The mid-term report

By Gareth Walker (images by John Dewhirst) 

Played 25, won twelve, drawn eight, lost five, goal difference of plus 12. Fourth in the table with 44 points. That is Bradford City’s record so far this season. Handily placed you might say, but there’s a split in the fan base.

Some supporters aren’t happy and others think that those who aren’t happy are daft. One friend of mine has become so annoyed at the “moaners” as he calls them that he’s stopped going on any form of Bradford city social media or websites. Why is there a split and where do you stand on it?

Personally I’m somewhere in the middle. Sat on the fence, can’t make my mind up.

The performances over the Christmas period seem to have only enhanced the split, with supporters on both sides digging their heels in and becoming more entrenched. I said when looking at the fixtures before the Leyton Orient game that we should be looking to win all of the next five games up to and including the Morecambe one on New Year’s Day. I thought as much because of where our opponents were in the table and the form that they were in. But also because I want, and to a certain degree expect, promotion this season. And looking at January’s fixtures, the run of games post Morecambe seemed on paper at least to be a lot tougher.

In the end we drew the first three of those fixtures against Orient, Salford and Carlisle before winning the last two against Mansfield and Morecambe.

I was disappointed not least with the results but also with the manner of the draws and the style of play. I wasn’t alone. Terms such as “Bowyerball” and “Bland Bowyer” seem to have become common place on the #bcafc as fans squirm at the tactics and team selections that they’re seeing each week.

Is this fair? Do fans have a right to complain even if we’re watching a promotion challenge? And should they be taking into account the mitigating factors that have plagued the team this season?

Gary Bowyer has described the injury crisis this season as the worst that he’s ever experienced and that has been compounded over the Christmas period by the illness that has ravaged the squad.

However, it seems that as the season has progressed the performances have become more and more risk averse. We are creating very few chances during games. Why is that?

Well the injuries and absence of key personnel has certainly played a part. Not least the lack of a target man type striker since Clayton Donaldson required surgery on his toe in the middle of October.

This is something that baffles me every year as a City supporter. It seems that no matter who the manager is, who the players are or what year it is, this football club is incapable of playing successfully without someone upfront who can win the physical battles and hold the ball up. Other teams seem to manage without that option, but not us. As someone once said to me, it’s as though it’s in our DNA.

You’d think therefore that we should really have more than one of that type of striker in our squad, but we never do. Last year we didn’t even have one and so we ended up asking Eoin Doyle to play that role. This year in the absence of Donaldson we’ve asked James Vaughan to do it. Neither of them are cut out for the role and neither of them were primarily brought to the club to do it.

Neither of them want to be on the half way line with their back to goal, it’s just not their game and as such we’ve not got the best out of either of them. They want to be in the box with the ball in front of them.

Just look at what a difference it’s made to Doyle now he is being utilised correctly at Swindon. I’d hazard a guess that if Vaughan was to take his place in Swindon’s team that he too would be on the 20 odd goal mark for the season. Thats why I believe that it would be folly to bring Doyle back to City and expect him to continue his red hot Swindon form if we werent going to use him in the same way that they do.

It’ll be interesting to see what changes, if any, we make in the January transfer window. I’ve already said that I’d like to see another striker brought in who can play with his back to goal. Donaldson is reportedly nearly back to full fitness now but there are no guarantees that he’ll stay fit. Whatever additions we make there’ll probably have to be outs before there are any ins given that we are said to almost be at the salary cap.

Midfield looks a well stocked area and probably somewhere where we can allow a couple of departures. Jamie Devitt is also nearing full fitness which will give us an attacking midfield option that we’ve been missing.

Its not just missing personnel that has contributed to our lack of goalscoring chances in recent games. Selection too has played a part. Recently we have been setting up with three central defenders and three central midfielders with only the wing backs providing the team with any width. That is conservative to even the most positive of supporters. It’s even more conservative when two of the central midfielders have been Reeves and Palmer who are both similar types of player. They are both fairly static and like to pick the ball up off the defence and keep it moving. Sadly with little to hit in front of them and no natural inclination to get forward themselves, that movement has mostly been of a sideways nature.

Some fans have called for a formation change to 442 but is it really that simple? Surely if 442 was the golden ticket then every team in the division would be playing that way. Often when people are calling for that formation what they really mean is that they want to play with wingers and two strikers. You’ll also often hear them say that players at this level are most comfortable playing 442. I’m not sure on what basis that statement is made.

There are different variations to the 442 system and it’s vary rare in today’s game that teams will play with two out and out wingers because it can leave the full backs and midfield exposed. Think back to Stuart McCall’s first spell in charge as manager when he often played that way with Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley attacking down the flanks. We were far too open and conceded far too many goals.

