Burton Albion vs Bradford City preview
@The Pirelli Stadium on Saturday 6 February, 2016
By Jason McKeown
In the depths of the Valley Parade media room, inside the main stand, Gary Rowett was full of pride and bravado – but yet couldn’t disguise his disappointment. His Burton Albion team had just produced a stunning play off first leg performance against Bradford City, gaining an unexpected 3-2 advantage to defend back in Derbyshire. But as welcome as that scoreline was, Rowett knew that it should have been even better.
Burton were the underdogs going into the two-legged tie – yet two Calvin Zola goals saw them take a shock 2-0 lead early doors. Nahki Wells pulled one back from the spot, but Robbie Weir made it 3-1 before the interval. It could have been even better for the visitors, with Jon McLaughlin making one crucial save to deny the Brewers from running riot. Wembley beckoned at that point.
But to Rowett’s obvious frustration, Burton let Bradford City off the hook. They sat deeper and deeper in the second half, as the Bantams finally got to grips with their opponent’s 4-1-4-1 set up. And with 13 minutes to play, Garry Thompson’s superb strike deflected in off Gary Jones and City were right back in the tie. They trooped off at full time disappointed to have lost 3-2, but relieved also to still have a chance of reaching the final. In the press room, Rowett told reporters, “I would rather have a lead to lose than chase the game. If we had lost 1-0 I would not have been disappointed but now we are in control.” Yet, deep down, he also knew that his team had missed a glorious opportunity to virtually finish the job.
And so the scene was set for one of those wonderful Bradford City afternoons. On Sunday 5 May, 2013, a focused and confident Bantams side came roaring back to defeat Burton Albion 3-1, thus sealing a second trip to Wembley in three months, for the play off final.
Nahki Wells got the ball rolling after he pounced on a defensive mistake. James Hanson made it 2-0 early in the second half. Jacques Maghoma – who had destroyed Stephen Darby in the first leg – pulled one back with a penalty. But barely 60 seconds later Wells stabbed home his second to spark wild scenes of joy in the sold out away sections. They saw time out, and the full time celebrations on the pitch lasted almost an hour. There was an even bigger party two weeks later, when City earned promotion by defeating Northampton at Wembley.
That amazing day at the Pirelli Stadium is the last time that Bradford City faced the Brewers. The last time they played in this part of the world. Up until that point, ‘Burton away’ had been an unhappy hunting ground for the Bantams – no wins, two draws and two defeats. But after that day, the Pirelli Stadium has joined Molineux, Bloomfield Road, the DW Stadium, Villa Park and Stamford Bridge as a much loved away ground to City supporters.
It will be emotional to go back and to relive some of the unforgettable memories of that wonderful May 2013 afternoon.
When we eventually filed out of the Perelli Stadium that afternoon, I remember looking at a monitor in the concourse where Gary Rowett was being interviewed live on Sky. He, understandably, looked devastated. But to his great credit, the manager picked up his troops and they went again the following season.
In 2013/14, Burton reached the play offs again and this time got through the semi final stage. They went to Wembley, alas with more pain to come. They lost 1-0 to Fleetwood Town in a dismal spectacle of a play off final. But Rowett and Burton recovered yet again. Early doors last season, Rowett had Burton at the top of League Two. The manager left for Birmingham, but his successor, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, finished the job. Burton went up as champions. Third time lucky, for sure.
And they’re still moving forwards. Whilst since that 2013 promotion to League One Bradford City have threatened to push for another play off finish, Burton are now truly knocking on the door to the Championship. With 18 games to go, Albion sit on top of League One, three points clear of Gillingham with a game in hand. They are 14 points ahead of seventh-placed Port Vale.
A club that has spent its lifetime living under the shadows of near neighbours Derby County and Nottingham Forest could next season be sharing the same division.
