Bradford City vs Exeter City preview
@Valley Parade on Saturday 17 November, 2012
By Alex Scott
The cost from Tuesday night is only now becoming clear as the dust settles. James Meredith (hip flexor) and Zavon Hines (ankle ligaments) both joined the long term injury list alongside Luke Oliver and Andrew Davies, and as the side’s aspirations continue to grow ever higher, their anxieties only deepen.
Stephen Darby is carrying an injury but without any cover behind him, is unable to rest up. Carl McHugh will likely slide into Meredith’s vacated left back spot, and John Egan moving up at centre back. Without disrupting the rest of the team, the cupboard is now bare, apart from youth prospect Forrayah Bass. (I noted that he looked interesting in pre-season as an offensive left back, but he probably isn’t ready to start at this point.)
Whilst Phil Parkinson can point toward the congested fixture list as a trigger for the crisis, the root cause lies back in the summer with his squad design.
It has been noted this season that the lack of loan players has led to a settled squad and with it, success, finally. But the causality is in the other direction. It’s a matter of resource allocation. Settling on a squad of only 17 senior outfielders, Parkinson was able to attract a higher calibre of player thanks to the higher wages available. These higher calibre players have led to the success.
If he decided to recruit, say, 20 players, the wage budget would have been diluted, reducing the talent level of the squad, but probably providing adequate cover for a minimum 49 game, already curtailed season. (With the Olympics and the Wembley Champions League Final, it wasn’t a secret that this year would be condensed.)
So for Parkinson to cry poverty in November as his intentionally thin squad is beginning to fracture is disingenuous. This is the other side of the coin which has the side flying high in 4th position. But (as he gambled) if he could get the side out of the gate quickly, before the inevitable injuries came, he could likely pressure the board into releasing additional loan funds. Which is the reason behind this week’s Parkinson-fuelled, Telegraph and Argus ‘STATE OF EMERGENCY!!! THE SKY IS FALLING!!! WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST!!!’ narrative.
They’ve been unlucky, but one can prepare for adverse circumstances, Parkinson just chose not to.
I’m not criticising him. He was right, he still is. It is better having a thinner, more talented squad. He has changed the culture around the club and within the squad. And if the worst did happen, the board would cave anyway. Which they have. I agree with much of his decision process. All I’m saying is, the ‘woe is me’ argument isn’t going to fly. It is what it is, these were the risks. This is the game.
Onto Saturday’s game, which marks the first of two eminently winnable home games as the Cheltenham chase continues.
Whilst Parkinson may feel fate is conspiring against him, it must be noted that City couldn’t be catching Exeter at a better time. After a hot start to the year (16 points from first 7 games), Paul Tisdale’s men are currently on a run of 8 points from 10, with their only wins in the period coming against Wimbledon and a pre-Davids Barnet.
In spite of the preposterous form of evergreen Jamie Cureton (12 goals in 17 games), the Grecians are reeling. Whilst one of the pre-season favourites to be there or thereabouts at the end of the year, recently-relegated Exeter have struggled to re-acclimatise to conditions in League Two. Relying on a host of experienced old heads like Cureton, Matt Oakley and Craig Woodman, they’ve chosen an oft-favoured path, and are suffering from oft-witnessed underwhelming returns. For a young team, the run would be understandable, if not defensible. For a team this experienced, 8 points from 30, is a pathetic effort.
Familiar faces like Rhys Evans and Tommy Doherty will likely be met with divergent receptions at Valley Parade on Saturday, unless Evans committed some terrible affront that his historical insignificance has diluted in my mind. Neither is likely to make it off the bench though.
A decent attacking outfit, especially since the return of Alan Gow, Exeter have been dismal early in games. Conceding the first goal in almost 60% of their games (third worst in division), they don’t match up well against the clinical Bantams (boy, does that feel weird to type), who have won each of the seven games in which they have scored first.
If you were after another little statistical pick-me-up this Friday morning, it turns out Bradford have the strongest ‘Total Shot Ratio’ (chances created v chances conceded) in the entire Football League, a statistic with supposed impressive predictive power for future success. Make of that what you will.
A home game against a side so out of form, with such a dismal record against top half teams, should be circled as a ‘should win’ game, regardless of how patched up their team might be.
Patched up it is though, and with another long term injury, the backline is becoming a worry. Not due to poor performance, they’ve worked wonders so far, but relying on young players to consistently play above themselves is difficult. Loan signings permitting, Saturday’s defence will consist of Darby (24), Rory McArdle (25), Egan (20), and McHugh (19).
With the cavalry being called, it would definitely be beneficial to try and get some experience in to help out the youngsters. Another teenage loanee doesn’t really solve anything. (Parkinson has already disputed, through Simon Parker, this report which never looked to make much sense.)
Anyway, experienced heads around the team are at a premium, so I’d imagine Matt Duke will return after a midweek off. I don’t think he is better than Jon McLaughlin. There isn’t much in it, but he’s not better. Duke didn’t have much to do last Saturday, and did make a glaring error, but after three clean sheets in four, it would seem a bit harsh to bench him. Especially with the experience factor I mentioned in his favour.
In midfield, Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle will continue inside, while Craig Forsyth will likely return for the injured Zavon Hines on the left flank, with either Garry Thompson or the in-form Will Atkinson across from him. Tuesday night marked the fifth full game in 14 days for Atkinson, two of them going the distance in extra time. One would think a break would be in order, especially with a minimum of seven more games in the next 24 days.
Something of a 12th man at the beginning of the season, he was the first man off the bench. Atkinson performed well in this role, but his playing level in the rotation games in which his influence grows, has been the real triumph. It is exactly the arc Parkinson hopes for from his fringe players: supporting well, and taking their chances when afforded to them. Thanks to his efforts in the cup games, Atkinson has grown into an automatic starter at this point. The notion of him being rested by November would have been the longest of long shots in August, but here we are.
One thing to look out for, with the squad’s surplus of available central midfielders (six: Atkinson, Scott Brown, Doyle, Jones, Ritchie Jones, Ricky Ravenhill), and Forsyth being cup-tied, it may be that the diamond implemented at Northampton could make a return ahead of the Brentford, Port Vale and Arsenal games where it may be a necessity. To get the side’s best eleven players on the field, the diamond absolutely feels right at this point.
Up front Nahki Wells and James Hanson will continue, with Alan Connell moving back to the bench. If the rumours are to be believed, the Wells era may be entering its final stretch, which isn’t really that nice to think about. With a prospect as good as he is, with his record, and a high-profile nationally-televised shop window looming, it shouldn’t be a surprise, but it remains sobering. Feeling nostalgic over events even as they are happening is a weird sensation, but I’d implore you to enjoy him while you still can.
Saturday marks another big game in a run of them. It’s weird to hear a manager screaming the ‘State of Emergency’ narrative when his team have only lost one in ten, and it is more than a little hyperbolic. But the pressure is rising, and the cavalry is being called. He is definitely right about one thing though: how his current charges handle the next few weeks could go a long way to defining their season. The pressure is rising.