Bradford City 1
Saturday 21 February, 2015
By Jason McKeown
If Bradford City ultimately fail in their quest for a play off place, it will be afternoons such as this that are looked back upon during the inquest.
Afternoons such as this, where ongoing questions over the strength of the squad were not satisfactorily answered. Afternoons such as this, where a winning position was established but lost. Afternoons such as this, where one lapse of defensive concentration was brutally punished.
And they are afternoons which keep repeating themselves.
On the squad depth, there isn’t a team in the land who wouldn’t suffer disruption from losing three of its most important players through injury. Whilst Andrew Davies was barely missed given the impressive full debut of his loanee understudy, Gary MacKenzie, the absence of James Hanson and Filipe Morais was keenly felt. Without similar players to perform the wide attacking roles that the pair have excelled in of late, a narrow City midfield struggled for space against a Walsall side who deliberately kept the middle of the park congested.
It is credit to Billy Knott and Gary Liddle that they weren’t overrun by Walsall’s three central midfielders in the manner that so often tripped up their predecessors, Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle; but neither were able to repeat their considerable impact of previous weeks. And the replacements for Hanson and Morais – Mark Yeates and Andy Halliday – were similarly ordinary in the wide midfield positions. Up front, Billy Clarke lacked the space to operate in the hole and Jon Stead was too isolated.
Thus the pattern of the game was set. City showed patience in probing for openings, but a lack of tempo made them too predictable and opportunities on goal were easy to restrict. Walsall have the best away defensive record in League One and it showed. They have a back four who clearly relish their jobs and are superbly organised. Stalemate, and the most uneventful first half of the season.
City found greater urgency after the interval, and took the lead through Clarke’s low drive from distance. City’s number 10 should be the inspiration to Yeates and Halliday. Like the pair, Clarke had to bide his time on the sidelines, only he has grasped the opportunity when it arose, quickly making himself undroppable.
Clarke is City’s secret weapon in the play off hunt. He is less talked about than Stead and Hanson, but regularly displays an intelligence and level of creativity that is rarely seen in this division. A string of former clubs shows that – like Morais – many managers have tried and failed to make the most of Clarke’s talents. Parkinson is bucking that trend and Billy is thriving.
A goal to the good, the second reoccurring issue came to the forefront of minds, and again tripped up the team. City continue to struggle seeing out winning positions, especially at home. On nine occasions in the league this season, the Bantams have scored the opener at Valley Parade – yet they have gone on to win just four of those matches. The ‘points dropped’ tally continues to rise.
As with other instances, City were caught between going for a second goal or seeing time out. There was a growing tiredness to their efforts in the closing stages, as sloppy errors crept into their play. With 15 minutes to go Walsall pounced to draw level.
It was a goal that was the result of regular problem number three: that a defence which has largely been outstanding all campaign still always seems to have one mistake in them. Just two clean sheets at home all season says it all. Jordy Hiwula ran into space that MacKenzie was supposed to occupy and was left unmarked to head home the equaliser. The Scot – the filler to a back four that is otherwise so familiar with each other – had attempted to push up, but team mates did not run with him.
It was tight, but Hiwula, on loan from Manchester City, was probably onside as he netted his third goal in five appearances.
City had time to re-establish a lead, but it was back to the lack of squad depth issue. Clarke, Halliday and Yeates have proven effective options to bring off the bench over recent weeks; but back in the side due to injuries, there is very little behind them for Parkinson to call upon. At least not in an attacking sense.
François Zoko was called from the bench, but once again struggled to make an impact. The on-loan Blackpool forward has been at Valley Parade for almost three months now but is yet to start a match. It is difficult to fathom the Ivorian’s relevance to the City cause, other than proving reasonably effective in helping them see out victories with his pace on the counter attack. With the score level and a winner needed, Zoko was not the man to break the deadlock. Indeed, he looks highly unlikely to provide many – if any – goals between now and the end of the season.
Zoko’s big chance came with five minutes on the clock. Some excellent approach play from Stead left his strike partner with the ball at his feet in the middle of the box. Yet Zoko took too long to get his shot in and was tackled. Earlier he had headed a corner woefully wide of goal.
Oli McBurnie – recalled from his productive loan spell at Chester due to injuries – watched on as an unused substitute. In the short-term it can be argued that City benefit more from deploying Zoko in the role of back up striker, but the long-term development of McBurnie is not helped by being pushed down the queue.
The game petered out, but amazingly results elsewhere mean that this point lifts City back into the top six. It is incredibly tight in the battle for the final play off spot, with fifteenth-placed Peterborough just four points behind the sixth-placed Bantams. It is going to come down to thin margins, and Parkinson is currently looking at the loan market to strengthen his hand for the run-in.
There is disappointment over this performance and result, but the bigger picture remains hugely encouraging. For a season that the Board considered to be about finishing in the top 10, City’s dual promotion and FA Cup push is beyond expectations.
And if Bradford City succeed in their quest for a play off place, it will be the middle part of the campaign that is looked back upon during the appraisal.
In 2013/14, the club flew out of the blocks only to fall away during autumn. This time around, City grew stronger as the autumn leaves hit the ground. One victory in 21 games a year ago, just two defeats from 20 this time around. It is a run that has placed City firmly in the promotion mix. Succeed or fall short, we are in the hunt and that in itself is a terrific achievement.
There are at least 17 matches still to play, and it’s going to be a very exciting run-in.
City: Pickford, Darby, McArdle, MacKenzie, Meredith, Halliday, Liddle, Knott, Yeates (Sheehan 87), Clarke (Zoko 76), Stead
Not used: Williams, Routis, Dolan, Kennedy, McBurnie
Categories: Match Reviews