Bradford City 2
McArdle 40, Davies 62
Saturday 20 February, 2016
By Jason McKeown
The frustration that swirled around Valley Parade during this encounter was a reflection of Bradford City’s season so far. Every time they get themselves into a position of looking like they might become genuine promotion contenders, they stumble rather than take that next step. At the point where their credentials appear to have strengthened, they go out and demonstrate they are still lacking. The league table doesn’t lie.
This wasn’t a bad result, nor was it a poor performance. Trailing twice to goals from Rochdale’s Joe Bunney, there was plenty to commend about the manner in which the home time recovered. Effort and determination were never in question. There was a clear desire to go for the victory, both on the pitch and in the dugout. But the problem when you are chasing other teams is that every dropped point feels that more damaging. City need to be starting these types of games much better, to make up for the fact they began the season so poorly.
Phil Parkinson will know this better than anyone. This time three years ago he inspired his players to an end of season play off push that ultimately led to promotion – from a much worse starting position than the current one. It stemmed from going for victories in a controlled manner. From becoming more attacking, particularly during the second half of games. In the aftermath of the damaging defeat to Burton two weeks ago, a similar change of approach can be evidenced. Parkinson and City are going for this.
And so, with the clock ticking towards zero on this match, the manager brought on Mark Marshall for Billy Knott, rather than a like-for-like change that would have typically seen Kyel Reid make way. Parkinson went with two out-and-out wingers for the closing stages, and saw Rochdale create three glorious opportunities to snatch the win. This was Parkinson gambling. Risking leaving gaps at the back, to try and turn a reasonable point into a valuable three. It didn’t work, but the more gung ho approach should still be applauded by those who deride his conservatism.
Equally, the manager deserves plaudits for his team’s greater attacking potency. Rory McArdle and Steve Davies netted the home side’s two equalisers here, taking City’s goal tally to eight in three games. The Bantams had needed nine league games to notch up their previous eight goals. They are getting much, much better at this scoring lark.
The January shake up was necessary and is so far working well. Wes Thomas’ wait for a first Bradford City goal continues, but his work-rate, intelligence and guile puts Devante Cole to shame. Jamie Proctor was not even on the bench for this one, but the competition he has provided to James Hanson has seen the performances of the club’s longest serving player go up another notch. Hanson always thrives on competition and knows that he now has it.
When City were struggling to score goals and getting heavily criticised a month ago, Parkinson roundly blamed it on his strikers, whilst ignoring the lack of decent opportunities the team were creating. He has switched around his forward options, and they are indeed scoring more often. And the midfield is responding to that by providing much better service. It has clicked up front, and continued to here – even if the attacking performance didn’t sparkle as much as the previous two.
Yet just as some desperately needed fluidity is instilled into City’s forward line, their defence uncharacteristically struggled. Rory McArdle was restored to the back four after missing the midweek Southend victory for the birth of his son – it was incredibly harsh on Nathan Clarke to be left out – and looked slightly off the pace. Reece Burke too had a testing afternoon, although emerged with some credit. The back four were more exposed than they typically were during the first half of the season.
12 minutes into this game, and the defence left Bunney unmarked to head Dale into a lead. It was a brilliantly taken goal by the young forward, who impressed all afternoon for his movement if not for his provocative goal celebration in front of the Kop. Yet Kyel Reid’s failure to close down Joe Rafferty, who provided the cross, and McArdle and Burke’s hesitation, was telling.
City had started the game reasonably well, but retreated into their shell following the goal. They seemed to get worse minute by minute during the first half, as Rochdale flooded midfield and were content to hit City at pace on the counter attack. The Bantams had numerous set pieces that included two well-hit Tony McMahon free kicks, but there was no repeat of the right midfielder’s terrific midweek strike.
