Chesterfield vs Bradford City preview
@The Proact Stadium on Saturday 13 December, 2014
By Jason McKeown
With 12 goals from the last five games – shared out between six different scorers – Bradford City are having few problems finding the back of the net. Yet despite an improvement in defensive performances at the other end, it is now 11 games since the last Bantams clean sheet. Of the 25 matches so far this season, they have only prevented the opposition from scoring on five occasions.
A curious situation then, given the excellent individual displays of those who are currently part of the defence. The back four can all boost the term ‘History Maker’ on their CV, whilst standing behind them is the in-form Jordan Pickford, who is living up to his billing as one of the country’s most promising young goalkeepers.
Prior to the last four games, the defence had undergone plenty of chopping and changing, with Alan Sheehan, Christopher Routis and even Gary Liddle having stints in the back four. Other players had endured dips in form too, which opposition teams have been able to take advantage of. With everything settled down now, it is slightly troubling that otherwise strong defensive performances are being punctured by personal errors.
For the goals that City have conceded of late have looked preventable. Joe Garner’s for Preston, in City’s last away game, Antonio German’s bundled equaliser for Gillingham in Valley Parade stoppage time, David Mooney’s charge through and low finish for Leyton Orient. Worst of the lot was Dartford’s Lee Noble scoring a cheeky back-heel goal, out of nothing, in last weekend’s FA Cup tie. On the BBC, pundit Kevin Kilbane jokingly compared it to Thierry Henry, but Phil Parkinson wasn’t laughing during his post match interview. He had clearly demanded a clean sheet from his players, and was agitated that they had failed to achieve one.
The 25 goals City have conceded in League One this season is the second-highest in the top half of the table. It is a record that is slowly being improved, when you compare recent performances to the set piece fiascos of the Yeovil and Swindon games in September. But it remains the case that the defence seems to have one mistake within them every game. This needs to be rectified.
So a good time, then, to be facing League One’s top scorer in Chesterfield’s Eoin Doyle. The Irish striker has netted an amazing 19 goals in all competitions so far, including back-to-back hat tricks in the middle of September. Doyle has already comfortably bettered his 13-goal haul from the whole of last season. In fact, the 26-year-old is on course to score more goals this campaign than in the three previous seasons combined.
It goes without saying that a prolific striker like Doyle would be warmly welcomed at Valley Parade, and yet for all his exploits Chesterfield have scored the same number of league goals this season than the Bantams. Doyle has 16 of the 26 goals the Spireites have netted, which means goals from alternative sources have been in short supply. James Hanson remains City’s leading League One marksman – despite not adding to his four League One goals since the end of August. The goals have been more evenly shared out, or in other words City have more players capable of finding the net. And as it stands, City are two places higher in the table than their Saturday hosts.
So if City’s defence can keep Doyle quiet – and his goals have slightly dried up of late – there is a very good chance it will lead to that much-sought-after clean sheet and an extension of City’s five-game unbeaten run. It promises to be an interesting battle, and the form of Andrew Davies and especially Rory McArdle gives confidence of it being one the Bantams can master.
As we approach the halfway stage of the campaign, McArdle and Mark Yeates are out in front as the player of the season candidates. There were some raised eyebrows when it was announced, during the summer, that McArdle had signed a three-year contract, but this long-term deal is so far proving a great piece of business by Phil Parkinson.
McArdle did not have the greatest of 2013/14’s, and there were some doubts over whether the club’s ambitions to push on to the Championship would see the Northern Ireland international get left behind. But even with the usual issue of having to cope without Davies for long spells, McArdle has risen to the challenge this season and become a vital player. In the past, he struggled without Davies and the greater emphasis on him to lead the back four. Not only has he made a much better fist of managing without Davies this time around, when Davies has been back he has continued to play a more vocal role than before.
As for Davies, dare we hope that his injury problems are behind him? Since returning to the team at the start of October, Davies has missed only one game – away to Oldham – and over recent weeks has looked back to his best. That Oldham defeat arguably represented Stephen Darby’s rock bottom moment, following a poor start to this season by his usual standards, but he has subsequently recovered from that harrowing afternoon to rediscover his confidence, composure and swagger.
The move to the 4-4-1-1 formation has undoubtedly aided Darby’s cause, and he has formed useful partnerships with Filipe Morais and Andy Halliday. I never subscribed to the idea that Darby was struggling because of the pressure of captaincy, and this theory has been fully blown out of the water. Darby is no Gary Jones, in terms of shouting and fist-pumping, but he is clearly a leader on the field in his own, less obvious way.
The final member of the current back four is James Mereidth; who like Davies seems to have put bad injuries behind him and who, like McArdle and Darby, has put to bed a previous dip in form. A year ago Meredith looked to be badly struggling with the step-up to League One, and there was a lot of sense in Parkinson’s summer recruitment of Alan Sheehan. Meredith has risen to the challenge magnificently, and is now streets ahead of his rival in the competition for the left back. The Aussie has always got forward well and continues to do so in the 4-4-1-1.
It will be interesting to discover when was the last time City had a back four that remained fully in tact over such a long period as 2012-14. We’ve had many long-serving defenders who played for many years, but inevitably their colleagues around them would change season-by-season. And where do we rank these players in the context of the all-time favourite Bradford City defenders? Do any or all belong up there with Ces Podd, David Wetherall, Peter Jackson, Wayne Jacobs, Darren Moore and Andrew O’Brien? And if not, what do they need to do in order to be included amongst such illustrious company?
Because in their own, relative way, in Darby, McArdle, Davies and Meredith we have our very own version of the famous Arsenal back four.
Whilst the history-making back four continues, the team around them has certainly evolved to the point where the last five games have being entirely made up of midfield and forward players signed post-May 2013. Over the coming weeks Width of a Post plans to review Parkinson’s summer recruitment business, but as a whole there is no doubt it is a major improvement on the 2013 close season transfer activity.
Billy Knott, Gary Liddle, Morais, Billy Clarke and Pickford are now firmly settled in and very much proving to be good signings. Halliday splits opinion, but he’s definitely growing on me and his display at Preston will live long in the memory. As for Jon Stead, his form and all round attitude are spear-heading this team. His quality on the ball and vision is an example to everyone.
Expect to see an unchanged team at Chesterfield tomorrow, with the exception of Pickford’s return in place of Ben Williams. The formula is working and working very well. If there is a slight criticism of the 4-4-1-1 it is that Yeates’ influence has reduced as a result of being pushed onto the wing; but to his credit he has continued to show the right attitude and deliver strong performances. Whilst Yeates was in a free role in the centre, Clarke had found himself on the fringes and looked to have a less certain future. Now he is the focal point of the team, and is slowly but surely winning around his critics.
Another game unbeaten will set City up nicely for a busy Christmas period, followed by the less-than-inspiring FA Cup third round drawing with Millwall on January 3. It would be great to see City go into that clash with their unbeaten run in tact; but to achieve that you suspect they are going to need to start picking up those illusive clean sheets.