By Jason McKeown
In the 86th minute, the Bradford City substitute Sean Scannell was fed the ball in a wide area, and had the space to run at his man and whip in a cross. The ball he produced was woeful. Sailing high and over the bar. And with it the last, lagging ray of hope disappeared from City’s season.
Relegation beckons now. It’s something that has been firmly on the cards for weeks. But then the sudden return from injury of Scannell – last summer’s stellar signing, after all, who last featured exactly six months ago – reopened a faint glimmer of optimism. Out of sight, you clutch straws at the idea Scannell could turn the club around, ignoring the fact he is human and needs time to get his sharpness.
He was getting ready to come on from the bench with City on top in a scoreless game, and with results elsewhere offering the Bantams the opportunity to reduce the gap to safety, if they could find a winner. But by the time Scannell was stripped and ready for action, Doncaster had scored.
And so from the cusp of victory, Bradford City were beaten for a 25th time this campaign. And if you’re still bothering to check, the deficit to 20th is now seven points. There are only 15 left to play for. It isn’t over. But yeah, it is over. Relegation is now just a question of when.
It was a harsh defeat this time. The huge questions about the players’ commitment was answered here to a point, as they at least went down fighting. They were excellent in the second half, pinning their play off-chasing opponents back in their own half for long periods. The Valley Parade crowd loudly roared on the team, as they huffed and puffed for the all important goal.
But the application was once again found wanting at the crucial moments. City had the ball on the edge of the Doncaster box. Billy Clarke needed to take the opportunity to shoot. He paused. The chance went away. Doncaster eventually broke, with Mallik Wilks left with the one-on-one chance to run at Nathaniel Knight-Percival. Wilks shot early, seemingly catching out Richard O’Donnell. The ball squirmed under the keeper and into the net. Welcome to League Two.
If that proves to be the final nail in the coffin, it will be apt. O’Donnell should have saved the effort from Wilks. City shot themselves in the foot. It is the story of the 2018/19 season. Bradford City are going down when they shouldn’t be. This all looked so preventable.
O’Donnell had looked shaky all afternoon, as though something was weighing on his game. Rash clearances. Unconvincing punches for crosses he could have caught. Wilks’ shot was Doncaster’s only effort on target all afternoon. The only major thing O’Donnell had to do, and he failed.
Not that Doncaster were without their own merits. The visitors shaded the first half. They survived the early scare of Eoin Doyle’s header hitting the post to take control of the game, leaving much of the opening 45 minutes akin to a training ground game of defence vs attack. In the centre of midfield Ali Crawford looks a real prospect. Whilst the ever-green James Coppinger – amazingly still going strong at 38 – was a joy to watch.
Everything about Doncaster was centred on getting the ball up the dangerous John Marquis. But City marshalled him very well. Paudie O’Connor was picked ahead of Anthony O’Connor, and more than justified his selection with a man of the match display. Knight-Percival was decent alongside him. As usual he made one poor error in gifting the ball away in a bad area, but he recovered his mistake with an excellent block.
The 4-3-3 formation City deployed matched Doncaster’s similar system, but it wasn’t until Gary Bowyer’s half time team talk that the Bantams displayed an effective attacking tempo. They emerged from the dressing room fired up and took the game to Doncaster. David Ball’s excellent run and powerful low shot, which just missed the target, was an early statement of greater intent.
Jacob Butterfield came alive and began to dictate the game, whilst Lewis O’Brien pushed further forward to press and harry. And though Doyle was a little slow in reacting to opportunities, the attacking threat grew and grew. Ball and Clarke kept swapping positions so they were more difficult to track.
Alas, it was Doncaster who struck against the run of play. And as usual City couldn’t respond to falling behind. They initially kept their energy, with the introduction of Scannell and Jack Payne from the bench lifting the crowd’s sagging spirits. But after that moment where Scannell crossed the ball high and wide, belief began to ebb away.
Bowyer’s persistence with Jermaine Anderson has not been without justification – City need a ball winner – but the former Doncaster midfielder’s wretched performance has now pushed that concept to breaking point. The quip at half time was this had been Anderson’s best game of the season – for Doncaster. He must surely be benched at Bristol Rovers next week. It is time to give Danny Devine a chance.
There was a good reception from the fans to the players at full time and rightly so. They at least didn’t fold like that did last time out at home to Blackpool. They fought to the end, even if belief had drained before the seven minutes of stoppage time. They didn’t deserve to lose this time. And for that at least they merit a shred of respect.
But it is small, small crumbs of comfort. Relegation is coming soon. And it now feels a case of steeling yourself for the actual moment. Of facing up to the reality of trips to Morecambe, Cambridge and Newport next season.
There really is nothing left to cling onto now. Any hope of a miracle just flew over the bar.