The early season Verdict: Impressive start underlines huge Bradford City potential

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

WOAP writers Andrew Baxter, Tim Penfold, Tom Swithinbank and Katie Whyatt take to the pundits’ chairs to reflect on Bradford City’s opening few weeks of the 2016/17 campaign.

1) What have you made of Bradford City’s start to the season?

Andrew: I’ve been very impressed. Taking seven points from three games at Peterborough, MK Dons and Millwall is impressive for any side at this level, never mind a side playing a youngster in central midfield, and with three youth teamers on the bench. Imagine how good we’ll be when we have a fully fit squad!

Last season we took a while to get going, and City were languishing near the bottom after six games. Despite this, we still finished in the play offs, just a handful of points away from automatic promotion. Whilst a good start to the season doesn’t necessary guarantee a consistent season, it certainly gives us a very good platform from which to build upon.

We do need to work on defending set pieces, but with the likes of Hanson, McArdle and McMahon to return, it’s an exciting time to be a Bradford City fan.

Tim: Like Andrew, I have been very impressed.  Saturday was the first game where we’ve not been noticeably the better side for a large amount of the game, and that was away at a very good Millwall side.  The style of football has been very easy on the eye, and it’s great to see midfielders actually getting forward and supporting the attack, but we also haven’t lost the determination and solidity that were the defining characteristics of a Phil Parkinson side.  

And all of this with large amounts of players, particularly in defence, missing!

Tom: I can only agree with my fellow writers, I’m very impressed, I think, especially given the injuries and the changes, it has been an excellent start and one that we can build on in the next month as our injured players return.

The style has been appreciated by fans and the players seem to be enjoying it too, they seem relaxed and confident on the ball but play with energy and determination too. As mentioned already it is great to see midfielders joining the attack and getting in the box – Nicky Law is due a goal!

Katie: I’m actually startled by how good they look. I just think there’s this composure, this quiet guile – they won’t be bullied, they won’t be intimidated and they’ll impose their own style on teams. They can change the system and never look phased, they can make seamless in-game changes and they just send the ball zipping around the park with such a swagger that you can’t not get excited about where they’re going to go.

For me, the expectation was completely a season of transition, quiet rebuilding and trying to set down foundations for a promotion that won’t cripple the club in however many years that takes. This team already look to know exactly who they are and there’s a real clarity in their vision for themselves.

Their potential genuinely frightens me right now.

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

2) Which two players have particularly stood out for you?

Tim: The first one I’ll go for is Mark Marshall. He’s been a triumph of Stuart McCall’s man-management so far, making him feel confident and encouraged, and it’s really shown.  Last year he looked reluctant to bring the ball forward, always looking for the easy ball inside, and didn’t provide enough defensive cover either, so was understandably dropped.

This year he’s looked dangerous, a constant threat, and has, after a dodgy pre-season in this regard, also done more defensive work that I was expecting.  Stuart has always got the best out of his type of player – a winger with occasionally fragile confidence – the obvious examples are Omar Daley and Lionel Ainsworth at Motherwell, but Joe Colbeck also played the best football of his career under Stuart.  It looks like he’s done it again.

The second player continues the theme of “people who play their best football under Stuart”, as it’s Nicky Law.  I was a little bit concerned about the signing, as he hadn’t done particularly well at Rangers, but he’s looked excellent.  He seems to set the tone for the entire attacking side, bringing the ball forward with purpose, running at defenders, interchanging passes and, in a nominally wide left role, pops up everywhere, making him difficult to track and creating space for James Meredith to attack.

Andrew: There have been a number of players who have been impressive so far, but I’m going to pick out Daniel Devine and Billy Clarke.

One of Phil Parkinson’s major criticisms was his poor record in bringing youth graduates through. McCall, on the other hand, has given a few youngsters a chance. The Checkatrade Trophy win over Stoke U23s was used by McCall as a chance to give the likes of Ellis Hudson a run out, and perhaps may be a hint to McCall’s intention to blood young talent.

