Friday, 20 December 2013

Welcome To The Hotel California

Football fandom and other stuff

   No one gives you a handbook on how to be a football fan.
   There’s no advice on who to pick, who to cheer on, who will grace you with unbridled joy, and who will drag you through the entire spectrum of negative emotions and leave you blasting the futility of it all. In fact, as football fans, we’re a relatively helpless species: we can’t do what the players can, and mark number seven or tackle number ten, and our team is often picked for us by family. And we’re lumbered with the club – you can’t break the unwritten rule and switch allegiance.
   But even those who have the ‘luxury’ of selecting their own club don’t seriously consider it, do they? Do we? You don’t sit down with a list of the football clubs in the UK and calculate which one you’ll get the most joy out of supporting. Want a team that’s on the up? Choose Swansea City, who are making waves in the Premier League thanks to the iconic passing ethos engrained in the culture of a club – a passing ethos that, commendably, transcends any manager and crop of players. What about a team with billionaire owners that could buy any player at the drop of a hat? Look no further than Manchester City. Looking for a test of faith and resolve? A certain all-conquering Premier League team could be the club for you, though I’m sure the thrill of telling irate armchair supporters to find a bit of perspective will wear off after a while.
   Nobody sets out a criterion for selecting a team.
   Because, I suppose, you can’t. You don’t realise how relentless the football fandom is until you’re completely entangled in its grip. By that time, it’s too late. You’re unable to escape, breathe, leave, switch off, forget about it, detach yourself. It’s like an addiction, manifesting itself through the constant supply of stats, match reports, analyses and debates. For the rest of your life, you’re tied to that team: for the ups, the downs, the indifferent. Players come and go- some converted to revered cult heroes and fawned over even after an apt replacement surfaces, some chased out the door quicker than you can shout “offside”- but you’re always there; your team is your constant, and vice-versa. You feel every goal, every kick, every pass, every touch, every minute of play ranking somewhere between pure devastation and pure ecstasy. To analogise it, it’s like the Eagles’ Hotel California: “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.
   I can’t imagine supporting anyone other than Bradford City, a sentiment I’m sure any Bantams fan would echo. Maybe that statement would have been written with a bit less conviction, two years ago. Or maybe it wouldn’t have. You’ve got to believe in the club and whatever they’re doing. That’s partly why the tides turn against managers so quickly. Promotion last year was made all the more sweeter because we did it the right way: we didn’t click our fingers and watch ourselves be lifted out; it was the sixth shot, with an intelligent manager and a group of passionate and hardworking players. Given longer, Peter Taylor probably could have cracked it, but would a promotion founded on long balls and uncreative play, have tasted as sweet? I doubt it.

   I read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch a while ago, and it struck me why some older Premier League fans seem almost nostalgic for elements that era. Not because of hooliganism, racism and unsafe grounds, obviously, but because of that sense of exclusivity, of belonging. An over-commercialisation of football–the gloriously named Hull City Tigers, to name but one aspect – has created a glass ceiling in the Premier League, and a bubble of different exclusivity. I don’t envy Premier League fans at all, because, although they’re treated to a display of the world’s most prodigal football talent on an almost daily basis, what their world lacks is substance. Clubs like Barnet and Exeter may not exactly exude glamour, but at least they can never be branded superficial. It’s an honour the Premier League runs the risk of losing, if it hasn’t already, as it seeks to increasingly distance itself from the world of the regular fan. I have friends who might turn their noses up at League One and City, but there’s no club I’d rather be supporting. With that in mind, there’s only one rule for my team selection: they can’t be anyone other than Bradford City.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Ricky Ravenhill Seeks Out Loan Move

