Bradford City 2
Proctor 7 + 49
Doncaster Rovers 1
Saturday 12 March, 2016
By Jason McKeown
This is what a having a big squad is supposed to be about. Fierce competition, strength in depth, flexibility – all geared towards lifting the standards and driving the club forwards.
Bradford City are increasingly enjoying the benefits of what Phil Parkinson considers to be his best squad since joining the club. Fortunes are no longer so dependent on one or two players. The bench is filled with strong options, and on the sidelines are overlooked players who two years ago would have walked into the team.
As the Bantams go full throttle on their promotion drive once more – climbing into the top six after this, a second home victory in a week – the impact made by fringe players recently elevated into the starting eleven has been considerable. They have been given the opportunity to stake a claim for the shirt, and grabbed it with both hands. They’ve had to sit on the sidelines watching others play ahead of them, and now the tables have turned. The bar has raised because of it.
No one has seized the chance better than Jamie Proctor. He is the club’s newest – and unlikeliest – hero, with two wonderfully taken goals capping off a man of the match display. Proctor led the line with authority, assurance and no little skill. He built on an impressive midweek display against Burton; shaking off a pre-match injury concern and running himself into the ground. The standing ovation he received – when subbed late on – was richly deserved.
At only 23-years-old, Jamie Proctor is in danger of becoming a footballing journeyman. Bradford City are already his seventh different club, after a career that began promisingly at Preston led to a glamour move to Premier League Swansea in 2012. Proctor failed to make a single appearance for the Swans, and he moved onto Crawley Town for a year before opting to head back North and to Fleetwood Town.
Steve Pressley’s footballing principles are well-known at Valley Parade, and so it’s probably no surprise that the former Coventry manager’s arrival at Fleetwood led to Proctor been frozen out. Cue his move to West Yorkshire as a makeweight in the Devante Cole’s move. Few would have predicted that – two months later – Cole and Fleetwood would be the losers from the swap.
Proctor was the new darling of Valley Parade crowd here. It was one of the most impressive individual performances of the season, as he stretched, bewildered and bullied a weak Doncaster defence, who simply couldn’t handle him. His all round game and strengths are very comparable to Jon Stead. If he can find greater consistency than Stead – who, it is often forgotten, was poor over his final months at the club, and not worth the wages he was allegedly asking for when Parkinson looked to sign him permanently – Proctor could prove to be some signing.
His first goal was the result of the hours spent on the Crawley Town training ground, where three years ago he and Billy Clarke were team mates. Proctor picked up possession in the final third, with options around, and made the right choice with a delightful low ball into Clarke’s feet. City’s number 10 sent over a perfect floated cross, from which Proctor was able to powerfully head City in front. It was excellent attacking football.
Clarke is another example of a benched player who has taken his chance when it has come. He continued where he left off on Tuesday with an intelligent display that saw him take up clever positions all over the park. Last season Clarke really came alive when partnered with Jon Stead in a 4-4-1-1, and this is a very similar approach that gets the best out of the Irishman in a way that James Hanson’s game simply doe not.
Hanson – and Wes Thomas – were sat on the bench as Proctor and Clarke celebrated the opening goal. Despite being City’s top scorer, this has not been a vintage Hanson campaign by any stretch, yet his form has improved significantly of late. His partnership with Wes Thomas is full of promise. Both players are unfortunate to have lost their places, but that is exactly what City need – this level of competition, plus having two very different but effective strike partnerships, offers the club the attacking potency so badly lacking before Christmas.
Proctor’s first goal occurred with the game just seven minutes old, and set the home side up for a dominant performance. Doncaster were committed but had a real soft centre. They couldn’t match City for workrate and energy – nor did they come anywhere near out-footballing their opponents. For 85 minutes City never get them a sniff of encouragement. The defence was particularly outstanding, with some superb blocks and tackles keeping the out-of-form visitors at bay. Ben Williams was a virtual spectator.
At the heart of that defence was one of the club’s most whole-hearted players. Nathan Clarke was the third reserve player to be restored into the side on Tuesday, and like Proctor and Billy he has grabbed that opportunity with both hands. Clarke’s reading of the game and leadership skills are hugely commendable. And with Reece Burke alongside him as masterful as ever, the foundations were in place for a dominant attacking performance.
Everyone was on their game. Josh Cullen and Lee Evans are such a balanced midfield partnership, full of creativity and rarely giving the ball away. Kyel Reid is playing as well as he has ever played for Bradford City, and Tony McMahon was steady and assured. Stephen Darby and James Meredith contributed as much going forward as they did defending. It was a joy to watch.
