By Jason McKeown
After a week that yielded one point from a possible nine, including a third home defeat of the season, the temptation to start writing off the campaign and Bradford City’s promotion credentials is building. But it would be the wrong call.
The reality is that City have gone through a week of performing okay but not great, with a slightly harsh low return. Given they have previously picked up wins that were less merited, perhaps a levelling off period like this was inevitable and deserved. Expectations have receded a little. And that’s probably no bad thing.
“We’re not the best team in the league” was Stuart McCall’s view post-match at Bury, and it is argument that deserves greater exploring. For whilst the Bantams are out-performing their 23 League One rivals on the attendance front, they evidently don’t have the largest playing budget. And so aiming for automatic promotion should be aspirational rather than assumed. There will always be exceptions – Shrewsbury Town’s flying form at the top is a surprise to everyone, not least Shrewsbury – but expecting more than your playing budget can provide you is a dangerous game.
The reality is that even little-old Bury – their home fans outnumbered by travelling Bantams last Saturday – appear to have a bigger playing budget. After all, they originally beat City to the signature of Adam Thompson due to wages, and their playing squad is full of notable lower league names who won’t have come cheap. Buoyed by the James Vaughan windfall, and with suspicions of owners’ gambling on promotion, Bury’s budget certainly isn’t based on their gates.
And of course Charlton – 1-0 conquerors at Valley Parade on Saturday – pushed the boat out to lure Mark Marshall from West Yorkshire to South London, alongside buying Billy Clarke for £90,000. In Josh Magennis, Ricky Holmes, and goalscorer Jake Forster-Caskey, Addicks boss Karl Robinson has a strong squad to push for promotion. Throw in the relegated Blackburn, Wigan and Rotherham, plus the relatively well-backed Portsmouth, Scunthorpe and Oxford, and it’s clear that City have absolutely no divine right to be out in front. In a very competitive division, many clubs hold a financial edge.
Then there are the injuries that are hitting City hard. The holier-than-thou Jose Mourinho might never moan about them, but any side robbed of five first teamers due to injuries and suspensions is going to struggle. Without both full backs, the club captain, Tuesday’s night’s best performer, and the second-most effective striker to date, there were gaps throughout the team on Saturday. Tom Field and Luke Hendrie let no one down covering for Adam Chicksen and Tony McMahon, but there’s a marked difference in quality. Timothee Dieng was okay in his start since August, but Romain Vincelot’s influence was missed. Ditto Paul Taylor and Dominic Poleon.
There are obvious questions about the lack of strength in depth, which was best personified by a very weak-looking City bench. But what really compounds the issue is the lack of players who can offer something different. When City were on top in the second half, it was difficult to see how a change from the bench could provide further impetus that would have tipped the balance in the home side’s favour. When chasing the game in the closing stages, following Forster-Caskey’s disputed opener, McCall was lacking experience and presence in his back ups. Someone whose introduction could have lifted the stadium and bullied the Charlton backline. With the exception of Shay McCartan, there were just like-for-like swaps available. Little wonder then, that McCall’s tweaking of the side was more focused on changing the formation in the closing stages.
Many of assumed Alex Jones would be thrown on in such a scenario, but he curiously remained on the bench. When pressed post-match, McCall disclosed his belief that Jones needs to show more in training. It is an argument that is difficult to dispute. Team selection should always be done on merit – not on past form – and if McCall believes Jones isn’t doing enough to warrant playing ahead of Omari Patrick and Tyrell Robinson, as fans we have to trust that judgement. After all, we don’t get to observe training.
The great shame for Jones is that he has not been able to force his way into the team at a time when its structure is more suited to his style. Since his debut in January Jones has looked ineffective playing down the middle as part of a front two, but shown promise as a wide striker in a 4-3-3. The formation used against Oldham and Charlton played into his strengths, certainly more so than Omari Patrick. Whatever he is not doing in training, Jones needs to be fired up and ready to start fixing it on Monday. Find his confidence, form and fitness, and Jones might still have a chance.
Without several big players, City huffed and puffed but lack quality in key areas. Hendrie and Field cannot attack as effectively as McMahon and Chicksen, making City less dynamic and predictable. They attempted to play through the middle of the park, but Jake Reeves’ form has dropped off following a poor display at Bury. Nicky Law’s promising start to the season is fading, with similar frustrations in his play that came to the fore last year. Alex Gilliead is still one of City’s brightest attacking outlets, but in cold hard terms of goals and assists he continues to draw a blank. I’d like to see more bravery from him at times.
But even so, City didn’t play badly here. They came out and attacked with intent in the second half, and prior to Charlton’s winner had looked the more likely team to score. Just as at Bury, questions about how the team responds to falling behind continue to go unanswered. Although Ben Amos produced three outstanding saves in the Charlton goal. On another day, City’s performance could have easily resulted in a draw if not a victory. The margins are close rather than colossal.
And it means City have ended arguably their toughest week of the season to date in the still-excellent-position of third. The top two have pulled a long ahead right now, and that is disappointing. But it’s a long season, and the prize of a play off finish for a third straight season is very much a realistic possibility. Everyone would have taken that before a ball was kicked in August. Deep down, we’d all take finishing in the play offs now.
City will always have bad days. Disappointing weeks. Painful set backs. Downturns. But there is no reason to write them off when they do. They’ll need to do better than this. But they’ve already proven they can. Between now and January the challenge is to stay in those play off places, improve in-game management and find an effective strike partner for Charlie Wyke (City have had 48 shots on goal over these three games, but only had 10 on target). They go into the window with the Nahki Wells windfall in their back pockets, and the opportunity to upgrade a decent but limited squad.