By Jason McKeown
Bradford City’s much-needed victory at Colchester United on Saturday completely put to bed any tiny remaining doubt about their Football League status. And the nudging up of the points tally to 51 has some interesting historical significance too.
The last time Bradford City were promoted from League Two, in 2012/13, they also had 51 points after 36 matches. Eight years ago, at this point, the Bantams were one place better than they currently are. But they were trailing seventh-place Exeter by nine points, with a game in hand.
League game 37 of that historic campaign actually saw the Bantams travel to Exeter. They were woefully defeated 4-1 at St. James Park, seemingly ending their play off hopes. But after winning five and drawing three of their remaining games – coupled with Exeter losing six of their final seven – the Bantams stole in to claim the final play off spot.
Can the class of 2021 also make history?
The state of play
With 10 rounds of fixtures to go, City currently trail 7th place Newport County by six points. A gap comparable to 2012/13, given this time the Bantams don’t have a game in hand. With sixth-placed Morecambe five points ahead of Newport – and 11 above City – it appears there is really only one play off spot left to grab. At least for outsiders like City, who still have some ground to make up.
It is a congested middle of League Two. If City had lost on Saturday, they would be down in 15th now. They’re currently tied on 51 points with Crawley and Salford just above them, with in-form Leyton Orient having leapt to 9th on 53 points, and our old friends Exeter sat in 8th on 56.
City won’t be the only club looking at what’s going on just above them and sensing opportunity.
Newport’s grip on that final play off spot looks far from convincing. Having topped the table for a large part of the season, they went on a run of just two wins in 15 that saw they slump badly. Michael Flynn’s men did then win three in a row – including the recent 2-1 success over City – but County have now lost their last two.
Flynn labelled their last performance, a 1-0 loss to Leyton Orient, “embarrassing”. Adding, “The decision-making in the final third was mind blowing. I am really frustrated and it’s hurting me.”
Like Exeter City in 2013, Newport appears to be a team vulnerable to being caught up and overtaken.
What’s the points target?
It’s easy to assume City have left themselves with too much to do over the final 10 games, but the recent history of League Two suggests the points haul they would need isn’t completely unrealistic.
The following table looks at the points total each of the 7th place League Two sides achieved over the last decade, and the amount of points the team immediately below them collected. Given the 2019/20 season was curtailed, we’ve not included the points total of last season’s 7th place finisher, Northampton.
So what this shows is that the team who has finished 7th has on average picked up 71.3 points. Around 20 short of what City currently have, with 10 games to play. But in some cases, the 7th-placed finisher has enjoyed a decent cushion over the team who ended up 8th. It suggests the actual amount of points needed to finish the right side of the play off dotted line, on average, is 68.3.
And this is where it gets interesting for City’s current predicament. As the following table shows how many points each 7th-placed finisher, over the last decade, had achieved after 36 matches.
It’s very often the case that the team who takes the last play off position sneaks in off the back of a strong end of season run, and the last decade shows this happened several times. York City in 2014, Newport County in 2019, Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City in 2013 and Gary Bowyer’s Blackpool in 2017. They all had the same or lower number of points as City have right now, 36 games in. And they did it.
The overall points average a 7th-place finisher has acquired at this stage of the season is 52.4 – just over one more point than City currently have.
(As one final point to note, five of the last 10 7th-placed finishers have gone onto win promotion at Wembley. One step at a time today though, eh?)
Can City get to 70 points?
There are two ways we could measure this likelihood.
Firstly, we could look at City’s overall points haul of 51 from 36 games and project how many more points they’d pick up, based on their average points per game. Over 2020/21, City have so far averaged 1.41 points per game, which if maintained over the final 10 games would result in a final point total of 65.
Close, but it wouldn’t be good enough.
But is that fair? After all, the seasonal points total includes the less than successful spell when Stuart McCall was in charge. As is well documented, form has improved immensely since Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars took charge.
Over their 20-game tenure so far, City have gained 38 points – an average of 1.9 points per game. If this average was applied to their final 10 matches, they’d pick up 19 more points. This would take them to 70 points. Just above the average amount that recent history shows would be needed to finish inside the top seven.
Whether its right to expect such an exceptional run of form to be maintained is debatable. But what we do know is that if City achieve at least 20 more points this season, they’d finished on 71. And only once, in the last decade, has such a total not proved enough to earn a play off berth.
So realistically, if City can win six, draw two, and only lose two of their last 10 games, they could probably do it.
It is a tough ask. But it’s also nothing out of keeping with their form over the last 20 games.
How is the run-in looking?
The Bantams have a curious mixture of remaining fixtures, with some winnable-looking games against teams near the bottom plus some potential play off six-pointers.
The following table shows who City still have to play, their current league position, and their recent form ranking over the last 10 games.
So that’s three of the top six still to face, and also four of the bottom ten sides. They’re also got matches against fellow play off chasers Crawley and Salford. Few of the teams they still have to face will have nothing to play for.
In terms of the form guide, it’s a mixed bag. Stevenage on Easter Monday looks a much tougher fixture than it did a few months ago, with the Hertfordshire side enjoying a quick rise from the relegation places to mid-table – an upturn similar to what City have experienced.
But how does the run-in compare to other clubs pushing for the last play off spot? The following table ranks the difficulty of each team’s final fixtures in terms of their remaining opponents expected goals points per game performance (xG PPG). That is, the rate of points their opponents have been picking up this season, in terms of creating chances and preventing the opposition producing good chances.
To make sense of this, the higher the xG PPG run-in number, the tougher the run-in that team faces – based on the quality of the opposition performances this season.
