Shrewsbury Town 2
Taylor 80, Miller 90
Bradford City 1
Saturday 22 March, 2014
Written by Jason McKeown (image by Kieran Wilkinson)
The real sadness about this season is that you already wish it was over. This woeful defeat to second-bottom Shrewsbury Town prolongs the relegation anxiety, but it still appears to be a matter of when, not if, survival is assured. More pressing is how afternoons such as these are clouding the future, deflating goodwill and damaging morale.
A shadow has been cast over Bradford City, who are stumbling through the final stages of the campaign with a confusing lack of purpose. Not close enough to the bottom four places to be causing sleepless nights, but those lingering concerns should have been put to bed by now. We want to start planning for next season, but the expected rebuilding job looks even more considerable after this result. If only we could get on with the big shake-up, rather than enduring this period of uncertainty and tredding water.
Whilst losing to a side who had not previously won at home since November is never going to look clever, it was the nature of this non-performance from the Bantams that prompts the real frustration. Only Carlisle, at Valley Parade in August, have put in a more tentative and feeble showing than the one which Shrewsbury produced. The home side were awful – but City completely failed to take the initiative and play to their capabilities. The home side were awful – yet they would walk off the pitch as victors.
Only Stephen Darby and Gary Jones – the latter was thrust into action from the bench just before half time, due to a Nathan Doyle injury – can emerge from this game with any credit. Kyle Bennett also showed glimpses of what he can do, but from the rest this was a completely unacceptable showing. No urgency, no drive and a troubling lack of commitment. This from a group of players who last season made their supporters so proud because they would never give up.
That seems to have been lost over the last few months, and it is manager Phil Parkinson’s biggest challenge to restore. He has long since preached the value of constructing teams that are full of character, and this ethos was something that captured the imagination of his public. He understands that meeting the high expectations surrounding this football club requires full commitment and effort from every player he selects. No one will be hurting more than Parkinson from feeble performances like this. It is far, far removed from what he preaches.
For the most part of the game, absolutely nothing happened. It was devoid of incident, save for a decent Aaron Mclean first half effort for City and Shrewsbury’s Tom Eaves impressing visiting supporters if not his own (he would later be subbed to cheers from the home stands, which was curious given he looked their best player). Both sides were too direct in their approach play, with possession tossed back and forth like a game of tennis. When the ball was played on the ground, some of the mistakes made by both sides were incredibly woeful.
James Hanson missed a glorious chance just after half time, when he got on the end of an excellent Bennett cross but could only steer his half-volley straight at Shrewsbury keeper Joe Anyon. Asa Hall’s shot from distance was easily saved by Jon McLaughlin, and that was about it really. Shrewsbury looked scared of their own shadow; City looked ready for the beach.
But when the drama finally came it would prove plentiful. First Andrew Davies struck, after City finally managed to put Shrewsbury under sustained pressure. The last of four successive corners had been cleared back to the taker, Matty Dolan, who launched the ball into the box once more and Davies stabbed it past Anyon. An underserved, but welcome, away victory was on the cards.
Yet less than 60 seconds later, Shrewsbury were level. The powerful Jermaine Grandison crossed low and Jon Taylor was to fire home past McLaughlin. With a flicker of renewed hope, the strugglers pressed on in the final stages and, in 94th minute, punished City’s lifelessness. Substitute Shaun Miller – so often a thorn in the Bantams’ side during his Crewe days – struck a low acrobatic volley into the corner of the net to mark his debut in memorable style. The home supporters wildly celebrated whilst Bantams’ shoulders slumped.
Shrewsbury hardly merited their victory, yet City deserved to be defeated. They were disjointed throughout, with Davies and Rory McArdle sloppy in possession at the back, and Adam Reach failing to show his quality in good positions. Hanson and Mclean were starved of service but also unable to hold up the ball when it was played up to them.
Dolan perhaps best exemplified the claret and amber implosion in Shropshire. He failed to build upon his hugely promising performances against Colchester and Gillingham, as he constantly lost possession and struggled to break up Shrewsbury attacks. On this evidence, he is not ready to replace the ageing Jones – whose composure and drive when he came on was highly commendable, even though it left you feeling anxious that our reliance on his waning battery life remains too high.
Despite this set back, the Bantams remain in mid-table and it would take an almighty collapse over the final nine games to be kicking off next season in League Two. Yet at the same time, any sense of achievement at finally exceeding the 50-point mark is likely to feel hollow and subdued. Avoiding relegation was always the number one objective – but after running out of the starting blocks this season, City are crawling over the line. That doesn’t inspire optimism for the future, and it is difficult to conclude what should be done.
Whilst Shrewsbury go into their final eight games with much to fret about, their highly likely relegation offers a timely warning to Bradford City. Last season, the Shrews were in a similar position to where we are now – establishing themselves in League One, following promotion the year after – but staying up didn’t automatically lead to a continued curve of improvement. They went backwards instead.
There is major, major work to be done at Valley Parade this summer to ensure City don’t follow the same path. Staying in League One is one thing, but much, much more is expected in the long-term. The suspicions that the club has regressed over the last few months need to be extinguished. The stagnation of the playing squad must be addressed. The mistakes made this season can be tolerated and forgiven, provided they are not repeated.
Once these nine games are done and dusted, Parkinson will go into his third close season as manager of Bradford City, where his playing squad can be refreshed. His first close season (2012) proved a spectacular success, his second (2013) was anything but. How he performs during number three will go a long way towards determining his longevity in the Valley Parade hotseat.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury, Bennett, Dolan, Doyle (Jones 43), Reach, Hanson, Mclean (Thompson 90)
Not used: Jameson, McHugh, Bates, De Vita, Gray