Familiar narrow margins as Bradford City stay in danger

Bristol Rovers 2

Brown 6, Richard 55

Bradford City 1

Syers 72

Saturday 28 January, 2012

A wide-ranging flurry of opinions from different Bradford City supporters could be heard upon departing the Bristol Rovers away terrace and into the cluttered rows of terrace houses that surround the Memorial Stadium.

From grumbles over the failure of Christopher Sarginson to award what looked a clear City penalty and moans about the official in general, to praise for the team’s battling through adversity, all the way through to anger about individual performances and strong criticism of manager Phil Parkinson.

It was that sort of game, and it’s so far been that sort of season.

The league table never lies by the end of January, and there can be no disputing that the 20th position we currently occupy is where we deserve to be. Yet the margins continue to be so thin, and the difference between success and failure has been minimal throughout the campaign. Only thrice have City won a game by more than one goal, yet only three of the 12 League Two defeats have been by more than a goal too. Win or lose, there’s rarely much in it.

Today the difference was a slip by Andrew Davies on a swamp-like pitch that left Eliot Richard with a free run on goal in the 55th minute. And while there’s no denying Richard finished well past Jon McLaughlin to score what proved to be the winner, that a week’s worth of hard work on the training ground for both sides came down to one mistake and some mud  is hardly something that can be legislated for. That sort of season.

As the walk back to the car through the backstreets of Bristol saw us move away from our fellow City fans and away from Pirates’ supporters taunting us that “it’s a long way to come for nothing”, me and my friend were left with our own thoughts and a four hour car journey home that gave time to ponder the miles we’ve travelled this season and the ups and downs along the way. We didn’t expect much when you think back to August, yet we hoped for better than to be spending the campaign glancing anxiously over our shoulders at teams in the relegation zone.

The radio back in the car revealed that most teams around us have lost, which is great but also frustrating given we could have put more daylight between ourselves and danger. January has been a month of slips up and missed opportunities, with Davies’ fall summing it all up.

Should have done better at Rotherham; should have beaten Morecambe and Burton; should have got a point today. Continuous bad luck, or bad planning? Minor hiccups or the beginnings of another troubling slide? Steve Evans of Crawley Town suddenly fills the airwaves as we get onto the M5, bragging about Crawley Town’s FA Cup win over Championship Hull. Not a great time for us to be welcoming them as our next opponents.

There is no doubt that Parkinson has made huge strides in reviving this club on the field – over the past two months – and in shaping a team which can deliver consistently good performances. And as worrying as the league table continues to look, this squad should have enough quality and spirit to ensure we don’t fall into non-league. Yet the four months that preceded recent improvement have meant a lot of ground conceded, and could yet be something we look back upon with huge regret.

There is no doubt that Parkinson has made huge strides – yet there are still limitations. This City side is probably a match for anyone in League Two when they are fully at their game. But to be fully at their game means to be playing at a very high intensity and with a level of aggression that – if it’s not quite there from player 1 to 11 – can see the team come up short. It’s also a very difficult way to play when you’re not on your own patch, and City’s record of only one win away from Valley Parade all season must be improved upon quickly.

Davies slip up cost City the match, yet Bristol Rovers ultimately won it because they had the edge in both penalty areas. Davies was again outstanding against a very physical and street-wise home attack; but as commendable as Lee Bullock’s efforts alongside him were, he looked like a midfielder playing as a centre half.

Meanwhile James Hanson found himself physically out-fought by the towering Cian Bolger, who for the majority of the game won everything in the air. Alongside Hanson, Nakhi Wells has over the last two games appeared to have hit a brick wall and needs a breather. Though Dean Smalley’s less than convincing appearance from the bench in the second half did little to encourage confidence that he should be entrusted to start ahead of the Bermudan international next week.

City started the game quite slowly and conceded the opener after just six minutes, when Lee Brown was left free to fire a low shot past McLaughlin. It was the sort of easily preventable, dismally defended goal which has plagued Bantams sides for years now. Against a side who came into the game on the back of a superb away win and who had the momentum of a new manager taking charge, it was a present City couldn’t afford to donate. The rest of the half featured several disjointed Bantams’ attacks, with Craig Fagan often the focal point but failing to demonstrate his higher league pedigree. A spill by McLaughlin just before half time – the only mistake in an otherwise superb display – almost left City too much to do.

A greater purpose was instilled into the visitors after half time, with David Syers – recalled to the team ahead of a harshly dropped Ritchie Jones – instigating some strong pressure and Hanson forcing a good save from a nervy Michael Poke. But then Richard profited from Davies’ slip up, and nine minutes later Rob Kozluk was sent to the dressing room early for two bookable offences. A fair decision, though Chris Zebroski should have joined him moments later when a bad challenge saw him escape a second yellow of his own.

Perhaps City had got used to playing a man light – Will Atkinson’s debut for City was one to forget and the galling lack of commitment he showed to the cause made last week’s performance from Andy Haworth look like Jamie Lawrence – because they rallied impressively. By now Atkinson had been subbed and the fit-again Kyel Reid brought on.

Reid turned the game in City’s favour, because he did something not many of his team mates were willing to do. When he got the ball he didn’t simply launch it long to Hanson – which invariably meant surrendering possession to Bolger. He kept it on the ground, and he ran at people, stretching a backline which hadn’t been tested enough.

Then came a moment where Reid was faced with Bolger, where he ran past him in such an easy manner that the Rovers’ centre half fell over in his wake. Suddenly the game’s best player had been made to look like an idiot, and with it the mindset and confidence of Reid’s team mates began to change. The game was not lost just yet.

Almost immediately after, Syers pulled a goal back with a clever volley from a knock down – and Parkinson gambled by going gung ho for the final 18 minutes. The manager had already gone to three at the back; but – as the pressure on Bristol grew and the clock began to run out – more and more men were pushed forward. In the final five minutes Hanson – now alive to taking advantage of Bolger’s shaky confidence – was partnered by Smalley and Davies. Marcel Seip moved into midfield so Reid could play further up the pitch and continue causing havoc. The back two of Ricky Ravenhill and substitute Charlie Taylor were almost sweepers, launching the ball straight back into the mix.

Of course, it left City vulnerable on the counter attack and Rovers could easily have snatched a third – hitting the post and twice forcing brilliant saves from McLaughlin. But if Hanson had shown a bit more composure at one stage, or if Davies’ header hadn’t been tipped away by Poke, or if Syers’ effort had been on target…

Then, just as the 90 minutes were up, Reid was played in superbly by Davies and saw his charge into the box halted by a trip from Zebroski. It looked such a clear penalty that both players actually stopped playing, before realising Sarginson hadn’t given the decision and got back up to carry on. For the fearless manner that the 10-men of City had battled to the end, they received a warm ovation from the majority of City fans at the final whistle.

Yet the best efforts had once again not been good enough, and the hard luck stories are once again mounting. The league table still shows a five-point gap between City and the wrong side of the dotted line, but the pressure to regain lost momentum and quickly get wins on the board is growing.

Time to find that something which is still missing, in order to start consistently overcoming these narrow margins.

City: McLaughlin, Kozluk, Bullock (Taylor 88), Davies, Seip, Fagan, Syers, Ravenhill, Atkinson (Reid 60), Hanson, Wells (Smalley 60)

Subs not used: Duke, Jones

Categories: Match Reviews

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