Notts County 0
Bradford City 1
Saturday 11 August, 2012
By Jason McKeown
That clean slate for the new season continues to shine brightly, after the first major test of its hardiness was successfully passed. Year on year of quashed pre-season expectations has surely led to the creation of a vaccine for Bradford City supporters against getting carried away by promising starts. But after James Hanson’s extra time thunderbolt sent the Bantams into Round Two of the League Cup, the urge to feel excited about the future was difficult to ignore.
It wasn’t just the result – defeating a team from a division above on their own patch – but the manner of the performance. A calm, measured and controlled team display that had all the hallmarks of their proud-looking manager on the sidelines. As he approaches his one year anniversary in charge, Phil Parkinson appears to have finally crafted a team from his own management mould.
After last Saturday’s emphatic friendly defeat to Bury revealed an RR-shaped hole, Parkinson emerged from a week on the training ground with a plan to play Will Atkinson in the centre of the park alongside Gary Jones. The young midfielder emphatically smashed low expectations to produce an eye-catching performance, which belatedly demonstrated why his manager had not been discouraged by his poor loan spell last season.
Indeed a measure of how well Atkinson performed was that most supporters around me started to call him “Will”, instead of “Atkinson” or “That-useless-t**ser-must-have-a-compromising-picture-of-Parkinson”. He and Jones shared attacking and defensive responsibilities impressively, as the unlikely pairing controlled the middle of the park.
A standard replicated by all. Parkinson struggled badly to get positive results on the road last season, but today he lined City up in an attacking-looking formation but with players well-drilled in dropping back when the opposition were in possession, to ensure the Bantams were difficult to break down. Then once the ball had been won, the entire team seemed to move up the park in tandem; meaning the ball could be knocked around with ease and a patience, which was rewarded when openings appeared. Two different stages to City’s play, which proved mightily effective. I think we’ll do better away from Valley Parade this season.
Luke Oliver and Rory McArdle were outstanding in the centre of defence, while full backs Stephen Darby and James Meredith disproved some pre-season fears they weren’t quite up to it by getting up and down the field well. The sight of them charging down the flanks – even when City were 1-0 up – was a big change from last season’s perception that Parkinson had banned his full backs from crossing the half way line.
Indeed it was heartening to conclude that – wherever you looked on the pitch today – there were no serious concerns about personnel. The first proper look at Garry Thompson suggests he offers everything as a wide right midfielder that Parkinson could not get out of Craig Fagan last season. Skillful on the ball, good awareness of team mates and strong physically. You can’t see Thompson beating defenders for pace very often, but he doubled up well as an extra midfielder when City didn’t have the ball.
Hanson and Alan Connell lead the line; the latter working extremely hard but getting few sniffs at goal. At this early stage Connell does not look likely to be a prolific goalscorer, but does add something to City’s forward line that Nahki Wells and Ross Hannah do not. A Gareth Evans v2.0, if you like.
City soaked up early home attacks to look increasingly assured as the half went on, with Hanson and Kyel Reid missing presentable chances. Matt Duke – the surprise choice as number one for this season, it would seem – made a couple of superb saves and County did hit the post. But a 10 minute spell of home pressure just before half time aside, it was a poor performance from the League One side. Certainly the second half saw City enjoy the greater territorial advantage, with good build up play on several occasions only being let down by a poor final ball. In particular Reid – watched from the away end by one of the greatest number 7s in the club’s history, Jamie Lawrence – had a mixed afternoon. Some powerful runs forward, but better delivery was needed.
County might have won it in the last minute, when Lee Hughes – predictably but deservedly booed by City fans throughout – ran clear and saw his cut back tipped by Duke into the path of Yoann Arquinn for an open goal. In Ronny Rosenthal fashion, he hit the bar from just yards out. It would have been a cruel and highly undeserved way to go out.
Because bit by bit, minute by minute, City seemed to get stronger and more positive. The substitutions made by Parkinson making a big difference to the offensive ambitions of the visitors. The introduction of Wells saw the County backline stretched further, though curiously the Bermudian did not have the best of games. Adam Baker came on for Thompson and played like an out-and-out winger. The youngster is raw for sure, with some runs not working out, but he showed flashes of what he can do and could easily force his way into first team contention.
Good build up play by Wells and Reid led to Hanson firing home the game’s only goal midway through the first period of extra time. It was a typically productive afternoon for last season’s top scorer, with the usual mixture of warm appreciation and clueless grumblings from the stand. As Hanson raced over to the packed away section in celebration, I took smug delight from recalling how only five minutes earlier some fans were screaming at Parkinson to take him off.
Reid should have made it two nil shortly after, screwing a shot over when it looked easier to score. He was later replaced by Nathan Doyle, who received a warm reception on his first outing in claret and amber since re-signing for the club. It was slightly tense in the closing stages with Hughes missing two good opportunities, but overall City were comfortable and good value for the win.
Some people suggested County were fielding a weakened team. Without any in-depth knowledge of their new signings and pre-season line ups, I have no idea if this is the case. But even if it was a below full strength home team, couldn’t the same be said of City?
Which is where much of the excitement is building from. City look solid, City look astute and City look effective – and yet City were without Andrew Davies, Ricky Ravenhill, Ritchie Jones and Doyle (not fully fit). Big, big players for the Bantams, yet without them the team still looks like an advanced prototype ready to be rolled out onto the battlefields on League Two. The team ethic stands out; this is an XI greater than the sum of its parts.
No one wants to get carried away with this result. But in time, hopefully we will look back on this day as one where Parkinson’s City revolution took one huge step in the right direction.
City: Duke, Darby, Oliver, McArdle, Meredith, Thompson (Baker 74), Gary Jones, Atkinson, Reid (Doyle 105), Hanson, Connell (Wells 61)
Subs not used: McLaughlin, Hannah, Brown, Bass