Nevertheless, McMahon played a key role in the equaliser that unexpectedly arrived five minutes before the break. Lee Evans took a free kick quickly, Billy Knott played the ball to McMahon, and just like for Dale’s goal no one got near enough to block the cross. McMahon aimed low, and McArdle was able to tap the ball into the net and unfurl the infamous Bebeto celebration.
But rather than be the catalyst for a come-from-behind victory, City continued to struggle. They couldn’t take control of what increasingly became a physical and confrontational match. The absence of Josh Cullen due to illness was keenly felt. The young West Ham midfielder was on the bench, but only available for use in extreme circumstances. He has not been here long but has impressed greatly – and his worth to the team grew even further here, as his replacement Billy Knott laboured to get going.
An average Knott performance became a dreadful one when he coughed up possession, six minutes into the second half, and Bunney finished smartly with a low shot from distance, despite a suspicion Ben Williams could have done better at saving it.
What on earth does Parkinson do with Billy Knott? The young midfielder has gone backwards this season, failing to hit the huge heights of a year ago. The City manager has clearly struggled to retain patience in Knott, and the fact his first choice central midfield is made up of two young loanees says it all. There are rumours that Knott will return South in the summer for personal reasons. Certainly his time at Valley Parade seems to be approaching a sad end. Still we will always have Leeds United at home, Billy.
Knott took his mistake badly and looked crestfallen. Yet to his credit, he eventually got a grip of himself and began to look more the player we know he can be. Knott had a good final 15 minutes before he went off. That spirit and determination to keep going, when not at your best, set the tone for the rest of the team. It is the type of grit that Parkinson has always demanded of, and so regularly received back from, his players. For effort at least, Knott deserved the applause he received on leaving the field.
By which point City had equalised again, with McMahon again providing the assist. His deep corner found Steve Davies, who ignored some over-physical marking and headed the ball into the roof of the net. That’s now three goals in five substitute appearances for Davies, who was terrific after replacing the injured James Hanson at half time. Davies is another unlucky to be only making the bench. If Parkinson can keep such players happy and motivated he can deliver much from his squad over the final weeks of the season.
City pushed for a winner and had a good 10-minute spell of pressure. Reid, whilst not hitting the heights of Tuesday, performed admirably. James Meredith drove the team forward and was never found wanting when the visitors attacked. The star man was Lee Evans, who enjoyed another excellent game in the middle of the park. The Welshman had a difficult start to 2016 but has returned from the costly three-match suspension in tremendous form.
Despite huffing and puffing, there was no late City winner. Billy Clarke came on for Thomas but made no impact. Rochdale – who gave a second debut to their much-loved striker Grant Holt – had the better late chances. Holt himself hit the post, whilst Williams made an excellent late save.
In truth neither side deserved to lose this one, but results elsewhere were costly for the Bantams. They are four points away from the play offs – and five of their remaining 15 games are against teams in the top six.
It had been a really good week for Bradford City, and it might be looked back upon as a pivotal one come the end of the season. But right now, everything remains firmly in the balance. There was far too much negativity during the week that followed the Burton defeat, but there was equally a little too much positivity following Tuesday night. Some got carried away with talking about the play offs.
Bradford City were never as bad as some suggested a fortnight ago, but they are not suddenly world beaters either. They have a chance of getting promoted, but so do several other teams – the battle will be fierce. The positive is that City look to be in much better shape following their January transfer activity. The new signings have made a good start, and the entertainment factor has increased.
The margins for error are squeezing tighter. The capacity for coping with mistakes is decreasing. Three years ago Phil Parkinson oversaw a run of only two defeats from the final 15 games, to seal a play off spot. This is the kind of strong finish that is going to be needed again over these final 15 games. It’s time to find out, once and for all, if this team is good enough to emulate the class of 2013.
City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, Burke, Meredith, McMahon, Evans, Knott (Marshall 83), Reid, Hanson (Davies 45), Thomas (B Clarke 65)
Not used: Cracknell, N Clarke, Leigh, Cullen
Categories: Match Reviews