Must win for both sides as Bradford City go to Carlisle

Image by Alex Dodd

Carlisle United vs Bradford City preview

@Brunton Park on Tuesday 11 February, 2014

By Jason McKeown

The relative isolation and remoteness of Carlisle – in football terms at least – has in recent times made for an unhappy outpost for Bradford City teams on a winless run, and in particular for the manager of the time.

In January 2007 – the Bantams last league visit to Brunton Park – a 1-0 Carlisle victory occurred with strong rumours that Colin Todd was about to be sacked. Three days earlier the manager had endured “Todd out” chants during a 2-2 Valley Parade draw with Cheltenham that even continued after the game, with a section of supporters staying back to rally against Todd as he was interviewed for local radio. Todd limped on from the Carlisle set back for another month at least, but the pressure barely lifted.

Then in December 2009 came a 3-0 City defeat to the League One Cumbrians in the quarter finals of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Playing in the division below and reduced to 10-men after 41 minutes, with the game 0-0, one might have expected these mitigating circumstances to have been taken into account when judging manager Stuart McCall. A certain director saw it differently, however, launching an astonishing attack about the performance in the next matchday programme. McCall hit the roof, prompting this public outburst and, it is said, an extremely heated exchange of words behind the scenes. It is four years to the day since McCall handed in his resignation as manager of Bradford City.

Phil Parkinson does not go into tonight’s game under anything like the level of pressure that Todd and McCall experienced, but the mutterings of discontent from a minority were hardly quelled by the 3-3 draw against Crewe. We all thought it was a must-win game for City, though the recovery from 2-0 and 3-2 down offered reasons to feel positive and encouraged. Nevertheless, a must-win game went by without three points. Now we go into another one.

Must-win is an over-used term in football that ultimately has a vague meaning. Saddled in their isolation of mid-table, nothing about City’s season will be decided by tonight’s result. But in terms of the morale around Valley Parade and the growing jitters surrounding the “one win in…” line, victory would be massive. We are not in a relegation battle at this moment, but we must win sooner rather than later to ensure that remains the case.

The 17 games left this season are curious in that we are already starting to wish it away. No one talks about the play offs anymore (13 points away, assuming you’ve not checked recently) but no one wants to contemplate a relegation battle either. In the circumstances, a meaningless end to the season holds appeal. After all, the run ins for the past three seasons have all featured either promotion or relegation issues to fret about. Let’s get to 50+ points, start planning for next season and, above all else, feel reasonably relaxed as a set of supporters.

Not quite what we had in mind last summer, or even early October; but it’s better than being in the shoes of your Sheffield Uniteds, Bristol Citys and Shrewsburys right now.

And Carlisle’s.

With seven defeats in their last nine League One outings, United are a greater model of freefall and stand one place and one point above the dotted line of the relegation zone. 43 different players have been used by Carlisle this season, with manager Graham Kavanagh admitting, after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Gillingham, that he still wants new faces. “The budget will dictate what I can bring in,” he told the News & Star. “That’s not a criticism of anybody, it’s just where we’re at at the moment. I would like to get experience in. If I’m able to I will.”

How Kavanagh would surely love someone of Gary Jones’ mould. The veteran midfielder has understandably received numerous plaudits following Saturday’s 3-3 draw against Crewe, and as City go a different direction to Carlisle in their team evolution – younger players replacing old heads – the importance of the skipper has grown in leading the revamped side.

The key question for tonight’s team selection is who will partner the 36-year-old in the centre of midfield. Nathan Doyle returns from suspension after his daft sending off against Wolves the weekend before, but Matty Dolan’s promising debut against Crewe would make it difficult for Parkinson to leave out the birthday boy (21 today). The balance between Dolan and Jones in the second half took you back to Doyle and Jones in their pomp, but that hasn’t happened for sometime and Doyle’s form has become a major issue.

I don’t really know where we go with Nathan. Undoubtedly, he is a hugely talented footballer for this level and – at 27-years-old – he could give the best years of his career to Bradford City by staying on past the expiration of his contract this summer. But for two years in a row now Doyle has failed to maintain his high level of performances over the course of a season, and the key to his future is unlocking the mystery behind this. Have we used him too much too often? Is he the sort of player who needs more regular rests to maintain his freshness?

