Bradford City 0
Coventry City 0
Tuesday 25 November, 2015
By Katie Whyatt
There are lies, damned lies, but no falsehoods hidden in these statistics. Pore over the impending 30-or-so words, because they’ll be the best read you’ll do all season. Ready? 10 games unbeaten. 7 consecutive clean sheets, shattering a club record that has stood since 1911. And Bradford City strutting from the fringes of the top six, to occupying the final play-off spot. Statistical or anecdotal, you can’t argue with the evidence: this Bantams side – and, in particular, this Bantams defence – have turned ailing form around in dramatic fashion.
Parkinson is relishing the luxury of having at least two players for every position – but this ain’t Peter Taylor recruitment. This is quality on top of quality, depth unprecedented despite a profusion of injuries. For sure, much of this success lies with the loanees, a reliance that, in itself, presents several issues; but just take a look at the bench that watched from the sidelines tonight: Mark Marshall, Gary Liddle, Josh Morris, Jordan Bowery, Joe Cracknell, Luke James and Devante Cole. Greg Leigh has given Phil Parkinson a genuine left-back selection dilemma. Gary Liddle, one of 2014/15’s stand-out performers, is being left out. The versatile Josh Morris, capable of playing on either flank, will return to breathe down the necks of the in-form Tony McMahon and on-loan Kyel Reid. You trust each of these players to come in, do a job and make a difference. There is promise everywhere you look.
And amidst the early season jitters that saw City tumble out the blocks without a compass, there were no greater two scapegoats than Nathan Clarke and Ben Williams. In a start typical of the annus horriblis that culiminated in his Leyton Orient’s side relegation to the bottom tier, Nathan Clarke’s opening week travails against Swindon and York were disastrous, and, following the arrival of the teenage Reece Burke, he look destined to endure a season of oblivion. With Burke merrily going about being, you know, Burke, and becoming a vital cornerstone of a defence that have now gone 668 minutes (that’s all three Lord of the Rings films, with 110 minutes exactly left to spare) without shipping a goal, that looked to be the end of that.
Yet Clarke has proved every single one of his critics wrong. For both of City’s left-sided centre halves, any severance from the freight of Andrew Davies would have constituted success; for Clarke and Burke to now have absolutely vindicated that decision speaks volumes about the depth Parkinson has at his disposal.
This was Clarke’s best outing thus far for City, but such performances are becoming the norm for the former Orient skipper. Diving into a game-saving last-ditch tackle to thwart the visitors on the edge of the six yard box, Clarke set the remit for everything the back four did well tonight. And were there any lingering doubts that the spirit defining Parkinson’s tenue had yet to be inherited by his latest charges, one image will assuage every question: Nathan Clarke lunged in with another game-saving tackle, conceded a corner, then pounded the pitch in frustration. Greg Leigh was later visibly upset with himself for not beating the ball to the byline. The perfectionism that permeates this team is obvious.
As it transpires, Clarke needn’t have worried: this was another solid defensive performance to add to the roster. Ben Williams was outstanding, thrice keeping City in the contest during the closing stages with a string of truly world-class saves. Stephen Darby battled manfully down the right and his positional discipline was top drawer when handling Coventry’s slippery Adam Armstrong. Rory McArdle was, you know, Rory.
That this comes against Coventry City, the league leaders buoyed by a recent 4-1 demolition of previous trailblazers Gillingham, is particularly reassuring. It was brave of Coventry to play such a high-pressing game away from home, first half, and the result was classic end-to-end stuff. There were times when City rode their luck – Armstrong hitting the post before the Bantams belted the danger clear – but they coped adeptly with the visitors’ presence in the final third.
The Sky Blues’ holding midfielder, the composed Newcastle loanee Gael Bigirimana, was acute in his vision, but was matched by Billy Knott and Lee Evans. Knott’s decision-making has come under fire at times this season, and there were still some rash moments in the final third tonight, but he put in a workmanlike display and his mobility was vital in keeping things ticking over in the middle of the park. Evans ran the show tonight, playing the role of the more defensive partner to routinely win back possession.
Yet, there is one troubling hamartia that refuses to disappear. The landscape is almost unrecognisable from the fixture that frames the history between these two sides: the 3-3 draw that marked potentially Nahki Wells’ greatest league performance in a City shirt. The tie was billed as a battle between the then-two most prolific lower-league strike pairings: Coventry’s Leon Clarke, now at Bury, and future Bournemouth hotshot Callum Wilson – and Bradford’s James Hanson and Nahki Wells. In truth, it was probably the moment Nahki ceased to be ‘ours’ – and it’s a gap we still haven’t managed to plug.
As good as this run is, the inescapable truth is that it ultimately risks being undermined by a lack of a definite strike partnership. Bemoaning this in light of tonight’s draw, when optimism is so high, feels churlish – but this is the heel that will betray our Achilles.
James Hanson performed well tonight, battling admirably and almost scoring when played clean through early on by Evans – but the lack of connection with Billy Clarke was telling. This was potentially Clarke’s poorest performance in a Bradford City shirt: he’s proven time and time again that he has the potential to be the best auxiliary striker in this division, but, on tonight’s evidence particularly, it seems increasingly that a diamond midfield is the only way to properly exploit his strengths. Clarke is simply not utilised well enough when positioned off the shoulder.
He needs that space between midfield and the forward line to function, but you cannot dismantle the Evans-Knott and Evans-Liddle partnerships. City would undoubtedly be weaker for having a narrow midfield, and Kyel Reid wouldn’t have the width to truly stretch a back line without compromising the structure in the middle.
Jordan Bowery put in a strong display against Scunthorpe, but neither he nor Devante Cole, brought on in a double substitution to replace Hanson and Clarke, offered anything that could stake a reasonable claim for a starting berth. Tonight was the best home midfield performance we’ve seen, but the discordance between the front two was inescapable and, without some sort of harmony, City’s dominance will come to null.
Back in the 1980s, Coventry gave us The Specials. Back in 2012, they gave us Callum Wilson. Twenty years on, Bradford City have, for the third time under Phil Parkinson, built their own Specials; but they need to find their Clarke and Wilson. They have the numbers – six forwards on the books – but the best combination remains to be seen.
Just seven points stand between City and the league leaders, but just seven points separate City from fourteenth placed Rochdale. Fill in that final piece, and the Bantams will be unbeatable – otherwise, the limitations they are, for now, surmounting could come back to haunt them. They have worked so hard to get this far – and it would be heartbreaking if this effort was then undermined.
City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, N Clarke, Leigh, McMahon, Knott, Evans (Liddle 85), Reid, B Clarke (Cole 74), Hanson (Bowery 74)
Not used: Marshall, Morris, Cracknell, James
Categories: Match Reviews