Posts Tagged: Football

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Players of the Year awards, especially at a club level have always felt odd to me. At a basic level, giving a congratulatory award for the best player in a given season is a nice gesture, but it doesn’t seem to hold any form of long-term merit. Who was Bradford City’s player of the year two seasons ago? Can anyone name him without resorting to Google? (It was James Hanson.) Nathan Doyle, Luke O’Brien and Joe Colbeck have all had the honour of winning the award in recent times. Colbeck managed to win the award despite being unceremoniously loaned out to Darlington midseason.

This isn’t America, we don’t refer to someone as a ‘three-time MVP’. For one reason or another, we don’t hold it with that sort of credence. 

Who won the PFA Footballer of the Year last year? (Answer: Gareth Bale) Was he deserving? Probably not. Can anyone remember that he won it? No. What did his award tell us about English football in 2010/11? Not a thing. (Other than there was a dearth of legitimate candidates, arguably a descriptor in itself). More people remember Scott Parker winning the Football Writers’ Player of the Year, only because it was a more preposterous choice than Bale.

One reason behind the lack of credence applied to Player of the Year Awards is the unavoidable subjective nature of opinion. What criteria are we actually judging on here? The player who graced the greatest heights? The most consistent player? The one who did most with least? Every year we think it means something different. Even in the same year.

Gareth Bale and Scott Parker both won ‘Player of the Year’ awards last season, one of them on the back of two games against Inter Milan, one for consistently being the best player in the worst team in the division whose appearance leaders were Frederic Piquionne and Carlton Cole. What can we take from this? How can these two players win essentially the same award?

A more fundamental issue is that the Player of the Year often isn’t descriptive of that season, when by definition, that should be the point of the award. The player of the season.

Whilst Cristiano Ronaldo’s award from 2007/08 reminds us that was the year he scored a shit ton of goals, and Steven Gerrard’s 08/09 award reminds us that was the year his team bottled the title, what does Bale’s title tell us? What of Giggs’ title in 2009?

This season Robin van Persie will win all the awards, and in a way, rightly so. He has been the best player in England. But it doesn’t describe the season in which his performances occurred, only that this was the year Arsenal had a rubbish team, but van Persie wouldn’t let them be that rubbish, dragging them slowly up to respectability.

Conversely, David Silva’s arc would perfectly describe this season. A player who for six months was in rarefied air, almost transcendent, gracing a level seldom seen in this country, before falling away completely as his team threw away the Championship. Similarly, someone like Jonny Evans, much maligned, often described as not good enough to wear the shirt, fought through the criticism early in the year to hit an imperious run of form after Christmas and haul in City to win another title. He wouldn’t have touched a title winning team in years passed, but in this diluted edition, he’s flourished.

Whilst neither of them will win any awards, they are a better fit for the Player ‘of’ this Year than a great striker in a mediocre team that had little impact on anything.

This brings me back onto the Bradford City Player of the Year award, which is due to be announced shortly. Last year’s non-event summed up the year better than any recipient ever could. However I’m loath to praise decision makers on this point as this output wasn’t their intention, rather a shameless grab at publicity (Gasp!) whilst abdicating themselves of responsibility for events on the field.

This season however, the show must go on (now that the Friends of Bradford City have taken over organisational duties), and the debate of who should be selected rings loud around BD8 (primarily from fans desperately searching for any conversation not involving the words ‘league’ and ‘table’).

Luke Oliver, Andrew Davies and Kyel Reid stand as the front-runners, and with two thirds of that group presently banned and shamed, City’s dominant left-winger must fancy his chances. But should he win?

Again it comes down to the criteria used to judge. Does it go to player who graced the highest heights? If so then it’s Davies, he has been two divisions better than any opponent he’s faced this year. But at the conclusion of the year, he will have been banned for twelve games, and missed a chunk of the first half of the season before signing. And the whole ‘shaming the club’ thing. Giving him the Player of the Year award probably wouldn’t be the best PR move. Not that inviting terrible PR would be novel for Bradford City FC.

Should the award go to the most consistent player? The one who has performed at the highest level the longest? Then I suppose it has to be Oliver. I would describe this season as his renaissance but that would imply that he has played at this level before. I’m ill-prepared to comment substantially on his pre-Bradford career, but since he arrived at the club under Peter Taylor, I’ve tagged him as an underachiever, a player who probably should be better than he is. This season he has proved me spectacularly wrong, turning in performances week after week of the highest quality. A true breakout season if ever there was one. However, he suffers the same downfall as Davies. You just can’t give him it. You can’t.

James Hanson is an interesting case (and would probably be my choice if subjected to a vote). The team’s top scorer (not close), Hanson has bounced back from a difficult second season in which injuries hindered to the point he never really got going. Many City fans hold an unwarranted resentment to their big centre forward, in spite of his decent goal record, age, local background and work rate. They also ignore the criminal service he has received his entire career. He has toiled away all season long miscast as a target man. His running and link-up play have improved markedly, as well as goal tally, where he is one shy of his record. He’s never played in an attacking (let alone good) team, and the way Hanson has applied himself and improved over the year has impressed.

However, City’s most valuable player, the player without whom they cannot function as an offensive unit, and likely Bradford City Player of the Year is Kyel Reid. He has been exceptional throughout the year, providing a consistency on the left hand side of midfield seldom seen in wingers at this level. We often acknowledge inconsistent output as part of the territory with lower league wingers, but he shatters that paradigm. He’s likely one division (minimum) below his true level. Being able to reach these consistent heights without any overlapping full back to draw away defenders from pressing him, nor a legitimate threat on the other flank to prevent the double team, or a stable central midfield able to feed him the ball effectively, is truly staggering. He has received absolutely no help and is up against two defenders every time he picks up the ball. He would be a worthy winner of the club’s most outstanding player in this tortured season.

But does he define this season? Will this award go down with Colbeck as that season when a winger had a good year in a mediocre-to-poor team? Who you wish to select on these grounds depends on your view of the narrative from this season. Has it been a constant battle against fate and luck, relying on experienced leaders to carry us through? Bullock’s your man. Lee Bullock is an interesting case actually; one could argue that he has been the side’s most ‘important’ player over the second half of the season, playing at a level above that expected of him, all over the park. He stands as one of the few I’d be sad to see go in the summer, his commitment and performance really have impressed.

What about this season as a battle of change, with the ongoing war between the experienced and the young, the short term and the long term? Jon McLaughlin could have a case. Parkinson replaced McLaughlin before he had an opportunity to change his mind, citing an experienced goalkeeper as a fundamental component of any good team. But as time wore on it became patently obvious that, despite his age, McLaughlin was just better. Parkinson held on as long as he could to Matt Duke, but eventually he could no longer contest the evidence. McLaughlin has gone on to have a solid year, allaying many of the accident-prone fears of his initial excursions into the first team. But again, you know, brawl and that.

Nahki Wells would have another argument along similar lines. He represents the talented, confident, brash side of this City team repressed throughout the year in favour a staunch rigidity. Ever since his explosive entry against Barnet under Colin Cooper, Wells has carried the look of something special. However it took Parkinson over two months to select him, and even then, even when he and Hanson forged the season’s apex over Christmas, Parkinson seemed reticent to include the Bermudan, replacing him numerous times, with limited-to-no success. Wells has shown the ability to grow into something far more than what we have seen on the pitch this year, but has been inhibited by his manager, and personally I feel that narrative has the strongest resonance for this team.

My selection however would be the man who missed out last year. I can’t think of a player whose arc sums up this season more accurately than David Syers. Beginning the season impressively, he was imperious at Elland Road (and his injury changed the outcome of that game), he appeared to be not just a building block, but the building block for the club. A charismatic, intelligent and local overachiever Syers arrow was pointing firmly upwards, and still is. At the start of the season under Peter Jackson, he was the face of the future, the focal point of a young, exciting team which was going to grow together and become something. Then as Bradford led for a second time at Elland Road, Andy Lonergan careered into his outstretched leg, and everything began to spiral. (That injury was an underrated storyline of the Jackson regime, Syers was critical to that team, and whilst Jones and Flynn were serviceable, neither had the attacking flair or goal scoring ability of Syers. I’d argue he stood as the last man Jackson would have wanted to receive a long term injury.)

Syers was able to return as a substitute in the Boxing Day game against Crewe, and the side he re-entered bore little resemblance to the one he left 2-1 up at Leeds, with James Hanson the only man to start both games. New Year’s Eve saw his first start since August where he was unceremoniously sent off in the midst of a 3-1 win. Since that day, minor niggles and managerial decisions have seen him limited to five starts.

His season never really started. Neither has his team’s. They both have been victims of countless setbacks (the club’s being far more self-inflicted than Syers’) and have spent the majority of the season just scrambling from week to week without ever really establishing an identity. A season of optimism for Syers and City turned on the moment when Andy Lonergan crashed into Syers’ leg and the initially goal bound flick trickled wide. I often wonder what would have happened if Syers’ arrived at the ball a split second earlier, able to successfully dink the ball over Lonergan into the gaping goal in front of the Bradford faithful, whilst avoiding injury. Would Peter Jackson still be in charge? Would Mitchell, Stewart et al still be featured members of the squad? Would we be better off now than we are? Would we be worse? The same?

