A bumper preview as Bradford City get ready to face off with Carlisle United in the play offs

Bradford City vs Carlisle United play off preview

By Jason McKeown

The play offs begin for Bradford City this weekend, with some of the supporter excitement dwindled by another ticket fiasco.

As part of the requirements to ensure their semi final opponents, Carlisle, can have an allocation of 10% of the ground’s capacity, Bradford City have taken the decision to house away fans in blocks A-E of the Midland Road stand – a place normally frequented by home supporters. It appears part of the reason for this unusual move is so there are City fans behind each goal, as the Bradford End and regular away section of the Midland Road stand are to be used for home fans.

Without any proper explanation, Midland Road season ticket holders have been informed they can’t have their usual seats and will need to relocate to another part of the ground. If that wasn’t enough, a rush to get all tickets on sale, just hours after City’s play off place had been confirmed, was undermined by gremlins in the online ticket system, meaning other season ticket holders couldn’t book their own seat. There have been plenty of social media tales of fans stuck on the phone to the club for hours trying to sort out their tickets, after wrongly thinking they had to buy a different seat to their season ticket spot.

For more than one reason, there is a need for perspective this week of all weeks. There’s more important things going on in the world than the piece of plastic you sit on. The club has had a really difficult week. And you can’t fault the intent of the staff behind the scenes (one friend told me they received an email from the club at 2.20am Tuesday into Wednesday, correcting the wrong seat mistake, suggesting club employees are working some crazy hours). Nevertheless, mistakes have been made and fans have a right to expect more.

The whole situation has been messy. Succeeding in alienating some of City’s loyalist supporters. And in some ways, it’s a sign that some of the people at the club who are charged with making such decisions have not been around long enough to fully grasp the sensitives that come with these matters.

Whilst it is true to say that Midland Road season ticket holders have in the past been moved to accommodate visiting clubs with large away followings – the famous League Cup and FA Cup games of 2012/13 and 2014/15 spring to mind – it’s never without controversy and always needs to be handled delicately.

I will always remember the build up to the Arsenal League Cup quarter final of December 2012, where no fan was guaranteed their own season ticket seat. David Baldwin was fielding questions on local radio, and one fan texted in to say they were so upset they couldn’t have their usual seat, they were boycotting the game altogether. That was of course stupid, petty and self-defeating – and hopefully the fan who made this threat changed their mind and attended such a memorable match – but it underlines the strength of feeling that can arise at moments like this.

Ultimately, we all sit in our own part of Valley Parade for good reasons. Often it’s about sitting with our friends and family, or getting to know the people around us. We like the particular view, the facilities, the level of atmosphere – maybe something as simple as the ease of getting back to the car/train from the exit. And when you factor in that so many fans have had the same season ticket seat for years and years, the club should always tread carefully in moments like this.

We are creatures of habit

There is no perfect solution for this, but the fact Midland Roaders have been asked to find new seats for the game – when the rest of us are guaranteed our own seats – doesn’t seem fair. It means they’ve been left looking for spare seats in the Kop or Main Stand, when the best ones are already taken by existing season ticket holders. Or moving to the Bradford End/usual away section of the Midland Road stand.

And what makes it worse are the communication failings of the club. No clear message on the rationale for moving these fans. For sure, the timings were tight, but the club has to do a lot better. They may have clear and unfailing logic for this decision that everyone could understand, but they’ve not yet told affected fans their reasons.

Since relegation to League Two in 2019 and the recovery from the toxic culture Edin Rahic left behind, off the field the club have done a lot of things right. What’s often let them down has been the on the field product, at least up until last summer.

But this season, on occasions it feels like the roles have reversed. The team and management have largely done well, but on occasions the supporter mood has been dampened by off the field initiatives. Examples include the attempt to launch a new badge that was hardly a communication triumph, and the loyalty points system that has many holes in rewarding ‘loyalty’. Even during the build up to Leyton Orient, when everyone should have been focused on the crunch match, the club felt it necessary to communicate a loyalty scheme survey that suggests unpopular changes will be made next season. Could it not have waited?

Still, let’s park all that and try to look forward to the main event that is the play offs – because a season’s worth of work now boils down to two 90 minute games with Carlisle United

The Cumbrians travel to Valley Parade on Sunday night with City looking to make home advantage count. Given the Bantams have not won away at Brunton Park since 1985/86, they don’t really want to walk off the pitch on Sunday night with Carlisle in the ascendancy.