Ricky Ravenhill prepares to leave the club
   Sheffield United were visiting Valley Parade, and the Bantams were 2-0 up. We were all incredulous. How had City, who were supposed to be tentatively calibrating their way around their new division and playing the part of the terrified new boys, managed to slot two past a team who had been tipped for promotion, a play off place at the very least? We’d all seen much, much stranger the season before, but we were still pinching ourselves. This was more than we’d expected an hour or so earlier.
   “Ricky Ravenhill’s coming on,” my uncle said, pointing over to the touchline. “He’d best not get booked.”
   “There are two minutes left!” I laughed. “Even for Ravenhill, that’s a stretch.”
   But, oddly enough, it wasn’t. Extra time ticked in, and Ravenhill found his name scribbled in the book for ‘dissent’. Which was sort of ironic, given how the midfielder’s playing style divided opinion during his tenure with the club.
   To some, he was exactly what was needed to match the combative, direct style of the majority of League Two outfits: tough tackling with dogged determination and fierce defensive play. But to others, he’s reckless and a bull in a china shop; though there’s always intelligence embedded in those spurts of manic play.
   But I liked him. And why not? He got stuck in. He won tackles. He lead from the front during the relegation battle of two years ago, and helped to secure survival at a time when things were looking increasingly, increasingly bleak (I blame Brawl-ey Town, among other things).  He was a symbol of Parkinson’s intent as manager, of the kind of players the City supremo wanted to bring in: passionate, hardworking footballers who wouldn’t be bullied off the ball.
   Ravenhill became the captain, but an injury sustained during pre-season banished him to the sidelines. Jones slid in, Doyle hopped aboard and the rest was history.
   Questions were raised about his role in the team. Why did we need him? What was the point of him? What did he bring to the club that others didn’t? Then, the squad rotation policy was implemented. Doyle ran out of steam, Ravenhill stepped up to the plate and that was it – our misconceptions about him were assuaged. The club captain was suddenly the most important man in the midfield, and Doyle was the one under fire. Football fans are, by nature, a very fickle bunch (me included, and I’m also great at sitting on the fence and getting Ravenhill mixed up with Stephen Darby from a distance, which is utterly disgraceful because the latter’s my joint-favourite player), and no sooner had we deemed Ravenhill surplus to requirements, he was the catalyst of our promotion charge and helping the Bantams rack up the points that were so desperately needed in the closely-fought play off chase.
   Doyle combined sleek passing ability with composure and calmness, while Jones offered unrelenting energy and the rallying cry when the team was under the cosh. Ravenhill was an amalgamation of the two, with a bit more thrown in besides: his merciless tackles saw him placed just in front of the back four, allowing Gary Jones to surge upwards and be more creative. He added something different to the fold, but Doyle’s coolness won out after Ravenhill picked up a knock during a midweek clash.
   Again, Ricky was stuck on the bench, a starting berth proving frustratingly elusive. He waited behind the first-choice midfield pairing of Jones and Doyle, and then Kennedy’s arrival saw him slip further down the pecking order.  He was second, third, fourth fiddle by the time the campaign opened at Ashton Gate, biding his time for a chance in one of the most competitive areas of City’s tightly-knit squad.
   Parkinson strived for a consistency within his starting eleven, with Mark Yeates and Kyel Reid the only ones to really challenge his ethos other than where injuries and international call-ups had forced him to make changes. Ravenhill bobbed along compliantly, never begrudging those who had started ahead of him – which is credit to his professionalism and maturity.
   And so, too, is his request for a loan move. At 32, the curtain will fall on his playing days in just a matter of years. Time is of the essence as far as his sporting career’s concerned. Unlike Darby, Wells and Hanson, he’s not got the luxury of an impending peak, of another ten years of first team football. Every game counts.
   Perhaps it’s no surprise he’s asked to move on, and there’s no doubt in my mind that there’ll be teams clamouring for his signature; he’ll be a surefire starter at many League Two, perhaps even League One, teams, because look at what he’s offering them: experience, energy and an attitude that most Premier League superstars could take note of when they’re flaring up on a Saturday afternoon. And maybe there’s still a place for him in this City team. Just maybe. If – perish the thought - Doyle or Jones pick up injuries and are out for months, or if Kennedy fails to impress, Ravenhill would have to be recalled, thrust into the centre of the park to slip on the captain’s armband for one last time. He might return and win a slot in the line-up, handing the ‘reserve midfielder’ hat to the players to whom he’d lost his place a year ago. Or he might leave for pastures new in January and sign permanently for another side where, it can be assured, his services would make a massive impact.
   But whatever happens, Ravenhill can rest easy in the knowledge that he was one in the band of brothers who propelled the mighty Bantams out of the dingy, gloomy, hopeless bottom tier, stopping the rot and reversing a slide that had been in full motion for over 10 unremarkable years. Walking out at Wembley. Holding that trophy aloft. And above all, sticking with the club when it would have been so easy to turn around and wash your hands of claret and amber.
   And having that on your C.V. will make any club sit up and take notice.

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Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Bantams Blogger Meets... Peter Jackson

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Bantams Blogger meets former Bradford City player and manager PETER JACKSON to find out about his career highlights, the rise of Nahki Wells and his ill-fated spell in the Valley Parade hot seat.

   It’s a Saturday morning in Waterstones, and a trickle of City fans line up at a table in the doorway. Sat next to a stack of books alongside his wife, Alison, is former Bantams boss Peter Jackson, scribbling his signature as he poses for pictures and talks enthusiastically to supporters.
   In his autobiography, Living With Jacko, Peter and Alison talk emotionally and candidly about Peter’s battle with throat cancer, his football career and that fateful day in 1985. It’s a beautiful read, but not one that’s failed to attract controversy: Mark Lawn told the Telegraph And Argus last week that the board “don’t agree with what he has said in certain parts of it”.
   “[It’s about] mostly what’s happened in my life and my wife’s life as well, really,” Peter Jackson says. “It’s not a typical football book but it’s the truth about my career, my problems with throat cancer and basically my life in general.”
   Jackson played over 300 games for the club and returned to manage the side at the end of the 2010/11 season, eventually keeping the Bantams up with just one game to go. Though his stint in charge was ultimately doomed and he resigned after just four league games the following year, Peter describes his time at the helm – which saw the arrival of Bantams hotshot Nahki Wells - as his ‘dream job’.
   “[It was] brilliant. I loved it. I absolutely loved managing the club,” he begins. “To go down to Apperly Bridge, where it all started when I was a kid, as manager was really special for me and I’m just sad it didn’t work out.”
   ‘Work out’ being an underestimation. The start of Jackson’s tenure was blighted by uncertainty, with fans worried the team would slide out of the Football League and be forced to leave Valley Parade in the process. But for Peter, originally drafted in as interim manager, his priority was simple.
   “Just to keep the club up,” he says. “Just to keep the club up, simple as that. It was in freefall. There was no spirit within the club, there was no passion or pride - at least I gave that to the club, if nothing else. I brought some smiles back to people’s faces but my main aim solely was just to keep the club in the Football League.”
   Jackson secured survival at Hereford on the penultimate day of the campaign. The achievement saw him appointed permanently and he began recruiting for the new season, with his sights set on that elusive promotion to the third tier that had so far escaped all his predecessors. And Peter thinks the team he assembled could have cracked it.
   “Yeah, I believe so,” Jackson explains. “You only have to look at that couple of games before I left. For the Leeds game, where we should have beat Leeds United that night and they were a Championship side, we gave a really good account of ourselves, and with the emergence of Nahki Wells, a player I signed, I firmly believe that we’d have been up there.
  “Nahki came through Mark Ellis and Dave Baldwin. Different people had recommended this player and he’d been released by Greg Abbot at Carlisle. We brought him down, had a look at him and I signed him. He wasn’t on massive money so he was worth the risk because he had a lot of pace and he can destroy teams with his pace alone. But he’s matured now and he’s a really good finisher who’ll go for millions of pounds.”
   Just before his departure, Jackson’s side had taken just one point from a possible twelve and lost to Dagenham the week prior. Did he feel a pressure?
   “No, not really,” he says. “It was early stages in the season but there were things going on around me that shouldn’t have been happening at a football club. That was my reason for leaving and everything in the book is true.”
   Where did it go wrong?
   “Different people trying to do different things really – probably the emergence of Archie Christie,” Jackson sighs.
   It’s these comments, about then-head of development and chief scout, Archie Christie, that have led to City cancelling the book signing originally planned in the club shop. In the book, Peter writes, “Day by day, week by week, I felt my authority was being undermined… and not only by Christie… Mark [Lawn] also used to come down to the training ground while Colin [Cooper] and I were taking training sessions, something none of my previous chairmen had done.
   In spite of this, Jackson doesn’t regret coming back.
   “No, not at all,” he says.  I loved it. I really, really did enjoy it. Being able to keep the club up, which I did, build for a new season… But, as I say, the arrival of Archie Christie killed it all.”
   Of a career encompassing the honour of being made the Bantams’ youngest ever captain, 60 games at Newcastle and 155 appearances for Huddersfield Town, as well as three promotions, what stand out as the highlights?
   “Winning, obviously, the Championship with City,” he begins, “winning Newcastle United’s Player of the Year and my promotion with Huddersfield Town at Cardiff many years ago.”
   And at Bradford City?
   “As a player, lifting the trophy and meeting so many incredible people - the spirit we had at Bradford City after the fire. I started there as a kid and to think I’m stood now, in the centre of Bradford, Mario’s, where I used to have my hair cut, 100 yards away… It’s quite emotional to think there’s a book on Peter Jackson in Bradford, sold in Bradford bookshops, so that’s quite pleasing. And the biggest low was obviously the Bradford City fire and another one is my sad departure of what I call my dream job.
   “The fire was a really awful time, as you can see in the book. The emotion was really high and, as I say, it was a very sad day for everybody connected.”
   Jackson’s current pursuit takes him far away from the pitch - but it’s one that, he says in his book, comes with even more pressure than managing a football club.
   “We’ve got a home care company,” he explains. “We provide carers to go to people’s homes and we employ over 90 people, so it’s quite a big business we’ve got.”
   And Jackson, who went to the cup final and was ‘even waving a flag’, says it’s great that City are finally moving upwards after six years of rotting away in the doldrums.
   “[It’s] good, excellent, really good,” he enthuses. “They’ve brought in good players, they’re doing well and they need to get on a roll. I’ve always said at one time, with the turnover of managers, someone will eventually get it right, and Parkinson’s getting it right.”