What ifs are often pointless, but that is all this season has become, a succession of what ifs. What if we did this? What if that didn’t happen? What if that happens?

Looking back on this season in five years time, we may remember it as that year when Kyel Reid was really good on the left wing and the club was nationally shamed for that fight. But this was the year of David Syers, the year that never started, the year that might have been. The year of What If?

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The fallout of last night is sure to be wide ranging and damning. BBC News ran with it as a lede this morning. Sky Sports News showed it in the first 15 minutes of their hourly loop, every hour. It was trending on Twitter. Even outlets without a focus on football were righteously damning the game as the foreboding of a dark societal future. The brawl provided an apposite backing to the ‘riots’ research paper released this morning. Even Robbie Savage was damning our players. Robbie fucking Savage was chastising my team, and the worst thing was that he was right. I had no comeback. There was no comeback. My team illustrated exactly what was wrong with football and used as a prism to illustrate our crumbling society.

In truth it was twenty people in multicoloured shirts attempting to punch each other with varying levels of success. It resembled a post-bar punch up. At least they have alcohol as mitigation. Bradford City have Crawley’s antagonising performance as their only defence. We as fans were able to get so worked up about Steve Evans and his troops because we know our team are better than them. Not tangibly, obviously, but morally. Now what of Bradford City? Famous, or more accurately, infamous, for being brawlers. This isn’t them. Well, I didn’t think it was. Now I suppose it is.

Outside of the fighting, a game actually did take place last night, and it wasn’t a terrible one. Against an impressive yet loathsome outfit in Crawley Town, City put in a solid performance, deserving more than the no points and decimation of their defence which they earned.

I’m not sure if it could have gone worse. It was widely billed as something of a freebie. No other relegation rivals were playing, City were touted as heavy underdogs. If they lost 5-0 it wouldn’t have mattered thanks to the impressive goal difference. (Note: based on a decade’s data, a side with this goal difference (-6) should expect to have obtained 49 points by now). Against a stuttering promotion contender, there was even an air of quiet confidence.

After an attritional opening period that confidence didn’t wane. Crawley looked on top, but not dominant whilst Bradford had their flashes on the counter. Evans men opened the second act looking very much the promotion contender, playing with a greater level of urgency whilst Bradford struggled to cope. After a soft free kick was conceded by Luke Oliver, a lapse in concentration at the far post afforded Leon Clarke a free header which he duly dispatched past a frustrated Jon McLaughlin, yet again losing a clean sheet through no fault of his own.

Parkinson countered with a highly aggressive 3-4-3/3-1-3-3 similar to that utilised on Saturday. Out of character for Bradford’s manager, this switch with over 35 minutes on the clock illustrated the nothing-to-lose approach to this encounter, a level of irrational confidence which proceeded to flow throughout the team. It also acted as a medium to force the club’s best eleven players on to the pitch at the same time.

One noticeable improvement after the withdrawal of the under performing full back pairing of Fry and Kozluk was the new found passing play from the full back positions. Davies and Bullock actually sparked numerous attacking moves, passing the ball out from the full back/wide centre back positions they held, utilising the deep lying midfielder well. Kyel Reid was receiving the ball to feet, able to run at people. David Syers actually started touching the ball rather than watching it fly ten yards over head. They looked like a functioning football team. Something which has been missing with Parkinson’s restrictive full back selections.

Bradford began to dominate whilst Crawley shut up shop. Michel Kuipers in the Crawley goal was booked for timewasting with over half an hour on the clock, setting the tone for the rest of this blood boiling encounter. A rotational fouling system was employed on Chris Dagnall, City’s metronome in the hole, intended to silence/injure the impressive forward whilst avoiding meaningful repercussions. Every time he touched the ball he was felled by a different ‘Red Devil’ and the bookings began to fly.

Revenge was soon realised as Sergio Torres’ hack job on the diminutive forward led to the equaliser with Dagnall dusting himself down and impressively heading in Kyel Reid’s cross. Unfortunately this moment coincided with the withdrawal of Ricky Ravenhill (the all important ‘1’ in the formation) after a vicious swipe from goal scorer Leon Clarke.

Whilst exciting, high tempo and relatively successful, the 3-1-3-3 was dependent upon Ravenhill’s cover play in the middle. He was replaced by the inherently attacking Michael Flynn as natural replacement Lee Bullock was deputising (admirably) in defence and Ritchie Jones was…umm…yeah…

Without Ravenhill, Bradford proved to have equalised about 20 minutes too early. Crawley immediately came back out their shells, Flynn cynically got booked, then on the next attack City’s back three was overloaded leaving Gary Alexander free at the back to head in. This was in spite of Bullock’s spread armed attempt to block the header on the line.

The game reverted back to type, Crawley defended and fouled. City attacked and lost themselves in frustration with Evans’ tactics. (A man who reduces a team as talented as that to such a depressingly hideous entity as witnessed on Tuesday deserves every bit of the derision he receives).

I often contend to non L2 friends that whilst the old Division Four stereotype does ring true to an extent, there are actually some decent sides down here, especially over recent years. Ever the contrarian, Evans instead has decided to take that stereotype to its logical extreme. He has a group of League One/Championship players yet utilises them as the ‘most’ Division Four side in history. With a defence as solid as his and the talent in the front six (Billy Clarke and Sanchez Watt started on the bench) they could play any style they want and would win. But they don’t want to be admired. They don’t want to be adored. Everyone hates them anyway. Evans just owns it. Even if he was nice, opposition fans would resent him for his limitless, shady money, so he just owns the hatred, occupying the pantomime villain role. And because he has more money than everyone else, he will always win.

City’s players got swept up in the show. Their supporters were indignant, their manager, apoplectic. After the whistle, mild mannered, expensively suited Phil Parkinson lost it, walking away from Evans’ advance turning around only to sarcastically applaud his opposite number. (Not that I think this had any impact on the impending explosion on the pitch, but it did betray the injustice Bradford City feel they fell victim to).

Immediately at the whistle, a long running spat between nominal striker Andrew Davies and Crawley’s star defender Kyle McFadzean spilled over before simmering down one final time before the touch paper was lit. From here (it appears) words were exchanged between Davies and Crawley substitute Claude Davis, with the Bradford man making a beeline for the Jamaican international, only halted by Davis’ flying elbow in his jaw. (Whilst I doubt the ‘he started it’ defence will fly in Football League Court, Claude Davis started it. That being said Andrew Davies had lost it at this point and subsequently only failed to land a punch because his manager held him back. Whilst the cost benefit analysis may make his suspension worth appealing—-five games fucks us anyway, so who cares about a sixth—- it is unlikely to be met with welcoming ears.)

Upon seeing his defensive partner attacked, Luke Oliver decided it opportune to come and clean house before he in turn was set upon by McFadzean and Pablo Mills, who were then subsequently attacked by City goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin.

It would be nice to be able to paint the City players as the honourable victims standing up for a teammate, but everyone is guilty here. Incredibly guilty. They should all be ashamed, which I’m sure they are.

Last night illustrated everything about this season, and the cathartic explosion of energy by McLaughlin and Oliver betrayed a longstanding frustration reaching far beyond the events of last night. Two of the best performers this season, McLaughlin and Oliver have seen their excellent efforts rewarded with stress and pain. Despite how well they perform, the side just can’t keep a clean sheet. They can’t get a win. Lesser sides with lower ambitions come here and succeed again and again. I can remember one bad game for McLaughlin this year, at Rotherham, yet he only has four clean sheets to show for it, and one since Christmas (an that was against ten men all game). Luke Oliver has finally reached the potential he has often hinted at, and is partnered by a elite defender in Davies, yet they can’t buy a clean sheet. It’s not fair. Justice is not being served. That frustration may have been expunged last night, but it may have cost them everything.

On the field the repercussions will hurt, but it is my no means terminal. Matt Duke has conceded three goals in his past five games for Northampton (worth noting Northampton’s run-in and the fact they are going to have to re-enter the emergency loan market for a keeper, this brings them right back into the mix). Guy Branston now has his backdrop to become the leader, the saviour, one feels he has always wanted to be. Lee Bullock, Simon Ramsden and Marcel Seip are all solid and well versed in the centre back role. It will hurt, obviously, but the club are now reaping the benefits of such a large squad.

A potential points reduction looms large however. The most comparable recent event was the Battle of Bramall Lane, where fines were administered to both teams, but no points deduction. Last season Hereford and Torquay were deducted points for fielding ineligible players (3 for Hereford, 1 for Torquay. Hereford won 3-1, so received a heavier penalty).

But the Football League and the FA seem to make it their business to make stuff up as they go along, and with this incident proving such big news, it is likely the book will be thrown at both clubs. Everything is on the table.

With the run in appearing tough and a potential points deducting spanner hanging over them, every game takes on a higher importance, starting with Plymouth away on Saturday. One must think Bradford require at least three points from the trips to Plymouth and Northampton whilst obtaining six from the home games against Macclesfield, Southend and Swindon.

