Bradford City v Shrewsbury Town
@Valley Parade on December 31, 2011
If we are to discount the month of May – where traditionally only one or two matches are ever played – September 2009 was the last calendar month in which Bradford City stayed undefeated in the league. Avoid a loss to Shrewsbury tomorrow, and December will have seen that feat repeated. City are currently undefeated in four league matches, including the Gillingham draw at the end of November, and finally seem to be moving slowly but surely in an upwards direction.
Monday’s impressive victory over Crewe did more than lift the Bantams to their joint-highest league position of the season, it reinstalled a feel good factor which has been present too infrequently during the first half of the campaign. Within Valley Parade on Boxing Day, there was a huge buzz emanating from everywhere but the corner housing the Crewe fans. The result obviously helped, but it was the manner in which the players went about their business and the high work-rate displayed which generated the outbreak of smiles across the near 11,000 home crowd, many sporting Santa hats given out by the club before kick off in return for a donation to the Burns Unit.
The challenge for the players tomorrow is not just to remain unbeaten, but to ensure the feel good factor is maintained. It could take only the smallest of set backs for doom and gloom to make an unwelcomed return and, having shown just what they are capable of, it would be more apparent and feel more frustrating if players allowed standards to drop again.
The backing that the team received against Crewe was outstanding, and it largely occurred because we reacted so positively to the energy and effort levels they showed. It’s often said that we City supporters will stick by a player who at least gives their all – although recent history is full of examples where that didn’t happen – and the team will hopefully have taken on board the lesson from Monday: that bravery and positivity will be rewarded with roars of encouragement. The players did their bit to ensure that, for once, playing in front of the division’s biggest crowd was the advantage it should be.
Shrewsbury are a different proposition to Crewe. Fourth in the league and very much on the coat-tails of the top three, Graham Turner’s men will be desperate to improve on last May’s play off semi final defeat to Guy Branston’s Torquay. En route to last season’s top seven finish, Shrewsbury’s extra quality was the telling factor when they defeated City 2-1 at Valley Parade in early March. The current league table suggests a gulf in class remains between the two clubs, which could give cause to write off the Bantams tomorrow. However, the recent victory at high-flying Southend offers reasons to remain hopeful.
The way in which City are taking the game to opponents has much to do with it. In keeping with a reoccurring theme of opposition managers failing to admit they deserved to lose at Valley Parade, Crewe boss Steve Davis complained that the referee didn’t provide enough protection to his players from the physicality of the Bantams, during their defeat. When James Hanson swept home the third goal, a swarm of Crewe players rushed to the official to complain about the way Luke Oliver had climbed over his marker. Since Phil Parkinson took over, City have undoubtedly become an uglier team – one not afraid to push certain aspects to the limit. After years of watching teams get promoted from League Two while playing in a similar manner, it’s difficult to feel upset over City’s more hard and physical approach.
With a trip to Rotherham following on Monday, Parkinson might be tempted to rotate his squad over the three-day period – but he is less likely to tinker with his backline. Jon McLaughlin has been flawless since his recall, while Andrew Davies and Oliver are becoming the most important part of the team. Simon Ramsden and Marcel Seip will probably retain full back spots, though three games in two days could prove a big ask of the former.
In midfield the injury to Kyel Reid and suspension for five yellow cards of Ricky Ravenhill presents two holes for Parkinson to fill. Jack Compton will get the nod on the flank, with Craig Fagan on the opposite side, but who partners Ritchie Jones in the middle is open to debate. Michael Flynn spent Christmas in hospital on a drip, so is surely ruled out of action. Is David Syers fit enough to be risked from the start so soon? Chris Mitchell is perhaps the more likely replacement for Ravenhill, with Jones sharing more of the defensive duties, but the door would appear to be slightly open for youngsters Luke Dean and Scott Brown too.
Up front, the blossoming partnership of Hanson and Nahki Wells should be continued for now, with Mark Stewart pushing for a first start since October after recovering from injury. Ross Hannah may also be available again. He and Wells are both showing clear signs of finding their feet at this level and – although it’s understandable Parkinson is set to persist with plans to sign a striker when the January window opens – it does seem a shame that the pair’s opportunities will subsequently become more limited.
Until the start of this month, it felt as though all of the joy we’ve experienced this season had come from the cups rather than the league. Don’t lose to Shrewsbury, and staying unbeaten in December will be a small triumph to celebrate at an important stage of the campaign. Whatever the outcome tomorrow, after Boxing Day the players know exactly what they need to do in order to retain the support of their crowd.