Living With Jacko is out now and available to buy here.

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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

I Need Your Help!

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Jason McKeown, the editor of The Width of a Post, has nominated me for the 2013 Football Blog Awards. I’m in the Female category, but I’m up against some big blogs, so I'm really playing the Bradford City cup underdog role here. Anyway, I desperately need your support, so PLEASE vote for me! It's easy and you can do it in the following ways:

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Monday, 16 September 2013

Party Like It's '99

As the Class of ’99 reunion game gets fans remembering years past, I wonder where the next fourteen years will take us 

   It’s scary to think about where you’ll be in the next 14 years. It’s scary to think of how you’ll be and who you'll be, and of what major milestones will have whizzed by. It’s scary to think of dreams: whether they’ll have been broken or achieved, or remained unfulfilled and locked away in some sacred corner of your heart, never to be attempted for fear of failure. It’s scary to think of where Bradford City will be.
   Surely, no one there on that day in 1999, when the Bantams beat Wolves to secure promotion to the Premier League, could have predicted the dramatic downward spiral that followed. Those days were ones of optimism, promise and chasing the dream. Not of, well, the other stuff. Especially not of the other stuff.
  Time has slipped all too quickly by since those heady days of Molineux, promotions, Premiership football and relegation survival, since the days when the club had the world at its feet. Then, there was the fall back down again: the administrations, the heartbreak and the hurt. Life in League Two became a struggle, the club still bearing the scars of the foray into the top flight. Bradford City, once standing toe to toe with Manchester United, were a symbol of shattered dreams.
  The years in the bottom division were generally unremarkable and forgettable. The first two seasons were ace, of course: Stuart was there, and there was an odd novelty to being amongst the likes of Barnet and Accrington Stanley. But that all ended. Taylor came in. You know the story. Trips to Valley Parade became a tale of ‘Well, there are 90 minutes of my life I’ll never get back’.
  Then, Parkinson entered. He gave us hope. He gave us tactics, strategies and form. He gave us those characters: Hines, the doomed West Ham winger whose tenure with the Hammers was blighted by injury; Stephen Darby, the Liverpool graduate who had been released by the Premership giants; Gary Jones, the midfield powerhouse who never stopped running and the one man embodiment of what this club is now all about. James Meredith, Rory McArdle, Garry Thompson, Alan Connell, Kyel Reid. He handed them a stay of execution. They took it. The rest, as they say, is history.
   For the first time in a long time, we cared about the team. They were more than a quick ticket out the division, cannon fodder to plug the gaps, more, even, than footballers. They became brothers, standing arm in arm, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, on the hallowed Wembley turf, harbouring our hopes, our dreams, our fears. Everything we are, everything we have, everything we’ve ever wanted to be. There. In them.
   Superhumans. Superheroes.
   That, I am told, is how it’s meant to be. The class of ‘99 are just as revered, just as loved, just as appreciated, as the 2012/13 boys. They trigger the same offset of emotions as Matt Duke and Will Atkinson. James Hanson and Nahki Wells hold their own in the same echelon as Stuart McCall’s band of merry men.
   And, fourteen years from now, will there be another charity match? Most of the players will have finished their careers by then. Wells’ time as a footballer will be coming to an end. McHugh’s will also be winding down.
   It’s hard to picture the scene. A balding Matt Duke, perhaps, in between the sticks, ducking and diving and tipping shots over the bar, and clambering to his feet to deny some daring challenger from the penalty spot? A greying Alan Connell? Gary Jones, though approaching half a century, will still, no doubt, be playing with the youthful exuberance of an 18 year old. A Google search tells me the years have been reasonably kind to most of the 1999 squad, especially McCall, Jacobs and Beagrie. The pressure’s now on our lot to make sure they age just as well.
   I’ll probably be there on such a date, if ever there was one, having squeezed into my hooped shirt one last time and sent some hardy soul up into our attic to retrieve my Villa and City half-and-half scarf. Waving one of those Wembley flags. Recalling those days.
   And there’ll be a time when I’m grey and old, sitting on some elaborate, gold-encrusted throne as I count my millions and field calls from agents and A-Listers (Pfft! I wish!), and I’ll stop and look back on that season. Look back on the Will Atkinson flick-on and Garry Thompson volley. Look back on Rory McArdle swooping in to double City’s lead in the play off final. Look back on Gary Jones climbing the Wembley stairs, rubbing his hands together with glee and jubilantly holding the trophy aloft as the pyrotechnics glittered and sparkled and the party got into full flow. Dreaming, with a glint in my eye, of a bygone era. Dreaming of Nahki, of Meredith, of Darby, of Duke. Dreaming of Wembley. Dreaming of promotion. Dreaming of Bradford City.
   And it still won’t quite seem real.



