stevenage next in town, there is every reason to be confident that the Bantams can strengthen their position and take another significant step forwards in retaining their League One status.

Yet although we have witnessed clear improvement over the past few days, it has hardly proven so vast to believe that there was a great deal wrong prior to Tuesday night. Aside from a wretched display at Carlisle, performances over the past few weeks have in the main being good, with only two defeats in the last eight matches. Since the end of October, only one visiting side has been victorious at Valley Parade. Davies’ five games back from injury have yielded three clean sheets. To date this season, just six League One sides have lost fewer games than City’s nine.

The fallout and the angst aired loudly by a minority, post-Carlisle, looked wholly unfair at the time. Some claimed that City were doomed to relegation and that a change of manager was the only remedy. It would be wrong to crow too loudly about how misguided these rash judgements now appear in hindsight – there are still issues for Parkinson to resolve, particularly long-term – but these back-to-back victories should quell recent criticism and hopefully win back a few doubting minds.

Increasingly it appears City are going to see out a comfortable mid-table season. There are plenty of better teams in the division, who will line up ahead of the Bantams in the promotion and play off positions; but also many worse sides, who over the coming months will be consumed by genuine relegation fears. The ultimate challenge for Parkinson is to get the club into the former group next season or the one after, despite the likelihood of his playing resources being reduced in the summer.

Such thoughts are for another day, and for now the manager deserves to bask in the glow of six points in five days, and two team performances that had all the hallmarks of their manager. In a season of thin margins, they are once again going his way. As a result, Parkinson can go into the final 14 matches looking upwards rather than down.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Meredith, Bennett (Thompson 56), Doyle, Jones, Reach (Dolan 90), Hanson, Mclean (Atkinson 65)

Not used: Jameson, Yeates, McBurnie, Gray

The place to be

19 Feb

Bradford City 1

McHugh 90

Port Vale 0

Tuesday 18 February, 2014

By Mahesh Johal

Walking to Manchester Victoria Station en route to Bradford, throngs of Barcelona fans covered the wet streets of Deansgate. Draped in their famous blue and red, excited supporters buzzed around in anticipation of the biggest game of the season. An epic battle between two of Europe’s finest sides; the game highlighted why the Champions League is the premier football tournament on this planet.

I’m not going to lie, I wanted to watch the game. I’m sure some of you wanted to watch that game. But let’s be honest, there is nowhere in the world that we’d rather watch a game of football than at Valley Parade. Further more, there’s no where we’d rather be than at Valley Parade watching a 92nd minute winner that finally slay the stats…one in how many was it?!

It was everything we deserved. Bradford City dominated from start to finish. They huffed and puffed – but that final ball, that clinical pass, that one opportunity deserted them. That was until the 92nd minute. With their eighth corner of the evening, Gary Jones’ cross was headed into the roof of the net by Carl McHugh. The header was as emphatic as the one he scored against Aston Villa in the League Cup semi final 13 months ago. It was full of desire, as McHugh threw himself towards the ball to convert the home side’s dominance into a winning goal.

We’ll harp on for years of the importance of his third against Villa, but tonight’s goal was of equal value to this season. One win in twenty one was the stat. Pressure was growing on Phil Parkinson’s shoulders. Another draw was on the cards. One win in twenty two it would read.

After the defeat to Carlisle changes were made. Some were enforced, with the Donegal youngster returning to the starting line up to replace the injured Matthew Bates at left back. Nathan Doyle partnered Jones in midfield; whilst Kyle Bennett was given another opportunity to turn around his floundering start at the club

City bossed proceedings, with the ever impressive Adam Reach dictating the game from the left flank. The on-loan Middlesbrough winger caused havoc and contributed to all things positive for Bradford. He was the ‘go to’ man and the architect of all sorts of problems for the visitors. With his loan spell expiring this week, Phil Parkinson and all those in attendance tonight will hope that an extension can be secured.

It was Reach’s lofted pass which set up James Hanson for the game’s first attempt. With the ball sitting up nicely, Hanson flashed the half volley attempt wide. The pair worked tirelessly throughout the first half and were both involved with a goal line scramble that nearly saw City take the lead. After a Hanson effort was cleared near the line, the resulting live ball fell to Reach; who’s audacious lob nearly caught visiting keeper Chris Neal off guard.