What this shows is that Crawley appear to have the toughest run-in of the 7th-place contenders. And Leyton Orient have the easiest. City are somewhere in the middle, and you can choose whether to take a glass half full or half empty outlook to their remaining fixtures. They’ve either got the third easiest run-in, or the fourth toughest.
At home, they face teams with some of the worst away records in the division – Grimsby (23rd best), Salford (20th), Crawley (17th) and Scunthorpe (16th). On the road, they face two sides with poor home records in Harrogate (19th best) and Port Vale (17th). Although the final day trip to Morecambe (3rd best home record) and late season visit of Tranmere (5th best away record) won’t be easy.
What will make or break City’s chances?
Callum Cooke’s injury continues to cloud City’s promotion prospects. On the 18 March it was announced he would be out for four to six weeks. Assuming that’s correct, he could return for the Tranmere Rovers game on Tuesday 20 April, or it might not be until the final game of the season at Morecambe on 8 May.
It also can’t be ignored that the publicly made forecasts of when players will return from injury have proved inconsistent in accuracy all season. From Lee Novak to Bryce Hosannah to Billy Clarke to Reece Staunton, initial expectations of when injured players would return have been pushed back. There is every chance we won’t see Cooke again this season.
It has been well documented that City have struggled to replace Cooke. Clayton Donaldson’s impressive performance at the weekend suggests a solution has been found. But the 37-year-old’s physical capability to play two games a week is questionable.
Fitness levels are going to be so crucial to a squad that still lacks in depth in certain areas. And that touches into the biggest question over whether City can get up a head of steam and go on another winning run, when the fixtures are coming so thick and fast.
The following table shows the number of days left between City’s 37th and 46th league fixtures this season, and how it compares to the club’s last four successful play off charges.
So if Bradford City are to repeat the play off finishes of 1996, 2013, 2016 and 2017, they’ll have to pick up enough remaining points over the shortest timeframe of all. A real test of physical stamina.
And that’s why injuries to anyone – not just Cooke – could really make or break their season. The following table shows the most influential outfield City players this season, in terms of the club’s win percentage with and without them in the starting XI.
^ Figures from Soccerbase.com. We’ve not included Connor Wood as he is an ever present in the league, or players who haven’t figured as much like Lee Novak, Harry Pritchard, Reece Staunton and Clayton Donaldson.
The influence of Callum Cooke really stands out on this table, as City have won just 14% of the games that he hasn’t started all season. Gareth Evans might not be troubling anyone’s player of the season voting slips, but he has the best win ratio when starting out of everyone at the club. Levi Sutton’s influence is also evident.
It’s interesting to see the limited influence of some of the January window signings, although it is early days. Andy Cook has worked his way to first choice striker, but City have won more games from starting Rowe over this period. Oli Crankshaw’s stats can, erm, only improve.
What this table of influence shows is that – were a couple from Evans, Sutton and Watt to join Cooke on the sidelines – it could spell big trouble for City’s prospects over the final 10 games.
Will performances be good enough to mount a push?
Saturday’s trip to Colchester United yielded the all-important three points, but in terms of expected goals performance it was another draw. Based on the quality of the chances created over the 90 minutes, both Colchester and City were tied at 1.2 expected goals.
The xG methodology doesn’t really do justice to the quality of wonder goals like the one Kian Scales netted in Essex, but it does a good job of unpicking long-term trends. As we wrote several times on WOAP during the five successive wins, underlying performances suggested a drop off was coming. Something that did indeed happen.
The following tables show in very stark terms the disparity in results and performances since Trueman and Sellars took charge in the middle of December. On the right, a league table of results – the one that really counts of course – which shows City have 38 points from 20 games. Almost automatic promotion form, which is absolutely brilliant.
Yet on the left is a league table of what results would have been if they were determined by the quality of performances, as measured by expected goals. And the difference is astonishing. In the xG table, City are in the relegation zone with 17 points from the 20 matches.
Football is not decided on expected goals of course. But nevertheless, this long-term performance trend does throw some doubts over the team’s capability to make a successful late surge. They’re still relying on a degree of luck, and winning games through fine margins. For how poor Colchester United looked on Saturday, it was the same story – even though City merited the points.
If you sail so close to the wind of needing a bit of good fortune as routine, there’s a very high risk that the close calls won’t always go your way.
Is it reasonable to hope for a play off push?
From those dark and horrible moments of early December, when relegation to the National League seemed a stark possibility, the speed in pulling well clear of danger means this deserves to go down as a successful season for Trueman and Sellars. Prior to Christmas, City had no right to push for promotion. And even with recent good form over the last few months, there’s evidently still question marks about the quality of this squad.
But still, in 2013, there were similar reasons to write off the season with 10 games to go. To accept that they’d done all they could and move on. They’d treated us to a major cup final at Wembley, given us a season of cup upsets to remember, and they just didn’t look like they had enough left in the tank.
“They’re on the right track, we can all see that. It just hasn’t gone in this time,” wrote our own Alex Scott after the famous 4-1 Exeter defeat, and the seemingly end to the promotion hopes. “The margins designed by the manager have been too thin to eliminate the risk of chance. Sometimes it won’t go in.”
In the end it did go in, and City staged an unlikely and successful late fight for promotion.
There are excuses to make of the team and manager if they don’t achieve the same success now – they gave an awful lot of teams a big head-start in the race for promotion. No one will be to upset if they don’t triumph from here.
But wouldn’t it be nice to dream over these final 10 games? To just have a go. Make it interesting. And, for us supporters, to feel excited and anxious about the run-in.
As the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “It is a better thing to travel hopefully than to arrive.” This season’s journey isn’t over just yet. There’s still time for another adventure.