Wolves vs Bradford City preview
@Molineux Stadium on Saturday 1 February, 2013
By Jason McKeown
Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton. Words that will cause many a Bradford City fan to become misty-eyed, given the events that took place at the home of Wolves just short of 15 years ago.
9 May, 1999 (not a date I had to look up) saw Bradford City seal promotion to the Premier League with a 3-2 victory on the Molineux pitch. In a flash you can instantly recall Peter Beagrie’s jinxing run for the first City goal, Robbie Blake’s wonderful through ball for ex-Wanderers striker Lee Mills to make it 2-1, and Blake’s own lively finish that ultimately proved to be the winner. Wolves – going for a play off spot that day – gave City an almighty tough game. Paul Simpson pulling a goal back that prompted the longest 10 minutes of our lives. The legendary Steve Bull played his last game for Wolves, as were two up-and-coming Premier League-bound footballers: Robbie Keane and ex-Bantam Dean Richards.
Although City have subsequently played three times at Molineux, this weekend will be my first visit to the ground since that incredible Sunday afternoon. I honestly have no idea how it will feel – after all this time – to set foot inside a stadium that remains so ingrained in my mind. It is going to feel very emotional, it is going feel special. To sit in the same visitors section where we celebrated the most incredible of promotions. To stare at that width of a post.
For the modern day Bradford City, such history has little relevance right now, save as to ponder what happened next. The heroics of last season were on a par – if not better – than what we experienced in 1998/99 and left us walking on cloud nine for months. But the current reality of one victory in 18 matches proves that, in football, nothing lasts forever. From the early season hopes of back-to-back promotions, expectations have been revised downwards and now the new positive buzzword is ‘transitional’. This team is beginning to significantly change from a year ago. City are going through the what happened next stage.
Following that last promotion in 1999 – and also the one before that, in 1996 – what happened next was a quick-fire overhaul of the squad. As Paul Jewell plotted to compete against the best teams in the country, new signings arrived and many of the promotion heroes were cast aside. The magnificent Darren Moore also played his last game for his club at Molineux that day. Robbie Blake – who like Moore and Wayne Jacobs, was embroiled in a contract dispute – was never the same player again. Lee Mills, Gareth Whalley and Stephen Wright went from sure-fire starters to bit-part players (albeit for Mills that decline was more gradual). The City XI which defeated Liverpool a year later, to confirm last day survival, featured seven different players to the one that started against Wolves.
After 2013’s promotion from League Two, what happened next was initially the continued trusting of the old guard. When everyone in the squad was fit, last September, the regular XI was exactly the same as that which had won promotion at Wembley four months earlier. Only injuries forced changes, at least up until Nahki Wells deciding to effectively down tools and opt for a future elsewhere. With lengthy lay offs for James Meredith and Kyel Reid, and others struggling for form, the evolution has firmly begun. Transition is happening.
Indeed Tuesday night’s starting line-up against Preston was the most unfamiliar of the season so far. Three home debutants was a radical shake-up by this season’s rigid team selection standards. Even since the Preston game, the break-up of the 2012/13 squad has been accelerated by more fringe players exiting the building.
Back in 1999, the speed of squad changes was understandable but nevertheless disappointing. As we basked in the Molineux sunshine, I remember feeling excited by the damage that Mills and Blake would surely inflict upon Premier League defences, and confident that the world was about to share in our love of Moore’s greatness (heck, as a naive teenager I thought all three might get in the England squad). I didn’t agree with all of Jewell’s decisions during that Premier League season, but as the final whistle blew against Liverpool and we swarmed onto the pitch to celebrate survival, there was no doubt that he had by vindicated for his squad evolution.
This time around, Parkinson’s continuation of the 2012/13 heroes has been something we’ve all enjoyed – at least when things were going well. But as City keep failing to win matches and autumn turned to winter, romance now gives way to pragmatism. And Parkinson has never been afraid to be pragmatic.
So on Tuesday, it was all about transition and a sense of reality that a period of change will need to be endured, in the short-term, for the long-term good of the club. There are 19 games to go this season, and though the two matches that City have in hand on sixth-placed Walsall offer the possibility that a 12-point gap to the play offs could be halved to a more manageable six; realistically, thoughts must be turning towards ensuring survival and plotting a 2014/15 campaign in League One.
We are not winning matches, which is a concern, but we are not losing many either. Not so much a nose dive in form as tredding water. Cautiousness has crept into our play – which is either a side-effect of low confidence or a deliberate shift in approach, aimed at ensuring League One survival.
Certainly Phil Parkinson’s observation that Tuesday’s game with Preston became akin to a chess match echoed my feelings as we departed the stadium. The new buzz term within football is “risk vs reward”. As someone who writes about the world of stocks and shares for a living, it is a term I know and understand very well. On Tuesday both sides – reduced to 10 men – adopted a low level of risk, and what followed was a fascinating but conservative affair.
When City attacked, all 10 Preston shirts were positioned behind the ball. And it was the same situation the other way around. Strive to win the match of course – both teams attacked and had excellent chances – but first and foremost do not lose it.