To think of the form book and coming off the humbling defeat to Carlisle, it was an extremely positive start by the Bantams. However, the good work was nearly undone by a poor Jon McLaughlin clearance. Running out of his area to clear his lines, McLaughlin’s kick found Chris Lines who shot on target towards the unguarded net. Thankfully Rory McArdle, who enjoyed his best game in some time, was on hand to head off the line. McLaughlin atoned for the error though and made a number of good saves throughout the match.

City continued their dominance in the second half with Aaron Mclean nearly scoring straight from the kick off. I’ve seen enough of the former Hull man to make the judgement that I like him. His endeavour and work rate are second to none, and he fits this team’s ethic. With the ball at his feet, there are signs of quality (Crewe being the example) but his value in front of goal is as yet unknown. In his six games in claret and amber, I can think of only one genuine scoring opportunity. That being his one on one against Preston. Quite frankly, the ball hasn’t bounced for him yet and this again was the case with this opportunity. His constant harrying created the chance; however, he acrobatically lashed away the chance.

Vale played the majority of the game on the back foot, but with a striker like Tom Pope there was always a chance. Their efforts were aided by referee Mark Brown, who progressively became a hate figure for his leniency towards the ever fouling Anthony Griffith and the allowance of Vale’s time wasting tactics. Saying that, they did have chances with McLaughlin needed to deny Jordan Hugill and Doug Loft. In all honesty, the visitors’ opportunities were few and far between, but they were clearer chances that challenged the City keeper. As the nerves grew, there was a feeling of ‘smash and grab’ in the visitors’ play.

Andrew Davies headed over from a corner, whilst in a role reversal of the first goal against Crewe, Hanson’s low fizzing cross missed an onrushing Mclean. Reach had chances but when his late effort rocked the post, Valley Parade sensed it was going to be one of those nights. One win in twenty tw…

Yet into the second of five injury time minutes, and with the Kop still loudly backing their side, McHugh was on hand to head home and end City’s baron run. In similar fashion to those orchestrated by Hanson in September, Valley Parade erupted as City finally got the win they so desperately needed and deserved.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, McHugh, Bennett (Thompson 71), Doyle, Jones, Reach, Hanson, Mclean (Gray 90)

Not used: Jameson, Dolan, Yeates, Atkinson, McBurnie

Withdrawal symptoms

14 Feb

SAM_2615

Coventry City vs Bradford City preview

@Sixfields (Northampton Town) on Saturday 15 February, 2014

By Alex Scott

Coventry City manager Steven Pressley went out of his way to point out how different his team were to Phil Parkinson’s “Dark Age” Bradford City team three months ago; his frustration getting the better of him in a highly comical rant of sour grapes. There will be no love lost between the two managers or teams over Valentine’s weekend, and the return fixture in the autumn of last year will feel a long time ago for both the embattled managers.

Both sides have changed since that day, and neither for the better as both are now left resembling shells of their former selves. Both have lost their star forwards, both have faded from the play off race, and now both are looking warily over their shoulders.

Bradford’s bright start has dulled into a pitch of darkness, with the amount of performances you would class as ‘good’ since the reverse fixture able to be counted on a single hand. Whether this is down to misfortune, injuries, or just being a bit found out at this level is up for debate, but it is likely a combination of the three. Regardless, Bradford only have a smash-and-grab in Milton Keynes to show in terms of wins since that 3-3 draw at Valley Parade.

Despite how different they want to appear, Coventry are suffering from similar ills, with their self-heralded free-flowing cosmopolitan style from earlier in the year having faded badly over the winter months. This weekend, with key injuries taking hold and disaffected star forwards already out the door on both sides, a totally different battle will be in store. James Hanson and Nahki Wells vs Callum Wilson and Leon Clarke this is not.

The impact of the break-ups of the two best strike partnerships in the division is plain to see for all, both teams suffering from painful withdrawal symptoms as the cracks once covered are now laid bare for all. Whilst Phil Parkinson has spent the New Year undertaking a thus-far traumatic transition, Pressley’s methadone has come in the form of the 23 year old once-Villa prospect and England Under-21 international Nathan Delfouneso. Latterly known as the “nine league goals ever Nathan Delfouneso”. Along with Bradford and their new man Aaron Mclean, both sides have struggled to kick the habit of scoring out of nothing, and the world sure looked a prettier place three months ago.

