Bradford City 1
McMahon 13 (pen)
Gregory 15, Morison 34, Martin 45
Sunday 15 May, 2016
By Jason McKeown
It was brutal. It was clinical. It was heart-breaking.
Bradford City’s promotion dream lies tatters. Only the most insanely optimistic of us still believe that the situation can be rescued at the Den on Friday. Even for a football club that has borne witness to some pretty amazing miracles over the past four years, this one looks completely beyond us.
That Millwall gave themselves so much daylight over the Bantams, so early in the two-legged tie, was crushing. They were robust, physical but plainly exceptional too. There was nothing subtle about their direct and uncompromising approach. They absolutely bullied a Bradford City team who have so often over-powered opponents in a similar manner. They overcame early adversity, and a hostile crowd, to sail into a sizeable half time advantage, and then they saw it out.
There is plenty of bluster and positive talk emanating out of Valley Parade in the aftermath; but however much Phil Parkinson and his players defiantly talk about the tie not being over yet, right now such words feel nothing more than token, well-what-else-could-they-say type of comment. There really are only the fewest crumbs of comfort to take down to London on Friday night. This first leg could not have gone much worse for the Bantams.
They are so much better than what they showed today, and that is the greatest crime. Defeat wasn’t caused by a lack of effort, or through a badly-thought out game plan. Several players froze. People who for weeks have looked flawless suddenly fell to pieces. Their composure went out the window, and they looked devoid of the self-assurance that has taken them to such heights.
This was despite been given a helping hand – quite literally – that for 90 wonderful seconds brought the dream of reaching another Wembley final tantilisingly close. Early doors Tony McMahon had craftily delivered a free kick to the far post, where Jamie Proctor had pulled away from his marker. His header back across goal was waiting for Filipe Morais to head home, but Millwall’s Joe Martin stuck up his hand, preventing the ball reaching the Portuguese and prompting the awarding of a penalty.
McMahon duly dispatched from 12 yards, and three sides of a heaving Valley Parade let out an almighty roar. And at that point, after 10 minutes of promising City play, and with a wonderfully charged atmosphere generating amazing levels of volume, the script looked good. For a few seconds, we ignored the fact Millwall had also looked purposeful early on, and that McMahon’s altercation with Chris Taylor as he prepared to take the penalty – the City man should have been sent off for shoving the former Oldham man in the face – offered hints that our players weren’t exactly handling the occasion brilliantly.
It was all looking so good, but then it crumbled apart.
A minute after McMahon’s opener, a deep free kick from Millwall saw Steve Morison easily get free of Rory McArdle, and the Welsh international flicked the ball to Lee Gregory, who turned Nathan Clarke with ease and smashed it past an unsighted Ben Williams. It was a deadly piece of finishing. Gregory raced over to the corner of the Kop and goaded home fans – an interesting reaction from the former Halifax man, suggesting he felt he had a point to prove today. The tie was all square straightaway.
Which was the cue for it all to go wrong for City. But before we pour over just what happened, it’s worth remembering one of the smaller but not insignificant narratives of this campaign – just how badly the team have reacted to adversity. When City lost at home to bottom-club Colchester at the beginning of March, it was despite the fact they had taken the lead and for a period had looked invincible. They conceded an equaliser, fell apart, and eventually lost the game. They couldn’t rediscover their authority and composure.
It wasn’t the first time this has happened this season either. City’s in-game management through difficult moments has not been good enough when it has been needed. Their record when falling behind in matches is woeful. Their powers of recovery have been insufficient.
All season long, Phil Parkinson has very quickly got his players to turn around a bad result through his work on the training ground, but he can’t do much in the middle of a match itself. City’s lack of leaders has been a hindrance at times, and left some unanswered questions in spite of the superb late season form.
Alas, it happened again here. At 1-1 City were stung. They were caught out by the speed of Millwall’s response, as though they had assumed their opponents might crumble from going 1-0 down in front of 19,000 people. Gregory’s excellent goal was a shock to their swagger, and they lost control of the match.
