Bradford City 2
Morris 58, Liddle 72
Carlisle United 0
Saturday 25 July, 2015
By Katie Whyatt (images by Kieran Wilkinson)
Two weeks to go before the curtain-opener at Swindon, and things are looking good. For all the big transfer calls Phil Parkinson has had to make already this season, dispensing with Andrew Davies and Jon Stead in what could have been the most fatal transactions he completed this year, things are coming together nicely, and 2015/16’s only home pre-season friendly was a timely reminder of the progress that has been made, quietly, over the summer.
The inactivity of pre-season can all too easily become a breeding ground for conspiracy and panic, when, in actual fact, things are usually okay. If today was a useful exercise in anything, it was a reminder of how far we have come.
This wasn’t about searching for the missing pieces in a flush of trialists. It was about obtaining an accurate measure of where we are, what we have, and where we need to go from here. There was some comfort in the familiarity of it all, and comfort in what was new, too: Ben Williams starred between the sticks as Meredith, Liddle, McArdle and McMahon formed the back four. Josh Morris lined up on the left flank, Knott and Routis in the centre and Mark Marshall on the right; Hanson framed the forward line and Clarke dropped off slightly to complete the spine of the team.
At this stage, that’s probably as close as you’ll get to the eleven that will line-up at Swindon in two weeks’ time. Fielding a full-strength City side, Parkinson sought to review, reflect and plan how best to utilise these final fourteen days.
That former Leyton Orient centre back Nathan Clarke was sat outside the 1911 suite after the game, having watched the match from the stand, slightly skews the relevance of most of my conclusions about the viability of featuring Liddle at centre half, but today highlighted the creativity, energy and intelligence of a team bristling with youth and desire, typified in the performances of the Bantams’ midfield duo.
Billy Knott and Christopher Routis offered top-drawer performances today, breaking up play, instigating attacks, doggedly winning possession and setting the tone in the centre of the park. Both looked more assured than they ever have, playing with a confidence and a swagger that belies their tender years as they outmuscled Cumbrian shirts and laid off for the wingers. Knott was the biggest beneficiary of Routis’ vision, increased movement and creativity, and the Bantams looked brighter for having a plethora of attacking options.
Next season will be a huge campaign for both of them, but today ultimately leaves Parkinson with an intriguing question that might have been more obvious last term: how does he structure his central midfield pairing? Does he start with Knott and Routis, as today, or Knott and Liddle, Routis and Liddle, or some rotation policy that utilises all the combinations?
There were times today when Routis’ defensive positioning was slightly awry and Carlisle broke through unchallenged, or when Knott and Routis were pressing so highly that they struggled to cover when possession was surrendered. Gary Liddle’s absence in the holding role wasn’t notable going forwards – City looked more fluid and unpredictable for having Routis – but it made you uneasy when City were caught out. Rampaging through unchallenged, Carlisle’s midfield had McArdle and Liddle beaten, before Williams spilled for Meredith to knock the danger clear.
But it was Billy Clarke that was my man of the match, reaffirming again what a huge capture he was last term. Vibrant, hardworking and tireless, Clarke relished the newfound creativity of this City incarnation, but was still the pacemaker and the precedent setter, seeing things others didn’t, knowing what’s going to happen before it did, running to cover before anyone else had noticed a space needed filling.
As ever, Clarke invaded midfield and re-started attacks, and looked the sharpest of the bunch today. Picking up a second ball, Clarke teed off invitingly for Morris to drill a powerful low shot that was parried away by Gillespie.
Clarke’s intelligence complemented the play of Mark Marshall, and the Irishman found the winger several times and peeled off for the former Port Vale man to cut inside. On the whole, Marshall put in an eye-catching shift, and looks to be that bundle of mesmerising step-overs, flicks and tricks that could, conceivably, change a game in an eyeblink.
He has pace, flair and holds the ball up well; he moves to create space and looks fearless, asking for the ball, winning back possession, harrying defenders and running in behind after attacking the full back. Admittedly, his decision-making in the final third could have been better, often pressing forwards or fruitlessly taking on a player when teammates were in more effective positions.