Doncaster departed the field at half time to boos from those away fans present (the ones who ignored the misguided calls of the Doncaster Rovers Supporters Group to boycott the game). But any hope Rovers had of turning around such a one-sided contest were hugely undermined when Proctor struck early in the half again. James Meredith whipped over a beautifully flighted cross, and the striker produced another stunning header that flew into the goal. The celebrations in the Kop behind were raucous.
Just like against Colchester 11 days ago, the goal should have been the cue for City to score a hatful more. At least, this time, the Bantams kept going and attacked with purpose. The intensity in their game remained, and it was a case of missed chances rather than minds drifting.
Or so we thought…
Inexplicably, with the clock ticking towards zero, City began to switch off. They sat back, allowed their intensity to drop, and offered their demoralised opponents a sudden chink of hope. A couple of Doncaster warning shots went unheeded, and with the game about to enter stoppage time Nathan Tyson was left free in the box to finish low past Williams. It was Doncaster’s first shot on target, but hardly the point. Suddenly City were making hard work of their easiest victory of the season.
Darren Ferguson sent on former Bantams loanee Gary MacKenzie to give his side more physical presence up front, and Doncaster threw the kitchen sink at City in the hope of snatching the unlikeliest of points. When the otherwise utterly anonymous Andy Williams – who turned down a summer move to Valley Parade in favour of joining Doncaster – was left free in the box, his shot pinged off Cullen and could have bounced anywhere. To City’s relief, the ball bounced wide of the post, but it was an illustration of just how much they had lost control of the game.
In the end they saw it out to take the three points; and as a result they are in the play off spots with a three-point cushion. But the late scare took some of the gloss off an otherwise exceptional afternoon. Just at another point of demonstrating they are genuine promotion contenders, City yet again offered up reasons to remain skeptical.
With two very difficult games to come, a similar drop in standards over the next fortnight will surely have greater consequences. Just like the Colchester game when the team lost their way, this late panic against Doncaster underlines fears that City still lack an authoritative leader with the experience and composure to drive team mates through difficult moments. We know that Parkinson is capable of lifting the team after a bad result – he has proven it repeatedly – but the team’s in-game management must improve. And that can only come from those on the field.
But with such a strong squad of players, there is every reason to believe it can be found. When Phil Parkinson first took over the club in 2011, he couldn’t believe how many players were on the books, and struggled in training to keep everyone occupied due to a limited number of coaching staff members. This was the season after Peter Taylor’s “two players for every position” squad approach and Archie Christie’s short-lived Development Squad initiative. It was not how Parkinson wanted to manage the club.
So, famously, for the 2012/13 season he went for quality over quantity in his recruitment, letting lots of people go. A smaller squad, but the budget was used to bring in the best possible players and the right characters, at a higher individual cost. It led to a large reliance on a relatively small amount of players, but it worked and worked well.
Yet since City’s promotion to League One, this approach has gradually evolved towards City having a bigger squad again. When Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle struggled for form in 2013/14 but there was no one to come in, and when the team’s fortunes were so intrinsically linked to Andrew Davies’ fitness in 2014/15, it probably persuaded Parkinson that he had to refine his strategy.
It’s also increasingly obvious that his January transfer business was vital to City’s season. By allowing Devante Cole, Gary Liddle and Luke James to leave the club, Parkinson was able to freshen things up. Josh Cullen is better than Liddle. Wes Thomas is better than Cole. And Jamie Proctor offers the manager something different. There is evidently some budget left over too, which Parkinson might use to bring in cover for Rory McArdle, who is out for a month.
With Paul Anderson and Filipe Morais getting closer and closer to a return to fitness, the competition for places should continue to intensify during the run-in. Ben Williams is probably the only first team player pretty much assured of their place. For everyone else, they must either perform or make way for someone else who will.
It all leaves City moving into the run-in with a strong hand. There are some mouth-watering matches coming up over the next few weeks – some really big occasions. A win at Wigan next week could even prompt talk of automatic promotion; although with a large number of teams below the play off line still very much in contention, it will be a challenge simply to remain in the top six.
It has been such a bumpy ride for City this season, and yet the biggest highs and lows could still be to come.
City: Williams, Darby, N Clarke, Burke, Meredith, McMahon, Cullen, Evans, Reid, B Clarke (Thomas 82), Proctor (Hanson 72)
Not used: Cracknell, Leigh, Routis, Knott, Marshall
Categories: Match Reviews