Bradford City 1
Scunthorpe United 0
Saturday 2 April, 2016
By Jason McKeown
It is truly amazing to think that only four short years ago, Bradford City were on the brink of losing their Football League status.
That after a 1-0 defeat to Plymouth on this same weekend, the Bantams were 20th in League Two and just four points clear of the relegation zone. That they were on a dismal run of five defeats in six games. That the club had just endured international embarrassment over their part in a brawl with Crawley Town that left their best three players suspended for much of the run-in. That we feared the extinction of the club, given joint chairman Mark Lawn was on record saying they could not survive a fall into non-league.
That the board were rumoured to be strongly considering sacking Phil Parkinson.
And now here we are, four years later. Habouring very real and very exciting hopes of a play off finish in League One. Looking upwards, towards the tangible possibility of Championship football next season. With six games left to go, the prize is within City’s grasp and a top six place is theirs to throw away. A fairytale period for the club – headlined by two trips to Wembley and some sensational cup heroics – could be about to feature another stunning achievement.
From sitting in 20th position in League Two, this time four years ago, to 5th in League One – a climb of 39 places up the Football League ladder. A return to the second tier of English football, 12 years after dropping down under the weight of a second spell in administration, beckons. It is truly sensational.
Steve Davies’ 68th minute winner here was a big, big goal for Bradford City and a season killer to the chasing pack. Prior to 3pm, six other League One sides still haboured hopes of catching the Bantams. But after the former Blackpool man was summoned from the bench and scored within 39 seconds, with his first touch of the ball, the fight for the final two play off spots are surely now only between City, Millwall and Barnsley. Everyone else is left just seeing out the season.
Millwall drew 0-0 at Colchester to drop to sixth, behind City. Barnsley, not in league action due to their JPT Wembley final, are now five points behind the Bantams, with a game in hand. There is a cushion. Over the final six games, all City need to do is hold their nerve.
Davies’ goal sealed a hard-fought victory. A third straight 1-0 win, and a fifth success in the last six games. A season that for so long carried the stench of stagnation has truly come alive in the closing stages. A packed out Valley Parade roared their team on, with the chanting during the final stages leaving the hairs standing on the back of your neck. The final whistle was the cue for clenched fists and hugs – both on the pitch and in the stands. This is a united football club, the players and crowd feeding off each other’s positivity and collectively reaching new heights.
Whatever happens over the final six matches, City’s points tally of 67 means that have already overtaken last season’s total of 65. They only need one more victory to beat the 69 that was enough to seal that League Two play off place in 2012/13. Parkinson remains on course to better the previous season’s league finish for the fourth year in a row.
And to think, just a few weeks ago some people were arguing that he had ‘taken the club as far as he can’.
The City manager continues to deliver staggering heroics. He’s faced a lot of criticism at times this season and occasionally looked hurt by it, but he is once again proving people wrong and engineering commendable feats. The tough calls he made in January – letting Gary Liddle and Devante Cole leave – have proven to be inspired business. His 2015 summer transfer activity can also be judged a success.
Nowhere is this most evident than the spine of the team that earned the victory over Scunthorpe United. Who would have thought a year ago that City could cope so well without both Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle? Reece Burke continues to get better and better, whilst Nathan Clarke’s importance has grown after recovering from such a dreadful start to the season. These five wins in six have occurred with Clarke covering for McArdle. The Northern Ireland international is almost fully fit, but must be sweating over winning his place back.
Burke and Clarke were outstanding here, leading a back four that kept a dangerous Scunthorpe United forward line in check. Stephen Darby produced a double block on the goal line during the first half, when the visitors were on top, that Parkinson would later comment was as good as a goal. The City skipper put his body on the line in a huge way, and both he and James Meredith continue to rank amongst the best full backs in the division.
In front of them was a midfield featuring the recalled Josh Cullen and Lee Evans, following their international duty commitments over the Easter weekend. Evans divided opinion for much of the season but has come into his own over recent weeks, boosted by finding the ideal partner in Cullen. He doesn’t get everything right, but his passing and use of the ball has improved immensely since joining in August. No wonder Wolves plan to use him themselves next season.
The midfield pair drove on the team today. It wasn’t a sparkling home performance full of attacking football – but we’re used to that. Scunthorpe United knew they had to win to keep their play off hopes alive and pressed from the off. They committed plenty of players forward, and in Neil Bishop had an athletic central midfielder tasked with protecting the back four and shutting off the space for Billy Clarke.
City had to dig deep. Fight for every tackle, attempt to win each individual battle. They should have kept the ball better, but their direct style of getting into the final third as quickly as possible was followed by playing some decent passing football inside the Scunthorpe United half. It wasn’t a game where Jamie Proctor thrived, but he kept winning flick ons and forcing corners. His workrate and willingness to keep going set the tone for the team.
In the second half they gained a greater grip on proceedings. Scunthorpe began to be pushed back. Kyel Reid got more joy on the left, and Tony McMahon’s set pieces were a constant threat. And then the stalemate was broken by an inspired double substitution.
James Hanson on for Proctor. Steve Davies on for Billy Clarke. Play resumed with Nathan Clarke’s throw in that was aimed towards Hanson. City’s top scorer didn’t win the ball, but forced his marker into flicking it towards his own goal. Davies pounced and finished clinically. A fifth goal of the season, and all but his strike at Peterborough have proven absolutely pivotal.
Davies has earned his team 13 points via his substitute cameos.
Scunthorpe United pressed for an equaliser, but City had them right where they wanted. Tony McMahon is the master of running down the clock; applying the black arts of time wasting that used to so enrage us when opposition players did it as a matter of routine. Bradford City is a much more street-wise football club now. They controlled the last 20 minutes. A Scunthorpe comeback never looked on.
City could have made it more comfortable. Evans’ piledriver was tipped over by Luke Daniels. After clever play by Hanson, McMahon shot wide when he should have scored. Filipe Morais was summoned from the bench for a first appearance of the season, after his lengthy injury lay off. He got a great reception, was unlucky to see a shot well saved and then set up Davies for a header that was blocked by Daniels from point blank range.
No matter, the clock ran out. City are now in a season’s best position of fifth, and next week welcome a Swindon Town side that have nothing to play for and who have not won in five games.
The job is not yet done of course. Next weekend Barnsley welcome Chesterfield before playing their game in hand, at home to Oldham, the Tuesday after. The gap could reduce to a couple of points, even with City beating Swindon Town.
But you wouldn’t bet against Bradford City and Phil Parkinson seeing this out. It would be a major shock to see them choke. You wouldn’t expect Parkinson to buckle under the pressure. After all, pressure is sticking with your team after they’ve badly let you down by pathetically losing at home to Colchester. Pressure is selling your joint top scorer when you’re one of the lowest goalscorers in the division. Pressure is coming back from 3-1 down to Burton in the play offs to reach Wembley. Pressure is going to Villa Park and defending a 3-1 first leg advantage so your club can make history.
And pressure is this time four years ago, when you carry the weight of responsibility from knowing that – if you don’t find the answers right now – you could be responsible for relegating and killing Bradford City.
How far we have come. How much further we could yet go. In Parkinson We Trust – there is simply nothing else to say.
City: Williams, Darby, N Clarke, Burke, Meredith, McMahon, Cullen, Evans, Reid (Morais 83), B Clarke (Davies 67), Proctor (Hanson 67)
Not used: Cracknell, Thorpe, Knott, Morris
Reinventing Bradford City is now on sale via Amazon – all profits from the book will go to the Burns Unit.
Categories: Match Reviews