How the team deal with the punishment and public admonishment being thrust upon them will decide whether they fall into the abyss or manage to escape for another year. If they can build up a siege mentality, it could prove exactly the spark they have needed all season to bring some urgency to their predominately passive play. If it overwhelms, and the club struggle to deal with the losses of their three most important players, then, well that’s not worth thinking about.

The club have lost the Football Gods, as well as the referees (I wonder if Parkinson/Lawn are now regretting their criticism over recent weeks), if they are to stay up, they will have to do it all on their own.

I’ve stayed (relatively) confident throughout this season, safe in the knowledge our side is far too good to go down, but now? I can’t escape the feeling of an outlying piece of data. No side has ever gone down with as few defeats, as good a goal difference, it just doesn’t happen. But circumstances have been falling in a certain manner for the last month or so, and it isn’t promising. Plymouth away usurps last season’s Stockport at home for the ‘Most Important Game In Recent Memory’. A comprehensive reverse may signal a terminal spiral.

A terrible end to another terrible week for Bradford City and this season is beginning to portray a Mayan hue. More, well actually, less importantly we ourselves have lost our pride. Figures of ridicule and shame we struggle to stand tall in our own skin. Crawley may have started the fracas, there may have been as many culprits on their side as Bradford’s, but that only makes Bradford City as good as them. Only as good as Them.

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Yesterday’s attritional encounter at Valley Parade defied its surroundings, varying from the unbecoming to the borderline anachronistic. Thanks to the £1 marketing promotion employed by the club, the Coral Windows Stadium played host to over 17,000 fans, its largest attendance in almost eight years. Unfortunately for the legion of home supporters, a tentative Bradford City team managed only a draw against a rigid, industrious Hereford side bereft of confidence.

At times it felt like there was a tear in the space-time continuum, a glitch in the matrix. Every look up, every look across, indicated this was an occasion of grand importance and majesty. Yet any glances down to the quagmire held within the swollen behemoths portrayed everything of a park encounter. An argument supporting the cheap marketing campaign is that an enjoyable experience will encourage future experiences (a spurious argument on recent evidence, but a logical one), and little mind was paid to this contention by a reserved and circumspect Bradford City team.

Over recent years the Bantams’ home struggles could be attributed to a timid diffidence. Saturday however the issue seemed to be a conscious reluctance to dominate. Under sporadic pressure from the opposition, which exclusively amounted to long balls in the direction of Andrew Davies, Parkinson’s men steadfastly refused to take the initiative, leaving the game to meander along at an amble between set plays without a dominant actor. Whilst never in trouble, Bradford could never be described as dominant, until the final minutes.

Phil Parkinson adopted the same formation as the one which performed so well last week at Torquay. Luke Oliver, Craig Fagan and Simon Ramsden were thwarted in their quests to make the starting line-up by injury, with Rob Kozluk, Lee Bullock and Nahki Wells promoted. The defensive line showed no fresh signs of vulnerability after the changes whilst Wells plied away in isolation up the field. Even with Hanson and Fagan in absentia, the approach did not change from the home team, resorting to long balls from the back early and often. Nahki Wells has the potential to be many things; the leader of a line is not one of them. He toiled away manfully until his withdrawal in the final minutes.

The first half amounted only to snap shots and penalty shouts, and the second began in the same manner. Kyel Reid throughout looked the most likely for City, his Omarian tendencies undermining at times, but again showing the capacity to star at this level. Deane Smalley on the right hand flank acted as a secondary target for the floated 30 yard balls forward but remained peripheral beyond a few jinking flashes, although he did improve in the time leading up to his removal. The midfield was regularly bypassed, but the triumvirate of Ravenhill, Jones and Flynn all looked tidy when called upon. Whether asking half of your attacking arsenal to aspire only for a sterile prudence when you have no forward thrust from either full back is an effective use of the club’s most expensive and experienced unit is another question, but tidy they were.

Yesterday appropriately illustrated a schism at the heart of this club. Days like today with the stadium filled with electric faces show what this club should be aspiring for. Days like today could be the norm, not the exception. Yet the product on the field is as far away from that aspiration as is possible to go. No expansion. No inspiration. No ambition. Bradford City played like a team aspiring to be the 22nd best side in the fourth division and nothing more, and that was the primary source of the crowd’s frustration, not the result, or the fact the team was assembled in a 4-2-3-1. The lack of ambition was palpable, and the moment in the second half when Phil Parkinson appeared to berate Kyel Reid for attempting a short corner to Ritchie Jones (from which a chance was created) perfectly encapsulated the mindset of this Bradford City team.

The contest carried on in the same vein until the introduction of David Syers who injected some well-needed impetus into proceedings. Playing closer to Wells than his predecessor Flynn, Syers played with a dynamism at odds with the rest of the game, linking well with the midfield on occasion and crafting a couple of opportunities for the hitherto starved Wells. Hereford’s goal came out of the blue after Bradford’s backline was unable to clear a routine set piece and Byron Anthony headed home at the far post. This moment in the 84th minute provided the spark for Parkinson’s men to grab the ascendancy which had been waiting for them all afternoon. Football was played.

Phil Parkinson is making a concerted effort to mention the state of the pitch at every available opportunity as mitigation for the depressingly limited style of play employed by his side, yet for the second consecutive game when forced by circumstance; his men have been able to play effectively in a more expansive manner. In the final six minutes, Bradford created three clear cut goal scoring opportunities (precisely three more than the preceding eighty four minutes), Syers’ towering header from Atkinson’s corner bringing Bradford back to level terms, and the swelling stadium rapturous.

The Hollywood ending eluded and Bradford had to settle for the point which they seemed content with throughout proceedings. Whilst the pitch does serve some mitigation, the climaxes of these last two home games have shown that enterprising football eschewed by Parkinson can be played on this surface, and with success.

The lack of ambition apparent throughout the match against a markedly inferior, if willing, opponent, indicates the trepidation felt within the club at their current predicament. Defeat is not an option.

Phil Parkinson’s post match interview betrayed a growing frustration at his relationship with the fan base. The praise and warmth he craves from the increasingly hostile audience is not forthcoming. Since his appointment we have witnessed the same process through the motions undertaken by almost every manager of the past decade, and today’s condescending critique on the fans’ understanding of football is just another step on that same path. However his contention intentionally skirts around the giant elephant in the middle of the room. If you aim for a 1-0 win, sucking the life out of the atmosphere in the process, fine. But if you don’t achieve it, there isn’t much left in the form of positivity. How are we supposed to praise him? He’s only amassed 28 points from his 25 games. (As a comparison, Carl Fletcher, novice player-manager of Plymouth Argyle has earned 27 points from his 23 games in charge of a side without two pennies to rub together.)

The style employed yesterday was uninspiring and dispiriting, defeating the object of a bumper crowd. Yet it could be justified with a win. Without a win, I’m not sure how we as fans can lavish praise upon Phil Parkinson. What does he want us to say? The defence looked good, but look at what they were up against. They should have looked good. By showing such a dearth of ambition in front of the largest crowd in eight years, Parkinson’s quest for approval beyond the current clenched-teeth tolerance may be a long and arduous one for the manager of the country’s sixth worst team.

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You can never go back. Even if you could, you can’t change anything, so there’s little point thinking about it. We’ve all seen this a million times; James Cole, Daniel Faraday and Henry DeTamble have each taught us that much. There are no do-overs. Whatever happened, happened.

Novikov-ian daydreams aside, it can be an enlightening ‘life tool’ to think about how you would go about advising your former self. John Terry would probably have just kept his mouth shut. Usain Bolt would probably not flinch. Cheryl Cole would probably have taken some American elocution lessons. We would all have made a fortune gambling on Novak Djokovic, Darren Clarke and the St. Louis Cardinals.

I open this door, wondering what, if anything, Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes would do differently. If they could travel back 365 days and advise their former selves, what would they say? They stand on the precipice of a unique opportunity, and how they take advantage of it will go a long way to defining their entwined legacies. 

A year ago today Peter Taylor resigned after a 1-0 reverse to Chesterfield (with future Bantam Deane Smalley securing his fate). He staggered on with a knife in his gut and the crowd on his back for five more days until Gareth Evans rocketed in an improbable winner and Taylor escaped, seeking sanctuary in the Middle East.

Would they hire Peter Jackson? Maybe. Probably not. Would they persuade Peter Taylor to stay? Probably not. Although Taylor did manage a 39% win percentage at Valley Parade (61 points from 46 games) tied with Paul Jewell as the best since Lennie Lawrence and substantially better than either of his successors. Just saying. Would they invest money into the development squad and Archie Christie over the summer? Doubtful. Would they employ such a manic, schizophrenic recruitment policy over the past six months? I’d like to think not, but probably.

Every decision over the last twelve months could be scrutinised with hindsight. Has it taken the club closer to its stated goal of promotion? Looking at the facts, the answer for the overwhelming majority is no.

