Tag Archives: Phil Parkinson

2014/15 previewed: The view from the pundit sofa

1 Aug

SAM_2147

By Alex Scott

On the eve of the new season, regular Width of a Post writers’ Andrew Baxter, Mesh Johal, Luke Lockwood and Katie Whyatt take to the pundit sofa to share their views on the summer transfer activity and expectations for the coming months.

Now some time has passed since the end of last season, what are your views on last year’s 11th place finish?

Andrew Baxter: 11th is a respectable finish for a team that lost their best player in January, and suffered through injuries throughout the year, such as Reid’s injury at Sheffield United, and James Hanson’s various injuries towards the end of the season.

Mesh Johal: For me it was imperative to maintain our position in League One. Admittedly we had a horrendous run after Christmas, but it demonstrated that we lacked the quality and depth to compete consistently. Saying that, I thought we ended up in a comfortable and solid position in the league. For a first attempt back in the third tier, I’d find it hard to complain.

Luke Lockwood: It was a great achievement for our first year in League One, but just imagine how we may have done had we managed to adapt quicker following the sale of Nahki Wells? I don’t hold Parkinson responsible for that, as he set up at the start of the season correctly building his style around Wells and, after he left, it was quickly evident that Mclean was not a like-for-like replacement. Once we adapted to suit the players we had, our form picked up again and resulted in a very respectable finish.

Katie Whyatt: I think the problem was that so many people measured the success of the season against those abnormally bright first few weeks, rather than in the context of 46 games as a newly promoted outfit. To deem that initial series of home victories ‘normal’ makes it seem like the club took the mother of all nosedives over Christmas, which is overly-simplistic. It’s normal for the division’s new boys to storm a league at first, then drop off as other teams figure them out – hence the cliché “unknown quantity”.

For sure, the winless run went on much longer than expected, and the football might not have been entirely persuasive, but don’t forget that City lost the whole of their left side, Kyel Reid and James Meredith, within weeks of each other, along with Wells and Andrew Davies. They could have done it with more style at times, but they ultimately achieved the stated objective and finished with a stable platform to build upon.

One word to sum up the summer’s transfer activity?

Andrew Baxter: Progressive – Parkinson has brought in a blend of players who are experienced at this level, such as Alan Sheehan and Gary Liddle; and players who maybe don’t have that same level of experience but certainly have the potential to impress in League One this season, like Billy Knott.

I was disappointed with the departure of Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle, as I felt that both had plenty left to offer to the club, but Parkinson has recruited sensibly, with Liddle, Knott and Billy Clarke being solid replacements.

Katie Whyatt: Okay – I like how the club are privately handling their business. Additions are still needed, but I’m happy with the recent acquisitions. Players like Sheehan, Clarke and Liddle come with the track record and versatility that the slashed budget demands, and fans of their former clubs have heralded them all as sound, creative and consistent players. I’m also delighted we’ve managed to tie down Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle, making a solid back four, with the addition of Sheehan, into an exceptional one.

Luke Lockwood: Anxious – I have faith in Parkinson to right the transfer wrongs of last summer and it will be interesting to see how we adapt to the new style of play he is obviously going for. I am a little concerned that a number of signings seem to be from those teams who struggled in this division last year – even if they were the stand out performers. The reports coming from those who have attended pre-season have been promising, but I take little notice of friendlies and will reserve judgement till I’ve seen them in action in competitive fixtures.

Mesh Johal: Fragmented – The whole summer has felt fragmented. The way players has left and joined the club, it’s all happened in drips and drabs. We were told that the squad wouldn’t be finalised until August and at present it feels very incomplete. Whilst the summer signings seem exciting, it just feels that you’re waiting for some more news and it’s still yet to come.

Which new player are you most excited to watch this season?

Mesh Johal: I was a big fan of the Jones/Doyle axis so I am intrigued to see how the likes of Gary Liddle and Billy Knott fair. I have seen the majority of the summer recruits play for their previous club, but it will be interesting to see how they work in the much discussed “diamond” formation.

Andrew Baxter: Gary Liddle. Whilst the midfielder might not grab all the headlines, his vast experience (325 professional appearances, 283 of these in League One) will give the team more stability, and Liddle will be a calming influence in a team that at times last year, certainly in the defence, looked a bit shaky.

Luke Lockwood: Billy Knott – the only signing to really get me excited so far. Seems like he will be a key cog in the new City style of play and comes with very good reviews. I’m not sure he will score a lot of goals, but it sounds like he’s a classy footballer.

SAM_2083

Is Phil Parkinson under pressure? Should Phil Parkinson be under pressure?

Katie Whyatt: Kind of and kind of. I think the majority of fans are viewing this season as step two of three to get to the Championship, so, while entering with high expectations, they will know things won’t be perfect and allow for that. However, last season marked, for the first time, a clamour for Parkinson’s head from some sections of the support – not something I would agree with at all, but you can understand some of the venom given the ineffectiveness of the summer signings and City’s direct style as the season progressed.

