The significance of cup competitions as City go to Oldham in the JPT

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Oldham Athletic vs Bradford City preview

@Boundary Park on Tuesday 2 September, 2014

By Jason McKeown

Oldham away, in the JPT, was where it all began for Width of a Post, two-and-a-half years ago. Our very first article, in mid-December 2011, covered the 2-0 quarter final defeat that ended a thrilling Bradford City cup run. One that had seen the Bantams defeat Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United, on penalties, in previous rounds.

At that time a cup run – any kind of cup run – was a rarity. The club had infamously gone between October 2001 and September 2005 failing to win a single cup tie (the fact both spells of administration occurred during this period, when a cup run would have proven a godsend, added to the frustration). City were generally useless in any kind of knock out competition, save for a mini-JPT run during Stuart McCall’s final season of 2009/10.

So getting to the quarter finals of the competition again, in 2011, was no small achievement; laying on the foundations for the sensational cup exploits of a year later. 2013/14 saw an unwelcome return to poor cup form, with first round exits from all three competitions. But generally, these days, cup matches are treated more in expectation of progress rather than trepidation of pain and (often) humiliation.

The debate about whether cup football causes too much of a distraction from the bread and butter of league football is one that never goes away, but there is clear evidence that, under Phil Parkinson, progress up the league table has been partly the result of confidence acquired during cup matches.

In the manager’s difficult early months in charge of the club in 2011/12, that JPT run gave him time to build on his ideals and discover much about the bulky squad he had inherited from Peter Jackson. Indeed, the Oldham defeat was followed by a run of 10 points from four games that did much to rescue a season threatening to end in the debacle of relegation to non-league. The League Cup miracle in 2012/13 evidently caused short-term underperformances in the league, during January and February of that campaign, but ultimately provided a platform to make a late, and successful, promotion push in late March.

Financially, a victory tonight will hardly be lucrative in the same way that the August League Cup first round victory over Morecambe proved to be, but it would certainly aid the morale and belief of the players involved.

Whatever the result, tomorrow will mark the third anniversary of Phil Parkinson’s first game in charge, at Morecambe, on September 3, 2011. The job he has performed continues to speak for itself, but it is the bumps on the road that serve as a reminder of just how differently things might have turned out.

I can recall filing out of Moss Rose, Macclesfield, barely a month into his reign as manager. City had lost 1-0 in League Two, despite dominating the second half, meaning Parkinson had won just two of his first 10 league matches in charge. That evening, there were calls for the manager to be sacked that reflect badly on those who led them; and though the misery was to continue some more (another five league matches passed without Parkinson adding to those two victories), it was the cup form that propped him up.

By the time City had lost at Oldham in the JPT, under Parkinson they had knocked Huddersfield and Sheffield United out of the competition, on their own patches, and triumphed past Rochdale and Wimbledon in the FA Cup to reach the 3rd round for the first time in seven years. The seeds had been planted.

Without those cup exploits – as modest as they seem now when you reflect on the following season’s triumphs over Arsenal and co. – perhaps those early post-Macclesfield calls for a change would have grown louder and proven difficult to ignore. Instead, cup success provided early reasons to believe that Parkinson deserved time to show he was the right man to end the seemingly terminal decline of the club. They afforded him space to breathe, to make some short-term mistakes in the league, and to ultimately find the solutions from the tools he had available. After the Oldham defeat, I signed off Width of a Post’s first-ever match report with the words “One day, surely, we will have a team to match our fantastic support.” And, with Parkinson given sufficient time to rebuild, so it proved.

And though the circumstances are very different now, there is undoubtedly a significance to tonight that stretches beyond the result at Boundary Park. Under the JPT competition rules that dictate Parkinson must play either six players with the most first team appearances to date, or six from the starting line up at Spotland on Saturday, there is room for many of his fringe players to start for the first time. A positive result tonight could be crucial in helping these players settle into the club, and in building the manager’s trust in them for the battles ahead.

The real concern about the cup defeats to Huddersfield, Hartlepool and Rotherham last season was the manner of the performances. Back-up players were given the chance to impress and fared very badly, and it undoubtedly hampered their season, harming their league match opportunities to the point Parkinson ultimately turned to the loan market in January to solve the problems of the day. How different things might have proven had Jason Kennedy, Mark Yeates, Rafa De Vita and Matt Taylor impressed in those Huddersfield and Hartlepool cup exits, early doors. They were certainly not the only under-performers in those games, but they were undoubtedly the biggest losers from them.

A year on, two are no longer at the club, Yeates continues to struggle nailing down a first team jersey, and only Kennedy is truly revitalised as a player. The former Rochdale man may even find he has acquired the status of a first team player rested for this evening. In his and the place of other key players will be a number of non-contract players who have largely spent the first month of the campaign sat on the City substitute bench.

Expect to see a debut for Christope Ruitous – he impressed in pre-season – in place of Rory McArdle. Mo Shariff may be handed a first start to allow Billy Clarke to rest up. Filipe Morais, who started on Saturday, will probably continue with Billy Knott awarded the night off.  Ben Williams, who yesterday signed a deal until the end of 2014, may also be given a chance in-between the sticks, although with six regulars needed Parkinson may opt to stick with Jordan Pickford (assuming Sunderland allow their keeper to play) so the manager can make changes elsewhere.

With many of these fringe players still unable to enjoy the safety net of a long-term contract, opportunities like this evening simply cannot be wasted. If they would like to earn something more concrete – and one would assume they wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the case – they will need to press home their case tonight.

Other players looking for a chance to press their first team claims include Yeates and Oli McBurnie. The latter’s substitute appearance against Leeds United last week was undoubtedly his most impressive outing for the club so far; and on that evidence he can play an increasingly important role in the months ahead. Expect the youth striker to get the nod tonight so Aaron Mclean and James Hanson can be rested up. Boundary Park is the ground where McBurnie made his City league debut, nine months ago.

To make up the first team quota needed, expect Stephen Darby, Alan Sheehan and James Meredith to figure tonight. Mason Bennett should also start either up front or as part of the diamond, and will look to build on a promising start to life at Valley Parade.

Defeat might not prompt any tear-shedding at Valley Parade, but from a manager who has set such high standards, you suspect tonight is anything but a night off for the players involved. A strong performance from his fringe players in particular would go some way to easing the suspicions that City’s squad is too thinbare, and that it will struggle if a couple more injuries occur.

Tonight we will learn a great deal more about the depth of this squad, and where that might leave the club over the months ahead.

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