Tellingly/Coincidentally (delete as appropriate), Bradford are closer to the relegation zone now than they were the day of Taylor’s resignation (six points then, four points now), they have amassed fewer points per game (1.10 vs 1.07) and are six points further adrift from the owners’ stated goal of the playoffs, a goal unreached in now five seasons of trying. The squad is fractionally older (based on previous match squads), no more players are under contract long term than a year ago and whilst Parkinson is universally tolerated by fans, and doing a decent job, the club is over budget for the season (shock), so this seems a harsh prism to comparatively criticise Taylor’s regime.

Again in the next game, Bradford face a fellow struggler at home, billing it as something akin to a must win. Toward this end, the board have marketed this match as ‘In for a Quid’. Exactly the same thing they did last year. Even reading the in-house build ups in the local paper feels like looking at first and second drafts of the same interview. (Rhodes 2011, Parkinson 2012)

You can never go back. Except when it comes back to you. There are no do-overs. Except when there are. Whatever happened, happened. But that doesn’t mean it has to happen again.

Fifty three players have appeared for Bradford City in the last twelve months. And no more are under contract for the next season that at this point 12 months ago. That cannot happen again. Two sets of counter-intuitive, mutually exclusive strategies have been employed on and off the pitch in the past year consecutively. That cannot happen again. All the planning for the future has been sacrificed for this year. And what has this year given us? Nothing. Almost exactly nothing. In many ways, as messrs Rhodes and Lawn will be able to intimately attest, we actually have a lot less than what we started with.

Everyone at the club has spent the last year sprinting to stand still. All the money invested by the owners, the effort from the players and employees, and the time and emotion invested by the fans have been spent to maintain. Spent to maintain something which was inadequate to begin with. That cannot happen again.

Whatever the strategy is doesn’t matter as much as the act of thinking of one, and committing to it. If the strategy is to invest in experienced professionals like Peter Taylor did, fine, but do it better and commit to it. If the strategy is to build something around a young core, fine, but do it better and commit to it. Find a competitive advantage, whatever it is, and build on it. No matter what you do, do.

This cannot happen again.

The past decade has seen those at the helm of Bradford City grow into tenured lecturers at the School of How Not To Do It, but unlike the rest of football they seem incapable of learning from their own mistakes. This year is their chance finally to break the cycle. The club have exactly the same foundations to build upon as were spurned a year ago. This is the year where Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes show they have the leadership ability to run this club. Not once in their tenure has the club ended a twelve month span in a better position than where it started. Now is their chance for a do-over. To do all the things they would advise their younger selves to do. Otherwise the decay and atrophy so prevalent over the past decade will engulf our club, and their legacies at Bradford City will only ever amount to the rearranging of deckchairs. 

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This past week’s ‘holiday’ has shown the power of the intangible. Much is made of starting line-ups, partnerships, formations and matchups, but in football as in life, more than we like to believe isn’t tangible, it’s something more, something above us, something within us. Neither of the team selections of the past week could be described as ‘full-strength’, yet the performances stand up against anything produced so far this year in spite of the superior opponents.

Pressure, confidence, expectation, momentum, define it however you like, the explanation for the past week lies in the intangible. This acknowledgement invokes various emotions, primarily that of frustration. Somewhere in this squad of players is the ability to compete at a far higher level to that which we see, yet the team so seldom put it all together.

Confidence is a weird phenomenon, it’s hard to define, harder to prove the existence of, yet we are all convinced it exists. It is written about and spoken about ad nauseam with regard to all sports and like the phenomenon of momentum it remains an intangible we perceive the existence of without solid foundation. Potentially simply by the act of believing in confidence or momentum we are therefore establishing its existence as it is purely a psychosomatic effect, then again we might be trying to rationalise something inherently irrational. Something abstract.

The irrational psyche of the Bradford City team will be tested over the next week. If momentum actually exists, they should be carrying it. However along with the next games comes the gray-tinged mundanity of the relegation battle and the now-expectant support base. When the side departed on this vacation, they had put in just about their poorest effort of the season at home to Cheltenham and one point from three games, undermining the inevitable proclamations this week citing the importance of ‘carrying on the momentum’. This is a phenomenon which only seems to exist when we want it to.

These facts make it almost impossible to review or preview the next week on the field because little of the outcome will be found on the field. The result against Rotherham will decided in the abstract, in the intangible, whether or not the team *carry the momentum* or *wilt under relegation pressure*, or at least that is how it will seem. In spite of this, there have been lessons learned through the past week on the field, not least the undeniable strength in depth.

The players slammed as ‘the worst in the division’ by owner Mark Lawn managed to come out victorious against two sides from higher divisions. This was without having to resort to England’s strategy of ‘jacknifing lorries’ in front of goal, these were two solid performances. They kept the ball, kept their shape and created numerous chances. They were in control.

The likes of Compton, Mitchell, Hannah, Williams, McLaughlin, and O’Brien, stars of Mark Lawn’s ‘worst side in the division’ looked not a moment out of place against peers from a higher level. The fact that the side was able to deservedly beat a higher level side trying to win in the form of Rochdale without key defenders (Threlfall, Davies and Seip), key midfielder (Reid), starting forward line (Hanson and Fagan), as well as the hitherto accepted starting goalkeeper (Duke) speaks volumes to not only the quality of the players who did feature, but also the intangible psychological influences apparent upon this team

The increased ease and solidity in the defensive backline with McLaughlin between the posts was palpable in both games. He starred in both matches, especially in the Rochdale performance *building off the momentum* he built up in the penalty shootout the previous Tuesday. The twenty year old stopper not featuring against Rotherham is almost unfathomable at this point. Luke Oliver also continued his remarkable improvement this year with a dominant display at the heart of the defence against Rochdale alongside the returning Steve Williams.

Williams’ inclusion was fundamental in the passing game against Rochdale, affording Jones and Flynn in defensive midfield a crucial secondary option if their desired ball wasn’t on. The inclusion of the ball playing central defender allowed this side to control possession and the tempo of the game in ways they haven’t been able to thus far. With Oliver a certainty in one defensive slot, and either O’Brien or Threlfall at left back (Threlfall is the certain #1 if fit), that leaves Williams, Ramsden, Moore and Seip fighting for two spots. Ramsden’s return has been a pleasant surprise up to now with a couple of solid appearances met with surprising fitness levels *touches wood* and will probably feel hard done by if not in the starting line-up come Saturday.

The mirror image to Williams on Saturday was the withdrawn role of Jamie Devitt, behind a lone striker in Ross Hannah. Devitt floated around in the band between City’s two defensive midfielders and the forward line, whilst dropping back to form a three without the ball. This was another fundamental element in the successful passing game. Whilst limiting the side’s attacking thrust somewhat, it afforded far greater control over proceedings, especially in the middle where this side is so often overrun. Hannah plied away in a tough lone role and continued his gradual improvement as an all-around player, showing some decent touches until his withdrawal. Mitchell and Compton continued their roles from Tuesday, as much defensive inclusions as offensive. Reid will likely return on Saturday (clearly the most talented of the group), but both of these players impressed in their opportunity.

After an opening hour with few significant goal scoring opportunities thanks to both sides’ focus on ball retention, Phil Parkinson opened up proceedings when introducing Hanson and Wells initiating a shift to 4-4-2. This increased the direct nature of City’s play and increased the chance creation at both ends, McLaughlin keeping the Bantams in the game before Nahki Wells scored one of the goals of his life, and all our lives, securing a 1-0 victory. 

American sports writer Bill Simmons speaks often of a phenomenon in basketball of the ‘Irrational Confidence Guy’ which he defines as “the guy who isn’t one of the team’s best players, but he’ll have stretches in which he THINKS he is”, citing this as an overlooked yet crucial part of any elite team. When a side’s back is against the wall or they don’t look like creating sufficient clear-cut opportunities, a rotational player may come off the bench and take on shots he has absolutely no business taking, and somehow they go in. He isn’t an All-Star but carries himself in a manner in which he thinks he might be. If Saturday’s game against Rochdale and his subsequent game for Bermuda are anything to go by, in Nahki Wells, we may have found our very own Irrational Confidence Guy.

Speaking after the match, Wells exemplified this phenomenon perfectly, “I think I had about five of them (team-mates) screaming at me for a pass but I just said ‘this is the time to hit it’…Once I hit it, I knew it was going in.” It really was a remarkable strike. In a similar way to Hannah whose skill set lends him to being a substitute at this point of his development, Wells provides the pace, skill, and irrational confidence to make a difference upon arrival. With Fagan looking likely to return on Saturday it looks likely this is the role he will be confined to, which shouldn’t be seen as a slight. In a struggling team like this, being able to inject a spark against tired legs can be invaluable, and as long as the fans resist their natural urges and stay off his back (criticising the wasteful nature of his play, an unavoidable by-product of irrational confidence) Wells could be a valuable piece moving forward.

The performances of the past few weeks, moving on from Cheltenham through Sheffield to Rochdale have shown the irrational power of confidence and other intangible phenomena over City’s squad, it’s only fitting that a player embodying the power of irrational confidence stole the headlines. 

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The causal relationship between fans and players has long been disputed whilst its effect has been accepted universally. Whilst the former may still be in doubt, yesterday was defined by the latter. In truth, we really could have done with an away game. One far, far away. When that has to be admitted, you know things aren’t going well.

