Wigan Athletic vs Bradford City preview
@The DW Stadium on Saturday 19 March, 2016
By Jason McKeown
Wigan Athletic, the home of one of Bradford City’s greatest modern day triumphs, is the setting of the Bantams’ biggest league matches for years. With just 10 games to go, City have climbed into the play offs and this weekend travel to the second place Latics – looking to prove they are a top six side.
The gap between Wigan and City is seven points, and an away victory at the DW Stadium would truly blow open the race for automatic promotion. Wigan trail leaders Burton by six points, and are only in the top two due to goal difference, following Walsall’s midweek win at Fleetwood. Gillingham in fourth are only three points behind. A Bantams triumph would awaken talk of automatic promotion at Valley Parade even, and it would certainly strengthen their play off hopes.
With a visit from fifth-placed Millwall the following Saturday, these are the kind of games you want to be involved in as players and be attending as supporters. A huge City away following is guaranteed this Saturday, and Phil Parkinson will be hoping they can be as big of a weapon as the 5,000 of us who were present for the last time the two teams met in Lancashire.
City’s 10-game run-in is tough in the sense that almost every opponent has something huge to play for. Beyond these games with Wigan and Millwall, the Bantams still have to travel to seventh-placed Coventry and host third-placed Walsall. Scunthorpe United – currently 11th but still harbouring play off hopes – are still to travel to Valley Parade. Southend – who look a stronger bet to push City for that sixth spot – are the opponents for the penultimate game of the season. Crewe, Chesterfield and Shrewsbury will not be easy games either, given they are battling to avoid relegation.
It’s going to be some ride.
Wigan away is a massive test. They are unbeaten in 15 matches, and have the best goal difference in the league. On their own patch they are especially strong, having lost only twice at the DW all season. No team has a better defensive home record, with only 12 goals conceded and 10 clean sheets. Tin hats will be needed.
On City’s side is that their own away record is decent. They have lost only four times on the road since the end of September – although those four defeats were significant. Walsall, Gillingham and Burton are the three other teams with Wigan in the top four, and Sheffield United are pushing for the play offs too. City have not fared well at the homes of the division’s best teams. Saturday is the opportune moment to change that.
Not only is it a test of footballing ability, but mental strength. The aforementioned Gillingham, Burton and Sheffield United defeats saw troubling collapses at the first signs of adversity. It is something that we also saw during the home defeat to bottom club Colchester United, where City had been so dominant but lost their way and couldn’t find a way to reassert their authority. Last Saturday, a one-sided contest somehow saw a nerve jangling ending after the Bantams switched off, conceded and looked full of fear and panic.
Two months ago, I wrote about the lack of occasions this season that City have come back to earn a draw or victory after falling behind. Since then, they have claimed a 1-1 draw at Port Vale after going a goal behind, earned a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Fleetwood, and recovered from going 1-0 and 2-1 down to Rochdale by grabbing a 2-2 draw. There is improvement, but more is still needed.
At some stage during the run-in – quite possibly at Wigan this weekend – City will go a goal behind. Their world will seem darker, and the challenge of responding with urgency and courage will be presented to them. It is to be hoped they dig in deeper than they did against Sheffield United, Gillingham, Burton and Colchester. Whereas the clear issue at the turn of the year was City’s lack of goals, now the doubts are over how well the team respond when the chips are down.
When Wigan have scored first at home this season, they have never lost – winning nine and drawing three. Yet on the eight times that City have scored the first goal in an away game, they have ultimately won on seven occasions, losing just once (the opening day defeat to Swindon). Be very wary of who gets the first goal on Saturday, but if it is Wigan who net the opener let us carefully examine how well City respond. The teams celebrating in May are invariably those who can successfully steer their way through adversity.
The City team itself should be unchanged from the one that performed so impressively for 85 minutes last week. Certainly the back four picks itself at the moment, with Ben Williams behind Stephen Darby, Nathan Clarke, Reece Burke and James Meredith. A word on the two full backs, who at times have disappointed this season but who looked back to their best on Saturday. Darby’s forward play seems to be improving over recent weeks, and he is linking up well with Tony McMahon.
Alongside McMahon will be the promising young central midfield partnership of Josh Cullen and Lee Evans, who should be full of confidence after their terrific performances of late. Evans seems to be disliked by a section of City supporters for reasons not especially obvious. He is one of those players who is arguably not good enough for the Championship but is at times able to coast his way through League One. Playing week in week out at Valley Parade this season should help Evans’ confidence and experience immeasurably. With Wolves likely to release him in the summer, it is to be hoped City can be at the front of the queue to sign him.
Another player we supporters would love to see added permanently is Kyel Reid, whose form is getting better and better. Jamie Proctor and Billy Clarke will be the strikers selected to get on the end of Reid’s deliveries. With games coming thick and fast over the coming weeks, expect to see Parkinson rotate his partnerships and for Wes Thomas and James Hanson to get opportunities too.
Wigan remain the best team seen at Valley Parade this season, and City did well to gain a point from them in a tight October contest. They might be a long way short of fulfilling their chairman’s pre-season objective of 100 points, but they will be confident they can be promoted as Champions. Three of their seven league defeats occurred in August, but after that shaky start they have prospered. The trip to Burton on 19 April – with four games to go – could prove a title decider.
Finally, we can’t write about Wigan away without mentioning THAT night, three-and-a-half years ago. Having reached the last 16 of the League Cup, it was slightly disappointing that City were pitted against Wigan away. Yet with tickets a bargain £10, a sell out Bantams away end produced a wall of noise, and a team without both their first choice centre backs produced a rear guard effort to draw 0-0 after extra time, before triumphing 4-2 on penalties.
For a younger generation of City supporters, it was the first big night they got to experience following the club. 12 years of underachievement from the Bantams – especially in the cups – meant such occasions hadn’t been enjoyed for a long time. A friend of mine was one of many left stranded at Wigan train station after the match – the penalty drama causing them to miss the last train to Bradford – and got talking to a young supporter who was deliriously happy. He described it as “the best night of my life”.
Subsequent giant killings over Arsenal and Aston Villa overshadowed that amazing night in Wigan, but it is still remembered fondly and with good reason. The first major triumph in a decade grants the Wigan win a place alongside Blackpool, Wolves, Villa and Chelsea in the all-time greatest City games list. No one who was there in the away end at the DW that night will ever forget it, that’s for sure.
On Saturday, the aim is to create more special Wigan memories. And if the class of 2015/16 can achieve just that, it would significantly increase the chances of us supporters embarking on another sentimental away trip next season – to Villa Park.
Let’s hope that the transfer interest of Leicester City in Reece Burke doesn’t unsettle the lad. We don’t need the distraction at this time of the season.