If there is one lesson to take from Bradford City’s midweek draw against Accrington, it is the club badly needs to find a reliable goalscorer.
Having taken a 50th-minute lead through Nahki Wells, the Bantams produced a dominant second half display to ensure as one-sided a contest as we have seen in weeks. But with each missed chance or attacking move that broke down, a fear grew that failing to put the game to bed would come back to haunt City in the closing stages. Knowing what was inevitably going to happen only added to the pain of Accrington’s undeserved equaliser.
Frustration – not just at letting two points slip, but against a backdrop of several weeks watching City drop points due to lacking a killer instinct – manifested itself into booing at full time. Yet a couple of below-par individual displays aside, it was hard to be critical of the team or the manager. What was missing on the night did not seem to be available on the pitch – or from the dugout.
A lack of prolific goalscorer is not a sudden discovery. Almost as soon as he arrived as manager in September, manager Phil Parkinson was targeting his former Charlton striker Paul Benson to move to Valley Parade. Recognising the seriousness of the club’s relegation plight, last November the joint Chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes were prepared to put their hands in their pockets to fund a transfer deal for Benson on top of the regular playing budget.
The deal fell through on medical grounds – Benson’s legs not expected to last the term of the contract he was about to sign, meaning a short-term, limited return on a six-figure investment – and with relegation fears easing, by January that extra money to sign a striker was being talked about as coming off Parkinson’s budget for next season. Deane Smalley was the only forward addition during the transfer window, and Tuesday was the first occasion he’d been given an opportunity in his natural striker role.
Benson, meanwhile, has ended up at Swindon and is scoring plenty – including one goal on the same evening as City were struggling to get a second past Accrington, in Swindon’s 4-0 romp over his former club Dagenham. Manager Paulo Di Canio recently praised Benson, saying: “The way he looks after himself, he can play for at least another three years at this level…He’s a natural goalscorer in the box but he also works so hard and pressures the opponent.”
There is no doubt that Benson would have proven a terrific signing for City, just as he is demonstrating at the County Ground. Relegation looks set to be avoided without him anyway, yet the lack of a player scoring as regularly as Benson is hindering Bantams.
If dominance of a game can partly, at least, be measured by shots on goal, City have had more attempts than the opposition in six of the last eight games – but only won twice over this sequence. The Bantams have the 11th-best defensive record in the division, which isn’t bad for a team near the bottom. But only seven League Two sides have scored fewer goals.
A concern then, even if it shouldn’t prove enough of a hindrance to cost City their league status. For me there are similarities to previous mid-table seasons in the form and way the Bantams have been playing over recent weeks. Especially the 1997-98 campaign that saw striker options of John McGinlay, Rob Steiner, Edinho and Robbie Blake, where the Bantams often dominated games but dropped points through wastefulness in front of goal.
The modern-day City is good enough to give the top teams a game on their day, but not consistent enough to avoid preventable-looking slip ups and from throwing away points. The poor start to the season disguises how decent the team which has evolved under Parkinson really is. But a mid-table standard team with the handicap of starting the campaign off with relegation form is going to struggle to race clear of danger.
Which leaves every member of the team with a crucial role to play between now and May, in addition to staying clear of relegation trouble. For the strikers at the club, the challenge is the same as it was when the Benson deal fell through in November – prove they are good enough to warrant being a key fixture next season, or face being replaced.
James Hanson is certain to fit into Parkinson’s long-term plans and – for a targetman – has a respectable goal tally this season. Wells is showing great potential which suggests he has a promising future at the club, but is he going to score 15-20 goals next season? Ross Hannah struggles to get chances to impress, though he did look sharp when he came on midweek. He is arguably the best finisher at the club, but he needs to show more when he does get first team action. Smalley could be playing for a deal next season, but so far in his career has not been a prolific goalscorer. Do we class Craig Fagan as a striker?
We can pencil in Hanson and Wells for next season, but Parkinson will probably be looking within or to sign at least one more forward to score a lot of goals alongside them. Which is where the other players come in.
Putting aside the question over Andrew Davies for a moment, there is not a lot missing from the current City squad – outside the lack of goals – going into next season. Yes we need another winger, but it is hard to envisage a scenario where Parkinson will release 10+ players and look to recruit the same amount. So when making signings he can target quality over quantity, and spend whatever money he has available wisely. That’s as long as the current squad keep proving they are good enough to remain in his thoughts.
It’s a shame that Benson couldn’t have rocked up on loan for this season, because City would probably be turning the majority of the recent home draws into victories – and we would all be feeling much better about the squad’s ability, plus our prospects for the remainder of this campaign and the next. Without that prolific goalscorer, City are too blunt and ineffective in the opposition penalty area – that more than anything is holding us back.