Hartlepool United vs Bradford City JPT preview
@Victoria Park on Tuesday 9 October, 2012
By Jason McKeown
Even before a ball was kicked this season, it was obvious that a quiet treatment room would be a telling factor in how successful City’s quality not quantity recruitment approach would prove. The dual loss to injury of Gary Jones and Kyel Reid has coincided with the team starting to lose its way in the league, and a return of one just point from three games throws up some question marks over the Bantams’ prospects.
Now to find the right answers. Or, to look at it another way, at least avoid making the wrong moves.
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s 4-3 defeat at Dagenham, Phil Parkinson revealed that he is talking to the two chairmen about bringing in a loan signing. I find this quite surprising if I’m honest, and I do worry about the pitfalls of Parkinson looking externally for short-term answers – especially if that means overlooking and coaching what he already has in the building.
Although it’s unclear if a loan signing will be made before City’s trip to Hartlepool in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tonight, or whether a new face will be arrive in time for Saturday’s visit of York City, you wonder what sort of message fringe players would take if they don’t get an opportunity during City’s hour of need. Do we need to borrow a player to replace Reid when there are three senior widemen available, in addition to the promising youngsters Adam Baker and Forrayah Bass, plus the fact James Meredith has played as a left winger for York?
I don’t mean to write an article criticising Parkinson: the club’s promising start to the season means he more than deserves our support. So let’s first look at the reasons why he might feel a loan signing is a better option than what he has available.
Of the three senior widemen Parkinson has to fill in for Reid, only Zavon Hines offers the direct running and quick pace that makes Reid such a key player. Atkinson has made an impressive start to the season, but his abilities lie more in coming inside and linking up with midfield colleagues and his full back. Similarly Thompson lacks pace and is not a player who is going to rampage down the left flank at a speed that opponents cannot keep up with. Start with Will Atkinson and Garry Thompson as wingers, and City have a problem.
As they would if those two were picked alongside Ricky Ravenhill and Nathan Doyle as a midfield four. When Ravenhill got a bad injury against Guiseley in pre-season, the very next friendly against Bury saw a weakened City midfield badly outgunned. At the time I wrote about a RR-shaped hole where a defensive-minded midfielder was needed in order to provide Gary Jones with the licence to get forward. Doyle signed for City that day and has more than filled that hole, but it is proving to be a case that, when everyone is fit, Parkinson should be looking for one from Ravenhill and Doyle alongside Jones – rather than the two forming an effective partnership.
As Luke pointed out in the Dagenham preview, the balance is lacking by playing two defensive-minded central midfielders. It reminds me of so many away games last season (Crewe springs to mind, where Ravenhill and Lee Bullock partnered up) and it means City become even more reliant upon having a pacy, direct left winger to provide the team’s attacking spark – a role that Hines is struggling to fulfil. That said, I’m not convinced by the argument some are making that Zavon can’t play on the left: his best performance for City so far was on the left against Burton.
So yes, there are reasons to believe that City are lacking a certain player with Reid and Gary Jones on the sidelines, but I still remain troubled by the prospect of going into the loan market at this relatively early stage of the season. For a start, can we afford it? It seems that the potential consequences of the One in a Million school postponement/collapse have been quietly allowed to drift out of consciousness. I wish I could say that I’m surprised those in a position to put a microphone in front of Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes aren’t asking some tough questions, but personal experience suggests it is not they who set the agenda.
Nevertheless the facts in the public domain, presented by Rhodes and Lawn during the summer, is that the club pushed the boat out on close season signings partly because of the imminent club shop sale to One in a Million. That deal has not been completed, leaving a huge question mark over whether we can actually afford our current team. The Bradford City Supporters Trust has written two local MPs David Ward and Philip Davies to outline their concerns about the school failing to open, and Davies’ reply included the comment: “I am well aware of the implications for the football club and have already made the Minister and civil servants aware of that.”
