The balancing act, as Bradford City’s late victory offers a springboard to better times

Image by Thomas Gadd - copyright Bradford City FC

Image by Thomas Gadd – copyright Bradford City FC

Bradford City 2

Hanson 67, Davies 90

Fleetwood Town 1

Matt 59

Saturday 30 January, 2016

By Katie Whyatt

Five, four, three, two, one. In the dying seconds of normal time, City win a free-kick on the outskirts of the 18 yard box. The fourth official holds his board aloft to signal four minutes of added time. It’s been a angsty affair, the preceding twenty minutes representing a marked improvement for the home side in what is becoming an extended watershed period for this team. And now, it comes down to this. At the eleventh hour, the team teeter on the brink. One moment to change the shade, the context, grain of the second half of City’s season.

Billy Knott, lingering on the D, tails off and cuts behind his marker as Tony McMahon glances the ball through. Knott lands himself in a one-on—the-keeper-is-beaten-on-the-floor-but-it’s-effectively-a-one-on-one, the goal looming wide before him, the nearest defender trailing behind.

He fires over.

In that moment, there would have been few people in any greater mental agony and dejection then Billy Knott. Cast in the starring role after weeks of being banished to the fringes – playing the quasi number ten role to James Hanson’s lone striker in the first half, and then the attacking central midfielder in the second – the opportunity was his to take. The ending was written in the stars. One shot, one opportunity – do you capture it, or just let it slip?

For the ball to float over is hardly erroneous amidst the narrative of City’s luck in front of goal this season, but the lurch in atmosphere in that moment was almost tangible. You could feel the angst, the vexation – the perpetuation of the underlying sense of unease that has characterised much of the campaign thus far. Which is not to deposit blame at Billy Knott’s door – he was one of the best players on the field today – but it fits aptly with how the Bantams have lived this season: perpetually on the edge. Coming and going, but not yet something. Hovering.

Amidst the crescendo, something else caught my eye. Tony McMahon emerges from the darkness. He makes a beeline for Knott, sprinting. Knott, crumpled in a heap, head in hands, lies motionless. McMahon seizes his partner by the neck, drags him to his feet, and wraps his arm around him.

Don’t grieve for what’s not gone yet.

Five minutes later, Steven Davies will find himself in the same position, and Lady Luck will finally be on his side as he meets the rebound from Wes Thomas’ initial effort. But the essential divergence, the contrast in the moment following the spurned initial chance, personifies the crossroads at which City now find themselves. Because ultimately, this season hangs in the balance. The outcome in May is anyone’s to call, but the deciding factor will be how brave City – and, indeed, Phil Parkinson – dare to be over the coming weeks and months.

Whether Parkinson continues to ring the changes, and utilises fully players like Knott, Thomas and Kyel Reid, or whether caution prevails. If anything, the first half reinforced the sense of limbo that has underlined the story, and the repeated wait for a turning point; the second half, then, offers a glimpse of how the rest of the season may transpire.

That this tie carried a season-making feel going into it, pre-match, was hardly a surprise – if you haven’t seen James Mason’s superb interview with Phil Parkinson, click here – with Parkinson vowing to set the tone a la post-League Cup final. But in truth, the first half felt flat. With Fleetwood playing – for the first half, at least – two wingbacks in a high-pressing system, the visitors ran most of the show, limited only by haphazard decision-making in the final third. A more clinical team would have been out of sight in half an hour, having helped themselves to three or four.

It was here that the one-dimensional nature of City’s build-up play was thrown into chilling focus. Christopher Routis endured his most torrid afternoon of the year thus far, and McMahon, when tasked with an attacking mantle, fared little better. Fundamentally, neither has the positional sense or vision to dictate the play in the way demanded by Parkinson’s 4-4-1-1 today, and the number of passes splayed agonisingly wide betrayed the pair’s underlying lack of confidence in their endeavours.

Routis delivered one cutting through ball to play Hanson clean on through, but needs a more assured head alongside him if he is to become architect of this team. At the moment, you really question the notion that either offers more – defensively and offensively – than Gary Liddle.

In the Telegraph and Argus on Saturday morning, Billy Knott spoke about the inevitability of errors when trying to make things happen – a view you can only ultimately endorse – but there was a fearfulness for long spells in which the midfield pairing seemed reluctant to take control and take responsibility, plumping for safer options. I understand the importance of retaining possession – I do – but you need to team that with a confidence going forwards. Josh Morris’ game was hindered by the lack of concrete service, the winger isolated for long spells of the first half.

