Bradford City 1
B Clarke 20
Swindon Town 0
Saturday 9 April, 2016
By Jason McKeown
Six wins from seven games, the best season’s points total of this millennium now in the bag, and a highest league placing in almost 12 years. This is a truly wonderful moment for Bradford City. This is shaping up to be a mightily exciting end to the season.
In fact, so dizzying have the recent highs felt, you’re no longer sure whether to look upwards or down. For after this, a fifth consecutive home victory, the Bantams are just six points behind the automatic promotion spots. Second place Burton, in freefall, suddenly look catchable. Meanwhile, the cushion inside the play off positions is a healthy eight points. Barnsley’s surprise home defeat to Chesterfield makes it a tall order for them to catch City.
City are third in the table, and it would take an unprecedented collapse in form for them to miss out on the play off spots. The race for automatic promotion is muddied by Gillingham and Walsall having games in hand, but the Bantams have surely now elevated themselves from outsiders to contenders. Maybe, just maybe. Maintain this form, and anything could happen.
In truth this was a poor performance from City. They were sloppy, they make mistakes, they scored a dubious goal and they survived a very strong Swindon Town penalty appeal in the closing stages. But they won the game, and at this stage of the campaign that is all that matters. Wigan and Millwall were the only other winners in the top seven. At a point where everyone around them seems to be losing their heads, City are keeping theirs.
And to win in this way speaks volumes. Six weeks on from that utterly dreadful night at home to Colchester, where City blew up spectacularly and lost in the most pathetic way imaginable, they rekindled memories of that horror show.
Just like that evening, City threatened to steamroller Swindon in the opening 20 minutes, and a four or five-goal victory looked achievable. Just like that evening, they suddenly stopped playing and allowed the opposition hope when they seemingly had none. But unlike that evening, they at least kept Swindon at an arm’s length and saw out the job.
We know that City can churn out 1-0 victories – this would prove to be their fourth in a row – but even with the recent red hot form, the question mark over how this team could cope through adversity remained unanswered. The Colchester performance had been forgiven but not forgotten. They won the game here when struggling and not playing well. The crowd, which stuck by them throughout, were absolutely superb and got them over the line. All of this made it one of the most satisfying victories of the season.
During those opening stages, the ease at which City pushed Swindon back led to some high quality attacking football. As expected the visitors attempted to play it out from the back, which played into the hands of City’s quick tempo pressing style. Possession was easily won by claret and amber shirts, and they poured forward in numbers. Josh Cullen was in particular impressive form, never wasting a pass and instigating several promising moves.
If you were one of the 251 Swindon fans sat quietly in the Bradford End that City were attacking towards, you could have only felt anger at the woeful efforts of your players. On so many occasions early doors, Town players ducked out of 50-50 challenges and failed to track runners. With no obvious Swindon centre forward selected, there was simply no outlet. We made a special effort to notice when Ben Williams touched the ball for the first time, and reckon it was the 23rd minute. Swindon’s first shot towards goal didn’t occur until the 30th minute.
By which point City were already a goal to the good. A long throw in from recent assist-specialist Nathan Clarke caused havoc in the box, as Lee Evans went for the ball. It came through to Billy Clarke, whose header goalwards hit the woodwork, and then appeared to bounce on the line before being cleared away. TV replays suggest the ball did indeed go over the line, just. Yet the linesman – who flagged straightaway for a goal – was surely guessing.
For Clarke, it was the end of a goal drought that stretched to the middle of November. He looked to be lacking in confidence last week, but instantly looked more the player we know he can be following his goal. Against a Swindon side who played three at the back, the space he was able to find in-between the opposition midfield and defence meant he was a real menace.
Phil Parkinson spoke afterwards of how his gameplan included making sure City kept alternating their play. It meant surges down the left from Kyel Reid and the superb James Meredith, followed by Tony McMahon, Stephen Darby and Billy Clarke linking up well on the right. City were in complete command, with Robins keeper Tyrell Belford looking especially nervous from crosses. Swindon were in danger of being blown away.
Which is when, just like the Colchester game, City suddenly switched off. The passes became too casual. The pressing stopped. Clearances at the back became rushed. With Swindon’s Jermain Hylton starting to pose questions, the second part of the opening 45 minutes became about getting in at half time with the lead still in tact.
Parkinson would have tried to calm them down over the interval, but City never rediscovered their authority in the second half. It became a game where not much happened in either penalty area, but yet still the tension was racked up minute by minute. There was so much at stake.
Unsurprisingly, City were solid at the back. Nathan Clarke – selected again, despite Rory McArdle’s return to fitness – and Reece Burke made mistakes in the first half, but were much better after the break. Stephen Darby was caught out a couple of times, but there was always cover from someone else. Lee Evans did not hit the heights of his man of the match display last week, but put in a real shift alongside Cullen.
Up front, for the second week in a row it wasn’t Jamie Proctor’s game. He had a couple of decent opportunities but could only produce weak headers. He won the ball often in the air, but his flick ons found no one. Whilst I wouldn’t want to encourage any dislike towards the player, it is curious to observe how his mistakes are ignored by the crowd when in the exact same situations James Hanson would be attracting howls of derision. City looked a better side when Hanson came on for Proctor.
Filipe Morais, who replaced the injured Reid, and Steve Davies, brought on for Billy Clarke, were solid too. Just like against Scunthorpe United last week, the game management of the team in the closing stages was hugely impressive. Last season, City’s failure to make the play offs was largely blamed on their inability to see out games; as on numerous occasions they conceded late equalisers. It was a bite-your-nails type of second half here, but for all of Swindon’s possession, Ben Williams had nothing to do.
But there was one late scare, when James Brophy played a clever one-two and charged into the box, only to seemingly be tripped by Nathan Clarke. The referee waved away appeals. TV replays suggest it was a clear penalty and that City got very lucky. Teams who achieve promotions or who win Premier League titles invariably survive a few of these controversies. It is a good omen.
Next up are two away games that will go a long, long way to deciding the destiny of City’s season. If – and it’s still a big if – automatic promotion is to be achieved, there is very little margin for error. They will need to win four, if not all five, of their remaining games.
On Tuesday evening, seventh-placed Barnsley have their game in hand, at home to Oldham, whilst it’s fifth vs sixth at the Priestfield stadium, as Gillingham welcome Walsall. A draw in Kent would be a major boost to City’s top two hopes, whilst further dropped points from Barnsley would make it very difficult for them to overtake the Bantams.
It is gripping. Every game matters greatly. Every goal has big connotations. City are in their best form of the season, right at the squeaky bum phase. If they can maintain this winning habit, they will take some stopping. All of a sudden, the return of Championship football to Valley Parade looks very real.
We’ve not had it this good in so long, and the best might be yet to come.
City: Williams, Darby, N Clarke, Burke, Meredith, McMahon, Cullen, Evans, Reid (Morais 64), B Clarke (Davies 68), Proctor (Hanson 73)
Not used: Cracknell, McArdle, Morris, Knott
Categories: Match Reviews