It is some story, and their strong current position has been built upon an approach not too dissimilar to the one that has been attempted at Valley Parade. With 37 goals so far, Burton are not prolific (they’ve also just sold top scorer Nasser El Khayati to QPR), but they have only conceded 23 at the other end – the best record in the division. Amazingly, they have kept 14 clean sheets from the 28 games. Jon McLaughlin has excelled since Rowett persuaded the Scot to move to the Perelli Stadium, after Phil Parkinson let him leave Valley Parade 20 months ago.
The Brewers have lost a couple of games recently, but have still only been defeated on seven occasions this season. Saturday represents a huge task for the Bantams, as they look to build upon last weekend’s dramatic victory over Fleetwood Town.
It has continued to be an interesting times at Valley Parade. Transfer deadline day saw Gary Liddle depart to Chesterfield after Phil Parkinson seemingly spent much of January holding the exit door open for the midfielder to walk through. There has been an outpouring of disappointment and frustration from some supporters over this, but in reality Liddle has not hit the heights of last season. He has been an important player and would have continued to be involved in the 18 had he stayed. But in the push for better and raising the standards, Parkinson clearly felt he was worth sacrificing.
It’s worth remembering that Parkinson spent good money during the summer, with a couple of his big name signings rumoured to be on wages of £5k a week. But then a poor start led to more money being made available to the manager, so he could sign Reece Burke, Lee Evans and Devante Cole. Going into January, and with no cup windfall, it seemed unlikely Parkinson was going to have much to spend.
Yet with the stagnation of City over the Christmas period and New Year, changes had to be made. Things had to be freshened up. Parkinson clearly had to sell players to generate the funds to bring in new signings, hence the departures of Devante Cole and Liddle. It is the start of something different, and it might not work. But Parkinson had to try something.
Liddle was rumoured to be on decent money, and the transfer fee City received from Chesterfield will help Parkinson to strengthen elsewhere. He has made the loan spell of Jamie Proctor a more permanent one, and a Premier League loanee is said to be a target.
The argument of why would you sell Liddle and keep Chris Routis and Tony McMahon is answered by the balance sheet. Routis – who came in on trial initially, and was hardly flush with alternative options – will not be on huge money and would not command a big transfer fee if he was put up for sale. Ditto Tony McMahon. If Liddle had have stayed, he would probably have played ahead of them both, but his removal from the wage bill and transfer fee has allowed Parkinson to shake things up.
It is amazing to think just how many players from the Chelsea victory of last season have already departed; but for the club to continue to progress, change continues to be necessary. Liddle will be fondly remembered for the good times he was a part of, and his career should have plenty more seasons to run. But would he have been worth a new contract at Valley Parade when his deal had run out in the summer? Is he a player who can drive the club into the Championship? It isn’t an easy call to make, because Liddle hasn’t especially faded in front of our eyes in the way you could arguably see of his midfield predecessor, Gary Jones.
It all comes back to the example of Burton. The Brewers’ rise and rise up the football ladder has occurred with amazingly smooth transitional periods. Managers have taken Burton forward then moved onto a bigger job, but the board always seem to choose the right man to replace them. Good players have departed (Nasser El Khayati is not the first), but others have come in and taken the club to the next level rather than failed to reach the standards.
Phil Parkinson inherited a Bradford City midfield of Ritchie Jones, David Syers and Michael Flynn. He upgraded it to Gary Jones, Nathan Doyle and Ricky Ravenhill, and then improved it again with Gary Liddle, Billy Knott and Andy Halliday. Now he is going again. And though we might not see Liddle’s true replacement until the summer, there are plenty of good midfield options available for the remaining months of this season. This weekend is the last of Lee Evans’ three-match ban, and he can continue to play a key role between now and May.
Gary Liddle’s departure is controversial, but it’s not the first time Parkinson has allowed someone to leave with people questioning the wisdom. So far, he has not once been proven wrong to have let go of a player. Although that might change on Saturday if Burton Albion were to win, and their high-performing goalkeeper earns yet another clean sheet.