It’s too early to make judgements on Dolan, but you could see him spending the rest of the season in the team, learning how to be Gary Jones. But does Doyle willingly wait on the sidelines for this to happen, partnering up with the young midfielder – expected to join permanently in the summer, if all goes well – next season? On current form, you certainly wouldn’t leave Jones out and attempt a Doyle-Dolan partnership.

The other midfield concern will be Kyle Bennett, who has hardly made the greatest of first impressions since joining on loan from Doncaster. It was interesting to see Parkinson tweak the gameplan to include two out-and-out wingers in the last two home games, but on the road he will probably continue to prefer the greater solidity of Garry Thompson on the right. Thompson has been criticised heavily for most of the season and is in all likelihood going to depart Valley Parade during the summer, but until that moment he will probably remain in Parkinson’s plans.

The rest of midfield – Jones and the promising Adam Reach – pick themselves at the moment, as do James Hanson and Aaron McLean up top. Via the #bcafc Twitter handle, a fierce debate occurred last week over whether Parkinson should play Hanson or Andy Gray. My jaw was on the floor at some of the responses supporting Gray and blaming all manner of ills on Hanson’s broad shoulders. Five seasons on, it seems many supporters still fail to appreciate what a talented footballer James Hanson actually is.

Those who defend him merely for “trying hard” do him no favours. Hanson certainly never lacks effort, but such basics should be demanded of all footballers. James wins everything in the air, has improved vastly with the ball at his feet and is instrumental in how the team play. He should have netted more than one goal on Saturday, but deserves credit for the approach work and positioning that saw him get on the end of such chances. The alternative theory – that City will turn into Barcelona if Gray was up front – is utterly laughable. I’m not writing Gray off, but his limitations are obvious.

In defence: concern. Rory McArdle has been a scapegoat for months, but taken out of the back four against Crewe he was sorely missed. As I wrote on Saturday, Andrew Davies must be played on his favoured side of defence. It’s incredibly harsh to leave out Carl McHugh who has played well prior to Saturday, but on City’s current run it’s about getting a result. Should McArdle not be ready to play, the forgotten Matt Taylor could be considered instead. That or Doyle, of course.

The full back slots will be retained by Stephen Darby and Matthew Bates. Whilst Darby continues to excel with a minimum of fuss, Bates divides opinion (must avoid using a ‘Bates mass debate’ pun). Very often amongst supporters a theory is put forward that people cling onto despite contrary evidence later occurring – such as Gary Jones’ legs are gone. There is a belief that Bates is rubbish that ignores how well he has played at left back. He is not perfect by any means (it’s not his best position) but has let no one down. Bates will do just fine until James Meredith returns.

Which just leaves the goalkeeper to discuss: Jon McLaughlin. Without doing a lot wrong, he’s also not done much right of late and there is a growing bandwagon for replacing the goalkeeper during the summer. I’m personally undecided on this issue at the moment, and would hope that Parkinson is with me in waiting until May before forming a conclusive judgement. Having joined the club in 2008 there has been a near six-year club investment in getting Jon to where he is today. Shot stopping-wise he is generally excellent, and in claiming crosses there is little to fault. Yet McLaughlin doesn’t command his area with an authority of, say, Rhys Evans (his first mentor) and lacks all-round confidence at the moment.

We could do better than McLaughlin but we could also do worse. He is a decent keeper at this level, but perhaps not of the standard that promotion pushes are made of. Out of contract in the summer, these next 17 games are his opportunity to truly prove himself worthy of the number one jersey. I’d love him to succeed and he certainly has my support, but it’s in his hands to remove those question marks regarding his all-round game.

As for Carlisle, their shambolic display at Valley Parade in round two of this season’s League One remains fresh in the memory. Greg Abbott clung onto his job for a while but eventually made way for Kavanagh, with a short-term burst of improvement that has now faded. If sitting just above the bottom four wasn’t bad enough, noting that the two teams below you are Sheffield United and Bristol City (who must surely get their acts together eventually) must prompt genuine panic.

The News & Star labels Bradford City “out-of-sorts” and, from Carlisle’s point of view, a home game against a bottom half team that have only won once in 20 games will be viewed upon as ‘must-win’. Let us hope that the Bantams return home from this footballing outpost with their hosts feeling increasingly remote, rather than moving uncomfortably close enough to be breathing down our necks.

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