Bradford City 1
Notts County 1
Tuesday 26 November, 2013
By Jason McKeown
For how high Bradford City have soared over the past 18 months, it is the low hurdles that continue to cause them to stumble. Six weeks since then-bottom Tranmere Rovers recorded a surprise victory at Valley Parade, the current basement club, Notts County, ended a run of five consecutive defeats by doubling their season’s away points tally at a ground where struggling visitors do not fear to tread.
The Bantams began the season looking invincible at home, but now 13 points from the first 15 has been followed by two from 12. Those four winless fixtures did include the might of Wolves and Coventry, but like Tranmere before those games, tonight felt like a missed opportunity. City got what they deserved, although there was encouragement to take from a strong second half response to a dismal opening 45 minutes.
It is a mystery why the start was so slow. There were few surprises when County delved into the strugglers’ handbook to formulate a well-worn plan of keeping men behind the ball, slowing the game down and relying on the counter attack. But for whatever reason, City couldn’t imprint their high tempo style that has defeated many higher placed opponents. The initiative looked there to be claimed with ease, but it took far, far too long to get going.
The illness spreading around the camp in the build up undoubtedly didn’t help matters. For all the pre-match talk of players not being able to play, it was no surprise that Phil Parkinson opted to risk everyone – as he is rarely cautious over such matters. Nevertheless, there was a lack of energy and urgency to City’s first half play that suggested more than a few needed a duvet day. In such circumstances, the fact the workrate did not drop was hugely admirable and wonderfully typical of this group of players.
The goal conceded to Notts County just before half time summed up the off-the-pace nature of City’s first half display. A loose ball was picked up by James Meredith just inside his own half, and the Aussie’s driving run forward presented him with the opportunity to double up with Kyel Reid and work the ball past the isolated full back for a cross or run at goal. Reid – who had by far his least effective game of the season tonight – failed to make the required run and an unsighted Meredith squared the ball to where he expected his team mate to be, losing possession.
County broke forward, Matthew Bates stood off Jack Grealish, and Marcus Haber was able to cross for Gary Liddle to tap home. A hugely preventable goal that simply wouldn’t have occurred with everyone on top of their game.
City – booed off at half time – had offered little other than wasted opportunities from Nahki Wells and Reid, but improved considerably after the break. That it was aided by Parkinson replacing Nathan Doyle with the once-more-underachieving Jason Kennedy felt as significant as the summer signing’s winner at MK Dons on Saturday suggested it could be in determining his Bantams career. Kennedy was utterly anonymous tonight, and really you have to question where he goes from here? He has much convincing to do to an increasingly sceptical Bradford public.
Indeed as Doyle and City belatedly applied stronger pressure – visiting keeper Bartosz Białkowski made outstanding saves from James Hanson and Wells – in my mind I was left wondering what the future held for all of Parkinson’s close season signings. Aside from Bates (deputising for the sorely missed Andrew Davies), this was the 2012/13 vintage being wholly relied upon once again.
Yet in some parts of the team, the need for change is growing as the powers of the established players begin to fade or require a serious re-boot. If anyone needs a goal, it is Garry Thompson, and as he ran clean through just past the hour mark it looked like he’d get his moment. Białkowski won the one-on-one battle rather too easily, as Thompson produced a weak shot that summed up his performance. 10 minutes later, he was subbed to his obvious frustration. Four minutes later, his replacement Mark Yeates had scored.
And what a fantastic finish it was. Hanson knocked the ball down in the area before Wells laid it into the former Watford man’s path, and the strike from the edge of the area flew into the bottom corner. A shot in the arm for Parkinson’s gradual squad evolution approach, to go with Kennedy’s winner on Saturday. Yeates impressed once more from the bench and he looks a sure-fire starter for Sunday’s trip to Oldham.
City pressed on for a late winner, with the third substitute – Alan Connell – also making a difference in place of the groggy Wells. But for all the pressure, clear cut chances were low and it was hard to make a case that the Bantams merited the three points. County were not the worst side we will play this season, but their lack of finesse and guile suggests they will struggle to escape the bottom four.
Nonsense in the final stages came from Notts County being reduced to 10 men when Haber was sent off a crude elbow on Gary Jones. Haber should have been joined for an early bath by Liddle who applied a boot to Doyle’s face, but received only a yellow. As both benches clashed over the incident, referee Trevor Kettle sent County’s assistant manager Gregg Abbott – whose antics on the touchline were an embarrassment all night – to the stands. The former City favourite making a meal of leaving the dugout.
A strange night then, where it was difficult to feel either down-hearted or up-beat. There are no easy games in football, and as a newly-promoted club City certainly have no right to believe they should beat anybody at this level. Yet we have been spoiled by so many excellent performances this season against tougher opposition, which makes it frustrating when points are dropped in these circumstances.
No one, beyond the substitutes, played to their true capabilities. And, undoubtedly, the club won’t be earning a second successive promotion playing like this. But when the chips are down and that character and commitment still shines through, like it did tonight, it offers huge encouragement in the potential for City’s 18-month progress being continued for some time yet.
And that, more than a sluggish performance, is what this evening should be remembered for.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Bates, Meredith, Thompson (Yeates 65), Kennedy (Doyle 45), Jones, Reid, Hanson, Wells (Connell 70)
Not used: Ripley, Oliver, Folan, De Vita