There’s also the underlying issue of the reduced budget, with Parkinson expected to deliver better football and a higher league finish with £500,000 less to play with. The pressure on him has been turned up drastically, but I firmly believe most fans will recognise this and not bay for his blood if things go awry.

Luke Lockwood: No and no, however I don’t think it will be too long before that changes. There are a few Parkinson doubters about, but I think for the time being they are in the minority. Things change quickly in football as we saw last year when we went through the poor run so I do think he needs a satisfactory start to this season.

Andrew Baxter: I don’t see any reason why Parkinson should be under any pressure. The awful run of form last season is behind us now, but despite that, we still managed to finish 11th in the table. The signings he has brought in should provide extra creativity in the midfield (something that was lacking last season), and if the team performs to its potential, I see no reason why City can’t be in contention for a play off position, especially with Wolves and Brentford, who ran away with the league last year, being out of the division.

Mesh Johal: Yes I think he is under a little bit of pressure. After last season’s performance, some will expect City to improve on the 11th-place finish. However, with the mass exodus of key players and the much publicised budget cut, pressure has been placed on the manager. Also, after last summer’s disappointing recruitment drive, judgment will be made on this year’s class very quickly which may add some heat.

Finally there is much clamour amongst fans regarding a change in playing style. With so many big changes happening in such a short period of time, I just hope he is given time to fully implement his plans. Some still disagree with awarding him a three-year deal, but I see the progression of this club under his stewardship and think next season should be the one way judge him on.

What are your expectations for the new season? What would you class as a success?

Andrew Baxter: I think anything that improves on last season will class as a success, as this would be a top-10 finish. Obviously, I want City to get promoted, and I think that they can certainly contend in this division and contest for a play off place, but anything that builds on last year’s solid foundations will be a success in my opinion.

Mesh Johal: I’m unsure what to expect to be honest. Those familiar faces are no longer here so I’m intrigued to see if the likes of Matty Dolan and Knott can stand up in the manner we need them to.

I’m also still a bit concerned about the size of the squad. On paper the 2013/14 starting XI was a decent side; however, it struggled in the depth department. It’s the same again this year. If we get injuries, we could become unstuck. If we were to equal 11th place again then I would be very happy. I think this is a harder league than last season but with so many northern-based games I think we should look to enjoy it!

Luke Lockwood: Put simply any position above 11th place. Hopefully an outside chance of the play offs in the run-in, but with the budget being slashed and losing a 25 goal striker I don’t think we should be looking at this year as the time to challenge for promotion.

davies

Who do you think will be City’s most important player this season?

Luke Lockwood: Andrew Davies – he has been our most important player for the past two seasons in my opinion and makes the biggest difference when in the side. If we keep him on the pitch and not in the treatment room then I think we will finish higher up the table this time round.

It might be controversial but if I had a choice between a fit Andrew Davies and Stephen Darby I’d take Andrew Davies every time – the difficulty is keeping him fully fit.

Andrew Baxter: James Hanson. Hanson has adapted and improved his game drastically since arriving at the club, and this has led to him improving his goalscoring record. Last season, Hanson scored at an average of one goal every three games, and went on a fantastic run just after Nahki Wells’ departure, where he scored six goals in nine games. If Hanson can keep up his goalscoring record, it can provide a platform for the rest of the team to chip in with goals.

Mesh Johal: Andrew Davies. We are a team built on solid foundations and with him playing we are a better side. Unfortunately, his fitness record at the club suggests that he can’t play a full season and we need to make sure we have an able back up to fill his boots. Last season we didn’t and it cost us, especially during that run of one in twenty one.

Katie Whyatt: For me, the success of this season hinges on the front two, and whether the forward line, whoever it consists of, can become as prolific as the one before it. Whilst it’s obviously unfair to directly compare Aaron Mclean with Wells – hence why the jury has stayed out for this long, pacified by the prospect of a team built around Mclean – the fact the former Hull man’s three-year deal eats up a sizeable chunk of the wage packet means we desperately want (and need) him to come through.

If he does, fantastic – it’s further credit in the bank for Parkinson as an outward sign of progression, and the club can begin moving further up the ladder. Otherwise? It’s more ammunition to spray the gaffer with – and a genuine worry about where the goals are going to come from. The form of Mclean and Hanson will define the campaign.

Will Phil Parkinson be manager of Bradford City in 12 months’ time?

Mesh Johal: I hope so. Next August will be the final season of the three-year deal and I’d hope by then we’d be in a position to really mount a challenge out of this league.

Andrew Baxter: Barring an approach from a Premier League club (or Reading!) or an abysmal run of form, I believe Phil Parkinson will be manager of Bradford City this time next year. He still has two years left to run on his contract, and the ultimate aim of Championship football by 2016 is still achievable.

Luke Lockwood: I hope so and think he should be as long as we maintain our position in the top half. Considering he has had a significant chunk of his budget cut I think that will be an achievement. Then next year he should be given the mandate to take us to the next level.

