The long route to standing still at Bradford City face Aldershot

Aldershot Town vs Bradford City preview

@The Recreation Ground on Saturday 10 March, 2012

222 days have passed since Bradford City entertained Aldershot Town on the opening day of the season, but despite the up and down events which have occurred in between that warm August afternoon and tomorrow’s return fixture, there’s an overriding feeling that not enough has really changed.

City lost 2-1 to Town at Valley Parade that day, to set the tone for a campaign which has continually seemed to be more of a struggle than it should be. At the time of that opening fixture, Aldershot were viewed as being as much of a middle of the road League Two team as you could find, and the fact City measured up so badly against them set alarm bells ringing that three weeks later resulted in Peter Jackson walking out on the club.

Seven months on Aldershot are still in League Two’s middle position of 12th – after finishing 14th last season – with an eight point advantage over the Bantams. City too have not enjoyed meaningful progress from the end of last season, with the 18th place we currently occupy the same position they ended up 2010/11. A lot of hard work, bluster and high player turnover has seen the club achieve little more than stand still over the past year. And while a backdrop of year-on-year decline over the last decade makes the prospect of at least halting that slide welcomed, the climb back upwards has never looked so difficult.

With 11 games to play, putting to bed those lingering relegation fears remains the main objective, but even assuming that battle is successful, it’s hard to imagine that we will end the season against Swindon in early May feeling anything other than relieved a poor season is over. Fond memories to look back on for sure, but as supporters we are looking for far more than what the last three seasons in particular have provided us.

Reasons to be optimistic largely stem from looking at the playing squad which has been developed and the abilities of the man who replaced Jackson in the hot seat. Width of a Post writer Rob Craven told me an interesting tale of getting an up close view of just how emotional Phil Parkinson was when City equalised against Wimbledon in midweek, and how much his celebration conveyed what this job means to him. Mark Lawn continues to tell people that Stuart McCall and Jackson were too close to the City job and were hurt by setbacks too much – but that doesn’t mean “outsiders” care any less.

Meanwhile with just four of the eleven players who started against Aldershot at Valley Parade back in August featuring against Wimbledon in midweek, the reasons behind a season of little progress become clearer. 18th last May to 18th this March leaves out the fact a backwards step was seemingly taken during the transition from Jackson’s squad to Parkinson’s, but the hope is that was a painful process worth taking in regards to the new-look squad’s capability to move upwards next season.

Jon McLaughlin appears to be firmly part of those plans, in addition to defenders Luke Oliver and Marcel Seip – who start once more tomorrow. The fact we can say it’s “unlikely” Andrew Davies would be interested in making his loan deal permanent during the summer is at least more optimistic than declaring that it’s impossible – but it still seems inevitable that his long-term future lies elsewhere. He is a key player for now.

Right back has a question mark for next season. Simon Ramsden was supposed to have returned for the Oxford game, but he didn’t figure; and Parkinson said after he was been held back for the Wimbledon match, where he once again didn’t appear. No one doubts Ramsden’s ability and the difference he has made when available, but that his two-year injury torment shows no signs of ending means it is going to be a very tough call over whether to retain him when his contract runs out this summer. Hopefully he can return tomorrow, to replace the less-than-convincing Rob Kozluk.

In midfield Lee Bullock has been the surprise hit of the past two games but is a doubt due to illness, meaning Ricky Ravenhill (back from suspension), Ritchie Jones (left out midweek) or Michael Flynn (unused sub at Wimbledon) will be battling to start alongside David Syers. Craig Fagan’s suspension allows Will Atkinson to return on the right – though he must improve on his average displays to date – with Kyel Reid continuing on the left.

Up front, Nahki Wells – who is attracting interest from higher clubs – is a doubt, which could open the door for a return to the 4-4-1-1 system, with James Hanson up front on his own and Syers playing the hole. Having no Wells and no Fagan would have presented a huge headache 10 days ago, but Hanson’s return is a boost given he was expected to be out for another couple of weeks at least. Three games in a week is, however, a tough ask of City’s top scorer, but Parkinson doesn’t appear to have many other options.

It’s been a strange second half to the week for City. An undeserved defeat to Wimbledon – bringing simmering anger of being let down by referee Darren Deadman and Fagan – saw the players receive barely a murmur of criticism from those fans who witnessed it. The good tidings of the victory over Oxford United last Saturday already seem too long ago, but defeat number 14 of the season was not down to any obvious failings and tomorrow’s game with Aldershot is all about picking up where the team left off, rather than needing to identify a different strategy.

City go again, looking to take another step closer to the target of survival; a step closer to being able to properly plan for next season; a step closer to again experiencing the feeling of pre-season optimism – which this time around was abruptly extinguished on day one by Aldershot.

There’s only 140 days to go until we start all over again.

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