Millwall dominated the next 20 minutes, with City looking increasing fraught and anxious in possession. No where was this most evident than the central midfield, where Josh Cullen and, to a lesser extent, Lee Evans wilted under the pressure. They were battered by their more physical counterparts, who bulldozed their way through with ease. McMahon continued to be more keen on arguing with the referee than assisting his young colleagues, whilst Kyel Reid played with his head down.
It was so depressing to see Cullen – in so many ways the hero of the second half of the season – fall to pieces like that. He is such a talented young lad, and you can only hope that he will emerge a better player for going through such an ordeal. He will have learned a lot about the game today, and his mental strength is facing a severe test.
The ball kept coming back towards a City backline that was robbed of the services of the hugely influential Reece Burke. McArdle, despite his mistake for the equaliser, defended manfully. Nathan Clarke’s lack of pace was painfully exposed, and he had a tough afternoon. The home players tried to weather the storm, but it was unrelenting.
Millwall’s second goal had felt increasingly inevitable, but was scored in criminal fashion for City. A corner was swung over slowly and James Meredith lost sight of Morison. Jamie Proctor, whose job it was to attack balls into the box rather than mark anyone, failed to spot the danger. Morison was left unchallenged to produce a bullet header into the net.
Morison and Gregory have more than 40 goals between them and were simply too good for City today. They have a terrific relationship and offer a great combination of experience, brute force and craft. What a shame City couldn’t have afforded to have bought Gregory when he was knocking in goals for fun next door at the Shay.
The contrast at the other end could not have been greater. We knew that Billy Clarke was going to miss this game, but James Hanson’s late failure to prove his fitness was a major blow (there are rumours, too, that he is set to leave this summer).
City’s play off push has been built upon two different, but effective strike partnerships, and Parkinson went into this tie missing one from each duo. So he opted to select Proctor with Morais. They had never played together before, and boy did it show.
There is, inevitably, some criticism towards Parkinson for picking these two, but it’s hard to see what other choice he had. Steve Davies was back from suspension, but hasn’t started a game in months. He also has never partnered either Proctor or Morais. Parkinson had to select Proctor and Morais and hope, but it didn’t pay off.
The problem was obvious. Proctor likes to play with his back to goal, and so works well with a striker who plays deeper, namely Billy Clarke. In contrast, Hanson is more adept at flicking things on and charging into the box, and so fares better with a partner who will run the channels as the most forward player, a role Morais can perform.
So time and time again today, Proctor picked up the ball with his back to goal, and literally couldn’t see where Morais was. Morais made some good off-the-ball runs, but it wasn’t worked through to him quickly enough. It just didn’t work out. Morais barely touched the ball in the first half, save for a decent shot from the edge of the box that almost made it 2-2.
A minute before half time, Martin atoned for his earlier mistake in giving away a penalty by smashing a long range free kick into the top corner for 3-1. Williams probably could have done more to prevent it arrowing into the net. Gregory had a chance to make it four before the break. The referee’s half time whistle came as a huge relief.
It had been wretched. City’s lack of experience and leadership in the middle of the park was telling. And it might have already cost them this tie.
Parkinson’s words at half time had a positive effect. City were much better in the second half, as they battled to at least reduce the arrears. The midfield was better, Proctor continued to run his heart out, and James Meredith cemented his status as City man of the match from an admittedly weak field of contenders. Quite wonderfully, the crowd stayed behind their team. The noise levels remained impressive, the chanting and roars of encouragement helped to keep them going. This was not an afternoon to groan and boo. Our team needed us.
If City could have gotten a goal back during the very encouraging first 15 minutes of the second half, it might have proven a very different story. They certainly should have. Proctor chased a seemingly lost cause but won possession by the corner flag, he raced towards the box, pulled the ball back to the excellently positioned Morais, who had a lot of goal to aim at. But instead of the ball nestling into the net, Morais incredibly put it wide of the target. A truly shocking miss, and one that could have sealed his team’s fate.