At times, he looked like he would have benefitted from the support of an overlapping full back, and it’s worth noting that he was most effective with McMahon or Clarke galloping alongside and buying time and space before despatching him. With both Morris and Marshall capable of playing on either wing, Parkinson switched them over in the second half.
McMahon enjoyed a strong first half, catching the eye with a great interception and showing acute vision to play Marshall into acres of space. Though the understanding is raw at this point, Marshall looked more comfortable with McMahon, but the glaring similarities to Kyel Reid inevitably bring hope that Parkinson will be able to bud another partnership in that vein – the major pitfall of the diamond last season was that it prevented City from working with so much width and pace.
At this stage, with Darby still the first choice right back ahead of McMahon, you can’t really draw any complete conclusions about where this will go, but it confirms that the style is changing again.
It was the man on the opposite flank, Blackburn capture Josh Morris, that would break the deadlock after the break, cutting inside and finishing with a low drive from the edge of the box to open the scoring. Working with pace, the 23 year old grew in confidence as the game went on. Routinely beating men, he glanced a free kick just over in the early stages and came close with a half volley as the game reached its climax. Towards the end, Morris’ cutting ball from midfield found the newly-introduced Jon Lewis on his own with just the goalkeeper to beat, but his weak shot was easily saved.
With just over twenty minutes to go, Marshall made way for Luke James. Parkinson tinkered to a variant on the 4-3-1-2, with Clarke dropping into the hole and Knott shifting into the wideman role, Hanson moving out wide confidently to change the shape of the forward line when needed. James is a pacy player and worked tirelessly: with ten minutes to go, he did well to collect Sheehan’s long ball from the back, going on a mazy run to invite Morris back into play.
Reviews so far have been that James is a player lacking in confidence and desperately needing game time, but he showed promising flashes of what he could be today.
Hanson made way for Steven Davies, and the second goal followed soon after. The header from Routis’ free-kick was parried away, only for Liddle to nip in at the near post to double the Bantams’ lead. On this viewing, Davies seems a decent acquisition, and linked up well with James. Dropping deeper to collect from midfield, he was assured in his distribution, linking up with Knott and Meredith to bamboozle the Carlisle midfielder.
Reflecting on things now, at home, my main sentiments are satisfaction and a quiet confidence. They played good football, got into decent positions, knocked the ball around well, in short. Were the season to start tomorrow, we wouldn’t be ready, and City still need a definite centre half, a wideman and a few more squad players; but the season doesn’t start tomorrow. There are another two weeks to bring in the relevant faces, a decent window considering August is a teething month for many clubs anyway.
For now, I’m happy with where we are. (More than that, I’m just delighted we have a Liddle, potentially two Clarkes and a Jon Lewis. And a Morris-ons, if you will. Parkinson is literally an Asda away from building his own retail park. And that just makes me happy.)
Beyond anything else, you get the sense that this is a squad that, like last year’s, will grow into itself and get stronger over the season. Holes need to be filled and creases ironed out, but, if we’ve learnt anything from the past four years with Phil Parkinson, it’s that the journey to success isn’t a simple straight line. There isn’t one way of doing things, and the path is fraught with unforeseen inevitabilities that he manages to surmount each and every time.
Being a football manager is just grappling with chaos theory, essentially. You plan for promotion, but life happens. Cup run stalling the play-off charge? Rotation policy. Diamond looking dull? He got it shining again. We will go forwards, backwards, side to side, looping round and doubling back – but trial and error means trial and improvement.
He will get us there. He always does. And if today’s anything to go by, we’re already halfway there.
City: Williams, McMahon (Hendrie 87), McArdle, Liddle, Meredith, Marshall (James 64), Routis, Knott (Sheehan 79), Morris, Clarke (Lewis 73), Hanson (Davies 71)
Not used: Cracknell, Balatoni, Leigh, Drury, Mottley-Henry, Wright
Categories: Match Reviews