By Jason McKeown
So let’s talk about happiness, and let’s talk about achievement.
After Bradford City’s 1-1 draw with Aldershot Town on Saturday, many City supporters are far from happy about another winless home game and the lack of reduction in the gap to the play off spots. There may be 11 games to go, and we may be unbeaten in four, but a top seven finish is looking increasingly unlikely. Something has to change, and change fast.
The sense of disappointment is palpable. Look at the team. Look at the manager. The 11th place that we currently reside in is clearly not what we expected. On the face of it, a huge underachievement. The reality of another season in the basement division – that’ll be a seventh straight year – is starting to sink in. “We will keep going until the final kick of the final game” was the battle cry from Phil Parkinson straight after the final whistle on Saturday. Nice words, but it really is now or never for City’s promotion chances.
The unhappiness is evident, and it is clearly understandable. Relegated to League Two in 2007, all we Bradford City supporters have wanted for six years is to climb out of the league. That has been our sole objective. Our holy grail. Our one wish. And for the first half of this season, it actually looked like we were going to finally realise our goal. That this time it really was going to be different.
We haven’t spent the last six years wanting to get to Wembley for a major cup final. And so the distraction of the epic League Cup run has, understandably, created something of a conflict in many people’s minds. Amazing as it was (and it really was) we didn’t really ask for it. A welcome sub plot to what was shaping up to be one hell of a season, but no one thought it would go on for as long as it ended up doing. And no one wanted to see the damage it has clearly done towards achieving our one wish.
No one wants to feel as unhappy as we did trooping out of Valley Parade on Saturday.
People argue that the cup run has covered over the cracks. That those of us who point to the collapse in league form after beating Torquay 1-0 in December – three days before Arsenal came to town – and up to losing carelessly to strugglers Wimbledon in February – a week before the Cup Final with Swansea – are making excuses. A game like Aldershot offers weight to such claims. Because with no Wembley showpiece to distract minds, how do you explain the two dropped points? How do you explain the wastefulness of so many chances? How do you explain the post-Wembley return of six points from 12?
The game encapsulated much of the frustration of our season. We were motoring along nicely, creating some good chances that forced a series of superb saves from Shots’ keeper Jamie Young. But just as the initiative was there to be seized – getting in front and, maybe, winning by a few goals – we slowed down and ended up going backwards with the concession of an Aldershot goal. You could easily compare that goal to City’s fall from 4th in the league post-Torquay and the run up to Wembley – soft, preventable and very self-damaging.
And the second half reflected the current struggle to get back into the play off hunt. Perhaps we will end up only finding our top, top form deep into the metaphorical stoppage time of this season. Too little too late, in order to have won the game. (But hopefully the fact we kept going against Aldershot will reflect our level of effort during the final 11 matches.)
The failings are evident. We don’t create enough clear cut chances. Our final ball can be lacking in quality. We are struggling to settle upon the right partner for James Hanson. We don’t make the opposition work hard enough to earn their goal.
The balance in midfield is a worry. For sure we look better at this moment with Ricky Ravenhill, protecting the back four and enabling Gary Jones to get forward; but suddenly Will Atkinson is failing to link up in the effective manner that he was with the Jones/Nathan Doyle partnership. Opposition sides had got wise to us playing Jones and Doyle in-between two out and out wingers in Zavon Hines and Kyel Reid. But perhaps the new central midfield will enable us to go with Reid left and Hines right, once again.
But then what of the strikeforce? Nahki Wells’ form has suddenly become a huge concern. No longer can you put it down to arrogance, but something more troubling – a loss of confidence. How do you get it back? Can we risk playing him in the hope he quickly rediscovers his mojo? Taking him off on Saturday led to team improvement, but it cannot have helped the Bermudian’s morale.
“Start Alan Connell” is the cry after Saturday. But Parkinson’s upfront explanation for his lack of starts – that he doesn’t have the pace to get in behind, which doesn’t suit the midfield in the way that an on-form Wells does – makes sense. “Why didn’t Thompson start?” was the other retort. Whoever plays, we need them to start scoring more often than anyone is doing at the moment. From the 15 games played since the start of 2013, no one has netted more times than James Hanson and Nahki Wells’ three each.
The unhappiness is easy to understand. Since Wembley, many of us have studied the fixture list and privately predicted future results in order to gauge whether it would be enough to finish in the play offs. Aldershot home is the type of fixture that everyone assigns three points too without giving it a second thought. Home win, next. Football doesn’t work like that; but as marker of confidence in those other predictions, the failure to fully profit from a so-called home banker would make anyone wobble.
“Can’t even beat Aldershot…” is an arrogant statement that does not reflect well on those who utter it. But no one would pretend that successful promotion campaigns are built upon home draws against struggling teams.
So it looks as though this remarkable campaign is going to have an unhappy ending. And the growing question is where that leaves us. Are the achievements of this season – a first major cup final in over 100 years, an improvement in league position from last year, the construction of arguably our best team in six years of battling in League Two – sufficient to stick and continue the re-build? Or does the unhappiness of the likely failure to make the top seven, the weaknesses of the squad, and the failure to sign the right striker in January mean the club should twist? I know where my own view lies.
Happiness in football supporting is a curious thing to measure. The league dominates all and is the biggest contributory factor to setting happiness. But the cup has given us bigger highs than the bread and butter appears capable of ever providing, and it’s plotting on to a happiness graph would fall very differently to the league.
Because if you consider, for example, the scenario of Santi Carzola’s extra time shot for Arsenal flying into the Valley Parade net instead of hitting the bar, thus City losing the quarter final tie, we’d have filed out of the ground that night still feeling happy and proud. We expected nothing more than to put up a good show. It was much easier to be happier that night, no matter what happened.
But instead of a heroic loss we got something much bigger – a night we’ll never forget, and two more just as special, against the Villa, and a day out at Wembley that we never thought we’d see in our lifetimes. Unadulterated happiness.
And it was a level of happiness that hits the top of any contentment graph. A league promotion might come close to providing us with that level of exhilaration, but during the cup run we were part of something that – unlike getting out of League Two – we will talk about for the next 50 years.
I’m not saying that the cup heroics make the increasingly likelihood of missing out of promotion okay, but for me it does go a long, long way towards softening the blow. It should have re-energised our faith. Given us the facility to cope with the impending disappointment that we surely must now mentally prepare ourselves to swallow up and cope with.
I hate the fact that this six year quest to achieve the holy grail is probably going to go on for a seventh, but I’m sick of feeling unhappy about life as a Bradford City supporter. So whatever happens over these last 11 games, I refuse to consider this season as anything but a happy one.