By Jason McKeown
Stuart McCall rarely enjoyed facing Rochdale in his last spell as manager.
In his first season, a 2-1 April Bradford City defeat at Spotland put pay to slim play off hopes. 11 months later, City strolled into Dale fourth in the league and in the hunt for automatic promotion. A 3-0 Rochdale victory triggered a damaging run of nine without a win, and City again missed the play offs. In December of McCall’s third season, things were going quite well until Rochdale smashed City 3-0 at Valley Parade in early December, prompting a sequence of defeats that would prompt the City boss to fall on his sword.
A reunion with Rochdale – and McCall’s old adversary, Keith Hill – comes at a really interesting point in Bradford City’s season. The two-week break for cup competitions over, they return to League One action with the test of facing a team seventh in the table, in-form and pushing hard for the play offs.
With trips to struggling Southend and Swindon to follow, and a midweek home game with another promotion-chasing side, Northampton, in-between those, this is a real chance to push on, damage top six rivals and keep pace with the automatic promotion spots. Leaders Scunthorpe, second-place Bolton and fourth-placed Sheffield United are in terrific form, and McCall’s charges will be looking to match them to keep their own automatic promotion hopes alive.
Whether you believe the top two is possible is a big talking point right now. It’s not just about whether City are good enough, but the standard of the competition. City have so-far matched Bolton and Sheffield United when they met them, with Scunthorpe to come on Boxing Day. On the evidence we have seen so far, Sheffield United are the best side in the division, although we clearly caught Bolton on a poor day. If City can stay in the hunt and push the other three, even a failure to make the top two would surely come with the consolation of another play off finish. Aim high, by keeping going.
With the two cup games to League Two sides resulting in two defeats, there’s a need to pick up again. The team against Rochdale will be very different, as those fringe players who had opportunities to impress against Accrington and Morecambe largely struggled to do so.
One player who will definitely keep his place from Wednesday is Rouven Sattelmaier. The German stopper is filling in for Colin Doyle, who is surprisingly on international duty with the Republic of Ireland. Sattelmaier had a memorable debut in August against Stoke’s Under 23 side, and largely acquitted himself well at the Globe Arena midweek. Tomorrow is a much bigger test, however.
James Meredith too will keep his place after emerging unscathed from his return from injury at Morecambe. It was an interesting performance from the Aussie who was reluctant to bomb forward in his usual style; perhaps treating the occasion as a chance to regain sharpness rather than push himself too much. Similar to how senior players would traditionally treat making a comeback from injury in a reserve team fixture.
Whilst Matt Kligallon has let no one down at left back, and will feel hard done by to be back on the bench, Meredith’s greater quality is a huge positive and it’s arguably no coincidence the defence has let in more goals since he got injured at Oxford.
On the opposite side will be Stephen Darby, with Romain Vincelot and Nathaniel Knight-Percival firmly established as first choice centre backs. Rory McArdle and Nathan Clarke will stand down, reflecting on a couple of cup games where they didn’t fully do themselves justice.
The midfield will include Nicky Law and Timothee Dieng – the other two spots up for grabs. If McCall elects to continue with the diamond, expect Billy Clarke to play at the tip. If he goes 4-4-2, Mark Marshall will be restored to the starting line up after being benched for the last two league games. Josh Cullen is on international duty, leaving a gap for someone to fill. And this is where we come back to the contrast between the largely solid performance at home to Bury in the Football League Trophy in October, and the struggles of Accrington/Morecambe this week.
For after that Bury game, City welcomed Shrewsbury to Valley Parade with Cullen on international duty, and the choice for McCall was whether to select Danny Devine or Filipe Morais. In effect he is looking at the same options, but this time Morais is struggling to press his claims for the nod and producing below-par displays.
Against Shrewsbury, McCall picked Morais and he made a positive difference. Will he reward the Portugese this time, or plumb for Devine – who did well on Tuesday – instead? It might depend on who he thinks is better suited to the diamond/4-4-2 he goes for. Against Shrewsbury he picked a straight 4-4-2, moving Nicky Law inside so Morais could play on the wing.
Up front, McCall will be encouraged by the recent goal returns of James Hanson and Haris Vuckic. Clearly both can’t play, and Hanson is more likely to be recalled. Jordy Hiwula should be alongside them, with Marc McNulty having a poor game at Morecambe. Hiwula’s recent form is also good, but he does continue to be wasteful in front of goal.
I wonder how much game time Steve Davies might have gotten this season had he not been released by Phil Parkinson over the summer? The former Bantam will lead the line for Rochdale tomorrow, due to Calvin Andrew’s 12-game suspension and Ian Henderson’s injury. Davies has netted three times for Rochdale, including the winner against Parkinson’s Bolton, and proved a real super sub at Valley Parade last season. Such sharpness in front of goal has been lacking from the current crop, although the all-round game of Hiwula, McNulty and Vuckic is more promising.
Dale had a nightmare start, but then won six in a row before losing their last two away league games. Just as John Coleman’s Accrington remain a bogey side to City and McCall, Keith Hill and Rochdale’s visits to Valley Parade spell trouble. You have to go back to August 2008 for the last time City beat Rochdale at home in the league. Although Stuart McCall was the manager then, and City’s unbeaten league home record this season offers plenty of encouragement to believe he can repeat that feat tomorrow.