Bradford City 1
Norris 51, Hanson (OG) 71
Tuesday 18 August, 2015
By Katie Whyatt (images by Thomas Gadd, see note below)
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. With half an hour still on the clock, City had careered themselves firmly into football Groundhog Day. Tony McMahon surrenders possession in the middle. Billy Knott fails to find a man. Stephen Darby doesn’t see Paul Anderson. Forward punt is lost at the top. No support for Alan Sheehan. Pass, pass, possession surrendered, Gillingham counter. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Three games into the league campaign, and Bradford City – tipped as clear favourites for automatic promotion less than ten days ago, with odds of 4/1 – now languish at the very bottom of the table with just a single point to their name. One point from a possible nine, the Bantams go to Barnsley on Saturday still frantically searching for their first win of the season – and, truthfully, for a style, goals and their preferred starting eleven. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not for a second.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, because, well, everything. Because of 149. Because of Burnley. Because of Carlisle. Because of last season’s fairytale. With so much promise and so much optimism, one point from nine, two missed penalties and three poor second half showings is inconceivable. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not ever.
Nothing is ever won or lost in August, and it would be foolish to read too much into these first few games – but the lack of direction is truly startling and raises questions that Parkinson will simply have to assuage.
And as fans filed out into the Valley Parade night, woes were compounded by the news that Billy Clarke, who picked up a knee injury during Saturday’s clash with Shrewsbury, will be out for ten to twelve weeks, missing a sizeable chunk of the season. There seem to be no easily solutions.
Another second half collapse now leaves City with a big mountain to climb. Despite entering the break a goal to the good, James Hanson having converted from Billy Knott’s low cross, it only looked a matter of time before the visitors responded. An unmarked Luke Norris found acres of space to fire past Ben Williams, then, with fifteen minutes to go, Alan Sheehan miscontrolled Gary Liddle’s pass to surrender a corner from which Deji Oshilaja headed in. It looked so easy.
City were bettered all over the park tonight. Parkinson went for the diamond, with Knott in the hole for the injured Billy Clarke, McMahon at the base, and Josh Morris and Chris Routis deployed as the widemen. Sheehan, presumably in a vote of confidence following his excellent display at the weekend, was restored to his preferred position at left back, and James Meredith was demoted to the bench. Gary Liddle filled in for Nathan Clarke at centre half.
It wasn’t just the decision to stick with the diamond that proved City’s undoing – more on that later – but the change in personnel and the total reshuffle. At times tonight, McMahon looked lost. His positioning was awry, and Bradley Dack had the measure of him; he had the run on the City man three times in the first half alone.
Gillingham lined up in their own diamond, with Dack at the tip, but he was mobile enough to make things happen. He was almost a Coutinho type player, finding the pockets of space and linking up superbly with Gills’ Ben Dickensen and Jake Hessenthaler in the final third. Bournemouth struggled to quell Coutinho with two holding midfielders on Monday night, never mind with one utility player standing in; the centre of the park was where the game was up here.
That midfield is unquestionably better with Liddle in the holding role. He adds composure in his distribution, reads the game superbly and fortifies the defence as he doggedly screens the back four. Though an able centre half – having swept the board at Notts County’s Player of the Year Awards when he spent the season in defence for the Magpies, two years ago – it feels as though he’s selling himself short when he has so much to offer elsewhere.
The Bantams must find a more effective way of filling the Davies-shaped hole – they can’t carry on like this. They can’t carry on without Gary Liddle in the middle. Without an able partner for Rory McArdle. Andrew Davies repeatedly demonstrated his importance to Bradford City – and, apart from Carl McHugh, City never found a player that sufficed at centre half. Parkinson must get Nathan Clarke firing. This level of disruption is hard to stomach.
You felt the game demanded, on City’s part, a reversion to a flatter midfield four. Lacking pace and composure, it became abundantly clear that the Bantams were never going to beat Dack, Dickensen, Hessenthaler and, later, Rory Donnelly in the centre. They were never going to break through that front four; City tried to play out from the defence in the first half, but Gillingham were pressuring and pressing too quickly to make this safe.