Sunday, 8 September 2013

Friends of BCFC - Match Reports

Friends of BCFC
   Just a quick post to let you know that I'm writing match reports from every home league game for Friends of BCFC, a supporters' group of nearly 1,000 members seeking to raise funds for the club. I'll tweet the links to each of these reports as soon as they go live and you'll also be able to find them by checking the 'Other Work' section of my blog, where they'll be archived along with other pieces I've had published elsewhere.
   You can view the latest match report (Bradford City 4-0 Brentford) by clicking here.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Bradford City 4-0 Carlisle United

Bantams prove they can cut it in League One as Mark Yeates earns his Bradford City stripes.

Nahki Wells was among the goalscorers during today's rout;

   To anyone who still somehow thought it wise to write off Bradford City, today was a wake-up call they won’t be forgetting in a while.
   But even I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting a performance that close to perfection. I mean, aren’t newly promoted teams supposed to… struggle? Aren’t they supposed to wait a few weeks before registering a win? Aren’t they supposed to at least look as though they were a division below everyone else last season, and not play with the class and control demonstrated by the Bantams today?
   But Parkinson’s men don’t like to go by the script. Instead, it was Carlisle, a team who had finished 17th in League One the previous year and 14 places ahead of the Bantams on the league ladder, who looked like the out-of-their-depth, bumbling new boys experiencing their first season in the third division after a prolonged exile.
   We might be the newly promoted team, but don’t expect us to play by the book.
   That was a fine initiation into League One. A total statement of intent. Us proving to the doubters that we are worthy of a place in this division. Because, for all that their credentials as a third tier side the previous year should have served them well, Carlisle United crumbled and were like dazzled rabbits in headlights. City were clinical, rampant and ready to cause an upset.
   Bradford looked like a force to be reckoned with right from the off. Cool passing play up the flanks paved the way for efforts from Thompson, Wells and Hanson, and the Bantams were using the ball well.
   It was Yeates, who had been a lively presence down the left side, who started off the scoring. The impressive Irishman cut inside, took a touch and hit a powerful effort from just in front of the halfway line, which rocketed cleanly into the top corner, and there was nothing the Carlisle keeper could do; the ball span far beyond his reach. The Valley Parade faithful were sent into raptures and the chanting intensified. What a goal that was! What a signing he is! Ole, ole, ole, Mark Yeates!
   The dominance continued and it took just five minutes for the hosts to double their lead. Nahki Wells latched onto a defensive header from United’s Paul Thirwell to flick home his third in as many games. For the Bermudan, it was a chance to show Carlisle exactly why they should have been keener for his signature all those years ago - a sweet revenge for Nahki.
   City pressed on, Doyle the victim of a crunching Liam Noble tackle and subsequently winning a free kick. Yeates delivered a teasing cross but Noble managed the clearance.
   A minute later, Carlisle’s Danny Livesey slipped and lost Hanson, who sprinted through and clipped in from 15 yards to all but ascertain the result.
   Jones fired wide and Thompson’s effort forced a save from Carlisle shotstopper Mark Gillespie, while a Hanson header also flew wide. The Bantams continued to pile on the pressure. It was 3-0, but that didn’t matter. They didn’t ease off the Cumbrian side for a minute.
   The second half presented a more even game, but Carlisle, though they got forward on occasions, never looked menacing. Nahki Wells’ shot was blocked by Livesey, and Thompson thought he’d made it four after volleying a rebound wide and behind the goal.
   With half an hour to go, Wells broke free on the right wing and surged forward, playing the ball square to Gary Jones. And how fitting it was that our Captain Fantastic, whose energy and enthusiasm never cease or falter, got the final goal of the game to wrap up proceedings, celebrating with a knee slide to the main stand before giving his trademark fist-pump to the Kop. “Easy! Easy!” chanted the City fans, and, in all fairness, it almost was too easy: Carlisle didn’t show up.
   Let’s not get carried away. It’s early days. We’ve only played two league games and we still have scores of matches ahead of us, against some of the division’s toughest opposition. But, after today, one could be forgiven for at least daring to dream what other glories await in this division.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, Meredith, Davies, McArdle, Thompson (replaced by De Vita on 65 minutes), Yeates (replaced by Reid on 70 minutes), Jones, Doyle, Hanson, Wells (replaced by Connell on 83 minutes). SUBS NOT USED: Ripley, Taylor, McHugh, Ravenhill.  

Bantams Blogger’s Top Three:

1st – Mark Yeates: Controlled, creative and clean on the wings, and a bona fide contender for Goal of The Season under his belt. Superb, stylish display to mark his home debut.