However, City fans have been brought up mainly on a diet of 442 and that’s probably partly behind why we struggle to have any success without a targetman.

A name often brought up when discussing Bowyer and his style of play is that of Phil Parkinson. One of the most successful managers in Bradford city’s modern era he was also criticised at times throughout his tenure for his industrial tactics. Parkinson did though play a 442 albeit sometimes with one of the wingers namely Will Atkinson tucked in on one side.

You also knew with Parkinson that if we needed a goal in the last twenty minutes or so that he’d have a “right good go” and the tempo would increase. That is something that we don’t always see under Bowyer and much of the frustration over the Christmas period has come from us not asserting our authority when we needed a winner against Leyton Orient and Carlisle.

On the flip side of that you have to consider what the reaction would have been had we changed to a more attacking approach towards the end of those games and then we’d got caught on the break and lost to a classic sucker punch? Ultimately it boils down to how much risk you’re willing to take.

I personally think that Bowyer has been given the task of getting us promoted at all costs this season and as such it’s of little surprise that he’s erring on the side of caution in games and isn’t too concerned about the style of play

Hes in a tricky position. As Jason McKeown discusses here, there’s s a sense of entitlement amongst the City fanbase at the moment and it’s reminiscent of the Newcastle fanbase when they spent a year in the championship. Fans are aggrieved that we are in league two at all and as such they a) expect promotion as a bare minimum but they also expect b) to do it in style. The problem comes in the heat of the battle when a manager is worried that he might end up forfeiting a) if he focuses too much on b).

It’s a difficult balance to reach and I doubt that we’d be having the debate if we were miles clear at the top of the league. In such a scenario fans would probably be more willing to accept the style of play if we were running away with the division.

In a way we also remind me of Sunderland in League One last season. Their supporters were angry that they were in the third tier and expected promotion at the first attempt. Many of them weren’t too happy with manager Jim Ross’ style of play but accepted it as a means of getting out of the division. The problem for them was that they put up with the tactics as a means to an end but ended up with nothing as they missed out on promotion in the playoffs.

Ultimately it all boils down to what you’d rather have. There’s no guarantees of promotion no matter how you play. You might be happier missing out on going up if the style of play is easy on the eye, but surely most of us would say that getting out of the division at the first attempt is our priority.

Many supporters feel that this team has more potential that it is showing and that is extremely frustrating. We may see a rebalencing of the style/substance trade off when some of the injured cavalry return or when the squad balance of having too many midfielders and not enough strikers can be addressed during the transfer window. But I don’t see the managers main fundamentals changing anytime soon.

Bowyer might feel that he has more of a chance of meeting his minimum target by playing conservatively. As manager thats his perogative. He has to do what he sees fit because he’ll be the one who has to carry the can if we miss out.



Categories: Opinion

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16 replies

  1. Creeping to the top with injuries and a bad Christmas bug in the camp, players returning back into the fold at the turn of the New Year, ask me if I would take that at start of the year?

    I WOULD HAVE BIT YOUR HAND OFF…………..

    Lets see where we are and how we are playing at the end of January.
    I am certainly looking forward to the 2nd half of the season, to watch a team building to compete in League 1.

    Oh No I Have Said It, Lol

    How many thumbs down will this generate, how dare you be positive, from grinding results out.
    I thought that free kick was a beauty, I know a Portuguese player who would have been proud of that.

    Yes, I know we are not Juventus, exactly, we are in league 2 and 6 points from top with a game in hand.

    Bring it on, we are on our way and how we get there I don’t care………….

  2. I recognize that many posters on this forum are content with the conservative play since the beginning of December against weak opposition. Proper perspective to them is “we are in fourth place and picking up points.” Well, I hope this unusual conservative approach is not regretted at season end with “what if” we had played to win and taken more points against weak opposition?

    City are currently in fourth place but due to parity in the top half of the table I believe the margin between fourth and mid table is very fine. Like I’ve already said, I hope we don’t look back on the results of the past five weeks and say “what if” at the end of the season.

  3. I am on the side of a more positive approach. The two home matches against Mansfield and Morecambe were poor and painful to watch. In both cases the away team should have got something out of the game.
    Promotion has to be the priority I agree. However, at what cost? There is no need to have 2 out and out wingers. Teams should be able to switch during the game when things aren’t going so well. Where I sit I could hear many shouting their frustration. Remember, Rhodes wants to sell 20k season tickets. Promotion may not guarantee that objective. Improved performances and promotion will make that level of sales possible.

