Bradford City 0
Exeter City 1
Saturday 17 November, 2012
By Jason McKeown
If Phil Parkinson’s midweek declaration that the next few weeks are the most important period of the season is, in time, proven to be true, this was the worst possible of starts.
As this cold winter afternoon grew colder, a sense of unease crept over Valley Parade – poetically symbolised by the darkest of clouds hovering in the sky above the Main Stand. Over the course of the season, to date, we have been offered so much evidence to suggest this is going to be a glorious campaign, but on Saturday there were precious few indications of happy times to come.
True, there were mitigating circumstances to this 1-0 defeat. The injury list has stretched to seven – significant for a squad which has only 17 senior outfield players – and today those old adages about the importance of a settled back four proved painfully pertinent. The fixture pile-up is undoubtedly taking its toll, but also disguises a worrying statistic: City’s record on the Saturday after a midweek cup tie now stands at W0 D2 L3. And yes, referee Andy Haines had an absolute shocker. But still, these factors do not tell the full story behind this loss.
Indeed it was a home defeat so familiar in its pattern, that one of the biggest disappointments of the day stemmed from the feeling of returning to the dark days of previous seasons, when Valley Parade regularly proved a rewarding stop off for visiting teams. After the match Parkinson talked about dealing with the raised bar of expectation, having seen his players booed off for the first time this season. He and his players are responsible for that bar being pushed upwards in the first place. Frustration stems from the fact we know they can do so much better than this.
The first clue that this was going to be some sort of retro home defeat came from City allowing a nothing game to drift into tedium after an uninspiring first half performance. Exeter lined up with a diamond midfield formation that allowed Alan Gow to run the first 45 minutes, in particular, with as good a midfield performance as you will see, outside Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle, all season. City just couldn’t get close to Gow, who sprayed the ball around the park to set up visiting attacks.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered if the Bantams could have taken advantage of Exeter’s narrowness by stretching play down the flanks. Sadly Craig Forysth – brought in for the injured Zavon Hines – was utterly anonymous and Will Atkinson below his recent high standards. When a month ago Forsyth was signed, we argued that Parkinson’s first foray into the loan market of the season had to work out for the City manager. A decent home debut against Cheltenham aside, Forsyth has disappointed so far. On paper he looked a good signing, but to date he is proving to be yet another bad advert for the loan system.
So City failed to fire on all cylinders going forward, and at the other end the back four looked disjointed and unfamiliar with each other. Tom Naylor arrived at Valley Parade just 24 hours earlier and only played due to a late breakdown in fitness of Stephen Darby, so we can perhaps excuse him a below average debut where he probably didn’t even know all of this team mates’ names. Carl McHugh, who I have seen play well at left back, also struggled. But perhaps one of the biggest problems Parkinson has when assessing his defensive options is that his best footballers are on the sidelines.
That might sound harsh on Rory McArdle. He is a good defender and has impressed with his consistency this season. But unfortunately when it comes to using the ball, the ‘McArdle hoof’ can be a frustrating sight. Andrew Davies and Luke Oliver are both comfortable bringing the ball out of defence and passing it onto the midfield, but a dreadful McArdle slip in the second half, almost leading to a second goal, emphasised just how much this is not his game. So for much of the afternoon the back four launched it long towards James Hanson, and midfield was unnecessarily bypassed.
A contrast to Exeter’s pleasing-on-the-eye passing style. They needed no second invitation to pick up the mantle City that had wastefully ignored, and posed serious questions of a back four that was getting dragged all over the park in the first half. John Egan stood up firm and suggested he might be a Premier League footballer one day, but the rest of the back four less so. Jamie Cureton’s long range curling shot which hit the post was the loudest of several first half warning signs. Gow had set Cureton up for that chance, and seconds later the same player set up John Flynn with a clever backheel. But Flynn shot over.
Eventually, the pressure told and – two minutes before the break – Cureton finished acrobatically from inside the area. Yet it wasn’t because of such striking prowess that left you struggling to believe he was ageing 38-year-old striker, but his immature celebration. Having earlier been injured in front of the Kop and reacting badly to some taunts from a group of eight City supporters in the front row, Cureton chose to race up to the Kop and point at the name on the back of shirt to celebrate. Cureton is clearly from the Nathan Stanton school of obnoxiousness; the Burton defender was also upset by a small number of City fans and choose to have a go at the rest of us. It’s pathetic.
