Bradford City vs Port Vale preview
@Valley Parade on Tuesday 18 February, 2014
By Katie Whyatt
“How do I define history? It’s just one f*****g thing after another.” Alan Bennett, The History Boys
Don’t mention last season. Whatever you do, don’t mention last season. Don’t mention Wembley, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Wigan, etc. It’s done. Forget about it. Defeating Villa over two legs isn’t serving us well now. You can’t live off shadows all the time.
Football is judged largely on the immediate. With City hovering perilously close to the drop, the onus is on Phil Parkinson to turn form around now. Worm yourself out the clouds, haul your head out the sand, wake up and smell the coffee. It’s time for the gaffer to prove that he’s the right man for the job.
And moving on is fine. Even I’m growing weary of hearing the words “Wembley” and “twice”. I don’t advocate living in the past at all. If you’ve only just pulled yourself from dreamland, the current run must be a bit of a rude awakening.
But to ignore last season does a massive disservice to Parkinson and his men. Job security is never dictated by the achievements of yesteryear and results all about the here and now, but stability so often is subject to the past – you have to keep that bigger picture in mind, the events of the past two, three, four, five, ten years, to move forward and progress in a manner sustainable for the future.
By discounting everything this team has achieved so far, and everything Parkinson has accomplished at this club – including, significantly, the relegation battle of 2011/12, when, lest we forget, Davies, McLaughlin and Oliver were all suspended – we lose track of Parkinson’s ability not just a football tactician, but as a man manager and person who can get the best out of a squad of players when the chips are down.
Why ignore this history when its contemporary relevance is there for all to see?
Equally, to constantly reference last season is an injustice – the bright start to life in League One, though since dulled by draws and peril and draws and misery and draws and hoofball and draws, shows this squad can, when fully fit, confident and on good terms with Lady Luck, ply their trade at this level. 4-0 victories against Carlisle and Brentford, a 2-0 win over Sheffield United, narrow games with Preston and Wolves, and a comfortable humbling of Walsall, brought with them surging form and fluid play, City as in control and dominant any side in League One had ever appeared. Every display was convincing, every pass pinpointed, the positivity palpable as it seemed the Bantams had hit the ground running and made the most seamless transition palpable. Mid-table? Easy. Let’s aim for the top six.
We weren’t to know the Brentford game would prove City’s apex.
Like last season, Bradford have fallen victims to their own success, the nadir exacerbated by the contrast of such a promising initiation to third tier life. The priority now is, as it’s always been, consolidation, not a play off place. Parkinson is the man to steer the ship through this stormy voyage, and I genuinely don’t understand any suggestion to the contrary. The cup run and the sale of Nahki Wells afforded City the chance to stabilise the finances and secure firm foundations for the future. Phil Parkinson is a huge, huge, huge part of that.
How you can even question his position is beyond me. The money aspect of football and the sheer turnarounds at clubs like Manchester City have created a demand for instant tangible success, when, in reality, the only way to attain such development is through steady and consistent progress. Slowly building a team of strong characters, implementing a style and ethos, and working hard on and off the pitch is the way forward. Changing managers at the drop of a hat, as we learnt from life in League Two, is rarely ever the answer.
In football, time is such a rare commodity. That’s why we need to stick with Phil.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the wheels fell off.
Some say the writing was on the wall as far back as Tranmere and Shrewsbury, which I personally wouldn’t agree with, but you can see why they picked those games when focusing on the ‘one win in x’ statistic. Some say it was when Andrew Davies got injured, and, while only one win has followed in his absence, the performances didn’t immediately become alarming, and Matthew Bates and Rory McArdle coped well with the tricky Wolves and Preston forward lines.
Like many, I’m inclined to say Coventry. Pressley’s comedic “football from the Dark Ages” rant was laughed off at the time, the bemusing mutterings of an irate and envious manager whose team had, like many Valley Parade foes this season, been two-nil up and, well, messed it up. But, no matter what your personal conviction in a playing style, that kind of comment has got to have some sort of effect on a squad’s mentality, right? The thought of an identity crisis, self-implosion and one win in 21 may seem too stark to have stemmed from such a spur-of-the-moment comment, but it can mainly be traced back to the visit of the Sky Blues – even with Davies missing, the team had been flying up until that day. Couple the subsequent soar of interest in Nahki Wells and the disruption this caused to proceedings, and it’s easy to highlight that fixture.