Katie Whyatt: Yes. I think things would have to go horrifically, horrifically wrong – which I doubt they will – for the board to cast aside the three-year plan and sack Parkinson, and I don’t think they’d be pressed by any pressure from the stands, either.

The telling issues will be 1) Whether the team go through a prolonged rough patch and, if they do, how quickly and efficiently they handle the situation to regain form, and 2) Whether the new signings and anticipated new formation, diamond or otherwise, look worryingly out of depth in League One. Personally, though, I feel the side will make progress enough to allow Parkinson to see through the third year of his contract

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.”

SAM_1706

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.”

SAM_2147

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.”

Diamond in the rough becomes glittering prospect as newest recruits shine

26 Jul

SAM_2147

Bradford City 0

Blackburn Rovers 0

Saturday 26 July, 2014

Written by Katie Wyhatt (images by Jason McKeown)

In what probably provides the most accurate barometer of the development of Phil Parkinson’s squad thus far, Bradford City convincingly held an efficient Blackburn Rovers side to one of the most closely fought and hotly contested pre-season clashes since, well, ever.

This was a friendly on paper, but one edged with all the competitiveness, desire and combativeness of the real thing. Once again, we are presented with a team greater than the sum of its parts: a unit of youth and longevity, but with well-placed experience in the likes of Gary Liddle, Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle.

These players, although many are new to the Bantams faithful, already look eager and determined to match the affection in which their predecessors were rightfully held. After losing possession, for example, Billy Clarke raced back to City’s 18-yard box to – successfully – hound the ball back; Liddle later sprinted a good four metres to deliver a ruthlessly crunching tackle. No one should ever read too much into pre-season, but these initial sightings will undoubtedly provide relief to those worrying about the heirs to Jones’ and Doyle’s midfield.

The Bantams initially fielded what one would perceive, bar the ongoing absence of Aaron Mclean, to be a full-strength side, with all of the new summer recruits making their Valley Parade debuts as Parkinson continued to polish his diamond formation. With Billy Knott at the helm in the hole, Rafa De Vita and Matty Dolan made up the flanks, Liddle anchoring while James Hanson and Clarke framed the forward line.

And the diamond worked well. Bradford were creatively playing between the lines, shifting as a unit, and it’s obvious Parkinson has the intelligent ball players required to make the system work. City were never outnumbered in midfield and valiantly held their own. Liddle probed and hounded and set up the play with a work ethic Gary Jones would be proud of, later moving into a more box-to-box role as he and Dolan seamlessly interchanged. Knott utilised the space well and played countless defence-splitting passes to Hanson and Clarke – it’s clear the former Sunderland prospect possesses not only the brain to play in the formation, but the pace and technical attributes to boot.

De Vita, though offering nothing too fancy, performed tidily before an injury forced him off, providing the link between Darby and Hanson to continue the attacks, even if, at first, he offered little defensively. The diamond’s lack of width meant there was often space out wide willing to be exploited, and there was a period where Darby was under prolonged siege before finding his feet, and Liddle and Dolan shifted to marshal the back four. Time will tell whether De Vita’s cumulative efforts are enough to warrant a new contract. He is undoubtedly composed enough to find a place, but the Italian lacked match sharpness and may struggle to break through amidst a plethora of alternatives.

This isn’t total revolution: directness, of course, is still evident, adding the unpredictability and balance City will need in the coming campaign, but it wasn’t Plan A, and having the energetic Knott to sweep up Hanson’s knockdowns brought a fluidity and ingenuity that just wasn’t there last season. Billy Clarke curled a free kick just over the crossbar from close range, while Hanson and Sheehan both directed shots just wide in efforts that had stemmed from hugely admirable build-up play.

At the other end of the pitch, Jordan Pickford looked secure and patrolled his area with a confidence that belies his tender years, catching the eye with a number of challenging and brave saves. Alan Sheehan’s tenacity and verve were also of note and the defender is a class, class act. In the second half especially, we were treated to a full showing of the Irishman’s enthralling attacking talents when he pressed forwards with a number of quick and considered passes, creating an overload on the left hand side to exploit the space.

As the second half loomed into view, Mark Yeates replaced De Vita and made an immediate impact, pinging a delightful ball to Hanson that Clarke ultimately saw saved. Knott later made way for Kennedy as Yeates slipped into the hole. Yeates, last season’s forgotten man, looked revitalised and relished the greater freedom the diamond affords. What, last season, was mistaken for a lack of positional discipline was very much the order of the day, with the wideman flourishing at the tip of the diamond as he timed his runs and deliveries perfectly. All the while, Sheehan was a bullet of blistering pace and trickery, and complemented his Athlone compatriot perfectly.

The positive tone was maintained for much of the second half, with Parkinson tinkering his charges periodically. Oli McBurnie and Lewis Clarkson replaced Clarke and Hanson in a double substitution, and both troubled the Blackburn goal with clever runs and tackles. James Meredith followed Liddle into the holding midfielder role and did well. Potential goalkeeper Matthew Urwin, an ex-Rovers prospect, had very little, if anything, to do, so was difficult to judge. Two other trialists – French defender Christopher Routis and midfielder Mo Shariff – filled in for Davies and Dolan respectively. Shariff looks a bright prospect, if raw, and delivered several cutting passes; Routis seems fierce and dependable.