The disharmony around the area was evident well before kick-off. Auxiliary stewards. Police horses. Increased security measures on the doors. Tension filled the air all around the stadium. This shouldn’t have been the case, Bradford were on something of an uptick in form carrying heaps of momentum from the resolute display at high-flying Swindon. However off-the-field antics this week from the ownership tainted the mood around the club to the point where all of the “security measures” were required. (Note: they probably weren’t required.) None of this was about the football.

The fans’ trepidation and unease was soon replicated on the field as Cheltenham took the lead through Kaid Mohamed. A hopeful ball up the middle from the Robins was met by a catalogue of errors from the Bantam back line, and as the ball finally rolled under the dive of Matt Duke, boos rained down upon the home side. From that point on Bradford never looked like getting anything out of the game. The score line flattered Parkinson’s men and Cheltenham’s victory was as comprehensive as it gets at this level.

The fans’ pre-match unease took control after the opener, further compounding the fragility of the players’ mindsets. Every aimless long ball was booed. Every poor cross. Every run up a blind alley. The atmosphere was as bad as it has been. Bradford withdrew back into their shell in the manner we have seen oh-so-often over recent times. Players became unwilling to try things, to beat people, to make a mistake. We’ve seen this show so many times. The only player who seemed willing to take any risks was Kyel Reid, yet as a result of that compliment he is criticised as being ‘wasteful’. Michael Bryan froze and was replaced. This isn’t a criticism of him personally; he shouldn’t be subjected to that atmosphere as an 18 year old loanee. The same goes for Liam Moore. The fans jumped on his back early and he regressed back into his shell, playing long balls into the channel to no one in particular. He was also withdrawn. Again this isn’t a criticism of him; he was in an impossible position for a player his age. It’s easy for Phil Parkinson to condemn his players’ lack of mental strength after the game, but his formation (which left the midfield constantly outnumbered) did not help them, and criticising eighteen year old kids for struggling to play in an atmosphere like that is unfair.

The most frustrating aspect is that if it were not for the actions of the ownership, the atmosphere would not have been anywhere near as merciless. The fan reaction isn’t about the football, but it undoubtedly leads to the type of football we have complained about since. Even if the side performed yesterday in these terrible conditions, the atmosphere was already tainted. None of this is about the football.

Saturday’s experience summed up the past week perfectly. The vast majority of the fan base now seems to have turned inexorably away from the current administration. The players are the ones caught in the middle. As I mentioned on Friday morning, I was desperate for catharsis, this only grew as the day wore on. It appears that many of my peers felt the same. The fans aren’t mad at the players or the manager in particular, but everything else that the club represents. Unfortunately there is no other medium through which we can exert our frustration, and the players are stuck in the middle. I’m not going to go on a long winded diatribe on Friday’s events, because I see no point. My opinion will be obvious to most I’m sure. What I will say however is the childish, naive and embarrassing behaviour of those in power at the club over the past week is no better summed up than the ordered removal of a printed off banner with the words ‘BOY FROM BRAZIL’ on it during half time. Befitting the site whose name it bore, the banner presented no malice, no frills, no inflammation, but was decided upon as being sufficiently offensive to remove by the ownership. Of all the ills which plague this club, this is the one which gets dealt with immediately. Everything one would wish to know about Mark Lawn and the ownership can be summed up in this incident.

The overpriced tickets, the overpriced food, the terrible customer service, the broken TVs, the microphones which cut in and out, the archaic facilities, the leaking roofs, the stained floors, the contempt with which the ownership treat their fan base, the fundamental issues riddling the club leading to this disconnect with fans all go untreated. Yet a harmless printed-off banner must go at the first opportunity.

One day, hopefully soon, instead of focusing on pointless distractions and side issues, the board will instead begin to tackle the institutional issues hindering their relationship with their fans. (Hint: instead of removing all critical media, ask why said media, hitherto loyal above all, is now being critical?) Until then, we shall have to do with one-eyed, party line coverage through the Telegraph and Argus and BBC Radio Leeds further detaching the fan base from the ownership.

This has been a side issue for a long time; however Saturday proved a crossing of the threshold where Mark Lawn’s actions are directly impacting performance on the field. The toxic atmosphere which crippled the players throughout the performance was a direct result of his actions, and something must be done. An impartial John Hendrie Op-ed or a partisan piece fed through Simon Parker will not suffice. On the field the club are struggling to the tune of ‘Fourth Worst Side in England’, but this time football isn’t the problem, and will not prove a panacea for the club’s ills. It’s everything else about the club, and everything it stands for. It isn’t about the football.

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The most surprising thing about the past few days is how surprised I actually was. With hindsight, we all should have seen this coming. I have repeatedly theorised on here that the Development Era actually ended a few weeks ago. This is the Last Rites. Mark Lawn can protest that the Development Squad will continue under the stewardship of Peter Horne, by all accounts a hugely talented man. However I don’t think it’s out of line to believe the weight of priority has shifted definitively.

 

Situations such as this require something of a judgment call, a personal decision.Who do we believe? What do we believe? What do we want to believe? Only a handful of people know the truth, everyone else is dealing in politics. We can spin the situation to fit our own agenda. Everyone is right in their own head. Those who believe Mark Lawn is the problem feel vindicated, as do those who believe his intentions are true. Those who believe the Development Era was a waste of resources are vindicated, as are those who see dysfunctional short-termism as the cause of the club’s demise. Everyone is diametrically opposed, and everyone can present an argument which supports their opinion.

We can only honestly make a decision on facts, and whilst the media persona of Mark Lawn is very forthcoming and vocal, the details of what he actually says are noticeably less so. In both this case and the Jackson case of a few months ago, we actually don’t know that much. We can’t make reasoned judgments. We as outsiders are fed a party stance which amounts to a three line quote to Simon Parker, and that’s that. No further explanation, no open communication lines. As twenty first century citizens we are intrinsically cynical and suspicious, with good reason given the sort of society in which we reside. This leads to the anger and vitriol currently directed at our joint-chairman as well as the mountains of innuendo and conspiracy theories. Mark Lawn’s comprehension of this fact would likely solve many of the issues around the club.

 

I want to believe that the club’s version of events and it does make sense to a point. The board cannot have been ‘against’ Christie as he was offered a chief executive role as recently as two weeks ago. If Mark Lawn was as sceptical about the Development Era as is supposed, why would he offer Christie more control? But at the same time to believe the club’s tale, leaps of faith must be made. Right now, faith is not something endemic in the relationship between Bradford City and its fans. What’s more is that we as fans shouldn’t be expected to make that leap with them given the past record of the owners of our club. What we deserve is a conclusive, definitive explanation supported by all the actors involved. Until that point, people will continue to believe whatever they want to believe, and feel fully justified in doing so.

The burden of proof is fully in the hands of Mark Lawn and Bradford City. Maybe not in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion. Jason McKeown and Michael Wood both put their name to a damning report from Tuesday’s youth team game. This has been refuted by an unnamed club source speaking to Derm Tanner. That isn’t enough. They are under the burden of proof. Innocent until proven guilty isn’t applicable here. Especially when up against McKeown and Wood, both holding impeccable reputations when it comes to trustworthiness and integrity. As an aside here, if what they say is true, Lawn should resign. That’s about all that needs to be said. Regardless of the impact on the finances or the future of Bradford City, he shouldn’t be involved in the club. 

 

The future of the players recruited over the summer is as in doubt as ever. Now none of the people who recruited them remain at the club, and their involvement on the field is as low as it has been. One cannot blame them for internal feelings of disillusion and frustration. The same goes for the youth players sold an idea by Christie who now face uncertain futures.

So now what happens? The Development Era was already being sidelined, now its main supporter has been removed for one reason or another. The short term will likely been unaffected, the first team has already been revamped, but in the long term the club is destined to be in a worse position. During my soul searching last week, I concluded that rather than winning, I just wanted something I could be proud of, something I could believe in. That was difficult to find a week ago. Right now it’s impossible. The only person involved in the club I believed in just walked out the exit door and I’m angry. I’m confused. I’m frustrated. What’s worse is that I’m exasperated. I’m tired of this. These every spinning storylines which follow this club at every turn. The short-lived Development Era has been replaced by the all-too-familiar Dysfunction Era. We have all seen this show far too many times. I want someone to blame, an actor which I can force upon all of my frustration. I’m desperate for catharsis.

 

Former Colombian manager Francisco Maturana describes football as“a constant battle between who you are, and who you want to be.” During the summer, people at the club changed their mind about who they wanted this club to be, and set about trying to change. Unfortunately, just like the aspiring picture of a harmonious Colombia in 1994, the truth of who we are came out and won the battle. This is who we are. It shouldn’t be surprising things ended this way. Dysfunction is what the club represents and has done for as long as I can remember. And it’s fucking depressing.

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Saturday afternoon sees Bradford City go up against a Swindon outfit flying high in League Two, led by rookie manager Paolo Di Canio. The hiring of the controversial, nomadic Italian caused some unrest in the Swindon ranks, with GMB pulling their sponsorship due to the political views of the newly-appointed manager. The appointment will undoubtedly have led to some soul searching within the Swindon Town fan base, the sort of which I was guilty of yesterday. However, the successful start to the season may put an end to that.

