The romance of Scunthorpe as Bradford City players face up to uncertain futures

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Scunthorpe United 1

McSheffrey 26

Bradford City 1

Clarke 63

Tuesday 21 April, 2015

By Jason McKeown (images by Thomas Gadd, see note below)

14 years ago, the then-Leeds United chairman Peter Ridsdale proudly heralded the £9 million signing of Derby’s Seth Johnson to be proof that the Elland Road outfit had “moved on from the Molenaars and Wetheralls of this world”.

It was a crass statement by a crass man – one that Robert Molenaar and David Wetherall took great exception to – but the wider point Ridsdale was making was that Leeds United were now able to buy players on a much grander scale.

As Billy Clarke joyfully celebrated his Bradford City equaliser at Glanford Park on Tuesday evening, by charging up to the away end and leaping onto a wall, those words from Ridsdale suddenly popped into my head. And as the delirium of the goal faded, and comfort was taken from the vast improvement in the Bantams that followed, one can’t help but feel a little sad, fearful and sentimental for this current team.

By most measures, Clarke has been a resounding success at Valley Parade. His manager, Phil Parkinson, spent last summer dealing with budget cuts and hunting around for bargains. Clarke – unloved at Crawley to the point he couldn’t even get a game – was a gem of a find. A player who previously moved from club to club has looked very settled at Valley Parade, and his performances and level of influence on the team have grown and grown. This goal – a lovely low finish into the bottom corner – was his fifth in eight games. He is out in front as City’s top scorer.

Getting these performances from Clarke is very commendable of Parkinson. In fact, we can look back on last summer’s recruitment drive – where big questions were being asked of the manager – as a success. There will always be Alan Sheehans: every manager makes bad signings. But the good has more than outweighed the bad, and the 2014/15 side has largely built upon the History Makers team’s achievements, embodied their best qualities, and continued to take the club forwards.

They are ending the season knackered and far from their best, but they have given everything over these last nine months – and they are widely loved for it.

Yet now we are approaching an unexpected crossroads In Bradford City’s history. The Italian takeover is still said to be on course to going through, and with each little bit of inside info and gossip, the wealth of Gianni Paladini’s backers seems to grow and grow. It has been suggested that City will have a transfer budget of £10 million in the summer. That is a mind-blowing sum of money for this level. If it all goes through and that is the club’s financial position, instant success will be demanded and some notable players would be joining the club.

Tony McMahon

But where does all of this leave the current players? Parkinson claims that the recent dip in form has nothing to do with the players feeling unsettled by takeover rumours and that is undoubtedly true, but suddenly the future of each and every one of them is on the line. If City are going to fast track our way to promotion, many of the current players – contracted for next year or not – are probably going to lose their places in the team. Past achievements may count for little. We will be moving on from the Clarkes and Liddles of this world.

It reminds me of the classic Simpsons episode where Homer’s power plant baseball team have reached the championship game following an unbeaten season, only for the players to discover their owner Mr Burns has replaced every one of them with ringers from the professional game. There is a moment where the team are told the news, as the professional baseball players are introduced to the room, and they are left mortified that their efforts will count for nothing.

You can picture Billy Clarke as Homer Simpson, asking one of the glamorous Bradford City summer signings, “Well, are you better than me?” and receiving the reply “Well, I’ve never met you, but…yes”.

Of course, City have not just gone through a season unbeaten. They have not reached the championship game. They have not, even, reached the play offs. And the last few weeks have demonstrated that this set of players aren’t good enough yet to be a promotion team. But it seemed as though we were going to strengthen in one or two areas, and increase the depth of the squad. That these players and this team – who have not yet reached their expiry date – would be given an opportunity to go again.

We may never find out just how good this team could be. And though spending £10 million or whatever should lead to better players that we would quickly love if they succeed, it feels harsh on the current players, who might be about to receive a severe career setback.

It’s the heart vs the head moment. We want to get promoted. Logically spending lots of money will increase our chances of getting promoted. But in our hearts…some of us worry for the soul of the club.

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At Scunthorpe, the players were woeful but then also excellent. Another game of two halves, where the half time words from Parkinson had a positive effect. In the opening 45 minutes the home side – still needing a point or two to guarantee their League One status – attacked with purpose and intent. James Meredith was given a torrid time on the left, Ben Williams inspired zero confidence as he flapped at crosses in the box.

Gary McSheffrey opened the scoring with a goal that had been coming. Neal Bishop should have made it 2-0, but smacked an effort against the crossbar.

