Bradford City 0
Tuesday 31 March, 2015
By Jason McKeown (image by Kieran Wilkinson)
It was a nothing ball forwards. An aimless punt. A hit and-dont-hold-out-much hope. But from such apparent Chesterfield carelessness came a season-defining moment for both teams.
The Bradford City goalkeeper, Ben Williams, could have come out to claim the directionless long ball that headed into his penalty area. Or he should at least have shouted to his defender, Gary MacKenzie, to be wary of the onrushing Byron Harrison closing him down. Harrison’s name had not appeared on the Chesterfield team sheet before kick off and he was also unseen here by the Scot. MacKenzie blindly headed the ball towards his keeper, Harrison pounced and rounded Williams for a tap in.
And at this late, late stage of the season – where the highs feel that higher, and the lows that lower – it was a huge goal. Just over an hour later, Chesterfield would walk off the pitch 1-0 victors and sitting in the top six. City meanwhile remain the wrong side of the play off line and still stuck behind traffic. This wasn’t quite a knockout blow on their promotion hopes, but a nail to the coffin nonetheless.
With time running out, there is barely any margin for error left. City still have eight games to play, and realistically have to win six if not seven of them to finish in a play off spot. It seems a mightily tall order, especially given there appears to be little left in the tank.
The spring in the step taken from the last 20 minutes against Oldham was not brought into this game. To a man, Bradford City were below par. You can single out individuals and we will get to that, but this was a collective failure. It wasn’t about freezing or allowing effort levels to dip, it was mental and physical fatigue. The positives of a few days sunshine in Portugal ran out disconcertingly quickly.
In a nothing first half, it quickly became apparent that even a point here could have been considered a good night’s work. Chesterfield were not pretty, but they did the ugly things better than City. They denied the home side the opportunity to find any rhythm and momentum. They crowded out Billy Clarke and isolated Jon Stead and James Hanson.
City were granted plenty of possession in the middle of the park, but with no space in front they too easily resorted to long balls. They badly needed a player who could beat a man and put the visitors on the back foot, but only James Meredith looked capable of taking the ball forwards with pace.
Chris Routis couldn’t hit the heights of Saturday, Gary Liddle couldn’t bring the drive. Billy Knott was the better midfielder, but he faded after a bright first 35 minutes. Chesterfield offered little going forwards, but their gameplan demanded little more than sniffing out half-chances. Cue the long aimless punt on the stroke of half time that led to City’s defensive calamity. 1-0 up at half time, Chesterfield could sit back and slow things down even more during the second half.
City kept going after the break and did improve, but attacks lacked purpose and tempo. Stead’s form has drifted of late and this was his most ineffective display for months. Hanson looks exhausted and contributed little. Clarke always offered the potential to provide a spark but it wasn’t his night.
Early in the second half, a scramble from a free kick saw Rory McArdle’s low effort on goal cleared off the line. But it was telling that the impressive Chesterfield keeper Tommy Lee was only forced into making a save deep in stoppage time, when Tony McMahon’s low effort was brilliantly saved. Top six teams need a goalkeeper who can make that sort of intervention numerous times over a campaign, and unfortunately for City there has been little evidence to suggest Ben Williams can offer that for the Bantams. Williams is number one by default but Phil Parkinson will surely be in the hunt for a better stopper during the summer.
And as City continued to huff and puff during the closing stages, the manager will also rue the fact that he simply doesn’t have a strong enough squad to cope with this heavy schedule. Mark Yeates, McMahon and Francois Zoko came on but that was all Parkinson had to call upon to change the game.
The striking aspect of 2014/15 is the similar pattern that has occurred to two years ago, where a great cup run came to an end with City in promotion contention but looking fatigued. But the big difference this time around is that the squad simply isn’t as strong, relatively speaking, as 2012/13, where Parkinson could rotate and find a late burst of form.
For all the amazing efforts of Nick Allamby, the team looks dead on its feet. There is no let up. The Portugal trip the only Time Out they could call upon. There is nothing in reserve to come in and give the team a lift. We are wholly reliant upon the players somehow finding a second wind.
It’s not over yet, but it’s not far off. Easter is going to be absolutely huge for City, and the fact they face play off rivals Doncaster and second place Preston means it could not be tougher. They have to win at least one, if not both, of these fixtures. Even a pair of draws would probably rule City out.
Parkinson’s amazing track record at Valley Parade in winning matches when it matters is now our biggest hope. Over the past four seasons, he has engineered some incredible feats and overcome some considerable obstacles. Yet with this mightily tough run-in, the high number of play off rivals to better, the thinbare City squad, and the rising fatigue levels, finishing in the top six this season would probably rank as his greatest achievement of all.
City: Williams, Darby (Zoko 83), MacKenzie (Yeates 71), Meredith, Liddle, Routis (McMahon 75), Knott, Clarke, Hanson, Stead.
Not used: Urwin, Dolan, Webb-Foster, Mottley-Henry
Categories: Match Reviews