  4. Thanks for this, good insight & a thoughtful piece. The stodgy goal haul (mid table on goals scored) mars good overall form (currently best defence on goals conceded in the league). Frustrated at the number of recent draws,I was surprised to note that our tracking form (last 5 games) is currently 5th best. This underlines what a marathon slog this league is- everyone wins and loses & draws all the time, even Swindon aren’t pulling away.

    I don’t claim to be an expert pundit. I can’t work out why we can’t feed strikers upfront with the likes of Ismail, Connolly, Pritchard, Wood the best crosser in the league, regularly in and around the first team.

    I share your reservations on bringing Doyle back. Today’s T&A piece didn’t tackle any of the real issues on that. I’d love to see him knock in a load for us, but how will he fit with Vaughan, Donaldson, McCarton, Oteh. Presumably one or both of the last two would have to leave- and it would be Vaughan or Doyle every match, with the other one sitting frustrated on the bench?

    Like you, i’m on the fence. Not unhappy with what the table shows- but my son & I are finding the football as gruelling as last season.

    After the carousel of last season, I’ve no desire to see a change of manager. But i’d be happier with the football I saw under McCall in his 2nd spell. Or, despite a lot of stodgy league football, the grit and have a go determination under Parkinson that gave us not only promotion but also 2 historic cup runs, a roster of giant killing matches, and the ongoing all time record English league for penalty shoot outs. Mr Bowyer’s school report would say “laid some good foundations, but we think he can show more confidence & go further”

  5. I would have taken 4th at the start of the season and even more so when the Don got injured. The two home performances over Crimbo were pretty dismal…but Saturday was much improved and we moved the ball well in the main. A lot of room to improve but really good esprit de corps in the camp which can take us a long way. Bowyer has said it will take three windows to get a balanced squad which is completely fair and realistic. I understand the frustration with the conservative approach but constant negativity gets us nowhere. If we are going to get up it needs us all to pull together

  6. Thank you for writing this article which I’ve enjoyed reading. After what has happened at the football club since January 2018, it hurts me to say this but I’ve lost some of my enjoyment for watching Bradford City. I don’t feel a connection with many of the players.

    My last game that I attended was the Salford City home game when I thought that we played well in the first half but ironically we scored in the second half.

    I want Gary Bowyer to succeed as we’ve had far too many managers since Phil Parkinson left us for Bolton Wanderers. At the beginning of the season, I didn’t expect us to be in the top seven come the end of the season. So, from my point of view, we’re currently higher in the table than I expected.

    As for the Eoin Doyle situation, everyone is entitled to their opinion. For what it’s worth, I think that the best option for Bradford City is to sell him in the current transfer window. If he comes back to play for us, he’s not guaranteed to continue his goal scoring exploits. Also, how are the current squad members going to feel if a player who has publicly stated that he’d be disappointed if he has to return to Valley Parade, go straight into the starting 11?

    Anyway, there’s rarely a dull moment supporting Bradford City.

    • Just in the Doyle bit. We can only sell him to Swindon effectively in January as he cannot play for another club till next season as he has played for two clubs this season. As a result no one will buy him this month.

      I think his contract is up in Summer but not 100% certain in that last bit.

  7. Most fans would have taken our current position before a ball was kicked. Similarly to have maintained the push without the Don is impressive. We all thought we would struggle offensively. Struggle we have. Therein lies a misstep you could criticise GB for in not bringing in Striker cover in the summer bearing in mind the number of midfielders in the “building”.
    You can understand the frustration with the pragmatic approach but any manager worth his salt will look to make his side difficult to beat as a first step. That he has done with spades. The playing staff have a real esprit de corps which can take us a long way. The two home fixtures over Crimbo were dismal but the Swindon performance showed some real resilience and some decent quality. Cooke was particularly impressive for me.
    Lets stick together and make a few months to remember. GB will be well aware there is scope for improvement but lets all remember where we were 12 months ago.

  8. First of all – happy new year WOAP.

    I understand the frustrations however, given where we were this time last year and the job Gary has done whilst he’s been at City I think he’s earnt the right to play his own way and to make his own decisions and we should give him space to do that.

    Its a very fine line though, football is an irational game and results are paramount.

    I was at Swindon and there were plenty of supporters unhappy with his style and selections with 10 minutes to go. He was getting the occaional words of ‘advice’ from the stands. A wonder strike in the 89th minute and its all smiles and GB is a football genius. The performance didn’t change, apart from the first 10 minutes we put in a very acceptable away team performance, but that single strike changes everything.

    I dont mind having debates about style, results and formations but its got to be a considered, holistic view based on the full 90 minutes without regard to the score at an arbitary point in the game.

