Bantams hit the road in search of their ruthless streak

Bristol Rovers vs Bradford City match preview

@The Memorial Stadium on Saturday 28 January, 2012

By Luke Lockwood

Bradford City’s visit to the Memorial Stadium follows a couple of decent performances at home without the deserved rewards; but knowing that victory will take them above their opponents may help the Bantams find their merciless side.

Following two games in succession where Bradford have dominated the match, only to see three points become one in the final moments, it is their ability to kill sides off which has been the topic of the week. There have been many conflicting opinions for Bradford’s failings in this department. Whether it is nerves, injuries to key players, lack of decent service to the forwards, the forwards’ inability to convert the good service from midfield or lapses in concentration at the back, Phil Parkinson will be looking for all his players to provide the answer this weekend.

Certainly injuries looked to be responsible for surrendering winning positions twice in the closing stages of the Morecambe match as Bradford defended with a makeshift backline. First Luke Oliver had to leave the field with a hamstring strain which didn’t cause too many problems. Charlie Taylor came on in his natural position of left back allowing Mercel Seip to move to his more natural centre half spot. However, when Rob Kozluk left the field with severe cramp Ricky Ravenhill had to fill in at right back. Kozluk had already been having a difficult afternoon against an impressive Morecambe left hand side that they obviously targeted, but following a shaky start he began to impressively thwart any attacks that came his way and Bradford looked comfortable.

Unfortunately Ravenhill – who by this point had already done enough to deserve man of the match following an outstanding 80 minutes in the middle of the midfield – was subject to a torrid final ten minutes. It is important to point out that Ravenhill’s task was made even more difficult by the fact his presence had been lost from the middle of midfield, where he is very effective at stopping opposition attacks before they even get going. However, he obviously struggled to get to grips with his new position and both goals were conceded via opportunities created down his flank.

Fortunately Kozluk was able to recover from his cramp in time for the Burton game where he put in a very impressive and solid display. He is certain to continue at right back as Simon Ramsden remains unavailable with a broken toe and it looks as though Parkinson may have another pleasant selection headache when Ramsden eventually returns.

It is less certain who will partner the conscientious Andrew Davies at centre half. Lee Bullock replaced Oliver for the visit of Burton and, although the midfielder put in a impressive professional display against Burton, I felt his lack of defensive experience was evident. If you watch a seasoned centre back such as Oliver or Davies defend they will look to clear the danger at the earliest opportunity and, rather than let the ball bounce, they will come meet the ball and nullify the threat.

On a few occasions I noticed Bullock would take a step back and either give the opposition opportunity to get the ball under control or leaving himself deal with a difficult and unpredictable bounce. Should Oliver be fit I am sure we will see him return to re-form what has looked – at times – an unbeatable partnership with Davies. However, I have no further concerns with Bullock’s otherwise solid display and, should Oliver not be ready for the Bristol game, he has done more than enough to keep his place.

This week Luke O’Brien’s stalled City career looks to have come to a halt following a proposed move to Exeter. It is a great shame that the local lad has not reached the heights recently that his early promise showed, but hopefully a move to a side currently a division higher than ourselves will kick start a career that still has chance to flourish. Parkinson does not seem confident in his other out and out left back, Robbie Threlfall, so Seip will complete the back four hoping to protect John McLaughlin for a full 90 minutes plus injury time.

In midfield Parkinson faces possibly his toughest selection of the season. Although club captain Michael Flynn has returned to the training ground following his illness, he is unlikely to be fit for selection and it would be difficult to see him force his way in over the impressive duo of Ritchie Jones and Ravenhill. One man who may be able to disrupt that partnership is last year’s Player of the Season, David Syers. He will hope to see his stop start season accelerate to top speed by starting this weekend, but even he is unlikely to walk straight back in considering the form of the two central midfielders.

Syers’ presence will put added pressure on the classy Jones and ‘Iron Man’ Ravenhill because, as Parkinson has claimed, he needs the rest of his side to start chipping in with goals that will kill off games. Following Syers’ impressive goals return last season, Parkinson may see him as the answer in his goal shy midfield and give City that all important ruthlessness. For this week however, Syers will have to be content watching Jones and Ravenhill from his place on the bench.

