Port Vale 1
Lines 12 (pen)
Saturday 27 September, 2014
Written by Jason McKeown (images by Thomas Gadd, see note below)
This match proved to be the perfect summary of Bradford City’s imperfect start to the season. It featured numerous positives and highlighted other negatives; showcased areas of strength but failed to cover up moments of weakness; underlined the team’s character yet hinted at its limitations.
It was all on offer, and as supporters you could pick and choose which elements to take home from this display. Your choice probably dependant on how full or empty you view that proverbial glass to be.
Amongst the encouraging aspects of the performance was a vastly improved defensive showing, led by an impressive home debut by the Frenchman, Christoper Routis, and composed efforts from Rory McArdle, James Meredith and the returning Stephen Darby.
They were undone early doors by a ludicrous penalty decision awarded after a Louis Dodds shot was drilled against McArdle’s arm, with the Northern Ireland international unable to get out of the way. Billy Lines converted the spot kick. But apart from a second half Chris Burchall header that crashed against the post, the Bradford City back four gave their opponents nothing.
Whilst Port Vale didn’t exactly offer up the most fearful attack in the division, it was hardly the point when reflecting on how easily Yeovil and Swindon had been able to profit from defensive uncertainty during the previous two home games.
Indeed, the clash between the wily Tom Pope and Routis made for fascinating viewing. Both crossed the line at times and were visibly upset at the other; with the booking they each picked up along the way more than justified. Routis came through this physical battle well, though will need to be wary of temperament clouding his judgement. After the defender’s booking, shortly before half time, Aaron Mclean raced over to urge his team-mate to keep his head.
And at that stage the home side were collectively doing well to maintain their composure, slowly working their way back into the contest. The injustice of Vale’s opener simmered around Valley Parade but was soon predictably offloaded onto the City players. Judgement is always clouded by the scoreline and – in the context of being a goal behind – the Bantams did not look clever for a period. Port Vale had retreated behind the ball, which meant City dominated possession. Yet getting through the banks of white shirts was a different matter.
Certainly nothing was sticking up front in the ongoing absence of James Hanson. City needed someone with the strength to keep hold of the ball in the final third, so that others could get forward in support. Lacking this option, the ball was continually worked back and forth and side to side, as City attempted to be patient against a backdrop of an increasingly impatient crowd. It is worth observing that the crusade from many supporters, last season, to have a team playing attractive passing football is ignored during these moments, in favour of loud bellows of “forward!” The team stuck to their diamond-led principles and more power to them for doing so.
Yet is undeniable that the new approach lacks the cutting edge of the old, and chances are created a little too infrequently. The diamond does not look to be the most ideal formation for chasing a game and pushing opponents on the back foot. It is a problem that Phil Parkinson will need to overcome in home games, where the expectation to beat pretty much everyone overrides. The diamond works well when there is space for clever off-the-ball movement and quick link-up play, but City struggled to find such freedom against defensive-minded opposition.
Mark Yeates led the recovery with a superb individual performance. After last season’s stop-start campaign, the 29-year-old has now started the last four league matches and looks a better player for that run in the team. He was undoubtedly City’s best performer, and always the most likely player to create something.
Yeates revelled in the hole, driving forward with the ball and linking up effectively with Mclean and Billy Clarke. Not everything came off and he can still be a little selfish at times – but as assistant manager Steve Parkin observed post-match, he is never shy of receiving the ball and taking responsibility.
With Billy Knott and Jason Kennedy both well short of their best, Yeates’ performance was even more important. Deep into first half stoppage time, he unleashed a stunning free kick that flew into the top corner to bring City level.
And though it wasn’t a great first half Bantams performance, the goal was merited on the balance of play. Mclean produced his best display of the season (though admittedly the bar is very low in this regard) and worked manfully as the focal point of the attack. Clarke missed a good early opportunity when a defensive slip let him through one-on-one from an angle; his chip on goal sailing wide. The industrious Gary Liddle also had a good penalty appeal when he was tripped right on the edge of the penalty area, prompting an incensed Parkinson to rush down the touchline and berate the linesman.
In the second half City continued on the front foot, playing their best football of the game. Yeates was again heavily involved. Clarke was alive in the box, forcing a decent save from Chris Neal. Meredith was at his rampaging best on the left side of the pitch – on this evidence, the returning Alan Sheehan could remain benched for sometime – and Port Vale caretaker manager Rob Page made tactical changes to negate the Australian’s influence.
And yet here, in the game’s final 25 minutes, was where the biggest concerns were raised. As Vale rediscovered their defensive composure and home momentum slowed, the lack of options from the bench prevented City from rallying and going on to win the match.
Filipe Morais did well in place of Knott, but the changes made up top weakened an attack that had been getting only limited joy anyway. First Mclean – who presumably still isn’t fit enough to last the 90 – was replaced by Oli McBurnie; and later on Clarke was swapped with Mason Bennett. Two 18-year-olds leading the line; small wonder that a late rally never materialised.
Which isn’t to criticise the manager – what other options does he have? – nor is it to stick the boot in on the teenage pair. Indeed, as McBurnie struggled and grumbles in the crowd grew vocal, you could only feel anger about the situation. A number of supporters have over the past week decided McBurnie is not up to it and have expressed this viewpoint vocally – certainly easily loud enough to reach the youngster’s ears – and it makes you despair to the point that you want to ask such people whether we should scrap having a youth set up altogether.
Every City youth product to make it through the ranks has been slated by the crowd for a period, and I don’t understand why they are so quickly – and harshly – judged. McBurnie has started just four matches in his career, and made a further 11 cameos from the bench. Is that really enough time to decide if he is good enough? In the final 20 minutes, he looked completely devoid of confidence, as though he has recently spent too much time reading Twitter.
The argument of getting him out on loan to gain experience is a fair one – but circumstances can’t allow that to happen right now. City are down to the bare bones, with only two fit senior strikers (neither of whom are exactly scoring a hatful of goals). Parkinson has little option but to include McBurnie at this time, so why not recognise the difficult circumstances and get behind the young player? There is something not right about the treatment he is starting to receive.
And yet the biggest concern from this game – and indeed the imperfect start to the season – is that this how it is going to be. Going into the season it was widely felt that Parkinson had built a strong first XI, but that the lack of strength in depth would prove a hindrance. That is exactly how it is turning out, and is probably why a play off push is likely to prove beyond the club this season, despite its strongest XI looking capable of beating anyone on their day.
Matty Dolan and Alan Sheehan were back on the bench for this game. Andrew Davies will potentially return next week. James Hanson and the forgotten Lewis Clarkson are not too far down the line, either. But another round of injuries and suspensions will inevitably occur along the road. The thinbare nature of the squad, this past fortnight, is something we can expect to see repeated again and again.
Parkinson has continued his squad strategy of quality over quantity – and the success of this approach, over the past two years, would suggest it is the right one. But the squeezing of the playing budget this summer was always going to have these consequences.
Learning to cope without your best players is going to be the biggest challenge of the season. 10 games in, it has been a case of mixed success so far. Imperfect, in fact.
City: Pickford, Darby, McArdle, Routis, Meredith, Liddle, Kennedy, Knott (Morais 64), Yeates, Mclean (McBurnie 70), Clarke (Bennett 85)
Not used: Williams, Dolan, Heaton, Sheehan
With special thanks to Thomas Gadd for allowing us to use his superb photos. Please visit Thomas Gadd’s website for more details.
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Categories: Match Reviews