Fleetwood Town vs Bradford City and Bradford City vs Notts County preview
@Highbury Stadium on Friday 26 December and Valley Parade on Sunday 28 December
By Jason McKeown
Gary Jones’ return to Valley Parade is the headline act of Bradford City’s Christmas period. The former City captain visits with his new employers, Notts County, two days after the Bantams’ Boxing Day trip to Fleetwood Town.
Sunday will be an emotional moment for both Jones and the home crowd. He is guaranteed the warmest of receptions; his name will be sung loudly and proudly; and if he’s still on corner duty expect a standing ovation as he ambles over to take one in front of the Kop. It is six months since his departure, and we never got to say goodbye. Grown men admitted to me that they cried when they heard the news Jones had been released by City. His inspirational presence is greatly missed.
When I was a teenager, Stuart McCall was my hero. I idolised him, as he led his beloved Bantams to the unchartered territories of the Premier League. To a young lad making his way through life, watching McCall’s incredible work-rate and courage taught me so much.
But it wasn’t just us younger supporters who worshiped him. The fact McCall had returned for a second spell at Valley Parade, and put right the ghosts of a failed promotion attempt in 1988, aided his popularity amongst fans too old to get away with adding posters of City’s number four to their bedroom wall. McCall remains the most revered player in the club’s history.
Gary Jones’ impact at Valley Parade was similar to the new generation of fans. If you were too young to have seen McCall bow out in 2002, you’d have struggled to understand what the fuss was all about when he returned as manager five years later; nor would you have seen a City player who was so inspirational to everyone else. Jones changed that. He was not McCall, but my goodness he was not far off. There were so many vital players in the history-making 2012/13 campaign, but no one was as popular Jones.
And again, the impact of the player crossed age ranges. Prior to Jones and all the struggle City had endured post-McCall the player, I’d begun to gloomily believe that football heroes only exist when you’re too young to know any better. That no current or future City player would ever match the way I felt about McCall, Peter Beagrie, Robbie Blake, Jamie Lawrence, Lee Mills, Darren Moore, John Dreyer and Gary Walsh. So many poor players failed miserably to fill these boots.
But then Jones arrived and allowed us all to feel 10 years younger again. To recoil to a child-like wonderment about the world around us, and to have heroes that looked immortal. Jones could be everything you wanted him to be in your mind. He cared so much, he lifted everyone around him and he engineered near-impossible feats that will never be forgotten. The look on his face at Villa Park, January 2013, is something I will never forget.
We loved Gary Jones. We sang his name everywhere we went. He took us to new heights, wiped away years of cynicism and helped to build a feeling around the football club that we will probably spend the rest of our lives desperately trying to recreate.
Gary Jones will enjoy his reception on Sunday, but part of him will have only limited time for this sentimentality, and instead he will be driven by the desire to prove a point.
When Manchester United won the treble in 1999, Sir Alex Ferguson revealed that he had gone into that season with an extra sense of purpose. The year before Arsenal had won the league and cup double, and the recently appointed Gunners manager, Arsene Wenger, earned gushing praise from all quarters for his revolutionary approach to dietary and sports science. Ferguson was cast as a football dinosaur, in comparison.
This slight to his ability spurred Ferguson on to prove everyone wrong, as he would later reflect: “I know where to search for motivation. In most things, a cause is the best key.”
Gary Jones would probably appreciate this outlook, and his success at Meadow Lane this season is perhaps motivated by the challenge of demonstrating that people who wrote him off last season were wrong to do so.
“His legs have gone” was the criticism made of Jones this time a year ago. The team’s indifferent form, post-October, had seen Jones suffer like the rest of the team, but there became a growing element of the crowd who seemed determined to write him off. “His legs have gone” became a parrot-like utterance, which people repeated seemingly without bothering to consider whether it was true.
Slogan criticism is the worst. Just because something sounds good or insightful does not make it accurate. Some kind of loyalty that many City fans displayed to Jones last season.
There was a moment – a damning moment in many people’s eyes – that proved Jones’ legs had gone. It was almost a year to the day that he will make his return to Valley Parade, where Swindon’s Alex Pritchard left him in his wake to score a fine individual goal in a 1-1 draw. Forget the fact five or six of Jones’ team-mates should have stopped Pritchard’s jinxing run, Jones was somehow singled out for the blame. It’s easy to label a then 36-year-old as past it, but it was to do Jones a big disservice.
Yet Jones was far from finished. Witness his incredible leadership at Bramall Lane a month later, or his vital two-goal burst at home to Crewe in February. City eventually turned their season around, but they never turned away from Gary Jones. Still the idea his “legs have gone” continued to be aired and even Joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn declared, on the eve of this season, that City’s summer player turnover was prompted by a need for “legs in midfield”.
For Jones, released during the summer to his obvious despair, motivation to prove people wrong will have been easy to find. At Notts County Jones has flourished, and he has missed just two league games all campaign. County and Jones go into the Christmas period above the Bantams in the league.