The conditions are expected to be tough, with the over-worked Sixfields pitch predictably in a less-than-impressive state, unable to host a reserve game this week. More rain is forecast in Northampton over the next 36 hours, which obviously puts the fixture in doubt. One would think that a quagmire on the ground would favour a more ‘agricultural’ Bradford team, but right now I’m not sure what to think about where this team’s strength lies. Those travelling should note that this game is stated to kick off at 2pm.

Parkinson was able to recruit an experienced forward to attempt to fill the void left by Wells; an act which Pressley has admittedly struggled to adequately replicate this far. This has left the Sky Blues with a left winger up top, playing in behind an inexperienced loanee striker, and a central midfielder filling in wide left. The 3-0 reverse to Notts County last weekend a worrying harbinger of tough times ahead for Coventry and their manager, who threw in the play off towel earlier this week.

After starting the year bagging goals for fun, things have slowed down for Coventry and their momentum has all but gone. They are more like Bradford City than they would ever want to admit.

The main difference in this City team in particular over the past few months is that scoring goals has become a chore. Losing your two most potent attacking threats will do that to you.

The argument is one of two things. Parkinson’s men are either a decent-to-good side out of form and out of luck, or a poor side that were salvaged by one or two great players early in the year and are now watching helplessly as reality bites. There is evidence either way, and the side you fall on probably reflects more on you than the evidence.

They just give you a headache. City are the fourth-worst first half team, but at the same time the fourth-best second half team. Despite these improvements in games, they’ve only come from behind to win a game once, and that required a 94th minute winner from James Hanson, at home to Shrewsbury.

No team in the division has been behind at half time more often than Bradford City. They’ve only been ahead at the break seven times, but gone on to win six of those.

They have one of the worst records in the league in games decided by one goal or less, somehow only winning three of the 24 such matches they’ve been involved in. Logically, you’d think that isn’t a repeatable trend – goals decided by one goal are highly dependent on chance – surely they must regress back to the mean sooner or later? But maybe there is something there stopping them. Perhaps they just aren’t good in close games with the pressure on?

Does that feel like this team? I thought I had a handle on us at the start of the year, but as the season has worn on, and the necessary changes have taken place, I have less idea about who this team are as a unit.

Kieran

After another moment of indecisiveness Tuesday night in Cumbria, Jon McLaughlin is again subject to his traditional spell of mid-season derision from the City faithful. Thankfully for the still-young keeper, there is no viable option behind him anyway, leaving any discussion redundant. He’s a replacement-level keeper at this level, not ineffective or expensive enough to replace, with just enough potential to persevere. And with only Aaron Jameson on the books behind him, persevere we shall.

Rory McArdle’s return midweek leaves the back four to pick themselves; although with another ninety minutes passing by without the return of the impressive form from the autumn, the feeling of solidity we expected to feel once he and Andrew Davies were reunited is conspicuously absent. Stephen Darby and Matthew Bates will continue outside the pair. Fairly or unfairly, Bates has the look of a rich man’s Marcel Seip to me – a jack-of-all, whose injury woes may have lowered his ceiling dramatically. I’m not saying he won’t improve in time or that he’s not a really useful squad player, but after a promising beginning to his City career, and heartening pedigree, the suspicion that this may be ‘it’ is taking over.

After Garry Thompson’s reportedly anonymous hour on Tuesday, the most recent hour of a definitively anonymous season, it may be that Kyle Bennett returns on the right side. However, with Coventry’s struggles against the long ball earlier in the year, the re-inclusion of Thompson is likely. Adam Reach will continue on the other flank, impressive if as yet ineffective.

Nathan Doyle’s exclusion from the team to allow the ascension of new loan signing Matty Dolan has passed by with a nod of indifferent acceptance from the fan base, with lots of people noting that Doyle probably wasn’t meriting his place in the side anyway.