Much of the discussion about League One this season has focused on how the division is generally weaker than last season’s, but even tighter for it. There’s no one of the calibre – really – of Bristol City or Preston to fear, but with that comes a demand for managers and players to be brave. The home side’s overly-cautious approach to the first half – City’s tentative, laboured, ponderous build-up play – was the antithesis to Fleetwood’s high-tempo – but ultimately fruitless – game. And those, in a nutshell, are two of the problems that have dogged City this season: whether they can be bold and ambitious, and, like Fleetwood, how they can combine with producing results.

For long spells of the first half-hour, the visitors looked the more fluid side – but Fleetwood, milling about at the foot of the table, probably have the reverse of the Bantams’ qualms. Consequently, you have to be happy with where we are.

After the break, we saw attack-minded tinkering come to fruition. New loan man Wes Thomas replaced Routis as Parkinson switched to his favoured 4-4-2, Knott dropping to the traditional midfield role and Reid taking the place of Josh Morris ten minutes later. And, as against Barnsley, there was a significant improvement. This was Reid’s best outing for some weeks, a sea of green stretching out before him as he darted towards the Kop, dancing around defenders.

Thomas seems, already, a far better foil for Hanson than any of the club’s other strikers, and his positional awareness and confidence on the ball were sound today – his hold-up play and turn to lay off for the onrushing Kyel Reid was Jon Stead-esque. His run for City’s winner, fending off two defenders to angle in the shot from which Steve Davies followed-up, displayed the ambition previously lacking from the Bantams’ striking options.

Moreover, there was a cohesion, a guile, about the Bantams’ build-up play that looked renewed. This wasn’t always pretty, but the desire, the refusal to lie down – all the hallmarks of a Parkinson performance – were thrown down with the gauntlet. For City’s leveller, Mark Marshall kept the ball alive at the byline, finding an industrious Billy Knott who crossed for Hanson to head home.

Even now, a good few hours on, I still feel ambivalent about where this game leaves the campaign. I feel it’s too early to say whether this will prove a turning point in City’s season – I think it comes down to how well the Bantams utilise any momentum gained and build on this springboard. On how the team define their identity and define who they want to be.

Can Parkinson marry pragmatism with attacking flair? Can he – and they – be brave? This game reinforced the values and methodologies that have underpinned four years of remarkable progress, and alluded to what this team can still be; yet, inescapably, the preceding half-hour saw this side’s shortcomings magnified to reinforce just how fine the balance with this side really is.

This carried some of the traits of a “stones” performance, but it’s more about the legacy that this game now leaves behind. For sure, we know some of the answers now, but an answer the ultimate question – that is, do Bradford City have enough to be genuine promotion contenders this season – remains elusive.

City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, N Clarke, Meredith, Marshall (Davies 89), Routis (Thomas 45), McMahon, Morris (Reid 57), Knott, Hanson 

Not used: Cracknell, Leigh, Liddle, Webb-Foster

Categories: Match Reviews

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. I hope Parky reads this. Spot on. Thomas up front linked up immediately with James Hanson. So they must start next week. And Billy Knott, despite his own drained confidence, nevertheless provided a spark of creativity and was one of our best players on the day, THE best if you exclude the centre halves.
    What was desperately lacking generally though was fluidity, movement and pace. It was frightening to see even Mark Marshall lose out, when away, to the pace of the Fleetwood defenders. I believe Devante Cole has indeed gone to a better team in terms of a style that will suit him. And despite Fleetwood’s place in the league currently, I am somewhat envious of what Mr Pressley is doing there.

  2. We’re easily fooled! I worried that Hanson was offside at the time when he scored; TV replay doesen’t confirm/deny. Midfield is where we’re lacking; i.e. a stylish midfielder to compliment Evans. McMahon’s a full back, Routis a central defender. We need to dip into the loan market one final time.

    • Hanson was ‘on-side’ Chris, I was in-line with him and the Fleetwood right-back was playing him on. I commented to my friend at that moment Hanson scored that I couldn’t believe that the full-back -who had a clear view- didn’t just step forward a yard to leave Hanson in an off-side position.

  3. Once again an excellent article Katie this win could be the one that gives the team self believe the goals will come Wes Thomas suits Hanson’s game think he will prove to be a shrewd signing. Be brave dig deep who knows where we might be come May

  4. I agree midfield is we’re we lack. It’s so laboured at times, I understand the need to be solid and I applaud the never say die attitude But routis and McMahon is not a promotion pairing !

