Bradford City 3
Hanson 27 + 90
Sheehan 49 (pen)
Coventry City 2
Johnson 41+ 89
Saturday 9th August, 2013
Written by Katie Whyatt
It’s why you’re a football fan, days like this. Days when everything just seems to fall into place, all at once, and everything looks to work. Days when you can forget about the budget cut, forget about the challenges ahead, forget about the finances, the numbers, the scars from last season – forget about everything else but the present, this game. This beautiful, beautiful game. Age-old escapism, that oldest form of catharsis – forgetting the world for 90 minutes. Aptly, my iPod clicked Clean Bandit onto shuffle as the car rolled towards Valley Parade. When I am with you, there’s no place I’d rather be.
That’s the wonderful thing about the opening day. That immortal notion, anything is possible, the sentiment that lures us back every season, rises from the stomach as soon as Saturday comes. Positivity, hope, fun, ambition – the cornerstones of being a football fan thrown down for all to see. And why not?
It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that football is supposed to be fun. We go through what we go through because we love Bradford City, and we love what it means to be a football supporter. It’s days like this, when you’re thrown through the whole gamut of emotions, that you discover that topsy-turvy feeling. It’s days like this, when you’re treated to such energy, such passion, such diligence, from your starting eleven, that everything seems right in the world. It’s days like this, when you scroll down a Twitter feed littered with impromptu marriage proposals to @billyclarke7, that you know being a football fan is something special. It’s days like this when you love supporting Bradford City.
City’s first opening day victory for six years had all the spice, speed and sparkle of a winning performance. The diamond worked impressively. Kennedy and Yeates, for whom last season was a year to forget as they stumbled through a crooked personal campaign, looked revitalised, catching the eye with some neat football and reading the game superbly. This latest Bantams incantation are enthrallingly intelligent, and knocked the ball around with all the vigour and swagger of a proficiently organised and experienced unit.
But what stood out most was their willingness to work for each other. To move for each other, to pound the pitch for each other, to win back possession for each other. There was an understanding, a cohesion, that looked new, looked renewed. And that sat hand in hand with an awareness of the fact that this crowd – this amazing, colourful crowd that supported the team so vocally today – will back to the hilt any player that performs with meaning.
Fears about team spirit were absolutely assuaged. Tackling with conviction, tackling for the team – every single one of them.
Parkinson deployed the diamond formation he had been honing over pre-season. Jason Kennedy and Billy Knott made up the wings as Gary Liddle anchored, with Mark Yeates deployed in the hole. Billy Clarke and James Hanson formed the front two at the head of the side.
Coventry were to provide a stern test. While they might have been generally weaker than they were this time last season, there was quality within their ranks. For all the fans’ downbeat caution – downtrodden after losing top scorers Leon Clarke and Callum Wilson in January and July respectively, and disillusioned following their well-documented off-field problems (the impassioned ‘we want to go home’ song on 35 minutes in protest at their upheaval from the Rioch, was a moving outcry) – Pressley has recruited wisely. As Jordan Clarke pinged a shot just over the crossbar on two minutes, you began to fear the worst.
But City brushed off the early scares and found their feet in incredible fashion. Even in these early days, with new faces to integrate and a new formation to embed, the hallmarks are totally promising. These players look to know each other inside out and backwards. At their high points today, Bradford paraded the pitch with a militant swagger and confidence under which almost every run and every delivery was bang on the money. For a comparison, think of when Swansea City are on it – think of how organised they look. How efficient everything is. How every movement looks tried and tested, practiced a thousand times over. Everyone is aware, like there’s some telepathic understanding – and that’s what it was like. Balls played and runs made miles before Coventry knew what had hit them. This squad seems so clever and so creative, and these boys are working so, so well together.
Today was one for the purists. I keep closing my eyes to see Sheehan despatching Mark Yeates, Jason Kennedy laying off for Stephen Darby, Billy Clarke knocking balls to feet. Chances were being created, but in new and inventive ways. Crosses from the wings, the long ball from the back, the big kicks from Pickford, motions forward from midfield. All this variety, all this energy.
Billy Knott and Alan Sheehan looked beautifully compatible, with Sheehan finding Knott on the overlap and the winger sending a teasing cross to Clarke. Gary Liddle broke up the play well and has Doyle’s eye for a pass, but his increased mobility allowed him to roam the pitch to alleviate the pressure in all areas. In the second half, Liddle scrambled a ball off the line to deny the visitors, before moments later charging forwards to send through Hanson.
Meanwhile, Billy Clarke is clearly inventive enough to make things happen and anticipates everything superbly, linking up with Hanson in ways McLean unfortunately struggled to do last year. The opening goal came when Knott intelligently found Clarke, and the Irishman turned and teed up for Hanson to direct the cross home. There were understandably worries Hanson could be inadvertently phased out while the diamond comes to sparkle, but Clarke’s ability to find pockets of space and generate movements meant Hanson was as involved as ever.
