Preston North End 1
Bradford City 2
McArdle 26, Yeates 86
Saturday 15 November, 2014
By Jason McKeown (images kindly provided by Thomas Gadd, see note below)
Faced with the choice between expansive and winning football, pragmatism has taken over. There was no diamond here from Bradford City, no player was given the freedom to play in the hole. Instead, there was a very impressive away victory and hope that a corner is being turned on the Bantams’ season.
It would be harsh to label this solely an ugly performance, but it was undoubtedly a return to a more resolute, stubborn style of play that was the hallmark of City’s rise from the depths of League Two. Two lines of four, with holding midfielders protecting the defence. Billy Clarke played just behind Jon Stead, who led the line tirelessly and impressively. He was in good company, for this was a visiting performance filled with sevens, eights and nines out of ten. To a man, they were outstanding.
Preston’s formidable home record – they were 20 unbeaten – was ripped up here. Although for all the struggles at Valley Parade this season, City have made a welcome habit of upsetting the odds on their travels – just ask MK Dons and Bristol City. This victory makes it seven points from a possible nine on visits to sides in the top six. Phil Parkinson teams have so regularly dug out moments like this. It is a commendable quality of the City manager that he so often gets a result when it is badly needed.
But he left Deepdale with more than just three points on Saturday – he held a formula that could rescue this increasingly disappointing season. It is a formula of players working hard in both halves of the field, and in getting the ball up to the frontman as quickly as possible. It is not tika-tika, but an admission that attempts to be more aesthetically pleasing, early season, are not working and that it’s time to forgo such principles. Sometimes you just have to accept who you are.
Perhaps the Doncaster home defeat, two weeks ago, will be looked upon as a watershed moment. City played well against a very average League One side, but they lost with troubling ease. Five home defeats from eight made grim, grim reading. It was time to be pragmatic again.
Preston started this game well, and for the opening 20 minutes there was a sense of jealousy over their well-drilled approach and range of talented attacking players. Chris Humphries impressed in this fixture last season and once again started well. Paul Gallagher possessed excellent movement and vision. On-loan Aston Villa forward Callum Robinson routinely demonstrated his higher league pedigree.
But City stood firm to early attacks. Filipe Morais and Mark Yeates were terrific going forward, but deserve special praise for the defensive shift they put in. Morais in particular provided Stephen Darby with a level of protection he has been badly lacking all season, enabling the City skipper to put in a faultless display that suggests his dip in form has come to an abrupt end.
Yeates’ freedom to drift inside, from the left wing, worked well in providing both unpredictability and vacant space for James Meredith to get forward into. There was a real sense of balance about the team.
Slowly but surely, City eased into the game and took the lead after 26 minutes through a well-planted Rory McArdle header from a Yeates corner won by Morais. The City defender glanced the ball into the net via a post, placing his team in the perfect position to sit back and soak up Preston pressure. The Lilywhites struggled to respond to the shock of falling behind, and the remainder of the half was negotiated with relative ease.
There was a stronger reaction from Preston after the interval, and for periods City were penned back in their own half – efforts cleared off the line or coming back off the woodwork. Andrew Davies and McArdle were firmly at their best, aided by the protection of Jason Kennedy and Andy Halliday. A more unlikely central midfield partnership you are unlikely to find, but it worked and worked very well. I have been unimpressed with Halliday’s contribution so far, but he was a revelation in this defensive role. It is hard to see how Billy Knott can be included, on this evidence.
It wasn’t pretty at times. The ball cleared into the stand, time-wasting, slowing down of the tempo, launching it long to Stead. But equally, City played some good football and threatened a second goal on several occasions. Halliday and Stead passed up presentable chances, whilst one scramble in the box saw the ball pinged back and forth with last ditch blocks foiling City prods at goal.
Inevitably Preston pushed harder in the closing stages, as City crept backwards. Former England striker Kevin Davies was summoned from the bench, and with 10 minutes to go Kyel Reid was also brought on – the former Bantam receiving a rapturous reception from the visiting supporters. On the occasions that Preston got in behind the back four, they were foiled by Jordan Pickford who was having the game of his life. A succession of superb saves, and remarkable dominance of his box as crosses come in. The young keeper’s opening day flapping is a distant memory.
Alas, City’s defence this season have always had a mistake in them, and with four minutes to go Joe Garner took advantage of the visitors losing the ball in a bad area of the pitch to slide home the equaliser. The goal was greeted by a pack of Preston players rounding on Pickford to claim the ball so they could quickly restart the game. In hindsight, they must have wished they’d settled for a point and preservation of their unbeaten home record.
For instead of Preston going on to win, it was City who went up the other end and immediately scored. Yeates was given time and space on the edge of the box, and he curled a fine effort into the bottom corner to prompt wild celebrations. What a turnaround in fortunes it has proven for a player who seemingly had no future at Valley Parade.
Five minutes of nail-biting stoppage time came and went, and the players and management were on the pitch celebrating arguably their most impressive result of the season. You could see how much it meant to each and every one of them. And as we set off home that ‘p’ word, which had been absent for the last five weeks, was allowed to be aired again. Only five points off the play offs, with back-to-back home games coming up. Now to sort out the appalling Valley Parade form.
Parkinson goes into these matches with plenty to ponder. Clarke and Stead were both outstanding in this game and it presents an interesting talking point in view of the return to fitness of James Hanson, who came on for the final 14 minutes. On this evidence, Clarke and Stead are the best partnership available to the City manager, yet sticking with them would mean the club’s best forward remains benched. Still, with the Aaron Mclean situation unresolved, it is a nice problem for Parkinson to have.
At the back end of last season, there was a great deal of debate about the playing style the manager was maintaining. A playing style criticised as one-dimensional, predictable and ugly to watch. Hoof-ball, was the tag. It was a debate which led to the change of tact over the summer, and the now surely-consigned-to-the-dustbin diamond formation.
The idea this season was to be more entertaining, and that is a commendable one. But the problem is we haven’t been entertained by it.
I’ll be honest, I had no problem with last season’s approach, and I have no problem with a shift back towards it. I love watching teams like Arsenal and Barcelona, but I happen to think that being a fan of football is about accepting and enjoying different approaches to playing the game, along with taking a fascination in watching opposition teams try to counter them.
So as bad as it seems to some purists, the truth is I really enjoyed the direct style of football last season (and the season before that, when no one ever complained about it). I love hoof-ball. Wow, it feels strangely good to have admitted that.
And I loved the way we played today (apart from the time-wasting). I loved the way in which Stead holds up the ball to allow others to get forward. I love seeing wingers working hard at both ends. I love seeing defenders defend well. I love that Parkinson’s approach has always, always made room for clever footballers like Billy Clarke.
And I love winning. And if this is what it takes to win football matches, let’s stick with it. Because that other stuff we were trying, it didn’t often leave me feeling very good at 5pm on a Saturday.
City: Pickford, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Meredith, Morais (Sheehan 88), Halliday (Liddle 69), Yeates, Clarke (Hanson 76), Stead
Not used: Williams, Routis, Dolan Knott
With special thanks to Thomas Gadd for allowing us to use his superb photos. Please visit Thomas Gadd’s website for more details.
Categories: Match Reviews