The importance of a strong ending

Cheltenham Town vs Bradford City match preview

@ Whaddon Road on Saturday 28 April, 2012

By Jason McKeown

My father-in-law and I share a love for Police documentary style shows, where the cameras follow the cops chasing the criminals. And whenever the bad guy is caught doing something stupid, Dad’s favourite phrase to yell is, “they’re not criminals because they are smart”.

The more League Two football I have watched this season, the more I’m beginning to think a similar type of slogan could be applied to many clubs within this division.

Just what on earth were Macclesfield Town trying to achieve at Valley Parade last Saturday? Three points away from safety, with three games to go, the relegation-threatened visitors defended deep in numbers, flooded the midfield and time-wasted their way through the match. Did they really think that a point would have been good enough in their position? Did they not view this as a must-win game and, as such, look to show some attacking nous?

After the match, Macclesfield assistant manager Glyn Chamberlain talked up the fact that, “I don’t think we were dominated by Bradford.” So what? Were we the team needing to win to avoid relegation? Were we the ones fighting for our lives? I find it hard to believe they would look upon the fact City didn’t “carve them open” as a consolation or a reason to score brownie points. Imagine City had lost, instead of won, at Northampton the previous week, and Phil Parkinson had come out and said, “I don’t think we were dominated by Northampton”? The T&A website would have probably closed down under the sheer volume of complaints on its message boards.

Macclesfield’s bizarre, conservative and low-ambition approach to last week’s match helped to create a strange atmosphere amongst City fans in the week after the 1-0 win. Although it was hardly a thrilling victory and no one was performing cart wheels down Midland Road after the match, the avalanche of criticism that some directed at the manager and players for their performance was somewhat joyless and largely over the top. 1-0 down with 20 minutes to go, Macclesfield barely switched tactics and were still time-wasting on occasions. City had no need to go for a second goal, but went for it anyway in a controlled manner; yet were criticised for not going gung ho.

Some have argued that this is the way Parkinson wants City to play, and a preview of next season. There is no obvious evidence that this is going to be the case, based on the type of football and performances we have seen (we can call the football under Parkinson ugly, but it is largely attack-minded). Macclesfield were easily the worst side to visit Valley Parade this season and it would have been nice to have demolished them, but the simple truth was that City were below their best and managed to grind out a win.

The criticisms over Macclesfield’s tactics and lack of quality aside, it does not mean they were simply going to be rolled over. Their players were clearly displaying a level of commitment that saw bodies thrown at the ball to block shots and huge efforts to deny City’s dangermen time and space. They tried to stop City playing, and in that regards succeeded. City did well to win the match. Not great, but good enough. To use the performance as a criticism of the team and Parkinson seems incredibly harsh.

As for Macclesfield – well, as my father-in-law might say, they’re not about to fall out of League Two because they are smart.

Survival confirmed last week, there is nothing for City to play for during their final two games – and this in itself sets a much more interesting test of Parkinson and his players than earning a scrappy win over Macclesfield. On a number of occasions during the second half of the season, good form offered the opportunity for City to push on and start climbing the league – pulling comfortably clear of the bottom two. Each time they failed to take that initiative and build on good results, wastefully dropping points and sliding back into trouble.

All season long, City have proved that – when the chips are down and they really needed to get points – they were able to deliver. But over the course of a full season where we have ambitions of play offs, only winning when the pressure is on would not be considered good enough. So the challenge is not to switch off now, given there is nothing but pride to play for, and to ensure a happy ending to an ultimately disappointing season.

Not that it will be easy. Cheltenham tomorrow and Swindon next week sit amongst the top seven places that the Bantams will strive to achieve themselves next season. The Robins – arguably the best side to visit Valley Parade so far this season, especially because it is impossible to give Crawley credit for their far from smart tactics – currently lie in sixth, three points clear of eighth-placed Oxford. A win and they will just about be there play off wise, so it’s unlikely they will time-waste their way to a 1-0 defeat to the Bantams, while arguing we didn’t dominate them.

Matt Duke keeps goal having been part of a side that has won three from five games since he returned to it, despite having little to do overall and still not fully convincing all that he should be number one keeper next season. In front of him there will be a big question over the back four, given Andrew Davies is finally back from his five-match suspension. With Guy Branston filling in so superbly, and Luke Oliver – crowned official player of the season this week – still in strong form, a change to the centre halves would spark outrage. Instead, Davies is more likely to be accommodated at full back, where he has apparently played before in his career.

That would mean dropping one of Simon Ramsden and Rob Kozluk – both were below par last week and likely to depart during the summer. Davies could also be deployed in midfield like he was at Huddersfield in the JPT last October, but breaking up the in-form partnership of Ricky Ravenhill and Ritchie Jones would be pointless. Kyel Reid continues on the left and Craig Fagan on the right.

A word about Fagan. He came in for a huge amount of criticism for his performance last week, once again. As a supporter who is fortunate to get to the majority of matches home and away, I’ve personally noted a correlation between his performances and that of the team. Basically when City play well Fagan plays well, and when he is below par so too are City. It is strange that this is the case, because he is generally less involved with the play, especially for a player of his pedigree.

No one would call Fagan a match winner based on his performances this season, yet he quietly brings a touch of quality and assurance to the team which seems to make a difference – even if it is not always appreciated.

James Hanson and Nahki Wells remain up front; though Chris Dagnall and Deane Smalley may be in contention too given it is a meaningless game for City. The latter impressed greatly coming off the bench on Saturday, and is a bit of a wild card in terms of whether Parkinson will sign him this summer.

Interestingly, at the player of the season awards in midweek, it was apparently revealed that youth striker Adam Baker has been handed a professional contract because he is expected to get into the first team next season. Having scored two goals for the reserves in midweek, is there a place for him on the bench either this week or next?

Probably not, as Parkinson still has such a huge squad to choose from for now. Whaddon Road might have been the ideal location to give some of those fringe players one last chance before they surely leave, but all eyes are now on Parkinson and his players to end the campaign in a manner that can encourage pre-season optimism for next season.

Now is the time to be smart in League Two.

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1 reply

  1. Re: Davies, he started at right back in the Stadio Olimpico once during an away goals ‘smash-and-grab’ win for Boro against Roma. Was subbed off at half time for Franck Queudrue mind, but still.

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