Even allowing for the fact a decade of misery has left us Bradford City supporters somewhat desensitised to the pain of losing, there was something extraordinarily distressing about the two hours that followed the Crawley defeat last month.
Travelling home angry and disheartened by the horrendous tactics Crawley had employed to defeat us, the loading up of City’s official website to read the news three Bantams players had been sent off after the final whistle was a moment of shock I will never forget. Minutes later I watched the brawl on Sky Sports News in stunned disbelief. Bradford City’s world was self imploding and panic took over.
We’re going down, this is the beginning of the end of the club. I barely slept a wink that night.
Yesterday City’s punishment from the FA was revealed, for their part in the post-match Crawley brawl which sparked worldwide headlines. A fine of £9,000, is hardly something to take lightly, especially at a time of year where club finances tend to be tighter, but is certainly less of a financial punishment than a points deduction might have proven.
Over at Crawley, meanwhile, the Red Devils have been fined £18,000, and Pablo Mills hit for a grand in his own pocket, in addition to a further three match ban. The punishment is twice the size of City’s due to a previous incident at Swindon, though you do also have to wonder what evidence City presented during their personal hearing and whether this helped shape a private ruling that the Bantams were the less guilty party. On the morning of the hearing, Width of a Post heard a whisper from someone close to the club that they was confidence of receiving a lighter punishment.
In view of the end-of-the-world doom and gloom feeling many of us experienced in the hours after the Crawley defeat, the last few weeks have proven relatively stress free. Three points have been picked up from a difficult-looking run of three games without the suspended trio of Andrew Davies, Luke Oliver and Jon McLaughlin. Meanwhile three of the six relegation rivals have continued to slump badly, meaning the cushion over the bottom two has been restored to seven points with games running out. It is hard to imagine that we will be relegated, even if there is still a bit of work to do.
Perhaps the adversity has delivered some positives too. Back on that evening of the Crawley defeat, if we supporters had been forced to select three players to receive suspensions, Davies, Oliver and McLaughlin would probably have been the last three we would have chosen. Indeed on the morning of that game Width of a Post had written, “McLaughlin, Andrew Davies and Luke Oliver are amongst the first names on the team sheet.” All three had pretty much been ever presents since the end of November – a couple of games out injured for Oliver apart – but their absence has given others the chance to impress.
Indeed Guy Branston has benefited hugely from the turn of events; emerging from the fringes of training with the youth team to leader on the pitch, surely causing Phil Parkinson – who was known not to be a fan – into a huge rethink. Against Southend on Friday and at Shrewsbury on Monday, I personally thought Branston was outstanding. I have a huge amount of respect for the way he has kept his head down and fought his way back into contention, when he was firmly out of the picture. Parkinson is surely not going to keep Davies beyond his loan, and so Branston is now very much in the frame to partner Oliver next season.
There was some talk – in the immediate aftermath of the Crawley game – of sending Davies back to Stoke. The club have so far retained him, and that was probably a sensible decision given he could have been needed if results over the five games he missed went badly and City fell into deep trouble. Increasingly, it looks as though the Bantams will be safe by the time he is available for the final two matches, and so you wonder if he will leave before then anyway.
Certainly it seems as though there is little point continuing to pay Davies high wages (he is reportedly earning over double that of any City player) by keeping him if the season is over – unless there is a serious possibility of signing him permanently. But Branston’s form means City can probably allow Davies to head back early once we are safe, as Guy surely has a better chance of being part of next year’s plans given his strong comeback.
Matt Duke too has gained from events, if failing to make as strong an impression as Branston upon his return. The experienced keeper has done little wrong and made some impressive saves, which suggest he will keep his place in the team for the rest of the season. But at this moment you still wouldn’t rank him number one keeper at the club, and there may be some temptation to restore McLaughlin. Either way, Duke has let no one down, and his Bantams career – surely over prior to Crawley – now has a chance of being prolonged beyond this season.
Neither Branston or Duke – and to a lesser extent, Ritchie Jones, given he has won his place in midfield back as Lee Bullock has had to drop back into defence – would have got the opportunities they had without the Crawley events. And if they have now worked themselves into Parkinson’s longer-term thinking (and at this point we do not know), then some good came from the brawl.
So for City, the path following the Crawley bump has been surprisingly smooth, and with the punishment now issued there is the opportunity to put the saga to bed. It is also satisfying to see that the shadow it has cast over Crawley appears to have proven disruptive to the promotion contenders. Monday’s win over Barnet keeps them in top three contention, but they have dropped points they wouldn’t have expected to before that, without their own suspended players, which they may regret. Meanwhile Steve Evans – getting in a swipe at the Bantams during his last post-match interview – has jumped ship to Rotherham. Assuming we do stay up, our meetings with the Millers next season are going to prove interesting affairs.
Heading home from the Crawley game – still yet to find out about the red cards – I felt a huge sense of frustration that our opponents had got away with their deplorable tactics on the night. Time-wasting to the extreme, over physical challenges on our players, diving repeatedly and blatant attempts to influence the referee had left a very sour taste. But while the self-inflicted wounds that City took by letting their emotions take over and instigating the punch up were hugely regrettable, it is good to see that Crawley have been hurt by what happened too.
They have not got away with it. They provoked their opponents to the point where we did some disgraceful things, but that caused them to react just as badly – and the distraction of the fall out has proved difficult for them. They have lost key players and struggled to cover, reduced to having to play an on loan left back at centre back. Two years of negative headlines but huge success on the field, you get the feeling Crawley have struggled to deal with the problems triggered by their own making.
And that, perhaps, is where the desensitised nature of enduring so many bad times over recent years has helped Bradford City through this troubling period. Used to fearing the worst, used to coping with adversity – the brawl has not proved to be the end of the world for the Bantams, just another typical day at the office.