Despite being thrown into the deep end, Devine has been fantastic so far. Playing in the centre of midfield (a position that requires you to be fully involved in the game), he has looked relatively comfortable, and McCall’s faith in him has paid off. Of course, he will experience a dip in form or need a rest at some point in the season, but the experience of playing at grounds such as The Den will do wonders for his confidence. It’s encouraging to see the products of City’s academy being given a chance in the first team.

Billy Clarke looks like a completely different player so far this season. We’d seen glimpses before of his true potential, and it is evident that McCall’s style of play suits him. Clarke is a player who thrives on getting the ball to feet, and being given the creative freedom to carve defences open, and create chances. He looks revitalised this season, with that extra creative freedom, and his new-found confidence is leading to better performances from City’s number 10.

Tom: All the players have impressed so far (apart from Hiwula, who I’m not sure touched the ball in the Oldham game I went to!) I’m going to go with Danny Devine, who for all the ‘Parkinson wouldn’t have started him’ only got his debut because of a fairly severe injury crisis.

Since then though Devine has gone on to turn out very impressive performances against good opposition. He kept the danger men quiet in earlier games and I imagine he would have had a tough game against the Millwall centre mid Thompson, who I think is a great little player at this level.

My second player is James Meredith who is so consistent and is the best left back in the division in my opinion. He is an absolute athlete and offers so much going forward but it’s easy to forget that he is very solid defensively too. If we don’t go up this year I fear he may move on so hopefully we can match his ambition.

Finally a word on Hanson who I think should be very effective in this side!

Katie: I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Vincelot yet. For me, he pretty much embodies the mood and temperament of this team – just this quiet composure, guile and strength. You could just watch him unflappably winning headers and spraying passes all day long – and then you remember he was brought him as a central midfielder.

 I think it’s what we’ve seen and the thought of what’s still to come with Vincelot that makes him so exciting a prospect, for me. The thought of him and Cullen as a central midfield pairing, and then with Vuckic in there somewhere – there won’t be many better midfields at this level.

I think my second one is probably Billy Clarke, for essentially the same reasons as Andrew. He had a poor campaign last year in a system and forward line that didn’t really give him enough to work with – I think Stuart’s style is proving perfect for a player like Clarke.

One of the most glaring things I’ve noticed so far is the number of runs with the ball they’re making into the box – hence the number of (converted) penalties Cullen and Clarke have won. I remember going about a whole calendar year under Parkinson without winning a penalty, just because, without Mark Yeates in the side and Clarke shackled slightly, we didn’t have the players likely to do that.

Everyone is remarking on how free and uninhibited this team looks right now, and I think a player as imaginative as Clarke was always going to be one of the greatest beneficiaries of that.

3) What have you made of the club’s transfer business?

Tom: Amazing! They knew what sort of players they wanted to get in and went and got them. Yes they have admitted they missed a few, but they have filled the roles we needed with a mix of youth and experience. I’m looking forward to seeing the battle for positions throughout, especially for CB between McArdle, Killgallon and Knight-Percival as I have liked watching NKP so far. The strength in depth is going to be key and Stuart will struggle to pick his first 11 I hope!

If everyone is fit there is a good chance Devine won’t make the bench which shows how far we have come since day one of pre season!

Andrew: McCall said in an interview before the Millwall game that he has never worked with a squad with such talent and depth. I suppose this is testament to the recruitment made by Greg Abbott, and I’m very happy with our transfer business. 

McCall and Abbott have identified the areas in which they feel the squad is weak, and addressed those. We needed at least one more centre-back, they brought in Knight-Percival and Kilgallon. We needed at least two central midfielders, they brought in Cullen (who looks a class above at this level), Dieng, Vincelot and Law. We needed a striker, they brought in Hiwula, McNulty and Vuckic.

