Bradford City 1
Oxford United 2
Rigg 19, Levan 90 (pen)
Saturday 12 January, 2013
By Jason McKeown
It is afternoons such as these where you wish you hadn’t bothered. That you’d found something, anything, to do that was less mood-crushing than this. Shopping even.
It’s not the familiar numbness of anger and despair about a dismal home defeat which grates, but the fact you have been forced to allow that bubble of unbridled joy from beating Aston Villa to be burst. That feeling from Tuesday: it seems like I have been walking on air for the best part of the week. That feeling from Tuesday: I wanted to enjoy it for a lot longer this. Instead, now we have to face reality.
A reality that the credibility of Bradford City’s promotion ambitions is facing its sternest test of the season so far, the results of which are not looking promising. A second successive home defeat today, made doubly worse by the fact that – just like Rochdale last time out at Valley Parade – it was utterly deserved. There may be a genuine level of doubt over the validity of the awarding of a last minute penalty that Oxford won the match from, led by manager Phil Parkinson, but no one could argue City merited even a point. That is troubling.
As we filed out of Valley Parade at the final whistle with boos ringing around the stadium, my thoughts turned back to a couple of months ago when we were having all that fun from still being in all three cup competitions. “I hope this doesn’t come back to haunt us” was the sentiment of that time, in recognition of the number of extra hours work being asked of a small squad. Haunt us? I’m sure that today I could see the ghosts of Wigan, Northampton and Hartlepool peering over the Midland Road Stand and laughing.
It was always going to be felt down the line, the tiring effects of those heroics. Though perhaps we didn’t expect it to be felt quite so soon. And all those injuries. Plus they keep occurring in different parts of the team. “I can’t wait until Kyel Reid is back” was the phrase of November. Now we hope that the illness keeping James Meredith in hospital clears up, and clears up quickly. A different hole found in that leaky bucket. If only everybody could get, and stay, fit.
Even amongst the players well enough to take the field today, fatigue was evident. Parkinson kept faith with the Villa approach – one that has served him so well all season – rather than revert back to the diamond formation that featured against Morecambe and Barnet. After turning down the chance to talk to Blackpool on Friday, the manager got a hero’s reception as he walked down the touchline for kick off. He made a point of applauding all four stands back. It was all set up for a day of triumph. This Oxford lost were rubbish at their place last September. 5-0. Easy.
When Michael Duberry and Wayne Brown got caught up in an awful tangle – the defender heading the ball back to the keeper, only to fail to realise that the keeper had come out to collect it – an empty net beckoned for Nahki Wells and the chance was taken. It seemed as though that easy afternoon, despite its slow start, was going to materialise. But five minutes later Sean Regg was afforded time on the edge of the box to slam home an impressive volley past Matt Duke, and City never found the urgency, drive and spirit to raise their game.
Partly due to tiredness, but also largely down to a mental challenge. The players had given everything on Tuesday against a Premier League packed full of quality. Psychologically, how do you raise your game to such levels again, knowing the opposition should be much easier to defeat? How do you get back to that intensity? Particularly after a week where every man and his dog that has an interest in football has been loudly patting you on the back?
You can’t blame them really. These players are human. And not only are they human, they are League Two footballers. If they could perform as well as they did on Tuesday every game, they wouldn’t be here in the first place. Tuesday’s colossal achievement allowed them the opportunity to feel good about themselves and enjoy the moment – why shouldn’t they? Getting back to it, the drudgery of lower league life, that’s not easy. But let’s give them a break on that.
Also hindering overall performance was an uninspiring debut from Andy Gray, up front in place of the resting up James Hanson (broken toe). You had to feel for the overlooked Alan Connell, and though memories of Gray’s first spell at Valley Parade suggested Gray could play the targetman, he struggled badly in this role. Gray barely won anything in the air, and looked clumsy rather than crafty with his back to goal. Hanson was badly missing today, and it affected the whole team. The ball was not sticking up front to alleviate the dominance of Oxford’s five-man suffocating midfield. Wells’ clever runs were going unrewarded.
I’ll be honest, I was against the re-signing of Gray. He’s not the type of player we needed, in my view. But he’s here now, on an 18-month contract, so we need to get the best out of him. To do that, we will need to alter our style of play and probably alter central midfield. (Gray needs someone to play behind him, and Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle do not provide that kind of option. Connell probably does, but we would need to play a narrow midfield to accommodate him, assuming Wells is a sure-fire starter.) Whether changing the style of play is for the overall benefit of the team, I’m not sure. But interchanging Hanson and Gray and playing the same way looks unlikely to work.
