Rotherham United 4
O’Connor 1, Evans 24+86, Pringle 34
Bradford City 0
Saturday 1 September, 2012
By Jason McKeown
In the space of 33 minutes, three Rotherham United goals had caused the giddy optimism built on the back of three straight wins to be smashed into pieces. It was all so familiarly Bradford City, and it was all the more depressing for it.
At half time a sell-out City away following booed off their players. At full time – and after Rotherham had added a fourth goal – a half-empty City away following booed off their players. In truth I found it impossible to muster such an expression of anger; nor do I subscribe to any panic theories – we are clearly a better side than last season, which is something. But I departed the highly impressive New York stadium feeling utterly gutted and desperately miserable. After such a humiliating afternoon for the Bantams, the expectation level can only be re-adjusted downwards.
Some people have attempted to dismiss this result on the basis it is just a one-off, and that it wasn’t the ideal time to be facing Rotherham. I’m just hoping Phil Parkinson isn’t one of those people, and that he takes on board the lessons dished out to his players and the way he lined them up. Because as much as Saturday’s thrashing was a simple matter of Rotherham being a much better side than City, we didn’t have to make it quite so easy for them.
Parkinson had chosen to keep the same XI which thrashed Wimbledon at Valley Parade last week, but that meant lining up with two out-and-out wingers in arguably the season’s toughest away match. Such positivity will find favour with a certain section of supporters who (arrogantly) believe City should be capable of sweeping aside all in front of them, but Parkinson is not paid to be popular and should have maintained the same pragmatic values that have served him well up to now. Harsh as it may have seemed to have dropped Zavon Hines and bring in Garry Thompson/Will Atkinson to act as an extra body in the centre of the park, it would have proved more beneificial for the team.
Instead, a central midfield pairing of a 35-year-old and someone who looks half-fit - for the first time this season - looked like a central midfield pairing of a 35-year-old and someone who looks half-fit. Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle were completely overrun during the first 45 minutes, and lacked any defensive support from Kyel Reid and Hines to stem the tide. I just don’t think you can go into this type of away fixture with two wingers roaming up the park, and, frankly, I’m surprised that Parkinson did.
City were too gung-ho as a result, and continued to be caught out on the break. Michael O’Connor opened the scoring after just 55 seconds when he was able to run into the worryingly huge gap between Jones/Doyle and the back four, before taking aim and firing an impressive long-range shot past Matt Duke. A freakishly bad start in some respects, and City fashioned a couple of decent chances to equalise. However Rotherham’s physical approach was proving difficult for the visitors to match, and the home side slowly began to take control.
The game’s crucial moment came after 24 minutes – summing up where it went wrong for the Bantams. A promising attack saw Hines charge towards the area, only to be tackled in superb fashion by a Rotherham defender (though as an aside, the tackle looked very similar to the one Andrew Davies produced against Torquay last season, which earned him that ridiculous red card). Suddenly Rotherham were charging forward on the counter attack, and City had committed far too many men forward. Eventually the ball broke to former Bantams forward Gareth Evans, who struck a low half volley which crept past the last ditch block attempts of Davies and Duke. Game over.
Evans celebrated in front of the packed City away end, which resulted in him being booed for the rest of the match. A curious one to me this. While far from Evans’ biggest fan, I thought he worked hard for the club over his two years and deserves appreciation for that. To me he needed a fresh start when he was released by Peter Jackson, and there should be no hard feelings on either side. Yet in this game he was booed by some fans long before his goal, and taunted “City reject” (charge of City arrogance number two, m’lord). While his celebration was not the most advised, given the stick he’d endured you could understand it.
2-0 became 3-0 soon after, when once again Rotherham, this time through the outstanding Chris Pringle, made the most of the space between defence and midfield by charging forward unchallenged and unleashing a superb curling shot past Duke. Like Evans, Pringle opted to taunt the away end as he celebrated. Goodness knows what we have ever done to upset this guy.
But deeply upset were City fans. The pre-match hype a distant memory, we were back to the familiar sight of people on their feet screaming abuse at individuals. Doyle was the main target, with Reid and Rory McArdle not far behind. It’s as if we have this default setting for when things go wrong.
McArdle endured his worst 45 minutes in a City shirt, badly caught out on numerous occasions and giving the appearance of a central defender playing out of position at right back (not helped by having zero cover from Hines). But the defensive issues don’t begin and end there, and – even when we were clocking up those three straight victories – frailties at the back have been evident. Perhaps it takes time for a revamped back five to build up the necessary understandings, but improvement is needed fast.
Of growing worry, to me at least, are the performances of Luke Oliver. It’s not that Oliver is playing badly, it’s just he doesn’t seem to be reaching his incredible high standards of last season. Instead of eights and nines out of ten, Oliver is scoring sixes and sevens for me. Today his distribution was particularly poor, and must be a concern for Parkinson. The temptation to reintroduce Stephen Darby, push McArdle to centre back and place Oliver on the bench might be growing.
The second half was very similar to the one against Wimbledon a week ago – the home side had the game won, so took their foot off the gas, while the visitors improved to an extent. For City, the half time introduction of Atkinson for Hines added that midfield solidarity which had been so woefully absent in the first half. That improved further when Thompson replaced Doyle, and Atkinson moved to the centre. If there was one positive to take from such a dismal afternoon, it was another encouraging performance from Atkinson who was very useful on the ball and made things happen. He clearly has something to offer the club.
A few half chances were created by City: Reid firing just over; James Hanson shooting just wide and later just failing to connect to an excellent McArdle cross; Nahki Wells showing good control in the area but unable to get a shot in; and then third substitute Alan Connell shooting tamely from a good position. However, City were unable to build up a sustained period of pressure that might have led to a way back into the game.
Much of this was due to failed attempts to match Rotherham’s physicality. While the home side followed Steve Evans’ well-worn tactics of pushing, shirt-pulling and strong physical challenges; City’s efforts to do the same lacked the same subtly and resulted in the concession of free kicks and bookings. I’ve never seen a City side particularly good at this ugly side to the game (not a bad thing), and attempts to try it usually end up like this.
Evans added a fourth with a powerful low shot that Duke could only get a hand to, and celebrated emphatically at the other end of the stadium. He should have got a hat trick after earlier missing an open goal, but it was a very impressive display from the City “reject”.
As it was from his team mates. Rotherham, on this evidence, look strong promotion contenders. So in some ways there should be no disgrace in losing at the home of a side who will surely finish above the Bantams this season. But it was the manner of the defeat which prompts such crushing disappointment and dented optimism. Because if City are also going to be promotion contenders too, they shouldn’t be losing difficult away games 4-0.
It was this sort of open, gung-ho approach that did for Stuart McCall’s promotion-chasing City side of 2008/09. The reluctance to prioritise not getting beaten over going for it. It doesn’t mean Parkinson should be looking to go into matches like this with a six-man midfield, clinging on for a 0-0 draw. But the approach that served him well at Notts County (Thompson being a wide midfielder who tucks inside) would surely prove more preferable.
No need to panic at this stage. No need for doom and gloom to take over. No need for tearing everything up and starting again. But City do need to ensure this type of performance and scoreline is not repeated more often than only the very rarest of occasions, if they are to successfully rebuild and maintain that now-shattered optimism.
City: Duke, McArdle, Oliver, Davies, Meredith, Hines (Atkinson 45), Gary Jones, Doyle (Thompson 70), Reid, Hanson, Wells (Connell 75)
Not used: McLaughlin, Darby, McHugh, Hannah