Bradford City 2
Hanson 67, Davies 90
Fleetwood Town 1
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