I’m sure that Rhodes and Lawn have a plan B financially, but you still have to question whether we can really afford to spend money on a loan signing (because there is always some cost) if the pennies now need to be watched that little bit closer. And if I was one of the duo, I’d also be wondering why Parkinson feels he needs to sign another player when he has spent a considerable sum of money during the summer – some of it on players who so far have barely figured. A few weeks ago we were all commenting that the City substitutes bench looked its strongest in years, now should be the time to prove that.
But beyond that are the team morale questions that a loan signing might influence, which is where a trip to Hartlepool seems so timely. Almost exactly two years ago, Peter Taylor took his Bradford City to the North East for a JPT tie with rumours surfacing that he was very close to the sack. A few days before City had lost 1-0 at home to Morecambe – still one of the worst performances I have ever seen – where the introduction of two loan players had backfired badly on the manager.
Struggling City had just secured an excellent 0-0 at Rotherham, with the back four looking solid against high-flying opposition. Yet a day later, Reece Brown and Oliver Gill rocked up from Manchester United under contractual loan terms that dictated Taylor must play the pair in the first available match. So that solid back four of our own players was broken up to allow two Manchester United teenagers to come in – Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien the unfortunate victims – and the spirit of the team was damaged. Sometime later I spoke to people within the club about these events, and they confirmed that Taylor’s foray into the loan market at this point had set team spirit back badly, especially as the arrivals were no better than what we had (and that is being polite about it). “Manchester United don’t send their best youngsters on loan to a League Two club”, was one comment I heard.
That’s not to say Parkinson would be as foolish as Taylor in signing duds, but you have to wonder what sort of message a loan signing would send to the rest of the squad. To date we’ve seen a very settled first XI that has meant opportunities for others have been hard to come by. That is understandable, as the team has been playing so well. But I’m sure Parkinson has had to have a few conversations with fringe players about being patient for their opportunity. Now should be the time for others to shine.
All of which leads to this evening’s JPT game, where – competition rules allowing – squad players should get their chance to prove themselves. Expect to see Matt Duke back in goal with neither goalkeeper quite mastering the number one shirt just yet, and Stephen Darby and Carl McHugh getting rare outings as full backs. Given Luke Oliver sat out the Burton cup game two weeks ago, we can probably expect that he will figure tonight with one from Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle rested.
I really hope that ex-Pools midfielder Ritchie Jones finally gets some game time tonight. He missed the start of the season through injury, but has apparently been available since the Oxford game even though he wasn’t making the bench. I believe he has a lot to offer this football club, especially with Gary out for a few weeks, and you’d like to think he will get the opportunity to demonstrate that. Doyle may get to put his feet up with Ravenhill given another game to build match sharpness. Out wide I’d predict Hines and Thompson – Atkinson’s status at the club growing to the point where he can be ‘rested’ for Saturday.
That said, the 4-3-1-2 formation which earned praise at Dagenham might be attempted again (worth noting that Manchester United played this way at Newcastle on Sunday and were outstanding), leaving Hines kicking his heels on the bench and a front three of Alan Connell behind James Hanson and Nahki Wells. But somehow you expect Parkinson to want to rest one if not two of his three front players, potentially leaving the door open for Baker or Thompson to play down the middle. There is a growing clamour to drop Hanson for reasons I struggle to fathom, but the big man might benefit from a midweek breather so he can be fresh for the York game.
Simon Parker’s excellent match report for the Dagenham defeat talked up the need to find a starting role for Connell. Again going back to the loan situation, some argue Parkinson has to bring in a left winger so City can continue to play exactly the same way. I think that success this season will come from using more than one playing style, and that’s why I’d rather Parkinson find the right answers from what he has for the greater long-term. After all, when Reid and Jones are fit again, the chances of them getting injured later in the season are hardly remote.
The JPT is a strange competition. Bow out tonight, and no one will be too upset. Yet in two of the last three seasons, a promising run in this competition has offered plenty of highlights and we’ve seen the Wembley arch appear to be within touching distance. Who can forget the fun we had last year at Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield and Sheffield United’s expense?
Perhaps something was lost post-Burton in the League Cup a fortnight again. And so, following some indifferent league results, it would be nice if a rewarding night at Victoria Park could leave the team facing in the correct upwardly direction once again.