The changes marked the end of an afternoon that had heralded many positives. What was clear from the outset today was that Parkinson has the players with the hunger and ability to make this diamond work well, and, whatever teething problems still need to be ironed out in the coming weeks as the new style is tweaked, there were hardly any glaringly obvious errors in his formation, other than the absence of Mclean. The stakes riding on the former Hull man are no secret, so it is frustrating to see the team gelling without him, especially as his return will disrupt the forward line so pivotal to the diamond’s success.

The De Vita conundrum also remains unresolved and the Italian will be hoping today has given Parkinson some positive food for thought – in any case, the noises suggest new arrivals are still impending – but the early signs are nonetheless so promising. The diamond is no longer a glint in someone’s eye, or even a diamond in the rough; it’s materialising here, right now, with these players, and convincingly enough to get you salivating for the opening day.

While the diamond may not yet be sparkling, it is most certainly shining.

City: Pickford (Urwin 46), Darby, McArdle, Davies (Routis 78), Sheehan (Heaton 88), Liddle (Meredith 73), Dolan (Shariff 84), Knott (Kennedy 59), De Vita (Yeates 44), Clarke (Clarkson 69), Hanson (McBurnie 69)

Not used: Campion, Lambe

SAM_2156

 

SAM_2154

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.

The brutalness of pre-season defeats

22 Jul

SAM_2090

Ossett Town 2

Boardman 65, Blackburn 81

Bradford City XI 0

Tuesday 23 July, 2014

Words and images by Jason McKeown

The sun-baked Ossett evening was the perfect setting for a few hundred Bradford City supporters to spend a relaxing, care-free couple of hours enjoying a football match. But this tranquil atmosphere undersold the heavy burden of pressure felt by the players tasked with representing the League One club. Upon such high stakes, the sport is at its most brutal.

A mixture of back-up first teamers, youth players and trialists were on a mission to impress Phil Parkinson. To demonstrate their value to the manager and, in many cases, secure a future at the club beyond the slow setting of the evening sun behind the main stand. Even for youth players who cannot realistically hope to get a first team call up any time soon, they may never get a chance as good as this. This was no meaningless friendly to the Bantams who participated in it: almost all had their future at stake.

It was a near-unrecognisable team, save for History Maker James Meredith – captain for the night – Jason Kennedy and Rafa De Vita. Even a 45-minute appearance from Matt Taylor felt like it should have been marked with the handing out of collector’s badges, given the majority of City supporters have still yet to see him in action. Jordan Pickford – who signed for the Bantams on a season-long loan the day before – was held back from making his debut. Instead, Parkinson ran the rule over two trialists in goal – Jay Lynch, a 21-year-old former Bolton keeper, and Matt Urwin, a 20-year-old ex-Blackburn Rovers stopper. In total, the starting XI featured five trialists, with two more introduced after the break.

Parkinson spent the entire 90 minutes stood behind one of the goals; ruling the roost over his team of lesser-knowns, whilst assistant Steve Parkin barked orders from the dugout. Of the trialists, Reginald Thompson-Lambe was arguably the most impressive performer; linking up reasonably well with Meredith on the left flank and showing some neat touches. A first team-ready player he certainly isn’t, but his nationality – Bermuda – will curry him plenty of favour at Valley Parade. The former Toronto man, who was once on Ipswich’s books, might be worth a development contract.SAM_2083

Other trialists included right back Stuart Bramley (ex-Dallas), French centre half Christophe Routis (ex-Servette), and – of course – Rafa De Vita.

What more can be said about the Italian? Had he rocked up on trial this summer without any previous connections, would he still be in the frame for a contract? In the two friendlies I have seen, De Vita has looked largely anonymous, and he continues to display a frustrating tendency to attempt ineffective fancy flick ons that only succeed in breaking down attacking moves. Playing just off a solo striker – youth product Joe Brennan – far more should be expected of De Vita. We know that he can be a decent player, yet he offers nothing that hasn’t already been recruited this summer. It’s time to put this one to bed.

Of the youth players on show, Sam Wright once again displayed glimpses of what he can do – this time in a central midfield role. He is a player of some promise but arguably needs toughening up. A month or two on loan at a local non-league club is a must if he is to progress to first team consideration. Niall Heaton was introduced in the second half and impressed with his confident runs forward. Another trialist – Richard Bryan (ex-Aston Villa) – was also given another opportunity after his outing at Guiseley. Between him and Nick Arnold, you would expect Parkinson to sign one to provide more right-sided defensive cover for the season ahead.

