Trying to start on a high (or avoiding starting on a low)

Notts County vs Bradford City match preview

@Meadow Lane on Saturday 11 August, 2012

By Jason McKeown

It matters tomorrow, for the first time this season. But how much does it really matter?

A trip to League One Notts County – who only failed to achieve a play off spot last season because of goal difference – represents a very tough first competitive game of the campaign for Bradford City. We can only be underdogs in such a match up, which means in all likelihood we will begin the 2012/13 season with a defeat (just as we have for the three previous seasons). Anything more is a bonus.

As such, it’s difficult to determine where to pitch our level of expectation. Bowing out of the League Cup at the first stage would not be a nice feeling, but it is not going to be something to lose sleep over. I’m sure that, if presented with a choice, everyone with a claret and amber connection would choose three points at Gillingham next week over cup glory in Nottingham. Tomorrow is, therefore, probably not a game we can lose result-wise.

Although it is a game we can lose morale-wise.

A return to West Yorkshire on Saturday evening following a heavy defeat – the sort of arse-kicking County handed City on the opening day of the season three years ago, for example – and it would prompt doubts and fears about the Bantams’ prospects for the bread and butter League Two battles that lie ahead. No one should be expecting City and Notts to kick off the 2012/13 season at the same playing standard, but we do harbour ambitions of ending the campaign with a place in the division that our hosts tomorrow currently occupy. We therefore don’t want to look like we are a million miles away.

More than that, there is a need to ensure that the bubble of optimism – which has gradually grown during the summer – isn’t burst quickly. When reflecting on the overall mood of supporters, I often think that the best times supporting City over recent years have occurred during the summer, when we’re not losing football matches. Come the first few matches, and reality inevitably kicks in that the revamped squad is not as strong as we’d hoped, and that the manager we’d taken a break from moaning about is just as tactically questionable. That can often cause a strange atmosphere during the early weeks of the season, as we reluctantly re-adjust our expectation levels downwards.

Consider again that 5-0 thrashing from Notts County in August 2009. It set the tone for a difficult season, and meant it was always going to be difficult for Stuart McCall to win over the doubters. A year earlier Huddersfield humiliated us 4-0 in the League Cup, which brought a similarly angry reaction. Two years ago, City lost 3-1 to Shrewsbury on day one and struggled to beat Stevenage a week later – a performance that saw the Bantams booed off, despite winning. The carefree days of pre-season optimism tend to come to an end rather abruptly.

Which is why tomorrow means something, in terms of making sure Parkinson and his new-look squad do not have to spend the opening weeks of the season similarly on the back-foot. Defeat might be difficult to avoid, but if the minimum we get tomorrow is an encouraging performance and for Notts County to have to work hard for a place in round two, we can approach next weekend’s trip to Gillingham in the same positive mood we feel now.

With seven days to recover for the trip to Kent, it’s expected Phil Parkinson will field a strong City line up at Meadow Lane tomorrow – but with a host of injuries, not one that will provide definitive answers to the first choice XI this season. Who will play in the centre of defence is the biggest poser when everyone is fit, but with Andrew Davies injured, player of the season Luke Oliver will start alongside Rory McArdle.

Watching Oliver perform to his usual high standards over pre-season, I still refuse to believe he will ultimately be benched for Davies until it actually happens. Although McArdle can play as full back, it has been suggested he is not keen to take on this role. Perhaps as the season goes on this will change – especially if Oliver and Davies moves ahead of McArdle in the pecking order, and it’s his only route to the first team – but whoever Parkinson chooses, City look strong in the centre of defence at least.

At full backs, Steve Darby and James Meredith have not convinced all during pre-season, but are expected to be first choice for the big kick off and will hopefully find their feet quickly. Full backs often get a hard time from City supporters – think Wayne Jacobs – but on paper both look to be astute signings by Parkinson. Jon McLaughlin should remain first choice keeper, but Matt Duke – who had been told he could find a new club but is now apparently staying – has had more game time in pre-season and may still have a future at Valley Parade.

In midfield Ricky Ravenhill misses out on a return to his former club, with his absence through injury exposing City’s midfield badly in the friendly defeat to Bury last week. Ritchie Jones is not fit enough to take his place alongside namesake Gary, leaving a headache for Parkinson. New Width of a Post writer Joe Cockburn also makes a good case for Scott Brown being in contention here and here. Kyel Reid will play wide left, with either Garry Thompson (depending on fitness) or Will Atkinson lining up on the opposite flank.

You can’t see beyond Nahki Wells and James Hanson leading the line for the start of the season. Both have enjoyed solid pre-seasons, though there are some whispers of concern about Wells’ body language and attitude. We’d all feel a lot better if Nahki signed that contract offer which he is stalling over. In the meantime, we have a situation a bit like Arsenal have with Robin van Persie in terms of not being 100% confident of his commitment – at least not until we see him back in competitive action.

County kick off the season with strong ambitions of promotion to the Championship. Last season they looked to be going well under Martin Allen, but sacked the former Brentford and Barnet manager in February and appointed Keith Curle. This triggered a late improvement, but was not quite enough to sneak into the top six. Curle has revamped the squad over the summer, with the number of new arrivals moving into double figures.

That is not to build them up as world beaters. City may be second favourites tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we should travel down the M1 fearing another 5-0 or believing we have no chance. Everyone keeps saying this squad is loads better than last season – but those so-called lesser players did defeat Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield and Sheffield United in memorable fashion. Why not go to Nottingham and produce similar heroics?

After the long summer break, it will be fantastic to watch a City match which matters – even if what really matters will not be fully revealed on the Meadow Lane scoreboard.

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