City on the brink of surviving The Oldham Division

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Bradford City vs Oldham Athletic preview

@Valley Parade on Saturday 5 April, 2014

Written by Jason McKeown (images by Mike Holdsworth)

It is just short of seven years since Oldham Athletic last visited Valley Parade – an Easter Monday afternoon where both sides were heading in polar opposites.

Bradford City, desperately fighting relegation from League One, took a surprise 65th minute lead when Moses Ashikodi (remember him?) smashed an unstoppable half-volley into the top corner. Perhaps if Joe Colbeck hadn’t got himself stupidly sent off for kicking the ball away, or if rookie caretaker manager hadn’t sacrificed strikers Billy Paynter and Ashikodi to play Spencer Weir-Daley (remember him?!) on his own up front, or if the defence hadn’t played so deep, City would have held out for a vital victory. But with three minutes to go, promotion-chasing Oldham equalised through Luigi Glombard. Their near 3,000 visiting support went wild.

City ended that season in the bottom four, relegated, Oldham finished in the top six, defeated in the play off semi finals. They have remained in League One ever since, but that doesn’t tell half the story of their Groundhog Day existence. Flash back even further – 1997 – and City had an even bigger impact on the Latics’ future. Both clubs – and Grimsby – were locked in a relegation battle in Division One (now the Championship). City survived, Oldham (and Grimsby) went down to the third tier. Athletic have not changed leagues since.

That makes the 2013/14 season Oldham’s 17th consecutive campaign in this division. 17. SEVENTEEN. When they went down in 1997, Tony Blair had just become Prime Minister, Hong Kong was still part of the United Kingdom and Titanic had just hit the cinemas. That 2006/07 season was Oldham’s best finish in the intervening years (sixth) and they have only finished in the top half of the table in five of the other 16 seasons. Similarly, they have only come perilously close to relegation on three occasions.

It must be somewhat unsatisfying to be an Oldham supporter then. A much of nothingness year in, year out. It scarcely seems credible that they were one of the founder members of the Premier League (voting for the breakaway top flight that has had such a dramatic effect on the distribution of wealth in football). 17 years in this division. The bottom tier often gets cruelly named ‘The Rochdale Division’. Surely League One deserves a similar nickname concerning Oldham?

For Bradford City, the job of staying in ‘The Oldham Division’ is almost complete. Tuesday night’s 0-0 with Coventry City took the Bantams up to 49 points, and with most teams having six games to play and the gap to the dotted line nine points and nine teams, the reality is that we are probably safe now. Still, a win tomorrow would take City past the 50-point mark and all but rubber-stamp survival. It would be nice to get the job done on home soil.

You can start to split City’s 2013/14 season into three different phases. The first, covering the opening 10 matches, saw City fly out of the blocks and produce promotion-standard form of one defeat in 10. Phase two – which lasted almost half a season – was that dismal one win in 20 league matches. That horrendous run ended with a 1-0 victory over Port Vale in mid-February, and the last 10 games (phase three) has seen four wins, two draws and four defeats.

Mid-table form, for a side which is surely set for a mid-table finish. Banish that lingering relegation question mark, and it’s all about finishing as high up the division as possible. After Port Vale’s midweek victory over Crawley, 11th is probably the best finish that City can hope for. At which point, we will very quickly start to plan for season two in League One, and the long-term challenge of not becoming the new Oldham.

It seems churlish to be talking about getting out of League One as quickly as possible on the weekend that its permanent residents are in town, but no one wants to stick around here for too long. The only thing we want to have in common with Oldham is that we are also an ex-Premier League side.

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The final six games offer plenty to play for, given there are so many players needing to demonstrate they should remain a part of the Bradford City journey next season. James Hanson, Adam Drury and Nathan Doyle remain fitness doubts, but for the rest this is not a time to stand still.

Jon McLaughlin is certainly under the spotlight. On City’s last Valley Parade appearance, a week and a half ago, the poor opener he conceded to Walsall saw him the subject of plenty of post-match criticism. Yet McLaughlin has responded with back-to-back clean sheets that included some important saves. In front of him will definitely be Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle – both out of contract in six games time – and Andrew Davies, with Carl McHugh (another whose deal is about to run out) likely to continue covering for Drury, should the Leeds loanee not make it.

There is no doubt that McHugh’s season could have gone better, and the irrepressible left-sided defender in the team ahead of him, Davies, looks set to continue blocking his first team path for at least another season. I love Carl, but I suspect that for his own good he needs to look for another club this summer. Tomorrow could be one of his final Valley Parade appearances.

In midfield the partnership of Gary Jones and Matty Dolan impresses – Width of a Post has more to say on it next week – and on the flanks, Adam Reach’s strong start to life at City continues to slowly fade and Kyle Bennett’s slow start continues to be strongly improved upon. Bennett looks very similar to Will Atkinson and is likely to be recruited during the summer to fill that wide-player-who-tucks-inside role. Behind him on the bench, Garry Thompson’s farewell lap will shortly begin.

Up front is likely to be Jon Stead – making a home debut against a side he was playing on loan for earlier this year – and the improving Aaron Mclean. It would be nice to see some of the youngsters given a chance over the final weeks when the right moment arises, and the sight of Oli McBurnie, Jack Stockdill and James Pollard on the bench recently would suggest they may get their opportunity before the final ball is kicked at Prenton Park in a month’s time.

By then, City will surely be playing only for pride while today’s visitors will have hoped to put their lingering relegation fears to bed. A loss to the Bantams tomorrow would certainly cause them unease, although after 17 years of this division you wonder if, on some level, the opportunity to visit some different grounds next season would cushion the blow of relegation to League Two.

More likely, next season’s The Oldham Division is going to include a repeat of tomorrow’s fixture.

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