2nd – Nahki Wells: The Bermudan sustained his goalscoring prowess with a pristine finish from an awkward angle. Constantly looked threatening and linked-up well with midfield.

3rd – Gary Jones / Nathan Doyle – Usual workrate from Captain Fantastic and a solid performance from Doyle. Both players demonstrated the eye to pick out that pivotal pass and dominated the centre of the park.

Friday, 2 August 2013

And So It Begins...

As the Bantams prepare themselves for their first season in League One for over half a decade, I ready myself for one giant leap into the unknown.

Can we expect another trip to Wembley this season?

   This Saturday, the wait is over. This Saturday, it all begins again. This Saturday, another season of passion, euphoria, elation, anger, despair, happiness, pride, pain and heartbreak commences with the opening game against Bristol City at Ashton Gate. This Saturday, Parkinson’s men get their first taste of life in League One.
   And I know how they feel, especially the ones who have never set foot in the third tier before. Because I’m in a similar boat: I’ve never seen City play outside of League Two. 
   As I mentioned in The Width Of A Post’s season preview earlier this week, League One is uncharted territory, and I have no idea what to expect. Any predictions I make are based on my knowledge of all the newly-promoted teams I’ve seen over the years: the ones who have had a dire campaign and just hung on in there by the skin of their teeth; the ones who have been mercilessly exposed as simply not strong enough for the division and who have plummeted straight back down again; the ones who have emerged as strong sides and have remained in the league for years to come; the ones who have somehow sailed on to secure back-to-back promotions.
   Which all leaves me wondering what will happen to us this season. Will we become the easy scalp, the club that others point at and jeer at and view as a nailed-on three points, as probably was the case during part of the League Two stint? Or will we tear every team to shreds and leave Coventry City cowering in a corner? Will every game be closely fought, or will we endure multiple throwbacks to cup final day, when a ruthless Swansea team showed their superiority? Will we go up again, or is talk of another promotion ill founded? Oh, we’re top of the table now – is that a good omen? Will we be able to sustain our current pole position, or will we languish at the bottom of the table? We’ve seen these players compete with Premier League teams before – they’re obviously ready for this level. But to produce that quality over 46 games? Can we do that?
   I look at our squad and see a competitive, experienced, sharp group of lads who share such a tight bond. I look at the wise Parkinson, who dragged this club off its knees and reenergized the Bantams. I look at the backroom staff, Nick Allamby and his acclaimed fitness programme, and I see the most professional and organised set up I’ve ever known at City. My knee-jerk reaction to the question, “Can we be successful in League One?” is to say, “Yes,” because look around – this is our best chance yet to keep moving on up to where we feel we ought to be. 
   For me, it’s just a case of maintaining this momentum and making sure that the progression from that meagre, feeble League Two side we cringed at under Peter Taylor, to a quality squad that enjoy great success, is built upon. 
   It’s not going to be easy. We are stepping up into a league with a lot of financial muscle, and there are ten or eleven clubs – including Sheffield United, Wolves and Bristol City - who all have their sights firmly fixed on promotion. It’s a tight division.
   But there’s no reason why we can’t compete with the other 23 teams there. I bet Brentford don’t have a Gary Jones, a Nathan Doyle, an Andrew Davies or a Nahki Wells.
   So, what can we expect? That remains to be seen, but, whatever happens, we know these lads won’t be going out on a tentative whimper. 

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Do You Remember... Luke O'Brien?

Part two of the Do You Remember? series focuses on Luke O’Brien. The left back made over 100 appearances for City, but left for Exeter as starts began to prove rare.


O'Brien playing for Bradford City

   Luke O’Brien is up there on my (admittedly rather short before the 2012/13 season) list of all-time favourite City players. A bold statement to make, maybe, but one that few supporters who saw him play would struggle to justify.

