Pre-season begins at Guiseley with much to prove

Guiseley AFC vs Bradford City preview

@Nethermoor on Saturday 13 July, 2013

By Jason McKeown

If Bradford City’s return to League One after a six-year break represents a relative step into the unknown, the warm up begins tomorrow once more in the comfortably familiar surroundings of Guiseley AFC’s Nethermoor stadium.

This will be the fourth pre-season in six that the Bantams have played a pre-season friendly in the West Yorkshire town – it would have been five in six, but for Peter Taylor’s curious argument about the kick off time back in 2010 – and those previous visits offer useful snapshots of the club’s slow progress escaping League Two.

In 2008 City were defeated 2-1 by Guiseley – the winner from some bloke called James Hanson – in an outing where Stuart McCall elected to bring himself, his assistant Wayne Jacobs and, apparently, Mark Lawn’s son as second half substitutes. It suggested the manager was not taking the game as seriously as we might expect, albeit the match was billed as a Bradford City XI.

Under Peter Jackson in 2011, City came from behind twice to beat the Lions 3-2. Worries were raised over the defensive solidarity of Guy Branston and Steve Williams, whilst Mark Stewart looked a fantastic prospect – proof that some aspects of pre-season games are a true indicator of things to come, but that others can be misleading. 12 months ago under Phil Parkinson, the Bantams were utterly dominant in thumping Guiseley 4-0. It was my first glimpse of Gary Jones in a City shirt and he was simply outstanding.

Unlike those previous visits, tomorrow’s game comes right at the start of the pre-season friendly campaign and, as such, the squad will be under-developed in comparison. Parkinson has talked of giving players 45 minutes each and the objective will be more to build fitness than to practice game plans and strategies. Nevertheless, one would expect the players to be on their game from the off – individually, there is too much at stake for anything less.

For the qualified success that was Parkinson’s small squad approach last season has, understandably, being continued – only with an upping of the standards demanded of it. The summer strengthening that so far sees Jason Kennedy and Mark Yeates recruited has resulted in good squad players being let go. The bar is being risen, but has an effect at the top end as much as it does at the bottom. Players who were pretty much guaranteed starters last year face the challenge of avoiding being reduced to the status of squad players.

It means that many need to hit the ground running, starting tomorrow, and no one will feel that more keenly than Jon McLaughlin. Matt Duke is not the first goalkeeping rival that Jon has seen off in his five years at the club, yet the talk from many is that Parkinson should be looking to recruit someone who can become the new number one ahead of McLaughlin.

In defence, City begin pre-season still without Luke Oliver but with hopes that he may figure during next week’s tour of Ireland. Yet his eventual return to fitness is only part of the battle he faces. Competition for starting roles at centre back is fierce and as much as Oliver will need time and patience to rediscover his form and confidence it’s questionable whether he will be afforded it in the shape of first team football.

It’s worth noting that Rory McArdle was supposedly recruited last summer with the intention of starting alongside Andrew Davies ahead of Oliver. That didn’t happen prior to Oliver’s injury due to the 2011/12 player of the year’s brilliant form – McArdle shunted to right back – but with Stephen Darby’s emergence it would be more difficult for Parkinson to accommodate Oliver, Davies and McArdle in the team.

And that’s not even mentioning Michael Nelson – whose mid-season move from Kilmarnock for a £25k fee saw the former Norwich man struggle to win over a crowd spoiled by the excellence of Oliver, Davies and McArdle – and Carl McHugh. Five into two does not go, and so the importance of making a strong impression means that none of Parkinson’s centre halves can afford a slow start tomorrow. Darby and James Meredith will face less pressure in the full back slots.

In midfield the arrivals of Kennedy and Yeates and departures of Zavon Hines and Will Atkinson suggest a big shake up in an area of the team that ended last season so strongly. Kyel Reid and Garry Thompson ultimately saw off Hines and Atkinson, but will both find their place under threat from the versatile Yeates. Kennedy’s dominant performance against Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle for Rochdale at Valley Parade last December – albeit as part of a five-man midfield – offers food for thought. Ricky Ravenhill and Scott Brown will also be looking for some involvement tomorrow. Jon-Paul McGoven’s auditions for the role of Atkinson’s replacement.

Hanson’s annual visit to his old club Guiseley offers a different measure of his progress – he returns a League One player who last season attracted national and international headlines for his cup exploits. Nahki Wells remains a City player despite confirmation this week that Peterborough United have had a bid turned down. Privately, the club are said to be expecting Wells to remain a City player at the end of this transfer window. That may be tested over the coming weeks, but whilst a year ago Peterborough would have been a tempting offer to Nahki it’s hard to see him viewing it as a big enough step up to leave West Yorkshire for.

If Wells does indeed stay it suggests Parkinson won’t be looking for another striker, although Width of a Post has heard a whisper that Simon Church has held initial discussions about a move to West Yorkshire. Any striker addition would immediately cast doubt over Alan Connell’s future, and City’s third-choice forward needs a strong pre-season for sure. As for Andy Gray, his objective over the next few weeks will surely be to get us supporters to say the words “Gray looked sharp today”. There has been a widespread writing off of Gray but you won’t find it from me. He does needs to hit the ground running, however.

Pre-season friendlies are always curious occasions in trying to separate the meaning from the meaningless during oft-pedestrian matches. Some folk get worked up by results, but ultimately scorelines are quickly forgotten. Performances are a different story though, in my opinion, and although we don’t expect much from tomorrow we’re looking for the first public outing of the Bantams since standing on a balcony at Centenary Square in May to be one of intent and focus on the battles ahead.

New beginnings mean everyone has everything to prove all over again. Tomorrow, the battle for a place in the 2013/14 first team starts in earnest.

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