In truth it was difficult to come to any overly-positive conclusions about any of the players on show tonight. Ossett Town showed spirit and character throughout, never allowing their more illustrious opponents an easy ride. Throughout the rough and tumble, you want to see stand out City performers who can genuinely show they are on a different level. It might be harsh, but other than Meredith there was no one who looked above their semi-pro opponents. It might be harsh, but these opportunities cannot be passed up. Football is brutal, and it really was here.

SAM_2065

In a game of very few chances, Ossett Town eventually took the lead after Rob Boardman smashed a free kick past Urwin from some 30 yards out. It was a terrific strike, although not a moment Urwin could feel proud about. In the opposite corner of the ground, his trialist rival Lynch showed no emotion as he watched on keenly, whilst stood amongst regular supporters. Lynch might have kept a clean sheet during his first half outing, but hadn’t been tested and, therefore, had little opportunity to impress.

City attempted to respond to falling behind, and substitute Reece Webb-Forster – who last season scored the youth team’s winning goal in the Youth Alliance (Northern) cup final – was played through on goal. A delicate lob deceived the home keeper, but bounced agonisingly off the underside of the croosbar before being scrambled away. It was City’s best opening on the night by some distance. A minute later, Luke Blackburn tapped home a second Ossett goal after Urwin had done well to parry an initial shot from Joe O’Neil.

With almost all of the senior players and trialists replaced when the score was 0-0, it is perhaps understandable that a more youthful Bradford City struggled to cope with Ossett’s greater physicality and lost the game. But these are the standards they have to reach and reach very quickly. Football is brutal.

Defeat barely matters, not when the first XI for the opening fixture with Coventry City was never going to feature anyone on display this evening. But it nevertheless raises small levels of anxiety as the big kick off creeps closer and closer into view. Parkinson still has areas of his squad to fill, and tonight offered him very few answers – at least not in the short-term.

City: Lynch (Urwin), Bramley (Pollard), Meredith (Heaton), Taylor (Bryan), Routis (King), Kennedy (Divine), Wright, Lambe, De Vita (Jenkinson), Brennan (Webb-Forster), Chippendale

 

The 'ahem' first class press facilities.

The ‘ahem’ first class press facilities.

SAM_2088

SAM_2077

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.”

The diamond lights up Bradford City’s opening friendly victory

12 Jul

celebration

Guiseley 0

Bradford City 3

Clarkson 12+43, Dolan 26

Saturday 12 July, 2014

Written by Jason McKeown (images by Kieran Wilkinson)

This was a very early statement of intent from Phil Parkinson. In the midst of a growing clamour to change the playing style for next season, at Nethermoor the Bradford City manager trialled a diamond 4-4-2 formation that will please the purists. A slow but considered passing style was the result of the new approach; with the tempo deliberately quickened in the final third. This was an evolution to the way the Bantams ended last season – and a huge contrast to the high tempo strategy of a year ago.

Guiseley were game opponents but limited in their resistance, making it difficult to draw any conclusions beyond guarded encouragement about the effectiveness of this new approach. But it has quickly become apparent that Parkinson already possesses the types of players that will make this formation work – in fact, you could argue he has an embarrassment of riches in his available options.

Take the holding midfield role that is so pivotal to the diamond’s success. Matty Dolan and Gary Liddle were awarded 45 minutes each in this position and both excelled. The better days of Dolan’s loan spell at Valley Parade last season came when he was instructed to protect the back four, at Leyton Orient and Rotherham. And during the first half today, the young midfielder was hugely influential in either winning the ball or receiving it from the defence, and then setting up attacks. Liddle is more of a box-to-box midfielder than Dolan and might struggle to maintain the same positional discipline, but he is an excellent tackler and on first impressions looks an inspired signing.

The first half City team featured Jason Kennedy and youngster Sam Wright as the two widemen of the diamond, and both did well. Kennedy looked as though he had finally found his relevance in a Bradford City shirt and set up two of his side’s three first-half goals. Wright lacks stature but was comfortable on the ball, catching the eye with some probing passes.

Trialist Angelo Balenta – released by QPR during the summer – was asked to play the attacking midfield/deep lying striker role and impressed. Having made his name as a winger, it was surprising to see the Columbian playing in the hole; but much of what was good about City during the first 45 minutes involved him. Balenta was undoubtedly the most notable trialist of the six players who were awarded an opportunity.

baltanta

The first half diamond four helped the Bantams to quickly race into an unassailable lead. First Lewis Clarkson clinically half-volleyed a Kennedy cross home from close range, before Matty Dolan arrowed a free kick around the wall and into the bottom corner. Clarkson made it 3-0 following another Kennedy knock-down. Balenta’s crossfield ball into Kennedy’s path, during the build-up, was arguably the pass of the match.

It was a good afternoon for the young striker Clarkson, who was unable to make any first team impact last season due to a serious injury. Clarkson should have added a couple more goals, however, after spurning two excellent one-on-one opportunities either side of his opener. His movement and off-the-ball running was noteworthy, and he linked up well with the ever-fantastic James Hanson. It will be interesting to see if Clarkson can make an impact over the coming season.

