Bradford City vs Walsall preview
@Valley Parade on Saturday 1 April, 2017
By Jason McKeown
Imagine that every single Bradford City supporter was congregated together at one side of a very big room.
Firstly, if you were one of the two thousand fans who travelled to Glanford Park on Sunday, move to the other side of the room. Next, those who were at Fleetwood away in February move over and join them. Then those who went to Oxford away in the CheckaTrade, Shrewsbury away, Swindon away, Morecambe away in the CheckaTrade, Southend away, Accrington in the FA Cup and Oxford away in the league – go and join them on the other side of the room.
At this point, the vast majority of Bradford City supporters would not have moved, and still be situated on the same side of the room. It is remarkable to think there’s a large number of us who have yet to witness a Bradford City defeat this season. With the club unbeaten at home and – up until Sunday at least – only losing games when away followings have been relatively low, that horrible taste of disappointment that comes with a defeat has only been tasted in the flesh by a portion of us.
Speaking personally, the only Bradford City defeat I was present for was the 3-2 loss at Morecambe in November – and to be frank it wasn’t a particularly painful experience. The last defeat before that was losing 3-1 at home to Millwall in the play off semi final first leg last season. That one hurt, a lot. As did the home defeats to Colchester and Barnsley during the second half of the 2015/16 season. But since the start of 2016 and up until now, I’ve only been present for four Bradford City defeats.
Saturday afternoon defeats are even more rare. If, like me, you don’t go to that many away games these days, you might have to go all the way back to a September 2015 home loss to Peterborough to find the last time your Saturday night was spoiled by being present to watch City lose. I actually missed that game as I was at a wedding, so my last Saturday afternoon dose of misery is a 2-1 home loss to Rochdale in January 2015. To put that into context, that was two weeks before City famously beat Chelsea.
(By the way if City lose tomorrow I will take full responsibility for tempting fate.)
The point is that as a fanbase we’ve become used to not losing football matches. It still happens every so often – as last Sunday’s TV set back at Scunthorpe United – demonstrated. But the core notion of going to Valley Parade on a Saturday afternoon to cheer on the team has in the main part being a joyous experience for the last couple of years. We’ve been spoiled to a degree, although the noise and colour we provide is a crucial contributor factor behind City turning Valley Parade into a fortress.
I can’t remember a time following City where we’ve been so good at home, so often. Even during the high watermark Premier League promotion season of 1998/99, we had horrible Valley Parade defeats to Stockport, QPR and Huddersfield. Over the 2012/13 History Makers year, Port Vale, Exeter, Rochdale and Oxford secured unlikely away victories at our place. As for the truly wretched times, between September 2006 and August 2007, City managed just one home win (and, typically, it was the only home game I missed over that period).
The irregularity of losses this season especially has produced some interesting reactions – especially the all-important league ones. City have lost only three games over the last four calendar months, but each time attracted some fairly stern criticism. The Scunthorpe defeat was City’s first in eight games, but the condemnation dished out by some appeared to ignore how well the team has been playing and – indeed – did perform at Glanford Park.
It’s all par for the course, but there curiously still seems to be a small element of City supporters who don’t rate the achievements of the team this season, and readily seize upon the set backs. “If we don’t make the play offs McCall should go” one friend said this week. That’s a debate for another time (although I’ll share my view now: absolutely not), but it does touch upon a feeling many of us have experienced.
Because for all the considerable achievements – which are more impressive given the backdrop of last summer – at times you can’t escape the nagging feeling that we have underachieved. City assistant boss Kenny Black said as much a few weeks back, when he talked about how the team had acquired 10 less points than they really should have. At Scunthorpe – just like at Fleetwood – City should have won. That they didn’t even pick up a draw leaves their endevours and approach open to criticism. How do you dominate a game to that extent yet still lose?
There’s no question that the results of last weekend have put automatic promotion out of City’s reach. Ultimately they have failed to take enough points off the teams around them; and whilst that shouldn’t cost them a play off finish, it has left a yawning gap between them and the top two. 2-0 up at home to Bolton, 1-0 up at Fleetwood, 2-1 up at Scunthorpe…nine potential points in the bag, but ultimately only one was added to the board. What easily might have been.
