A big week, but which is the big one? City travel to leaders Port Vale

18 Jan

southend

Port Vale vs Bradford City preview

@Vale Park on Saturday 19 January, 2013

By Jason McKeown

THIS GAME HAS BEEN CALLED OFF, BUT ENJOY OUR PREVIEW ANYWAY

If there was ever any possibility of my dad one day understanding why I support a football team, it was surely lost forever when I told him that I was going to Crewe on Tuesday night and that it might be a good thing if we lost.

And so it was, that a 180-mile trip to Cheshire, involving taking half a day off work, on an evening where temperatures dipped to minus 4, resulted in watching a 4-1 thumping and exit from the cup – with barely a shrug. Yeah, it sucked to see City outplayed. Sure, it was dispiriting to see a few players struggle badly. But priorities lie elsewhere at this moment in time. You can only be pragmatic about it.

Ever since the Bantams produced that stunning victory over Arsenal in December, the club has barely been able to conceal its change in attitude towards the other two cup competitions. As the realisation we had defeated one of the biggest clubs in Europe was still sinking in the day after, the news that City had won its appeal against being booted out of the FA Cup seemed to be greeted both inwardly and outwardly with a collective “oh, right”. Phil Parkinson would later admit the appeal was a point of principle only, and that the replay with Brentford that the re-instatement resulted in was unwelcomed. Goodness knows what an irritated Bees’ must have made of the Bantams’ reserve team that ran out at Griffin Park.

The widespread changes made for City’s JPT tie on Tuesday may not have been as drastic, but carried the same undertones. Sure, it would be nice to get through to another two-legged semi final, but only if there was minimal personal cost in doing so.

The club clearly were not upset about bowing out to Crewe, so why should we supporters be? I realise not everyone present in the 400+ away following would agree with me on this. I cheered as feverishly as anyone else when Kyel Reid scored. I groaned as much as anyone else when Crewe scored. But give me a choice of which Bradford City matches I wanted to win over this January period, and Crewe would have been bottom of my list.

But Saturday is different. The route down the M6 to Crewe saw us turn off at J18 and go right at the roundabout. Weather permitting, tomorrow we will make the exact same car journey, only this time turning left. To Vale Park, home of the new league leaders. This is an important one.

For a long time this fixture looked set to be a top of the table, six-pointer type of clash. But the distraction of Arsenal and Aston Villa has seen City go off the boil in the league. Just one victory in six League Two matches since the Arsenal night. Just when we were on the brink of crashing into the automatic promotion places, we have slipped out of the play off zone. Port Vale have gone from strength to strength. Their last six games are the opposite of ours – just one defeat. Last time out they beat previous leaders Gillingham on their own patch. This is a tough one.

How do you approach it? On Width of a Post earlier this week, some of our valued and intelligent readers talked of resting key players ahead of the second leg against Aston Villa. Others will argue passionately that this one is the more important match, and so team selection must reflect that. You can understand that thinking, but it’s not necessarily that simple. Because if Parkinson fields a side that would be expected to play at Villa Park, for the biggest game of their careers, would they be in the right mind to play? I wouldn’t suggest anyone would lack commitment, but one bad tackle, one overstretch, one clattering, and they might be out the Villa game through injury or suspension.

The despondency over the league form is easy to understand, but does not deserve the anger it has predictably received from some areas. Earlier in this season, I wrote pieces about the Rotherham thrashing and dismal Accrington draw that drew sharp criticism. For a team with promotion ambitions, I didn’t believe either were good enough, but wondered if I was personally expecting too much. So I carried out a survey of readers to find out their expectations for the campaign, in order to help me judge where to pitch my writing.

The results of that survey of a three-figure number of City fans (so hardly universal) was that we City fans expected a 6th place finish this season. As it stands, we are two points off that target, which suggests we are only marginally below where we expect to be. Perhaps more revealing was the second question we asked: What is the minimum final City league position that you would be satisfied with this season? The average response was 9th. Which a look at today’s League Two table will show you is exactly where we are.

Clearly expectations shift up and down over the course of the season. Our strong form in November and early December allowed us to dream that a place in the top three was a realistic target. The cup heroics only added to that confidence. To me, automatic promotion still looks very achievable, but in the growing divide amongst supporters over whether the league or cup is more important, I must admit to coming down on the side of folk who declare that another season of League Two football, in 2013/14, would be a more than acceptable trade off for a place in the League Cup Final next month.

For now Parkinson takes his charges to Vale with new signing Michael Nelson ready for a debut. Although the wrong side of 30, Nelson’s pedigree is very impressive and he could be a big player for the club over the second half of the campaign. It is easy to envisage Nelson slotting in alongside Rory McArdle at centre back and Carl McHugh becoming left back until James Meredith is fit (Ryan Dickson’s start to life at Valley Parade has been poor, and watching him pull out of tackles at Crewe will take a while to forget). Then when Andrew Davies is back, McArdle will presumably take Stephen Darby’s right back slot. Harsh as that may be, we will have some strong back up options when everyone is fit.

