Bradford City vs Walsall preview
@Valley Parade on Saturday 23 April, 2016
By Jason McKeown
This is a special time of year to be a fan of football. It’s that period where the nine-month soap opera comes to its conclusion, with an almost weekly occurrence of teams celebrating promotion or enduring the misery of relegation. Extreme emotions are experienced up and down the land. Some of the most memorable moments and scenes of the season will take place over the next weeks.
And there we are, right in the middle of the drama. Riddled with nerves. Spending hours daydreaming about the permutations of City’s next result and those of the teams around them. Staring intently at the league table. Other clubs who normally you have no strong feelings towards have suddenly become rivals. Everything is on the line.
At some point between now and the end of May, we will either taste the highest of highs or feel the lowest of the low. There simply isn’t much in-between.
Bradford City welcome Walsall tomorrow, and then go to Southend United the week after, and then entertain Chesterfield eight days after that. There is every possibility of achieving a further two, if not three matches through finishing in the play offs. A whole season’s worth of toil comes down to these few games. The stakes are incredibly high.
This is what you want at this time of the season, and it has so rarely happened in recent times. More often than not, we Bradford City supporters have been left with nothing to play for at this stage. We watched others enjoy hedonistic triumphs through envious eyes. Over the past 30 years, City have only got to the final three games of the season with promotion hopes alive on four occasions – 1988, 1996, 1999 and 2013. The last three of those run-ins had a happy ending, whilst the pain of 1988 felt raw for many years after.
There have been other seasons, over the past 30 years, where City were harbouring relegation concerns. But with the exception of the first Premier League season in 1999/00, and the dismal demotion to League Two in 2006/07, all the other campaigns had seen relegation either confirmed or mathematically avoided before there were only three games left to go.
It truly is a rarity for the penultimate home game of a Bradford City season to mean as much as Saturday’s visit from Walsall.
The last few days have seen disappointment weight heavily, as the draw at Shrewsbury and the defeat to Coventry put paid to automatic promotion hopes and have the left the Bantams looking nervously over their shoulders at the play off chasing pack. It has not felt nice, but such twists and turns are all a part of a promotion run-in. They do little to detract from the successes of recent weeks.
It is a huge achievement for the Bantams to have reached this point, simply because of how difficult the season has proved at times. The lows of the opening four games that left City bottom of the league, the misery of the mid-September slump, the dismal Christmas period, and the frustration of the March home defeat to Colchester United. For much of this season, Bradford City have looked anything but promotion contenders.
They have rarely blown away any of their rivals, and their run from the bottom half of the league to the top six has gone under the radar. It has been a story of endurance. Becoming difficult to beat, racking up points, winning tight matches, and showing composure after set backs. Many of us supporters have written off the season or dismissed our chances of promotion, but the team never gave up on themselves or each other. That spirit is hugely commendable, and it may yet take this club much further this season.
Right at the heart of it is Phil Parkinson. The job he has performed this season increasingly looks to be a superb one. You go back to last summer and all the off-the-field uncertainty over a takeover and Parkinson’s own future. The player recruitment looked both crafty and chaotic. There were big calls to allow the likes of Andrew Davies and Andy Halliday to leave. To not pursue Jon Stead’s signature. To pass up the opportunity to sign Jussi Jaaskelainen. There was also the serious injury to Filipe Morais.
There was that shocking opening day thrashing at Swindon Town, where the decision to replace Davies with Nathan Clarke looked ludicrous. Things didn’t get much better as York knocked City out of the League Cup, and back-to-back home games yielded just one point with the team looking woeful. Parkinson was in contract talks at this time. Weaker owners would have called off the three-year extension they had been trying to get over the line.
But instead Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn gave Parkinson greater resources to sign Reece Burke, Lee Evans and Devante Cole. The team produced back-to-back wins, and went six games unbeaten. Ben Williams was unfairly dropped and Brad Jones was a hopeless replacement. A 2-0 defeat at Colchester left City 19th at the end of September. Parkinson had by now signed his contract and was allowed to sign something else – Kyel Reid came back, and the bounceback begun again.
