Exeter City vs Bradford City preview
@St. James Park on Saturday 16 March, 2013
By Mark Scully
As City prepare for their second game in Devon of the week, in my eyes they have finally entered the last, last chance saloon. Lose, and it’s yet another year in the basement division. But win, and suddenly the late charge for a play off place might finally start to take place.
After myself and fellow Width of the Post writers Jason McKeown and Gareth Walker made the long trip to Plymouth in the ‘Green Bullet’ midweek, I think we were all in agreement that, realistically, the play offs are now a long shot, but not completely out of reach.
The game in midweek probably should have seen Bradford come away with all three points having created the better of the chances throughout the 90 minutes with Reid/Thompson/McHugh/Connell all going close. Having said that, were it not for the superb goal line clearance in stoppage time from Stephen Darby, the whole picture might look completely different. That one more dropped point, making it 10 from the top seven, would have made it harder to reach the play offs.
Exeter come into the game without a win in their last three games, and without a goal in all three of those fixtures after drawing blanks against table toppers Gillingham on Tuesday night and fellow play off chasers Fleetwood Town last Saturday. Prior to those fixtures, Exeter lost 2-0 away at in-form Bristol Rovers. Despite the last three results, The Grecians had been in great form in recent weeks having brushed aside with ease promotion chasers Northampton Town and Port Vale 3-0 and 2-0 respectively.
The home side come into Saturday’s game with a few injuries. Their central midfield has been dismantled, with ex-City flop Tommy Doherty injured and former Southampton and Leicester player Matt Oakley also ruled out. Playmaker Alan Gow is expected to miss out which will be good news for Phil Parkinson’s troops. Gow has impressed for Paul Tisdale’s side this season.
One thing Bradford need to be wary of is 20 goal striker Jamie Cureton. The veteran sits five goals behind the league’s top marksmen, Tom Pope, but has rolled back the years. After scoring at Valley Parade in the early part of the season, the Bradford back line will need no introduction to the small forward.
I made the last City trip to St James Park, the year Exeter went up. It was shortly before Stuart McCall’s outburst, after losing the subsequent midweek game at AFC Bournemouth. The Exeter match game was undermined by off the field activities of Barry Conlon and Matthew Clarke. Hopefully this time around Bradford can get all three points. It isn’t necessary a must win game, but it would certainly setup up the three home games on the bounce rather nicely.
After the draw at Home Park on Tuesday I would expect Phil Parkinson to once again shuffle his pack. James Meredith is back in the squad, but I’d be very surprised if he got much more than a 20 minutes run out – a lot will depend how the game is panning out, I suppose. I would personally start with the same back five with Matt Duke in goal. There isn’t much between the two keepers in my opinion but, going slightly off track, I would let Jonny Mac depart in the summer, whilst retaining Duke as No.2 but having him primarily as goalkeeping coach and bring in a new No.1. The back four until Meredith is fully fit picks itself with the excellent Stephen Darby at right back, Carl McHugh on the left and a defensive partnership of Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies the best pairing we have available to us.
Into midfield, I would drop Kyel Reid to the bench. The winger is clearly lacking form at the moment and isn’t doing the things, which at the end of last season and the start of this, he was doing superbly well. Hopefully Reid will get his mojo back in time for the run in. In Reid’s place I would start Will Atkinson. To be fair to Reid, Atkinson has also had a little dip in form but would get the nod ahead of Reid on this occasion.
In the centre, magic man Gary Jones will come back into the fold, probably alongside Ricky Ravenhill. This might surprise some people, but the former Doncaster midfielder has played really well in recent weeks and I think his ‘spoiling’ style of play is quite effective especially when playing away from home. Ravenhill also gets the nod for me due to the lack of form being shown by Nathan Doyle at the moment. On the right, Zavon Hines deservedly should retain his place. In recent weeks the right hand side of Darby and Hines is working really well and looks a huge threat – both players work really hard for the team and seemingly have built up a good understanding.
Up front this is where opinions are split amongst the fans – do you start Connell, who, in the last three games I’ve seen him come on in, has completely changed the game, or do you bring back the big guns Hanson and Wells? I thought Hanson and Connell linked up really well when they came on at Plymouth, but at the same time I thought Garry Thompson played really well. Then there’s Andy Gray – I think most fans are in agreement that Gray probably shouldn’t be in the starting line up. I’m not going to Gray-bash but, in my opinion he is our fifth best striker. That isn’t to say he’s a bad player, just the others currently are better and offer different options to us.
I don’t actually think Parky will go with Connell from the start at Exeter and, to be honest, I’d agree. I’m not sure it’s the sort of game to start Connell in. Whilst walking away from Home Park I thought he’d go with Hanson and Thompson from the start at Exeter and, looking forward to Wycombe on Tuesday, I’d then expect Wells to be brought back into the fold at Valley Parade. I don’t think you can drop Thompson at the moment. Yes, on Tuesday he should have scored early on. But his all round game is really impressive and, to me, by dropping a ‘form’ player it sends out the wrong signals to the rest of the squad.
The spark that Parky has said is missing at the moment has coincided with the lack of form being shown by the likes of Wells and Reid – the ultimate spark in our armour. They will of course regain that spark. I just hope it comes back in time for a promotion push.
If we can win on Saturday we will hopefully go six points off the top seven. That to me should give the Bradford players and management some real belief that the play offs can be achieved. Hopefully early next week Phil Parkinson will sign the new contract. I can’t see for the life of me that he will go to Reading.
All of a sudden we could be closer to the play offs and a manager signed up mid to long term, with Valley Parade starting to look like a bed of roses again. We are, after all, unbeaten since Wembley. Yes, results have been indifferent. But we are unbeaten. Let’s win at Exeter and really go full steam into the three homes games, believing that promotion is still well within our grasp.