Millwall vs Bradford City preview
@The New Den, Friday 20 May, 2016
By Jason McKeown
It’s not hopeless. It can be done. If we as a football club don’t believe that the tie can be rescued from this desperate position, we might as well forfeit the game. Lick our wounds. Make sure we stay well away from the TV on Sunday 29 May 2016, just in case we catch a glimpse of the League One play off final between Barnsley and Millwall. Indulge in our self-pity. Woe is us.
We reject that.
There will be no hiding place Friday evening. A failure to overturn the 3-1 aggregate score will see City cast in the middle of a Millwall knees-up that we are desperate not to be a part of. It would be unbearable to watch. We’ll quietly sneak out the back door, cursing the moments that went against us. Ruing the breaks they got away along the way.
But succeed? We’ll be having one hell of a party. It will be an achievement to better anything else that Phil Parkinson has managed since 2011. It will be a night that will go down in history. And it will lead to a day out at Wembley, and a promotion chance that we thought had gone.
For Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin, this must have been a long week of contemplation, dialogue and strategeising. The manager’s words and body language, after the first leg, were entirely correct. If he doesn’t think it can be done, there is absolutely no hope for the rest of us. He will have a plan, and that plan will centre on hammering home to his players the importance of leaving the field tonight with no regrets. The damage of the first leg might not be fixable, but on Friday City need to do themselves justice first and foremost, and see where it takes them.
The planning will have also focused on the fact this is a 90 minute game, and of breaking that down into stages. What is the team’s target for the first 10 minutes? The first half hour? The opening 45 minutes? If they go in at half time 0-0 will they be deflated or satisfied with their progress? If they reach a certain point of the game still in the tie, when will Parkinson be looking to bring his subs on? How can he time their introduction to have the maximum impact?
Millwall will play in front of a sell out crowd of around 19,000. It is going to be their biggest attendance for 10 years. A cauldron of noise, in one of English football’s most intimidating grounds. It is a huge level of pressure for the City players to contend with.
But guess what? City are used to playing in front of big crowds. They averaged 18,090 over the season, and coped very well with the expectation that comes with it. Millwall’s average crowd this season? 9,108. On Friday, Millwall’s players will perform in front of twice the size of their typical crowd. That puts pressure on them too.
It is such a cliche, but so relevant. City have to quieten the home crowd. Take the sting out of the game. Don’t let them build up a head of steam. Thousands are turning up for a party, and eventually they will start to grow impatient if there’s a delay in starting those celebrations. If City can plant a drop of anxiety in the crowd by standing up to Millwall, it could quickly spread out onto the pitch. If City can get the first goal, that cauldron of intimidating noise could be transferred onto the home players. And then the questions will be asked. Can they handle it? Do they fear blowing it?
Parkinson will target this, he has to. He will think back to the pain of the FA Cup defeat to Reading last season, when the Bantams found themselves 2-0 down inside 10 minutes and the vocal home crowd were in raptures. City cannot afford to concede the first goal, and must certainly not do so early doors. That has to be the priority.
Assuming the manager does not experiment too much, the big team selection questions are over whether Reece Burke and Billy Clarke can prove their fitness and be available for selection. Steve Morison was outstanding at Valley Parade on Sunday against Nathan Clarke, but quiet and timid on the same ground when he was up against Reece Burke, back in March. Burke, the on-loan West Ham man, would relish a game like this. He was painfully missed on Sunday, and if his name is on the starting team sheet it would be a huge boost.
If fit, Burke will replace Nathan Clarke, slotting alongside the formidable Stephen Darby, James Meredith and Rory McArdle. Ben Williams keeps goal. These five players have been so important, so strong, all season. If all back together, City have a chance of pulling this off.
In midfield, expect Josh Cullen and Lee Evans to go out with a point to prove. Cullen, another on-loan Hammer, will equally relish the occasion and be desperate to put Sunday’s first half no-show to bed. Kyel Reid was apparently flying in training last week and big things were internally expected of him in the first leg. It didn’t happen, but we know just what he is capable of. Tony McMahon will not wilt on the opposite flank, and will seek to improve on his dead ball deliveries. They could be crucial.
If Clarke is back in contention, Parkinson can go with one of the two striker partnerships that has fared so well of late. Jamie Proctor and Filipe Morais’ selection hopes depended on whether their partner in crime makes it through. If all four were fit, you’d have fancied Hanson and Morais to get the nod. That would have been harsh on Proctor, who emerged from Sunday with a lot of credit. The substitutes could prove just as important as the starters.
It’s not over. It’s not mission impossible. They have only the slimmest of hopes, but that is still some hope. This is a club that has performed so many miracles since 2012. This is a club that has touched highs we never thought we’d ever experience. It’s going to take one hell of an effort. But when your backs are against the wall, there’s no one who responds better than this club has so often done over the past few years.
Let’s do this.