Bradford City seasons re-reviewed: 2016/17

Billy Clarke

Image by Thomas Gadd

By Nikhil Vekaria 

Final league position: 5th (W20, D19, L7)
Manager: Stuart McCall
Top scorer: Charlie Wyke (25 – 7 for City, 18 for Carlisle) / Jordi Hiwula (12)
Player of the season: Mark Marshall

Background:

The Bantams entered the 2016/17 season on the back of a successful campaign in 2015/16, albeit one which ultimately ended in heartbreak and a play-off semi-final defeat at the hands of Millwall.

The summer was to bring major change to the very fabric of the club, as Stefan Rupp and Edin Rahic took over from Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn.

Rahic made the decision to relocate to England with his family. Rupp, the majority investor, took a more hands-off approach and remained in Germany, although he did travel to West Yorkshire regularly over the course of the season. The new owners explained how they had considered many different clubs in England, but Bradford City had stood out to them the most, due to its potential and fanbase. The takeover was generally met with cautious optimism by the majority of supporters, who were excited to see what ambitions the new German ownership had for the club.

Just a couple of weeks after the takeover, there was to be more major change, as it was announced that manager Phil Parkinson had left to join League One rivals Bolton after five years in charge at Valley Parade. Despite a couple of sticky patches, Parkinson had been hugely successful during his time with the club, achieving promotion from League Two after six seasons in the basement division, as well as masterminding unforgettable cup runs to the League Cup final and the FA Cup quarter finals during his reign.

Parkinson did confirm that the decision to move to Bolton was due to his personal hunger for a new challenge, rather than the new ownership and left the club on good terms. However, his departure still left Rahic and Rupp with a major decision to make very early in their ownership. Perhaps wary of keeping the fans on side, they decided to bring in club icon Stuart McCall back to West Yorkshire, for his second full-time stint as manager.

McCall had been out of management since a spell in charge of Rangers in 2015, but had since spent time working as a coach for the Scotland national team under Gordon Strachan.

Stuart McCall

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

The story of the season:

The season began with a cautious optimism surrounding Valley Parade. Despite the summer changes, the team had fallen just short of promotion in 2015/16 and the squad arguably looked just as strong after the summer window as it had the previous campaign.

City began the season with a drab 0-0 draw at home to Port Vale, before being knocked out of the EFL Cup on penalties to a 10-man Accrington Stanley after another 0-0 draw.

However, City sealed their first win of the new era with a superb 1-0 victory at Peterborough, thanks to Jordi Hiwula’s first goal for the club, a header from a Tony McMahon cross. Josh Cullen made his ‘second debut’ for The Bantams and was imperious throughout, running the game from midfield. At the back, McCall opted for a flat four, with new signings Romain Vincelot and Nathaniel Knight-Percival impressively keeping a Peterborough side that included Marcus Maddison quiet.

The victory was followed up with an away win at MK Dons on the Tuesday night, before a first home win of the campaign followed with a 3-1 success against Coventry City.

A run of five successive league draws would follow, including one away at Bolton, which was City’s first game against Phil Parkinson since his move across the Pennines. This run of results was a sign of things to come as the points lost in draws would arguably define the season, although City were still unbeaten in late September and sat fourth in League One, with 15 points from nine games.

The team bounced back with a 2-1 home victory over Fleetwood Town, following this up with a 1-0 win away at Chesterfield and a 2-0 win against Shrewsbury Town – a 2-1 FL Trophy win against Bury wedged in-between meant City had now won four on the bounce.

A first league defeat eventually came away at Oxford United on October 15, as a late Chris Maguire free kick resulted in a 1-0 loss, with Romain Vincelot having a huge shout for a penalty turned down just moments later.

Image by Thomas Gadd copyright Bradford City)

That first defeat was followed up by two successive home draws, firstly against Southend United, before a 3-3 thriller in a pulsating Yorkshire derby against eventual champions Sheffield United, one of the best games at Valley Parade in recent seasons.

In a game that ebbed and flowed throughout at a packed Valley Parade, Billy Sharp gave The Blades the lead after 18 minutes, before Billy Clarke hit back 10 minutes before the break. Mark Duffy then linked up with Sharp again to regain the lead for the South Yorkshire club, before goals from Hiwula and Dieng turned it round and gave City the lead for the first time with just over 20 minutes to go. However, Chris Basham bagged another just four minutes later and despite Hiwula hitting the bar with a late chance, both sides had to settle for a point.