Controversy has followed Di Canio at every step throughout his career, and this has been carried over the managerial threshold, a televised bust-up with Leon Clarke making the news earlier this season. Controversy also seemed to follow his compatriot and peer Benito Carbone, undoubtedly one of Bradford City’s most famous sons, Di Canio’s opposition on Saturday. The careers of Carbone and Di Canio have dovetailed remarkably throughout their career, their paths meeting for an ill-fated two year spell in Sheffield in the late 1990s, and these fluctuations are even true today in their burgeoning post-playing careers. For better or worse both of these men are defined by their youth, and hard as they try, they fail to escape the adolescent inside.

 

Initiated as an Ultra during his childhood as a S.S. Lazio supporter, Di Canio was born into controversy. Although the S.S. stands for societá sportive, “Lazio merits the abbreviation’s worst connotations” notes Franklin Foer. Founded by Italian army officers at the turn of the century, S.S. Lazio were themselves, Mussolini’s team.

Di Canio was initiated at an unfortunate time, when immigration was growing in Italy, especially throughout the nation’s football teams. The Ultras of S.S. Lazio exhibited an anti-Semitic, xenophobic venom within their ranks, something which still exists today. Even now, Lazio refrain from recruiting black players, and the majority of foreign imports arrive from countries with fascist pasts. The side’s long time defender and leader, Sinisa Mihajlovic, hailing from Serbia, often spoke of his links with Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, the Serbian war criminal.

A self proclaimed Fascist, Di Canio has the word “Dux” tattooed on his arm, in reference to ‘Il Duce’, Benito Mussolini. A man described by Di Canio as “basically a very principled, ethical individual, deeply misunderstood.”

On the field, the controversial Italian’s career was marred by short stints wherever he landed. After coming through the ranks at boyhood club Lazio, earning promotion from Serie B in the process, he jumped to Turin spending three years at Juventus, alongside the likes of Roberto Baggio, Toto Schillaci and Andreas Moeller. Although Di Canio was never first choice during the period, scoring only 6 goals in three seasons, he managed to make more than 70 appearances. This was a relative down period for the storied club, the only success being the ’93 UEFA Cup after the return of Giovanni Trapattoni as manager. Di Canio was replaced soon after by Alessandro Del Piero, who along with Baggio, led them to their first Scudetto in eight years the subsequent season.

After an in-and-out season at Napoli under Marcelo Lippi where he replaced Gianfranco Zola, Di Canio moved to the reigning champions, Fabio Capello’s AC Milan, again as a bit-part player. He managed to win his first, and only, Scudetto in 1996 in a team carried by Baggio, George Weah and Dejan Savicevic.

After that season he fled Italy for Glasgow, signing for Celtic in a £1m deal. His performance improved at the lower level, notching twelve league goals, however the drop in quality led to him famously storming out of a training session vowing never to return, due to the inferior quality of his teammates. He left Celtic after one unsuccessful season, engineering a move to Sheffield Wednesday, which saw Regi Blinker move in the opposite direction. He was replaced in Glasgow by Swedish forward Henrik Larsson. Celtic won the title the next season for the first time in ten years.

At Wednesday, Di Canio produced the form of his career, scoring 23 goals in 41 appearances; however the side regressed from 7th place the season before, one place out of the European positions, down to 16th, in spite of the controversial Italian’s contribution. They survived in the division by four points. In the subsequent season he was outperformed by compatriot Benito Carbone, with whom his career had dovetailed throughout, Carbone being the one to replace him at Napoli a few years previous.

They both arrived during a golden era for Italian football in England, with television coverage growing markedly, along with numerous popular imports such as Zola, Di Matteo and Ravanelli amongst others. This conveniently came at the time the ‘playmaker’ role in midfield was being abandoned in Italy with an increased focus on the holder, and flair refugees such as Carbone and Di Canio found their home in Britain who as a football culture were in love with the expansive, cultured foreign attacking midfielder. An aside at this point, another young attacking playmaker of the time, Andrea Pirlo, instead of following the hordes of his peers fleeing the country, decided to stay and reinvent himself as a ball-playing defensive midfielder, becoming the best in the world at it, and “the most important player of his generation”.

The careers of Carbone and Di Canio, such similar players, provide a fascinating dichotomy in their trajectory. Bearing unquestioned talent, both of them cut nomadic figures, unable to find a home, struggling to adapt to adult life thanks to their upbringing. Di Canio, the more gifted player, raised under the shadow of the Curva Nord could never escape the controversy, which followed him wherever he went. Carbone on the other hand was sent north from his home in Reggio Calabria, the very southern point of Italy, at the age of fourteen to try and carve out a football career at Torino, the nation’s finest youth system. He eventually departed Turin at the same time Di Canio, three years his elder, joined The Old Lady across the city. The day he arrived in northern Italy, the introverted Carbone was forever cast an immigrant, an outsider, something which characterised him throughout his career. He achieved his dream by signing for boyhood club Inter in 1995, unfortunately like the rest of his career before it, his stay didn’t last long, not finding a home within Roy Hodgson’s wing back system.

After appearing for eight clubs by the age of 25, Carbone was designated a mercenary. This was especially true in England where he starred for six seasons during the prime of his career. Unlike Italy where lesser sides were loathe to play diminutive playmakers, rather focusing on defensive solidity, the Premier League was something of a safe haven for Carbone. At this time the lure of the flair player, to be part of the big time, was at its peak. Beni, not the world’s best attacking midfielder, but a good one his own right, provided an opportunity for these lesser teams to have their Zola, their big time.

He was demanded by struggling sides desperate for a spark, willing to overspend. Never a good sign. During his stint in England he graced Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Derby County and Di Canio’s opponent on Saturday, Bradford City. Every one of these stints ended in a contract dispute after the club fell into financial troubles. The player is branded the mercenary, the clubs the victims. In reality all of them wanted their big time, and paid more than they could afford to get it. They brought it on themselves. Carbone became an icon of failure, relegation, and bankruptcy. Yet no one ever questioned the moral hazard of the clubs who recruited him, all of whom paid more than they could afford for the privilege.

In the same way the ability of Carbone as a footballer has been forgotten, leaving him to resemble everything that was wrong with the financially bloated turn-of-the-century Premier League, Di Canio’s prowess has also been overshadowed by everything else about him. His politics, his personality, and the controversy he brought with him everywhere he went. What is overlooked is his greatness on the pitch. Never an all-star, he suffered behind a golden era of Italian forwards, Del Piero and Baggio seemed to leave him in the shadows at every turn. For three seasons he managed to build a life for himself at West Ham, where he is still idolised to this day, before it all fell apart and he was dropped, and then released. He eventually made his way back to Italy and his beloved S.S. Lazio, going through dramatic financial problems at the time. Unfortunately the negative impact following him like a shadow resurfaced in Rome with a series of public outbursts and controversies leading to his final demise. Unsurprisingly his early life as an Ultra began to influence his actions, and in the end Claudio Lotito, the club’s chairman was forced to let Di Canio go, primarily down to his active relationship with the controversial S.S. Ultras, an image the club was trying to leave behind.

In many ways it isn’t a surprise these two characters remained in football, it is all they know. Carbone, who finally found a home of sorts in the Italian lower leagues with Pavia, took the manager’s position after his retirement, saving them from relegation, before rapidly jumping ship to Serie B Varese. His position was terminated earlier this month. Carbone again is without a home.

As someone revered in England more than anywhere else, save the Curva Nord in Rome, it isn’t surprising this is where Di Canio came to make his move. Swindon Town offered him the opportunity which he was more than grateful to take. A former host to then-novice managers Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles, Dennis Wise and Steve McMahon, Swindon have previous in risky managerial appointments and this one is no different. Di Canio beat Dietmar Hamann for the job who subsequently took over at Stockport County and who also would appear a safer appointment. But in the same way Bradford signed Carbone over other safer options all those years ago, Swindon too wanted the glamour. After managers Danny Wilson and Paul Hart led them to relegation from League One, one struggles to blame them for the decision.

At the same time, there will be little sympathy if and when it all falls apart. Carbone was a nomad because he never knew a home. Di Canio was a nomad because he was a liability. It can be said that whilst the boy shipped from his home as a child never left Carbone, the boy in the Curva Nord never left Di Canio. His ability provided him with the opportunities of greatness and immortality which on the whole eluded him in his playing career, something which the well-travelled Carbone never had the opportunity.

They have both decided to fill the hole left by their playing career by forging careers in management, and both got off to successful starts. Yet the nomadic tendencies within Benito Carbone culminated in his downfall with Varese. It remains to be seen whether the same will be said about Paolo Di Canio or whether he can finally find a home and another chance at greatness.

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The recent developments in the EPPP battle have led to Football League-wide anger, and along with it a worrying sense of inevitability. This came on the back of talk around the cessation of relegation from the country’s top division which illustrates a bleak picture of the future of the Seventy Two.

With this picture of a landscape where any previously held measures of ‘success’ are unreachable, it also raises questions within each lower league fan of ‘why we do it?’