Nathan Clarke saw a header from a corner tipped over, and Lee Evans flashed two long range efforts narrowly past the post. But for all of City’s second half dominance, they didn’t offer enough of a goal threat. The substitutes, Steve Davies and Paul Anderson, had limited impact. The clock ticked down troublingly quickly.
Millwall had stood firm. After the game the outstanding Morison talked of how they had known to expect the second half onslaught from City. Having bullied their opponents they proved that they could not be bullied back. It wasn’t pretty from them, and the extent of the time-wasting employed left a sour taste, but you have to admire their stubbornness. They stood up to everything City threw at them. They merited their first leg victory.
What hope is there for City to cling onto? Expect to hear lots of talk about Blackpool and Burton over the next few days, and whether this Bantams side can emulate such feats of overturning a first leg home defeat. There will be claims too that City are capable of going down to the Den and winning. Of scoring the required number of goals to claim an aggregate victory. It is true that they can, of course it is, but they have the slimmest of chances.
The victory over Blackpool was as much about the Tangerines’ complacency than it was Chris Kamara’s clever tactics. As for Burton three years ago, the crucial factor over those two ties was that – in the same situation as today of going in at half time 3-1 down in the first leg – City pulled a goal back in the second half through Garry Thompson’s blockbuster. That unnerved Burton, who knew they had blown a chance to effectively seal the tie. Millwall did not make that mistake today.
And, ultimately, Millwall don’t look like a team daft enough to be over-confident, or soft enough to let self-doubt creep in. They were fantastic here, and if they are half as good again on Friday – in front of a packed out home crowd – they will be celebrating achieving a trip to Wembley.
It looks utterly hopeless for City.
All of which leaves us, as supporters, in a strange position. There is such a widespread feel of deflation and heartbreak tonight. Some are angry at the team and the manager, but what exactly for is unclear. This wasn’t their finest hour for sure, but no can dispute how much they care and how much effort they put into the game. Some are talking up City’s chances and that is understandable. But for the rest of us in the middle, we are simply lost.
Do you allow hope to remain, knowing it will be almost definitely crushed in the second leg? Do we grieve about the failure to get promoted now, so that by Friday we can either shrug our shoulders in defiance or – if City somehow pull it off – celebrate like we’ve never celebrated before?
I suspect we will do both, at differing times this week. At first, with the pain at its rawest, we will not entertain credible thought to a miraculous recovery, and instead continue to bemoan where it all went wrong. But maybe by Wednesday or Thursday we will catch ourselves daydreaming at work or at school about a 3-0 victory at Millwall, and we will keep Sunday 29 May free in our diary, just in case. And then at 7.45pm on Friday at the Den we will either be at the Den or in front of a TV with a chink of hope that, if we could just get the first goal before half time, and if we can get to 70 minutes still in with a shout, then maybe, just maybe.
We’ll allow ourselves a small shot of belief, before we give up entirely on this season and this team.
I hope so, but right now such positivity is beyond me. I want to wallow in self-pity. Draw the curtains. Not venture outside. Avoid friends and work colleagues who will mock. Ignore anyone who happened to watch my team on TV and wants to share a misguided opinion on my players. Reflect and feel very miserable.
I just hope that it doesn’t last long, because I fear that I’ll be spending all summer reliving that Morais miss. I worry I’ll be daydreaming my way through a meeting at work in June and accidentally scream out “WHY WAS NO ONE MARKING MORISON?!”, unable to let it go.
We’ve had a great few years watching City, and this feels like the first major set back in a while, one that will take a long time to get over. I hope I’m wrong, and that this feeling is gone by Friday night, in the midst of beer-soaked celebrations about an unbelievable City triumph in Millwall. I’m still keeping Sunday 29 May free in my diary, just in case.
You just never know.
City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, N Clarke, Meredith, McMahon (Anderson 82), Cullen, Evans, Reid, Morais (Davies 70), Proctor
Not used: Cracknell, Leigh, Morris, Routis