Bradford City 1
Bristol City 1
Saturday 11 January, 2014
By Jason McKeown
For someone who is only 5 foot 7 inches tall, Nahki Wells casts a large shadow. Less than 24 hours after his dramatic departure to Huddersfield Town, the Bermudian’s absence hung heavy over a downcast Valley Parade that is still reeling over his shock choice of new home. Like some jilted lover, the question is how to get over this blow and rebuild. But until a replacement is captured, it feels as though time is standing still.
A draw a fitting outcome then, as City stand at a crossroads between self-imploding through civil war or closing ranks and moving on. It is a draw that does little to appease the pressure that has been built up from the poor run of form – now one win in 16 – but is at least a draw that looks better than a glance at the League One table suggests. Visitors Bristol City remain second bottom, but that is a ludicrous anomaly that will be corrected come May. They are packed full of talent and in Jay Emmanuel-Thomas have the best striker in the division (especially now). The Bantams did well to better them, performance-wise.
Yet still, how the dwindling morale around Valley Parade needs a boost. When just 55 seconds into life after Nahki, City took the lead, there was every reason to believe that a trying week for everyone would have a happy ending. The home side began on the front foot and forced an early corner. As the ball pinged around in the box, James Hanson duly snapped up a half-chance to rifle it into the bottom corner.
A small irony, perhaps, that it was Hanson who got the first post-Nahki goal – he had been rejected by Huddersfield as a teenager. It was a timely goal too, given it was his first in almost three months. A measure of his growth in popularity amongst supporters is that no one has made a big deal of the forward’s drought. Hanson’s importance to the club has heightened further following Wells’ departure, and the extension of his contract last November represents the club’s best piece of business over the past 12 months.
The advantage to claret and amber, an air of much-needed confidence spread around the pitch and the stadium. Ricky Ravenhill was setting the standard in the middle of the park, Carl McHugh – in at left back for the injured James Meredith and mightily impressive today – glanced a header from another corner just wide. In the Kop, a derogatory Nahki chant was aired that raised a smile from most people. Perhaps a corner has been turned.
Alas, Kyel Reid fell asleep as City defended a Bristol City attack, and Scott Wagstaff – who turned down a summer move to Valley Parade – strode through unmarked to finish low past Jon McLaughlin. The City keeper should have kept out what was a fairly tame effort, but got a limp hand on the shot that only succeeded in slowing its speed rather than halting its direction. Here we go again.
Indeed that confidence evaporated from the ground as quickly as it had been restored. The players looked hesitant once more. Ravenhill went off injured – Jason Kennedy his replacement – and the game’s pace slowed. Bristol City – with Emmanuel-Thomas looking a menace – poured forward in search of a second goal. Reid handled the ball in the box for a stonewall penalty, but it was somehow missed by the officials. There were some good defensive blocks from Matthew Bates and Rory McArdle that kept the Robins at bay, but City kept giving the ball back to them.
It was a poor period where you looked at certain players and realised just how drained they have become of self-belief. In possession they would take the easiest option possible, and when team-mates had the ball they would hide away from demanding a pass. Eventually, Gary Jones’ leadership could be seen in lifting these players again. Kennedy – who has underwhelmed greatly since joining the club in the summer – was much improved and had his best game to date. We still expect a lot more from him, though.
The second half was a big, big improvement from City. They survived a scare of Emmanuel-Thomas’ thumping drive from distance smacking McLauglin’s post, and pressed the visitors back. Garry Thompson was much more effective; Reid a mixture of terrific and terrible, but always carrying a threat; Hanson a menace.
Most eyes were drawn to his strike partner, 17-year-old Oli McBurnie. In the first half he’d linked up well in the build up play and come hunting for the ball, but you felt he was playing a little too deep. Phil Parkinson must have had words at half time, as in the second half McBurnie began leading the line. He almost scored an opportunistic first senior goal, after a clever backheel shot was palmed away by Bristol City goalkeeper Elliot Parish. Later on McBurnie received the ball in the box and impressively worked it past a defender, only for another to block his effort at goal. Then, just before he made way for Alan Connell with 13 minutes to go, a thrilling burst past a defender and race into the area saw McBurnie force another save from Parish.
McBurnie is looking like a real prospect for City. Over the years several youth strikers have been given a senior opportunity but failed to have any great impact beyond scoring the odd goal or two. It is too early to say that Oli will succeed where they failed, but already he is affecting matches and making a tangible difference to his team’s play. He looks like he belongs here.
Parkinson revealed after the match that he is closing in on a new striker, and it is absolutely right that McBurnie is not placed under any burden of being Wells’ replacement; but the manager needs to keep gradually involving the young striker over the coming months. Let’s give him the chance to fulfil his undoubted potential.
Substitutes Mark Yeates and Connell – who is surely heading out of the door this January – made little impact on the game, as City pushed for a winner. The best moment beyond McBurnie’s efforts had been a piledriver shot from Jones that bounced back off the inside of the post with Parish beaten. The skipper needed that to go in, as his critics in the stands continue to grow; but today was an improvement from Jones after a poor Christmas. His value to the team – if not as a week in, week out starter for much longer – remains high.
Warm applause at full time, as supporters appreciated the efforts and application of the players. But as we headed out into the West Yorkshire evening, there was some rather cruel news waiting for us. A late, late winner, 11.9 miles away at Huddersfield Town – scored by you-know-who.
The conversation, and the focus, was instantly back on Nahki Wells. His shadow had been disguised by the winter darkness that crept over Valley Parade during the second half, but it had still been present after all.
Time had not, in fact, stood still. The world was going on without us.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Bates, McHugh, Thompson, Ravenhill (Kennedy 22), Jones, Reid (Yeates 72), Hanson, McBurnie (Connell 77)
Not used: Jameson, Oliver, Taylor, Graham