   O’Brien was a product of City’s youth system, having been on the club’s books since the tender age of eight and rising through the ranks to bag himself a professional contract. Equally endearingly, he was a boyhood Bradford fan: a former season ticket holder, O’Brien had grown up with the Bantams, claret and amber the only colours he’d ever known. He was one of us. The passionate fan. We cared about him. He was living his dream as he pulled on the City jersey and took to the Valley Parade turf on a matchday, and there were never any qualms about his effort or motivation.
    No wonder he rapidly became a fans’ favourite.
   2007 marked his first season of senior football, although, initially, it seemed as though a sniff of first team action would be hard to come by for the young O’Brien. Paul Heckingbottom had established himself as the first-choice left back, and he was a good performer, bringing an air of experience to the role that rookie Luke couldn’t offer. As Heckingbottom excelled, O’Brien was confined to the bench, watching on as McCall’s team aimed to assault the promotion spots. Heckingbottom was reliable, and there were few grumbles about his performances. After all, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
   But the system did break. Eventually. Because Heckingbottom got suspended. The left back spot became vacant. The gauntlet fell to Luke O’Brien, and this was his chance. Would the teenager be able to produce?
   His first start came in the form of a 0-3 defeat to Tranmere at Valley Parade. It was a sobering afternoon: City struggled all over the park and were shoddy and uncomfortable, and it soon became a game to forget as the gulf in class – 32 places on the league ladder – quickly showed. O’Brien, however, enjoyed a solid debut, suppressing their speedy winger. He filled in for Heckingbottom again when City took on Brentford, and even cleared a shot off the line to salvage a point from the clash.
   That was it, but the hype was growing. A composed, tidy youngster who also possessed the attacking intent needed to drive forward, with years to develop and blossom into a first team regular. Keep an eye on him, they said. This one’s got potential.
   And potential that McCall recognised when he offered O’Brien a contract.
   In spite of this, it was Heckingbottom who started the first nine games of the 2008/09 campaign, before being dismissed in shame following two bookable offences.  McCall turned to O’Brien, and his protégé produced. From then on, there was only one candidate for the left back slot.
   It was total role reversal: Heckingbottom was the one sidelined and twiddling his thumbs on the bench while O’Brien flourished to become the name on everybody’s lips. Good one-on-one, not bad at set pieces and never wasteful in possession, O’Brien grew and prospered into one of the strongest and most able players in McCall’s squad, his hunger and desire compensating for any lack of experience. It became a common sight to see Luke overlapping with his winger as he charged forward, whipping crosses into the box and hitting curling balls in for the strikers. What a player. What a find. What a success story for the youth team.
   That pristine season was capped off in brilliant style, and O’Brien won four trophies at the club’s awards night. Paul Heckingbottom departed, and that said it all – we had a keeper in O’Brien.
   O’Brien went on to feature in 49 of City’s games the following season, and survived the cull as Peter Taylor implemented his changes. Taylor quickly became a fan, with O’Brien making 46 appearances under him - an achievement made even more remarkable when one considers the number of players fielded during Taylor’s reign: there weren’t many who started as regularly as O’Brien.
   Like David Syers, O’Brien was one of the few entertaining players in the side. Workrate never wavering, passion never faltering, mistakes few and far between. We all liked him. End of story.
   So, O’Brien retains his place in the squad and is involved in the cup run and the play off final victory and eventually succeeds Jones as captain to lead the side through another promotion and picks up accolade after accolade after accolade at the Player of The Year awards over the years and makes over 300 appearances to become a club legend. Right? Not exactly.
   O’Brien featured little under Peter Jackson and Phil Parkinson as a string of other players were favoured. A spot in the starting eleven proved elusive, and the name ‘Luke O’Brien’ rarely graced the teamsheet on a Saturday.
   To me, the final nail in O’Brien’s coffin came against Sheffield United during the J.P.T. It was a penalty shootout. Penalty number twelve. The next taker just needed to score, and that would be it – City would storm through to the next round.
   Luke O’Brien stepped up, and the pressure was on. One penalty, that was all. Just score, and he’s the hero for the night. One kick away from being the man who won the match.
   O’Brien aimed for the right corner and put height on the ball, but his shot missed by inches and ricocheted off the post. Instead, Chris Mitchell became the side’s saviour, and Luke was left wondering what could have been – and what effect that mistake would have on his chances. 
   Soon, Luke O’Brien left for Exeter, but couldn’t save the team from relegation to the bottom tier. A stint at Oxford United followed, and he’ll start the next season with Gateshead. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to be a part of a Bantams promotion, which was a massive shame for himself and the supporters: he would have loved to represent his beloved City at Wembley, and we would have loved him to lift that play off final trophy. But, sentiments aside, we’ve got James Meredith now, and he’s turned out to be a cracking defender. There’s no doubt that he’ll relish the challenge of League One football next month.
   I’d still go as far as to say that, even with the current squad factored in, O’Brien is one of my favourite City players ever, but, having seen Meredith dominate the left hand side and run riot with Reid, and learnt how Parkinson’s style differs from Taylor’s, I understand why we didn’t keep Luke on.
   He may no longer be lining up for his Bradford City, but Luke will be getting games next season. And, as a young footballer with his best years still to come, that’s exactly what he needs.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Do You Remember... David Syers?

 As part of the pre-season coverage, I’ll be looking back at some of the players who represented City during the six seasons in League Two. First up is David Syers, the non-league gem who ran rampant against Leeds United before injuries plagued his second season.

Syers locked in a challenge
   The Peter Taylor era doesn’t hold many happy memories for City fans, and it’s not too difficult to see why. Hoof-ball tactics and a quantity over quality philosophy were employed, and what was the result? Disapproval, outrage and a mediocre side that offered very little to shout about.
   And yet, there was David Syers, a complete contrast to the rest of the squad.
   Plucked from obscurity in the form of a non-league outfit and with Tommy Doherty reportedly commanding a large fee for his services, no one was burdening Syers with too many expectations. He wasn’t the big money signing, the player portrayed as our catalyst for promotion.  He didn’t bring a fanfare with him.
   Which was odd, given what he’d turn out to be.
   Syers was your classic box-to-box midfielder, with a desirable work ethic and the eagerness to make those clever runs as he surged forward. He was endowed with ball keeping ability and a technical flair rarely exhibited so uniquely in the fourth division, and his control and pace made him a fresh alternative to the ugly, long-ball style that so quickly tainted our perception of Taylor. A different attacking outlet to the combination of the winger and the overlapping full back, Syers was one of the only things worth watching in Taylor’s creativity-sapped team.
   He set the benchmark for the other members of the squad to aim for. Only a handful of players – such as Luke O’Brien, Lee Hendrie, Michael Flynn and James Hanson – ever matched the blonde midfielder for effort and/or ability, and so Syers became the shining light. Our beacon of hope amidst the growing gloom and despair of Peter Taylor’s reign. The saving grace of an otherwise forgettable season. The one thing to hang onto and retain as Peter Jackson aimed to wash away the bad memories.
   One could argue that our fondest memory of Syers will always be the Leeds game at Elland Road. The midfielder was at the centre of nearly everything City did, pulling all the strings and acting as a key driving force to nearly prompt Leeds to throw up their hands in surrender. Syers hounded every ball and was constantly snapping at the heels of the Whites. It’s total testament to his involvement in the fixture that Bradford only stumbled when he left the field. Injured.
   Syers had broken and was rampaging forward. But his touch was heavy. Leeds goalkeeper Andrew Lonergan went to collect as Syers chased, with the pair clattering to send the Bantams dynamo tumbling to the ground.
   He was out for around three months.
   Eventually, Syers recovered, and came on as a substitute during the Boxing Day clash with Crewe. By the Shrewsbury game six days later, he was showing signs of returning to his spectacular form of the previous campaign, but (such was City’s luck at the time) a seemingly legitimate challenge was met with a sending off, and a Bradford appeal was unsuccessful. As for the dreaded second season syndrome - Syers never got a chance to see if he’d suffer from it. The darker forces of injury and suspension took care of that.
   For the remainder of the season, Syers’ appearances came largely from the bench, as Ritchie Jones and Ricky Ravenhill forged a strong midfield partnership to secure City’s place in League Two for another season. The set up was not ideal for a player of David’s age or calibre, and Parkinson allowed the midfielder to look elsewhere.
   Syers was offered a contract, and one that Mark Lawn described as ‘good’. But he never signed. Couple some ill-advised remarks on a social networking site with a few misinterpreted comments to the press, and that was it: everything fractured and Syers left for Doncaster Rovers.
   And the questions remain. Were we hasty to let him go? Should we have put in more of an effort to keep him? Could we have developed him into our key midfield engine, like Stuart McCall before him and Gary Jones afterwards? Not then at his peak, Syers could have served us in this role for years to come, perhaps eventually becoming captain and maybe even a legend.
  But you can torment yourself for years about what could have been.
  We’re left to speculate, and perhaps we’d be thinking about Syers more often if Parkinson hadn’t recruited such an impressive midfield unit in Jones, Doyle, Thompson and co.
   Maybe we could have moulded Syers into our little midfield spark, but that’s an issue for another day. Currently, Jason Kennedy seems set to provide us with the same longevity in midfield that retaining Syers would have given us, and that lack of long-term thinking appeared to be the main issue where Syers’ departure was concerned.
   Will we regret releasing him? Only time will be able to tell us that.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Bantams Blogger Chats To... Michael Nelson