Had Parkinson used the introduction of Mark Marshall to play 4-4-2, with Anderson in front of Darby, City could have avoided the congestion and skipped the danger man in Dack. As it was, they were too narrow again, were closed down quickly and looked short of options.
Sheehan looked the most likely to make something happen, coming close to converting a Morris free kick, but he struggled without a definite winger in front of him. Only in the dying stages did Marshall show flashes of the pace and trickery he was recruited for. Gills keeper Nelson spilled and Marshall collected; his pinpoint cross found Sheehan with just a minute left on the clock, but the full back’s header was saved.
With both teams playing narrow, the game quickly fell into a pattern: it was down to who retained possession. Routis performed well before injury forced him off, albeit sometimes lacking an end product, and swept up Hanson’s knockdowns, twice creating openings for Hanson to come close. His absence was noticeable and meant City struggled in the final third. Luke James has an impressive workrate, and grew in confidence and stature as the game wore on, but the lack of support from midfield meant he was often grappling with a thankless task.
With around half an hour to go, I asked my brother whether he thought this game would have been different if Billy Clarke was in the hole, dictating the tempo and the pace from the top. He was unstoppable there at times last season, and, though Shrewsbury dulled his influence, should have been a massive player for us this season. But without underselling the importance of Clarke, it probably wouldn’t have changed anything. City needed a calm figure, yes, and a leader – but the gulf was petrifying. Bradford City were truly woeful tonight, make no mistake.
Perhaps most worrying of all is that City, even in their good spells, have looked miles off the pace this season. Even at their most fluid, they’ve never looked as cohesive as their opposition. Shrewsbury came for a draw but looked a force to be reckoned with, battling well as their play centred around the flame-haired Ryan Woods. Gillingham looked strong tonight and, while Dack was the clear focal point, were clinical.
How would we fare against last season’s Bristol City, against last season’s Preston? Parkinson’s side look fragile, disjointed, hesitant, fearful – stricken with panic even when they weren’t under pressure.
I don’t think I’ve ever written that about a Parkinson team before. The last three years have been characterised by a fearlessness, a composure, that charges them to routinely punch above their weight. That fearlessness was what turned them into one of the most formidable cup teams in the country. Into one of the toughest forces in the lower leagues. Into the most resilient Bradford City side we’ve seen in a long, long time. We can be whatever we want to be, what people tell us we can’t be – that was the mantra they lived by. And now?
I’ve never written that about a Parkinson team before, because this man routinely delivers under pressure. During the post-match interviews tonight, Parkinson conceded, with rueful honesty, that he deserves every bit of criticism that will be directed his way tonight. It is such honesty that has driven this team from the depths of the basement division to League One.
And it is the honesty that has to save the season.
Time and again, Parkinson has produced under pressure. Kept his head when others around him were losing them. One win in 21. Four losses in five, last term. Eight points off the play-offs and fatigued from a cup run. Give him the time, and he will find results for us again.
Ultimately, it feels like we have so far to go to be the team we need to be, still, with just 12 days of the transfer window left. For all of the positivity going into the new season, this team feels so incomplete. We still lack – or, at least, don’t employ – pace in the middle, and a true leader in the absence of Gary Liddle. People scapegoat Ben Williams, and, while his performances haven’t been perfect, no one in this team can claim theirs have been, either. The midfield went missing for Gillingham’s leveller today.
So far to go, and so little time. One point from nine, and a big trip to an in-form Barnsley ahead. You wouldn’t bet against this team, but they need to show far, far more if they are to be up there in May.
City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, Liddle, Sheehan, McMahon, Routis (Anderson 34), Morris (Davies 68), Knott, Hanson, James (Marshall 75)
Not used: Jones, N. Clarke, Leigh, Meredith
With special thanks to Thomas Gadd for allowing us to use his brilliant photos. Please visit Thomas Gadd’s website for more details.
Categories: Match Reviews