Bradford City vs Millwall (home) and Crewe (away) preview
@Valley Parade and Gresty Road on Saturday 26 and Monday 28 March, 2016
By Jason McKeown
At the end of every season, we all look back on the events from the previous 10 months and point to pivotal moments and games that shaped the final outcome. With Bradford City and Barnsley currently neck-in-neck in the race for the final play off position – only goal difference separating the two clubs – there is every chance that the Tykes’ 1-0 victory at Valley Parade in January could be looked back upon as one such big moment. And, from Bradford City’s point of view, with some regret.
That Tuesday night encounter was a strange game in what was a strange period of City’s season. In and around it, the Bantams were rarely losing but struggling to convince. There were victories over Oldham and Fleetwood, the FA Cup stalemates with Bury, and the 1-1 draw at Port Vale.
The loss to Barnsley was City’s best performance over this period.
At the time the visitors were 17th in the table, and City losing to them but playing well made little sense. Now, Barnsley are in a much loftier position. Were that January fixture still to be played, we’d be labelling it a promotion six-pointer.
That Barnsley are in the shake-up is one of the most intriguing stories in a somewhat forgettable League One season. Prior to Christmas they sat bottom of the whole league and Lee Johnson was under huge pressure. Since Christmas, Johnson has turned it around. They’ve lost only two out of 16 games and survived the departure of the manager to Bristol City. Twice-former Bantam Paul Heckingbottom remains in temporary charge, and the club is on the up.
Barnsley are not City’s only promotion rivals for a play off spot. But with four-points of daylight between the two clubs and fifth-placed Millwall, there is a danger that there is only going to be 6th place up for grabs. Certainly the Easter weekend will go a long way towards shaping up the final promotion run-in. Some teams are on the brink of drifting out of contention, whilst others are closing in on a top six finish.
The Friday/Saturday play off race games
Barnsley (6th) vs Scunthorpe United (13th)
Rochdale (11th) vs Southend (9th)
Sheffield United (12th) vs Crewe
Shrewsbury vs Port Vale (10th)
Peterborough vs Coventry (8th) (Evening kick off)
Bradford City (7th) vs Millwall (5th)
For City, playing a day later than their play off rivals could intensify the pressure going into the Millwall game. Yet if Scunthorpe can take points off the Tykes, City can move into the top six again with a win against Millwall.
If Southend and Coventry win their away games on Friday, they would climb above City before the Millwall game. In other words, City could begin Saturday down in 9th place. Don’t discount 10th-placed Port Vale either, despite their 4-0 home defeat to leaders Burton last weekend. A win at Shrewsbury would put them level on points.
A Barnsley win, and a City loss to Millwall, would spell a really bad first half to the Easter weekend for the Bantams. It would put Millwall seven points clear and make them very difficult for City to catch, meaning sixth place would be the Bantams’ only real hope for achieving a play off finish.
The Monday/Tuesday play off race games
Wigan vs Rochdale
Bury vs Gillingham
Crewe vs Bradford
Port Vale vs Barnsley
Scunthorpe vs Swindon
Millwall vs Burton (Evening kick off)
Coventry vs Colchester
As it stands, City would have the easiest game of the play off chasing teams on Easter Monday, given they travel to a second bottom Crewe side who have won only six games all season. We all know that, with City, these sort of games rarely prove as straightforward as they look on paper; but any team with credible promotion hopes cannot slip up in such a fixture.
Barnsley travel to Port Vale and Gillingham – who don’t play on Friday or Saturday – might have discovered the play off chasers have moved closer towards them, and need to win at Bury to keep their reasonable advantage intact.
On the Monday evening we will all keep a close eye on Millwall’s tricky home game with Burton, live on Sky, and then 24 hours later we must assume that Coventry will do to Colchester what City could not. At that point, there will be seven games left to play and the margin for error will be even less.
All of which makes City’s home game with Millwall on Saturday particularly important. After the respectable-but-nevertheless-frustrating 1-0 loss to Wigan last Saturday, the Bantams look destined to end the season having won only one of their eight encounters with top four sides. Defeating fifth-placed Millwall – who City drew 0-0 with back in October – would be a massive shot in the arm. With the Lions unbeaten in six and undefeated on the road since January (when they lost to, of all sides, Barnsley), it won’t be an easy task.
And it is one that must be addressed without three key players. Josh Cullen and Reece Burke sit out the two Easter games due to England Youth action, whilst Lee Evans is part of the Wales Under 21 squad. The three loanees have really come to the fore during City’s recent improvement, and they leave behind huge holes to fill.
Tom Thorpe has rocked up loan from Rotherham, billed as someone who can play in both the defence and in midfield, and he will go straight into the team. For the other two gaps, Phil Parkinson may need to turn to players who have lost their places in the team to Cullen, Burke and Evans in the first place, due to indifferent form – namely Billy Knott and Chris Routis. Josh Morris – back on the bench at Wigan after a spell in the wilderness – may also be handed a rare chance.
Parkinson will be desperate that those who come in really take their chances – just as Jamie Proctor did following an injury to James Hanson. The latter returned to fitness but has remained on the bench, whilst Proctor continues to impress everyone. What a nice problem it would be for Parkinson to go into the Scunthorpe United game a week on Saturday struggling to drop players, so that Cullen, Burke and Evans can come back into the side.
After Millwall, City travel to a Crewe side who seem to spend every season in deep relegation trouble, only to somehow scramble clear right at the end. On the final day of last season, City were at Gresty Road and won 1-0 through a first half Billy Clarke goal – but results elsewhere meant that Crewe survived. They are currently eight points adrift this time, and perhaps this time their nine lives have really run out. A bad Easter period would all but doom them.
Although two games in a short space of time offer Parkinson the chance to rotate, he has rarely done so before in these circumstances and is short of options anyway – so expect largely the same team for both matches. Parkinson might be tempted to rotate his strike partnerships and give James Hanson/Wes Thomas one game and Jamie Proctor/Billy Clarke the other.
Greg Leigh might come in for one of the two outings, to preserve James Meredith’s fitness levels ahead of the final weeks of the season. Mark Marshall would also be disappointed if he doesn’t get some minutes under his belt over these fixtures.
On Easter last season, a thumping 3-0 win over Doncaster revived flagging promotion hopes, before an equally emphatic 3-0 home defeat to Preston all but killed them off. Easter is earlier in the year this time around, meaning nothing is going to be settled either way. But with eight teams fighting it out for possibly one play off spot, and only six points between them with nine left to play, every match really counts.
Let’s hope that, this summer, we’ll be looking back at Easter and agreeing it was a big moment for the right reasons.