Carlisle arrive at Valley Parade 17th in the League Two form table over the past 10 games (they’ve taken 11 points), and have won just one of their last six on the road. That said, City’s recent form isn’t particularly stunning either. Since the stroll at Rochdale in mid-April, City have taken just five points from their final five games. They are unbeaten at home since mid-February, but have drawn four of their last six at Valley Parade.

So what can we expect from Paul Simpson’s charges? Spirit, resilience and direct football. Carlisle have averaged 45.8% possession in League Two this season – the fourth lowest in League Two (City, in comparison, have the fourth highest average possession in the league). Carlisle’s pass success rate of 59.1% is the third lowest (City again have the fourth best with 71.8%). Carlisle have the sixth highest long pass average in the division, whilst City are down in 16th. It’s certainly a clash of styles.

That said, there’s a lot in common between the two clubs’ performances this season

It’s a cliche to say the first goal will be huge, but with City and Carlisle that especially looks the case. Carlisle have scored first in 22 out of their 46 league games, going on to win 19, draw two and lose only once. Similarly, Bradford City have scored the first goal on 25 occasions, going on to win 19, draw five and lose once.

And when trailing? Carlisle (who conceded the first goal 16 times) have only come back to win once, drawing six of the others and losing nine. City have conceded the first goal 13 times, also winning just once from this position. They drew three and lost the other nine.

So yeah, this is a game between two sides who – when they open the scoring – tend to go onto win. And equally, it’s a battle of two teams who – if they go 1-0 down – don’t often come back.

The similarities don’t end there. Both City and Carlisle have a heavy reliance on an excellent goalkeeper and a potent striker. Tom Holy, the Carlisle keeper, has kept a club record-equalling 20 clean sheets for Carlisle this season. That’s the second highest amount in League Two. Harry Lewis is just behind on 18 clean sheets.

Meanwhile Kristian Dennis – the guy City almost signed, and who enjoyed a delicious pizza in Bradford back in January 2018 – has 20 league goals to his name. He’s the third highest scorer in League Two this season, with our own Andy Cook (28 league goals) top of the pile. Although Dennis has only scored three times since the end of January (Cook has 15 over the same period).

Remarkably just like City, Carlisle’s next highest scorer is on six goals. Dennis has scored 30% of all of Carlisle’s league goals this season, whereas Cook has netted 45% of City’s. Both clubs would be lost without their main marksman.

In both squads there are faces familiar to the opposition fans

Carlisle’s ex-Bantam contingent includes Jordan Gibson, who has had a decent season, starting 30 games and coming off the bench 15 times, with two goals to his name. Omari Patrick has netted four league goals from 18 starts (plus 14 sub appearances). Callum Guy has been a regular for United, with 45 starts and three goals. Jamie Devitt is still a member of the squad, but has had huge injury problems that have restricted him to just 12 sub appearances (zero starts). He’s just undergone surgery and will miss the play offs.

As for City, Cook is of course an ex-Carlisle forward (though he never made a senior appearance for the club). Adam Clayton had a season on loan at Brunton Park in 2009/10, when he was in Man City’s youth ranks and Mark Hughes was manager at the Etihad. Alex Gilliead also had a loan spell at Carlisle (from Newcastle) over 2015/16, scoring five goals from 23 starts (12 sub). That’s 29% of Gilliead’s entire career league goal output.

With each team having an identical league record of W20 D16 L10 PTS76, and Goals Against of 43, there really isn’t much to separate them. Carlisle’s overall Goals For of 66 is marginally higher than City’s 61, but on paper this is a tie that looks very tough to call.

One win in five for City presents some dilemmas for Hughes

It’s going to be an interesting team selection for the City manager this Sunday, given he has just started to move away from a tried and trusted system. With the Harry Chapman-shaped hole on the left side of the 4-2-3-1 system proving difficult to fill, against Orient Hughes initially went 4-3-3 – repeating a formation he’d only tried once before this season, coincidentally the home game with Carlisle.

On Monday, Hughes abandoned the 4-3-3 after just 10 minutes and shifted to a diamond. It proved effective in ensuring City didn’t get beaten in a must-not-lose-game, but is it the way forwards when you’re aiming to earn some sort of advantage from your home leg?

