Bradford City 2
Reach 35, Jones 90
Oldham Athletic 3
Wesolowski 22, Clarke-Harris 45+58
Saturday 5 April, 2014
By Jason McKeown
The relegation issue just won’t be put to bed, and the real concern for Bradford City is that they are running out of opportunities. How they could be left to rue this costly home defeat; one that narrows the margin for error considerably with just five games left to play. That the next three are against teams with promotion aspirations means no-one should be sitting comfortably on that six-point cushion.
Survival is within touching distances and yet – after another wretched performance from the players – any sense of achievement looks increasingly likely to carry a hollow feel. No one was planning to order an open top bus to celebrate successfully avoiding relegation, but this feeble crawl over the line lacks dignity and deserves to have serious repercussions. Because as City allowed themselves to be easily beaten by an Oldham side who sit below them, there’s a growing stench that is becoming difficult to avoid.
This team is past its sell-by-date. It needs a radical, radical shake-up.
That Phil Parkinson will be the man tasked with that considerable close season challenge is entirely right, but he did much to harm his standing with City supporters today. After speaking in the build-up about knowing exactly what to expect from Oldham, there can be no excuse for the disorganised and ill-thought out approach that his team took. Opposing teams that play a three-man midfield has long been the manager’s Achilles Heel and it beggars belief that he still cannot find a solution. Oldham hunted in packs for the ball and then worked in groups to keep hold of it. City were chasing shadows.
Yet equally, Parkinson has every right to feel let down by his players. From front to back they were awful today and it’s time that they came under the firing line rather than aiming all criticism at the manager. Parkinson needed his senior players to step up and perform, and he needed those who want to be at Valley Parade next season to demonstrate their desire to earn a contract. It didn’t happen. Today’s City XI contained just two players – Andrew Davies and Aaron Mclean – who don’t go into the summer facing an uncertain future. After this showing, Parkinson’s released list may have grown in length.
Oldham looked more confident, more determined and more comfortable in their game plan. In James Wesolowski they possessed the best player on the park (it was the same story in the reverse fixture). The Oldham number four was up and down the pitch with boundless energy. When no one picked up his late run onto Jonson Clare-Harris’ knock down, the 26-year-old was able to smash his team into a deserved lead midway through the first half.
Jon Stead, making his home debut up front, had glanced an early header wide of the post, but that had been it for City. The initiative was passed up in a way that has been depressingly familiar of late. Parkinson sought to combat Oldham’s dominance of possession by switching to a 4-5-1 formation that had Mclean on the right wing and Kyle Bennet tucked inside, but the results were decidedly mixed.
For the game was retrieved – but then ultimately lost – during the 10 minute run-up to half time. Firstly, City equalised after some excellent work from an otherwise disappointing Matty Dolan. He won the ball high up the park, before spinning and producing a defence-splitting pass that enabled Adam Reach to race past a defender and slot the ball home. But then just as the board was to go up for injury time, Gary Harkins played an offside-looking Clarke-Harris through on goal. Rory McArdle, Jon McLaughlin hesitated and the ball was in the back of the net. As the cliché goes, you play to the whistle and City did not.
Yet the passage of play at 1-1 was equally crucial on the game. Having been pegged back, Oldham retreated and City began to dominate the ball. Their 4-5-1 meant plenty of players available for a short pass but no one to support Stead. A wall of blue shirts stood firm, and the home crowd grew frustrated. It was in some ways proof that – for all the complaints from some about City’s style of football – deep down most people cannot tolerate a passing game and want to see direct football. Parkinson decided to abandon the approach almost as quickly as he’d switched to it. Such indecision is out of character. He was streets behind Lee Johnson in the tactical battle.
And it meant a second half depressingly familiar. Oldham bossing the middle of the park, as City went 4-4-2 and Dolan and Gary Jones were found wanting. Mclean and Stead were starved of possession yet completely failed to make anything that did reach them stick in the final third. Reach stood out more than most as lacking commitment for the cause – he was a loanee playing for himself, which is unacceptable – whilst Bennett regressed back to old ways, following promising displays of late.
The Doncaster loanee stood ball-watching as a pass was played up to Clarke-Harris, who ran clear of the back four and slotted home impressively despite Davies’ late attempt to block him. A really bad goal from a City perspective. Whatever the huge failings in midfield and up front today, everything was undermined by some incredibly woeful defending. I have never seen Davies have such a poor game for City, and he and McArdle made numerous mistakes.
With 32 minutes left on the clock, you hoped to see a determined fightback from the home side. Worryingly they looked defeated and – substitute Oli McBurnie aside – fearful of receiving the ball. McBurnie’s introduction for an underwhelming Stead saw boos directed at the manager that were repeated when he later brought off Mclean for Yeates. Whilst the frustration was easy to understand, as Parkinson simply didn’t have adequate options on the bench to take off his two senior strikers, performance-wise both players merited their withdrawals.
I’ve tried to retain judgement on Mclean and it is still too early to make a call on him, but to date he has been a long way short of expectations and – if rumours of his wage packet are to believed – we are entitled to demand a lot more from him. James Hanson was hugely missed and City need to get to the root of his fitness problems as a matter of urgency. In the circumstances Stead is a good signing, but City need their Plan A back, fit and firing.
As Valley Parade emptied long before the end, a late flicker of hope was ignited by a second City goal, deep in stoppage time. Yeates raced clear of the back four and struck a shot from an angle that smacked back off the post. The rebound fell to Jones, who picked his spot to beat the defenders rushing back. It was too little, too late. Within seconds, Oldham’s terrific away support were able to celebrate the final whistle and a deserved three points.
For the Bantams, the last four home games have yielded just one point and it is their away form – one loss in four – which is keeping them above water. But while this terrible performance probably doesn’t change the fact that one more victory should be enough to seal survival, this defeat should be viewed as a watershed moment.
Because this team simply isn’t good enough for where we are and where we want to be. It needs wholesale changes, if a more credible promotion push is to be realised – heck, just to make sure that relegation is avoided next season also. Parkinson has to make some tough decisions over the next few weeks over who to keep and who to let go, and he needs to be ruthless about it.
Sentiment clearly clouded too much of the planning for this season, and for that Parkinson has been rightly criticised. We will never forget the contributions of those 2012/13 History Makers and they will always have a place in our hearts, but the time has come to move on.
The bar has been lowered of late. Every single person in that Valley Parade dressing room shares some responsibility for allowing that drop in standards to happen. In the short-term, what matters is to get those final few points needed to confirm a place in the 2014/15 League One. But the inquest into what has gone wrong has already started and, whatever division City are in next season, sweeping changes need to be made.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury, Bennett (Thompson 64), Dolan, Jones, Reach, Stead (McBurnie 64), Mclean (Yeates 83)
Not used: Barker, McHugh, Bates, Stockdill