By providing strength in depth, McCall has back-up in key areas for the inevitable injury crisis. He’s also factored in the changes to the loan market – by having these players in the squad already, he doesn’t have to worry about finding replacements for injured players.

In addition, signing players who are comfortable in a number of different positions (Vincelot, Dieng, Law) gives him the ability to tweak formations mid-game, should the situation arise.

Katie: I think the fact they’ve somehow brought in four marquee signings in Vincelot, Killgallon, Cullen and Vuckic pretty much says it all. When you heard Parkinson had taken all the scouting stuff and all the records, you were right to be concerned about where that left us and whether that link with West Ham had been severed – but kudos to Abbott, who’s been my signing of the summer. None of this would have been possible without him.

Tim: Considering how we started almost a month behind, we’ve done very well.  We’ve strengthened every area that I was worried about in pre-season – central defence with Kilgallon, central midfield with Cullen (what a coup that is) and going forward with McNulty and the more creative Vuckic.  It looks like we’re planning our scouting properly, and Greg Abbott has been a fine addition – there are few people who know the lower leagues as well, and he always had an eye for a player at Carlisle.

I’d hope that, given the time now available, we’d be looking to have a less rushed and more planned January.  My one concern, however, is that we may not be completely willing to pay the money to get a top forward in.  I know they’re expensive, but if we don’t pay the market rate we won’t get the quality needed.

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

4) What are your views on the way Stuart McCall has gone about the job so far?

Tim: Again, I’ve been impressed.  I like the way he’s set his sides up to play, I like the way he’s willing to give young players an opportunity, and I like the way he’s brought the feel-good factor back.  He seems to have taken the best things about Phil Parkinson’s teams and added some flair to them.

The big question now is how he deals with a bad run.  This was the problem last time around, where a couple of bad games could turn into a six-week slump.  His ability to switch off and distance himself emotionally from the club will be vital if this happens.

Katie: I thought Tim’s comment about mental separation was an interesting one. We all tend to look at McCall’s first managerial spell through the lens of ‘heart ruling head’, and I think there’s a large element of truth in that, but I was saying to Jason last week that it doesn’t feel like McCall’s trying to overwrite anything this time around. He is a completely different guy, talks with a grit and a realism, and this squad is uniformly strong – maybe the pure goalscorer in Peter Thorne aside, you could find weaknesses quite quickly in the players from his first couple of years here, whereas it’s a harder ask to do that now – I know we’re a division higher, but still.

Relative to the level they’re at, I think this squad has loads on the ones from back then. He has such a confidence in his approach and in his players, and that’s why they’re playing in the way they are.

I think a lot of the comments from inside the camp about Stuart and his man management style have been really refreshing. All this stuff about Marshall needing an arm around his shoulder and Cullen joking about his Peterborough debut with Stuart  – I think good man management can be such an underrated quality, but it forms the bedrock of any manager’s philosophy and ethos.

There is this obvious unconditional mutual respect at the moment that just makes the good play taste all the sweeter.

Tom: McCall has built upon Parkinson’s ethos and added a style of play which is great to watch. He obviously has the respect of senior players and is getting the best out of Marshall and Devine who didn’t see any action under Parkinson.

The management team have brought in players who are multi skilled, recognising the change in the loan system, and this has pulled us through our injury crisis. I’m looking forward to seeing how he manages the big squad and keeps everyone happy.

I was listening to the (always interesting) Danny Murphy who was saying that sometimes it is a good idea to take young players out of the side even when they are doing well and I would expect SM to take this approach with Devine when Cullen returns.

Andrew: Given the circumstances faced by McCall when he arrived at the club, I’ve been impressed by him so far. His recruitment has been solid, he’s getting the best out of players, and he’s reinstated the “feel good factor” around Valley Parade. Looking on Twitter, negative Tweets are few and far between. When was the last time that was the case?