Much will depend on whether Hughes wants to keep Clayton in the team, after the 34-year-old midfielder made a first start since the Carlisle 0-0 in March (he went off injured that night and remained on the sidelines for over a month). Clayton played just over an hour on Monday, and his composure was a valuable quality in a high pressure game – even if he struggled on occasions. However, the formation change and inclusion of Clayton did appear to restrict the influence of Gilliead and Richie Smallwood, who have performed so well as a duo in recent weeks.

In a game you ideally want to win, is a midfield of Smallwood-Clayton-Gilliead going to give you enough going forward?

The other question is whether to make a change at the back, as defensively City have looked less assured in recent weeks. Add in the fact Carlisle will be direct and physical, and there is a strong case to recall Matty Platt ahead of Romoney Crichlow. It probably won’t happen – if Hughes was going to make that switch, he’d surely have done it for the Orient game – but it’s an area to watch.

Elsewhere the team picks itself. Lewis will keep goal behind Brad Halliday, Sam Stubbs and Liam Ridehalgh, with Scott Banks and Jamie Walker lining up somewhere behind Cook. Walker’s form has slightly improved the last few games but remains a concern. However, the Scot seems to be a player who rises to the big occasion and could easily have a telling influence on the tie.

Emmanuel Osadebe and Matty Derbyshire are pushing for starts, but their role over this two-legged affair is likely to be restricted to trying to make an impact from the bench. Dion Pereira has been an unused sub for the last two games, having not figured since the Carlisle draw and having not started a single game since November. Could he play some sort of role? Theirry Nevers, Abo Eisa or Dara Costelleo will possibly have some involvement over the tie.

Ultimately, the formation and XI Hughes goes for may be heavily linked to countering Carlisle’s less-than-common set-up.

Carlisle have only conceded eight goals in their last 11 games, but do have problems at the back

United have played a 5-3-2 system for most of the season. Their strength is defensively off the ball, where they can have at least eight players back. It’s why their possession stats are relatively low – and it’s also the source of how they hurt opposition teams.

That’s because Simpson’s men have had a lot of success when winning turnovers. Carlisle have scored the second highest amount of counter attack goals in the whole division. They’re also very good at set pieces – having scored the third highest amount in League Two. So even if they don’t score on the break, winning a free kick or corner when they counter can prove just as effective.

And that definitely presents a problem for a side like City. We’ll go through this in more detail on Saturday, but – spoiler alert – the Bantams are weak at defending set pieces and struggle against sides who defend deep and counter.

In addition, as the recent game at Crewe – who played 4-3-3 – showed, City’s midfield can find it difficult as a two when the opposition have three in the middle. It’s another reason why Hughes may lean towards playing Clayton as part of a midfield three. Even if it probably makes it more of a cagey affair.

It really does feel like a big advantage for Carlisle to play the away leg first. They can stink the place out on Sunday, and play on the fact an expectant large Valley Parade crowd will naturally be urging their team to get forward. A 0-0 draw will be just fine for them, and they will be happy to play the margins and see if they can sneak a goal on the counter/from a set piece. All the while knowing they’ve got the home leg to come.

That said, there are some team selection issues for Simpson. The visitors go into this game without centre back Jon Mellish after his silly red card in the penultimate game of the season, at home to Salford, earned him a three match suspension. It’s a significant loss. To continue the 5-3-2, Simpson switched the excellent left wing back Jack Armer to be one of the three centre halves in their final league game at Sutton, and brought in Middlesbrough loanee Jack Robinson to play left wing back.

This was Robinson’s first league start for Carlisle and the 21-year-old was taken off midway through the second half, suggesting it wasn’t the most sparkling of performances. The bigger problem for Carlisle is how much they rely on Armer when they do attack. They produce almost 50% more of their attacks on the left compared to the right, so moving Armer inside isn’t ideal for their overall balance.

Carlisle have been boosted by Stockport agreeing to extend right back Ben Barclay’s loan spell at Brunton Park – the 26-year-old has been in and out of the side for most of the season, but has been a regular since United’s March 0-0 draw at Valley Parade. 35-year-old Paul Huntington – signed from Preston last summer – has been commanding at the back. Keep an eye out for midfielder Owen Moxen, who has produced a superb 15 assists and is attracting rave reviews.

