Walking to survival, when running might be preferred

Bradford City vs Accrington Stanley match preview

@Valley Parade on Tuesday 6 March, 2012

The Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson’s pre-Dagenham warning that relegation worries were not over may have sadly been proved right by events at Victoria Road – but as the Bantams prepare for back-to-back home matches with Accrington on Tuesday and Oxford on Saturday, how long it will take to fully put those fears to bed could have a big effect on the mood going into next season.

Six points currently separate City and the bottom two, with at least one game in hand on every relegation rival bar Northampton. Had the initiative being taken at Dagenham when it was on offer early in the second half on Saturday, we could now be more comfortably positioned in lower mid-table – instead of still remaining amongst a cluster of relegation-threatened teams. A happy ending looks a likely outcome this season, but there is still much work to do.

Last season, survival was only confirmed on the penultimate weekend. This year, the upwards momentum built since mid-November gives hope that it won’t be such a close run thing this time around. But already it is clear that the target for next season is to mount a strong promotion push – so results over the next few weeks will go a long way towards determining how credible that aim is.

Monday saw the 2012/13 season ticket packages officially put on sale. The “futuristic twist” of a 50/50 Flexicard offer – where you pay £50 up front for a seat and then £10 per match you attend – certainly looks good on paper, in that it presents supporters who can’t or don’t want to commit to a full season ticket with a means to attend games more often. But with another season of underachievement a cause of frustration to us all, there is a concern that a sizable chunk of supporters who have bought season tickets for the last five years might now be tempted to downgrade to this middle ground option.

That would mean less revenue from season ticket sales, which has a direct impact on the playing budget Parkinson will have to utilise. It’s a huge balancing act for City because, as much as a strong take up for the Flexicard deal will justify its introduction, the aim of it is surely to attract floating supporters rather than enable the committed to make a lower financial contribution. And if the entertainment, performances and results are anything like as dismal as they were this time last year, the Flexicard offer will look a more attractive deal to many people.

For that reason, comfortably avoiding relegation – rather than scraping it – should be considered a key objective. We all need to see evidence over the coming weeks that next season can truly be much more enjoyable.

A home victory this week is an important first step towards this. City have won two games since the turn of the year – both in front of away followings that totalled fewer than 300. This means most of us have not witnessed a Bantams victory for over two months and – while four straight home draws means most of us haven’t seen a defeat either – we need to experience with our own eyes that winning feeling more often. It is a great feat to stay unbeaten at home since November, but both points and morale-wise I believe it could be better to lose one and win one at home this week, rather than achieve two more draws.

How Parkinson sets up City has been the cause of endless debate since he achieved success playing 4-4-1-1 at Torquay two-and-a-half weeks ago. Michael Flynn performed the ‘hole’ position well at Torquay, but less so at home to Hereford. Syers came on for Flynn that day and had a huge impact, but has been unavailable since. Flynn went off injured at Barnet early on, with Will Atkinson taking the role at Underhill and Lee Bullock having a go at Dagenham. Opinion is mixed over how effective he proved.

As Syers and Flynn can’t play against Accrington on Tuesday, it will be a big call for Parkinson whether to continue the system with Bullock operating behind Craig Fagan. He would be heavily criticised by a home crowd which has never tolerated 4-5-1, but he is paid to make tough calls and to do what he believes is right rather than what other people think.

Nevertheless with 4-4-1-1 evolving from the unavailability of players, Parkinson has to believe he that has the right personnel to make it work if he is to continue it. Bullock let no-one down on Saturday, but a switch to 4-4-2 and Nahki Wells up front with Fagan seems more likely than it did pre-Dagenham.

In midfield Parkinson has three of the four positions working effectively, but a headache over the left midfield slot. Deane Smalley looks a good player at times and clearly has the ability to perform at this level, but at the moment he is not offering enough to the team and at Dagenham there was a lack of balance as a result. 4-4-1-1 enables Parkinson to play two out-and-out wingers; but without someone to perform in the direct manner of Kyel Reid, the opposition will find it easier to concentrate on stopping City by targeting the in-form right winger. Ritchie Jones and Ricky Ravenhill continue in the centre.

The defence has a similar left-sided issue. Marcel Seip was unavailable at Dagenham, and Matt Fry struggled as his replacement. Parkinson has followed seemingly every City manager in being slagged off for playing people out of position, but a testament to how well Seip has performed over the past few weeks is that the Dutch centre back’s role at left back is rarely questioned. If he is fit enough to return, Fry will make way. Luke Oliver, Andrew Davies and Rob Kozluk retain their places in front of Jon McLaughlin.

What about the strength in reserve? Parkinson has made it clear he maintained a big squad in the January window due to the high number of midweek games in February and March. So far he’s pretty much stuck with the players who are fit, but on Saturday there seemed to be a tiredness to City’s play which suggested a week off rather than a game with Accrington would have been more welcome. It could be time to give some players a breather.

Will Atkinson will be angling for a start, Andy Haworth came in from the cold to get five minutes at Dagenham. Chris Mitchell was an unused sub and it was great to see the promising young player back in the matchday fold. Me and my friend actually sat next to Ross Hannah and Luke Dean – who travelled with the team but did not play – in the away end at Dagenham. You could sense Hannah’s frustration at once again being overlooked. Any of these could be involved from the start against Accrington.

Until the relegation question mark is put to bed, we’re going to keep saying that it’s a big week for City and this one is no exception. With Oxford to follow on Saturday this isn’t going to be an easy few days by any means, but both games provide opportunities to gain points which cannot be passed up.

We’re getting there slowly in terms of avoiding the drop – but for the sake of next season’s plans, it’s to be hoped the pace of progress will quicken over the coming weeks.

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