Port Vale vs Bradford City JPT preview
@Vale Park on Tuesday 4 December, 2012
By Jason McKeown
So game 29 of the season, and we’ve only completed four months of the nine-month campaign. It is quite extraordinary and – speaking personally as someone who has attended 22 of the 28 matches – it’s a good job it’s not been boring.
What a season this is turning out to be. You can already look back on the first four months of action and find numerous highlights. Wigan of course, thrashing Wimbledon was fun, then there’s Connell’s lob at Accrington, the rousing Morecambe victory, Oxford, Cheltenham, Northampton (league and the cup replay), Hartlepool, Bristol Rovers. My personal highlight so far was Nahki Wells’ last minute equaliser in the cup against Burton. How crucial a goal that now looks, given the subsequent rewards.
It goes without saying that tonight’s JPT tie against Port Vale is comfortably at the bottom of the list of priorities. And that in itself offers a yardstick of progress, given how big an occasion last December’s quarter final tie at Oldham in this same competition became. It is almost a year to the day of that 2-0 defeat at Boundary Park. The away end at Vale Park this evening will house a far, far lower City following.
Nevertheless I’m looking forward to this one. The JPT rules about having to play at least six first team regulars, or at least six of your starting line up from the last match, may be an unwelcome hindrance to the managers, but it does guarantee a competitive match of sorts. And with Port Vale looking a very ordinary side on Valley Parade evidence, but sitting pretty in second, seven points ahead of the Bantams, it will be interesting to see how we measure up.
For me – and I suspect it’s a view that Parkinson shares – this stage of the season has become one about staying in touch with the League Two pace setters. We are not going to be at our best in the league with such a fixture overload and sizeable list of injuries. But when City finally bow out of all these cup competitions – and it must happen eventually, as hard as it seems to believe at times – we want to be in a position where we can really kick on in the league. The automatic places – like the spot Port Vale occupy – has to be the target. Play offs are a very welcome consolation prize, should we fail.
So City go toe-to-toe with Vale tonight looking for revenge for that unfortunate home defeat in September and to offer further evidence they are capable of being their equal. That, in the short-term, could mean more than showing we are equals to League One Brentford.
And what of the fact reserves from both sides will surely feature? Well, a good performance from them would be very, very welcome too. I really enjoyed Friday’s performance against Brentford, but what troubled me slightly is that – once again – City had to rely on their first choice players to salvage a draw. The sight of Alan Connell, Garry Thompson and Ricky Ravenhill being taken off on the hour was welcoming at the time, but it meant the evening had become yet another one where Connell and Thompson in particular wasted an opportunity to push their first team claims.
We know that the three substitutes – Gary Jones, Will Atkinson and Nahki Wells – are key players for whom our fortunes this season are dependent upon. But we want to see evidence that others are capable of stepping up in their absence and proving themselves match winners too. That didn’t happen, and there’s a growing gap between City’s best XI and those in reserve which, if more injuries occur to the former group, will present a real problem.
You would expect Connell, Thompson and Ravenhill to figure once more tonight. But will they be asked to start a week today, when a certain London side are in town? From what they showed on Friday – and on many other occasions in recent weeks – they will be on bench duty at best. Perhaps tonight is their last chance to stake a claim.
Who else plays will be interesting. In goal the battle between Jon McLaughlin and Matt Duke has been an ongoing sub plot since pre-season. Duke had a poor game at Bristol Rovers and – going by the way Parkinson has swapped over the pair following a mistake by one – you would expect him to be relegated to back up/cup goalkeeper. And with the next match after Rovers a cup one, sure enough, Duke was in goal. Yet the veteran stopper had a brilliant evening and played very well, making three crucial saves. So is he still first choice, or cup keeper? Time will tell, but if he plays tonight and plays well again, expect him to preserve his place at the front of the queue.
In defence it’s hoped Rory McArdle can take a well-earned breather tonight, though a backline of Curtis Good and Carl McHugh would lack experience. Stephen Darby and James Meredith will occupy the full back slots, though Tom Naylor might be an option on the right. It is interesting to note how impressive Meredith has been going forwards of late, after talking to him in the bar prior to a Skipton Bantams meeting in October, where he stated he had been told to stay back when Kyel Reid is in the team.
Ravenhill will hopefully be joined in midfield by Ritchie Jones. He has enjoyed two excellent cameos from the bench in the last two league outings, and I for one hope that he still figures in Parkinson’s plans. Blair Turgott has received a lot of plaudits for his debut, but I hope there is more to come from him as, for me, he drifted in and out of the game and his decision making could be better. Atkinson or Thompson will patrol the other flank.
Parkinson may opt for Connell and James Hanson once again up front. I thought Hanson was outstanding in the second half against Brentford, showing what a pivotal player he is for us. As a partnership Hanson and Connell have not clicked in the same way as Hanson and Wells, but I’d like to see them be given a go when Thompson is not in the team. There is an obvious team strategy to target long balls to Thompson on the flank, when he is playing. But although Thompson is okay in this area, it’s not a hugely effective weapon and somewhat negates the impact of Hanson. It might seem predictable to just aim it to Hanson, but he wins so many of these balls that I don’t see it an issue. And when he is truly the focal point of the side, let’s have a look at if he and Connell can link up better.
Port Vale come into this game fresh from being knocked out the FA Cup by Sheffield United in heartbreaking circumstances, and perhaps the importance of this tie has grown for them given it is the only cup competition they are left in. Three years ago City knocked out Vale at this stage of the competition, via penalties – the second City shootout success of a run that now stretches to eight. You wouldn’t bet against tonight going to penalties once again, and – given how memorable this season is proving – the script surely doesn’t call for a damp squid City exit via our favourite route to getting through to the next round.