Bradford City 0
Rotherham United 1
Thursday 26 December, 2013
By Jason McKeown (image by Claire Epton, see note below)
A cloud hovers stubbornly over Valley Parade, and with it the mood is creeping darker and darker. We Made History, well that’s now history. The here and now sees a growing list of problems and, troublingly, an ever-dwindling range of potential solutions.
Bradford City were painfully second best today. Rotherham United’s sixth straight victory over the Bantams was the closest in terms of scoreline, but the widest in terms of class. Steve Evans’ side were as horrible and crude as ever, yet they can suddenly play good football too. They have progressed since they were here last April, evolving into a highly effective League One side that now sits comfortably in its final play off position, eight points ahead of City.
And on this evidence, that seems about right. Of course there were mitigating circumstances for the home side’s lacklustre display which cannot, and should not, be ignored. With James Hanson joining long-term absentee Andrew Davies on the sidelines, it was bad timing all round that Andy Gray’s City career reboot was brought to another premature halt through a dead leg. Phil Parkinson overlooked Alan Connell as a replacement in favour of handing 17-year-old Oliver McBurnie a full debut. His strike pairing with 23-year-old Nahki Wells ranking as one of the youngest City have fielded in years.
It surely demanded a change in approach from the rest of the team, but inexplicably the same high tempo, direct tactics were deployed against a Rotherham side who has found them comfortable to defend against even when the physical presence of Hanson was available. And though McBurnie enjoyed a promising debut that saw him show good strength and quick feet, nothing was sticking up front and Rotherham were able to regain possession from the Bantams far too easily.
Perhaps it would have been different if an early half volley attempt from Wells hadn’t flashed past the wrong side of the post. City started the game well with McBurnie coming deep to get involved with attacks and Garry Thompson having one of his better days; but gradually Rotherham neutralised the threat of City’s strikeforce and the erratic Kyel Reid. The Millers stuck men behind the ball and then counter attacked in packs. As City attempted to get numbers to support McBurnie and Wells, the high defensive line played by the back four – which featured Carl McHugh for the first time in the league this season – was routinely breached.
City can’t say they weren’t warned, and eventually fell behind to a superb curling effort from Haris Vuckic, 20 minutes in. After the game Parkinson was asked twice about how unfortunate it was to concede such a quality goal and, to his credit, refused to accept it as an excuse. Because, in truth, it was a highly preventable strike, in view of the dismal defending in the build up to it. Possession was squandered in a poor area of the pitch, and Matthew Bates once again got caught out by an opposition player running at him with speed. Gary Jones had successfully halted Lee Frecklington’s charge forward, only for the loose ball to fall to Vukic with no defender anywhere near him. Take your time, pick your spot, 1-0 Rotherham. Wonderful, but easy too.
The response was woeful. Thompson forced a decent save from 15 minutes later, but it was City’s only shot on target as Rotherham continued to pour forward on the break with a greater sense of co-ordination and purpose. It was hugely concerning, not least the way that City’s central midfield duo were completely outgunned.
Jones’ influence on the match was minimal and at times he sadly looked as though his age has caught up with his body. Over 10 years his junior, Doyle had no such excuse. Yet he continued to lose possession and constantly seemed to make the wrong choice. Rotherham’s 4-4-2 matched City’s but their midfield four was much more compact, enabling them to run the game. In Ben Pringle they have arguably the division’s best wide player, and he gave Stephen Darby his toughest examination of the season. Alex Revell led the line superbly for the Millers, rubbing it in just how much City missed Hanson.
The game’s pattern was set in that first half, but most troubling of all today was City’s complete inability to alter it in the second. Parkinson did not cover himself in glory with the way he set up his team. And to continue to play in a manner requiring a targetman was baffling in the absence of such a player to get on the end of the numerous punts forward. Mark Yeates and Alan Connell were introduced during the second half, but the strategy was never altered. Rotherham looked more likely to score the next goal and had four terrific opportunities – two of which saw Jon McLaughlin make fantastic saves, the other two were wasted by Kieran Agard.
Only late on was the formation altered, with the Peter Taylor-esqe introduction of Luke Oliver up front. Even the lanky defender failed to win anything against a dominant United backline. The threat of an equaliser hung in the air as City continued to press up until the final whistle, but it never looked likely to materialise. Nor would it have been merited.
Evans punched the air at full time and raced over to the jubilant Rotherham United supporters. He may be widely despised in this corner of the world, but he sure feels at home at Valley Parade, clocking up a third straight managerial triumph. From the home sections some booing was heard, but quiet disapproval over recent events is yet to truly turn into public dissent. Nevertheless, that cloud ain’t shifting away. A storm is brewing.
Do you blame the manager? Undoubtedly Parkinson deserves a degree of criticism over today, but his ability to change a badly-set up team was hindered by the lack of attacking options on the bench.
Do you blame the players? For effort and determination I don’t believe so, but there is no doubt that too many are struggling to produce their best form. Today James Meredith had his worst game in claret and amber, Reid lacked the bravery needed to effect the outcome, Bates failed to provide the back four leadership City badly need in Davies’ absence, and Wells – who it was rumoured at the game is Leeds United-bound next month – looked completely lost without Hanson.
Do you blame the chairmen? If January comes and goes with Wells elsewhere and not much money spent on replacements, it seems likely that they will come into the firing line from supporters still confused as to how the League Cup windfall was spent so quickly.
City have stagnated over the last three months, and there is far too much of a reliance on a handful of players. When everyone was fit at the start of the season, the Bantams were flying; but since Davies’ bad injury we haven’t looked the same team, and spells without Wells or Hanson have worsened performances. Somehow, this has to change; because no team goes through a season without the challenge of dealing with injuries.
Parkinson ends his greatest year in management approaching a crossroads. No one can doubt that he has built a truly fantastic football team; but from limited resources, he now somehow needs to find a way of building a fantastic football squad.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, Bates, McHugh (Oliver 87), Meredith, Thompson (Yeates 60), Jones, Doyle, Reid, Wells, McBurnie (Connell 73)
Not used: Ripley, Taylor, Ravenhill, Kennedy
With ongoing gratitude and thanks to the wonderfully talented Claire Epton for providing the image included in this report. Have a look at capturedbyclaire.wordpress.com, it’s ace.