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: City defender MICHAEL NELSON on why he’s relishing donning the claret and amber.


   Everyone loves an old-fashioned centre half, and they don’t come much tougher than Michael Nelson. Strong in the tackle, strong in the air and a natural leader, he’s the perfect acquisition for a City squad that embodies the ‘never say die’ attitude, and the idea of McArdle, McHugh, Oliver, Davies and Nelson all vying for those two starting centre back spots next season is almost as exciting a prospect as playing Sheffield United.
   Signed by Parkinson in January, Nelson was brought in not just as emergency cover at a time when an injury-riddled defence was at its knees, but also as part of a longer-term strategy, as indicated by his 18-month contract. He began to frequent the starting eleven more often as the season progressed, most notably against A.F.C. Wimbledon, when he confidently partnered Andrew Davies to stamp out one of the Wombles’ key players. Several weeks later, Nelson was solid again, and fiercely stood up to Calvin Zola to help the Bantams bag three points from the final home game of the season.
   With a consistent start under his belt and the tune of ‘Midland Road, Take Me Home” still ringing in his ears, it’s no wonder the big defender is loving his stint with City.
   “I've really enjoyed my time so far,” he says. “I mean, it’s been hard not to with two trips to Wembley. I was a little frustrated at not playing as many games as I wanted towards the end of the season, but the lads were playing so well that there was nothing I could do about it.”
   Nelson was a key figure as City rushed to make up the distance lying between them and the top seven, and looked one of the more comfortable players during the poor 3-2 home defeat to Burton. Although he wasn’t on the pitch at Wembley, he still joined in with the celebrations and picked up his deserved medal.
   “To get promoted at Wembley was brilliant,” says Nelson. “I've been promoted automatically before [with Hartlepool United and Norwich City], but the day at Wembley was special. It was good that so many fans and all our families could enjoy the day with us.”
   It was the Bantams’ huge potential, on top of other factors, that lured Nelson to Bradford.
   “It just seemed the right time,” he explains. “The club seemed to be going places, not only in the Capital One Cup, but also in the league. I thought there was a great chance to get promoted. The size of the club played a big part with the amount of support we get home and away, and it also made sense for my family, as it meant I would be able to spend more time at home with them.”

“I think the club has a real opportunity to keep moving forward, but we can’t just expect it to happen.”

   A quick scan of his track record reveals that Nelson is no stranger to success. Promotion with Hartlepool. The League One title with Norwich. The Scottish League Cup with Kilmarnock. On an individual level, he climbed from playing non-league football to sweeping up every gong going at Bury’s awards night in 2003, which is a remarkable feat. An enviable football history, and one that Nelson is looking forward to building on with City.
   “I'm really excited about next season,” he says. “I think we have a real opportunity to do well and move forward as a club, but we can't just expect it to happen. It is going to be harder than last season, so we all need to pull together and work hard.
   “I'm not going to make any predictions - it's just the old cliché of one game at a time – but hopefully I will be doing an interview with you this time next year, talking about similar success.”

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Bantams Blogger Chats To... Bantams Banter

Exclusive Interview: The BANTAMS BANTER boys talk Wembley songs, the future of the podcast and – err – feeling like Peter Andre.


