Port Vale vs Bradford City preview
@Vale Park on Saturday 17 August, 2013
By Jason McKeown
‘Bradford City return to the cup that rebuilt the club’ ran a Daily Telegraph headline prior to the club’s first round clash with Huddersfield Town last week. As gratitude goes, the Bantams’ making seven changes to the first choice XI was the kind of move that would see bigger clubs accused of devaluing the cup.
Yet three days on from bowing out of the League Cup at the first stage, with some quiet mutterings from some supporters over Phil Parkinson’s team selection, the resting of players was emphatically justified through a resounding first victory of the season over Carlisle United. Parkinson’s pragmatism had once more paid off, and it led to something rather beautiful.
For sure, a dash of salt has to be applied to the significance of the result. Carlisle were bloody awful and only a heroic goalkeeping performance and wastefulness from City prevented the scoreline reaching double figures. But that was also the point. Parkinson observed that Carlisle were playing a day later than City in the cup and – as it happened – Greg Abbott’s injury-ravaged side went through 120 minutes and penalties to defeat Blackburn. They always looked ripe for rocking up at Valley Parade with weary legs and tired minds, especially compared to the City players who largely put their feet up midweek. There is no doubt Parkinson will have urged his side to have been quick out the blocks and show no let up.
They were weak, and the Bantams could smell the blood.
Carlisle’s fatigue was something Parkinson will have appreciated, because of the League Cup run that rebuilt the club. Last season, City’s league record immediately after any midweek cup game was exceptionally poor. Just one victory, over Torquay United in December, immediately followed a cup tie. The heroics on a Tuesday night in the cup invariably took it out of City come the following Saturday. The number of points we lost as a result could easily have proven costly. It may even have prevented us from achieving automatic promotion.
The flip side is that the cup was vital in developing confidence and resilience in the players that was so vital during the League Two promotion run-in. Games like Wigan, Arsenal and Villa made men out of the likes of Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and Carl McHugh. It was worth those dropped league points last season, not least because the league had a happy ending, but this time the priority has shifted. Bowing out of the League Cup so quickly was disappointing. Bowing out of the League Cup to local rivals Huddersfield Town was galling. But getting three points against Carlisle and playing so magnificently more than made up for it. And the confidence gained from last Saturday could prove vital for the battles ahead.
So City go to Port Vale tomorrow still unbeaten in the league and with the chance to build on a hugely encouraging start prior to a mouth-watering derby against Sheffield United next week. Although I can’t make the game myself, I think there is something fitting about the fact we are returning to the infamous Wembley of the North at this moment. Just short of two years ago, Parkinson suffered his first defeat as City on a Tuesday night at Vale Park. In certain respects, he’s just getting back to the level his team were threatening to reach that night.
For there was a two-game period right at the start of Parkinson’s reign where the quality of the football played by City was Arsenal-esqe. The man who had took over the club after a period scouting on behalf of the Gunners initially looked set to implement an attractive, quick-fire passing style of play at Valley Parade that was brilliant to watch. His first home game in charge, a 2-2 draw with Bristol Rovers, was an outstanding display that was quickly lost in the wash of Mark Lawn’s infamous “worst squad in the division” rant. Were it not for a suspect defence and a lack of a finisher, City would have passed their way to a superb win over Rovers. Jamie Devitt, making his full debut on loan from Hull, was a revelation in a free role.
Three days later City went to Port Vale and it was more of the same. Excellent football, promising attacking play, but dreadful defending undermining it all. We lost 3-2, but should have won easily. Outside the ground, some Port Vale fans came up and declared how impressed they were at how we had played. The results were not coming, but this new era looked so promising.
Alas, this style of play was short-lived. League Two’s physicality (observed in the next game, a 3-1 defeat to Crawley) and the dawning reality that some of the players were not good enough to make the passing game worked dictated a new strategy from Parkinson. As the realisation grew that it would be a season fighting relegation, defensive counter attacking became the style with a heavy reliance upon Kyel Reid. City would line up with three defensive-positioned midfielders (Craig Fagan, amongst them, a curious underachiever) and ask Reid to run at defenders and get the ball to James Hanson and Nahki Wells. It wasn’t always pretty, but it worked to a point.
Last season the football was undoubtedly much better. Bringing in better players will enable that, of course, and at times during home games the opposition would be overwhelmed by our wide range of attacking options. But this was still League Two, and brawn was needed as much as brain. We were not going to start playing Tika-Taka just yet. First and foremost, we had to show we could not be bullied.
But this time around, in a higher division, the early signs suggest Parkinson is moving back to his original, short-lived approach. The wonderful passing football at Bristol City on the opening day was a pleasant surprise, given the manager has long struggled to get results and performances on the road. Against Carlisle it was more of the same. We passed the ball around in hugely impressive fashion. Our full backs charged up and down, our wide players cut inside to link up with the central midfielders, our strikers are now good enough with the ball to feet. At times it felt like we have a man advantage over Carlisle, so well did the players link up.
Mark Yeates is the early poster boy of this evolution. Seemingly comfortable with both feet and not someone who simply sticks to his area of the pitch, the link up play between Yeates and those in front, alongside and behind him is already highly impressive. Although not quite hitting top form at Bristol City on the opening day, Yeates still produced some top-draw passes that hinted at the potential he could become a big player for us. His wonder goal that opened the scoring last Saturday has firmly set him up.
It is no coincidence that Yeates has taken Reid’s place, because it underlines the greater refinement that City are looking for in their play. Reid has done excellent things for this club and still has a role to play this season, but his ratio of effectiveness is more limited compared to what Yeates offers. Reid can run past people at pace all day and will get the ball in the box, but often he lacks quality in his delivery or there aren’t enough players in the area to get on the end of his crosses. More considered build up through short passing enables the quality, and number of bodies that get forward, to improve. This is what Yeates can give to the side through his greater link up play.
So the evolutionary approach gets another airing at Vale Park tomorrow, with an entirely different XI from two years ago expected to continue where they left off against Carlisle United last week. That means Jon McLaughlin in goal, despite concerns lingering about his mistake against Huddersfield. We have already seen the good and bad from Jon, and this will undoubtedly continue over the coming months. He will win us points at times, but probably lose us a few too. His future will be dictated by the extent to which the latter cancels out the former.
The back four of Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies, Rory McArdle and James Meredith pick themselves for now, but competition is growing from the likes of Matt Taylor and Luke Oliver, who impressed in the Development Squad friendly win over Bradford Park Avenue on Monday. Width of a Post’s own David Lawrence was at that game and reported that, “Oliver and Taylor could easily start for the firsts. Luke played 65 minutes and looked good, Taylor looks the part and will threaten Rory for his place.”
Yeates lines up next to Nathan Doyle, Gary Jones and Garry Thompson. Up front, James Hanson and Nahki Wells will be looking to maintaining their outstanding starts to the season.
Vale, promoted with the Bantams last season, have found the elevation harder to adapt to. A 1-1 draw with last season’s beaten play off finalists, Brentford, was respectable, but a League Cup defeat to Walsall and 1-0 League One loss to a Colchester side expected to struggle doesn’t bode well. Vale striker Gavin Tomlin has even admitted his surprise at the quality of opposition players “The opponents have been better than what I expected, they pass the ball fairly well.”
Tom Pope, so prolific last season, has yet to score. Having got the winner against us in three of the last five league meetings between Vale and the Bantams, we should probably be nervous of the fact he is due a goal. But after last Saturday’s rip-roaringly successful afternoon, confidence should be taken from knowing how nervous Vale are likely to be of us.