Issue The worst punishment

As told by Jason Mckeown

Putting aside debates over Stuart McCall’s ability for a moment, everyone should be horrified by the prospect of the Bantams manager leaving this summer. A managerial vacancy in May will mean the play offs have been missed and a resultant punishment no one connected with City will relish – more of the same.

Today’s 1-0 defeat to Port Vale was a bad advert for League Two and sadly something its biggest crowds have had to become used to. Not so long ago visiting teams came with clever game plans that often worked, this season the majority show up with limited aspirations of avoiding defeat. Five across the midfield, time waste as often as possible and, on occasions home players get through, bring them down by any means necessary.That they succeeded owed more to City’s lack of confidence than any better parking of the bus compared to others.

The only goal of the game came four minutes after the break through a neat low finish by David Howland, but the chance came seconds after City had been on the attack and Keith Gillespie, making his full debut, had produced an ill-advised short pass to Dean Furman which had too much power to control and allowed Paul Marshall to break forward. Graeme Lee stood off him too long and, when he did eventually put in a challenge, the ball spun into Howland’s path from which he beat Rhys Evans.

It was the only time Vale troubled City’s goal, though the territorial advantage the Bantams enjoyed didn’t manifest itself into many chances. Lee might have made up for his hesitancy for the goal with three attempts that were cleared off the line, Clarke had a decent half volley attempt which was straight at Valiant keeper Jon Anyon, Furman blazed over and Steve Jones stabbed a few efforts wide – but at no point in the game was momentum built up to the level of heavy pressure.

The biggest concern for Stuart will have been that the final whistle did not herald only the second home defeat of the season, his team looked beaten long before it. Confidence is draining from certain players who, only a matter of weeks ago, were in excellent form. Low confidence for City typically results in a more direct approach and an over-desperation to force a goal which was evident even during the early stages. The lack of composure in hurrying the ball forward rather than passing it around patiently meant possession was quickly gifted back to Vale, who tried their hardest to boot it back in the direction it came.

Stuart has faced the conundrum all season of two central midfielders being out numbered by three opposition and seemed to have found the solution in the boundless energy levels of Furman and Nicky Law, but even the on-loan pair looked jaded and unable to influence the game. Out wide Gillespie and Jones battled hard and caused problems, but the double-marking tactics left them struggling for space and the efforts of Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien to support were undermined by the former’s favouritism of his left foot and the latter’s struggle to handle the counter attack threat from his side.

Up front Paul Mullin made his debut after signing on-loan from Accrington and, though he showed some good touches and battled well, offered nothing Barry Conlon does not on a good day. The hope for Stuart will be that he has higher consistency levels. Michael Boulding looked useful with the ball at feet but finding space is a problem he’s faced at Valley Parade all season. With the ball invariably aimed at Mullin, he was forced to feed off scraps. Stuart introduced Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock from the bench, but neither had any impact.

Fortunately for City, this impact on the league table has been just as slight, with only Rochdale winning and the gap to third still only a mountable six points. Realistically the play offs are the target but the worry is this further dent on confidence will make it even harder for the players to achieve that. Next week’s game at Chester becomes even more must-win and, with The Blues winless in 17 and having fallen into the bottom two for the first time, it will be a pressure game for both sides. Losing is unthinkable and would bring the reality of missing out on the top seven and another season in League Two closer.

That we are even here in the first place owes a little to today’s whistle-happy referee who did as much to ruin the spectacle as Vale’s Marc Richards and his kicking the ball away time-wasting efforts. It’s almost two years ago to the day since Steve Bratt was last officiating at Valley Parade and on that afternoon he stopped a resurgent City effort against Blackpool by ridiculously sending off Steve Schumacher just as the Bantams were completely on top. The score was 1-1 but the game ended 3-1 to the Tangerines with the hapless referee later admitting he was wrong to dismiss Schumacher – in between City were relegated from League One.

Back at the scene of the crime, Bratt played completely into Vale’s hands by continually stopping play and awarding some bizarre free kicks. On at least two occasions City players were fouled, only for Bratt to give the decision the other way. He also displayed ridiculous inconsistencies with the advantage rule, at one stage pulling the game back ten seconds after a Vale foul hadn’t stopped Boulding charging into the area with just a defender and keeper to beat. No wonder the Vale players were so quick to shake his hand at the final whistle.

Stuart was yet to be installed as manager on Bratt’s last visit; as assistant to Neil Warnock, he had just witnessed Sheffield United lost 3-0 at Chelsea. The bright lights of the Premier League quickly became distant after the five successive defeats early into his City managerial career, last season. His immediate task is to make sure that record isn’t equalled next Saturday, as well as restore hope we might escape another year of punishment.