After 11 changes were made at the interval, the revised diamond four was made up of Liddle in front of the back four, Billy Knott in the hole, and Mark Yeates and Rafa De Vita as wide players. It quickly became apparent why the signing of Knott is considered such a coup, as the former Sunderland man made a strong first impression.

Knott’s intelligence and confidence were the most striking, as he attempted all manner of tricks and clever passing that easily out-witted Guiseley. His best moment was a mesmerising dribble from deep and audacious chip attempt that the home keeper scrambled back to tip over the bar. In this formation, Knott should be a huge hit this season. That said, on this evidence there are question marks about how well he would fit in with a more conventional 4-4-2, similar to the questions that Yeates was unable to answer last season.

sheehan

The other two permanent signings making their debuts – Alan Sheehan and Billy Clarke – also performed well. Sheehan is expected to begin the season in the side ahead of James Meredith, and brings a similar attack-minded style of play. Clarke played up front alongside trialist Callum Ball, yet most of his best work came outside the box as he dropped deep or out wide. This is why Parkinson seemingly has an embarrassment of riches to make a diamond formation work – even if Balanta doesn’t sign, Clarke looks ideally suited to compete with Knott to play in the ‘hole’ position.

Although there were no further goals in the second half, there were numerous opportunities to have at least matched City previous two pre-season visits to Guiseley, where they rattled in four goals. Clarke was played clean through on goal by De Vita, but saw his low shot scrambled off the line by a defender. Sheehan cut inside and fired a low effort that flew just past the post. After excellent work out wide, Clarke delivered a superb cross to Ball; but the former Derby striker could only head the ball onto the crossbar when he should have scored.

Ball became a second half talking point, but not in a good way. He has a sizeable frame, but lacks any real presence. There was very little pace on display, and very few effective touches. When late on he chased a 50-50 ball but couldn’t keep up with the defender, Ball could only resort to lamely grabbing their shirt. Sadly for his career, its next chapter will not be written at Valley Parade.

Of the other trialists, goalkeer Ben Alnwick (ex-Sunderland and Tottenham) didn’t have enough to do to form a judgement, whilst defenders Richard Bryan (ex-Aston Villa) and Nick Arnold (ex-Reading) looked reasonable. De Vita was nowhere near matching the impact he made in this fixture a year ago; but the door will surely remain open for him for the moment, and he will be on the plane to Ireland. Certainly De Vita’s best hope is that Parkinson was satisfied enough with the diamond formation to continue its development over pre-season.

Although two wingers are said to still be on the shopping list (loanees from Premier League or Championship clubs), these players are unlikely to arrive until just before the start of the season. In the meantime, Parkinson is building a way of winning matches without a reliance on touchline-hogging wide players. It is certainly different to before, but the greater time that the ball spent on the floor today would suggest it is an approach that can satisfy his public’s expectations.

City – first half: Alnwick, Darby, Bryan, Davies, Meredith, Dolan, Kennedy, Wright, Clarkson, Hanson

City – second half: McLaughlin, Arnold, McArdle, Heaton, Sheehan, Liddle, De Vita, Yeates, Knott, Clarke, Ball

benchdavies

kennedy

Pre-season preview part two: Back to Guiseley

11 Jul

NV2G9609

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.

Let the left back battle commence!

7 Jul

 

By Gareth WalkerSAM_2850

This afternoon, James Meredith has signed a new one contract with Bradford City after attending training this morning. In doing so he put an end to a bizarre summer of speculation regarding his future.

Having been in Australia on holiday, Meredith had left his agent in charge of sorting out his future and it became a long drawn out process. Unlike Gary Jones and Garry Thompson he was not “released” by City in the early stages of the summer break, and it became clear from the onset that – along with Steven Darby and Rory McArdle – Meredith was a player that City wanted to keep.

However, whereas Darby and McArdle committed themselves to the club relatively swiftly, Meredith’s future continued to remain unresolved with no announcement either way for some time.

Eventually, news broke via sky sports that Meredith had turned down City’s offer of a new deal and was in fact attracting interest from Championship clubs. In turn, the Bantams’ signed fellow left back Alan Sheehan seemingly as a replacement for the Australian. Phil Parkinson revealed that he had told Meredith that, due to the shortage of left backs being available in the transfer market, he couldn’t wait all summer for a decision on his future.

However, time continued to pass and unlike what happened with Jones, Thompson and Nathan Doyle’s departures, there was no official announcement from the club that Meredith had gone. There was also no news of Meredith signing for a new club, unlike what had happened with Carl McHugh.

Last week there seemed to be a twist in proceedings as Simon Parker broke the news that City were still in contract with Meredith regarding discussions of him staying in West Yorkshire. This morning the rumours of him staying gathered pace – and indeed he signed a new one-year deal this afternoon.

There will be those that see the delay in the deal being agreed as a bad thing, and there are sure to be concerns that Meredith saw us as a last resort when that so-called Championship interest didn’t materialise.

