Bradford City vs Northampton Town FA Cup preview
@Valley Parade on Tuesday 13 November, 2012
By Jason McKeown
The path to the third round of the FA Cup can be completed without leaving the house. Bradford City welcome Northampton Town tonight for a first round replay, with a home tie against League One’s Brentford the reward for the winner. And with the Bantams having already this season knocked out four teams from higher divisions, across the other two cup competitions, you wouldn’t bet against the Bees being conquered at Valley Parade should the opportunity arise. Tonight is therefore important.
Important in the sense of £18,000 prize money at stake, important in that reaching the third round of the FA Cup would throw up another possibility of a glamour tie/big pay day. Although for manager Phil Parkinson, you get the sense this is a game his small squad could do without and that finding the right balance is going to prove tricky. City are in a fantastic position in the league – four points behind Cheltenham, who are in the last automatic promotion spot – with back-to-back home games to come on Saturday and the following Tuesday. As important as tonight is, getting six points against Exeter and Plymouth is surely the priority.
So what team to play tonight? Does Parkinson rest key players in preparation for the weekend, or field a strong side that risks injury or tiredness to those key players? Is it better to bow out tonight with a weakened team, or go all guns blazing and get through but possibly lose a player or two? And with four cup matches this season having gone to extra time, we should also be considering whether players can get through 120 minutes tonight and still be fresh for the weekend. In addition, there are reports that Monday’s training was cancelled due to players carrying a bug.
The FA Cup, unlike the other two cup competitions (the JPT featuring stringent rules on the number of first team players selected) offers Parkinson the opportunity to experiment and try out people in reserve. Hence Scott Brown’s very welcome debut for the club in the original first round tie with Northampton, Nathan Doyle playing central defence, a rare start for Ritchie Jones, Alan Connell and Garry Thompson up front and a diamond formation that surprised the Cobblers. Despite failing to win, reports of the game indicated that these experiments worked reasonably well.
It will be interesting to see whether Parkinson is in experimental mode again tonight, with the lack of substitutions during Saturday’s routine defeat of Aldershot suggesting changes will be made. For all the talk of having a small squad stretched to the limit, a number of good players have struggled for opportunities of late.
Connell and Thompson will be first in line to expect a start. Although the latter has featured more regularly of late, the return to fitness of James Hanson saw the former Morecambe winger relegated back to the bench at the Recreation Ground, having failed to convince up front. There is a debate about whether Thompson is suited to being a striker that is championed by the player himself, but which has few other backers. He just doesn’t win enough flick ons or hold the ball up sufficiently well compared to Hanson, with the result City keep losing possession.
Meanwhile Connell joined City in the summer complaining about how much he was in and out the Swindon team last season, only to find Parkinson is managing him in exactly the same manner as Paulo Di Canio. At times Connell has caught the eye and he looks to possess good vision and awareness of team mates, but on too many other occasions Connell has been largely anonymous.
It might be strikingly obvious to compare Thompson and Connell unfavourably to Hanson and Nahki Wells, but it’s worth reflecting on one of the reasons for why the latter pair are proving to be so much more effective: work rate. I don’t mean to suggest Thompson and Connell do not try, but they seem to expect team mates to do much of the hard work for them and wait up the pitch to receive the ball in areas where they can make a difference. Hanson and Wells pop up all over the park – sometimes to the detriment of themselves – and do the ugly stuff very effectively. And while Hanson and Wells have – since last December – forged an almost telepathic understanding of where the other person will be, Connell and Thompson have both so far failed to click with any of the available strike partners.
By all accounts Connell and Thompson played well at Northampton, and Parkinson might be tempted to give his secondary strikers another run out together tonight to build on that promise. But perhaps it was because neither are as effective at coming deep to receive possession that prompted the diamond midfield formation. What I’m getting at, is that Parkinson might have had to change the rest of the team to suit his forward line. As the season goes on and the likes of Kyel Reid return, it seems unlikely he will be so accommodating.
So for now the manager has four strikers, with two so far ahead of the other two that his first choice pick is a no-brainer. That gap has to be closed (in the right direction) and tonight one or both will have the opportunity to do just that.
In midfield I’m hoping to see Brown making his Valley Parade debut. It seems a lifetime ago now that Scott first made such a strong first impression on those of us who attended City’s pre-season friendly win over Silsden in July 2011. Last September, in Parkinson’s second home game in charge, against AFC Wimbledon, a number of injuries in midfield meant a then-16-year-old Brown was 45 minutes away from a full debut. Progress has undoubtedly slowed since then, but a number of non-playing sub roles and 90 minutes against Northampton would suggest Parkinson views him as having some role to play over the battles ahead. Tonight is the perfect opportunity for Brown to take the next, not-insignificant step in his promising career.
Other central midfield options are Ricky Ravenhill – back from suspension on Saturday but unused – and Ritchie Jones, who is not going on loan…yet. You would expect Gary Jones to be putting his feet up tonight, and perhaps Doyle – who has played a lot of football of late – will also sit this one out. Zavon Hines impressed from the bench on Saturday and will be hoping for another go out wide, and with Craig Forsyth not eligible you would expect Will Atkinson to start. Although other promising youngsters Adam Baker and Forrayah Bass might have a role tonight.
It’s only two-and-a-half-weeks since Andrew Davies and Luke Oliver limped off at Burton, with dreadful news about how long each would be absent for understandably prompting fear about how the defence would cope. So kudos to everyone involved for subsequently achieving three clean sheets from four games, with just one goal conceded, at Northampton, over that time. Rory McArdle has been excellent in his more natural position and is going to be a vital player over the next few weeks. With John Egan also not able to play, Carl McHugh gets another welcome opportunity. The full backs of Stephen Darby and James Meredith make up the rest of the back four, with Matt Duke probably in goal.
For Northampton, a 4-2 win at Accrington on Saturday means they travel back up the M1 tonight in good spirits. Adebayo Akinfenwa bagged a hat trick and Jake Robinson – so often a goalscorer against the Bantams over the years – netted his first goal in 40 matches at the Crown Ground. With the physical Clive Platt another option, the Cobblers have plenty of firepower to cause City problems.
Northampton looked a rather dispirited bunch when City beat them 1-0 in the league three weeks ago, but have since gone unbeaten in four to climb to mid-table and within touching distance of the play offs. It would be foolish to take them lightly.
Nevertheless, as I part with my £15 this evening I can’t say that it will be the end of the world if it is to witness a home defeat. We are now in such a strong position in the league, but the next three league matches all look so winnable that this becomes a crucial period which could easily determine whether we can challenge for automatic promotion or if the play offs is to be our best hope. The last thing we want to see is a home defeat to Exeter on Saturday that is partly attributable to tired legs.
The FA Cup is the third priority out of the four competitions we are still in. Parkinson is doing a fantastic job of spinning the plates so far – but if one is to come crashing down on the floor, I’d rather it be this one than the league or League Cup.