By Jason McKeown
If there is a debate to be had about whether this current Bradford City side is the best we’ve had since dropping to League Two, there can at least be no argument that it is the best equipped for the demands of this division. And Saturday’s close-fought, emotionally charged victory over Northampton displayed the reasons why.
The high-flying visitors began the afternoon charging into players with a force that bordered upon reckless. They were determined to make their mark, bully us into submission and clear off with three points. Ugly? Yes. But in the basement division, it has been proven to be a highly successful approach.
And previous Bradford City League Two teams would not have triumphed like the 2012/13 crop. It’s not that they would allow themselves to be bullied by physical opponents, more a case that they wouldn’t know how to fight back. So often I witnessed games against direct teams like Dagenham, MK Dons and Port Vale, where our attempts to match their physicality resulted in the concession of numerous free kicks, yellow cards and – more often than not – the points. City were too innocent, too lightweight and lacking in the intelligence to play ugly.
When Archie Christie was at City, he told me about how he scouted Stuart McCall’s Bradford City on behalf of Dagenham’s John Still, coming to the conclusion that the Bantams had some good ball-playing footballers, but a soft centre. On the long, long journey back North from attending our subsequent 3-0 defeat in Essex, I reached the same conclusion. McCall once said we needed taller players, but that wasn’t exactly the answer. To succeed in the competitive environment you need players who can stand up to the battle.
So as Northampton’s players attempted to leave their mark on the ankles and knees of City players on Saturday, I grinned to myself about how futile it was to attempt to bully people like Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies and Ricky Ravenhill. Even Kyel Reid and Nahki Wells – who have their faults – are not players who shy away from the ball after receiving a painful tackle. Whatever weaknesses this squad of players might have, a direct, one-dimensional team, under the misguided impression that a couple of late tackles will scare us off, are unlikely to expose them.
As much as Northampton’s crude approach was difficult on the eye, watching City stand up to them was riveting. There was no great hands-up complaining to the referee about the injustice of poor tackles; there were no focus-losing attempts at retribution; there was no sinking to their level. We stood tall and we stood firm, winning every challenge we could and – if losing a first ball – mopping up the second.
No one epitomises such spirit better than Gary Jones and Andrew Davies. The pair were immense all afternoon. They didn’t blink. They didn’t buckle. They went in to every challenge in measured fashion. They emerged with possession and set up attacks. Their bravery an example for others to follow. Leaders to their core.
Davies narrowly pipped Jones for man of the match for me. In a season full of outstanding individual performances, Davies’ against Northampton was up there with the best. The long throw weapon Northampton deployed was time after time returned to safety by Davies’ head. He won countless challenges on the floor and in the air. He marshalled his back four superbly.
Some people say we should get rid of Davies in the summer, because his reported £4,000-per-week wages are unnecessary for a club that has been proven to defend well without him, but lacks goals. I personally believe that he is vital to our cause. Our best defender by some way – and we have some very, very strong defenders. He is, essentially, a higher table League One defender. And if we stick with him (and there’s no reason why we couldn’t keep him), he can inspire us into becoming a higher table League One club.
And at just 28-years-old, how many years could he remain the rock in our defence? He could go down in folklore as one of our most celebrated players. We have found our long-term successor to David Wetherall. We need to keep hold of him.
As we surely do need to re-sign Gary Jones for next season. Turning 36 in June, he is no spring chicken for sure but continues to play in a manner that conceals his veteran status. The calm measured approach he takes is thrust onto the team mates around him. You can argue that we have had better midfielders than Jones, but I’ve not seen anyone since Stuart McCall so notably raise the game of those around them.
At some point there must be an exit strategy for Jones. We cannot rely on his fading powers for long. But that time is yet to come. Perhaps his future will eventually lie in a Ricky Ravenhill role of protecting the back four, but for now he retains high levels of energy and thrust that drives the team. I believe that, despite only netting twice in City colours, there is at least one big goal in Jones between now and the end of the season.
Saturday was very much a team performance that everyone who took part in deserves credit for, but Davies and Jones set the standards that others live up to. They have introduced good habits into the club and into the dressing room which, has had a clear and positive impact. They would never allow themselves to be bullied by physical opposition, and because of that neither, anymore, will Bradford City.