However, with the player having been on the other side of the world for most of the summer, we can be unsure how much of a role his agent had to play in these negotiations of bluff and counter-bluff.

After being one of the standout performers in the 2012/13 promotion campaign, Meredith did struggle defensively at the start of last season – often being caught out of position and costing us a goal here and there.

However, he has also never had any real competition for his place during his two years at the club, with McHugh always looking more comfortable playing at centre back. Sheehan will definitely offer that competition, and the pair’s flexibility will also be key in what is likely to be a smaller squad next season.

Both are known to be able to play in a couple of other positions. Sheehan is adept at playing on the left side of a centre back pairing, and Meredith can cover in central midfield and on the left wing.

What is clear is that on his day, Meredith is a quality lower league left back, but on the other hand so too is Sheehan and there is bound to be a some fierce competition between the pair for a place in the starting XI next season. This ultimately can only be a good thing for Bradford City.

Speaking to Michael Flynn

3 Jul
michael flynn

Picture courtesy of Bradford City Football Club

By Jason McKeown

Some numbers become iconic to certain clubs, and at Valley Parade the number four means a great deal.

After Bradford City’s greatest-ever number four departed for a second time in 2002, the gap he left behind proved colossal. Many people subsequently tried to fill Stuart McCall’s number four jersey, often with very little success. Meanwhile the club continued to tumble down the leagues; at times seemingly sleepwalking its way towards oblivion.

It was left to the club’s greatest number four – by now the manager – to solve that conundrum. And in 2009, Stuart McCall unearthed a real gem in recruiting Michael Flynn. The experienced midfielder was exactly what was needed to lead a young team through some difficult times. Flynn played a key role in putting the brakes on the club’s decade-long slide. He gave everything to the cause and was warmly loved by supporters for it.

At last, a number four you could rely upon.

Across three seasons, Michael Flynn played over 100 games and netted 14 goals for the Bantams; it would have been more but for a bad injury picked up at the beginning of his second year. If you include caretakers, he played for six different managers over that period. Turbulent times for sure, and it is a shame for the player that he was not around to experience the club’s long overdue success.

Now playing for his hometown club Newport County in League Two and recently awarded the additional responsibility of managing the club’s youth academy, Flynn took time out of pre-season to talk to Width of a Post about his three years at Valley Parade.

WOAP: You joined Bradford City in the summer of 2009 after a season at Huddersfield. How did the move come about?

MF: Well basically once Stan Ternent had left Huddersfield that season, we had a new manager come in (Lee Clark) and he wanted his own team – even though at the point he came in I was the top scorer. They sent me on loan to Darlington at one point, but I returned and managed to stay at Huddersfield until the end of the season.

That summer, I heard that Stuart McCall was interested but, to be honest, I left it a few weeks. Eventually I came to an agreement with Huddersfield; and as soon as I spoke to Stuart, Bradford was the only place I was going. I had a couple of offers to stay in League One, but I decided to sign with Stuart. He was unbelievable; such a gentleman, and he seemed really honest. That and the chance to play for Bradford, who were a huge club even though they were in League Two, was too good to turn down.

WOAP: At the time it was a squad that had just been rebuilt due to budget cuts. What were your first impressions of the club and the players in the dressing room?

MF: It was hard times to be fair. During my time I think the club were close to administration a few times. It was a bit frustrating to be honest because I would have loved it to have been my time when Bradford got promoted. But it wasn’t to be.

We had a really good team spirit that first season, a good bunch of lads. It’s just unfortunately the quality wasn’t there. We were missing probably three or four players.

WOAP: What did you make of Stuart McCall as a manager?

MF: He was unbelievable. He was absolutely superb was Stuart. So honest, so determined. He loves the club inside out. Wayne Jacobs was great as well. Stuart had the same thoughts as I did when he went to Bradford – letting his heart rule his head. He wanted to get them promoted, as did I. Unfortunately we didn’t get our dream, but I guarantee that we were both as happy as each other when Bradford did actually go up.

WOAP: Peter Taylor came in and made it clear you were a key figure for the club. What was he like to play under?

MF: Peter Taylor was brilliant. He was a lot firmer than Stuart, but one thing I loved with Peter was you knew where you were with him. There was no airs or graces: if he didn’t want you he was honest about it.

Peter was very tactical and I’ve taken a lot of things that I learned from him into coaching. In terms of tactics and preparations, he was spot on.

In the summer that he was made permanent manager I had a chance to go back to League One with Leyton Orient, for more money. But I decided to stay and signed a new two-year deal. I wanted to carry on playing under Peter, and we both genuinely thought we could do something that season. But it was just one of those things, it didn’t happen.

WOAP: Why do you think that was?

MF: I think we were short up front, to be totally honest. We only really had James Hanson, and he had been playing in non-league only 18 months before. He has done really well and come on leaps and bounds, but with just him I don’t think we were good enough up front then.

WOAP: Taylor went and then in came Peter Jackson. What was your relationship like with him?

MF: It was fine, I got on really well with Peter. If I’m totally honest, I think Peter was there to be shot at. He wasn’t the choice of manager that everybody wanted, but he did his best like the man he is.