That is of course unless Parkinson tries to accommodate him by either changing formation or using him out wide. Following the recent improvement in performances and results I can’t see Parkinson wanting to shake things up too much and change formation, but could Syers be used out wide? He has played from the right before and could offer the same balance that Parkinson seems to use Craig Fagan for. However, it is unlikely that the manager will drop his current captain.

Fagan has split opinion amongst City fans this season and has probably been unfortunate in the fact so much was expected of him when he joined. It may be that, despite his past success as a Premier League player, Fagan – who suffered a serious injury – may now just be a decent or even good lower league player. Fagan has not let anyone down in his time at Bradford, and he has put in some good workmanlike performances, shown great experience and on occasions glimpses of why he has attracted £1 million transfer fees. I have criticised his delivery both from open play and also set pieces. The latter is certainly an area City need to improve and utilise the assets of James Hanson, Davies, Oliver and Seip, but Fagan shouldn’t be to blame for the fact that nine other outfielders must be just as bad at set pieces, or he wouldn’t be the man stood over them.

Just as Fagan has been a constant figure on the right hand side, we are yet to find one on the opposite flank and once again it is difficult to predict who will be selected. Before his injury Kyel Reid was Parkinson’s preferred choice. He appears a slight improvement on Omar Daley and offers a far superior end product than the Jamaican, but he is also similar in the way he threatens to be lethal but at the same time can be frustratingly inconsistent.

In Reid’s absence Jack Compton, Charlie Taylor and Andy Haworth have all tried to convince Parkinson they are the answer. As much as I was a fan of Compton he has now gone, as a stop-gap replacement Taylor seemed neither to upset anyone nor wow them sufficiently and that includes Parkinson. Haworth has shown glimpses of ability in his two and half hours at Valley Parade but on the whole failed to impress and for that reason Parkinson has brought in another winger, Will Atkinson from Hull, who can also play on the left.

Parkinson has received some criticism for bringing in another winger on loan especially as Reid’s return is imminent. The manager though is still looking for long term answers and has already stated that Atkinson has come here with the view to a permanent deal, just as Ravenhill came on loan before signing his two and a half year deal.

Of course in his search for the ‘ruthless’ City, Parkinson may surprise us all by playing 2 out and out wingers. Haworth and Atkinson can play on either flank and one of these could replace Fagan on the right; but this is unlikely – especially away from home. If Reid is deemed fit enough it would be expected that he will operate from the left and Fagan will again offer the ‘balance’ on the right, with either Atkinson or Haworth looking to make an impact from the bench. But should Reid need another week to recuperate then one of the other two will have a chance to prove their worth.

Deane Smalley made his debut from the bench on Saturday replacing Nakhi Wells and, despite an impressive start, it is doubtful that he will replace Wells in the starting line-up because he and Hanson must be given the opportunity to continue their fruitful partnership.

The pair have at times showed they may possess the necessary killer instinct. Nakhi knows that when City are in possession and if he stays close to Hanson – who will win the majority of balls directed at him – then the chances will come. The Burton defence couldn’t live with Nakhi’s threat at the start of the match on Saturday, with two players picking up a booking for fouls on the Bermudan early doors. However, City failed to capitalise on this when they should have targeted the right hand side.

Perhaps Wells didn’t like such physical defending, because he appeared to lose a bit of confidence in his touch and things seemed to stop happening for him in the second half. He will soon have to learn to deal with this if he is to provide the Bantam’s clinical edge because the big bruising defenders in League Two will become more wary of his threat and he is only going to get kicked up in the air even more.

With Wells and Hanson cementing their place as first choice strikers and Smalley appearing to be their replacement, it has left a lot of questions over the futures of Ross Hannah and Mark Stewart. Both have impressed when given the opportunity and Hannah looks as though he will continue to be used as a ‘super sub’, thrown on to try and get us a goal when needed, but Stewart failed to make the bench on Saturday. Despite being a goal scorer for the reserves this week it is unlikely he will feature at Bristol.

Even though Stewart has managed to acquire a number of fans from his displays, you wonder if Parkinson – searching for a ruthless streak in his starting XI – will be ruthless himself as he looks to trim the fringe players from his wage bill for next season.

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