Bradford City 1
Leyton Orient 1
Saturday 14 December, 2013
Written by Alex Scott (images by Claire Epton, see note below)
It was never going anywhere else, was it? For the umpteenth time, Bradford City were rescued by their star striker: a wonderfully despatched free kick deep into stoppage time, salvaging a 1-1 draw in a game that looked all but gone.
This wasn’t a vintage Nahki Wells performance; he was marshalled handily by the impressive Leyton Orient backline as his team, tantalised by the windy conditions, fell into the darkest of approaches and played into their opponent’s hands.
But it was never going anywhere else was it? This wasn’t a vintage Nahki Wells performance, but his value is there for all to see. He is alone in the squad at being able to come up with a moment of magic outside of the straight line rigidity within which they live. The moment that free kick rippled into the corner of the net to the ecstasy of 14,000 onlookers was just the next great moment for a man who is making a living out of the extraordinary.
Building up to this game, the conversation swirled around the two talismanic forwards: one who was missing, and the other who could not miss. The suspension of David Mooney was sure to be a sore loss for Orient, the 30-year old leading the scorers charts in the division. The City fans’ conversation in the build-up settled squarely on the shoulders of not Nahki Wells the player, but Nahki Wells the asset.
Coming away from the game with a hard-earned point for both clubs, the conversations remained the same.
Two weeks off for the men-once-known-as-cup-kings boded well entering this week. They have prided themselves on their fitness over the past 18 months, and with a week’s refresher heading into the festive period, they could be confident that they would be able to run harder than any opponent they face. Especially Leyton Orient, whose cup win at home to Walsall last week came at the cost of their centre forward as Bradford watched on from their front rooms.
The early exchanges resulted primarily in jabs at an arm’s length. It was immediately obvious that Leyton Orient weren’t here to pass round us; they came to beat us at our own game. The similarity between the sides was staggering, and it would be of no surprise that they couldn’t be separated.
It was like attempting to fight your clone for the long periods of the game. They used our moves: the angled long ball into the channel, the driven ball forward to the big striker, with a partner attempting to read his mind. Two deep midfielders protecting and a pair of buzzing wide men trying to drag their compatriots forward.
Orient were missing their star striker, and City were missing the man that would have marshalled him. They are equals, really.
Phil Parkinson’s men as the home team started faster, with Kyel Reid bordering on the rampant in the first period. He was unplayable for much of the half and was yet again the primary outlet and the Man Most Likely. Garry Thompson opposite him mirrored his direct play and put in easily the best 45 minutes of his season, and whilst not creating all that much, City were on top.
As is the way, a strong spell before half time for the visitors turned up the pressure on the City defence and after a succession of throw-ins on the left flank, the home defence succumbed to a superb turn-and-finish by midfielder Lloyd James. There wasn’t much at all between the sides at the break, just a moment of skill from the Southampton product James.
That the goal came from the right side of the Bradford backline was a rarity as that comes definitively within the jurisdiction of Stephen Darby, and he is maintaining a zero tolerance approach to everyone who dares step onto his ground. Not that he could do anything this time, as the late run of James evaded Hanson while Darby and company watched on, helpless.
I always used to say about Andrew Taylor during his short spell at Valley Parade that he could genuinely win Man of the Match every single week and there could be no complaints. The way Darby has progressed this season has made that statement attributable to him even more so. He’s the best full back I’ve seen at this level, and this game was no exception. He was outstanding throughout, again, and can rightly be aggrieved to miss out on the champagne today.
He exhibits an assurance that I can’t remember seeing down at Valley Parade. I like James Meredith, but he does have his shaky moments defensively, as do his teammates inside him – who were incidentally excellent today in trying conditions. But when the ball moves across to toward Darby, I am confident that nothing bad will happen. I relax when opponents attack down their left flank. The fools.
This interlude could have been written in almost any game this season, but the consistency of his performance in many ways undermines his appreciation. Stephen Darby has made the extraordinary ordinary this season, and should be up at the top of the Player of the Year voting with Nahki Wells. Andrew Davies is definitely the pivotal Jenga block of this team (take him away and everything collapses), but I dread to think what this team would look like without Stephen Darby. His contract should be Number One on Phil Parkinson’s to-do list.
As the second half got underway, the balance had shifted somewhat. Whilst still not offering much toward the final third, Orient defended far better, nullifying James Hanson as well as anyone has this year. Russell Slade took a page out of the Gary Rowett textbook by dropping a physical midfielder to sit in front of Hanson, in this case the impressive Romain Vincelot, cutting out the main supply route for a team that began to look awfully impotent.