Curiously the loanaphobes from the past eighteen months disappeared just as their currency was at its peak. I’ve always thought that argument highly reductive, but even I must admit finding the concept of three loanees under 24 in a four-man midfield a little worrying. But there are no shouts from the rooftops about too many loanees. (We currently have as many temporary players in the squad as we are allowed to field in a squad. One win in 21.) There’s enough anger flying around at the minute! Where is everyone?!?

Anyway, as déjà vu hit all around, Parkinson admitted his error as the dropped Doyle returned at half time at Carlisle and looks set to continue on Saturday alongside Gary Jones.

James Hanson and Aaron Mclean will continue their burgeoning partnership at the top of the pitch, trying to dwarf the silent but ever-growing elephant in the room.

As the squad return to fitness, and the honeymoon periods subside away in front of us, the unnerving question pervades the entire team: is this it? The central defensive has reunited to a slight, if not yet tangible, improvement. The new loan players have come in to a little promise, but a lack of threat. Aaron Mclean has now managed to get his fitness levels up, and despite impressive bursts of link-up play he and his team have looked indifferent since his arrival.

The positive spin on Mclean when he arrived was that the antecedent to the Wells-Hanson partnership was the Mclean-Craig Mackail-Smith duo which fired Peterborough up the leagues last decade. Acquiring Aaron Mclean afforded an opportunity for a straight swap without the loss of any momentum. However, the 2014 vintage of Aaron Mclean is not a straight swap. He is necessitating a fundamental change in how the team functions, effected through the loan market, with little-to-no evidence of it is an improvement.

At the beginning of the year, City were a well-defined, well-drilled unit. They knew who they were, but what’s more, they knew exactly who they weren’t. With all the changes over the past few months, I’m not sure anyone knows who they are anymore. Without Kyel Reid and Nahki Wells they have lost the offensive threat, and save long-range potshots and the rare set piece, it’s hard to see the team’s route to goal. With only Oli McBurnie and Andy Gray to supplement the goalscoring, the answer is equally as elusive.

What they were before the turn of the year may not have been perfect, but at least it was identifiable. This reformed City team may be more talented, but who exactly they are as a unit is a mystery.

In all likelihood they are a decent enough side out of form, struggling to replicate the easy route to goal provided by Nahki Wells for so long. But (worryingly, given the lack of ambition in that statement) that may just be me being optimistic. The dependency on Wells was a worry throughout the last couple of years, and we are now proving that cold turkey is tough to stomach.

As the days and games left in the season drift away, the pressure rises. Each game takes on more importance, with Coventry away the next in the line. The other elephant in the room, the red one with all the dotted lines and the revolver could do with being shown the door.

Five issues facing Phil Parkinson

13 Feb

SAM_0499

By Jason McKeown

1) The defence is conceding too many goals

Having kept four clean sheets in the first 10 League One matches of this season, the last 21 games have seen just two shutouts. Bradford City have only conceded more than two goals on three occasions during this poor run, but too often the team’s overall efforts have been undermined by conceding at crucial times.

The long-term lay off of Andrew Davies was widely blamed for the defence’s sudden struggles, even though a similar period of City being without the influential centre back, last season, saw those memorable victories over Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa. Davies’ recent return from injury has not yet resulted in the expected improvement.

There is no doubting how vital Davies is to City’s cause, but the problem runs deeper. His long-time partner-in-crime, Rory McArdle, has struggled compared to last season. The left back slot – even before James Meredith’s untimely injury – has been a concern. In-between the sticks, Jon McLaughlin has enjoyed a mixed season at best.

Over a short-term period, McLaughlin is capable of outstanding form. But his six years at the club have so far seen him struggle to sustain performances over a lengthy period. Just like in 2009/10 when McLaughlin played second fiddle to on-loan Huddersfield keeper Simon Eastwood, the club has devoted a relatively small part of the overall budget to goalkeepers – and this has meant a lack of competition for the Scot.

Regardless of whether McLaughlin is retained or moved on during the summer, the goalkeeping budget needs to be reviewed.

2) There’s a lack of balance in midfield

Ever since his first game in charge as manager back in September 2011, Phil Parkinson has favoured a 4-4-2 formation that he has rarely deviated away from. This includes two deep-lying central midfielders and a wideman who can tuck in, with much of the attacking emphasis on one out-and-out winger to provide the attacking spark.

