Grounding expectations

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

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.

Categories: Opinion

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13 replies

  1. A quick note on WOAP’s coverage this season, which is as erratic as Omari Patrick’s shooting.

    Over the last week I was in a position to write some words on each game, but this won’t always be the case and we’re still just updating as and when we can. I’m currently writing a book about Bradford City which is my main priority.

  2. I think you sum it up very well. We, in the Midland Road, cannot judge the Charlton goal, but I thought City deserved a draw. Yet, as you say, there were some worries. I think Law tends to be what we used to call a “flatterer”, often looking superb, but the end result being missing. Patrick looks one for the future, he has all the attributes, but needs the experience to learn to use them. Wyke impresses me more and more. Jones disappoints, and I fear he may turn out to be unfulfilled talent.
    Finally, I cannot resist having a go at the FA. After disgracing themselves in Parliament last week, they insult the game by charging City and Oldham with misconduct following a minor flare-up caused probably by bad refereeing, and for which the referee himself, not the clubs, should be disciplined. In Rugby League, the referee would have dealt with it easily.
    Read Katie Whyatt’s excellent comment in the City programme yesterday about the FA. This is the so-called governing body who refuse the use of technology to assist the officials, technology which, in Rugby League, would have spotted if Charlton’s winner was a fair goal.
    The FA also insist on little boys playing on full-size muddy pitches with 8 yard goals, and then wonder why we fail to produce skilful players.

  3. An honest report as ever. I can’t believe that we are still 3rd. Reeves has been disappointing for me but we need to give him time to develop in his Bradford City career.
    We need an attacking midfielder to support Wyke or play another striker to support Wyke.
    I would take 6th spot now as our final league position for this season.
    Keep the faith.

  4. Good analysis of our team at this stage, and I wouldn’t disagree with any. I think we have to accept that our back up players are not quite as good as our first team selection, not their fault they are young and need time.

    We need to be realistic in what we can achieve on our budget, and this is not a criticism of our owners they have a plan to develop our young players so they can play for us and sell on, building our squad as we go. I think Stuart is doing really well, he is not perfect despite the ‘McGod’ title. Like all managers he has good attributes, he is extremely good at man management, a real asset when you have young developing squad. However our fans like all football fans are impatient, and managing the fans expectations and tight budget control is a tightrope exercise.

    It would be great if we could bring another striker in and attacking midfielder so we can play 442 formation, it just increases our options. Law is good player but not consistent. I like Reeves and I think the criticism of him is unfair tbh, he has had a lot more to do, given Law has not been carrying his fair share of work. It is interesting that Reeves drop off has come at the same time!

    However there is no need for despondency, we need to pick up our game and hopefully we will start to get our first team players back.

  5. Yes. Reminds me that one of the key differences between a good player and a great one is consistency, and, as you say, the difference between success and failure is often down to fine margins. With more luck and better refereeing before their goal, and we could have been contemplating a 2-0 story line and a different script!

  6. Fine margins is the face of modern football. Gone are the days when a lowly team could visit a high flier and the result was academic. Maybe it was what football pools relied on? We saw Huddersfield beat Manchester United yesterday despite the latter having around 80% of the possession . The game has changed and yesterday’s fine margin seemed be revolving around an officials blunder rather than good p!ay. It must frustrating being a manager!
    As regards consistency we have to accept that this commodity is going to be rare at League One level. Any consistency particularly in wing players would see the lad operating at Championship level at least. The Reid’s and Marshalls had the trickery but not the consistency.
    Consistency and fine margins are what dictates the modern game below the PL.

  7. Totally agree Jason. So much vitriol and negativity has followed on social media since Saturday. It’s all fine margins and we’ve been unluckily on the wrong side for the last 3 games, all of which were strangely adversely affected by the officials.
    The situation re Alex Jones is somewhat disappointing but it is apparent from his body language that he’s not a happy bunny. He needs to show Stuart what he can do rather than maybe sulking.
    It’s a long old season and the division is very competitive but I forcone am confident that we will be in the mix come May. However, it will need the FULL backing of City fans for the management and all the players.

  8. Very honest & forthright report & thoughts. There are 2 questions that will be uppermost in many City supporters thoughts this morning, and both centre on the selection process used by SMc.

    1; Why does he keep playing Patrick from the start, when he has shown in the past he is a last 15-20 minute smash & grab substitute.

    2; Why does Stuart stand by playing Law? His return signing was a step back in time & a waste of a more effective player in the midfield. But then again Jake Reeves said it all in his programme interview (Team Mates) – “Nicky Law, The gaffer loves him to bits”.

    It is time to start getting tough with the team selection & stop loving the playing staff, start giving them the hard line talking to they may or obviously deserve.

    • 1. Both of Omari’s goals to date came in games he started. In fact I’m struggling to think of him coming on and making a strong impact as sub. I think you also have to question who else he could have started given injuries to Poleon and Taylor. Given McCall’s comments on Jones after the game, it doesn’t sound like he had much choice.

      2. I think that’s harsh. Law hasn’t played well of late and struggled back end of last season, but at other times his quality has shone through and he has proven his worth. I also don’t think a jokey comment in the matchday programme should be given any weight. McCall has left Law out in the past and I’m sure will do so again if his form continues to dip.

      I totally agree it is time to get tough with team selection, but without five first teamers McCall was hardly flush with options. It’s down to players in reserve to push those in the first team – do we really see that happening? I would say at this moment we’re not.

  9. I have no problem whatsoever with Stuart starting with Patrick particularly given the constraints caused by injuries etc. Where I do have an issue is not replacing him earlier when clearly he was having an indifferent game. And, relatedly, if there is little prospect of Jones playing because of ‘issues’ in training etc., why put him on the bench ?

  10. I would not settle for the play offs again this season. I think we should be using the Wells money in January to go for automatic promotion. Wigan will be hard to catch, but I can see Shrewsbury doing a Scunthorpe and start fading when injuries kick in.

  11. Interesting to see which of the out of contract players in June 2018 have been offered contract extensions and which ones haven’t.

    I think Doyle should be offered one. Even if we go up then he would at least be a solid number two. I think we need an upgrade on Nicky Law who flatters to deceive. Law and Reeves look too similar and neither look like scoring.

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