Gray’s failure to hold up the ball invited constant Oxford pressure, leaving Jones and Doyle rooted in front of their back four – Doyle in particular had a really poor second half. With the other debutant Ryan Dickson struggling too, Oxford were able to find space all over the final third and forced Matt Duke into a string of superb saves. Even Duke’s arch-critics attempted to downplay his exceptional display on Tuesday – the shots were all straight at him, apparently: sometimes you just have to ignore such people – but today there could be no arguments over how well he performed. What a shame it ultimately counted for nothing.
Sensing a spark was needed, Parkinson made a double substitution just after the hour, replacing Will Atkinson and the impressive Zavon Hines with Kyel Reid and Blair Turgott. But just like against Rochdale, the loss of Atkinson from the team impacts on the shape. Neither winger could find space in a congested midfield, and though City were clearly trying to win the game it was a day where a point looked a good result. Particularly with a number of close shaves: the excellent Carl McHugh cleared one Oxford effort off the line and a Rigg header came back off the crossbar.
There were two significant moments to come, however. The first Parkinson’s last throw of the dice, which saw Connell brought on for Andy Gray. Oh wait. Against expectations, he took off an ineffective Wells instead of an ineffective Gray. And crowd frustration over a poor afternoon spilled over into the booing of the City manager by some. The first time, as far as I can recall, Parkinson has received this treatment since taking charge. And this, less than 24 hours after turning down the opportunity to manage a club two divisions higher, when his own contract at City is only guaranteed until the end of the season. Unbelievable treatment. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so serious. The guy who has masterminded our first semi final for 102 years is being booed by City fans.
Connell’s main involvement was to tangle with Duberry over the U’s time-wasting antics – it brought both players a yellow card from a clueless referee, Jeremy Simpson, who didn’t even see what happened – but despite looking as though they had settled for a point, the visitors won it. Alfie Potter was challenged by Stephen Darby in the penalty area – from my view in the Kop it looked reckless and unnecessary on Darby’s part – and Simpson pointed to the spot. Parkinson, Rory McArdle and Duke claimed Darby won the ball. Peter Levan blasted the penalty down the middle, and that – aside from a disallowed McHugh goal in stoppage time – was that.
Is it worth it? These cup adventures. With City only four points off the automatic promotion places, you hope it’s not a question we seriously have to ponder between now and May. But there can be no doubt that these extracurricular exploits have made it more difficult for Bradford City to gain promotion. We might not have been 20 points clear at the top of League Two right now had we bowed out of each cup in their respective first rounds, but at the same time we probably wouldn’t be left eyeing up the play offs as our most realistic ambition.
There is a long, long way to go. And as such, there is absolutely no reason to panic. Yet at the end of a week where we started daring to believe we could actually make it to a major cup final, this cold douse of realism cannot be ignored. Not by the manager, and not by the Board.
Because as the pennies from the Villa games are still counted up, the January transfer window continues to offer a huge dilemma. Do we recognise the need to strengthen and use the cup windfall on another couple of players to give us a better chance of going up this year, or do we largely accept what we have, be realistic about our promotion chances and try to make sure this season’s momentum isn’t wasted?
By the latter I mean ensuring that, first and foremost, we can retain this squad of players, which have cost a considerable amount in wages, in order to go at League Two again if we don’t earn promotion, rather than having to dismantle it and tighten the belts. Let’s face it, if the play offs are our best chance, there is a 75% chance of failure. If Parkinson suddenly requires a plan B on the pitch, we sure as heck need one off it too.
The real legacy of these cup heroics should be that it gives Bradford City the financial stability which has been lacking since a wayward Italian signed a legally-binding piece of paper 12 years ago. It should provide sterner foundations and a platform for significant progress, even if that progress doesn’t quite materialise into a City promotion this time out.
And if the cup adventure can be the catalyst to a rise and rise up the leagues, it won’t have mattered that we had to wait a bit longer for success – we will never have had cause to regret Wigan, Arsenal and Villa.
City: Duke, Darby, McArdle, McHugh, Dickson, Hines (Turgott 63), Gary Jones, Doyle, Atkinson (Reid 63), Gray, Wells (Connell 79)
Not used: McLaughlin, Good, Ritchie Jones, Ravenhill
Categories: Match Reviews