Those who claimed “his legs have gone” have been made to look foolish.
And we shouldn’t be surprised, because Jones has done this before. In the summer of 2012, the record Rochdale appearance holder was discarded by his manager John Coleman, and rocked up at Valley Parade. Coleman seemed to view Jones as a trouble-maker and not the force he was, and he must have looked on in embarrassment as Jones went on to have the season of his life in West Yorkshire.
A week after City reached the League Cup Final at Villa Park, Coleman was sacked as Rochdale struggled in mid-table. Jones may not have caused Coleman to lose his job, but beaming pictures of the Rochdale legend in national newspapers certainly wouldn’t have helped the cause of the man who released him.
The parallels with McCall are striking here. In 2002, with the storm of administration brewing, McCall had been released by Nicky Law after a season that had featured a bust-up with the previous manager, Jim Jefferies, who argued McCall’s “legs had gone”. Stuart probably didn’t want to leave Valley Parade that summer, but found a new home at Sheffield United, where the team reached the play off final and the semi finals of the League Cup and FA Cup. McCall was a vital cog. Jefferies looked foolish.
There is evidently a difficulty in managing characters like McCall and Jones during their later years, as can be seen right now with Steve Gerrard and Liverpool. As age catches up with them, their influence on the team starts to wane and their manager has to address this – but that doesn’t mean these players suddenly no longer have anything to offer the club.
Perhaps Jones couldn’t be a week-in, week-out starter for City this season, but he could still have played an important role had he been offered a deal to remain. When the diamond was being worked out and Billy Knott pushed to the base, in front of the back four, City could have benefited from having Jones to play there and influence games without covering every blade of grass. When recently the Bantams were attempting to see out narrow leads against Gillingham and Scunthorpe United but began to panic, they needed a calm figure like Jones to have seen them over the line.
The point is this: we have missed him. And observing his heroics at Meadow Lane, from afar, leaves you wondering why we let him leave.
Money – or specifically the need to make £500k worth of savings during the summer – was probably the reason why Jones was released. The wages committed to Aaron Mclean clearly affected Parkinson’s decisions over who to retain during the close season. Perhaps he identified Gary Liddle and saw better long-term value. Either of these scenarios, I would be happy to believe and support. The alternative – that Parkinson thought Jones’ “legs have gone” too – doesn’t really bear thinking about.
Prior to Jones’ homecoming on Sunday, City travel to a Fleetwood Town side who are enjoying a solid first-ever season in England’s third tier and who – like the Bantams and Magpies – are reasonably placed for a play off assault. After an amazing six promotions in nine years, Chairman Andy Piller is working towards a five-year plan of getting the Cod Army into the Championship. If completed, such a rise up the football pyramid would be unprecedented in the modern era.
The theme of ex-Bradford City players continues, as this Boxing Day fixture sees a reunion with two former Bantams who are associated with unhappier times. Steven Schumacher was part of the 2006/07 relegation squad and found himself many people’s scapegoat for the club’s collapse during the second half of that season.
And then there is Gareth Evans, who spent two seasons at Valley Parade before leaving as part of then-manager Peter Jackson’s culling of a poor squad, in 2011. Evans made an unhappy return to Valley Parade the following season, with new club Rotherham, where a strong Michael Flynn challenge saw him stretchered off the field and out of action for months. Bitter about this, the following season he scored against the Bantams for Rotherham and controversially celebrated in front of a packed City away end.
Fleetwood’s success this season has been built upon a strong defensive base and solid home performances – they have the sixth-best home record in the division. A big test then, for the Bantams, who coincidentally hold League One’s sixth-best away record.
The away victory at Chesterfield, last time out, was City’s fifth on the road this season – one short of the six away wins they achieved in the whole of the 2013/14 and 2012/13 campaigns. It would be a great achievement to reach the half way point of the season with another away win notched up.
As it would be to continue recent home improvements by recording a victory over another play off challenger, two days later. Not only will Notts County’s visit to Valley Parade see a return for Jones, it looks set to be an emotional afternoon for their top scorer, Garry Thompson.
Thompson’s success at Meadow Lane this season is more of a surprise to this corner of West Yorkshire. During his early days at Bradford City, there was much talk about how he wanted to be selected up front. Yet he was never going to be regularly selected to lead the attack ahead of James Hanson or Nahki Wells, and ultimately found a happy home on the right side of City’s midfield.
Given the opportunity to play up front by Notts County manager Shaun Derry, Thompson has delivered a solid return of seven goals – which included a perfect hat trick in the 5-1 demolition of Crawley, the first of his career, and a stoppage time equaliser at Rochdale last Saturday.
Thompson won’t receive the adulation that Jones receives on Sunday, but he will earn a great reception nonetheless. He is one of the History Makers, and will be forever remembered for his goal against Arsenal especially.
It all adds to a special afternoon at Valley Parade. There really couldn’t be a better choice of opposition for the traditional bumper Christmas home crowd to play host to.