Expect Nelson to play tomorrow alongside McArdle, with Darby and Curtis Good/Dickson at full backs. Jon McLaughlin’s nervous display midweek is a concern, but Matt Duke’s form means he is not going to lose his position as first choice anytime soon.

In midfield Nathan Doyle and Gary Jones will probably return to their usual roles. It would be nice to save Gary until Tuesday, but Ricky Ravenhill and Ritchie Jones offered nothing at Crewe to make a convincing claim for keeping their place. Zavon Hines has moved ahead of Kyel Reid as first choice pacy winger – who saw that coming? – and will play wide right with Will Atkinson on the left.

Up front, James Hanson is set to return. We can only hope that the week-and-a-half break will have done him good, as he looked jaded over the Christmas period. Will Nahki Wells be rested up for Villa Park and Andy Gray keep his place? I actually thought Gray was better on Tuesday, though he still has a way to go. Width of a Post understands that Bradford City were very close to agreeing a deal to sign James Vardy and he even attended a match at Valley Parade, but City’s victory over Villa prompted Leicester City to up their selling price. With rumours over Wells’ future, perhaps this deal is not dead just yet.

Port Vale, like City, are busy in the transfer market. This week, midfielder Daniel Jones rocked up from Sheffield Wednesday on a six-month contract. Most notably, Lee Hughes has joined from Notts County. There has been much debate on whether City should sign someone of Hughes’ past, expressed rather depressingly on one message board as “what’s more important, promotion or ethics?” I’ll stick with ethics, thanks.

That said, ethics could be a theme of the weekend should the game be on. Will City’s management and players give it everything on Saturday, at the risk of weakening their chances on Tuesday, or do we hold back? And what would the reaction be if we surrendered tamely?

One thing is for sure, a defeat tomorrow will be much harder to shrug off than it was at Crewe. At the very least, it couldn’t be considered “no big deal” unless something incredible happens at Villa Park on Tuesday night.

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9 Responses to “A big week, but which is the big one? City travel to leaders Port Vale”

  1. Gareth January 18, 2013 at 8:08 am #

    The League is still the priority for me by some distance Jase. However, the fact that we are tantalizingly close to Wembley and the riches that it would bring has increased the importance of the cup to me.

    I just look at the flip side which is highly possible – losing to Vale and then going out of the cup too. Would people still be so content when all the cups are gone and they have come at a cost of being eight points adrift of automatic promotion and more than one win away from the playoffs?

    Not sure if I’m being pessimistic or realistic.

  2. Mick Rogers January 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    With you on this one. Will I be more disappointed if we lose tomorrow (let’s hope it’s postponed) or if we get knocked out on Tuesday? No brainer for me – disappointed tomorrow but devastated Tuesday.

  3. Craig Smith January 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    Time for everyone to put their feet up – THE GAME IS OFF- see Port Vale Website

  4. wayne January 18, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    With the game been off its the ideal prep for the villa game. No injuries from playing and everyone has extra rest perfect.
    Regarding the promotion/cup debate if got kicked out against Villa id be disappointed but getting out of this league is more important to me by a massive margain

    • wayne January 18, 2013 at 6:15 pm #

      tInteresting comment about the vardy deal.
      I hear all over that pp wants to bring a midfield player different to what we have!
      I think Ritchie Jones is one hell of a central midfield player at this level and should consider himself possibly a little hard done by with the amount of games he’s played!
      I keep looking an im still not sure we can rely on the goals nahki provides.
      We need goals coming from central midfield, im certain it won’t be long before Hanson puts goals to his game .

    • Sebastian Cargutt January 21, 2013 at 8:51 am #

      The only downside is that training in the bad weather will be difficult and i’m sure Villa will have better facilities.

  5. Neil Myers January 18, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    At this moment in time i’d put a possible cupfinal appearence by BCFC in a major domestic cup final above BCFC gaining promotion from this horrible league….personally i’d have played a weakened team against Vale if it had been on. Luckily we now have the best of both worlds..extra time to prepare for the Aston Villa game and knowing whatever the result we haven’t slipped further behind the pack in the league.

    • RobB January 18, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

      I agree with Neil.

      I’ll repeat my previous comment that on current form it looks as if Port Vale have already almost secured one of the promotion places still theoretically available to us, failing a disastrous run by them and a superhuman effort by City, and so losing to them wouldn’t have mattered much to me if the game had been on, other than we’d have lost the three points. However, given the erratic form so far this season from everyone in and around the promotion race our squad has shown it’s capable of recovering those points and winning, at the very least, one of the play-off places. It would be great to hope for a higher position at the end of the season but attaining a play-off place would be, I think, realistic and acceptable.

      A play-off place is ok because PP seems able to motivate players and get the most from them in “big” matches like cup matches, when he want to win that is, and the play-offs will be big, high pressure games for PP to demonstrate this proven talent. In the past, in his pre-City days, he showed more success winning those big, one-off matches than winning ordinary league games and so, hopefully, he’ll do the same for us if we’re in the play-offs.

