Bradford City 2
Wells 38 (pen), Thompson 74
Burton Albion 3
Zola 22+28, Weir 44
Thursday 2 May, 2013
By Jason McKeown
After the pre-match tension: terror. This was frightening, harrowing, shocking. Every worst fear realised during 45 minutes of football as poor as anything Bradford City have produced all season. What a time to freeze. What a time to implode.
And yet, the tie is not over. Garry Thompson’s superb strike 16 minutes from time means that City can travel to Burton on Sunday still believing it can be done. Burton should have finished the job. Phil Parkinson will know it and, crucially, Gary Rowett will know it too. That the Brewers take a lead from Valley Parade might be beyond his expectations; but we were on the ropes and they let us off. For them, the psychological effects of being handed the red-hot favourites tag will also take some managing.
Quite where it went wrong for the Bantams tonight is a mystery. With Kyel Reid having not trained all week, meaning he stood no chance of starting, Parkinson’s decision to go without an out-and-out winger left City one-dimensional and painfully predictable. That Zavon Hines had endured a difficult afternoon playing out of position on the left in the league game against Burton must have come into Parkinson’s thinking. He didn’t want to dislodge right midfielder Thompson to accommodate Hines’ pace and rightly so, but Will Atkinson on the left caused a narrow midfield to look even more restricted.
And Burton – who made good on Rowett’s pre-match promise to go for it at Valley Parade – were simply magnificent. There were aspects of their play tonight that might leave much to be desired, but they combined the ugly grittiness with some devastating passing football that City simply could not live with. The previously excellent back four were a shadow of themselves. Michael Nelson – in for the suspended Andrew Davies – will no doubt bear the brunt of the criticism, but really there was no defender who could emerge with any credit.
Certainly not the previously unflappable Stephen Darby. Tasked with marking Jacques Maghoma, City’s right back was the unwitting victim of one of the most astonishing individual performances I have seen in our six years in League Two. Maghoma ran the show, tearing down the left wing at times but equally showing a willingness to cut inside and run past Ricky Ravenhill in the centre of the park. No one could get near Maghoma. On this form, Burton won’t be keeping him no matter which division they are playing in next season.
Maghoma set up Burton’s opener midway through the first half, after getting clear of Darby and delivering a superb cross. Calvin Zola – who yet again had saved his best form for the Bantams – ran from deep and headed the ball home, unchallenged, in between Atkinson and Meredith. Rory McArdle was seemingly tasked with marking Zola tonight, but the Brewers’ striker popped up all over the final third with some very intelligent off-the-ball runs and strong physical all round approach.
City were punished for failing to take the initiative. A packed out Valley Parade roared the players onto the pitch and through the opening stages; but after the players mustered little more productive than a couple of corners, frustration did not take long to be aired. It was a cracking atmosphere tonight, with the level of noise at times prompting hairs to stand on the back of your neck. And yet the mood was not one of unequivocal backing that the big crowds against Arsenal and Aston Villa had provided. Tonight the greater expectation led to greater grumbling.
Within six minutes of opening the scoring, Zola had a second. Zander Diamond’s long ball forwards in truth found Zola in an offside position, but there was no excuse for affording him the time and space to work an angle and fire a stunning drive into Jon McLaughlin’s far corner. McArdle was with his man this time, but allowed Zola the yard of space he needed to pick his spot. Ravenhill might also have done more to help him.
At this stage Burton truly threatened to run riot. They passed the ball with a swagger and style that was chalk to the cheese of City’s direct style. Without the outlet of Reid or Hines, only Thompson took his share of responsibility of getting on the ball to make things happen. What happened to Gary Jones tonight? Perhaps the rest on Saturday was a mistake, as he certainly looked rusty.
Burton might have made it three when some superb passing tore City open and left John McGarth one-on-one with McLaughlin, who made an excellent block. That felt like a pivotal moment in not only the game, but the tie – preventing the visitors’ climbing out of sight. It had been Burton’s fifth shot on target, while City were still to register their first.
When they did it came from the penalty spot, putting the home side back into it. A free kick by Gary Jones had led to James Hanson crossing for an unmarked McArdle, only for the defender to produce an air shot that fortunately saw the ball fall to Thompson. His shot was handled by Burton right back Damien McCory as though he was making a goalkeeping save. Appeals for a red card were ignored, but at least Nahki Wells coolly slotting the penalty home.
But there was another sting in the Burton tail. McCory’s long pass saw Alex MacDonald run clear of a dozing Meredith, and his cut back was met by Robbie Weir to finish with ease. The space he found in-between McArdle and Nelson was hugely troubling. It’s stating the obvious that Davies was missed tonight, but this was the same back four that had kept a clean sheet against Burton only the other week.
The second half saw improvement from City, as Burton eased off and attempted to hold onto their two-goal cushion. The introduction of Nathan Doyle made a big difference, as he provided the composure and tempo that had been lacking, with City finally starting to pass the ball. Fellow sub Reid, whilst clearly short of full fitness, offered much-needed width and did well. But Burton were defending admirably.
Thompson’s strike did put City back into it, and it could be looked back on as pivotal come the final whistle on Sunday. A deserved goal it was too, as he, Hanson and McLaughlin were the only City starters to emerge with any credit tonight. That Burton hit the bar through MacDonald soon after underlined their counter attacking threat, but we were firmly into time-wasting and gamesmanship country, as Burton ran down the clock.
City might have drawn on the night, with Wells and Hanson wasting glorious chances in almost identical fashion. Screwing shots wide on the turn when there was time to take a touch and show composure. That summed up the evening for City, one where the basic principles of what has got us to where we are were somehow forgotten. The fact the tie is not over is probably the best we could have hoped for.
With three days until the second leg, Parkinson will need to formulate a strategy for the Perelli Stadium very quickly. He was clearly caught out tonight by Burton’s adventurous approach and the free role afforded to Maghoma, but worrying about what the opposition might do to us cannot be the principal focus.
We didn’t do ourselves justice tonight. Now all we can do is ensure that’s not the case on Sunday, and to leave the pitch having given everything. It will be a tall order to overturn the deficit on the turf of the Football League’s best home form team, but it is not impossible.
As fantastic as Burton were tonight, I still don’t believe they are a better side than the Bantams. We now need to go and show that. Give them lots to worry about. Prey on their anxiety. This magnificent season does not deserve to end on a whimper, and everything we’ve seen over the last 10 months suggests this group of players won’t let that happen. I have every faith they can turn it around.
It’s only half time, and all season long we’ve proven to be a better second half team.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, Nelson, McArdle, Meredith, Thomspon, Ravenhill (Doyle 57), Jones, Atkinson (Reid 57), Hanson, Wells (Connell 89)