The Utility Man continues to be the creative force as Bradford City go to Blackpool

Image by Thomas Gadd - copyright Bradford City

Image by Thomas Gadd – copyright Bradford City

Blackpool vs Bradford City preview

@Bloomfield Road on Saturday 27 February, 2016

By Jason McKeown

Who was the last Bradford City player to set up three goals in one game? The answer: Chris Mitchell in August 2011, two days before Phil Parkinson was appointed manager.

Mitchell was a summer signing by Archie Christie from Falkirk. He was heralded by the Scot as a Phil Neville type of player, who could perform in a variety of positions. He was said to be good on the ball, with an excellent delivery. A set piece specialist.

And during that August afternoon at home to Barnet (a 4-2 City win), Mitchell looked every inch a creative hub that could drive the team. He laid on goals for James Hanson (twice) and Guy Branston, and even played a key role in a fourth that was netted by some unknown young striker named Nahki Wells (not sure what became of him). It was a struggling City’s first win of the season, and Mitchell was man of the match.

But he never hit such heights again. He never found an effective position in the team. The qualities Mitchell offered were undermined by a lack of physical presence that saw him struggle to win battles against street-smart League Two opponents. Mitchell returned North of the border. These days he turns out for Clyde in the Scottish Second Division, in front of crowds of 500.

How far City have come. For everything good that Mitchell offered, see Tony McMahon. Creative Utility Man V.7.0. The iPhone 6, to Mitchell The Nokia 3310. McMahon can also play a variety of roles, only unlike Mitchell he has nailed down a permanent position. McMahon can create opportunities and goals for others, only unlike Mitchell he is doing it on a consistent basis.

And unlike Mitchell, McMahon can do the ugly things. Very well. He is knowledgeable, intelligent and assured. Opposition players hate him and you can see why. He winds people up, never stops talking and is not afraid to put his foot in. His influence on the team has grown and grown.

This weekend, McMahon makes a first return to his former club Blackpool, with his stock continuing to soar. He hasn’t quite matched Mitchell’s hat trick of assists in one game, but after setting up both goals against Rochdale on Saturday, in the league McMahon has 4 goals and 11 assists this season. That is 40% of Bradford City’s league goals where he has had a significant involvement. No player in League One has more assists.

Combined with his defensive solidity, you can see why Parkinson rates him so highly. McMahon is exactly the type of player, and brings exactly the type of attitude, that his manager values. Someone with the leadership and self-responsibility to drive the team on. Someone who will keep things simple, rather than take silly risks. “Be more like Tony” Parkinson might just be saying to the club’s other midfielders.

McMahon is strongly rated by Parkinson, but that level of affection towards him isn’t universally shared amongst the crowd. I include myself in that. There have been times this season where I have questioned his involvement in the team, and whether the team’s struggle to be effective going forwards is partly caused by McMahon’s shortcomings. For despite all his assists, during open play McMahon is not the most creative of players.

Parkinson’s desire to keep McMahon in the team led to a short spell playing him in the centre of midfield. The results weren’t great. McMahon’s versatility means he can do a job here, but defensively he was poor. He failed to spot obvious interceptions, and allowed opposition players to charge through the middle of the park unchecked. Again, that limited level of open play creativity meant McMahon wasn’t good enough to instigate attacks from the centre. It has become right midfield or nothing for the versatile McMahon. A central midfield two featuring him is a weak central midfield.

As Blackpool struggle to avoid a second successive relegation, you wonder why they were so willing to allow McMahon to leave a year ago. His career has flourished away from Bloomfield Road, and it will be interesting to see what sort of mark he can make in this fixture. As a player who performs in a way that opposition fans love to hate, he is certainly unlikely to go unnoticed on his return to the Seaside club.

McMahon will remain a sure-fire starter for what is a big match in City’s season. Seven points from the last three outings has given the Bantams momentum. And ahead of another busy week, that needs to be built upon. The run-in begins from here, and a reasonably kind run of upcoming games needs to be maximised. City have a decent home record, but on the road results still need improvement. A performance on Saturday akin to the last away game, at Peterborough, would certainly be welcomed.

Parkinson has a strong hand to pick from, as a blank midweek enabled those carrying knocks and those short of fitness the chance to recharge their batteries. That should mean a continuation of a front two of James Hanson and Wes Thomas, who are showing signs of forming an effective partnership. Steve Davies is pushing hard to get a starting place and arguably deserves it. He is another former Blackpool player associated with their decline.

Billy Clarke is an ex-Tangerine from happier times, playing a role in their promotion to the Premier League before a devastating long-term injury robbed him of a chance to impress in the top flight. Clarke has long recovered from that injury, but has new niggles this season that have limited his impact. He is not the player he was last season, and with a two-and-a-half year contract signed last autumn, this could become a long-term issue. For now Parkinson will keep Clarke on the bench, as he searches for the striker’s reset button.

In midfield expect to see the return of Josh Cullen – a player who, like Reece Burke, Blackpool manager Neil MacDonald will know very well from his time as West Ham United assistant manager. Cullen was sorely missed last week and his return will enable Lee Evans to take the attacking midfielder role he looks more comfortable holding. Opposite to McMahon, on the left, will be Kyel Reid. Reid had a dip in form over January but has found some of his best form of late.

Alongside Burke in defence will be Rory McArdle, James Meredith and skipper Stephen Darby. Ben Williams keeps goal and his performances of late have continued to impress. He made big saves at crucial stages of each of the last three games. It is approximately one year ago since Jordan Pickford left and Williams became number one. He struggled at first, but has excelled since October.

Blackpool and City last shared a division in 2006/07, where an October 4-1 Bantams loss at Bloomfield Road spelled the beginning of the end for the then-manager Colin Todd. In total the two clubs met in the league for three successive seasons between 2004-2007; and on each trip to Blackpool, City were beaten.

Yet Bloomfield Road will always remain a lucky ground for City. We are fast approaching the 20th anniversary of that historic night where the Bantams overturned a 2-0 first leg play off deficit by winning 3-0 in Blackpool, thus reaching Wembley for the first time in their history (you can read the inside story of that night in some upcoming book).

Two decades later, and despite so much happening to both Blackpool and City, both are back in the third tier. The Bantams, at least, carry reasonable hopes of achieving another play off finish. And with the drive and creativity of McMahon proving so telling of late, there’s still every chance of emulating the Boys of 96.

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