Today, Clarke staked a massive claim for a place in the team. That he played somewhat out of position – he cites his favourites as either slightly off the frontman or just behind the front two, in the hole – is indicative of his desire to take one for the team. Clarke’s versatility suddenly entails a plethora of attacking options for Parkinson. Potentially, he could counter any defensive formation. Both Aaron McLean and Billy Clarke look like origins, players who want to make things happen and set attacks in motion. Whoever wins the starting jersey will help to characterise the success of City’s season, but, until then, the team are by no means treading water until McLean’s return. Hanson and Clarke is a totally viable partnership.
Most strikingly, Jason Kennedy looked a new man, hounding back possession with crunching challenges and insightfully feeding Billy Clarke and Stephen Darby using probing passes. The midfielder looks to be entering something of a second coming, and what a perfect antidote today will be to his hugely frustrating first year in claret and amber. Don’t give up on him yet.
Coventry equalised just before the break. City defended slackly from a dubious corner, overlooking Reda Johnson’s imposing presence and allowing the Sky Blues centre half to exploit the space. Pickford came to meet the cross when, arguably, he should have remained on his line, but it was too late. Johnson nodded home at the near post.
It was a crushing blow for City – Pickford in particular, whose kicking was beginning to win over the home support. At one point, he young goalkeeper’s superb kick from his box found a solitary Clarke, who held the ball up before crossing for Kennedy to backheel to Allsop. Pickford found a man every time, and quickly, always looking to fuel a counter-attack. The Sunderland loanee later came into his own with a string of excellent second-half saves: after handling a free kick strongly, he dived superbly to deny John Fleck from distance. Pickford is still learning, but he’s learning fast.
Following a hugely engaging run of play from the hosts as the second half got underway, Sheehan teasing corner was curling straight to the path of Hanson, but the striker was pushed. The referee immediately pointed to the spot and Sheehan tucked away the penalty – City’s first, incidentally, since this same fixture last November.
But it was all square just moments from time, as Reda Johnson knocked home from close range with a tidy effort. As Steve Pressley and his cohorts plunged into celebrations on the sidelines, it all felt over, City cruelly robbed of the three points they’d toiled so hard for. Everything tinged by that goal, all the merits about to be tainted.
We felt glum for less than a minute.
You can never switch off in football. It’s a cliché, a tired gimmick, but it’s so cruelly, ruthlessly, perfectly true. Kennedy surged up from the halfway line and delivered a textbook cross to Hanson, and the forward dutifully nodded in to send a packed Valley Parade into raptures.
Disbelief, mania, pandemonium. The tides had changed in an eyeblink. That spirit, that trademark, hallowed spirit that has defined the sides Parkinson has assembled over the past three years, is still there. Anyone else would have rolled over then – tied at 2-2 with a minute on the clock – but they didn’t. There was a comforting familiarity about it, seeing City recharge and go again so soon after utter heartbreak. But that’s this club. That spirit is their trump card.
Today dispelled a number of the anxieties that had staggered pre-season. The club are still light on the numbers, and it remains to be seen how Parkinson plans to approach next week’s cup tie in terms of preserving players, but the squad’s core is unyieldingly strong, and recent additions mean it no longer looks so painfully thin. City were composed and committed, playing with a new sense of guile and tenacity. The diamond flows well – it’s beautiful to watch and far less rigid than last season’s stricter 4-4-2. These players are technically astute enough to be handed a license to break free, and, though they worked in packs, interchanged and moved seamlessly.
For the moment, De Vita, too, is still in the picture: the Italian could be a solution to the depth problem, but the reality is that he isn’t much better than the alternatives, and doesn’t seem to offer anything not catered for. The jury also remains out on Jordan Pickford, though the 20 year old showed huge promise today.
It’s easy to get carried away by the opening day, but why not? Let’s not lose perspective or run away with ourselves, but let us relish this feeling. There will be trials this season, moments when things don’t fall our way or things don’t go well, and there will be times when we want to pack it in and end up questioning why we bother.
And the answer is today. Games like today, with the atmosphere and the weather and the diamond and new season enthusiasm and last minute winners and converted penalties and new signings and a totally unpredictable stream of events that leave you gasping for breath and begging for more. We all felt like children again today: ridden of cynicism and scepticism, and just taken away by the showing on a day devoid of anticlimax.
Today was special. The football was special, these players were special – the fans, us, our atmosphere, was special.
Because this is what it’s all about, days like this. Being giddy and optimistic, young and transfixed, taken aback and taken away.
This is what it’s all about.
City: Pickford, Davies, McArdle, Darby, Sheehan, Knott (Dolan 71), Yeates, Liddle, Kennedy, Clarke (McLean 86), Hanson
Not used: Meredith, Shariff, Morais, Urwin, Heaton