Crewe Alexandra vs Bradford City preview
@Gresty Road on Sunday 3 May, 2015
By Jason McKeown
It is 15 years ago this month that Bradford City defeated Liverpool 1-0 on the last day of the season to survive in the Premier League. No matter what the narrative of subsequent years, they have never since gone into the final game with anything at stake.
Yet for the third season in a row, the opposite is true for City’s last opponents. And judging by the form of the previous two years, Crewe should be fearful about facing a Bantams side with seemingly nothing to play for. In 2013, Cheltenham hosted City needing victory to earn automatic promotion – the 0-0 draw, coupled with a win for Rotherham, consigned the Robins to the play offs. Last year, Tranmere Rovers had to defeat the Bantams or be relegated. Late goals from Jon Stead and Aaron Mclean consigned Rovers to League Two.
Amazingly, both Cheltenham and Tranmere have just been relegated into non-league. It demonstrates the long-term impact of coming off on the wrong side of thin margins.
Crewe beware indeed. They go into Sunday’s encounter in 19th place but will go down if they don’t beat City and both Notts County (who travel to Gillingham) and Crawley (who play host to Coventry) win their games. Colchester (who play Preston) can also catch Crewe if the Bantams are victorious. The Alex’s shocking goal difference (minus 31) leaves them especially vulnerable in a battle of fine margins. This time a year ago they defeated Preston on the final day to survive. They must repeat that feat or fret about scorelines elsewhere.
In many ways, League One has been a much of muchness this season. Bristol City were far and away the best side, Preston, MK Dons and Swindon are useful teams, but the gap between the top four and everyone else bar bottom club Yeovil has not been significant. On Valley Parade evidence, Crawley looked the worst team in the division. Colchester and Leyton Orient – who are in grave danger of going down – were far from awful.
Eighth-placed City themselves are only 12 points above the drop zone – which compares to 16 points behind fourth-placed Swindon. Meanwhile recent ‘play off rivals’ of the Bantams, Oldham and Doncaster, could end the season just a few points above the bottom four. A slight deterioration of performance next season could easily see City sweating over relegation concerns once more. We cannot afford to stand still.
Something that may prove to be the case if the Gianni Paladini takeover is dragged out. An initial deadline of the end of today was agreed to complete the deal, but the Yorkshire Post has reported that a couple of legal issues may slow up the buyout and that a two-week leeway window has also been agreed. The T&A has also suggested that other people are interested in buying the club (I’m not sure I believe this myself).
Amongst City supporters there is undoubtedly a major split over Paladini. Many people have huge misgivings about the club’s ownership changing hands, whilst others welcome the prospect of significant transfer funds for the manager.
What we can all agree on is that needs to be sorted quickly. Season tickets need to be put on sale, out of contract players still wanted need to be offered deals, whatever the budget is to be for next season needs to be agreed and made available. All the momentum built up since 2012 is at stake here. Whether with Paladini or Lawn and Rhodes, the club needs to keep moving forwards.
That is all to come after the final whistle sounds at Gresty Road. Regardless of the plight faced by Crewe, Parkinson has signalled his intent to play his strongest team. There has been some disquiet about his unwillingness to give youth players the chance over these final few weeks, save for the briefest of substitute cameos; but it is clear the manager is desperate to finish the season on a high and ensure a strong final league positioning.
For what it’s worth, I agree with that stance. After the horrors of the Bristol City defeat, there was a very real fear that the season was going to peter out with numerous losses – significantly changing the tone around the club, going into such a big summer.
2014/15 has been too memorable and exciting to allow for the gloss to be taken off by a poor ending. And if City had failed to better last season’s points tally or 11th-place positioning, there would have been accusations thrown at the manager that he is failing to take the Bantams forward – reduced budget or not.
Instead, a victory at Crewe could ensure a seventh-place finish: one position from the play offs. The best of the rest. Playing the kids might not have hindered that goal; but I think you need to pick players on merit, rather than suddenly punishing senior pros by leaving them out when they have done nothing wrong.
If players are not considered to have a future at the club, by all means play kids ahead of them. But looking at recent team selections, I don’t think those involved are serving their notice.
So at Crewe, a strong City side will feature that includes Ben Williams in goal behind the reunited history makers back four. Gary Liddle has done well filling in for Rory McArdle, but expect the Northern Ireland centre half to reclaim his spot following the completion of his two-match ban – especially after warm words from his manager over his official player of the year gong (WOAP’s award will be announced next week). Alongside McArdle are the familiar faces of Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies and James Meredith.
Liddle will therefore return to midfield, with Billy Clarke at the tip of the diamond. Who takes the wide midfield spots is unclear. Billy Knott’s superb assist last week was an example of his quality, but overall he had a poor game against Barnsley. Christopher Routis let no one down on the right, but at times struggles in this position. Tony McMahon may return to wide right.
Mark Yeates was supposed to be out for the season but made the bench last week. He may get a cameo on the left – although one suspects he has played his last game for the Bantams.
Up front will be Jon Stead and James Hanson. The season is set to end with no real striker competition for the pair. Francois Zoko’s name will only be remembered when people compile their list of worst-ever City strikers. The Ivorian has calved out a decent career in England but has shown only the smallest glimpses of his potential on loan at Valley Parade. Parkinson clearly ran out of patience with him several weeks ago.
For Crewe, being in this position – of survival in their own hands – has to be a positive of sorts. They made a disastrous start to the season and were in a huge mess when they came to Valley Parade in early October, losing 2-0 to goals from Mclean and Liddle. They remained rock bottom until round 21 of the League One season. Yet Steve Davis kept hold of his job, engineered a revival, and the great escape is very much on.
Crewe have lost only one of their last seven games. Although only Colchester and Crawley have conceded more goals, they have the 11th-best home defensive record in the division. Scoring goals has been their problem, with only Yeovil netting fewer than Alex’s 43.
It is all adds up to a tense afternoon for Alex, on a day where three from six will be relegated. The Bantams might look favourable opponents compared to the daunting fixtures facing Colchester and Leyton Orient (Swindon away), but past last day form would suggest that it could all end in home tears.