   The Bradford City team aren’t the only ones celebrating a campaign of non-stop success this year. Away from the football field, Tom Fletcher and Dominic Newton-Collinge, the hosts of the award-winning City podcast Bantams Banter, are raising a glass to what has been a phenomenal season of highs for them – that is, 700,000 downloads, two Wembley podcasts, a hit single, and appearances on regional and national news.
   For those unfamiliar with the show, the Bantams Banter podcast sees Dom and Tom chat their way through various City games, and their wild celebrations are intertwined with talk of dental hygiene, first crushes and invention ideas – among other things. Recorded at Bradford City home and away games, the show offers a comical and refreshing insight into the unique emotions football fans encounter during those nerve-jangling 90 minutes. The quips of Tom and Dom sail effortlessly alongside some of the most iconic moments in Bantams history, making for entertaining - and often hilarious - listening.
   Supporters can relive the various ups and downs of the season, from the unadulterated joy after the penalty shootout victory against Arsenal to the dismay and deflation when City found themselves trailing in the Burton home leg. Features include ‘Phone A Foe’, in which the pair call pubs in the towns of City’s opponents, and commentary rap, the phenomenon responsible for several of Bradford’s goals in the cup run. There are also jingles for each player (James Hanson’s is currently Penny and Me by the band Hanson, following a controversial decision to switch from MMMBop.).
   And as if that isn’t enough, the duo even wrote and recorded two songs to mark City’s visits to Wembley. PJ and Duncan’s Let’s Get Ready To Rhumble was the first tune to receive the Bantams Banter treatment, and the accompanying video sees Tom and Dom sing, ‘Get ready, get steady for Wembley – knees are getting trembly!’ as they dance around City Park. Bradford’s success in the play-offs demanded a second single, this time in the form of a spin on the Mary Poppins’ number Jolly Holiday. 
   “We're both very creative minded and musical geniuses, so it was a pretty simple process,” laughs Tom. “No. We got lucky and just started singing down the phone to each other. The first time round, PJ and Duncan popped up and the second time round, Dom had a moment of musical inspiration! We also wanted to do something completely different to amateur rapping, so Mary Poppins was the obvious choice.”
  “I guess this harks back to when I was at primary school,” explains Dom. “I was about six at the time. Some girls asked if I’d dance to Let’s Get Ready To Rhumble in front of the school with them. I did it, I was rubbish and I was ridiculed for it until I left that school, so I guess I wanted to try and improve on that performance and wipe away the scars it left.
   “Seriously, though, we unanimously agreed on both songs. The first, and arguably only decent one, was written in the majority by Tom and it just worked, along with the video.
   “The ‘other’ song just came to us. I was watching Mary Poppins with my little boy, heard Jolly Holiday and thought, That’ll be different. I rang Tom and he got all giddy, so we quickly hashed together some lyrics and recorded a daft video.”

"You know how you felt when the final whistle went at Wembley? That's exactly how it's felt to do Bantams Banter this season." - Dom

   It’s fair to say that the podcast has given us its fair share of memorable moments. The Rory McArdle commentary rap, Sarah Millican impression and Wembley II celebrations make for engrossing audio, and Tom and Dom each have a personal pick of best bits.
   “Crying at Wembley the first time round!” says Tom. “Podcasting with Alan Davies was brilliant and a dream come true, but Aston Villa away will also stick in our memories - you have never seen two men hug as much after and during a game of football in your life!”
   “For me, it has to be those final moments at Aston Villa,” Dom says. “The thought of those dying seconds still makes me tingle all over. The national press picked up on our emotional speech, too, so I’m quite proud of it!
   “Wembley, twice, is also up there with the proudest moments. To be there podcasting, watching the team you love, was just something else and literally the stuff our dreams were made of. We’ve moved on now - novelty wears off when you’re a Wembley regular. We also got to meet a lot, and I mean a lot, of our listeners down there, which was easily the best thing to happen to us since we started the podcast. We felt like a pair of Peter Andres!”
   What about their on-field highlight?
   “Getting out of 'orrible League Two!” declares Tom.  “But we would also argue the cup final - that sort of stuff happens once every 100 years and we witnessed it!”
   Easy: promotion,” says Dom. “The way the team pulled it off was amazing. What a way to do it, the Bradford City way. Supporting this club hasn’t been easy over the years and the team certainly don’t do things the easy way, but would we change anything? Not a chance. This season has been beyond memorable, the best we’ve witnessed and the way it all came to an end - perfect.”
   Bradford City’s success has run with the rise and rise of Bantams Banter. Tom and Dom picked up an award after being voted BBC 5Live’s Fans of The Year, filmed a Capital One Cup promotion film and appeared on everything from Look North to Sky Sports News during the cup run, and the pair admit to being bowled over by the popularity of their show.
   “Overwhelmed would be a good word,” muses Tom. “We didn't expect any of it and neither did we plan for it – it snowballed out of control but we’re slowly keeping up with it! The media attention we've had has been the perfect tonic for us. We both dream of working in broadcasting and any positive media P.R. we got this year was greatly appreciated.”
   “You know how you felt when the final whistle went at Wembley? That’s exactly how it’s felt to do Bantams Banter this season,” Dom says. “It’s been unreal. Our downloads [The show has averaged 37,000 downloads per episode this season.] have been phenomenal and far beyond anything we could have wished for.
   “All of the national press we received, podcasting with the great Alan Davies, podcasting the rise of our beloved team… It’s honestly been amazing. We’re so proud, and to share it with fellow fans and even fans of other teams… We cannot thank our listeners and followers enough.
   “It’s what we dreamed would happen – we never thought it actually would.”
   But then, the future of Bantams Banter was thrown into doubt. The boys announced that the latest edition – #69 from the play off final – would be their last ever show, and Dom and Tom have remained tight-lipped about the fate of the podcast since. Have they decided what they’re going to do yet?
   “Almost!” says Dom. “Basically, I was offered a job and I was going to take it, but I just couldn’t give up the thing Tom and I have worked so hard to make into a success. It’s like our baby. Luckily, Tom was amazingly understanding about it all and told me to do whatever makes me happy, so I did. I turned down the job with the hope of carrying on with Bantams Banter. My wife and current employer have been great about it all. The thing is, we need to find more lucrative sponsorship – the podcast is relatively big now and is costing us a lot, and we need to make that money back alongside making up for the fact I’ve just turned down a better wage.
   “It was my choice and nobody’s fault - I couldn’t let go of Bantams Banter! Maybe I’m an idiot, but with a friend like Tom and a wife like mine, it wasn’t too arduous.”
   And finally, how do Dom and Tom think City will fare in League One next year?
   “My heart says carry on this momentum and push on for promotion, but my head says mid-table finish and cement our place as good League One club,” says Tom.
   “I rarely do pre-season predictions because it’s a waste of time. Whatever will be will be,” begins Dom. “BUT after last season, my faith in football has been restored, and I think we’ll boss it!”

Visit the Bantams Banter website by clicking here.

The pair lark about in the video for Let's Get Ready For Wembley.

Tom and Dom's first single spawned a sequel, Jolly Holiday.