Similarly you have to question why he wasn’t booked for such a provocative celebration. A month ago a number of City fans were slating Nahki Wells – very harshly in my opinion – for picking a fifth yellow card of the season, and therefore suspension, after celebrating a goal with City fans. Is it really worse for a player to celebrate with his own than to provoke opposition fans? The lack of a booking to Cureton suggests so.
City initially came roaring back in the second half. Alan Connell replaced Forsyth as Parkinson went 4-3-3, and initially at least City’s number 17 had a positive impact. His first touch was again hugely impressive, and he linked up well with James Hanson and Wells. Exeter – robbed of Scot Bennett due to injury and bringing on former Bantams villain Tommy Doherty at half time to sit alongside Gow – were pushed back.
Egan headed wide from a corner, Connell’s clever chip flew just past the post and Hanson came close with a header from another corner. Wells should have had a penalty when he was clotheslined inside the box as he raced onto a loose ball. But no matter, the Kop is in full voice and City are well on top. Keep going like this (30 minutes to play) and the rewards will surely come.
Yet the pressure fizzled out weakly and worryingly. For the second home league match in a row, City looked to have run out of ideas long before the final whistle. Again, those mitigating circumstances can’t be ignored. The 4-3-3 badly needed the full backs to bomb on and Naylor and McHugh were encouraged to get forward in a way that cried out for James Meredith and Darby. Both looked hesitant in possession and would inevitably give the ball away, causing attacks to break down.
Those same problems were echoed by the strength of the bench. Without being disrespectful to some good players on the sidelines, who no doubt were all desperate to be brought on, few were suitable for a side chasing the game and in need of more attacking thrust. And just as you think Parkinson simply has to change it, and you get excited when observing that someone is preparing for action, your heart sinks when you realise who it is.
I don’t get it with Garry Thompson. Some people said he was always going to be a poor signing – hindsight’s a wonderful thing. But to me his arrival during the summer ticked a lot of boxes for what we needed, and we can be entitled to expect more than this. No manager gets all his signings right and maybe we should be grateful Thompson is the only one we can seriously question the management’s judgement on (though Connell’s failure to produce for more than sporadic bursts must have Parkinson tearing his hair out).
Today Thompson came on and offered little. To repeat myself from the Burton game: I get the fact he is not a Gary Jones, cover-every-blade-of-grass type of player. But his lack of effort is unacceptable. Good moves break down due to his lazy flick ons, he shoots from stupid angles, and he fails to spot runners around him. When, with six minutes to go, Thompson was presented with a simple chance to equalise following a goalmouth scramble, his wretched slice attempt that bounced wide prompted fury around the ground.
This isn’t good enough, Garry. You are better than this.
But mitigating circumstances allowing, the panic and fluster of City was a worrying sight. 1-0 down with time on our side should have been a time for composure and confidence. Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle, although not at their best, ran and ran, but not enough team mates matched them for work rate or creativity. A self-inflicted defensive mess-up in the box that almost saw an own goal and Thompson’s late miss apart, an equaliser looked highly unlikely.
Exeter deserve great credit for that, and especially for not resorting to tedious time wasting tactics. On Valley Parade evidence, it is a travesty that Cheltenham and not Exeter are in the top three. Only Fleetwood have impressed me more this season. For dogged determination and staying true to their passing ethos, Exeter just about deserved the win. Those who sought to blame the defeat on the referee should note that he was poor for both sides.
In some ways not a lot has changed – City began the day four points short of the automatic promotion places and ended the day with the same deficit to overcome. But a drop of three league places, from fourth to seventh, offers a stark reminder that finishing in the top seven itself remains a tough challenge.
Despite an afternoon of such despondency, however, there is no need to be too upset. That this was by some distance the worst home performance of the season is a measure of progress itself. And as unwelcome as the fixture congestion is, the visit of Plymouth on Tuesday offers a quick opportunity to put things right.
But any more performances as poor as this over the next weeks, and Parkinson’s prophesy that this is the most important stage of the season could prove to be true for all the wrong reasons.
City: Duke, Naylor (Thompson 77), McArdle, Egan, McHugh, Atkinson, Gary Jones, Doyle, Forsyth (Connell 46), Hanson, Wells.
Not used: McLaughlin, Ravenhill, Brown, Baker, Bass