I enjoyed the tactical battle very much, but I was hardly on the edge of my seat. And the sad truth is that I have felt this way increasingly over recent months. Of course, none of us are going to go home feeling happy when game after game goes by without three points, but the buzz of 2012/13 and early season 2013/14 has faded badly, and the enjoyment factor is not what it was. I can only think of the Preston and Oldham games, plus Coventry at home, where I headed home with a spring in my step, since early October. 18 games is a long time to be struggling.
And so, as I watched the players on Tuesday, my fear was not so much that things are changing but whether they are ultimately changing enough in the long run. The new signings all carried promise and I’m sure will do good things for the club, but the overall approach remained unaltered from the week before, and the week before that.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing of course; because when everyone is fit and firing, Parkinson’s City are a hugely engaging watch. It’s just that, in recent weeks, when certain players have been under-performing, the style of football hasn’t made particularly wonderful viewing. We have become increasingly direct, while at the same time failing to get forward in sufficient numbers to support the front two. It has meant we are less effective in the final third, and are also giving the ball away too often.
We haven’t looked so one-dimensional in the recent past. But if there is a comment that has hung over Valley Parade over recent months, it is the ridiculous rant from Coventry manager, Stephen Pressley, that City play “dark age football”. It was taken as an insult, but perhaps had a greater psychological effect than the Scot’s sour grapes merited.
Up until then, the Bantams had three strands of attacking play. The long ball from the back that so offended Pressley, but also the passing and energy of Gary Jones/Nathan Doyle through the middle, plus the attacking wing play of Kyel Reid/Garry Thompson. The latter two areas have been seen less often of late, with the ball just lumped forward to Hanson. As I say, perhaps a sign of dipped confidence; but it’s not been great to watch nor proven particularly effective.
Tuesday brought mixed feelings. The new signings on show – including Aaron McLean – all seem to be like-for-like swaps rather than offering something different. And my initial fear was that it would mean more of the same. That Parkinson had ruled the malfunctioning Bantams’ engine merely needed a few parts replacing.
Yet as the second half progressed, there were positive signs that things were changing. The long ball from the back, which was still a feature of the first 45 minutes, occurred less often. Instead, defenders came forward in possession and the ball was knocked patiently around the park. Jones is a masterful player to have in these circumstances and set the tone for the entire team – he is truly back to his best. Stephen Darby charged forward down the right flank impressively; Adam Reach offered glimpses of quality that promise bright things in the coming weeks. City were trying different things to open the door on Preston, even if it was still was a relatively low risk and reward approach.
As we headed home, several fans in my earshot darkly muttered about how things aren’t changing; but ultimately mid-season is not the time for a complete revamp. My mind flashed back to Colin Todd’s sacking/David Wetherall’s caretaker appointment and Peter Taylor’s exit/Peter Jackson the interim and how, in both instances, the style of football was changed mid-season. Neither Wetherall and especially Jackson were wrong in their ideals, but the results were largely awful and it showed that January/February, when games come thick and fast, is not the time to be instigating radical changes.
While I don’t want to see Bradford City attempt to become Arsenal, mid-season, I do feel that Parkinson has to get the Bantams back to the mix-it-up, high-intense style of earlier this campaign. I worry that he is regressing on this slightly, in light of City’s ever-dwindling league position, and that we are moving more towards the cautious approach which kept the club in the Football League two years ago. I think that he has much better quality in the 2013/14 squad – even allowing for the fact we are in a higher division – to be negative in his approach, and the challenge is to get the players to show their attacking prowess more often. To turn these decent draws into useful victories.
And then, longer-term, a dilemma occurs over whether the way in which City have been playing is one that can prosper in League One, or if the overall approach needs to be refined. What has been refreshing about League One this season is the number of opposition teams playing attractive football, and part of me wonders if we need to push more in that direction, also. But then again, the principled Oldham Athletic are in the bottom half whilst the more pragmatic Preston and Leyton Orient compete at the top.
So back to that word: transition. There’s a growing realisation that things have to change and we couldn’t carry on as we were: relying upon last season’s heroes to keep performing miracles. But how that transition takes shape is still to be defined. These next few months are about getting past the crossroads we face, seeing out a more than acceptable mid-table season and then contemplating how we can take the next step forwards – whatever that next step should realistically be.
On to Wolves
Right now, City couldn’t have a much tougher assignment than Wolves away. The pre-season promotion favourites remain the best side I have seen this season (though we clearly didn’t see the best of Brentford in September) and have a squad that should really be romping their way to the title. They are, however, only third in the division and stand four points behind the pace-setting Bees. Only two sides have left Molineux with all three points this season, however, and they have won three games in a row – including a 2-0 home victory over Preston.
Wolves away is one of those games that – when looking on the fixture list last July – most of us would have mentally written off as a City defeat. But now it’s here, a loss – no matter the level of financial disparity between the clubs – doesn’t feel like something we can readily accept. There’s the very, very real chance that, come 5pm on Saturday, somebody will be uttering the words “one win in 19” and for more doom and gloom in the run-up to a big, big game at home to Crewe next week.
And yet with Andrew Davies back in the side, tomorrow doesn’t quite seem so impossible. Here’s hoping that the happy memories of sealing promotion at Wolves 15 years ago aren’t tainted by the modern day bumps of transition. That at Molineux, Wolverhampton, tomorrow, we can party like it is 1999.