Port Vale vs Bradford City preview
@Vale Park on Saturday 19 January, 2013
By Jason McKeown
THIS GAME HAS BEEN CALLED OFF, BUT ENJOY OUR PREVIEW ANYWAY
If there was ever any possibility of my dad one day understanding why I support a football team, it was surely lost forever when I told him that I was going to Crewe on Tuesday night and that it might be a good thing if we lost.
And so it was, that a 180-mile trip to Cheshire, involving taking half a day off work, on an evening where temperatures dipped to minus 4, resulted in watching a 4-1 thumping and exit from the cup – with barely a shrug. Yeah, it sucked to see City outplayed. Sure, it was dispiriting to see a few players struggle badly. But priorities lie elsewhere at this moment in time. You can only be pragmatic about it.
Ever since the Bantams produced that stunning victory over Arsenal in December, the club has barely been able to conceal its change in attitude towards the other two cup competitions. As the realisation we had defeated one of the biggest clubs in Europe was still sinking in the day after, the news that City had won its appeal against being booted out of the FA Cup seemed to be greeted both inwardly and outwardly with a collective “oh, right”. Phil Parkinson would later admit the appeal was a point of principle only, and that the replay with Brentford that the re-instatement resulted in was unwelcomed. Goodness knows what an irritated Bees’ must have made of the Bantams’ reserve team that ran out at Griffin Park.
The widespread changes made for City’s JPT tie on Tuesday may not have been as drastic, but carried the same undertones. Sure, it would be nice to get through to another two-legged semi final, but only if there was minimal personal cost in doing so.
The club clearly were not upset about bowing out to Crewe, so why should we supporters be? I realise not everyone present in the 400+ away following would agree with me on this. I cheered as feverishly as anyone else when Kyel Reid scored. I groaned as much as anyone else when Crewe scored. But give me a choice of which Bradford City matches I wanted to win over this January period, and Crewe would have been bottom of my list.
But Saturday is different. The route down the M6 to Crewe saw us turn off at J18 and go right at the roundabout. Weather permitting, tomorrow we will make the exact same car journey, only this time turning left. To Vale Park, home of the new league leaders. This is an important one.
For a long time this fixture looked set to be a top of the table, six-pointer type of clash. But the distraction of Arsenal and Aston Villa has seen City go off the boil in the league. Just one victory in six League Two matches since the Arsenal night. Just when we were on the brink of crashing into the automatic promotion places, we have slipped out of the play off zone. Port Vale have gone from strength to strength. Their last six games are the opposite of ours – just one defeat. Last time out they beat previous leaders Gillingham on their own patch. This is a tough one.
How do you approach it? On Width of a Post earlier this week, some of our valued and intelligent readers talked of resting key players ahead of the second leg against Aston Villa. Others will argue passionately that this one is the more important match, and so team selection must reflect that. You can understand that thinking, but it’s not necessarily that simple. Because if Parkinson fields a side that would be expected to play at Villa Park, for the biggest game of their careers, would they be in the right mind to play? I wouldn’t suggest anyone would lack commitment, but one bad tackle, one overstretch, one clattering, and they might be out the Villa game through injury or suspension.
The despondency over the league form is easy to understand, but does not deserve the anger it has predictably received from some areas. Earlier in this season, I wrote pieces about the Rotherham thrashing and dismal Accrington draw that drew sharp criticism. For a team with promotion ambitions, I didn’t believe either were good enough, but wondered if I was personally expecting too much. So I carried out a survey of readers to find out their expectations for the campaign, in order to help me judge where to pitch my writing.
The results of that survey of a three-figure number of City fans (so hardly universal) was that we City fans expected a 6th place finish this season. As it stands, we are two points off that target, which suggests we are only marginally below where we expect to be. Perhaps more revealing was the second question we asked: What is the minimum final City league position that you would be satisfied with this season? The average response was 9th. Which a look at today’s League Two table will show you is exactly where we are.
Clearly expectations shift up and down over the course of the season. Our strong form in November and early December allowed us to dream that a place in the top three was a realistic target. The cup heroics only added to that confidence. To me, automatic promotion still looks very achievable, but in the growing divide amongst supporters over whether the league or cup is more important, I must admit to coming down on the side of folk who declare that another season of League Two football, in 2013/14, would be a more than acceptable trade off for a place in the League Cup Final next month.
For now Parkinson takes his charges to Vale with new signing Michael Nelson ready for a debut. Although the wrong side of 30, Nelson’s pedigree is very impressive and he could be a big player for the club over the second half of the campaign. It is easy to envisage Nelson slotting in alongside Rory McArdle at centre back and Carl McHugh becoming left back until James Meredith is fit (Ryan Dickson’s start to life at Valley Parade has been poor, and watching him pull out of tackles at Crewe will take a while to forget). Then when Andrew Davies is back, McArdle will presumably take Stephen Darby’s right back slot. Harsh as that may be, we will have some strong back up options when everyone is fit.
Expect Nelson to play tomorrow alongside McArdle, with Darby and Curtis Good/Dickson at full backs. Jon McLaughlin’s nervous display midweek is a concern, but Matt Duke’s form means he is not going to lose his position as first choice anytime soon.
In midfield Nathan Doyle and Gary Jones will probably return to their usual roles. It would be nice to save Gary until Tuesday, but Ricky Ravenhill and Ritchie Jones offered nothing at Crewe to make a convincing claim for keeping their place. Zavon Hines has moved ahead of Kyel Reid as first choice pacy winger – who saw that coming? – and will play wide right with Will Atkinson on the left.
Up front, James Hanson is set to return. We can only hope that the week-and-a-half break will have done him good, as he looked jaded over the Christmas period. Will Nahki Wells be rested up for Villa Park and Andy Gray keep his place? I actually thought Gray was better on Tuesday, though he still has a way to go. Width of a Post understands that Bradford City were very close to agreeing a deal to sign James Vardy and he even attended a match at Valley Parade, but City’s victory over Villa prompted Leicester City to up their selling price. With rumours over Wells’ future, perhaps this deal is not dead just yet.
Port Vale, like City, are busy in the transfer market. This week, midfielder Daniel Jones rocked up from Sheffield Wednesday on a six-month contract. Most notably, Lee Hughes has joined from Notts County. There has been much debate on whether City should sign someone of Hughes’ past, expressed rather depressingly on one message board as “what’s more important, promotion or ethics?” I’ll stick with ethics, thanks.
That said, ethics could be a theme of the weekend should the game be on. Will City’s management and players give it everything on Saturday, at the risk of weakening their chances on Tuesday, or do we hold back? And what would the reaction be if we surrendered tamely?
One thing is for sure, a defeat tomorrow will be much harder to shrug off than it was at Crewe. At the very least, it couldn’t be considered “no big deal” unless something incredible happens at Villa Park on Tuesday night.