Suddenly, City had gone three games without a win, taking just two points from a possible nine. Despite this, they remained second in League One, although the Blades, Bolton and Bristol Rovers all had a game in hand.

City bounced back from their slight dip in form with a 3-2 come from behind victory at AFC Wimbledon, with James Hanson scoring in the 78th and 92nd minute as City turned the game around.

This meant that going into November, The Bantams had lost just once in the league all season. Two successive cup defeats would follow, a 2-1 loss at home to Accrington Stanley meaning the League Two club had knocked City out of both major cup competitions, with a 3-2 defeat at Morecambe in the Football League Trophy following shortly after.

However, City bounced back in the league with a 4-0 thumping of Rochdale at Valley Parade. November turned out to be a topsy-turvy month, as that victory was followed by a 3-0 defeat away at Southend, a 1-0 win at home to Northampton Town and a 1-0 defeat at Swindon Town. Despite the ups and downs of the month, City headed into the festive period well placed in fourth and five points behind second placed Bolton, meaning the automatic promotion spots were still a very real possibility.

Picture by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Heading into December, the division was beginning to take shape. Sheffield United occupied third spot between Phil Parkinson’s new and old clubs, but a game in hand meant they had it in their control to go second. Scunthorpe United were top after a superb start to the season, whilst Rochdale and Peterborough made up the play-off places. However, there were just five points between Posh in sixth and 16th placed Northampton Town, meaning a whole host of clubs, including Fleetwood, Millwall and Charlton, still harboured very realistic play-off ambitions.

However, City would look back on December with regret come the end of the season. A month that began as a real opportunity with three home league games fizzled out, as The Bantams limped to four successive draws, with Charlton, Walsall, Scunthorpe and Bury. Despite bouncing back and beginning the new year with a late come from behind win at Northampton and a comfortable 2-0 home victory over Chesterfield, eight points dropped in December was a missed opportunity for City, as a busy festive period took its toll.

The rest of January was a mixed bag in the league, with a poor 1-0 loss at Shrewsbury leaving City fourth, 10 points behind Scunthorpe in second. This defeat followed by a draw at home with Millwall and an away win at Oldham Athletic. The month ended with City being knocked out of the EFL Trophy after a 2-1 defeat at Oxford United at the quarter final stage – in a game that was rearranged after the first was called off due to a frozen pitch just 20 minutes before kick-off.

City would also have a difficult February, drawing at home to Gillingham and away at Bristol Rovers, before surrendering a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1 at Fleetwood Town on a cold Valentine’s night.

However, there was no time to reflect on that defeat, with Phil Parkinson set to return to Valley Parade for the first time as Bolton boss.

Image by Thomas Gadd

Wanderers began the game with a six-point cushion over City, who by now had just a two-point gap between themselves and seventh-placed Southend United. City flew out of the blocks and two early Charlie Wyke goals meant that The Bantams led 2-0 after just 16 minutes. However, Bolton fought back in the second-half in front of a bumper Valley Parade crowd and packed away end, as David Wheater and Gary Madine earned Parkinson a point on his return to West Yorkshire.

City bounced back well from the disappointment of letting their lead slip, winning four of the next six, including a late Alex Jones winner at his former loan club Port Vale. The last of these six games was a superb come from behind win at home to struggling Swindon Town, with Charlie Wyke scoring in the 85th and 91st minute to secure an important victory.

This meant that City travelled to Scunthorpe in late March just three points from the automatic promotion places, albeit having played two more than second-placed Bolton. The trip to Glanford Park was moved to Sunday afternoon for TV coverage and City’s clash with fifth-placed Scunny, who had slightly faded after a superb start, was not to disappoint.

Ivan Toney gave Scunthorpe the lead after just three minutes, but City turned the game around quickly – a rare goal from Aston Villa loanee Kevin Toner and a strike from Alex Jones meaning The Bantams led after just 16 minutes. However, a second from Toney and a late header from Matt Crooks sealed victory for Scunthorpe and realistically ended any hope that City might have had of sneaking into the automatic spots – the gap to Bolton was now nine points with just six games to go, and Wanderers had a game in hand.

Again, McCall’s men showed their character, bouncing back from defeat in style. Three wins on the bounce followed against Walsall, Bury and then Oxford. The Good Friday clash was decided by a winner from Nicky Law on his first start since February after a period out with a knee injury. This meant that going into an Easter Monday trip to Sheffield United, City were four points behind second placed Bolton with three to go, although Wanderers still had a game in hand.