So much has happened since, and City have been transformed, in an agonising eyeblink, from promotion contenders to relegation rivals. The point haul has dropped like a stone, positive feeling and league standing eventually going with. Holes have emerged to turn a strong defence into a leaky one. December was a month of doom, January the month of Nahki Wells, February currently the month of serious, serious panic as the form just can’t seem to right itself.
Every month since November has brought with it a flush of false starts, false dawns and false scorelines, even though the bright spots have flashed amidst the darkness. Stephen Darby, for example, has continued to rise and rise, and I genuinely don’t know by what miracle we managed to acquire him last season; the reassertion of Gary Jones at the heart of City’s midfield has brought similar satisfaction, but both were elements open to little criticism from the outset. Oli McBurnie continues to excite and Aaron Mclean looks set to keep moving forward alongside James Hanson, but that’s about it.
What’s the solution, then? A win, quite simply, would bolster confidence and strengthen the mood in the camp, but City can’t seem to buy those at the moment. Why? Why aren’t they winning games? Why are they always starting on the back foot? Why are they failing to convert chances in the final third? They’re playing well for long periods, but the first half almost always sees them either revert to directness, lose possession or concede cheaply. It’s the same pattern every week: City impressing early on but lacking clinicality, and goals against the run of play leaving them with it all to do. At home, they’re rarely the second-best team and they’re almost always the one that looks most likely to break the deadlock – so why can’t they ever do it? Why do they always need a Gary Jones-inspired comeback to salvage anything?
The dichotomy is disconcerting. I don’t know how I feel about them. I love them all, but I can’t stand to see them made mortal every week. I admire their unwavering resilience and stoicism, but despair at how they thrive off making it difficult for themselves. If they could just start on the front foot once, convert just one of those chances, sort their defensive positioning out…
“It’s subjunctive history… The mood you use when something might or might not have happened, when it’s imagined.”
Yet, I’m not panicking. I don’t think this side will go down at all. Maybe I’m being naïve – I’ve gone into almost every game since the Coventry clashed utterly convinced their fortunes would change and only now am I starting to worry about where the next win will come from (weather forecast: Tuesday looks good) – but I hope I’m not. I’ve steeled myself against the drop with those timeless, immortal words:
Too good to go down.
Because when I’ve seen teams get relegated over the years, they’ve looked not to care. It’s as though they’ve long accepted their fate. The energy, the fight, the spirit, the hunger, sapped away months before the final day. They’re not playing for survival. They’re not playing at all. They’re just… There.
You can never say that about this team.
But effort alone isn’t going to carry them to safety.
Back in the here and now, the Bantams welcome 9th placed Port Vale with the drop lurking frighteningly close behind. For Vale, also newly promoted, it’s a different story, and a must-win for all the right reasons: they’re six points adrift from the final play off spot, and have a game in hand on their two nearest contenders – it’s a great chance for them to make up some ground.
As for City, the back four, in spite of calls for Carl McHugh to be given a starting berth, is likely to remain untouched from Carlisle, comprising Darby, McArdle, Davies and Bates. The front two also writes itself – at this stage of the season, and with Mclean yet to reach his peak despite proving so critical and creative against Crewe, I can’t see a major shake-up.
The midfield is a tough one to call. With Nathan Doyle and Matty Dolan splitting the service last week, either could find themselves in the starting eleven, though Jones will undoubtedly partner them in the centre. Expect loanee Adam Reach to retain his place on the left flank, but the right side is another tough one: will Parkinson favour the blistering pace of Kyle Bennett, or did Garry Thompson do enough on Tuesday night to warrant another start? I’d personally lean slightly towards Bennett because the promise is there, but could City’s number eleven be a viable option? There’s got to be something lurking up Thompson’s sleeve, else why would he start every week?
History, then: one f*****g thing after another, indeed, but also a blessing, a curse, a sign of the future, potent inspiration and the most compelling reason for getting behind these boys.
But City’s current run needs righting sooner, rather than later. Because those who don’t learn from history are guaranteed to find themselves repeating it.