Last season this balance worked well, with Parkinson either favouring the directness of Kyel Reid on the left and solidity of Garry Thompson on the right, or Will Atkinson (doing the Thompson role) on the left and Zavon Hines (Reid) on the right. Whilst Mark Yeates is an almost like-for-like alterative to Atkinson, Hines was not adequately replaced (Parkinson should have kept Zav, in my view). The result has been a lack of wide options to suit Parkinson’s style of play.

Now robbed of Reid, Parkinson needs to get the best out of the number seven’s loanee replacement, Kyle Bennett. Early impressions are that he is not the same type of player and looks reluctant to run at people from outwide, preferring to cut inside. This is causing City to become too narrow. Adam Reach impresses, but lacks the pace to be the side’s out-and-out winger. It’s the same story with Mark Yeates and Rafa De Vita.

Parkinson either needs Bennett to become Reid, find a different loanee replacement, or change the midfield set-up.

3) Goalscoring opportunities are drying up

It’s easy to look back on early season performances as some sort of false dawn, but the way in which City played back then was hugely effective rather than lucky – and Parkinson needs to get his players back to that. One of the major worries in recent weeks has been the lack of decent goalscoring opportunities created, which has heightened the importance of every wasted sitter or close miss.

Take the Carlisle home game in August. A 4-0 victory, but it should have been 10-0. The way in which City played back then saw opposition teams overwhelmed by the level of pressure they faced and the variety to the attacking play. Direct balls to Hanson for sure, but also a genuine threat from the flanks and creativity from Nathan Doyle. The opposition might stop one City route to goal, but still have others to worry about.

It’s a sign of low confidence that the ball is hoofed from the back rather than anyone taking greater responsibility to begin attacking moves. Hanson is at times being made to look poor by the predictability of where the ball is going to end up and, even when he wins it, failure of others to get up the pitch and provide him options. And the more the ball is cheaply given away, the more the pressure is placed onto City’s backline.

Clean sheets are not happening first and foremost because of the ineffectiveness of how we attack.

Image by Alex Dodd

4) Aaron Mclean is not (yet) Nahki Wells

On the surface, Aaron Mclean looked set to be a like-for-like replacement for Nahki Wells – arguably one of the main reasons why Parkinson signed him. Yet it has become increasingly clear that Aaron prefers to be more involved in the build-up play compared to the Bermudian, with his greater work coming outside the box.

It’s not that this is a bad thing, but it means that City no longer have a striker playing on the shoulder of the last man, sniffing out chances. Suddenly, Hanson has become the forward-most player and is having to play with his back to goal. Previously the big man would be flicking the ball on into the path of his strike partner; now he is having to direct it sideways or backwards towards Mclean. The result is that City are spending less time in the opposition penalty area.

For Parkinson the dilemma is to either change this aspect of Mclean’s game, or ensure there are other players running forward to present a further option for the strikers to link up with. I believe the manager is looking at the latter option, hence Matty Dolan sitting against Crewe and Gary Jones having the licence to get forward. Both of Jones’ goals that day were the result of Mclean flick-ons, but Hanson had also been involved in the build-up.

The team is able to get more out of Mclean in general play but looks set to lose out on the number of goals that his predecessor Wells provided. It’s about adapting the game plan to ensure the team makes up for Nahki’s goal tally, even if that means spreading around the goalscorers.

5) There’s not enough competition for places

In November and December, Mark Yeates was desperately unlucky to continue to be overlooked. Almost every time he came off the bench during a game, he made an impact. Yet the week after he would still be amongst the substitutes, rather than being rewarded with a start.

Flash forward to now and Parkinson is struggling for impact players who can come off the bench and affect the game. That translates into a lack of competition, meaning those in the team can deliver below-par performances and yet retain their places. It’s not as simple as to say that people in the first XI are relaxing and not trying hard enough; but dented confidence has been allowed to drain further by the player remaining in the side and struggling even more.

There is not much that can be done recruitment-wise to rectify this until the summer, but until then Parkinson badly needs those players in reserve to press their claims for a starting position.

Although the club has stated for a year now (privately and publically) the benefits of not fielding a reserve team this year, and relying on behind-closed-door friendlies, I remain unconvinced this approach has helped. There should be greater competition for places than appears to be the case of late.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,510 other followers