McDonald 45, Dicko 57
Bradford City 0
Saturday 1 February, 2014
Written by Jason McKeown (images by Mike Holdsworth)
This game was supposed to be one of the season’s highlights; but in keeping with the darkening mood about the way the campaign is unfolding, it became a mission in getting to the end whilst limiting the damage.
Perhaps, though he would surely deny it, Phil Parkinson had already chalked it off as a defeat. He was without top scorer James Hanson up front, and had rested Andrew Davies following his long-awaited return midweek. The City manager must have hoped that his understrength side could give the pre-season title favourites a tough game; but then Nathan Doyle let him down badly with a stupid second booking, not even 30 minutes in – leaving 10 men to valiantly fight old gold but be bettered with some ease.
Just like at Valley Parade earlier in the season, Wolves were only limited by their ambition. Goals just before the interval and early in the second half put the home side in cruise control and allowed them to take their foot off the gas. It became as routine a victory as any promotion-hunting side could hope to achieve. Two sides continued to compete in the closing stages, but had one eye on running down the clock. Result sorted, we all quickly move on from a game neither side will look back on as significant when the season post-mortems are held in May.
Davies’ absence came as a huge shock and sent out the wrong message. Parkinson would state after the match that the influential centre back was never going to play two games in a week, inadvertently revealing his hand that the Preston home game on Tuesday was deemed a more winnable fixture and, thus, prioritised. It is a logic that is easy to understand, and didn’t necessarily mean Parkinson had written off his team’s chances at Molineux. But a frustration that not all resources were put into this game was difficult to shake off.
Our chances of winning this one had been reduced before kick off by the manager’s pragmatic approach to a tough week.
As Parkinson also went without the suspended Kyle Bennett, the last thing he needed was another red card. Doyle had earlier been deservedly booked for pulling back the much-hyped Nouha Dicko, and then just eight minutes later launched into a lunging tackle on Kevin McDonald, on the half way line, which was badly mistimed. Referee Scott Duncan was left with no choice but to issue a second yellow card. It was stupid, it was completely unnecessary and there can be no complaints whatsoever. Doyle left his team high and dry when his big character was needed.
The reshuffle enforced upon Parkinson saw him take off Aaron McLean, to the striker’s understandable disappointment, with City going 4-4-1. There has been post-match complaints about this switch which I can’t agree with. McLean did not deserve to be taken off, but circumstances forced the change. Leaving on his new strike partner, Andy Gray, was the right thing to do given his additional height and hold up play. And there was no way in which the manager could repeat the 4-3-2 of midweek during such a tough away match.
What had already seemed like an afternoon of playing for a point became even more a matter of desperately holding on. By now the Davies debate had been softened by a magnificent display from his replacement, Carl McHugh. The young Irish centre half enjoyed easily his best game of a season that hasn’t yet got going for the player, lining up on the left side of defence next to a very impressive Matthew Bates filling in at left back. (Let me repeat that for the benefit of his growing band of critics: a very impressive Matthew Bates.)
Stephen Darby was his usual outstanding self on the right, with Rory McArdle recovering from some early wobbles to help form a rear-guard action that for a spell frustrated the home side. City might even have taken an undeserved lead, after a brilliant surge from Bates and interchange of passes with Gray allowed Adam Reach to dribble past a defender in the box and smash a shot past Aaron McCarey that bounced back off the crossbar.
Just get to half time was the general feeling, as Wolves attack after Wolves attack was repelled by a committed and hard-working back four, and with Gary Jones terrific in front of them. Wolves won plenty of corners and Bakary Sako forced a smart save from Jon McLaughlin. Just get to half time, as the board went up for three minutes of injury time. Despite Gray’s efforts – and this was the best I have seen him play since his return to Valley Parade a year ago – the ball was not sticking up top and possession was squandered too easily.
Just get to half time, surely it’s time now ref.
Goal for Wolves.
It seemed as though the danger was over as another heroic block repelled a Wolves attack, but then the ball fell to McDonald who picked his spot with a low effort that flashed past McLaughlin’s outstretched hand and into the bottom corner. Roars of relief from the home fans, despair from the travelling support. Duncan blew for half time instantly, and it already seemed like game over.
The thin margins continued to go against City in the second half, when a rare foray forward saw Darby link up with the hard-working Garry Thompson before firing a powerful long rage effort that hit the post. Four minutes later, Wolves made it 2-0 after Sako’s low cross caused panic and McHugh and Darby could not prevent Dicko’s effort trickling over the line. Still 57 minutes to play, but with a man disadvantage Parkinson was understandably reluctant to chase the game. His conservatism was leading to a defeat but not a bad one.
Nevertheless, questions need to be asked of the manager in his decision to bring on Oli McBurnie for Gray with a quarter of the game still to play. Asking a 17-year-old to lead the line on his own in such difficult circumstances badly risks damaging his confidence. Sure enough, some clueless fans around me were bemoaning the young striker’s efforts, as Wolves easily knocked him off the ball. Perhaps Parkinson quickly realised his error of judgement, as he introduced Jordan Graham to provide some further attacking support, but it is worrying to see young players thrown into a situation like this.
Wolves might have made it 3-0 when Leon Clarke rounded McLaughlin but saw his shot somehow stopped on the line by Darby and booted clear by Bates. Yet Wolves were clearly satisfied with their afternoon’s work, which was enough for them to leap-frog above a defeated Leyton Orient and into the automatic promotion places. Anything can happen in football, but smart money should be placed on Wolves instantly returning to the Championship this May.
But what of the Bantams? One win in 19, and only eight goals in their last 11 games. Marooned in mid-table with a seven-point cushion above the drop zone, there is still work to be done to ensure survival. The urgency to get three points on the board is growing. Defeats like today won’t define our season, but the next two games against 19th-placed Crewe and 18th-placed Carlisle could very well do so.
For these two matches, Parkinson cannot afford to hold back anyone.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, McHugh, Bates, Thompson (Graham 76), Doyle, Jones, Reach, Gray (McBurnie 67), McLean (Atkinson 32)
Not used: Jameson, Taylor, Stockdill, Pollard