      Given the cup successes of this season, the glory and history making the cups have brought, the financial platform the cup games have provided for the future, I’ll settle for a play-off place but for me there’s a “but”…

      At the start of the season the Board’s priority was to gain promotion but we’ve been pleasantly diverted, effectively, by PP. I believe results come primarily from a manager’s decision making, otherwise why pay a manager, and so, in this context, PP’s aims for the season appear to have differed from our Board’s. Whilst acknowledging the success PP has already brought, I think that any contract offer the Board gives him should make clear, through incentive payments and termination clauses, that nothing less than a play-off place would be acceptable (with a caveat that I’ll come to in a minute).

      I think the Board should set the strategy and the manager should determine the tactics within that strategy but at City we’ve reached a position where I can only conclude PP’s tactics in team selection have actually changed the overall strategy. How many recent reports following losses have referred to the long cup runs and the consequential plethora of games that are causing the players to be tired, overworked and jaded? How many of the lost league games could have been won with fresher legs that hadn’t been toiling in the cup matches?

      Don’t misunderstand and think I’m not happy with the cup runs I am, but I would have settled for a good run in one cup. The point I’m making is that it’s PP who has decided which matches to prepare best for winning, whether those were in the league or the various cups because our small squad couldn’t be expected to continue delivering win after win for cup and league games. PP’s team selection and manner of motivation earn him full credit for engineering the unbelievable wins in the cup and full responsibility for the losses in routine league games. However there clearly came a point in the FA cup and JPT competitions when PP decided, because I presume he picked the team without influence from the Board, that we’d gone as far as he wanted and further progress would yield, what he regarded, as an unacceptably detrimental effect on our league position.
      I don’t want to take anything away from PP but I’m trying to understand the point we’ve reached and a complex situation without making a value judgement because I don’t want to criticise either the manager or the Board. I agree with much of PP’s recent team selection but I also agree with the Board’s principal strategy of getting into league 1, and to further confuse the picture I also agree with being opportunistic and improving our finances by the progress made in the Capital cup. I can’t think that, given the chance, many people would now swap a marginally higher spot in the table for the joy we got from cup runs but those cup runs are not what the Board told us they wanted.

      The club must start each season with a clearly understood aim for the full season that everyone follows – it’s no good trying to achieve two big objectives at once because life shows they’re both likely to be missed. In business, winners are those organisations that stay focussed on the end result and while being flexible is essential it’s only important if it helps the overall strategy, unless the strategy is changed. Football is no different and for this reason I’d try to get PP to buy into the Board’s current strategy of winning promotion, again with the same caveat.

      The caveat relates to what happens if we get to the Capital cup final. If we do get there then, personally, I’d revise the overall strategy and downgrade ambitions in the league for this year, settling for a reasonable position without hampering our chances in the final. I’d change the priorities for this year so that we have the best chance, through rested players, of winning the final but I’d demand that all cups became secondary next season.

      I realise this wouldn’t be everyone’s choice but I waited a long, long time for any glory and winning a cup this year would “compensate” me into waiting another year for promotion. Other than in the cups, we’ve not been an outstanding team this year – we’re five points from being 3rd in the table and five points from being 16th, and we’re almost the same distance from top as from bottom.

      I admit to initially querying the appointment of PP but I think he’s done well for us and he should be given a chance, but not an unfettered chance, to continue his good work and have the opportunity to enhance his own reputation further. Next year I’d tie him to the single objective of winning promotion and I’d give him a very good financial incentive to deliver that.

      Before ending and to be fair to PP I’d better explain my initial doubts. His record, prior to City, showed that he may have been able to put together winning runs for his teams but he didn’t have an impressive record of being a successful finisher. PP’s win ratio wasn’t overly good for a team wanting promotion, which was our Board’s stated aim. He’s brought to City exactly what he’s achieved elsewhere – good cup runs, and overall good but patchy league form. He shouldn’t be criticised for achieving this in his first full season here but applauded for the base he’s created.

      Blackpool’s reported interest was typical of most clubs – see a hint of success elsewhere and, if you have the money, try to buy whatever kind of success it is. I don’t think Blackpool had thought too much about PP’s record overall and where he is in terms of management development and potential but what they wanted is what PP hasn’t consistently delivered in his career. I’m glad PP decided to stay and see what was on offer with us because I think we do have a lot to offer as a club, as a community and as a prospect for greater things in the future. We may think of ourselves as a big club and we’ve certainly got some big club ideas and innovation but we’ve been down here a long time now and in recent years we’ve not shown any real prospect of changing our division – quite the reverse in many ways. I hope PP sticks with us and if the Club and PP continue to develop we could both get the kudos and financial rewards available from having a stable situation in an unstable environment.

      PP needs to be given the opportunity and support to develop as a manager and progress beyond his previous and present performance levels and the contract he’s offered should reflect our hopes for him and the club – and the Board’s strategy.

      • Jason January 18, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

        fantastic post Rob. Thanks so much for writing it. I think you make some really interesting points.

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