However, City were blown away by a superb Sheffield United side that had sealed a return to the second tier after a six-year absence with a 2-1 victory at Northampton Town on Good Friday. Despite their success, The Blades didn’t take their foot off the gas, as Chris Wilder’s men put on a show for the home fans. Two goals from Leon Clarke and one from Billy Sharp meant that the game was done by half-time, a dull second-half meant it finished 3-0.

By now, City knew they were destined for the League One play-offs for a second season in a row. They confirmed an impressive unbeaten home league season with a 3-0 hammering of AFC Wimbledon, before a 1-1 draw away at Rochdale wrapped things up.

This meant that the campaign ended with City finishing fifth in League One with 79 points, one point worse off and in the same league position as the previous campaign.

An unbeaten season at Valley Parade and just seven league defeats in total undoubtedly marked an impressive campaign, especially when considering the huge change around the club the previous summer.

However, despite playing some superb football over the course of the past nine months, the frustration of 19 draws was hard to get away from and ultimately meant City never fully threatened the automatic places or troubled Sheffield United and Bolton, the league’s impressive top two.

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

The club were joined in the play-offs by Scunthorpe United, Fleetwood Town and Millwall, who had snuck in over Southend United by a point. Having finished one place above City in the regular season, Fleetwood got the benefit of playing the second leg of the play-off semi-final at home.

The first leg was played in front of just over 15,000 at Valley Parade, on the evening of Thursday 4 May. City were by far the better side, having dominating possession and threatening Fleetwood’s goal throughout the game. However, it looked like Uwe Rosler’s men might take a clean sheet back to the Fylde Coast, until club stalwart Rory McArdle headed home a Tony McMahon corner in the 77th minute to win it for City.

This meant that The Bantams took a narrow advantage to Highbury, with the second leg coming on the Sunday, just days after the first. In a game that never really got going, Fleetwood struggled to create any real opportunities and a solid defensive performance meant City held on for a 1-0 aggregate win.

In the other semi-final, Steve Morison starred as Millwall won 3-2 away at Scunthorpe, after a 0-0 draw in the first leg in east London. This meant that City would face the side who had defeated them in the previous seasons play-off semi finals at Wembley for a place in the Championship.

There was a truly special feel to the day, as City fans got to see club legend Stuart McCall lead his side out at Wembley, with a long-awaited return to the second tier potentially just 90 minutes away. City set up for the game with the three at the back system that had served them well throughout the campaign and controlled the first half. The Bantams regularly found space in between Millwall’s midfield and defence but struggled to create clear-cut chances against the side who had lost the play-off final to Barnsley a year earlier.

Image by Thomas Gadd

For all the possession City had in good areas, their only real chance fell to Billy Clarke, who was superbly denied by Jordan Archer in The Lions’ goal. Millwall came out stronger in the second half and Jed Wallace came close to giving them the lead, whilst City, despite having more of the ball, slowly faded away and offered less of a threat. Then, in the 85th minute, came the sucker punch.

Wallace delivered a ball in from the left-hand side, which was flicked on by Lee Gregory and poked in by Steve Morison, the man who had been so influential in Millwall’s semi-final triumph. This left City with too much to do and The Lions held on, once again ending a successful season for The Bantams in heart breaking fashion.

As the final whistle blew and some Millwall fans streamed onto the Wembley pitch, City’s players slumped to the hallowed turf after falling just short. It was a painful end to the campaign and to some players’ time at the club – player of the season Mark Marshall, the superb Josh Cullen and left back James Meredith were three of those who never played for The Bantams again.

Ultimately, the lack of final product and cutting-edge cost City in the first half – a story which summed up the season.

The team:

Despite the off-field changes that occurred over the summer, McCall inherited a strong squad, who had fallen just short of promotion the season before.

In goal, Ben Williams left to join Bury, despite breaking City’s record for the number of clean sheets in a season the previous year. His replacement was Colin Doyle, signed for the unusual fee of £1 from Blackpool. Doyle proved to be a solid replacement and was regularly called up to the Republic of Ireland squad during his time at Valley Parade.

Rouven Sattelmaier was brought in from Stuttgart Kickers as back-up to Doyle, the first signing of the Rahic and Rupp era that had an undeniable stamp from the owners on it. However, he struggled when his opportunities came and never seriously threatened Doyle’s position as first-choice.