Club history is slightly against Carlisle United, who have never been promoted from the play offs when in the Football League – three play off campaigns (1993/94, 2007/08 and 2016/17), three play off semi final defeats. Their only ever play off success came in 2004/05, when they were non-league.

An occasion to savour

It’s a winnable-looking tie this for City, but Carlisle will justifiably be thinking the same. It’s hard to imagine this is going to be a tie with a lot of goals, and it really does feel like the first leg could prove more crucial than the second.

If City can win on Sunday, especially by more than one goal, it’s not easy to see Carlisle’s defensive set-up giving them enough thrust at home to come back, especially as City can then be cautious at Brunton Park. But if the Bantams go to Cumbria needing to win – either because they drew or lost the first leg – Carlisle are not a side to give much away (they’ve kept five clean sheets from their last seven at home, albeit conceded five goals in their last two Brunton Park outings).

Expect a war of attrition. Brace yourselves for a tense affair. And don’t expect a goal-laden 180 minutes of football.

This tie looks set to be a tight one.

Categories: Previews

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28 replies

  1. We last won at Carlisle in the first game of the 1985/86 season in August 1985.

  2. I think it’s important to have some empathy for the mistakes the club have made on tickets.

    They’re a small business and run off field costs extremely tight to maximise on field budget. Something I’m sure we all want them to prioritise.

    They haven’t got it right but their intentions were good in doing what they thought would give the club the best chance of winning the game. Although with Ryan Sparks background you’d think they’d have at least got the comms right!

    No defending the shambles of a ‘loyalty’ scheme survey though.

    Bring on the weekend!

  3. Yes the reserved seat is only a bit of plastic but the supporter becomes attached to it, familiar with the view it affords, friends with people around. All of this is understood and helps to promote the sense of belonging. What I personally don’t understood is the extreme umbrage some people take when asked for a valid reason to sit elsewhere – once! ‘Meltdown’ is the modern word for their reaction. This is a hugely important match and the attention should properly be on its footballing element not on extraneous matters. We live in an age where people are very easily hurt, readily diverted from the main objective and most keen to strike an aggrieved posture on their hand gadgets. Doubtless my comments will incite some people’s wrath. I shall not be aware of it, still less troubled by it, because my focus before, during and after the match will be on the football not the fanfare. The fair fans will be of the same mind. I am looking forward to an epic two-legged encounter which will still be talked about in fifty years – long after the current seats have been melted down.

  4. Re the ticket shambles, I have empathy for the staff working until the early hours to sort it out, but little empathy for the club as a whole. They’ve brought this mess on themselves by doing something they’ve not done before.

    We in MR expect / don’t mind to be kicked out for big games, but make it fair for all and have open communication about the reasons why and how it’s going to work.

    I believe the combination of the club mis-reading the allocation rule (we only have to give them 2,000 and not 10%, which is what Carlisle will be giving us) and wanting fans behind the goal are the route causes.

    Whichever way, to then only give MRers the choice of the worst seats that no-one has wanted all season really isn’t on. Make it first-come-first-served as it always has been before. And also give some notice of tickets going on sale, so groups of fans can arrange where to sit etc; make the announcement on Monday afternoon, with tickets beginning on sale Tuesday morning.

    Whilst there’s been lots of activity on social media and message boards about the fiasco, I honestly believe the club still think things have gone well. Which is quite worrying. There’s not been any apology, acknowledgment or explanation about it all, which is disappointing. The results of the next fan engagement survey will be interesting.

    One last thing, by wanting fans behind the goal and creating this mess, the club have put more pressure on the game on Sunday. We have to win, or at least draw the game as a bare minimum, otherwise all this shambles will have been for nothing.

    • My understanding is that Carlisle United have a 17,000 capacity so in which case if we have 2,000 tickets we have in excess of 10%. With regards the Midland Road allocation I am frustrated that I can’t keep my seat but managed to get a seat in the new home section with little difficulty. On balance I think that opening up the Bradford End should enhance the atmosphere for our benefit. Ultimately it is the first time the club has attempted this so I guess that there were always go to be technical issues that you don’t become aware of until actually doing it.

