Issue The pain can’t override the pride – or the concerns

As told by Jason Mckeown

The Team

Matt Duke | Liam Moore, Guy Branston, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall | Chris Mitchell, Ritchie Jones, Michael Flynn, Kyel Reid | Jamie Devitt, James Hanson | Jack Compton, Nahki Wells

Suddenly the weekend bitterness of Bristol Rovers’ Paul Buckle seems more understandable. The pain of conceding a last minute goal never gets more bearable, no matter how many times you endure it. And so the temptation for Buckle-style bluster and to argue the opposition are unjust in scoring can feel overwhelming.

Three minutes of injury time were almost over at Vale Park, when substitute Doug Loft found himself with plenty of time and space on the edge of the area and swung in a superb cross. There at the back post was Tom Pope – twice a scorer against City in this fixture last season, and who has only scored two goals since – to head the ball past Matt Duke. The paltry 4,000 home attendance roars loudly in delight, and as you slump back in your uncomfortable plastic seat there’s a realisation that the pain now engulfing you won’t completely go away for days yet.

Just like Morecambe and Bristol Rovers found against the Bantams in the previous two games, there simply wasn’t any time for the players to make up for conceding so late. The referee blew the final whistle within seconds, the Port Vale fans cheered enthusiastically again.

Outside the ground one Valiants supporter stopped me and my friend to commiserate and bluntly sum up our misery: “You must feel like you’ve been punched in the stomach.” His kindness was a comfort of sorts, perhaps because it revealed even the opposition knew their late joy was not merited. As we had began to file out of the away end seconds earlier, City’s players had received a great reception for their efforts. As though we were all conscious not to let them think we we’re going to turn on them.

And why would we; for this was an evening featuring lots of positives, which now must be built upon rather than hastily written off. On the back of such a promising attacking performance at the weekend, City continued to look dangerous in the final third and are genuinely threatening to flourish over the coming weeks from their new, quick-fire passing approach.

Carrying on where they left off, Phil Parkinson’s two outfield signings Kyel Reid and Jamie Devitt again impressed greatly. The former enjoyed comfortably his best performance in a Bantams shirt to date and was behind so much of his team’s best moves, even working hard defending too. Devitt once more looked a player far above the level he is playing at – and the only negative from enjoying his elegant approach work and deft touches is knowing there is no way he will remain at Valley Parade for too long.

With Michael Flynn and Ritchie Jones linking up effectively in the centre of midfield and James Hanson showing greater work-rate and aggression than on Saturday, City were a joy to watch and had Vale on the ropes at times in the second half. We can only hope such eye-catching tactics prove more successful quickly, before they are compromised for something less appealing.

Because there is no doubt there are also some sizable problems for Parkinson to tackle. It took barely a minute for Port Vale to get in behind City’s backline, with Ben Williamson firing a one-on-one opportunity wide of the post. Soon after the home side took the lead with an outstanding long-distance strike from left back Rob Taylor, yet the time and space he’d been afforded to run at the back four and take aim was hugely worrying.

The opening weeks of the season are seeing City concede far too many soft goals. Opposition teams are not having to work nearly as hard to find the back of the net than they should. In each of the eight league games to date, City have gone 1-0 down. No matter how much good attacking play we see at the other end and whoever Parkinson eventually brings in as an extra striker option, without a solid defensive platform points will continue to be dropped.

It seemed as though City were getting better defensively with the second half display against Barnet, and draws with Sheffield Wednesday and Morecambe. Yet on Saturday and even more so tonight, leaks have sprung again. When Pope headed a sitter wide on seven minutes he should have been putting his side 3-0 up. During the first 45 minutes especially the entire back four looked panicky and unsure every time Vale attacked.

Not that this is an issue that should be blamed fully on the defence. Parkinson’s more expansive style of play is bringing out the best in Flynn and Jones going forwards; but not enough protection is being afforded to the back four, which the opposition are exploiting. Vale’s opener tonight was similar to Bristol Rovers’ second on Saturday in the fact no one was tracking deep runners in possession. Both also featured Flynn and Guy Branston arguing over who was to blame. The problem of how the midfield is set up when they don’t have the ball should be high on Parkinson’s radar.

At least City found their feet eventually; and with Reid causing havoc on both wings, chances began to occur at the other end. On 24 minutes Devitt struck an equally spectacular goal to Taylor’s, following a brilliant run by Reid which opened up the space. Branston’s header from Chris Mitchell’s corner was tipped onto the bar soon after, and a first away win of the campaign seemed more probable.

Yet momentum and spark was ruined by a howler from Duke just before half time. A corner into the box had initially been punched clear by the former Hull stopper, but Taylor’s attempt to float the ball back into the danger area ended up slowly looping in the air before dropping under the crossbar. Realising too late, Duke’s attempt to claw the ball away only speeded up its arrival in the back of the net.

Duke received some disappointingly venomous abuse from some City fans in the immediate aftermath. To date it had been a low-key start to his Bantams career, but although he enjoyed a more solid second half that included been targeted physically by Vale with high balls towards him in the box, this mistake now leaves him under greater scrutiny. Two weeks ago this evening, on-loan Oscar Jansson was performing penalty heroics for City before been sent back to Spurs early. Duke has it all to do, though the thinking behind Parkinson’s decision to swap a loanee for a permanent keeper is laudable.

In difficult conditions, home keeper Chris Martin didn’t enjoy a perfect night either. Five minutes into the second half, he might have done better in his attempt to keep out Jones’ low shot which nestled in the corner, following an excellent burst forward by Devitt. At 2-2 the game was end-to-end with City’s backline looking more solid and their fluent approach play cutting Vale open regularly. Devitt, Flynn and substitute Jack Compton all came close, while Duke made a couple of decent saves.

A draw seemed a fair result. But as the game headed towards stoppage time and City won a series of corners and throw in chances for Liam Moore, we were greedy for more. Instead, then came Pope’s punch in the stomach.

Much work needed defensively, and in the longer-term the increasing reliance on Reid and Devitt could prove a problem too. Both continue to struggle for match fitness and the threat from the visitors reduced considerably after Parkinson subbed them, with no one else in the team able to offer such pace. City’s style of play requires speed of thought in passing but also speed in movement, and while Devitt is able to offer that until at least the end of November there remains a troubling question of what happens next. Build the team around him now and worry about what to do after he leaves? A question for another time, perhaps.

Ultimately City left Vale Park as they arrived it – a work in progress. But while efforts to bolster the forward line are a visible priority for Parkinson, it may be the other end of the pitch where the most pressing work is required.