In defence, Tony McMahon remained the first choice at right-back, ahead of history maker Stephen Darby. On the left-hand side, City crucially managed to retain the services of James Meredith, arguably the best left-back in the division and a player who had been frequently linked with various moves away from West Yorkshire over the last couple of seasons.

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Defenders Alan Sheehan and Greg Leigh both left the club at the end of the season, whilst McCall dipped into the market to bring in Nathaniel Knight-Percival from Shrewsbury Town and Matt Kilgallon from Blackburn Rovers. Young defender Jacob Hanson also came into the club from local rivals Huddersfield Town in January.

Another key defensive signing was Romain Vincelot, brought in from Coventry City for an undisclosed fee. Vincelot had forged a strong reputation in the lower leagues, albeit mainly as a defensive midfielder.

However, McCall tactically switched throughout the season, often using a system with three centre-backs, whilst McMahon and Meredith were asked to play as wingbacks on either side. In this system, the experienced Vincelot dropped into the defence and played as the central defender of the three, with McArdle and Knight-Percival on either side of him. The Frenchman also captained City throughout the campaign, as club captain Stephen Darby struggled for game time at right-back and his versatility was important throughout, with the Frenchman moving up to play alongside Josh Cullen in central midfield when McCall opted to play a 4-4-2 system.

Kilgallon was mainly used as the back-up central defender, but also played at left-back on regular occasions throughout the season when Meredith was unavailable. Young defenders Matt Penney and Kevin Toner came in on loan deals from Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa respectively, but both struggled to make an impact. Penney did go on to make an impression at Wednesday, but has since signed on for German second division side FC St.Pauli on loan.

Image by Thomas Gadd

In midfield, City crucially extended the loan signing of Josh Cullen from West Ham United, after a hugely impressive stint at Valley Parade since signing the previous January. McCall also opted to bring in personal favourite Nicky Law, whilst Tim Dieng was signed from Oldham as a relative unknown, albeit with decent league experience behind him. Dieng would go on to be a useful option and played regularly throughout the season, although he never quite nailed down a spot as one of the first-choice midfielders.

Billy Knott left the club to join Gillingham, but homegrown youngster Danny Devine would make an impact over the course of the campaign, making 19 appearances, including a strong run of starts at the beginning of the season.

One player who remained at the club was Mark Marshall, a pacey winger who had struggled to make any impact in his limited playing time under Phil Parkinson the season before. However, Marshall turned into a different player under McCall and over the course of the campaign, was one of City’s key men, causing real issues for full backs throughout the division with his pace and trickery.

However, balance in midfield was an issue throughout the campaign, as City lacked width on the left-hand side, despite Marshall being a shoo-in on the right. This meant that for much of the season, Nicky Law played as a left midfielder who tucked in, with James Meredith playing as a wingback in the three centre-back system. City had also allowed Paul Anderson, another wide option, to leave the club in August.

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

In the three at the back system, McCall opted to play with two deeper central midfielders, often choosing to play Dieng or Law alongside Cullen. Law still played out on the left occasionally, although Huddersfield loanee Jordi Hiwula also regularly fulfilled this role.

Despite this tactical flexibility and the loan signing of Alex Gillead from Newcastle in January, the lack of an out and out winger on the left-hand side was a source of frustration throughout the campaign, as The Bantams struggled to replicate the impact of Marshall on the opposite flank. Filipe Morais, another wide option, left in February to join up with Parkinson at Bolton.

This frustration wasn’t helped by the superb form of Josh Morris, who left to join league rivals Scunthorpe on a free transfer in the summer. He went on to score 20 goals from the left-hand side of midfield and was included in the EFL Team of the Season.

Despite playing out wide on occasion, Hiwula was initially brought in as a forward option, as opposed to an out and out wide man. Jamie Proctor was another who followed Parkinson across the Pennines to sign for Bolton, but City did move to bring in Vincent Rabiega from RB Leipzig II, another example of the club’s new German connection. However, he failed to make the grade and looked well below the required level whenever he did get a rare opportunity. McCall also brought in Marc McNulty and Haris Vuckic on loan over the first half of the season, but neither had any real impact and they returned to their parent clubs in January.