But before rushing to criticise Stuart McCall, we should remember the outlook and instructions of the owners. For all the disappointment many felt at the way City were too open and adventurous, recall Edin Rahic’s pre-match deceleration. Stating the top two was still a possibility, Rahic added, “As long as we have a very good chance to reach automatic promotion, we have to go into every game to win – even if that means we risk losing.”
This is a really bold and commendable approach, and McCall clearly acted on it in the way City lined up at Scunthorpe.
By playing a day later than everyone else, McCall and City already knew that second-place Bolton had beaten Shrewsbury to move nine points clear, and crucially that seventh-place Millwall had lost to Swindon. That allowed McCall to take something of a calculated gamble and go all out for victory at Scunthorpe. It was effectively the last chance to put pressure on Bolton, and equally a defeat – whilst not desired – wasn’t going to be terminally damaging given Millwall trailed by six points and were about to travel to league leaders Sheffield United (where they lost).
We can be very critical of the defending at Glanford Park – all three goals were a mess from a City point of view – but playing in such an open, expansive way was always going to leave them open at the back. The performance more than merited the victory and they weren’t far off claiming it. But McCall knew he could go for it in that way because of his owner’s backing. This is what Bradford City 2016/17 are all about – the risk vs reward adopted is so much higher than Phil Parkinson of a year ago.
And it all leaves City with six to play and the objective of a play off finish very much in their hands. They are three home games away from going a full Valley Parade season unbeaten, and if they can do that they will be half way to securing a top six placing.
It’s all to play for.
Walsall come to Valley Parade this weekend with their own top six hopes effectively over. Not playing last week due to international call ups has seen the Saddlers drop down to 13th, following back-to-back defeats to promotion rivals Fleetwood and Southend United. They’ve only won three times on the road all season, although worryingly no one has drawn more games on their travels than Walsall. City, of course, have drawn the most home games.
Colin Doyle keeps goal for the home side after a less than invincible showing at Scunthorpe, 48 hours after being involved with the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup qualifier with Wales. Doyle’s recent form has seen him creep slightly into the spotlight, with a few soft goals flying into his net that might have been prevented. Nevertheless Doyle is on course for a 7 out of 10 kind of season. Generally good, occasionally outstanding, but most of all reliable.
In front McCall will be contemplating whether to once again go with three centre halves as part of a 3-4-3, or switch to a more traditional back four. Nathaniel Knight-Percival was badly missed at Scunthorpe, just as his form is beginning to recover from a mid-season dip. If fit he will play alongside Rory McArdle and potentially Romain Vincelot (depending on if it’s three at the back or a back four). Kevin Toner – who played on loan at Walsall over the first half of the season – scored on his City debut but was shaky at times. He is not someone you’d want to see starting every week.
If midfield features Tony McMahon and James Meredith as the widemen, Mark Marshall will likely continue to be pushed up front and Alex Jones will play as the other wide striker. The debate for Bradford City player of the season has started up and Josh Cullen is probably the favourite. But Marshall’s form all campaign – and especially since Christmas – sees him creeping into the frame. He has been outstanding of late.
McCall could have Nicky Law to slot back in, who would take the place for Timothee Dieng. The Frenchman was given a tough task at Scunthorpe but still felt short of standards – his lack of marking for the winning goal was criminal. It has been a good season for Dieng, but he’s limitations have been on show at times. Still, to have someone of the ability of Dieng as a squad player demonstrates how far the club has come since winning promotion to League One.
With Cullen also to come back in, expect Billy Clarke – who looked lost on Sunday – to revert back to the bench. Charlie Wyke will lead the way. It is a growing concern that City’s big money signing continues to look anonymous in away games, but at Valley Parade he certainly knows where the back of the net is.
As City do battle with Walsall, Millwall and Scunthorpe meet at the New Den in a game that could have huge significance on the Bantams’ promotion hopes. A Millwall victory would see them keep the pressure on City, whilst a Scunthorpe victory would lessen the likelihood of the Bantams finishing in the top four, and thus mean they have to play the second leg of the play offs away from home.
But it’s all about what Bradford City do, and hopefully we supporters will be heading home at 5pm with the familiar warm feeling of victory, rather than the largely forgotten pain of a home defeat.