Bradford City 1
MK Dons 0
Saturday 22 February, 2014
By Jason McKeown
From such thin margins have come such considerable returns. Two 1-0 victories, two sets of three points. The league table suddenly looks so much healthier for Bradford City, who if not fully satisfying relegation concerns have certainly eased them. Nine points above the bottom four, with nine clubs between them and the dotted line.
Today was a different type of victory requiring a different type of performance. The attacking exuberance of Tuesday, which eventually wore down well-organised opponents, was less of a feature, as tired legs had to stand up to a talented-if-flawed MK Dons side. It was about grinding out the points rather than winning through greater intensity. Being dogged when you couldn’t be dominant.
Luck played its part too, none more so than for the game’s only goal. A long ball over the top was chased down by James Hanson but should have been cleared by David Martin. The visiting goalkeeper’s wild swing failed to make contact with the ball, and it rolled past him. Hanson continued his run and finished low into the unguarded net from a tight angle. A stroke of fortune, even though Martin’s hesitancy all afternoon made him seem like an accident waiting to happen.
You could make a strong case that the goal – which came in the 71st minute – was undeserved at the time, given it followed a spell of strong MK Dons’ dominance that saw them threaten Jon McLaughlin’s goal on several occasions. But the turnaround from second-best performers to ultimate victors was a triumph for Phil Parkinson. The Bantams manager reacted well to the threat of the opposition over-running his struggling midfield, replacing Aaron Mclean with Chris Atkinson and going 4-3-3. Suddenly the Dons weren’t passing the ball through claret and amber shirts so easily.
Let us not be romantic. Had City failed to earn this victory, Parkinson’s tactical change would have been heavily criticised by an increasingly sceptical section of Bradford City support. To swap a striker for a midfielder brought a confused reaction from many at the time, and it could easily have turned into dissent. That the switch brought such notable success deserves to go down as a big tick in Parkinson’s favour. As lucky as the goal might have proven, the improvement from City in the final 25 minutes was no coincidence.
Prior to that 65th minute re-shuffle, the home performance had been mixed. City started the game on the front-foot and Mclean should have belatedly broken his duck, tamely firing a one-on-one shooting opportunity straight at Martin. There was some promise about the way he and Hanson linked up, but this was by some distance Mclean’s least effective game for City. His first touch is often impressive, but he plays too much with his back to goal and several attacking moves broke down due to the former Hull man’s hesitation.
Hanson was certainly faring better. The MK Dons knew all about him from the 3-2 City victory in the reverse fixture last November, and clearly made plans to combat his threat. But even being double and – on some free kicks – triple-marked failed to curtail the big man’s dominance. He won everything in the air and showed some good touches bringing the ball down.
Hanson was involved in everything good about City. Clever link-up play with Mclean saw him charge into the box from a wide position and lay the ball off, via a deflection, into Nathan Doyle’s path. Doyle – easily the pick of City’s midfield four – should have made more from the opportunity than lashing a shot well wide. Hanson also teed up the promising Kyle Bennett for an effort straight at Martin, and finally had the best chance of the half himself with a fierce volley that smacked back off the crossbar.
Yet the MK Dons had chances too, with the 4-5-1 formation employed by Karl Robinson offering the flexibility for different midfield runners to support targetman Izale McLeod, and Daniel Powell pulling the strings in a holding role. Their best opportunity saw McLeod break forward after Carl McHugh and Andrew Davies collided going for the same ball. After a jinxing run, McLeod struck a low shot that beat McLaughlin but not the outstanding Stephen Darby, who heroically blocked the shot on the line.
Having ended the half stronger, the MK Dons continued to edge proceedings in the second. McLaughlin made two important saves and the back four – again very impressive, with Rory McArdle firmly back to his best – cleared a succession of corners. Cue Parkinson’s reshuffle midway through the second half, which was soon after followed by Hanson’s goal. A Valley Parade that had been almost mute for 20 minutes sprung back into life to help the players through the closing stages.
Perhaps the MK Dons were their own worst enemy, stubbornly refusing to deviate from their short passing principles and patient build up play – despite the greater urgency required. City looked far more likely to claim a second goal than concede their slender advantage. Doyle’s powerful drive from distance flew narrowly wide, substitute Garry Thompson had a reasonable penalty shout turned away and Hanson forced a smart save from Martin after getting on the end of a Jones cross.
Despite eight minutes of stoppage time to negotiate, City held out for a victory which keeps them in 11th and closing in on the top 10. With the third of three successive home games seeing bottom-club Stevenage next in town, there is every reason to be confident that the Bantams can strengthen their position and take another significant step forwards in retaining their League One status.
Yet although we have witnessed clear improvement over the past few days, it has hardly proven so vast to believe that there was a great deal wrong prior to Tuesday night. Aside from a wretched display at Carlisle, performances over the past few weeks have in the main being good, with only two defeats in the last eight matches. Since the end of October, only one visiting side has been victorious at Valley Parade. Davies’ five games back from injury have yielded three clean sheets. To date this season, just six League One sides have lost fewer games than City’s nine.
The fallout and the angst aired loudly by a minority, post-Carlisle, looked wholly unfair at the time. Some claimed that City were doomed to relegation and that a change of manager was the only remedy. It would be wrong to crow too loudly about how misguided these rash judgements now appear in hindsight – there are still issues for Parkinson to resolve, particularly long-term – but these back-to-back victories should quell recent criticism and hopefully win back a few doubting minds.
Increasingly it appears City are going to see out a comfortable mid-table season. There are plenty of better teams in the division, who will line up ahead of the Bantams in the promotion and play off positions; but also many worse sides, who over the coming months will be consumed by genuine relegation fears. The ultimate challenge for Parkinson is to get the club into the former group next season or the one after, despite the likelihood of his playing resources being reduced in the summer.
Such thoughts are for another day, and for now the manager deserves to bask in the glow of six points in five days, and two team performances that had all the hallmarks of their manager. In a season of thin margins, they are once again going his way. As a result, Parkinson can go into the final 14 matches looking upwards rather than down.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Meredith, Bennett (Thompson 56), Doyle, Jones, Reach (Dolan 90), Hanson, Mclean (Atkinson 65)
Not used: Jameson, Yeates, McBurnie, Gray