Bradford City 2
Kennedy 60, Hanson 65
Saturday 30 August, 2014
By Jason McKeown
The dark mood of pessimism that hung over Bradford City’s pre-season suddenly feels like a long time ago. After this, a third league victory from five matches, fears of a desperate relegation battle can be eased further. Giddy excitement about the future is allowed to reign for the moment. At full time the players remained on the pitch to take in the acclaim of a packed out away stand, and how richly they deserved it. It has been some week, and it could prove to be some season.
10 points from a possible 15, plus a spot in the third round of the League Cup, is beyond expectations. It is a start, only a start, but the early standards have been set and the bar has been raised. Whether it is sustainable – and how far this revamped team can take the club – cannot yet be answered. But the early signs look good.
This wasn’t an exhilarating performance, but it didn’t need to be. City were professional in their approach throughout, remaining composed – and patient – in their evident self-belief that opportunities would ultimately be created and taken. The visitors scored twice in the space of five minutes and then completely shut up shop on Rochdale. All afternoon they were a step ahead of their newly-promoted hosts. Every Bantams player involved put in a shift. And increasingly, this feels less noteworthy and more a case of a return to normality. What else, really, would we expect from a Phil Parkinson side?
Away from home, City are quietly building an impressive record following an encouraging end to the last campaign. Since a truly appalling 2-1 loss to Shrewsbury Town in the middle of March, the Bantams have only lost once in nine matches. They are unbeaten on the road in four games this season, three of which have been won and with only one goal conceded. Prior to the beginnings of this impressive nine-game away run, Parkinson had achieved just 13 away league victories in two-and-a-half seasons.
There was little danger here that Rochdale would puncture the mood of jubilation derived from the midweek Leeds United victory. Their lightweight attack barely troubled an authoritative Rory McArdle and Alan Sheehan, whilst Gary Liddle, Billy Knott and Jason Kennedy in particular wrestled control of the middle of the park. What home threat there was occurred from the wide positions, as vacant space in front of Stephen Darby and James Meredith lead to some probing crosses that – at one stage – resulted in Matt Done heading the ball past Jordan Pickford from an offside position. Some suspect kicking aside, Pickford was barely noticed all afternoon as Rochdale failed to muster any clear cut chances.
And it meant that City were able to play at their own tempo. They pushed players forward in a measured fashion and worked the ball around the final third with impressive patience, as they sought out openings. At times, it is eyebrow-raising just how many City players are operating in the opposition’s half, and on a couple of occasions a loss of possession enabled Rochdale to counter attack, two-on-two, with ease. Yet in these rare instances, the work-rate of City players in racing to get back behind the ball was highly commendable. What we have is a team who stick very closely together; moving up and down the pitch as a cohesive unit, rather than individually.
Filipe Morais and Mason Bennett – who were both recalled after missing out midweek – struggled at times to find room to operate and to link up effectively with James Hanson; and, in time, more will be expected of the pair if they are to be prove more than short-term solutions. The half time introduction of Billy Clarke in place of Morais made an obvious difference, and Parkinson will be hoping that his number 10’s recent injury is not repeated anytime soon.
City made the breakthrough on the hour, as Sheehan was allowed to bring the ball forward and produce a delightful cross that Hanson headed down for Kennedy to slam home – it was as though Rochdale’s players were unaware that Sheehan is usually a left back and has a wicked delivery. Kennedy chose not to celebrate scoring against his former club, but inside he must have been beaming with pride about how this afternoon, and the first month of his season, was panning out.
Just three weeks ago Kennedy was a misfit; seemingly out of the first team picture, as he was sentenced to play in reserve team friendlies and sitting on the bench in first-team warm up matches. On the eve of the season, he was heavily rumoured to be joining Hartlepool United and it was even suggested that Parkinson only blocked this move due to lack of squad depth. But Kennedy has put behind a desperately poor 2013/14 campaign – largely spent on Bradford City and Rochdale substitute benches – to become a key player for the Bantams. Supporters who a few weeks ago had no time for the midfielder are now singing his name. What a turnaround.
Five minutes after Kennedy’s goal, Hanson headed home his fifth of the season – and moved into the top 10 all-time Bradford City goalscorers list – from Sheehan’s terrific corner. Back in those worrying weeks of pre-season, where the diamond midfield was first trialled, Hanson was robbed of any kind of service and the signs pointed to a difficult personal season. Not a bit of it so far, and his confidence must be sky high. Parkinson must be praying that the transfer window closes on Monday evening without any offers for his pivotal frontman. Instead, the manager will be looking to add to his troops. Width of a Post understands that he is hoping to sign 21-year-old Blackpool forward Tom Barkhuizen on a long-term loan deal.
With the game won, it was all about seeing the final 20 minutes out. Rochdale huffed and puffed, but on this evidence lack sufficient quality to avoid a battle with relegation. City looked comfortable in everything they tried. They sit fourth in the fledgling league table and have made an even better start to this campaign than they did the last. Back-to-back home matches in the league now follow, and hopes are high that City will remain amongst the early season pacesetters.
Whilst last season’s autumn collapse in form suggests it is dangerous to make any firm predictions over City’s long-term prospects, what is becoming abundantly clear is just how enthralling this season looks set to prove. For countless years and from several managers, City supporters have been fed a routine diet of straight 4-4-2 football – exoticness at Valley Parade was going 4-3-3. What is so wonderful about this season’s approach is just how unfamiliar it remains. I don’t yet fully understand what players are trying to do positionally at times – other than how deliberate their on and off the ball movement evidently is – and I’m enjoying trying to figure it out. Early season games have offered a football education, bringing with it a refreshing sense that things are different from anything we have ever seen before.
And with eight of today’s 14 involved players only recruited during the summer, there is the very real prospect that we are only at the beginnings of yet another major Parkinson achievement. To build one outstanding team, the 2012/13 History Makers, it one thing – but has he constructed his second wonderful Bradford City side? A long, long way to go yet before we know, but it looks set to be a thrilling journey finding out.
City: Pickford, Darby, McArdle, Sheehan, Meredith, Liddle, Kennedy, Morais (Clarke 45), Knott (Dolan 82), Bennett (Mclean 75), Hanson
Not used: Williams, Routis, Yeates, McBurnie