He’d never do anything half-hearted. But being brutally honest I think he was the cheaper choice of manager. Still, I’ve got a lot of time for Peter and I still keep in contact with him. He’s a top guy.

WOAP: The 2011/12 pre-season began with a Development Squad friendly at Silsden where you, Luke Oliver and Robbie Threlfall were involved – apparently all on your way out of the club. What was happening during this period? Were you being pushed out?

MF: Yeah, I was being pushed out. They wanted me off the wage bill. I had a bad injury the season before, which was supposed to be a three to four-month absence. There was a lot of messing about with injections here and injections there, when I should have just had the operation straight away. I was actually out for nine to ten months.

So it took me a while to come back. I wasn’t as good as I was in the first season, I’m happy to admit that. But I’m not one to give up and didn’t that pre-season. I obviously won Peter Jackson around and I won the chairmen around, and I went on to score another six goals that season. That includes the goal against Leeds, which was one of my highlights of my time at Bradford.

WOAP: Indeed that goal against Leeds is warmly remembered, as it was part of such a brilliant night for us supporters. What are your memories of that night?

MF: It was an unbelievable night. The Bradford fans were amazing, as they always were. Let’s be honest, Bradford fans had been through a lot. The fire, the administrations – but these things seem to bring the club and supporters closer together.

If only we could have held on against Leeds that little bit longer at the start of the second half, I still think we would have caused an upset. The last thing we said before we came out after half time (City were leading 1-0) was ‘do not concede early’, but then we go and concede after 30 seconds. It was just a bit of naivety in the squad: we had players from non-league, and it was a young team. But we were unlucky to lose.

As I said it was a great atmosphere, and the Bradford fans made that.

WOAP: And then barely two weeks later, there was yet another management change. From your point of view you had only been at the club a couple of years but were already playing under a fourth different manager – what was that instability like?

MF: Well we actually had six! We also had Wayne Jacobs and Colin Cooper as caretaker managers. All of the change was a nightmare to be honest. It was really hard. A lot of the players didn’t know if they were coming and going. The new manager wants to bring in his own players. It’s hard and unsettling.

But at least now, with Phil Parkinson there, it has all settled down. I know there has been some changes this summer, but Phil has got the players in that he wants and I’m sure they will do well again this season.

WOAP: What did you make of Phil Parkinson?

MF: Phil and I got on really well. There was talk of me extending my contract, but then I got ill and was out for a while (December until mid-February). It was a tough time for me. Even though I came back and did quite well, we had already signed Ricky Ravenhill. And then in the summer there was myself, Ritchie Jones and Ricky who were probably among the higher earners, and one of us had to go. Unfortunately I was out of contract, and so it was me who went.

But I do have a lot of time for Phil, Steve Parkin and Nick Allamby. I still keep in touch a lot with Nick. There were no sour grapes about leaving.

WOAP: It must have been bittersweet to then see the club go on to enjoy such an amazing season in 2012/13. Did you follow their fortunes?

MF: To be fair it was a win-win situation, because I wanted Bradford to do really well. I knew a lot of players. I have always wanted my old clubs to do well. The summer I left they seemed to clear their debts with the stadium lease and things, and they were able to get better players in. And they got their reward with the great cup run and promotion.

WOAP: And meanwhile you have been having a great couple of years at Newport County…

MF: That summer I made the decision to drop out of the league. I could have stayed in League Two, but I wanted to go home as my daughter had started high school. I had been away for 12 years, so I thought the time was the right time to go back.

Thankfully joining Newport has paid off because getting promoted (to the Football League in 2012/13) via the play off final at Wembley was unbelievable. I have had other promotions, but that was something special. I didn’t enjoy the day though, only when the final whistle went!

WOAP: You have recently being appointed manager of Newport’s youth academy, what does the future hold for you?

MF: I will play as long as I can to be honest. I imagine it will be a lot less this season than last, where I played over 40 games. I have just done my A licence (coaching badge) which is something I have always been keen on. I am looking ahead to the next chapter of my life, but if I can play for another two or three years I would be delighted. If not, I will put in everything I’ve got into coaching.

WOAP: Finally you have played for eight different clubs over your career, how did Bradford City compare?

MF: Being totally honest, my time at Wigan was the best of my career – even though I wasn’t playing regularly. The team spirit was the best I have been involved in. We got promoted twice and reached the Premier League. I played with some brilliant players such as Jimmy Bullard, Leighton Baines, Lee McCulloch, John Filan, Jason Roberts and Nathan Ellington.

Then I went to Gillingham which was great. I would say that Gillingham and Bradford were equal in terms of how much I enjoyed them. I felt wanted and appreciated, so I’ve got a lot of time for both clubs.

I loved my time at Bradford even though it wasn’t the most successful for the club. It’s great to be able to say that I played for a club like Bradford. I am very proud of that.

Click here to follow Michael Flynn on Twitter.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,652 other followers