It was disconcerting to see City revert back to their direct style of play from last season, with the ball pumped long to Jon Stead and James Hanson, who had no support around them. It was a sign of dipped confidence, of fatigue, but it was a drop in standards that doesn’t sit well. At half time City were facing up to a fifth defeat in seven games and the fallout would have been huge. There were no boos, but the atmosphere in the away end was strangely muted all evening.

It got better in the second half, which is where Clarke popped up with his gleefully celebrated equaliser. In the aftermath of their Saturday draw with Colchester, Scunthorpe boss Mark Robins accused his players of trying to get through games doing only the minimum. It was probably true again here, as they never got going after the break. City had chances, none more so than a stoppage time run and shot from Tony McMahon that flew over the bar. The highly impressive on-loan Blackpool man should have scored.

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Still, a point was a fair reflection and there were several good performances. None more so than Christopher Routis, who was given an unexpected opportunity to exercise the Preston demons. In for Rory McArdle (and selected ahead of Gary MacKenzie), Routis was excellent here and arguably City’s best player. Perhaps it helped the Frenchman’s game to play alongside the calming presence of Andrew Davies for the first time, but this display was evidence that Routis can play as a centre back in League One.

Chris Routis is a bit like that bloody dress. When people view him, they come to vastly different conclusions. There are people who really do not rate him – someone tweeted me today saying they won’t renew their season ticket if he is offered another contract – and yet there are others who rave about him. I am definitely in the latter camp. Every time I praise him someone has a go at me for it, and I’m not blind to his short comings and the mistakes he has made, but there is so much potential to him. And he plays with such passion and heart.

I was really pleased that he had such a good evening here.

But Routis more than anyone is vulnerable to the summer takeover situation. After City spent last summer shopping in the £1 shops of Crawley, Stevenage and Hibs, Parkinson could be set to be handed a store card to Waitrose and Booths. If he has started to plan for summer signings – and sensibly he must begin to – Parkinson will probably have to draw up two separate lists. One for the original plan of spending the FA Cup windfall, the other for if an Italian is at the helm and millions of pounds are available.

Interesting times, but no matter who is playing for City next term, they will do well to match the passion of Billy Clarke’s celebration last night.

City: Williams, Darby, Routis, Davies, Meredith, Liddle, McMahon, Knott (Halliday 77), Clarke, Hanson, Stead (Dolan 77)

Not used: Urwin, MacKenzie, Webb-Foster, Mottley-Henry, Zoko

With special thanks to the very kind Thomas Gadd for allowing us to use his brilliant photos. Please visit Thomas Gadd’s website for more details or click here for more photos of the game.

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Categories: Match Reviews

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13 replies

  1. Thanks for the match report. I’m not sure how you conclude that Alan Sheehan is a bad signing. I haven’t seen all the games in which he played, but in the ones I did, I thought that he did fine (at least), and was excellent with a dead ball at his feet. Meredith’s form has won him the fight for the left back starting spot, is how it looks like to me. However, if Sheehan wasn’t out on loan at the moment I do wonder if he would be getting more game time (including in central defense due to the injury and suspension situations), as Meredith’s form has noticeably dipped since he signed a new deal, and now that he has no direct competition for the left back position once again.

  2. Going back a bit I know, but Routis very much reminds me of Marco Sas, another ball playing centre-half who divided opinion. When in his pomp he was (supposedly) chased by bigger clubs, yet he always had a mistake in him and in the end never really did anything after City. The difference for me though is Parkinson, hopefully he can help his development and iron out the issues which makes Routis the ‘marmite’ of the squad.

    Re. the takeover, what are the current murmurs that you’ve heard Jason, or anyone else for that matter ??!?!

  3. Alan Sheehan has been solid – his downfall was Sheffield United. Meredith became undroppable. So for me a very good left back has been replaced by an excellent one.

  4. I don’t agree about Sheehan. I thought he was increasingly poor as the season went on and Meredith was unlucky not to get in the team sooner. I wouldn’t write him off yet, but I don’t see him as a success.

  5. I agree with Jason on Sheehan but I think that there is some middle ground regarding Routis – those of us who think that he’s a very good squad player in that he has good energy levels and can cover a few positions but are of the opinion that he will never make a first choice league one centre back. Admittedly I wasn’t there last night but every time I’ve seen him at the heart of the defence he’s struggled and given me the jitters. This is in stark contrast to his performances in midfield which I have been quietly impressed with.

  6. I remember the Fulham team storm up the divisions on the back of Al-Fayed’s money. For all the ‘freak show’ accusations their fans sure seemed to be enjoying the experience….