Russell Slade’s men settled for the one-nil, and almost gave up attacking to protect their lead. They are a very impressive team, and it easy to see why they have been so successful this year. But today they weren’t really better than we were. I can’t remember a save McLaughlin had to make outside of the goal.
With Orient shoring up defensively, the performance of the wide men quickly dropped off, with Reid especially struggling as the game wore on, and it wasn’t a surprise to see the toiling Thompson hauled off for Mark Yeates on the hour mark. This substitution definitely shouldn’t have surprised anyone as it happens almost every week.
One clear conclusion that we can come to about this year’s vintage, is how few of the squad Parkinson trusts to play. There are a handful of squad members who the manager clearly feels don’t belong out there, which as a result means we see the same 14 or 15 players every week, almost always in the same composition. The likes of Caleb Folan, Matt Taylor, Luke Oliver and Andy Gray have been demoted to deadweight at this point. Even if they appear on the bench, it is to no real end. It would be a surprise at this point if any of the group made it through January.
The eleven from the beginning of last season start when fit, with everyone recruited subsequently relegated to impact sub, at best. The negative spin is that recruitment may not be the strongest suit of our highly talented manager – a skill he needs to recapture quickly given the way January is likely to play out. It also pays testament to how special that collection of players are. They are really a great team. Probably not the Team of the Year, but a truly special group nevertheless.
As the second half wore on and with the wind at their backs, the Bantams became ever more reliant on the long heave to Hanson, despite the diminishing returns they were receiving. It may have been hoped by the manager that introducing Mark Yeates and his technical skill set would have sparked a change in approach, though none materialised.
This was definitively the reasoning behind his subsequent double substitution as the team moved to the now-standard “Need a Goal 3-4-1-2”. Alan Connell to buzz around the hole is clearly our Plan B. He did well today in his limited time, and it will be interesting what the rest of the season holds for the forward. In all likelihood his route to playing time is about to be eased dramatically, and for a man like Connell, assumed to be on his way out by most, he may yet have a redemption in his story.
Introducing Raffaele De Vita to play central midfield was a new one, especially at the expense of Nathan Doyle. But whilst De Vita didn’t tear up any trees, he did force the team to alter to their approach, moving the ball around the midfield areas to fashion a chance rather than being tantalised into relentlessly and ineffectively aiming high like Stuart Broad on a bouncy deck.
In the end they were only saved by a moment of magic from their magic man, the looming disappearance of whom is beginning to hang ever greater round the neck of this team like a millstone.
It really was never going anywhere else. He’s been practising that free kick for a month. He hit the bar with that same set piece at Milton Keynes. He clipped to the top of the bar and the top of the wall in identical situations against Coventry. He unsuccessfully attempted to double bluff the same chance in the first half. This one was never going anywhere else other than the top corner of that Leyton Orient goal.
It’s a tough skill to get the ball up and down that quickly; years of watching football have told us that they rarely go in. They are “too close”. But that is absolutely one of Nahki Wells’ special moves. There aren’t many at this level (or higher levels) who can do that free kick as well as him. There aren’t many at this level who can do many things as well as him.
Without him, City wouldn’t have grabbed a point today, as they wouldn’t have grabbed many others this season.
Width of a Post heard today, via David Baldwin, that the club have indeed offered the soaring Bermudian a contract extension this week, that would clearly make him the highest paid player at the club. However, if he decides not to sign, it appears that it will likely lead to the club cash in during January.
On today’s performance the loss of the striker will kill any dreams of the play offs come May, but given the results of the past few months, those may have been pipedreams even with Nahki Wells playing like the best player in the division.
If they can pick up some wins over Christmas and be in sixth by mid-January, perhaps the maths changes, and it may be worth rolling the dice: the prize of the Championship far outweighs the asset value of Wells.
It should hearten even the most negative City fan that today we saw the best team in the division and they were almost identical to our team. They couldn’t be separated on the field today. Two moments of magic, one for either side, were the only routes through the defences. This Bradford City team really isn’t that far away. Especially with Andrew Davies a month away from return.
They’ve been treading water in the absence of Davies, their Jenga block-in-chief, but remain within touch of the play offs with his return now in sight. They are doing just enough to stay alive. Nahki Wells has been their lifejacket so far; the question of whether they can keep their head above water without him looms large as we continue our path toward January, and open season.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Bates (Connell 79), Meredith, Thompson(Yeates 65), Doyle (De Vita 79), Jones, Reid, Wells, Hanson
Not used: Ripley, McHugh, Kennedy, McBurnie
Special thanks to Claire Epton for providing the images included in this report. Take a read of her fantastic website full of photos of City matches in 2013: capturedbyclaire.wordpress.com.