Issue Finding something to play for

As told by Jason Mckeown

Bradford City lose a game under Peter Taylor – and the general outlook is that the season just needs to be seen out, with the focus quickly moved onto getting it right  for the next one. But then Bradford City win a game under Peter Taylor, and the urge to check the League Two table and remaining fixtures becomes strong enough to leave you wondering whether the club could still make the play offs. Then Bradford City lose a game, then win again, then lose again. A constant swapping of hope and realism that you know will probably result in disappointment but you can’t help but wistfully daydream might still end in glorious celebrations.

The Bantams go into this evening’s home game with Notts County back in downbeat mood; and though Saturday’s defeat at Hereford isn’t the final nail in the promotion bid coffin, there aren’t too many left until its firmly closed. Tonight is City’s game in hand and a victory would push them up to 15th and close the gap to the play offs to nine, with nine games to play – back to looking up those remaining fixtures?

Realistically the ghost has been given up by all but some supporters, but the reluctance to fully let go stems from the alternative monotonous reality of a meaningless end to the season.

We have all summer to feel bored and do other things with our weekends, wishing we could go to Valley Parade. And while City going into the final few weeks with nothing to play is a familiar reality, there’s a growing feeling at this time of year that we have make the most of what’s left of the season. We only get to go to Valley Parade six more times between now and early May. We only get to go to Valley Parade six more times between now and the middle of July.

Which means until it’s no longer mathematically – or at least tediously – possible, our time is wasted contemplating the form guide of League Two’s play off contenders and filling in the excellent BBC predictor as optimistically as possible. If City can win tonight and on Saturday and if Bury can continue to implode and if Northampton collapse and if everyone stops winning and if, if, if.

Stupid. Pointless. But what else is there?

For Taylor at least, making sure the last few games are meaningful is his most realistic goal. Joint-Chairman Mark Lawn has begun initial talks over a longer contract, and the results and performances over the eight games Taylor has been in charge of have provided plenty of reasons to support extending the relationship. After tonight he will be half way through his initial 18-game deal, but with the new contract far from sealed, he can’t allow his players to drop standards in the run-up to the summer break.

Saturday’s defeat has dampened the mood and even lead to a small number of City fans questioning whether another deal should be offered to the interim manager. Every City fan who’s had a go at the BBC predictor over the last few weeks would have calculated a Bantams win from the trip to Hereford. And though the recent defeats at Aldershot and Port Vale could be excused given their higher league positions, losing to a side on a terrible run of form and near the relegation zone is rightly criticised. Just think of Stuart McCall still in charge and imagine the reaction.

A win might have set up a  realistic late promotion push, but instead the changing of a winning side – perhaps motivated by Taylor’s desire to evaluate his players and with a busy week of games in mind – backfired dismally. The likelihood that Hereford’s sinking position meant their players wanted it more must not become regular, with seven of City’s last 10 games against opposition going for promotion or battling to avoid relegation. Taylor has to instill greater desire and work rate; he only has six more games at Valley Parade on his initial deal, he may yet only have six more games at Valley Parade as City manager.

Huge game for visitors Notts County

Notts County certainty rock up to Valley Parade with the kind of butterflies-in-the-stomach and sweating-over-the-league-table outlook absent from City’s run-in. So much has been written about County’s eventful season – on this site and elsewhere – but whatever the rights and mostly wrongs of their approach, the world’s oldest professional football league club have been left with a very capable squad which may end the season lifting the League Two title.

The size of the task for City tonight is huge. County are unbeaten in the league since Tuesday 9 February – eight games ago. Since the JPT penalty shootout defeat at Valley Parade in early October, they have lost only four of the 29 matches they’ve played. If they win their two games in hand they will be within three points of Rochdale, with the Spotland club yet to travel to Meadow Lane. They’ve dominated the headlines, for largely the wrong reasons, all season – but there’s an increasingly strong chance they will attract some positive exposure too, for a short while at least.

For while the outcome of entrusting mysterious owners and their lofty ambitions of Premier League football has so far been self-inflicted damage – the new owners have inherited an initial £6m worth of debts from the publicity-shy Munto Finance and narrowly avoided going into administration last month – if and when those debts do catch up with the club, there will be others angrily demanding justice. Under Munto County signed up a playing squad they couldn’t afford, under new owners County are using a playing squad they can’t afford.

If Notts gain automatic promotion and then fall into administration, how will the club who finishes fourth feel? County are effectively cheating their way to a place in League One and no one in an authoritative position seems to care.

Yet with all this turmoil and high turnover of managers, that County have kept it together on the field is somewhat remarkable. Tonight they are robbed of the services of their top and third highest scorers – lookalikes Lee Hughes and Luke Rodgers – due to suspension. This leaves County relying on strikers Karl Hawley (four goals), Delroy Facey (one goal) and Ade Akinbiyi (no goals) to lead the line, though a potent midfield which includes goalscoring midfielders  Ben Davies (ten goals) and Craig Westcarr (nine goals) carry a clear threat.

Since Steve Cotterill took over as manager, County have five clean sheets from six games and former Bantam captain Graeme Lee has become a key figure of a defence backed up by the reputed £15k-per-week keeper Kasper Schmeichel – rumoured to be entitled to a £200k bonus if Notts are promoted. Kasper is said to have impressed onlookers this season, though his bizarre appeals for a foul when missing a cross that allowed the tiny Chris Brandon to head home an equaliser, smashing up of a corner flag and then punching of a hole in the dressing room wall, during the City-County JPT tie, means few connected with City hold him in such high regard. Expect boos for him tonight.

Bully’s suspension and mis-firing loanees offer Taylor food for thought

Hoping to score past Schmeichel will probably be a strike partnership of James Hanson and Mark McCammon/Ryan Kendall, with midfielder Lee Bullock’s two-game suspension forcing Taylor to contemplate moving Michael Flynn back to the middle of the park alongside Adam Bolder. Another option is the under-used Steve O’Leary or even returning skipper Simon Ramsden in the holding role and Jonathan Bateson continuing at right back.

Robbie Threfall plays at left back after his loan deal was extended, while a weak performance from Luke Oliver at Hereford leaves Taylor with a familiar problem of who to play in the centre of defence. Matt Clarke is quietly winning appreciation from fans. Zesh Rehman is nearing full fitness and might be given another go alongside him, or Steve Williams – star of a two-page article in this month’s Four Four Two magazine – may be recalled.

Out wide Omar Daley was likely left out of the starting line up at Hereford in order to be fresh to start this game in front of the usual mixture of Daley fans and haters arguing it over in the stands. For some reason Daley’s match-winning contribution against Aldershot has attracted a hostile reaction from those who point to his lack of consistency; but, if Taylor can coach higher standards into the Jamaican, City have a superb player who can make a difference. It was sad to see Luke O’Brien dropped at the weekend and he will battle with Gavin Grant and City’s own Dirk Kuyt, Gareth Evans, for the other wide berth. Matt Glennon keeps goal.

Taylor is making City more organised and disciplined, but his reign has so far produced unpredictable results. Tonight should be a great atmosphere as County bring a good following up the M1 in confident and vociferous mood. Tonight City play a team desperate for the three points and uber-confident of getting them. Tonight City’s players have limited motivations and ambitions, and probably could shrug off a defeat as expected.

But tonight should be about those players showing character and demonstrating a willingness to take up the fight of next season leading City towards the type of promotion push County are mounting. Tonight should be about giving everything, because it’s not acceptable to believe there is nothing to play for. And tonight should be about City fans responding to the away atmosphere by outsinging them and supporting their players in winning every tackle and completing every pass.

After all, we’ll be wishing we could do so come the summer.