By Jason McKeown
And now it really is over. When Nat Knight-Percival fired home Jacob Butterfield’s cross to make the score 2-2 late on, there were five minutes of injury time to find a winner that would reduce the gap to safety to six points. Risks were taken, but there was no reward. Jonson Clarke-Harris struck for Bristol Rovers. A sixth straight defeat all but brings to an end six years in League One for Bradford City.
Relegation could be confirmed by 5pm on Good Friday. Or it could be drawn out until Easter Monday’s home game with Gillingham. Either way, League Two beckons for the Bantams. And despite how inevitable that has felt for weeks, this team still find a way of making it painful.
Because just like last week’s loss to Doncaster, this was an undeserved defeat. The players had a real go here. Dominating for large spells. They had a nervy Bristol Rovers side on the ropes, wilting under the pressure of disgruntled home fans. But they couldn’t make their dominance count. And as usual, conceded too easily.
There has been a response from the players since the Blackpool disgrace. They are showing signs of buying into Gary Bowyer. They’re more organised. Have a shape. They’re working hard on and off the ball. Yet ultimately, it’s a familiar story of poor application leading to defeat. Bad decisions in both penalty areas, undermining their progress.
And that has sped up the impending relegation. The fight that the team is now showing is too little too late. It is hard to take solace in crumbs of comfort. Especially when you’re on defeat 26 of the season.
Bowyer set the team up well here. Sean Scannell was judged fit enough to start after his injury issues and Josh Wright was a shock inclusion. In possession City were 4-2-3-1, but when they didn’t have the ball reverted to 4-5-1. Scannell and the returning Jack Payne worked back to maintain a shape. Bristol Rovers, who played a 4-4-2, struggled to attack with purpose.
With the workrate off the ball matched with a commitment to attack in numbers and support Eoin Doyle, the opening 38 minutes was the best City have produced since their December purple patch. They took the lead after good work from Payne allowed Lewis O’Brien to seize on hesitant defending and finish smartly. Bristol Rovers struggled to get out of their own half. If only the City dominance had led to a second goal.
For out of little Rovers equalised. The impressive Liam Sercombe had got a long range volley effort on target that Richard O’Donnell – initially wrong footed – made a meal of stopping and he conceded a corner. Clarke-Harris charged in to head home an equaliser from that set piece. Poor defending undermining all that had been so good about the Bantams.
Whilst not hitting the same heights, City dusted themselves off to take the game to Bristol Rovers again in the second half. Scannell had a superb game, demonstrating what he could have offered had a back injury not ruled him out for six months. Pace, trickery and smart decision making. A fit Scannell all season could have made a difference. He ran himself into the ground, eventually having to go off in the 72nd minute.
A moment before he did, Ollie Clarke had put Bristol Rovers in front with a decent long range effort that O’Donnell might have dealt with better. Behind for the first time, we initially got the usual poor reaction from City. But they regrouped and pushed hard in the closing stages. Knight-Percival’s late equaliser was the least they deserved.
At that stage, with the gap to safety still eight points, Bowyer had to go for the win. Paudie O’Connor – terrific again – was pushed up front. They attacked in numbers. A 2-2 draw would have stopped the rot, but wouldn’t save City from certain relegation. Bowyer rolled the dice hoping for a 6, only to land a 1.
Clarke-Harris slammed home the winner on the counter attack to break hearts. It was his 11th goal in 11 games since signing in the transfer window. That substitute Billy Clarke – City’s own January striker signing – wasted one last chance for the visitors was symbolic. At the time of Clarke-Harris’ January arrival at the Memorial Ground, Bristol Rovers sat below City in the league. He saved their season. Clarke has yet to score for the Bantams since his return. He is not the reason we are going down, but his return to Valley Parade hasn’t worked out so far.
Speaking to us on the radio after the game, Bowyer looked shell shocked and struggled for words. He was furious at the defending. Quite rightly, he has had to keep up the talk of fighting for survival. But this latest set back seems to have robbed him of that belief. It really now is all about preparing for next season.
If there is a consolation for Bowyer, the players gave him everything here. Wright made a slow start, but grew into the game and showed he could still have something to offer. Paul Caddis is a player to fight to keep in the summer. Lewis O’Brien is a credit to himself. Although Doyle struggled after half time, this was a day when most players performed well.
But it was all in vain. And the lights are going out on City’s League One dream. Bristol was the city where the third tier adventure had all began for Bradford City. It was Saturday 3 August 2013, Bristol City away. A late Rory McArdle header earned us a 2-2 draw and sparked jubilant scenes in the packed away end. It was a really exciting time to be a Bradford City fan.
What hopes and dreams we had back then. And what a ride the six years in League One have proven to be. But now, 2079 days later and five miles from Ashton Gate, Bristol is one of the final stop offs in Bradford City’s journey to League Two. Reality bites. Sharply.
Still, the brilliance and curse of football is that it never ends. This is not the finale of Bradford City, it’s just the last page of a difficult but short chapter in our history. Gary Bowyer can now start writing the next one, largely from a blank page.
The magnificent response to season tickets for next season demonstrates the loyalty of Bradfordians – and the faith that remains in a brighter future. We’ll suck up a bit more pain yet soon move on from relegation. It might take a while, but the sun will shine on Bradford City again.