      My suspicion is that the reason we have the problems with ticketing is that the IT system is probably in need of an upgrade but to do so would come at a big cost. We then come back to the old horse chestnut of ST prices, player budgets and basic economics. As commented above, BCAFC is a small business with limited resources so we have to be realistic about expectations. However the key point is that the club has the benefit of a very committed team and the efforts being made by Mick Lamb and his colleagues deserve considerable praise. Without them it could have been a lot worse.

      • A surprising breakdown in communication. City have arguably the best CEO communicator in League Two and yet not a word. Embarrassing, to say the least.

      • Are they opening the Bradford end properly though or just the top tier ? Saying it was a capacity crowd on Monday wasn’t true was it as we had the bottom section covered in some businesses logo ? Anyone know why this was the case? I couldn’t get a ticket for LO game yet the branded canvass could !?

  5. City do not need to provide a 10% allocation to Carlisle. That figure only applies where the ground capacity is below 20,000.
    This is a widespread misunderstanding, including the club.
    This is what the regulation actually says in the play off rules.
    “3.3 The Visiting Club shall have the right to claim 2,000 tickets for use by its supporters (or such number as represents 10% of all tickets reserved or otherwise sold in advance, if less than 2,000).”
    It is worded clumsily, but is quite clear. I suggest this misunderstanding muddled the decision making about moving Midland Road supporters, even if the club wanted home support behind both goals.
    I’d prefer not to move, but if I have to I think it fair that all seats are up for grabs as in past Cup matches, instead of being offered seats not chosen by season ticket holders.

    • I think the allocation in the MR is probably based on the fact that of the 7 blocks the physical allocation has to be 5+2 or 2+5 with the gate blocking the concourse and stewards separating the respective home and away fans. This prevents a 4+3 split for example. On reflection, away fans have been given the MR before – Rangers and L666ds. In the latter case a lot of the seats were wrecked although I can’t remember if they had all of the stand or just 5/7ths.

      • Reading & Sunderland in the fa cup too if my memory serves me right

      • The issue is two fold.

        1. Moving in itself isn’t so bad, but leaving MR’s with what’s left is very unfair. We have 7 season tickets together and to get that we could only go to the back of the upper tier of the main stand. No one should have had a priority. As in the cup games it should have been all un reserved

        2. There was no need to change the away allocation, either if (wrongly) they thought they had to provide 10% or 2,000.

        Bluntly the communications have been appalling, no justification or apology. Ticket office have been heroic, but it was so unnecessary. Someone has to come out and explain what the decision making process was and justify the utter lack of communication with MR’ers

  6. A superb preview, many thanks.

  7. Yes that’s right John re the split between F anG blocks in the Midland Road. I think Leeds got the whole of the Midland Road for the cup match.
    On the previous Cup occasions where those in the Midland Road were moved, all seats were up for grabs. Those in the Midland Road weren’t suddenly second class season ticket holders.
    Regardless if the reasons for the move, I do think it very surprising that the Club misinterpreted the play off rules. I know they did as Ryan explained to me in our email correspondence about the issue that we had to give a 10% allocation to Carlisle, which as others have already said, is not the case. The Club really should be on top of that.

  8. Great preview of the game. Big shout-out to Mick Lamb and his colleague in the ticket office who do a great job. COME ON CITY.

  9. Due to midland road being where the away coaches park I think the season tickets should be sold on the basis that for a big cup or play off game the seat can not be guaranteed.

    But I do think the season ticket holders in this stand should be treated a little bit better when this happens in regards to having first choice on any other seat unoccupied by season ticket holders. Maybe for a start the two blocks in the midland road that city are giving home supporters should have been blocked for midland road season ticket holders only to start with with maybe a two hour advantage to get tickets elsewhere in the stadium too.

    I normally sit in the bars in the main stand but I’ve moved to the kop this game. Over the years I’ve sat in most areas of the ground including 5 years in the midland road, I do like a change of scenery for the cup games.

  10. Phil W. May 12, 2023 • 12:06 pm:
    ”A surprising breakdown in communication. City have arguably the best CEO communicator in League Two and yet not a word. Embarrassing, to say the least.”

    Equally embarrassing that you never miss a trick to criticise and find fault. At least try to be constructive.

    • Unlike your initial post where you imply this seating problem is all likely due to technical issues. You conveniently sidestep the issue of poor communication. I believe my comment echoes what was highlighted in the article. Nothing more and nothing less.