  9. I think it was after the Leyton Orient away game, I commented on the WOAP match report that I thought Bowyer would continue to cost us points with his style of play. I think that was proven by dropped points in winnable matches against Salford & Carlisle.

    Despite that, the above is purely a frustration and not a gripe with Bowyer’s overall performance. Sitting 4th and with an automatic promotion push looking possible, we cannot complain. Last season’s failure was set against the backdrop of conceding tame goals week in week out. Bowyer has come in and fixed it – largely with the same defenders. That turnaround and our defensive record deserves an immense amount of credit.

    Does that mean we have had to sacrifice attacking play to ensure we stop leaking goals? I think so, but against the backdrop of injuries in key attacking areas that might be understandable. We now have a firm foundation to build on for the second half of the season in more ways than one. Firstly, where we are sat in the league table, and secondly in the team set up. Bowyer’s trust in his defence appears to be growing and reverting to a back four at Swindon would support that. This coinciding with the return of key attacking players might see the improvement in front of goal that we will need to get over the line.

    One things for sure, with the team playing as it is and players like Devitt, Donaldson, Ismail, Pritchard & Doyle (?) on the comeback, Bowyer has plenty more to consider in attacking areas. I’m sure that these players would get into most L2 teams so its up to Bowyer to find the right balance.

    • Very fair pal. Fingers crossed we keep those with a bit more of an attacking threat fit and well and add a bit more in this area this window. Stock take would be fair and reasonable at the end of the season. Now is the time to get behind the team and see what we can achieve collectively

  10. I would love for us to win promotion playing entertaining free flowing tiki taka style but given last year’s experience that was perhaps too much of a turnaround to expect, especially given the cards dealt to Gary Bowyer.

    The number one priority for the club is to get out of this league at the first attempt and how we achieve that, ugly or otherwise will be forgotten come May.

  11. Doyle/Vaughan or Doyle/Donaldson..not seen that upfront pairing before. The question is now..will we ever see it ? If so the title could be ours !

    • Interesting you say “could” and not “should” gain promotion or the title? The return of Doyle will truly challenge Bowyer’s coaching abilities regarding tactics. Obviously, you have doubts about Bowyer’s willingness to change like most knowledgeable football fans.

      Personally, I think the return of Doyle is pointless, however the final decision will likely be made by Rhodes and Rupp and their primary concern will be public relations and rightly so.

  12. I just want to go to watch Bradford City and be entertained. Yes, the result has a baring on how I feel during the match and after, however, I’d rather see a glut of chances and excitement rather than a tepid, timid display from a team who dare not lose.

    Promotion would be nice, though more importantly to me, I want to bring my ten year old son to a match without him being bored out of his mind and begging not to go again. This style of football does not encourage people to watch it!

    Do any of us honestly want to sit through an entire game seeing our team muster the odd shot towards goal against opposition that are no better than us? We can surely do better???

  13. As an exile I had the chance for my first two games of the season over the festive break and had mixed emotions like many of the comments on here.

    In previous weeks, I’ve been telling my Dad (season ticket holder) and son at Uni (flexi holder) that we are the highest of the relegated sides, we are tough to beat and having suffered the injuries suffered, we are coming into the second half of the season in a great position with a fully fit squad – so it is up to Bowyer and players if we can kick on from here.

    I watched for the first 10 minutes against Mansfield open-mouthed at how awful City were. We didn’t improve much from then on but Mansfield for all their possession created virtually nothing and our defence was solid. So for all the lack of creativity from us, we did have a big tick for our solidity. And we did win 2-0 so I was happy but a bit underwhelmed at the entertainment value.

    My second game was Swindon, where I have visited many times and come away miserable virtually every time. Here, we started slowly but I have to say the second half was thoroughly impressive. Cooke was brilliant – clear man of the (whole) match. Free-scoring Swindon created nothing and resorted to diving and time-wasting, including the quite disgraceful instruction to ball boys to throw the ball away from the opposition players. Had it not been for Paul Caddis, I think we would have won comfortably. Doyle wouldn’t have made a difference as he wouldn’t have had a sniff. By the end, we were playing some really good football – we were clearly much fitter and more disciplined than the league leaders and really could/should have snatched it when we broke through in the last minute.

    I have to say it is a bit rich of anyone to criticise the style if they are part of the crowd who bawl ‘get rid of it’ every time we try and pass it round a bit at the back and in midfield!

    So we left the second game, in a good mood with a lot to look forward to if we can play like we did in the last 20 or so minutes.

    Finally as a Wiltshire resident, my Swindon supporting friends, read the game similarly to me and they thought a draw was a fair result, but only City were likely to win.

    Onward and upward!!

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