By Jason McKeown
Beware of banana skins this weekend. With the feel-good factor still in tact following tricky back-to-back away games, Saturday’s visit of lowly Bristol Rovers represents a chance for Bradford City to extend their unbeaten record and set themselves up for a really exciting week.
The trip to Bolton Wanderers on Saturday 24 September was always a stand out early season fixture, but the way both clubs have started, the sold out Bantams away allocation and the Phil Parkinson factor sets us up for a mouth-watering clash at the Macron – one that is as exciting as any league fixture we’ve experienced in years. But take Bristol Rovers too lightly and stumble on Saturday, and the mood will dampen just at the point where it should truly take off.
We’ve been here before so many times over the last decade. A home game against a lesser side with a small away following. Lots of talk pre-match about not underestimating the challenge and displaying the right attitude, only for a dismal home defeat to follow. Not so much a shock as depressingly predictable. These are the afternoons where things go wrong.
And a repeat of that tomorrow would hurt the outlook. Lose and an unbeaten start suddenly becomes four games without a win. Fail to win and it will mean only one home victory from the first four matches. And the conversation will centre around how the team selection must have been incorrect, the manager got the tactics wrong. Drop x, get rid of y, and why isn’t z given a chance? Morale dented, just before the trip to Bolton where everyone is so desperate to present a positive and united front.
Stuart McCall is entering the second phase of his latest tenure in charge. From kicking the season off with no expectations, the huge promise displayed over the opening weeks is slowly leading to a quiet talking up of City’s prospects. That presents new challenges for the manager, who will remember from his first spell in charge how rising optimism brings with it a growing level of pressure. That glowing potential must also be fulfilled.
But he goes into this period with a much stronger hand, as a growing number of relatively big and illustrious names are available for selection and pushing their claims. At times over the opening weeks, picking 11 players was easy simply because of how few alternatives there were available. That’s no longer the case. And whilst this is clearly a welcome development, it also brings some big tests on McCall that could go a long way to shaping the season.
McCall has already talked about how he will be making some unfair decisions, as he seeks to introduce greater quality in the side through picking fit again players and new signings. The thinbare City side of early season performed manfully, and no one has let the club down or looked short of the standards required. To bring in the likes of Rory McArdle, Matthew Kilgallon, Marc McNulty, James Hanson and Haris Vuckic will mean leaving out players who have done very little wrong. It’s a balancing act getting such calls right.
The first challenge for McCall is making sure those who are relegated to the bench handle that demotion in the right manner. Every footballer wants to be playing and no one is going to welcome being left out of the side, but McCall has to keep such players motivated and pushing on for a recall. It is much easier to drop a player who is performing badly than one who is playing well. Some difficult conversations lie in store.
And for such tough calls to be justified, McCall has to rely on those brought into the side hitting the ground running and justifying their manager’s faith. Any poor individual performances will hinder results and also undermine the argument for leaving someone out harshly. It could cause the bar to be lowered throughout the squad and weaken players’ trust in the manager.
That’s especially important for McCall compared to his predecessor Parkinson. The latter succeeded last season by finding a system that worked and then slotting players into it. They were well drilled, organised and playing to a gameplan. McCall in contrast has over the opening weeks given players greater responsibility and freedom in their own performances. For that to truly work, he has to back them during both good and bad times.
For example players have been told to take risks and to not overly worry about making mistakes. Parkinson had a much lower approach to risk vs reward, and if players fell foul of it they would quickly find themselves left out. Under McCall players can seemingly try more things and be more positive. It might cost City a goal at times, but is more likely to result in finding the net at the other end more often.
And taking such a bold approach needs to be backed up by team selection. If players are advised they can go out and take risks, it would be very unfair to drop them on the back of making mistakes. Of course there are limits, and if a player does something really stupid to cost the team – or his performance drops off after something he tries goes wrong – McCall might have to leave them out next time. But a one-off mistake has to be tolerated by both the manager and fans.
An example of what can’t happen now is how Parkinson swapped his goalkeepers exactly a year ago. Ben Williams began the season as number one with Brad Jones brought in after a few games. Williams’ responded well to the competition and his performances improved, but after making one mistake at Fleetwood he was left out for the next game. It was very harsh.
And of course it backfired in this instance. Jones did nothing to back up his manager’s judgement, with mistakes in each of the next three matches – City conceding six goals. Parkinson had to go back to Williams, who fortunately had reacted in the right way to being dropped and returned stronger than ever.
I don’t think McCall can take such an approach to team selection. He has some genuinely tough calls to make this weekend. In theory we could see some major changes to the team over the weeks to come. McArdle and Kligallon could end up as his first choice centre halves. Romain Vincelot could be pushed into midfield. McNulty and one of James Hanson and Vuckic could become the strikers. And on the bench you’d suddenly find Nathaniel Knight-Pervical, Tony McMahon, Danny Devine, Timothee Dieng, Billy Clarke and Jordy Hiwula.
These are players prominent early doors, who have not done a lot wrong – certainly not enough to warrant losing their place in the team. And after making big changes McCall will naturally want performances better than what we have already seen this season. There can be no let up.
This next phase is a big challenge, and it is going to be fascinating to observe how McCall handles it. He has talked about this being the strongest squad he has ever had as a manager and he clearly has some very talented players to choose from. He has to keep a big group of people happy, motivated and pushing in the same direction. Otherwise momentum could stall.
If McCall can pull this off – integrate new players, make effective changes, and build on what a thinbare City side have already achieved – we truly are in for one exciting season.
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