Bradford City vs Oxford United preview
@Valley Parade on Friday 14 April, 2017
By Jason McKeown
Easter is so often a defining weekend in the football season, and for a measure of how this club has come it’s worth reminding ourselves of the dire situation five Easters ago.
Back in 2012 Bradford City were sat in the dismal position of 20th in League Two, just four points above the relegation zone. They’d just lost five of their last six games. One of which was the infamous game with Crawley that ended with a brawl and City’s three best players of the season receiving red cards in the dressing room afterwards, earning three-to-five game bans. The situation was bleak.
On Good Friday of that 2011/12 season, fifth-placed Southend came to Valley Parade. Phil Parkinson was under pressure to keep his job, and went into the must-win game hoping for a big performance from a depleted backline that included the castigated Guy Branston, plus the out-of-favour and loaned out Matt Duke. Central midfielder Lee Bullock had to fill in as centre back, and right back Rob Kozluk was slotted in at left back. The omens did not look good.
City somehow won that game thanks to goals from James Hanson and Craig Fagan, and were able to crawl over the line of sealing their League Two status.
With all the success that’s followed, those dark days of 2012 feel like a lifetime ago. Easter was usually a kind period for Parkinson and City, with faltering play off hopes revived in 2013, League One survival confirmed in 2014, and two vital victories over Millwall and Crewe in the fight for the play offs 12 months ago.
McCall will be hoping for a similarly productive few days. Oxford United come to Valley Parade on Good Friday with their own play off hopes all but over, before the Easter Monday hop over to already promoted, and Champions-in-waiting, Sheffield United. The target has to be to win at least one of these games, and take another step towards sealing a play off spot.
And then who knows? Maybe Easter 2018 will see Leeds United, Aston Villa or Sunderland rocking up to Valley Parade.
Key games elsewhere
Outside Valley Parade, the main game to watch closely on Friday is 7th-placed Southend’s trip to relegation-threatened Chesterfield. A City win and a Southend loss would see the Bantams’ cushion inside the play offs increase to nine points with only three games left to play. In other words, they’ll have pretty much clinched it.
Millwall’s home game with Northampton is another key encounter, whilst Scunthorpe and Fleetwood are on the road at MK Dons and Peterborough respectively. As Northampton, MK Dons and Peterborough have nothing but pride to play for, City’s play off rivals would reasonably be expected to win their games here.
Bolton don’t play until Saturday, when they go to Oldham. If City and Fleetwood lose on Friday, Bolton can seal promotion to the Championship. But if either of the Bantams or the Cod Army win, the gap will reduce to four points and Bolton may walk out at Boundary Park with a little bit of pressure on their shoulders.
It’s been a reasonable first season back in League One for Oxford, who are not fully out of play off contention just yet. Promoted from League Two last season, they currently trail the top six by seven points, and even winning their last four games probably wouldn’t be enough to break into the play offs. Still, they’re on track for a respectable top 10 finish.
The U’s have the fifth best away record in League One, and have taken all three points from trips to Bolton, Charlton and Rochdale. Having scored in 81% of their away games, the Oxford attack led by by top scorer Chris McGuire will be pose an interesting test of City’s recent defensive improvement.
It’s also been a season of notable Oxford cup triumphs, with a run to the fifth round of the FA Cup after beating Championship Rotherham and Newcastle along the way. And of course, Oxford went to Wembley in the CheckaTrade Final two weeks ago, losing to a resurgent Coventry.
The pre-match debate: who should play up front with Wyke and Marshall, out of Jones and Hiwula?
WOAP writers share their views
“I prefer Alex Jones from the start as I feel he offers more to the overall game (although he was quiet last week). Jordy Hiwula has more impact off the bench and his impact was evident following his introduction in the second half on Saturday.” Phil Abbott
“Hiwula is so frustrating, but his movement is fantastic and he’s stronger and quicker than Jones. I think I’d just about go with Jones at the moment though. Mainly because he’s our player and touch wood things are working with him in the side currently, plus he’s obviously a better finisher. It’s a really tough call though because he is very lightweight. Hiwula is perfect for bringing on and stretching the game against tired defences.” Gareth Walker
“Jones. His all round game is better and I think he’s shown that he could be one of the more accomplished finishers at the club. Plus as our player, I’d like to see him get valuable experience in some pretty crucial matches.” James Pieslak
“Jones. I prefer Hiwula as an impact sub when the game is stretched, and Jones’ finishing will potentially help more in games where we’re dominating and looking for that final touch.” Tim Penfold
“I find Hiwula too unreliable. His touch is really poor and he squanders far too many chances. As we’ve struggled to convert the chances we do create in recent times, it’s important that we take them. Jones is far more clinical and has put away some half-chances also. It’s not a Hiwula bashing type view, just that he’s not ready to fire us into the Championship, in my opinion.” Phil Abbott
“This is a difficult one. Firstly, I think the general reaction to Hiwula from a lot of fans this season has been very harsh – he gets a lot of stick and a lot of fans seem to have a go at him very easily. I don’t think he gets away with as much as other players do from the fans.
“However, I do think Jones offers a little more finishing quality, but Hiwula’s pace and the runs he makes are superb. I’d actually quite like to see Mark Marshall and one of them on the wings, with Charlie Wyke and the other up front. I think this would then give us four very good attacking options, with two centre midfielders of Timothee Dieng and Josh Cullen holding us nicely defensively too.” Nikhil Vekaria
“I think Billy Clarke gets far more stick than Hiwula. I think he gets off quite lightly to be fair. I know it’s all ifs and buts, but if he’d have scored just one of the several sitters he’s missed this season (i.e. Walsall – harder to miss than score from two yds) we would have been in range of Bolton and at worse, in pole position for a 3rd/4th finish (and home game 2nd in play offs). I’ve nothing against Hiwula, but we’ve better options available since he was signed up and I just don’t think he is going to cut it. I’d love him to prove me wrong.” Phil Abbott
“Interesting how people see it differently! I think Clarke got away quite lightly considering his goal against Walsall was his first in months and he’d not offered too much more! Albeit he has had some injury issues. I can see the argument about Hiwula missing chances, but if you take away the goals he’s actually scored we’d be out of the play offs altogether!” Nikhil Vekaria
“Clarke hasn’t been right since his injury, agreed. I know what you mean regarding Hiwula’s goals, but if Jones had been on the end of them, he’d have scored more, I reckon. Therefore, Jones is the man for me.” Phil Abbott
“I can see your point totally, I do think it’d be great to get all four in though (particularly at home) and I think Clarke would be the player that’d drop out for me!” Nikhil Vekaria
“Jones. Goals are underrated.” Alex Scott
Reasons to worry
Oxford have beaten Bradford City twice already this season. They were the first side to defeat the Bantams in the league, back in October, and enjoyed CheckaTrade success over City at the end of January. The last time they were at Valley Parade – January 2013 – they defeated a City side distracted by their own League Cup heroics.
City have won only one of the last seven meetings with Oxford. So an away win on Friday would confirm Oxford the status of a Bradford City bogey team.
Reasons to be optimistic
City are two games away from a completing an entire league season unbeaten at home. Since the turn of the year they’ve picked up 15 points from a possible 21 at Valley Parade, including winning their last three home games without conceding.
The Bantams continue to score regularly, with the second half brace at Gigg Lane meaning they’ve found the net for 15 games in a row.