Issue Revisiting the Sheffield United moment as Bradford City look to maintain upwards improvement at Port Vale

As told by Jason Mckeown

13 years ago yesterday, a struggling Bradford City side drew 2-2 with Sheffield United while offering the first genuine evidence that they could go onto enjoy a glorious season. The goals from Lee Mills and Robbie Blake that September 1998 afternoon sparked the beginning of an eight-match unbeaten run that laid the foundations for the Bantams’ promotion to the Premier League, which was joyfully confirmed against Wolves at Molineux the following May.

We didn’t believe such a feat could have been achieved during a dismal start to the season, at least not until we witnessed that attacking display against the Blades.

Back in the present day, City’s 2-2 draw with Bristol Rovers bore many similarities to that tussle with Sheffield United in more than just scoreline. On both occasions more was deserved from a display of attacking dynamism that repeatedly came close to ripping apart the opposition, but at the other end defensive frailties were ruthlessly punished to deny City the rightful three points. Whether history repeats itself in what happens next is highly questionable, but suddenly that prospect is not as far-fetched as it might have appeared a few weeks back.

So far, no one is really talking about our promotion hopes this campaign. The “building season” mantra declared by joint-Chairman Mark Lawn has been widely adopted and in general expectation is little above hoping for a top half finish. But after City produced their best attacking performance of the season on Saturday and continue to improve game-on-game, the question of how strong our promotion hopes are is one that could be pondered louder over the coming weeks.

The team is developing nicely, even though calls for a striker have got louder in the aftermath of the Bristol Rovers match. Defensively City are still shipping poor goals but are becoming more solid, in midfield there is great strength in depth – especially when injured players return – and even without this much coveted experienced forward there are plenty of options in attack. Does this squad compare favourably to the top teams in this division? Probably not right now. But with the emphasis on improvement and nurturing players, there is plenty of reasons to believe it could be amongst the strongest in a few months time.

The 1998/99 promotion was famous for the season’s poor start. Mills struggling to make his presence felt; Darren Moore not always taking the right option; Gareth Whalley needing time to settle in; Peter Beagrie trying to beat the same man too often. But with each game – just like this season – progression could be seen. Gradually it began to click, particularly when Robbie Blake was brought back in from the cold. Results suddenly took off and the team looked fantastic, especially after the confidence boost of the Sheffield United performance.

We’ve had too many false dawns since to get carried away with the potential shown by the present day City. But if not this season, promotion in the next one with this squad seems to be a realistic objective. That doesn’t mean a top seven place shouldn’t be targeted between now and May, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it wasn’t achieved. The rate of progress may encounter some bumps and at times be less speedy than we’d hope, but early indicators are that it’s a path well worth sticking too.

Perhaps one day the Bristol Rovers performance will be looked back upon in a similar manner to the Sheffield United moment. It was certainly a notable step up from what has been seen to date, and for Phil Parkinson – who arrived at Valley Parade with a reputation for dour football which cast an image of Peter Taylor in all our minds – it was an interesting statement of intent.

His two outfield player signings to date have added flair and invention to the squad, rather than ordinary conventionality. As City passed the ball around so attractively on Saturday, you could see why Parkinson was coveted by Arsene Wenger.

Style is important, but results ultimately matter and City head to the Potteries and a game with Port Vale this evening for what should promise a useful yardstick of how far they are off the better teams. Vale currently lie in the play offs after a decent start, but more importantly and – in spite of huge upheaval off the field over the past 12 months – they are a relatively settled team used to winning more often than losing and well versed in challenging for the top seven. Micky Adams, who a year ago was Valiants manager before an unsuccessful spell at Sheffield United, is back at Vale Park and boosts a decent promotion record.

Perhaps more so than early season pace setters Morecambe and last year’s play off finalists Accrington, this is City’s first genuine away test against a promotion challenger.

With another tricky game to come against big-spending Crawley Town on Saturday, the option to chop and change players to maintain fitness is one Parkinson might choose to take this evening. Jamie Devitt had an effective game in a free role behind James Hanson up front on Saturday and may get the nod again, though he does seem short of fitness and may either be left on the bench or taken off during the second half, so he can also figure in Saturday’s plans.

Hanson, who had an average game on Saturday, performs a target man role that could become redundant in Parkinson’s new-look approach, but for now you feel he will probably remain in the first eleven. It’s clearly a challenging period in Hanson’s career, as criticism from supporters appears to intensify and his new manager talks repeatedly of signing another forward. Mark Stewart and Ross Hannah sit impatiently on the bench.

In midfield Kyel Reid – who went off with cramp on Saturday – will probably be benched and Jack Compton recalled. Chris Mitchell is proving very effective on the right but does appear to be slightly Whalley-esqe in the fact he will seemingly always be sacrificed when the team is losing and needs to go more direct. Ritchie Jones and Michael Flynn are building a strong partnership in the centre.

The back five will remain unchanged, though competition may become fiercer. Luke O’Brien continues to sit on the sidelines but you fancy he will get a chance at some point; Lewis Hunt is an injury to either Liam Moore, Luke Oliver or Guy Branston away from the chance to reignite his Bantams career. Steve Williams is approaching full fitness but will find Oliver and Branston tough to budge when he does. Simon Ramsden’s future looks bleak but shouldn’t be written off.

Matt Duke keeps goal with Jon McLaughlin under Parkinson’s orders to challenge him. To date Duke has had little to do but has conceded three times in two games.

The two away games that followed City’s 2-2 draw with Sheffield United 13 years ago featured a surprise victory in the Midlands (West Brom) and credible draw against the pre-season promotion favourites (Sunderland). Were this piece of history to repeat itself this week, the prospects for the season ahead will appear even more exciting.