This has always been something of a taboo amongst fans, something we don’t really want to acknowledge, because there isn’t much of an answer. Do we do it, the long away trips, the financial, intellectual and emotional investment, because one day we could win the Premier League? Of course not. Bradford City is about the best example of ‘small side done good’, but did so on the back of millions of pounds of which they had no right spending. Was that good? Is that success?

In comparison to other sports and teams around the world, English football’s core is ostensibly tribal, “my urban development’s football team is better than your urban development’s football team.” Is that why we do it? Aside from a handful of players, and the owners, there isn’t that much Bradfordian about the Bantams at present and hasn’t been for a while. Nor was there during the successful times. Do we do it because if we invest in something which can be tangibly successful, we can ourselves ‘win’? Rarely in our lives outside of Sunday Leagues or FIFA games, can we feel glory or victory. It isn’t really possible to ‘win’ at life, unless you’re Charlie Sheen. Football provides us with a platform upon which we can feel victorious, feel superior. One other possibility is that we do it because we want value for money from our entertainment and leisure time.

Ok that last one was a joke, but I think the question is valid. No one in the wide world of football fandom seems to be able to explain why it is we feel like we do about our teams. We just want our urban development’s football team to beat yours.

But to what end do we strive for this success, and do the means justify that end? To answer that question we have to implicitly acknowledge that there is, in fact, an end. In reality, football is eternal. There is no end. The only thing that exists is the journey, the means. Which leads to the point, why do we focus so much on this imaginary end of success?

We want promotion, we desperately strive for it, we need it. But why? So what if the club get promoted? Then what happens? We desperately want promotion again. This problem with football fans is the main issue between them and their clubs. We strive for success but in truth there is no such thing in football. Each season, successful or otherwise, leads onto another season. There is no end.

If the means are everything, it must be asked why we never focus on it? Or if we do it is through the prism of ‘the end’. Under Peter Taylor, Bradford City filled the squad with morally questionable mercenaries, faceless replica shirts, of whom we felt no attachment or emotion. The club played a depressingly unattractive style. under the auspices of the success that approach would bring. Is that what we want? Even if the side were successful, is that what we want? Should we not want more? At least, should we not want something else?

Picking my way through the wreckage of last night’s by-all-accounts unfortunate defeat against Macclesfield, an observation by City fan Paul Ashton took my eye, “I think PPs players (Reid, Seip, Fagan) are better than PJs (Comp, Hannah, Stew, Brano) but I preferred that side. Not even sure why.”

This is something I’ve also been battling over recent weeks. Going into the year I was pessimistic, naturally, but also had a hitherto absent sense of excitement. This excitement wasn’t based on any sense of impending success, rather the feeling that we were about to embark on something, a journey. Over the last few seasons of League Two dross, Peter Taylor and incessant reinventions of the team, an emotional disconnect grew from within. Of course I wanted the side to succeed, why I’m not sure, but I did nonetheless. But what would I gain from the success? What would we gain?

We were aiming to be in that lucky 17%, that select group upon whom the riches and the glamour of League One were about to be bestowed, regardless of the means which got us there, something we have been attempting for four years. Even if we got there (we didn’t come close) but if we did, then what? I was supporting a manager whose uninspiring style and dour media persona I resented, and a team of whom I felt nothing for. I had no attachment to Tommy Doherty; he was nothing but a faceless replica shirt to me. Furthermore I was supporting a team which held within its ranks someone convicted of assault, on a female no less, and if it weren’t for the intervention of the justice system, someone guilty of a murder. This isn’t necessarily a pious attack on the pragmatic nature of the squad’s recruitment, nor the moral fibre of the squad, for I understand Taylor’s motivations. He was being pressured from above, who themselves were being pressured by fans, and the banks, to ensure promotion, the end we all strive for. Under this pressure, Taylor decided on an intensively pragmatic approach to everything about his job, to ensure the best possible chance of ‘on-the-field’ success. The means were irrelevant.

I had no attachment to the majority of the players, and if they were replaced in the off-season by another faceless recruit, then I didn’t mind, they were just a faceless replica shirt. The only players I felt anything for were James Hanson, Luke O’Brien and Steve Williams. All of them brought with them links to the club as well as a ‘boy done good’ personal story. Even to this day I show more leniency to James Hanson than I do other players in the squad. And I have no problem with that. If Craig Fagan comes in and scores 20 goals, whilst James only manages nine or ten, I will still feel far more for him than I do the former Hull man. Similarly toward the end of last year as injuries and fatigue took their toll on the impressive local youngster David Syers, leading to his performance falling to that, or below, the level of his understudies, there was a resistance from within to criticise him, or even to acknowledge the drop-off, for the fear that if I did I would implicitly be calling for his replacement.

This is the same emotion inside me which leaves me feeling cold around Phil Parkinson and the new dawn. I have no doubt in my mind that Parkinson is a better manager than Peter Jackson, moreso I don’t even think it’s close. The same way I was sure Peter Taylor was a better manager than Stuart McCall, two years ago it wasn’t close either.

Similarly I have no doubt that Kyel Reid is a superstar at this level and Andrew Davies is about two divisions too good for us. But I don’t feel anything. At the beginning of this season the club employed a recruitment strategy (enforced by the finances) to focus upon a select group of youngsters who could grow together and build something. I was willing to accept growing pains. I remember standing on the sidelines of Silsden AFC watching an eleven of whom I knew little-to-nothing, feeling a sense of excitement inside. I didn’t think this side was going places this season, but I didn’t mind. Nialle Rodney wasn’t a superstar, and he still isn’t, but there is something there. His physical ability as well as his enthusiasm made me feel something. The same for Nahki Wells. These were new faces, but it felt different to the new faces of years hence. I didn’t actually think Jackson was a great manager, and I still don’t, but he was a good man and he cared. That almost felt more important. He made me feel something inside which Phil Parkinson never can. I just feel cold.

After Jackson’s removal and the beginning of the Parkinson administration, I was happy in a pragmatic sense. But emotionally I was cold. The former Charlton man quickly decided that the current calibre of the squad did not match up his to his ambition, (he was probably right in that assessment) and rapidly went about a restoration campaign, bringing in a host of new faces, some of whom so high profile I actually knew what they looked like. But they were, and still remain, faceless replica kits to me. The speed in which he replaced the present squad shows the ruthless and pragmatic nature which he will treat this one, once they outlive their usefulness. Not necessarily a bad thing, but is it worth me investing any emotion in Marcel Seip when he’s likely to be ruthlessly replaced at a presently unspecified future date. It certainly isn’t worth me investing in Jamie Devitt, whom under other circumstances I would adore, because he’s just going to leave anyway.

Anyone paying attention can see that joining the long list of ‘players who don’t match up to Phil Parkinson’s ambition’ is James Hanson. In truth, he has always been on the list, as the intensive courtship of Paul Benson proves. In January I’m sure Parkinson will decide upon his man to replace the much maligned 23 year old, be it Benson or otherwise. And this leaves me cold. Sure we might get a few more points, but so what? I’m invested in the career of James Hanson, we all are. For better and for worse. I don’t care about Paul Benson. If he scores for us, great. I just feel cold.

I was willing to cut Jackson’s squad slack in a way I’m no longer willing for Parkinson’s replacements. And I have no problem with that. The quality level of the squad is exponentially higher than it was in August, yet we are still struggling. If Jackson and his men went to Macclesfield and lost to an unfortunate penalty, then I would be sympathetic. I cared about them. For Parkinson and his replica shirts, not so much. They have been brought in to succeed in the short term where the previous squad couldn’t. It is perfectly acceptable to judge them on such a basis.

The administration at the club can preach about this being a rebuilding year, but that era is gone. One cannot have the likes of Andrew Davies, Craig Fagan, Jamie Devitt, Kyel Reid and Marcel Seip in a League Two side and claim to be rebuilding. You just can’t. You deserve more pressure on you, more criticism. The expectations have been raised, whether those at the club wish you to believe so or not. If Nialle Rodney was sent clean through against Hereford before slotting it over the bar, I wouldn’t mind as much as if Craig Fagan did it, and I’d also be more reluctant to criticise him. And I have no problem with that.

Mark Lawn’s comment before the Hereford game, citing how Jackson had built the ‘poorest squad in the division’ is the ultimate turning point in this season. At that moment he ended any possibility of the prospects of the Jackson era growing into something. I don’t blame him necessarily, I’m sure his opinion was informed by Archie Christie and Phil Parkinson, but it stands as the nail in the coffin of my emotions towards this side.

I’m left feeling this familiar cognitive dissonance with Bradford City, desperately wanting them to succeed, but also in the knowledge that if they did, I probably wouldn’t care all that much. If Craig Fagan, Jamie Devitt and company led us on a remarkable run into the playoffs, I’d love it. Of course I would. But then what? Fagan would go sign for some Championship side; Devitt would go back to Hull. Would I be happier with Bradford City than I am now? To this day I hear of fans older than I reminiscing about the Hendrie-McCall-Abbott side of 1988. (I was born the day of a 1-1 at Birmingham late in that season) That side meant something to fans, obviously a large portion down to the aftermath of the disaster, but they were an enthusiastic young side who grew together and achieved something. Or nearly did. Talking to those who were there, they speak more fondly of that side than any other, even if they fell at the penultimate hurdle. I can only envy. Year after year, season after season, the players change, the faces change, only the kit stays the same. Success or failure, I just feel cold.

