Bradford City vs Crawley Town preview
@Valley Parade on Saturday 26 April, 2014
By Gareth Walker
It has come around again, the end of another season is nigh and on Saturday Bradford City will line up at Valley Parade for the final home match of the 2013/14 season. Some things never change from year-to-year. There will always be the poignant minute’s silence as a mark of respect and remembrance for the Fire disaster which was now 29 years ago; and, as such, emotions of Bradford City supporters will always be unique on such an occasion.
Things on the pitch, however, can differ vastly on this day from year-to-year.
This season, City are all but guaranteed a tension-free final two matches. Barring a pretty much impossible sequence of results which would have to see the Bantams lose their final two games 6-0, and Carlisle winning their final three games by the same scoreline, Valley Parade will be home to League One football again next season. Not just safe, but comfortably safe in mid-table, with a couple of games to spare, has to be seen as job done for Phil Parkinson and his team.
Mid-table obscurity is a welcome relief in some ways from the stresses of the closing stages of other recent seasons. This time last year, for example, the corresponding home fixture was against Burton Albion, where a win was needed to guarantee a play off place. The two seasons previous don’t really bare thinking about, as the team still had work to do during the final weeks in order to avoid the basement trapdoor to Non-League football.
Most supporters would consider the current scenario to constitute a successful season. Personally, I have always said that I’d be happy to avoid relegation this term and, in my pre-season predictions, I had the Bantams finishing a lowly 19th in the final table. In reality, it is only those who had unrealistic expectations of a promotion or play off push who are disappointed with the team’s overall finishing position.
There are, however, elements of the season that we need to improve on – and now should be a time to begin reflecting and learning the lessons from our first season back in the third tier.
If City are to make strides forward next season there are, along with the expected turnover in player personnel, three key areas that stand out as requiring improvement. In particular, our struggle to replace the now departed and previously disinterested Nahki Wells has been a major contributor to our failing form since the beginning of October – form which, if it were to be continued throughout a whole season, would have seen us firmly ensconced in a relegation dogfight.
It was never going to be easy to replace Wells – free scoring centre forwards are difficult to come by at the best of times, never-mind during the middle of a season. However, it is frustrating when you see other teams, such as last season’s defeated play off opponents Burton, almost seamlessly replace their own key departing players, such as Jaques Maghoma and Calvin Zola.
Also, given the amount of time that we had to prepare for the Bermudian’s departure – as well as the amount of money said to be committed in wages to his replacement Aaron Mclean – some disappointment at how we have struggled to cope with Wells’ absence is entirely understandable.
This leads on to the question marks surrounding Parkinson’s tactical approach to games. The long ball strategy had served us well when we had Wells running in behind of James Hanson’s flick ons and through balls. However, Mclean is a totally different type of centre forward, and his failure to hit the ground running can partly be attributed to the use of the same tired tactics which simply aren’t as effective without Nahki’s pace.
There is also the accusation that many supporters level at the current coaching team, that they lack a Plan B and, as such, opposing teams have simply “found us out” as the season has gone on. It has been encouraging therefore to see a couple of different styles of play being implemented during Hanson’s recent injury-enforced-absence from the side.
The use of a five man midfield, with loanee Jon Stead as a target man striker, has proved reasonably successful on our travels over the last couple of weeks. It has also enabled Parkinson to get the best out of players such as Nathan Doyle in the holding midfield-anchor role, where his mobility hasn’t been such an issue given he has been flanked by two fellow central midfielders.
In the home game against Peterborough, we saw Adam Reach employed in a free role behind Stead and, in the first half, this proved particularly effective. If we can keep Reach or Stead for the long-term, or replace them with players of a similar ilk, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see these two new approaches taken into games on a more regular basis next season.
Then there is the issue of consistency – something which seems to blight every team below the top four or five in the Premier League. Fans of every team in the country can be heard, at various stages in the season, bemoaning their club’s inability to back up good performances week-on-week. For City, however, there is a bigger issue here: we seem incapable of putting in the kind of performances that we see against the top sides in the division when we play against the strugglers.
This season has seen us muster only two victories against the current bottom four. A solution will have to be found to this issue next term, if we are to put any consistent run of form together.
Saturday’s opponents Crawley Town have undergone widespread changes since their last visit to BD8 in 2012, which resulted in the infamous end-of-match brawl. Only Kyle Macfadzean remains at the club, out of the three Red Devils players who were red carded that day – and of course manager Steve Evans is also long gone. Evans’ eventual replacement, Ritchie Barker, was sacked by the club in November after a poor start to the season – and the current incumbent is former top flight manager John Gregory. It would be interesting to know what Gregory would have made of the Nahki Wells transfer saga, after once being quoted as saying “if I had a gun then I’d have shot him” when discussing his former Aston Villa striker Dwight Yorke’s determination to move to Manchester United in 1998.
Since Barker’s departure, Crawley’s form has steadily improved, and they now find themselves settled in midtable – just one place and a couple of points better off than the Bantams. They have endured a season that has been severely affected by the weather, and at one stage had five games in hand on the teams around them in the table.
Their squad is made up of familiar names such as Billy Clarke, Sergio Torres, Rory Fallon and Bournemouth loanee Matt Tubbs. Scoring goals appears to have been their main problem this season and, along with City, they were linked with a January move for Halifax Town’s prolific scorer Lee Gregory – only to be put off by the Shaymen’s extortionate asking price.
As well as addressing the tactical and consistency issues highlighted earlier, there is expected to be somewhat of a clearout of personnel at City this summer – and Parkinson’s team selection in these final two games may give us some indication as to who is in his longer-term plans and who isn’t.
With Adam Reach now returned to parent club Middlesbrough, it will mean that only one of the current loanees will have to miss out on a place in the matchday squad. This could mean that we get to see Chris Atkinson and/or Matty Dolan in midfield action alongside Nathan Doyle, Gary Jones and Kyle Bennett. The disappointing Mark Yeates may also get the opportunity to stake a claim for not being moved out of the club during the summer.
The back four is likely to remain unchanged, mainly through lack of options – although the return to fitness of James Meredith may see him come into the side in place of Adam Drury. Jon McLaughlin and Rory McArdle are two players who could be considered to be playing for their futures, with goalkeepers and centre backs already being linked with joining the club in the summer.
Up front it will be interesting to see whether Hanson is fit enough to play some part in proceedings, or if the manager sticks with the impressive Stead – who can currently be doing himself no harm at all in enhancing his chances of a permanent deal at the club for next season.
With this season’s outcome all but done and dusted, thoughts are certainly turning towards preparations for 2014/15 for supporters and staff alike, and it looks like being a very big summer ahead for Bradford City.