Bradford City 1
Port Vale 1
Tuesday 14 February, 2012
This was an evening where it seemed, everywhere you looked, something was missing.
Missing from the starting line up was captain Craig Fagan and joining him on the sidelines 14 minutes into the game was top scorer James Hanson. There continues to be raging debates about the qualities of both players – especially Fagan – but without their presence, Bradford City looked a poorer side. Squad rotation may prove a necessity over the coming weeks, but there are certain members who the Bantams are simply going to struggle without.
Missing from the stands tonight appeared to be hundreds of City supporters. It’s difficult to recall a league match since the pre-cheap season ticket days where Valley Parade looked as empty. Rows and rows of vacant seats are nothing new in certain areas of the ground, but what was notable this evening was that usually well-populated areas of each stand seemed half full. The club has not reported an attendance because of a “system error”.
Missing from the pitch was an experienced official. Astonishingly given Mark Lawn’s comments about referees last week, we were treated to Tony Harrington’s first ever Football League appointment. In fact, according to Soccerbase stats, Harrington has only refereed 19 Conference level matches in his career. Match Official Appointments were only announced by the Football League the day before. Either the decision makers were unaware of Lawn’s attack, or they have a strange sense of humour.
Initially it looked as though City might benefit from Harrington’s erratic decision making, when only two minutes into the game Port Vale’s Marc Richards was hauled down by Luke Oliver, and Ben Williamson was left with just Jon McLaughlin to beat. Harrington decided to pull the play back and award Vale a free kick, when allowing advantage would probably have resulted in a visitors’ goal.
Yet Harrington’s display gradually began to echo Lawn’s words with depressing familiarity. He may have proved that he is not swayed by a relatively large crowd heaping pressure on him, but doing so came at the expense of impartial thinking and allowing a game of football to flow. The stop start fussy nature disrupted a match already low on quality, and made for a tedious evening.
Hanson’s departure from the field through injury, after commendable efforts to keep the ball in play and whip it into the box, earned him a clattering he couldn’t run off and led to a reshuffle which further neutered the effectiveness of City’s attack. Phil Parkinson had made six starting XI changes, with Deane Smalley asked to play Fagan’s right midfield role of closely supporting the central midfield. But with Hanson off, Smalley was moved to target man alongside the surprisingly recalled Ross Hannah. It didn’t work.
Will Atkinson was brought on for Hanson, and City went two out-and-out wingers for the first time in weeks. But although there was some promising build up play during the first half, a lack of presence in the box meant that moves broke down. Hanson saw a header blocked by Port Vale’s Stuart Tomlinson before he was injured, Hannah fired a shot over the bar and Andrew Davies headed wide. But the whirlwind tempo of previous home games was missing, and Port Vale always offered a threat at the other end.
Six minutes before the break, Louis Dodds popped up at the edge of the area to superbly volley a low cross into the far side of the goal. And though it was a moment to sportingly applaud the individual brilliance, there was an overriding frustration over how many times during the past decade City have allowed a game to drift instead of taking the initiative, and the inevitable consequences.
And as City toiled with little conviction in the second half, Hanson and Fagan were increasingly missed. Port Vale pushed an extra man in midfield to go 4-5-1, and despite Ricky Ravenhill and the outstanding Richie Jones – in for the injured David Syers – battling impressively, they were out-numbered by the physical stature of Vale’s midfield.
It was not a game in which employing two out and out wingers was going to prove profitable, and instead Fagan could have made a huge difference. Ravenhill and Jones needed an extra body alongside them which is what Fagan offers, but Kyel Reid and Atkinson were too far away in wide positions to help out. So given City couldn’t pass through Vale, they had to go direct. No Hanson to contest and win long balls, no way of holding it up in the final third so others could get forward.
And here we come to the main missing ingredient from the evening – commitment. City’s league position and games like this demand that players put their bodies on the line as a bare minimum; but tonight there were three passengers which undermined the efforts of the rest of the team. I hoped Atkinson’s uninspiring debut at Bristol Rovers was a one-off, but again he was largely ineffective and unwilling to go looking for the ball. Some things he did well and he clearly has talent, but he seemed to be holding back.
Smalley and Reid were not much better for the main part, and each visibly displayed a reluctance to get hurt when others would have no qualms. First Reid was asked to chase a pass down the flank that he was favourite to reach first, but where three visiting players were closing in. He hesitated and seemed to try and win a throw in rather than charge forward using his pace. The opportunity was wasted.
Shortly after, a long ball dropped into Smalley’s path on the right side and – with no defenders nearby – Tomlinson had to rush out of his area to clear. Both looked set to reach the ball at the same time, but then Smalley held back and allowed the keeper to head it out of play. He may not have won the ball by committing to the challenge, but even giving the keeper a whack and thus shaking his composure – at the cost of a free kick – would have demonstrated a greater level of determination to the cause.
Examples of commitment were hardly lacking elsewhere – debutant Matt Fry’s brave header off the line, which saw him disgracefully smashed head-first into the goal post by Ben McDonald; the energetic manner Jones kept running from box-to-box; and the fact Andrew Davies and Oliver made a number of superb sliding tackles to win possession.
They and others deserved better from team mates giving less than 100%, though it is curious why they don’t appear to be visibly demanding it. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person longing for the leadership qualities of Michael Flynn to be introduced from the bench.
But in the end, Parkinson’s changes did have a positive effect in rescuing a point. Nahki Wells came on for Hannah, who had showed some nice touches but needs to contribute a lot more. The Bermudan instantly began to give defenders a hard time and made some intelligent runs. With time running out, Davies was moved up front and suddenly City began to look threatening.
The final element missing was Tomlinson’s brain deep into stoppage time. First he elected to catch a Reid cross which was drifting harmlessly out of play; his momentum forcing the ball over the line in his hands. From the resultant corner, Davies weakly headed the ball towards Tomlinson and – with some pressure from City players nearby – the ball somehow squirmed underneath him and over the line. Given Harrington’s tendency to award Vale soft free kicks, we held our breath waiting for him to disallow the goal. But he didn’t. City had got out of jail.
Incredibly Wells might have won it seconds later, after he robbed a Vale defender of possession and was left with a one-on-one opportunity. Tomlinson made up for past mistakes by blocking the shot and the referee blew for full time. City hadn’t really deserved a draw, so certainly didn’t merit the win.
Ultimately this should be looked upon as a vital point gained. Had we lost tonight, the mood would be very dark ahead of a trip to 3rd place Torquay United. City then play relegation rivals Hereford, Barnet and Dagenham in the space of a week. This is a crucial period – so beginning it by at least not losing is a positive.
Although the key to ultimately winning this relegation battle over the coming weeks could lie in the ability to restore everything that was missing from this evening.
City: McLaughlin, Seip, Oliver, Davies, Fry (Ramsden 79), Smalley, Jones, Ravenhill, Reid, Hanson (Atkinson 14), Hannah (Wells 56)
Subs not used: Duke, Flynn