The focus on the end leads to the means being sacrificed. This is true across football. We need to be cognisant of the fact there is no end. This is it. Every season, every year, is this. This is it. The means is what matters. We should demand that the club is something with which we can interact. Something which we can feel attached to. Something which we can care about. Something which makes us proud. And that doesn’t mean ‘a side which wins games’. That’s irrelevant. There is no end. I think I’m recently coming to terms with the fact that finishing 18th in League Two or 18th in League One really has little impact on me. Given the choice I’d take League One, but most of that decision is down to potential away days and a higher standard of football. I’d rather be unsuccessful but playing an ambitious style of football with a group of players of whom I was emotionally invested, regardless of the League which they reside. Does that make me less of a fan? More of one? I have no idea. Should I want my team to be playing in the Premier League? I have no idea. Right now I have little-to-no interest in that. And with that acknowledgement, there is little motivation to get worked up over a 1-0 reverse at Macclesfield. What’s more upsetting is everything else at the club. The fact I couldn’t pick Marcel Seip out of a line up. All I know is that he’s Dutch, blond and a decent centre back. The same goes for Michael Bryan, who’s involvement grows with every passing week. If he plays well, then what? He goes back to Watford and we are still left with Rowe, Mitchell, Stewart and Wells, all of whom have had their development stunted by another club’s youngster. All for the price of a few points here or there Bryan might be able to earn us thanks to his superior ability. (NB: the existence of his superiority over other options is still at question)

I have little doubt that given time Phil Parkinson and his recruits will be a success at the club. It won’t be this year, but it will come. Along with ‘Archie Christie and the Developments’, the club is in good hands and the end for which we all strive will come. But so what? I will only be supporting a League One side full of faceless replica shirts. Is that any better than being in League Two with a bunch of faceless replica shirts?  We will all just want another promotion. 

The Development squad was sold to the fans as a self-sufficiency measure, it isn’t specifically designed to bring through local Bradfordians, if anything the opposite. As soon as a good, young player rejected from other academies is brought through into the first team, he will be sold to finance the club. Pragmatically a great idea, far above anything we’ve come across in recent years. But emotionally, why should I get excited about Andrew Burns when I know that if he does happen to develop into a good starter, the whole point is to jettison him?

I was teased over the summer by the prospect of building something, even something unsuccessful, and that has been taken away. I know the club is in better hands now, I know their chances of success are markedly higher than they were three months ago. I know the end is closer than it was. But I don’t feel anything. We will only find another end to strive for and get frustrated that we cannot reach. The clocks go back this weekend indicating that the long, harsh winter is about to begin, and I just feel cold.

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A few weeks ago I introduced some new metrics to calculate strength within League Two which aren’t immediately obvious in conventional statistics. Summaries can be found here and here. Essentially, the premise is based upon existing statistics in American sports which illustrate that the most accurate depiction of team strength is goal differential, rather than points.

The same phenomenon is true in football and over the last ten seasons in League Two, the correlation between goal differential and points stands at 0.92. This can be used so that over a season you can see which sides may be due a jump in performance, and conversely which are riding their luck and are due a regression. 

I’ve taken that premise and run with it, creating a collection of metrics which look into League Two to attempt to quantify which teams are in fact the strongest. These metrics include strength of schedule adjustments which provide a schedule-independent strength rating, showing which side can be described as the strongest, in this case noted as GDGSOS (the first dataset below).

Here is a collection of the datasets, with key conclusions, updated through October 24. 

TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?

Whilst hopes are high throughout the divisions for AFC Wimbledon, and everyone is happy to see them residing in the top half, reality may not be as sweet for everyone’s second team. They are being wildly overrated by the league table which holds them in 9th position. Up to now they have faced by far the easiest schedule of opponents in the division, yet still hold a negative goal differential. After adjusting their performance for the strength of their schedule in the metric, they stand 17th. This may not be rectified in the short term (they face a league-average schedule over the next five) but expect them to regress significantly in the medium term.

ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

Conversely Crawley, most people’s 72nd team have been phenomenal so far this year and stand top of the division, in spite of facing the toughest schedule of anyone, by a distance. Over their next five games they face the third easiest run, and if they play like they have up to now, they may be away and gone by the time December arrives. Scarily, the side only recruited two players over the summer on permanent deals, and have subsequently brought in four loanees. But on the whole, the side is similar to last season’s vintage. Yet they are undoubtedly the best in this division. An unnerving thought. Even in spite of their 6-0 reverse to Morecambe, they are still ranked very highly by the metrics. They should be huge title favourites. 

LUCK OF THE WIN

The Adjusted Points table shows that in spite of the fact they reside in fourth, Morecambe have been by far the unluckiest side in the division, achieving more than four fewer points than a side with their goal differential should expect to have in their situation. This is accentuated by a collection of big scores in their favour, and whilst their form may have tailed off in recent weeks, the strength of their opponents tails off soon, potentially resulting in a resurgence for Bentley’s men.

PLAYING CATCH-UP

There has been a noticeable upturn in form for the long term bottom dwellers in the division, Hereford and Plymouth. Adjusting for opponents, Hereford rank as the 4th best side in the league over the last five games, with Plymouth standing in 6th. Both of these sides have benefitted from changes (or additions) to their management in this period. The ‘New Manager Bump’ is in full effect in the League Two basement. Their performance has been mirrored by Barnet and Dagenham who have been thoroughly unimpressive in recent weeks. It may not last for the Pilgrims though, Plymouth facing the second toughest slate of upcoming fixtures. 

(N)ONE MAN TEAM

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Here’s a look at Rotherham’s form over this season, it is calculated over a five-game moving average so the data only starts in Gameweek 5. Taking a look at the data, their form was pretty good for the first few weeks, then fell off a cliff around week 6 or 7. Sometimes in statistical analysis it is difficult to put your finger on specific reasons behind a trend. Not in this case. Star striker Adam Le Fondre left in Gameweek 5, after notching four in four to start the year. As you can see, once ALF’s final game is lost from the average (Week 9) there is a precipitous fall in form, leaving the side in 13th and the fans restless.

DIFFERENT, YET THE SAME

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Being a Bradford-specific blog, I’ll focus on Phil Parkinson’s men to finish. I spoke earlier of the new manager bump which has been felt in full effect in Hereford and Plymouth, in spite of their limited recruitment abilities. Conversely at Bradford, by consensus the biggest side in the division who have witnessed drastic squad upheaval since their new manager, Phil Parkinson, took over in Gameweek 6, have failed to replicate such success. After some early success against Morecambe and Bristol, the Bantams Opponent-Adjusted form has tailed off markedly, back to their previous level, reaching a nadir with the 2-0 defeat against Hereford.

The side has remained ‘unlucky’ throughout the season, currently standing nearly three points worse off than they could expect to be. In the Adjusted Points league table, they stand 18th, level with Northampton. However any protestations from fans or managers naming the tough schedule faced (12th hardest) can be dismissed out of hand. Incorporating difficulty of schedule into the side’s strength rating still only has them in 18th position, two above where they currently reside.

Whilst Parkinson’s men have been undervalued at 22nd position over recent weeks, in truth they haven’t been undervalued dramatically. On current evidence, this isn’t a great team, or even a league average team, or even close to that. One could argue that there is a lot of new players so to count the early running is unfair, which is valid, and the team is “moving in the right direction”, but over the last five games, as the side has come together somewhat, Parkinson’s troops rank 19th in opponent-adjusted form. This shouldn’t be expected to vastly improve over upcoming weeks either with Bradford facing the 5th toughest schedule over the next five. Whilst fans and even other managers preach about Bradford being a side ‘waiting to click’, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest as much in the numbers. 

As a partisan supporter, I do actually expect this side to get better over the rest of the season, but as an objective observer, that classes as wishful thinking. The numbers suggest that right now, the side just isn’t that good.

Below is a collation of the data sets for this season in League Two. Click through the link to see the data.

Opponent-Adjusted Strength (GDGSOS)

The crucial statistic which ranks the division by strength after adjustments for schedule. (Positive = Good, Negative = Bad)

Adjusted Points (ADP)

Calculates how many points a side’s goal differential should have earned. (Negative = Deserved more, Positive = Deserved less)

Strength of Schedule (SOS) 

Ranks the division based on the strength of their schedule up to now. (Positive = Harder, Negative = Easier) (Expressed as % for clarity)

Upcoming Schedule Strength (SSU)

Ranks the division in the difficulty of their next five games. (Positive = Harder, Negative = Easier)

Opponent Adjusted Form (FOA)

Ranks the division in their form over the previous five games with adjustments based on schedule over that time. (Positive = Good, Negative = Poor)

NB: At this point, the predictive element of the model isn’t where I’d like it to be, so instead I’m focusing purely on the analytical element. Over subsequent weeks I’m hoping to refine the model so that the end of season predictive element can be utilised to a greater extent.