  11. Readers have voted in a ratio of 2:1 to have this man’s ban from the site reimposed.
    He is not doing himself any favors.

  12. Let’s put them to the sword at home then it should not matter about the record at Carlisle, although I think we are the stronger team and can get over the line, positive positive positive from all involved then it will be a big big day to show our strength on the Wembley Pitch who ever it is, Positive Positive Positive Mentality, take it to another level now……..

    🏆💰 Come On City 💰🏆

  13. Great article Jason, thank you for taking the time to write it.
    Regarding the ticket situation for the home leg, my friend who sits next to me for home games telephoned me on Monday evening, to say that tickets had already gone on sale, but that our season ticket seats weren’t available! We now know that there had been an IT error which I can accept as the club was fairly quick to point out this error on social media. However, I do have sympathy for season ticket holders in the Midland Road. The communication from the football club should have been much better. It will be interesting to see how many tickets we are allocated for the away leg. I read that Stockport County has been allocated less than 600 tickets for their away leg at Salford City!
    Regarding the game this Sunday, I wouldn’t be surprised if we lose then win away like we did in 1996 and 2013.

  14. It has obviously been difficult to organise ticketing and I do not know enough to comment on the software available to assist. My communication with the ticket office has always received a helpful response, they deserve thanks.

  15. Irrespective of the ridiculous situation in respect of the allocation of away tickets at the expense of Season Ticket holders, Greyed out areas for the purchase of tickets, the three hour waits on the telephone, the inability to buy several seats, there is another ‘Major Fail’ element in the Carlisle Ticket Sale Catastrophe.
    The Away Leg at Carlisle!! No tickets on sale.
    There are 12 Clubs in the Play Offs.
    Eleven clubs have put the away tickets on sale.
    Ten Clubs have sold out.
    Supporters of those clubs know if they will or will not get to their games. They can plan the day, make travel arrangements.
    The ‘Elephant’ in the group is unsurprisingly City!
    No sale of tickets. No announcement of prices. No confirmation of the number of ‘Loyalty’ points required.
    It is an utter shambles. City supporters treated worse than pawns. The Head of Ticketing Townson, should be held to account.
    This fail after fail. The chaotic and failed ‘Loyalty Scheme’. The lack of points allocated. The apparent need to ‘go through the turnstile’ to get the points (yet City claim all tickets sold in the attendance figures, irrespective of whether the holder has gone through the turnstile). Saying that points are tied to ‘purchases’ yet not allocating them, unless through the turnstile.
    A lot of goodwill is being lost.
    No clear leadership. No explanation. Apparent failure to understand seat allocation rules (10% or 2,000).
    What should be a ‘feel good’ time, is turning into an appalling farce.

    • Yet we have bigger crowds than ever. Surely it’s not that bad… Man City – Fulham – Arsenal – Beeston Utd al have had major complaints this last week about either organisation or prices for next season etc it’s just the way it is. I’m not saying it couldn’t be better but…

  16. Ridiculous comment.

    Perhaps Carlisle haven’t released the tickets yet and besides, it’s only 6 second leg away sides not 12, what relevance are the first legs? You’ve no idea, yet you criticise City.

    For 3 hour waits – you are kidding aren’t you? Thousands calling, how many staff do you expect them to have!?

    As for the season tickets – it is a shame for the season ticket holders in Midland Road but as Jason pointed out this is commonplace when an allocation is so great. Yes, they’ve rushed it and apparently not communicated, which they didn’t need to do, but if they hadn’t got the tickets out so quick then you’d criticise them for that instead.

    I have 2 season tickets in the main stand. I went straight on when the tickets were released. It didn’t work but the communication said you’ve got 2 days, so I waited and within a couple of hours, a communication came out, apologising and saying try it now. It worked. Then on Wednesday at 6pm, exactly the time announced, I bought 2 extra tickets for my boys – I couldn’t get their usual seats but hey it’s busy! It took me 4 minutes.

    Clearly from the numbers at away games and at home to Orient and the numbers sold for Sunday, there is no goodwill being lost. Frustration yes, because everything in this day and age has to be perfect first time!

    Stop trying to knock the club always. Come on City!!!!

  17. Time to focus on the home match, just like Peterborough United did !

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