  7. Great article Jason witten with great sentiment and the likely implications for the current crop of players and the impact a possible take over may have on the soul and integrity of the club and fans. Love the analogy with the Mr Burn’s baseball team from the Simpsons.

    The club has come such a long way since Parkinson took the reigns and the club is well run by 2 chairman who have its best interest at heart. Parkinson has improved city year on year and achieved more with less this season than last.

    All Parkinson’s signings this season have all played their part and have to a degree all been a success. Routis has the potential to be a very good player and is finding his feet in the English game. Parkinson has used him as a utility player without really knowing his best position. With a bigger squad and a bigger budget this season Parkinson was unable to sign 2 to 3 quality players which I feel has been the difference between a play off place and us missing out.

    If city are to progress to the next level then investment and new blood will be required. If the take over does happen then it needs handling with care and a third party who can guide the new owners in understanding the fabric and traditions of the club and the city. David Baldwin springs to mind.

    If or when this happens or it all goes pear shaped then I am happy for Parkinson to continue to take the club forward and build on his year on year improvement and success.

  8. Good report, thanks Jason. As regards Routis i will go as far as to say he’s the most technically proficient player on the books. Positional wise i see him being a very competent CB in the European game but in the English game CB’s are different animals so whilst he can slot in at CB i think his future will lie in centre midfield where his physical presence and defensive qualities seem more suited.

    As regards Sheehan he’s had a tough year with the loss of his Mother, followed swiftly by injury & suspension where his mind was surely not on the job. Add to this the frustration of seeing Meredith playing possibly the best football of his City career, Sheehans season hasn’t really got going.

    Its going to be an interesting summer ahead, thats for sure.

  9. Once again a great article Jason got to the very soul of Bradford City and what it means to fans Yes we do need investment taking the club forward and that would be welcome but not at any price Needs someone on board who has city’s best interest at heart not in it just for an investment.

  10. Difficult to express how I feel about the current situation.
    Yes, the present team have become a ‘History Makers’ (Part 2) for me emotionally and I love the ‘we’re all in it together’ vibe of honest chairmen who are fans, players who ‘want to be here’, manager and staff who are committed, decent and inspire respect and have an aura of integrity by the bucketload and a set of fans who (by any measure) must be the envy of true followers of the sport.
    On the other hand – Yes, we have to accept the ‘Realpolitik’ of ”Football is a Business” therefore ”Business People” are (probably) going to have to take the club up to the next level and I’ve watched more seasons of scrabbling about in the lower reaches of ‘Division 4’ than I care to remember.

    However, the comment you make in the report about Billy Clarke’s passion in his celebration is what it’s about. Whatever the next few months bring, that’s what I’ve looked for in the 50 plus years I’ve supported the club – and that’s what I hope to see in the future.

  11. If the money does come but PP is still in charge I would like to think we have a man who can successfully integrate some new talent in with the current crop to improve the side, but also hold onto some of the personalities that make the team enjoyable to follow. So it may not be a complete overhaul, just adding some quality and depth. However some players may not want to see their role reduced so the balance will be tricky.

  12. Great article Jason and I concur with your sentiments on Routis and Clarke. In particular the latter has been a revelation after his relatively stop start beginnings (opened the season in fine form before tailing off till his Halifax match winning cameo).
    Hopefully, irrespective of the funds available, Parky will be pruning the squad in anticipation of the summer. The relative deadwood of Kennedy, Dolan (arguably never had a chance but I’d rather have Routis), Yeates and managerial extraordinaire McLean need to be let go. Shame that the latter has another year!
    You should really do an Article of “I told you so” surrounding McLean! Going back to the halcyn days at the end of the January 2014 transfer window, where we linked with anything remotely resembling a goal scorer, everyone I encountered was highly critical McLean. Even I, despite my best efforts, was struggling to reconcile the McLean signing based on his lack of competitive football (a dozen appearances in the past 12 months)! How I wish I was wrong…

  13. Much more than a match report, it nicely sums up the current situation. I have been round long enough to see the pitfalls that such a takeover could bring, and I do hope that nothing comes of the talks with the rich Italian and his mega rich mates.

    The current owners, in conjunction with the present management setup has given us year on year improvement, and while accepting that this steady progress is too slow for some, I really do fear for the future if the takeover happens.

    I think that the current squad, once it has been pruned, can challenge next season for a play off spot or even automatic promotion, with the addition of 3 or 4 quality signings. We are not a Championship side by right, a study of our past shows exactly where we have played the majority our football. Let us enjoy the slow but steady progress of recent seasons, and the stability and firm foundations that the present owners have given the club.

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