Plymouth Argyle 0
Bradford City 0
Tuesday 12 March, 2013
By Jason McKeown
Phil Parkinson is more than capable of masterminding a Bradford City promotion from League Two. But sadly, it won’t be this season.
Not unless things change very, very quickly – and we said the same walking home down Wembley Way two weeks and five matches ago. Not unless the players start taking their chances and show more quality in the final third. And, most of all, not unless Parkinson takes a bolder approach to the way that he lines up his team.
And that’s not to suggest there was anything fundamentally wrong about the approach taken by the Bantams at Home Park last night. Going with two out and out wingers, in Zavon Hines and Kyel Reid, on the road, is a rarity, and was balanced out by playing two holding central midfielders in Nathan Doyle and Ricky Ravenhill. In a battling contest, City’s midfield clearly came out on top and provided the platform for one point being turned into three. It was the kind of away set-up and performance that, matched with strong home form, over the course of a typical season would get you into League One.
But unfortunately, these aren’t usual circumstances. It requires something more extraordinary.
The effects of City’s remarkable cup run on league results during January and February are there for all to see. It cost us a strong league position, a shot at the automatic promotion places that – blimey – Burton Albion now occupy. That’s the Burton Albion we beat in September to seal a place in the last 16 of the League Cup. They licked their wounds, watched us beat Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa, while steadily climbing the league. Swap seasons? No chance. But food for thought nonetheless.
What we needed post-Wembley was to hit the ground running. Instead of finding top gear, we’re still chugging along in the slow lane, with the front runners dauntingly far away on the horizon. And recent results, performances and tactics would be okay if we were in the play off positions, looking to consolidate a top seven or top three finish. But we are not. We remain frustratingly not even close.
So when, midway through the second half last night, City were performing okay and looking the more likelier team to score, eyes became fixed upon the dug out to the left of us, for positive changes that would tip the game’s balance in our favour. The three players eventually brought on performed superbly, but they were straight swaps positional and tactical-wise. Such changes might have been enough to have won the game; but a move to three up front, rather than retaining two holding midfielders, would have shown greater courage. I wanted us to gamble. To roll for a six, even at the risk of landing a one.
Normally I am very happy to back Parkinson’s conservative principles. They have taken us a long, long way forwards in the space of 18 months (ignore the league table). But our short-term situation demands that we are braver. That we were less concerned by what a struggling team sat bottom of the league could do to us, and be confident of what we could do to them. Risk vs reward.
We badly need to go on a run of wins, not draws.
Then there is the team selection, or rather team rotation, issue. Parkinson has been unapologetic in his intentions to chop and change and, with strong options in reserve, it makes complete sense to utilise the squad – especially as games continue to come so thick and fast. But when players are picked for reasons other than merit, it sends the wrong message to supporters and, more importantly, the players.
Andy Gray did not merit a start last night. I’m not suggesting Alan Connell should have started; my personal view would have been to go with James Hanson and Nahki Wells – the latter gave Guy Branston a tough time at Bristol Rovers back in November – but after changing the game on Saturday, Connell must have been devastated to be overlooked for Gray. And theories that Connell has to play in a three, or cannot play with Hanson, were undermined by how well he once again performed when coming off the bench in the latter stages.
It would be unfair to blame Gray, who actually performed much better last night. He linked up reasonably well with Garry Thompson – City’s stand out performer – and brought others into play. Gray might also have benefited from the rested Gary Jones behind him to run onto his flick ons, but helped to set up running opportunities for Hines and Reid.
Thompson had the half’s best chance when he was played through on goal with just Argyle keeper Jake Cole to beat. But unlike at York, where he finished a similar opportunity so ruthlessly, Thompson hesitated and enabled Cole to make a good block. Sadly, for the first 45 minutes, that was as good as it got for City. And that is the worry right now – that we’re not creating enough good opportunities and, therefore, are left to rue such misses more keenly.
Plymouth had a good spell for 15 minutes, and probably should have scored at one stage. But City, with Andrew Davies recalled and once again in excellent form, stood firm. An awful challenge from Branston on Thompson aside, there was little else of note in the first 45. Parkinson complained, after the game, that the former City skipper deserved a greater punishment than the yellow card he received.
Attacking towards a sparse away following in the second half, the tempo was slightly upped but the chances on goal still frustratingly infrequent. Kyel Reid’s lack of form continues to concern. He just doesn’t look the same player who was so pivotal towards the end of last season. Zavon Hines was much better, as ever, on the right. With Thompson expertly drifting outwide to cause a greater threat, it seemed logical to take Reid off and get more of a presence in the box.
But although Hanson’s introduction for Gray made sense, the swapping of Hines with Will Atkinson and Connell with Thompson was less so. Only minutes earlier, Thompson had rattled the Plymouth crossbar with a half-volley on the edge of the box. Connell began to pick up the ball in the gap between a deep-lying midfield and Hanson, as he pulled the strings. But it seemed wholly unnecessary to keep both Ravenhill and the still-below par Doyle in front of the back four. An extra body in the box, in front of Connell, could have made all the difference.
Connell set up Reid for the night’s best chance, but the winger’s decent shot was saved by Cole. Hanson almost netted a spectacular overhead kick which was blocked by a defender. Reid had a good penalty appeal turned down (a City free kick awarded on the edge of the box instead), and Plymouth – who had looked as ordinary and limited as any opposition side I have seen all season – almost snatched it when a poor back pass by Rory McArdle left Matt Duke in trouble. Stephen Darby cleared off the line when all hope looked lost. The Plymouth bench were on the pitch, ready to start celebrating.
And that was that. Another opportunity to take three points passed up. The nine-point gap as it was, only with time running out. A smattering of boos at the full time was followed by a tentative and angry-looking Parkinson reluctant to come over to the away end.
As we nursed our pints in the nearest pub from Home Park, feeling glad we weren’t facing the long ride home in the ‘Green Bullet’ until the morning after, Tweets reached us that Parkinson had taken exception to questions posed to him by Pulse radio. And an unimpressed home supporter told us the City manager had been rude to him in the corporate area shortly after his radio interview.
There is no doubt that Parkinson is as frustrated as the rest of us by the failure to convert good performances into wins, and he will be hurt by the prospect of the season ending on something of a whimper. With contract negotiations in the balance (though Width of a Post has heard from a good source to watch out for positive movement next week), the overall uncertainty is probably adding to the problems.
It’s time to get that sorted out. Parkinson deserves a new contract. End of. The negative impact on the league form, caused by the cup, has left us in a position that does not suit Parkinson’s style – his strength is not going on the front foot – but with a few tweaks in the summer, we can go again with every reason to remain confident in Parkinson’s capabilities.
City: Duke, Darby, McArdle, Davies, McHugh, Hines (Atkinson 78), Doyle, Ravenhill, Reid, Gray (Hanson 80), Thompson (Connell 80)
Not used: McLaughlin, Nelson, Jones, Wells