By Jason McKeown
To borrow a word used only by Donald Trump, at the weekend Bradford City won bigily. The late, late comeback victory over AFC Wimbledon was impressive in the context of defeating a top six side on their own patch. And it also meant the Bantams kept pace with the other League One front runners, who at that very same time were racking up comfortable victories.
As a result, City stayed as you were in a league table that is really truly shape now, one third of the way into the campaign and ahead of a two-week League One break. Scunthorpe United remain top, with an astonishing 34 points from the first 16 games. Bolton are second on 31, two points ahead of the third-place Bantams (29 points). Just behind are Sheffield United, on 28 points and with a game in hand.
But it’s what is happening below that which really offers cause to be excited by Bradford City’s strong start to the season. There is now a four-point gap between Sheffield United and fifth-placed Northampton – and then a four-point gap between the Cobblers and 16th-placed Southend United.
In other words, we are seeing a much of muchness throughout the majority of League One, but with four teams out on their own in front, who – so far – are looking a cut above the rest. That’s Scunthorpe, Bolton, Sheffield United and – of course – Bradford City. Right now, the top four sides appear to be on a notably different level to the other 20 teams. They are threatening to pull clear of everyone else.
It is very similar to how League One finished two years ago. That was the season where Bristol City ultimately ran away with winning the division, closely followed by MK Dons, who pipped Preston North End to the second automatic promotion spot. North End recovered to win the play offs, beating Swindon Town in the final. Swindon had finished fourth, eight points ahead of fifth-placed Sheffield United. The top four teams that year were way ahead of the rest of us – history might be about to repeat itself.
And if that proves to be the case, we are in for one terrific season at Valley Parade. There is, of course, a long, long way to go. But City have now completed three months of the campaign and have only one league defeat to their name. We’ve already said that we won’t jinx things at WOAP, but let’s just say that – to the rest of the league – the Bantams appear to be automatic promotion contenders. The bookies also have us as one of the favourites. So far, all evidence suggests City can challenge Sheffield United, Bolton Wanderers and Scunthorpe United for a top two finish.
Rewind back to this summer, with all the pessimism and fear at Valley Parade, and imagine what our reaction would have been had someone told us what was in store for the first third of the season? It was incredibly difficult to place any kind of expectation on City going into this campaign; but even for the most optimistic amongst us, the talk was of a play off challenge at best.
Many felt it would be a season of consolidation. Building for the future, trying to retain the good aspects of the Phil Parkinson era, allowing Stuart McCall time to bed in and to find a winning formula. Back in July, had we been offered a top half finish for this season, most of us would have happily accepted that. There was so much upheaval at the club that a backwards or sideways step seemed inevitable. The new owners were seemingly not demanding promotion either.
It matters to remember this, as the season keeps going. Whatever happens over the next few weeks and months, the debates need to be framed around the fact that City being in this current position is a bonus rather than a given. The new-look Bantams are ahead of schedule right now, scaling heights we might not have expected them to reach for another 12 months. The strong promotion challenge that we can cautiously believe is forming in front of our eyes is something to relish.
In Stuart McCall’s first spell in charge, his second season saw a solid start to the campaign also, and then it went badly wrong. The same could easily happen this time around, but even if it does it will surely feel different. Back in 2008/09, City’s existence in League Two felt unnatural. Victories and a lofty league position were assumed – any dropped points or winless runs felt like an underachievement. That year, it was expected City would win League Two – a play off finish would have been branded a disappointment. The fact McCall’s charges ultimately missed out on even that low base achievement triggered a crisis.
There was a level of pressure then which burdened McCall greatly and would ultimately be his undoing. This time around, the expectation levels should not be pushed so high, and set backs should not be met by overwhelming gloom – either within the dressing room or in the stands.
We should enjoy this. Every goal, every victory – even the bumps on the journey. As a fanbase we have recent memories of watching our team struggle to avoid relegation from League Two, after years of misery before that. For City to now be amongst the best teams in League One, and to so far be competing strongly for promotion, is something to savour, soak in and make the most of.
And it might not last, and over the next few months we may drop away from automatic promotion contenders to mere play off hopefuls. But even if it that does happen, we will be performing ahead of our close season expectations. McCall has said recently, “If we could be top six it would be a great first season in my eyes.” I think we can all completely agree with that.
The longer the good times last for this season, the more real this promotion bid will become, and the more nerve-wracking and pressurising it will be. But few of us genuinely believed Bradford City would be pushing for promotion this season. Everything we are experiencing is a wonderful bonus.