Reid’s return cannot be underestimated. He has played as well as he ever has all season, and the return of a crowd favourite boosted flagging supporter morale at just the right time. Rochdale away, his second debut, was as thrilling a game as we have seen all season. Ben Williams’ return heralded another unbeaten run, and a modern day shutout record. City climbed the table, and at the end of the year were on the coattails of the play offs, even though they looked far from convincing.
Parkinson really earned his corn over January. He made the tough calls of selling Cole and Gary Liddle. Took the flak from disgruntled supporters. Cole has been a major disappointment at Fleetwood. Jamie Proctor – who came to Valley Parade as part of the deal – has been a revelation. Josh Cullen has been a major improvement on Liddle. Wes Thomas pushed others harder than Luke James ever looked likely to.
Parkinson went into January with no money, but needing to find improvements. He played his hand superbly.
And it has been such an improved second half to the season. Defeats have become rare (Coventry was only the third loss in 16 matches). Wins continue to be engineered with a level of consistency not seen at Valley Parade in years. They are right in the mix, when a few months ago they were miles off the pace. Despite this week’s set backs, you would not bet against them completing the job.
Parkinson has been criticised heavily by some this season. There were the loudest calls for a change of manager during his reign so far. The complaints about City’s dour style of football have been understandable at times, but the results ultimately speak for themselves. Yes, it has not always been pretty, but the ends are justifying the means.
I’m not sure how we will come to look back on this team in years to come, but I suspect it won’t be remembered as the greatest – or quite the most loved. The results that Parkinson has got from the squad has been mightily impressive. This is not a group filled with sparkling individuals or star players, it is a team effort to a level that we have perhaps never seen before.
There are some very good players in the dressing room and their dedication to the cause is outstanding, but everything comes back to the manager and what he has got out of them.
Watching the team there can be little doubt of just how much they are playing for their manager. Just how on board they are to his ideas and his methods. That he can keep 24 very good League One players happy enough, that there are no obvious sulkers and everyone seems to be keeping each other on their toes, is amazing. There are really good footballers at the club who don’t seem to be doing a lot wrong, and yet they can’t get in the team.
The only question still remaining is of their character in adversity during game situations. The Colchester home defeat lingers in the memory. The players put it right very quickly in terms of subsequent results, but that was after time out on the training ground and after the manager was able to press the reset button.
On the field, in the middle of a game that suddenly isn’t going their way, can they really dig in and turn it around? It is a damning statistic that only once all season have City come from behind to win a match (Fleetwood at home). On a further three occasions when conceding the first goal, they have come back to earn a draw. That’s it. The first goal in any game has been key all season, and City have to react better when they concede it.
It is a deeply worrying trend. If, like the History Makers of 2012/13, they reach the play offs but go 3-1 behind in the first leg, do they have the composure and belief to turn the match around, when Parkinson can do little to help them?
We will probably find out, and that’s the beauty of this end to the season. We are on the verge of reaching heights that have not been touched in 12 years. We are on the brink of completing arguably the final step in the recovery of Bradford City Football Club. It’s completely in our hands to do it, and if it goes wrong from here the finger of blame can only be pointed inwards.
It’s going to be so exciting watching the game tomorrow, and the matches that follow. The emotion is building and the release – positive or negative – will be huge. I can’t watch and I can’t not watch. The tension is unbearable and yet you wouldn’t want to take it away. We’re all invested in this. We’ve gone in with everything we have.
This is what it is to be alive. This is what it is to be a football fan rather than a fan of football.
Listen to the first WOAP podcast on Friday at 12pm, featuring an interview with Tony McMahon and punditry from Katie Whyatt, Jason McKeown, Tim Penfold and Alex Scott.
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