Issue Pre-Christmas gets underway as City welcome Rochdale at the start of a big week

As told by Jason Mckeown

This could be a pivotal week in Bradford City’s season.

A win against Rochdale this evening would place the Bantams on the cusp of the play offs, follow that up with a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of automatic. A defeat against Rochdale this evening would keep City wedged amongst the midtable traffic, follow that up with anything less than a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of manager Stuart McCall’s future.

A couple of weeks ago Joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn likened City’s campaign to a pot of stew – “all the ingredients are in and we are simmering away. But now is the time we have to look to turn up the gas and bring it to the boil.” The temperature began to increase with the 3-0 success at Grimsby a week ago, a further two victories this week would see the vapour begin to rise. After Darlington, City have a week without a game before a busy Christmas period featuring six matches in three weeks. Often a critical phase of a campaign, this week’s target is to go into it in a strong position.

For now though the focus is firmly on Rochdale, who arrive at Valley Parade second in the league and with a string of impressive recent results. Keith Hill’s side has won 4-0 at leaders Bournemouth and triumphed 2-1 at fourth-placed Dagenham, who previously were unbeaten at home. They have defeated current play off occupants Bury and, last time out, Notts County at Spotland. They could go top with a victory tonight and, after two successive play off failures, look a strong bet to make it third time lucky and seal a first promotion since 1969.

As the likes of Accrington, Cheltenham, Burton and in the fact the Bantams can testify, the Dale are from invincible. But the impressive side built by Hill is well respected among City supporters for the attractive style of high tempo football and ability to mix it up with crafty counter attacking when required. Chris Dagnall already has 10 goals, Tom Kennedy is a classy attack-minded full back, Will Buckley a determined winger who tore Paul Arnison to pieces so badly last season the now-Darlington right back’s summer departure became inevitable.

Rochdale’s promise and fact it has wrecked City’s own promotion chances for two seasons in a row – plus the fact Dale’s manager, chairman and supporters appear to dislike the Bantams –  give this encounter the level of anticipation no other League Two club coming to Valley Parade can generate. How good is this Bradford City side? Tonight arguably offers the biggest indicator of the season’s prospects so far.

The line up to undertake the challenge is likely to unchanged side from the one which largely impressed at Blundell Park a week ago. Simon Eastwood’s rehabilitation continues in goal in front of a back four that will feature ex-Rochdale full back Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien. Consistency of selection in defence has been a characteristic of Stuart’s managerial reign, for better or worse, and the fact the present incumbents collectively improved enough to keep a clean sheet at Grimsby will ensure Matt Clarke and Jon Bateson remain on the sidelines for now.

The midfield three will be Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and James O’Brien. The latter’s return at Grimsby made a clear difference and his corner deliveries have improved throughout the season, with the Irishman setting up a number of goals in recent weeks. Chris Brandon and Scott Nielson will be back up, but how we long for the sight of Omar Daley taking a place on the bench. The Jamaican was due to play in the reserves last week before the game was called off, the next second string fixture is later this week. Stuart will be grateful the number of other injuries has reduced, thereby lessening the urgency of Daley’s long-awaited return.

The front three will probably be James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Simon Whaley. Michael Boulding is pushing hard for a start and the close-to-returning Peter Thorne still has a significant part to play, making the competition for striker positions fiercely competitive. Hanson’s strike record of seven goals from 18 starts is highly impressive. Evans is not far behind on five goals from 17, and will hope to rediscover his scoring touch after some recent bad misses. Whaley struck a memorable goal on his debut and, up against a side he was playing for just 17 days ago, has plenty of incentive to build on an impressive start.

As will a certain Rochdale forward. For the third game in a row City are lining up against a former striker and for the third game in a row that former striker has a point to prove. Chris O’Grady’s brief loan spell at Valley Parade last January was a curious one given many City supporters were so quick to turn on him and criticise Stuart for signing him. Many of those same supporters were, around the same time, demanding Stuart bring in a fourth striker to compete with Thorne, Boulding and Barry Conlon.

O’Grady’s scoring record before was impressive, and while he undoubtedly struggled to make an impact in the two sub appearances he made (he was recovering from an injury), I’ve never seen a player given so little time before being universally slagged off. Should O’Grady start and complete the game tonight, he will have more than doubled the time he spent on Valley Parade pitch than when he wore Claret and Amber – a whopping 39 minutes.

No doubt O’Grady will be booed by some, but such is the regularity of former players lining up against the Bantams this season the fear is not so much the law of the ex, but the law of averages which dictates whether he will have the level of influence on the outcome Steve Schumacher and Michael Symes have previously enjoyed, or what Barry Conlon and Graeme Lee endured.

But as Stuart will be telling his players in the dressing room prior to kick off, it’s what City do which counts. Tonight is a tremendous chance to take a step forward from constrained to capable, this week is a tremendous chance to upgrade the season’s hopes from reasonable to realistic.

In other words, it’s time for Stuart to serve up his stew.