By Adam Raj
A game that was billed by both clubs as a six pointer and even a “cup final” by Walsall boss Dean Keates, has ultimately ended in utter despair for the Bantams. At the start of the day, Walsall were two points ahead of City, having played the same number of games. A win would have seen us overtake the Saddlers and move up to a potential 17th spot (depending on results elsewhere), yet a miserable defeat leaves us where we started the day, second from bottom and three points from safety – and it could well become a bigger gap when Shrewsbury and Bristol Rovers play their games in hand.
A defeat was unthinkable today, given our position and horrendous looking March fixture list. It was imperative we gained three points to give ourselves some form of insurance for the run ahead. The game couldn’t have started any better for City. Andy Cook, Walsall’s top scorer with 16 goals, flew into a challenge with Nathaniel Knight-Percival with his elbow raised and referee Brett Huxtable had no option but give the striker his marching orders.
It was a massive boost for City, which they quickly capitalised on. Good work from Jack Payne down the right hand side of the box produced a great cross for Eoin Doyle to net his ninth goal of the season with a free header into the far bottom corner.
So far, so good for the Bantams, who remained in control of the game for the next 30 minutes. The busy Jacob Butterfield was at the centre of everything. Whilst in control, City never threatened the Walsall goal again in the first half, only racking up one shot on target in the first period. That was to prove our undoing, as in the 42nd minute, Walsall winger Matt Jarvis was halted by Paul Caddis only to create a scramble in the box, in which neither David Ball, nor Knight-Percival cleared the ball. It left striker Josh Gordon to fire past former Walsall keeper Richard O’Donnell. It was a poor time to concede and gave Walsall a lift and something to hold onto.
It was arguably the biggest half time team talk that David Hopkin has had to give all season – a season defining fifteen minutes, and ultimately it failed. Minutes after the second half started and City were unbelievably behind for the first time in the game. Knight-Percival was dragged out of position into the left back area and Adam Chicksen allowed far too much time for a cross to be delivered. Matt Jarvis powered a header onto the crossbar, and Joe Edwards was given the freedom of Walsall to plant the rebound into the bottom corner. A cheap cross and a cheap goal, but ultimately more appalling defending.
This goal in particular highlighted the biggest two defensive weaknesses City have had all season – failure to stop crosses and being too slow to react to second ball situations.
An instant reaction was needed from City to give us any chance of getting the essential three points, and it arrived nine minutes later through skipper Anthony O’Connor. Billy Clarke’s quick thinking from a corner picked out Lewis O’Brien, who’s strike was parried by keeper Liam Roberts straight into the path of O’Connor, who had an easy tap in. Game on, and City really had to up the intensity and throw the kitchen sink at Walsall.
But instead, it was the home side who retook the lead. A corner conceded far too easily by Knight-Percival was flicked in at the near post by Gordon for his second of the game. Another cross, another goal.
City and the under pressure David Hopkin had no answer. The build up play was far too slow, far too safe and far too easy for Walsall to deal with. Even then, we still created enough chances to win about five games, but poor finishing and some excellent last ditch defending meant that City would come away from the Midlands with zero points. Simply, an unacceptable result given our predicament.
Frankly, it’s hard to argue that Walsall didn’t want it more than City today, and that’s what really hurts. We were far too soft, weak and gutless when it mattered. You’d be hard pressed to find a softer centre half partnership in the country than O’Connor and Knight-Percival. But that’s not to say Hopkin should get away Scot free, far from it.
His tactics since the away fixture at Barnsley have been bizarre to say the least. The frustrating and totally inappropriate hoofball seems to have vanished over the last game and a half thankfully, but worryingly, so has the high press which served us so well during that run in December.
Today, just like previous weeks we were far too narrow and crying out for some width and pace. January was a period in which Hopkin himself stated he wanted a winger, yet none arrived – instead more attacking midfielders in Billy Clarke and Jermaine Anderson came. Whilst January is a notoriously tough month to sign players, especially in our position, I find it hard to believe there were no wingers available. So we are left with an attacking trio with very little pace and ultimately no width, leaving us far too predictable and one dimensional.
Today was a defensive spectacle worthy of the Benny Hill music which boomed out of the PR system at the Banks’ stadium at half time. Walsall hadn’t scored in six hours and were minus their top scorer for 84 minutes, and we still managed to concede three. Utterly dreadful and amateurish defending from experienced professionals.
Questions have to be asked of David Hopkin as to why a defence which he’s had nearly six months to work with is still so poor and conceding so many goals. And if he doesn’t rate them as individual players, why weren’t adequate defensive reinforcements acquired in January? An upgrade on the left hand side of our defence (Knight Percival and Chicksen) was crucial to our survival, yet we signed a injury prone left back who unsurprisingly only took a game and a half to pick up an injury, and a centre half who appears to be no better than Knight-Percival.
I appreciate Hopkin’s hands were tied to an extent but we had funds available and just like in the summer, we seem to have spent it on the wrong type of player and the wrong individuals.
Post match, Hopkin talks about making changes for the Portsmouth game next week. However any changes are likely to weaken what was arguably our strongest (and I use the phrase lightly) side. By the end of next month, after trips to Portsmouth and Charlton as well as home visits from Peterborough and table toppers Luton, we could well be dead and buried.
It’s hard to imagine us picking up any points from these fixtures, which could ultimately lead to a gap opening up between us and the other sides at the wrong end of the table. From what has been served up this season, once that gap opens up, I’m afraid it’s curtains for us.