  5. As always a very well written article, a really enjoyable read. I thought the conditions hindered us today. Several times Morris or Marshall had the ball out wide and tried to make a run but the pitch was iffy and sticky! Reid faired a little better however. Huge praise for coming from behind to win, it’s been a while since we’ve done that and at one time Parky’s teams were doing that quite often. The next game is always the biggest but ours is massive. Another win and we could be onto something…

  6. On a side note: In the 5 games since Jason’s article about What’s different about Bradford City this season, we have reverted to the norm of Parky’s teams improving in the 2nd half which may be a sign of sorts (or not).
    Oldham: H/T 0-0 F/T 1-0. Bury H/T 0-0 F/T 0-0 (our 2nd half wasn’t worse than the 1st, although we lost on penalties) Port Vale H/T 1-0 F/T 1-1, Barnsley H/T 0-1 F/T 0-1 (Yes we lost the match but drew the 2nd half) Fleetwood H/T 0-0 F/T 2-1 We even got a rare going a goal down and coming back to win.

    Is this a conscious change or just the law of averages?

  7. Firstly – another brilliantly written article and an enjoyable read.

    Secondly – I can’t help but think the 3 points has papered over some fairly large cracks, namely

    – a huge reliance on Hanson. I like Hanson as a player, and he is undoubtedly (at the least) a handful in the air, but surely the continual Mcardle/Hanson diagonal ball we employ is easy to set up against. Fleetwood had 3 centre backs and therefore in the first half could put 2 big lads against him and have a third sweeping up any knock downs Hanson has managed to win. It was obviously not working in the first half and yet we continue to keep going with the same tactic. It’s painful to watch, and only effective in so much as the law of percentages means that eventually something will stick.

    – 2 holding midfielders and only 1 up top, at home, against a team fighting against relegation? Combined with the fact we have been toothless up front recently and require more attackers. not less. Seemed a very negative tactic to me.

    – Mcardle gets better and better every game on game. Those two blocks in the first half were worth a goal each. I used to be under the impression Mcardle looked good because Davies made him look good. This season it is clear than Mcardle looks good because in fact he is good. Very very good.

    Can’t argue with the 3 points though. It just sticks with me that the players in the squad, and the way we approach games/tactics we use are at odds with each other. Can’t deny the fact that once again a PP City team showed bottle and a desire to win. It’s defo a good bedrock to build on.

    Onwards and upwards!

  8. Katie another well thought out match report. Keep up the outstanding work!

    Agree on Routis, felt for him, I thought he had absolute nightmare of a first half. The team didn’t seem to click in the first 45 min at all, apart from brilliance of Rory we’d should have been 2-3 down. Fleetwood were made to look like a team fighting for promotion, not stuck near the bottom of the table.

    I give lots of credit to PP for changing it at half time and bringing on Reid shortly after. Also , with Knott back in midfield, keeping busy and snapping away. nly then did the game began to swing our way. However, we conceded a soft goal, the keeper needs to do better…

    Wes showed promising signs but I don’t want to read too much into it. Finally, again credit to PP for bringing on Davies at the end. Had he not I don’t think we’d have a player in the 6 yard box to tuck the rebound in. 1-1 it would of remained.

    Completely, agree that if we want get into the playoffs we need to throw caution to the wind and go for it a bit more. As the saying goes, fortune favours the brave.

  9. Will Steve Davies’ goal and all that followed finally change the mentality of the squad to ensure that sixth, and even fifth, is within reach come Ma? There is absolutely no reson why that cannot happen if we continue as we have finished yesterday. The key is to play with attacking intent much earlier on as we simply cannot continue to conceed first in practically every game. If we can return to the first few games of the season where we always led and combine it with the current resolute defence in general then wecwill make it!

  10. Yes great report spot on I think Thomas could be the answere to say he was not 100% fit he did very well and worked so well with hans seems to have a good understanding with him and could have scored a couple of goals .Mcardle again was awesome got to be our player of the year! We are such a great big hearted team who work so hard for each other and to see McMahon put his arm round billy knott after that miss brought tears to my eyes. That win is the turning point to our season, what great fans (well95%of them) we have let’s get the other 5% on board hear any moaners just shut them up with a “come on city”

  11. A potential season changing win.

    That’s the beauty of football, or the agony on another day. Had that goal not gone in the crowd were gearing up to boo them off. A split second can change an entire season. Instead we all left the ground elated.

    However, we must force the momentum, as it could be lost so very quickly. Two tough games away follow against good, strong teams. Should they be lost then… However if we build on this then it may be season defining.

    Rory was immense. As was Clarke. The defence is a real unit. I agree with a lot of the comments above. Midfield pedestrian. Sadly it’s all laboured. Today’s not the day to criticise, but I want a little more from both Morris and Marshall. The points relating to the middle two have been made forcibly and properly.

    Hanson had a good game. And at long last a goal. Let’s hope he goes on a spree he seems to be potent and inpotent in periods.

    The new lad was ineffective until his run for the last minute goal. Jury certainly out. Here’s hoping he’s a great success

    Last comment. I thought Fleetwood were a good team. Always pressing and with some real strength. I enjoyed watching them. How are they fourth from bottom?

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