Image by Thomas Gadd copyright Bradford City)

Billy Clarke was still at the club and despite naturally being more of an attacking midfielder, often played up front throughout the campaign, particularly when McCall opted for a 4-4-2 system. Clarke’s versatility was valuable as it meant he could drop deeper and offer City the chance to become a 4-5-1 in games when required. City’s other striking option was stalwart James Hanson, who was now into his seventh season with the club. Between Hanson, Clarke and Hiwula, McCall had three varied options and this allowed him to experiment tactically.

January was to bring major changes though, as Hanson left and joined promotion rivals Sheffield United. Although he was sometimes a divisive figure amongst some fans, he left Valley Parade as one of the highest-scorers in Bradford City history, with 91 goals in 335 appearances since his £7,500 move from Guiseley in 2009. His final goal in a City shirt came with a typical thumping header in a 1-0 win against Northampton Town on Tuesday 22 November 2016.

City had already moved earlier in the window to strengthen up top, bringing in young striker Alex Jones from Birmingham City. Jones, just 22 at the time of the move, came to Valley Parade on the back of 10 goals in 21 appearances during a loan spell at a struggling Port Vale side. He also offered valuable versatility, with many of his goals for Vale coming from the right-hand side of a front three.

However, Hanson’s departure left City short of a traditional number nine and on deadline day, The Bantams moved to sign Charlie Wyke from League Two Carlisle United for an undisclosed fee on a two-and-a-half-year deal. A physical striker with an eye for goal, the 24-year-old had enjoyed a hugely successful campaign with The Cumbrians, scoring 18 goals in just over half a season, including 13 in his last 16 appearances.

He went on to score seven goals for City over the course of the season, taking his tally across the campaign to 25, and becoming one of the first names on the team sheet after inheriting the number nine shirt from Hanson.

Image by Thomas Gadd

Elsewhere:

In the Premier League, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea won the title, with the Italian marking his first year in charge with perhaps unexpected success, racking up an impressive 93 points and winning the league by seven from second placed Tottenham Hotspur. Manchester City and Liverpool completed the Champions League places, with Arsenal missing out on Europe’s premier competition for the first time since 1997.

At the other end of the Premier League, Hull City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland were relegated, whilst Arsenal won the FA Cup for a record 13th time and Manchester United won the League Cup.

In the Championship, both Newcastle United and Brighton and Hove Albion enjoyed superb seasons, with Newcastle eventually winning the title by a point. In the play-offs, Huddersfield Town sealed promotion to the Premier League for the first time in their history with a penalty shoot-out win at Wembley after a 0-0 draw with Reading. At the other end of the table, Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Rotherham United were relegated and would be joining City in League One next season.

Millwall’s play-off final victory over The Bantams meant that they joined Sheffield United and Phil Parkinson’s Bolton in gaining promotion to the second tier, whilst Port Vale, Swindon Town, Coventry City and Chesterfield dropped out of League One and into the bottom tier.

In League Two, Portsmouth finally began looking upwards again as they sealed the title on goal difference from Plymouth Argyle, with Doncaster Rovers sealing the third automatic promotion spot. A Blackpool side led by a certain Gary Bowyer sealed promotion with a play-off final victory over Exeter City whilst Hartlepool United and Leyton Orient dropped out of the football league.

Lincoln City won the Conference to return to the football league, whilst Forest Green Rovers won the play-offs to reach League Two for the very first time. In Europe, Real Madrid thumped Juventus 4-1 in the Champions League final in Cardiff, whilst Manchester United beat Ajax in the Europa League final in Stockholm.

Five 2016/17 league gems:

  • An August 3-1 home victory over Coventry City to seal a third successive win, meant City had 10 points from a possible 12 to start the season
  • A 2-0 home win over Shrewsbury on October 8 included Nicky Law’s first goal since his summer return from Rangers and stretched an impressive unbeaten run since the start of the season to 12 games. City had a four-point gap to the third place Bury and were only a point behind leaders Scunthorpe
  • After a three-game winless run, including a first defeat of the season away at Oxford, James Hanson scores two late goals, including a 92nd minute winner, as City return to winning ways away at AFC Wimbledon
  • A 2-1 away win at Port Vale in February ended a five-game winless streak, as Alex Jones returned to haunt the club he’d scored 10 goals in half a season for on loan
  • A 3-0 home win against AFC Wimbledon in April sealed an unbeaten league season at Valley Parade and meant that the mood around the club was positive going into a second successive League One Play Off campaign


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