Bradford City 0
Saturday 9 February, 2013
By Jason McKeown
Supporting Bradford City has a centre-of-the-universe feel at the moment, but it increasingly appears that the price of all this attention is that no one will have cause to notice us in May.
A third straight home loss, just two points from a possible 18 available and a fall to a middle-of-the-road 12th position in the League Two table. Almost exactly two months ago, City defeated Torquay United 1-0 to go 4th. Three days later we knocked Arsenal out of the League Cup. Our world has not been the same since, but there are plenty of negatives about this to go with the many, many positives.
When Matt Duke crucially hesitated over what to do about Gillingham’s Coby McDonald charging onto a loose ball, enabling the on-loan Coventry striker to knock the ball around him and into an empty net for today’s only goal, it felt symbolic of our promotion ambitions. Pre-Arsenal, we looked to be in such a fantastic position to finish in the top three – a play off spot was our fall back option. Now we have allowed ourselves to drop behind everyone else; we have stalled the motor when others have found a higher gear. That we have one or two games in hand on most of the sides above us is the only comfort.
And yet, it’s difficult to be too critical of the last two performances. We should have beaten Fleetwood, and today we should have defeated a well-organised Gillingham side. Today we dominated the first hour; to the extent the visitors did not have a shot on target until the 52nd minute. We played some excellent football that had the best travellers in the division firmly on the back foot. It’s not down to a lack of effort, and it’s not really down to a lack of quality. So how did we manage to lose this?
McDonald’s goal was unmerited, but the reaction to the set back was not what we have become accustomed to. As we inexplicably began to launch panicky balls forward, with plenty of time still on the clock, memories of excellent fightbacks against Bristol Rovers, Northampton, Cheltenham, Burton – and even the efforts in reversing the 4-3 loss to Dagenham – came flooding back. What has happened to the side’s never-say-die attitude? Where is that character that the world and his wife have been queuing up to applaud us for, due to our heroics in the cup?
It worries you to see that spirit chipped away some more, because it echoes how Stuart McCall’s 2008/09 side fell away from February of that year onwards. That side also produced some fine comebacks in the first half of the campaign, but then the defeats began to rack up. Moments like McDonald’s goal happen, but they still present us with the time and capacity to do something about it. Today, fear managed to override composure.
Still, the game should have been levelled up anyway; with another gilt-edged chance for James Hanson unfortunately wasted. Kyel Reid – who had a mixed afternoon – had managed to beat his double markers to send over an inviting cross. Hanson met the ball perfectly and achieved the sufficient power that meant Gills’ keeper Stuart Nelson stood no chance. But rather than ruffle the back of the net, the ball flew wide of the post. Belief and confidence damaged some more.
That miss will doubtless overshadow an excellent overall display from Hanson. While his strike partner Nahki Wells looked worryingly below par all afternoon (where was the work rate, Nahki?), James continued to win flick on after flick on and linked up well with City’s attacking players. During the Bantams’ best spell of the match – the 20 minutes before the interval – Hanson headed a chance narrowly over the bar before setting up a great shooting opportunity for Wells; the Bermudian’s careless effort clearing the Bradford End stand. Soon after Gary Jones saw a fine drive from distance palmed out by Nelson, and Wells’ follow up header was blocked superbly by the 31-year-old.
It was one-way traffic. A makeshift-looking City backline of Stephen Darby, Michael Nelson, Tom Naylor and Curtis Good dealing comfortably with Gillingham’s sporadic threats. Naylor in particular stood out with a composed and determined display that the on-loan Derby defender’s five previous appearances have only hinted at. Just keep going, must have been the half-time message from Phil Parkinson, and the rewards will come.
Yet Gillingham looked every inch a promotion-winning side who can grind out results from tricky away fixtures when far from their best. Adam Barrett and Leon Legge were simply outstanding at the back, and manager Martin Allen’s tactic of deploying two midfielders in front of his back four denied Jones and Nathan Doyle the space to dictate the game (the loss of form of Doyle in recent weeks is a huge concern).
They were physical, just like teams who succeed at this level always seem to be. They pushed their luck at times with their shirt-pulling and over-zealous tackles, just like teams who succeed at this level always seem to do. They appear an ugly side lacking in flair, just like teams who succeed at this level always seem to disguise themselves as. And in Allen – the guy who once offered to manage the Bantams for free – they have someone who knows what it takes to succeed at this level.
It matters not, to them, that they did not deserve their lead. They hung on it for dear life, by fair and by foul means. City needed to be smarter than they were in the final 25 minutes. They were not. Nelson kept hoofing the ball long. Reid and Zavon Hines began to play with their heads down. Jones and Doyle either seemed to be too far forwards or not far forward enough.
Parkinson tried to inject new purpose, with Hines somewhat harshly taken off (to his own obvious frustration) and Ryan Dickson coming on for Good. Later Alan Connell was introduced as City went 3-4-3, but the glowing praise that Parkinson was consistently receiving for making smart tactical moves has been lacking in recent weeks. He has not become a bad manager, but he is not currently getting too much right.
As the game moved into stoppage time, Wells saw a free kick on the edge of the box blocked by the wall. The resultant corner saw Duke come forward and Nelson almost nod home an equaliser. But the final whistle was blown all too quickly.
Despondency as we filed out of Valley Parade for the last time until after the League Cup Final. The buzz of excitement around the ground five, four and three hours earlier was intoxicating. The club shop was rammed as people made purchases. The players were greeted by a crowd of supporters as they walked into the stadium – normally there are less than 10 people waiting for their autographs – and TV cameras captured excitable fans going through the turnstiles. Where have all these street vendors selling Wembley tat come from? Don’t they know it’s Bradford City not Bradford? “Have you got your Wembley tickets yet?” could be heard up and down the Kop concourse. The players marched onto the field to the chant of “Que sera sera…”
In other words, this is an amazing time for Bradford City. Less than two weeks until the Wembley Cup Final. An occasion that every indication – from logic to our less-than-glamorous history – suggests we will not witness again in our lifetime. As I write this my friend has dropped off our Wembley tickets and I can’t stop staring at them in wonderment. I want to enjoy every second of all of this.
But I also don’t want to depart Cheltenham’s Waddon Road on April 27th facing up to the fact the season has ended and City will once again begin the next one a League Two club. I want the Swansea game to feel like the highlight of our season, but I don’t want it to signify the end of it.
This part of the season was all about staying in touch with the frontrunners, so we could emerge from Wembley ready to start really flying in the league. Instead, we’re being left behind. We have to get it right in the league, urgently. The back-to-back away games at Wycombe and Wimbledon over the next few days have to be maximised upon. Fail to win at least one of them, and it’s not sensationalistic to declare that it could all be over for us. Realistically, anyway.
Today there was nothing between Bradford City and one of the best sides in League Two. But the league table increasingly suggests that the gap is a chasm.
City: Duke, Darby, Naylor (Connell 81), Nelson, Good (Dickson 73), Hines (Thompson 73), Jones, Doyle, Reid, Hanson, Wells
Not used: McLaughlin, Davies, Atkinson, Gray