By Jason McKeown
Those three dots you can just about still see on the horizon are actually Leyton Orient, Stevenage and Northampton Town. Whilst League Two football has been brought to a standstill by bad weather, World Cup distractions and the second round of the FA Cup, the division’s top three have continued to sprint ahead.
Leyton Orient have won four on the bounce to register an astonishing 51 points after 21 matches. Stevenage are unbeaten in six, just about hanging onto Orient’s coat-tails ahead of a 27 December meeting between the two frontrunners. And don’t forget Northampton, unbeaten in seven league games and tucked inside the automatic promotion places, with a seven-point cushion over fourth placed-Swindon.
Dots to you and me now. If momentum continues to carry the top three forwards, Bradford City have become stuck, broken down on the hard shoulder. Three defeats in a row, including the Football League Trophy loss to Salford, and with their last two fixtures called off. The Bantams have fallen to eighth, and are now a considerable nine points off Northampton. They trail the leaders Leyton Orient by 18 (Eighteen!) points.
It seems hard to believe now, but the last time we set foot inside Valley Parade it was in the knowledge that a home victory would have lifted Bradford City into the automatic promotion places. They were just two points behind their opponents that day, Northampton, and unbeaten in six league matches. Alas, the Cobblers would ruthlessly exploit a gap in quality between the two sides to win with ease, and the only other league game since – at Leyton Orient – ended in another emphatic loss.
Prior to the Northampton game, Mark Hughes had talked about automatic promotion being the club’s aim this season. Speaking on the excellent City Vent podcast that same week, goalkeeper Harry Lewis said the same. Top three was – and presumably still is – the goal. But there’s suddenly a lot of catching up to do.
By the time City walk out at Brunton Park to face Carlisle on Boxing Day, they’ll have played just three matches in 44 days. It’s been a famine of City action, and whilst that’s not been too much of a problem for us supporters, with the heavy distraction of the World Cup, you do wonder what it will mean to the Bantams’ season in the long-run. They’ve been on a losing streak and not had any games of late to put that right, whilst others have been able to get their games on despite the weather and extend their advantage.
City have no momentum at all right now, but they’re going to need to find some very quickly. Because – weather depending – we’ve got a busy few weeks ahead. Starting on Boxing Day, they’re scheduled to play 11 games in 54 days. And there’s also the not insignificant distraction of the January window. If you’ve found yourself not thinking too much about Bradford City of late, prepare for that to change.
This could well be a defining period for many reasons, not least in testing the assumptions we made in the summer before a ball was kicked. Namely, that Bradford City’s large squad would be a real asset over the season. With 25 senior players at the club (26 from January, with the arrival and imminent availability of Ciaran Kelly), Hughes has strength in depth to rotate and keep things fresh. To keep those in the team on their toes.
So far, this hasn’t really played out. Hughes has opted to largely stick with the same XI even in defeat. Players not in the best of form have continued to be selected over others pushing for a chance. Some members of the squad have not been seen for months. Hughes is already talking about interest from other clubs in his fringe players. And with such a fixture-heavy period coming up, those who continue to be overlooked might just push for the exit door.
In some ways Hughes will need that. With no great cup run to speak of bringing a financial windfall, there is talk of a low key transfer window of limited transfer activity. Understandable, when in the last window you signed 18 players. But with City falling off the pace of their stated goal of automatic promotion, an injection of quality is surely needed.
So Hughes needs a decent budget to be able to recruit quality over quantity. Can we sign at least one player – a central midfielder, you’d have to say – who can take the team to a level it’s not yet quite reached? Is there something that can be done about the lack of overall goals in the team, leaving a heavy reliance on Andy Cook that – looking back on how the second half of the 2021/22 went for the City forward – could prove risky?
The noises about departures, and lack of game time for certain individuals, would suggest movement on the outs. But also a shift in the overall philosophy. What’s the point of having a big squad if you’re not going to use it? The likes of Levi Sutton, Timi Odusina, Luke Hendrie, Jake Young, Ryan East and Vadaine Oliver could be amongst those who head out, even if only on loan.
The T&A’s revelation that Oliver is amongst the highest earners in the squad does not bode well for a player who is likely to command interest from others. The fact Sutton and East can’t get game time right now, when Alex Gilliead and Richie Smallwood are struggling, says a lot about their prospects. Given his utility player status, Hendrie must be demoralised by the lack of opportunities.
Time will tell, but when City get going again at Carlisle – the team just above them in the table right now – they need to re-hit the ground running. If the top three are pulling clear of everyone, the play off picture is typically manic and messy. Just seven points separate fourth placed Swindon and 15th-placed Tranmere. A couple of bad results, and you really can fall down the table.
Over these 54 days, City face play off rivals Carlisle twice, go to fast-improving Stockport and Walsall (fourth and second respectively in the current form table), come up against other top seven contenders – Salford, Wimbledon, Mansfield, Tranmere and Barrow – and travel to second place Stevenage. The one easy-looking game over this period? Harrogate Town at home. And we all know that – for Bradford City – Harrogate Town at home is not an easy game.
So there’s a lot riding on this next period of the season. Can the Bantams rediscover momentum? Can they finally start winning at home again? Will they be able to strengthen sufficiently in the window? Will Jamie Walker and Emmanuel Osadebe be able to return to full fitness and make an impact? Will the club be able to keep important loan players like Romoney Crichlow?
It’s exciting and it’s also nerve wracking. The club has made a lot of progress since the dark final days of Derek Adams, but if you look closely we’re following a not dissimilar fading trajectory of last season. And we all know how that can end. This bit of the season really matters.
It’s time for Bradford City to take centre stage once again, and to do something about catching up to those dots on the horizon.