Bradford City vs Swindon Town preview
@Valley Parade on Sunday 29 December, 2013
By Jason McKeown
“Aw, you can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.” Homer Simpson
That bloody stat. It doesn’t go away, it just keeps getting bigger. One win in 10 games, make that 11, now 12, 13. One win in 13 games. Not good enough. Relegation form. Dire. When does it get better? When does it end? “One win in 13 games” can win most arguments right now. Something must be done.
We football fans love our statistics, and one win in 13 is a hand-picked sample that makes everything seem bleak. You could, of course, widen the net to build up a much fairer and more accurate picture. For example, the fact City have lost only six of their 22 league matches this season (the joint-sixth lowest number in the division). Or that – since last February’s League Cup Final defeat – City’s 37 league matches have yielded a mere eight defeats. Or that, for the calendar year of 2013, the Bantams have been beaten just 12 times in 44 league games.
Yet that bigger picture doesn’t suit the negativity of the here and now, so the efforts of Phil Parkinson and his players’ are condensed to a summary of one win in 13 games. The great start to the season is increasingly a distant memory, as the gap between the Bantams and the play offs stretches to a sizeable eight points. We cannot ignore what’s below us either, with a glance over the shoulder showing City 11 points above the drop zone.
It is understandable that one win in 13 is mentioned so much, but to me it seems foolish to judge everything on the form table and to panic. The simple fact is City made a roaring start to the season, but have levelled off somewhat to fall behind the pace setters. Had, during the close season, someone offered us the position of 11th place at roughly the halfway stage of the campaign, I dare say the majority of City fans would have snapped their hand off. An 11th place finish this season would still represent a good achievement.
The problem, of course, is that expectations were heightened by that terrific start. I’m as guilty as anyone of doing that, after writing a giddy match report of the superb victory at Walsall in early October, which had placed City fourth in the division. “Great result is following great result. Superb performance is following superb performance. And we are running out of reasons to argue that it cannot last.”
And then, Andrew Davies got injured.
Yet still, the issue I have with the line ‘one win in 13’ is its over-simplification. It implies that City have only had one good result and performance in 13 matches, when in actual fact it has been much better than that. The 2-2 draw at Preston was a superb display, the 2-1 loss to Wolves unfortunate, the 3-3 draw with Coventry highly commendable, the 1-1 with Oldham a good point, and the 1-1 with leaders Leyton Orient credible. Of the 13 games, only Tranmere, Crewe, Rotherham (twice) and Notts County stand out as truly below-par. Yes, a few too many poor performances, but the sky is not falling in on City.
There is no doubt that a victory is badly needed, and preferably at home. Swindon this afternoon pose another tough test, with the Robins well-placed to repeat last season’s play off finish. That said, a 3-2 Boxing Day defeat to their play off semi final conquerors, Brentford, has seen Swindon fall five points behind sixth-placed Rotherham; and a very poor away record (W2 D2 L7) offers hope for the Bantams.
Where Phil Parkinson goes in terms of team selection will depend greatly on James Hanson, who is battling for fitness having missed the last two matches, which were both lost. In Parkinson’s two-and-a-quarter years as manager, Hanson has rarely been injured and started virtually every match. Perhaps, then, it is understandable that an ingrained way of the team playing to the big man’s strengths was difficult to change, despite his absence.
If Hanson doesn’t make it, Parkinson will be desperate for Andy Gray to have shaken off the dead leg in order to take a starting opportunity that his goal against Peterborough last weekend has suddenly thrown up for the out-of-favour veteran. Oli McBurnie let no one down on his full debut, but as a strike partnership there was no chemistry with Nahki Wells. I don’t see them as two players who can play together, although last season Alan Connell was not an effective Wells partner either.
The 6 foot 2 inch Caleb Folan might have seemed a more obvious replacement for the 6 foot 4 inch Hanson, but in the aftermath of the Rotherham United defeat announced via his own website that he was leaving the club. Unsurprisingly, the striker’s criticism of Parkinson for not having any contact with him for over a month has proved a talking point. It is not the first time that Parkinson has ignored a player – see numerous Guy Branston interviews – but there are always two sides to a story, and so far we have not heard the manager’s.
As someone who saw all but one of Folan’s six appearances for City, I must admit that I was unable to form a conclusive judgement over whether he would be a useful player for us. But I have no qualms with blindly backing Parkinson’s judgement on this one. He will have observed him closely in training and during reserve team friendlies, and the fact Folan hasn’t featured in almost two months means his departure should surprise no one.
In midfield everyone is probably available to start, but Parkinson faces a big dilemma over improving this area of the team. Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle have proven to be a terrific partnership over the past 18 months, but on Thursday both were overrun and well below their best. At the very least, one or both need a rest.
The return of Ricky Ravenhill early from his loan spell at Northampton is a curious one – who made this decision, Parkinson, or new Northampton caretaker manager Andy King? Ravenhill has earned positive reviews from his time at Sixfields and could resurrect a Bantams career that was seemingly over. Jason Kennedy will also be desperate for some game time today or on New Year’s Day. It’s time for one or both to provide greater competition for Jones and Doyle.
On the wings, Kyel Reid and Garry Thompson will probably continue, although Mark Yeates continues to push hard for a first start Valley Parade start since October. As Zavon Hines and Will Atkinson prosper at their new clubs, there remains a nagging feeling that City have weaker options on the flanks compared to last year. Rafa De Vita has been injured, but has done little to convince when given the opportunity.
At the back, Rory McArdle will return from his one-match suspension and, for all the criticism he unjustly receives, was badly missed on Boxing Day. It was fantastic to see Carl McHugh be given a first start of the season, and I know that Parkinson does rate him (he told me); but you get the feeling he will make way for McArdle, with Matthew Bates switched back to left-sided defender. Stephen Darby and James Meredith take the full back slots, with Jon McLaughlin – who for me is having a very good season – in goal.
The challenge today is to wipe away that “one win in 13” statement, rather than allowing it to grow to “one win in 14”. And although there is no doubt that a second successive home defeat would crank up the pressure considerably, it is heartening to see that – so far – the grumbles of frustration have not stretched to any serious questioning of the manager’s future.
Nor should it. Parkinson’s two-and-a-quarter years at Valley Parade have featured so many instances of him turning around difficult situations of this ilk. It took him seven league matches to actually win one, when he took over. There were those early struggles, where he finally produced some winning football that lifted City away from relegation danger. There was the way he turned around the Crawley brawl situation that threatened to sink the club. And last season, there was the late surge of form that earned the Bantams an unlikely play off spot and promotion.
The point is that we can find numerous examples of poor runs of form under Parkinson as manager, and each and every time he has turned it around. Sometimes it has seemingly taken too long to get going again, but he has eventually found the answers. Knowing that Parkinson is in charge – with his vast experience, composure and character – gives me huge confidence that the current slide will be reversed.
One win in 13. Maybe 14, 15 or 16 eventually. But having come so far and achieved so much over the past 18 months, we need to look upon recent form as a wrong turn that will be undone, rather than the beginning of Armageddon.