I don’t think that McCall could have asked for a better start to the campaign. 12 points from six games and still unbeaten in the league would have been merely a pipe dream to City fans a couple of months ago, after Parkinson left.

He’s put the foundations in places for a very good campaign.

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Categories: The Verdict

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10 replies

  1. The conversation about the positive start to the season, probably encapsulates most fans views. However I feel that ‘difficult’, Question 5 is missing from the review. It would be phrased something like, ‘which area do you think that the team still has to improve on’? For myself and I guess most fans, it is the lack of goals from open play, and in particular our strikers. Three penalties and some own goals, have made up more than half the number we have scored in the league, and is a concern. Only two goals from our strikers in open play. So far we have ‘got away with it’, but it is essential that our strikers, begin to convert chances into goals, otherwise this fine start, will falter.

    • Hi, Rod………..
      In fairness, for balance – I pretty much agree with your post, and yet would just make one minor change to it. Rather than ‘will falter’ I would suggest ‘could falter’ if that’s OK ?

  2. Hi Chris,
    We need to start scoring goals from open play. We cannot continue to rely on penalties and own goals. In the top ten clubs in the division, only Port Vale and Charlton (and to be fair they have played one less game than us) have scored fewer goals. The majority of the play is wonderful to watch, but without our own goalscorers, we will struggle to maintain this great start.
    I see that I have been rated down by three people, I think it would be interesting, if they explained what they actually disagree with and why.

    • Agree yet again, Rod. I always find a negative rating strange, without a written follow up.
      And yes, we really must be more clinical, but I’m holding back just a little bit longer as both Vuckic and McNulty have yet to feature, and there are about 5 ‘partnerships’ that could bear the fruits we need.

  3. Hello WOAP team. A good effort by all of you, and yes I was slightly skeptical before a ball was kicked, yet it feels like we hit the ground running, a great surprise in itself. With further players yet to enter the fray, it’s difficult not to be encouraged by our displays.
    Yet I will place a firm brake on my enthusiasm right here. Like many, I prefer to reserve judgement until about the 10 league games played scenario. For me, that is when I feel the table has any real definition, and teams in general have now settled in. It is so easy for a team to rise or fall seven or eight places at the moment. Theoretically Bristol Rovers could move from bottom four to top six, with their games in hand.
    But no negative spin from me – I’m enjoying the most unexpected of starts, and I don’t want our early momentum to stop.

  4. Interesting to consider the dynamic between manager and board this time round. There were plenty of rumours suggesting that one factor overshadowing Stuart’s record previously was his relationship with a certain joint-chairman. It seems far more relaxed now and I feel we need to give the new regime credit for the this. All in all, early expectations have been exceeded and the bantam progressivism looks like continuing. I can’t think of a more successful transition at VP.

  5. Hi Rod,

    I was one of the three people that rated you down. You posted “For myself and I guess most fans, it is the lack of goals from open play, and in particular our strikers.” My thoughts on this are that the manager had addressed the situation, with the signings McNulty and Vuckic, and perhaps we were raking over old ground. I hope that this explains my rating.

    All the best

    James

    • Hi Jamesb64
      My response was to the WOAP, pundits who ‘….reflect on Bradford City’s opening few weeks of the 2016/17 campaign’. So the article was looking at how things had developed over the initial fixtures. On that basis, I think my observations were fair. I hope that the new signings and perhaps the return of James Hanson, ‘firing on all cylinders’, will lead to a dramatic increase in goals being scored by our forwards.
      All the best.
      Rod

      • Hi Rod,

        Thanks for your reply, fair comment. Great to have options up front, as well as all over the pitch. I believe we will have a strong bench, nice problem to have.

        All the best

        James

  6. Many thanks for getting back to Rod, Jamesb64 – It’s refreshing to see a civilised debate on seemingly opposing views, result in a common ground result. FWIW, Your posts epitomise why any follow up to a negative rating is appreciated. 🙂

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