The journey to Ithaca

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Alan Sheehan, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Andy Halliday | Billy Knott | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Mark Yeates, Billy Clarke, Matthew Dolan

I

“Did not Odysseus beside the ships of the Argives offer thee sacrifice without stint in the broad land of Troy? Wherefore then didst thou conceive such wrath against him, O Zeus?”

Within minutes of the kick off of Bradford City’s defeat at Reading the game was written out. Before the first goal – a header at a corner from Hal Robson-Kanu – the Bantams players looked leaden footed, and heavy, and no good could come of this.

This game was the conclusion of a run of three games in six days that travelled 850 miles with a squad of around twenty players. When an innocuous shot hit Andrew Halliday and looped over Ben Williams to make the game 2-0 Reading had won before ten minutes were out.

It was not that Bradford City had not made a game of the game, it was that they could not.

II

“Cyclops, if any one of mortal men shall ask thee about the shameful blinding of thine eye, say that Odysseus, the sacker of cities, blinded it, even the son of Laertes, whose home is in Ithaca.”

Tuesday night in Coventry.

The locals had offered a 2 for 1 Valentine’s day offer with the assumption that Bradford City – away at Chelsea on the weekend the offer was announced – would not stand them up on the date.

By the time the Bantams did go to Coventry City Steven Pressley had been sacked from the Sky Blues. As his time came to an end Phil Parkinson was basking in the glow of besting Jose Mourinho. “The other special one”, or “dark ages football” as Pressley had said.

As it was City ground out the first half at The Ricoh Arena only to go behind to a goal at the end of the first half by Frank Nouble. Parkinson asked his side for more in the second half and got it. James Hanson ended the game forcing a header across and low to get past Lee Burge but Burge pushed the ball away.

The win would have been just reward for the effort but the effort seldom brings the reward you would want so much as the consolation along the way. Mark Yeates approached a free kick from twenty five yards and drill-curved the ball around the wall and low into the goal.

Yeates celebrated by kicking an advertising board in half. Perhaps he would have renamed the ground had Hanson’s header gone in but the point was a good result.

For Parkinson though his eye must have gone to the level of effort put in by his team which is in a race for promotion in League One which is often as much attrition than it is about ability. Every effort to recover a game is a resource which cannot be tapped again.

That at the end of the season City had beaten Coventry City at Valley Parade and drawn at The Ricoh would be a riposte to Pressley’s view about City and the dark ages, but Pressley was blinded now anyway.

III

And City moved on. Jordan Pickford exited to the blind at Sunderland to be replaced by Jak Alnwick from Newcastle United. Jason Kennedy joined Oliver McBurnie and Aaron Mclean out on loan.

The squad thinner and thinner, the demands on it more and more.

IV

And on the fifth the beautiful Calypso sent him on his way from the island after she had bathed him and clothed him in fragrant raiment. On the raft the goddess put a skin of dark wine, and another, a great one, of water, and provisions, too … Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze;

The sight of Gary Jones comforts the heart.

Notts County at on Saturday and City have patched a team together to face Jones’ midfield that features Christopher Routis and Matthew Dolan. Gary Liddle played every moment of a season for Notts County but his legs looked heavy on his return to Meadow Lane.

He is not alone.

Filipe Morais has returned to the side following injury but the energy levels that follow him to in the position to do what he should do while allowing him the licence to do what he wants is missing. Andrew Davies’ resting continues and it starts to become clear that the injury that sidelined him at Coventry City is more than a trick of the light.

Jones’ energy levels are the stuff of legend at Bradford City but the heavy winter has taken its toll on him. The game is more a struggle than a battle.

Still City are in the ascendancy.

Jon Stead scored after good work from François Zoko but County always looked capable of replying and Mike Edwards equalised. A point away is a good return and County are slowly ticking towards safety but with a game with Reading kicking off in 51 hours Parkinson could only worry.

Elsewhere Reading have dropped nine of the ten outfield players that make up their starting team. They are beaten four goals to one by Watford in The Championship. The sacrifice is obvious and available because Reading have concluded that they will not be promoted, while Bradford City fight on multiple fronts..

Gary Jones – and Garry Thompson – wished Bradford City players good luck on the way off the field and one could have spent a lifetime in the wash of nostalgia. The days when Jones and Thompson took on a challenge like Reading and emerged victorious, and took the spoils of victory, and all was golden and good.

V

Think for a moment, dear reader, and consider my offer. I would give you one moment at a football ground to stretch out for all time and to be all the moments at football. Pick the second that Hanson scored against Villa, or the sight of Arsenal’s fifth penalty coming back of the post, or Mark Yeates giving the world and the fireworks at Chelsea, or Wolves away or Liverpool at home.

Pick one and it is forever stretched before you as an endless sea, and you forever adrift on that sea, never to see land again but in the most blissful of ignorance.

The moment when Gary Jones pumped his fist at Wembley as promotion was sealed stretched out until the horizon and over.

And you would reject the offer?

You would.

VI

“Achilles, no man aforetime was more blessed nor shall ever be hereafter. For of old, when thou wast alive, we Argives honored thee even as the gods, and now that thou art here, thou rulest mightily among the dead. Wherefore grieve not at all that thou art dead, Achilles.”

“Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.”

Two goals in the first ten minutes and Bradford City are suffering not just the effects of two games in three days but the cumulative effects of the constant attrition of playing in League One. It is not that a player rested three days ago might be expected to be fresher than one who has rested for six it is that the inexorable navigation of games takes something which all.

The difference is not the binary state of being fresh or not. It is a team at 75% playing one at 60% (or fill your own figures in here) and the rest Reading gave up a game for is put into a whirlpool of effects which have left City incapable of putting in a performance to make a game.

Second to set off, second to the ball, and second best one would struggle to fault the City player’s effort. They gave all they could offer, but there was nothing to give. Jamie Mackie scored a third after Filipe Morais was sent off for a high foot on the once again superb Nathaniel Chalobah and one was left to conclude that City had lost the chance of a semi-final not after the odyssey that followed the 0-0 draw at Valley Parade but on the rough, unplayable field at Valley Parade that has begun to characterise Bradford City’s season.

One wonders if this game represents what The FA want from the Cup. Bradford City’s reward for progressing further in the competition is to be put into a position where the club is handicapped as the quality of the opposition increases.

A League One club plays Halifax Town after a third of the season. Millwall after a busy Christmas but every game after the third round brings a postponement which has to be played mid-week. By the time Reading at home came along City had been playing weekend-midweek every week for over a month.

And all the time the possible opposition gets harder and harder. That Reading were not Chelsea ignores the fact that they were the fourth side City had faced from a higher division. As the games get harder, the ability to play those games gets less and less.

And I do not say this as a complaint or to propose a solution but just to underline the absurdity of the situation and perhaps to illustrate how impressive it is that any club outside of the top 44 of the Premier League and Championship should get this far in The FA Cup. Last year’s beaten semi-finalists Sheffield United won more FA Cup games than the losing finalists Hull City, and as many as winners Arsenal.

VII

“Come, I pray thee, goddess, tell me this thing truly, if in any wise I might escape from fell Charybids, and ward off that other, when she works harm to my comrades.”

People on the pitch.

A sea of people perhaps becoming the sea of moments to stretch out as Reading reach Wembley for the first time since 1927. A sea of people ebbing and flowing in front of the Bradford City fans looking for trouble but not knowing what trouble really is.

A sea of people and through it walks Steven Darby. Fearless, heroic, in failure and in success. Steven Darby and Rory McArdle cutting through a sea of people fearless, heroic, in failure and in success.

A sea of people and through it walks Steven Darby.

Eleven games remain. The next three are at Valley Parade before the end of March.

And so then on to Ithaca.

When the immoveable object met the immoveable object and Bradford City and Reading agreed to a replay in the FA Cup sixth round

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Andrew Halliday, Mark Yeates, Francois Zoko

Balls in bags

On Monday night, at Old Trafford, something well happen that has not occurred in over one hundred years. Bradford City will be in the draw for the FA Cup semi-final. The goal-less draw at Valley Parade in the FA Cup sixth round with Reading guarantees that the Royals will be in that draw too.

The immoveable object met the immoveable object in the first of the four quarter final ties and while City will look back to a chance or two which could have resulted in more the game which mustered only a single shot on target had the hallmarks of a pair of teams more concerned with losing than committed to winning.

Which is not to criticise either side for that approach – I spoke recently about how Phil Parkinson’s approach puts importance on not being out of a game – but to explain the dynamics of a game which promised everything and left tension unresolved.

Each side enjoyed a half of the game. The first forty five minutes Reading edged possession and hit the post through Pavel Pogrebnyak although the seemed to be a fast and loose being played with left hand touchline calls by a linesman who gave the benefit of geography to the Royals.

Nevertheless Pogrebnyak’s shot – along with a deflected effort by Hal Robson-Kanu – was all that Ben Williams in the Bradford City goal had to do. Williams’ inclusion over Jordan Pickford was a surprise but a pleasant one. Williams kept goal for every Cup tie while Pickford was tied to Sunderland.

“The guy that brung her”

That Parkinson kept faith in the keeper that had got him to the sixth round recalled Paul Jewell’s decision at Wolves in 1999 to go for promotion with the eleven who had been his most regular starters. “A girl dances with the fella that brought her”, I said then and I think it now.

Indeed after watching Ramires burst from the Chelsea midfield to put the Blues into a 2-0 lead Williams has not conceded a goal in the FA Cup. Thinking back to that day one recalls how Chelsea were lacking a Claude Makélélé in holding midfield.

While Chelsea had allowed the Bantams to build in the forward midfield positions Reading deployed a man to sit in front of their back two and make sure that Billy Clarke’s influence on the game in the first half was as minimal as possible. Nathaniel Chalobah sat next to Clarke and forced a gap between Jon Stead and James Hanson which split City’s forward options leaving the Bantams disjointed in the final third.

Chalobah put in a very impressive game – especially in the first half – and looked as if he may be the decisive difference between the sides until Phil Parkinson tweaked his approach at half time to play more through left and right midfielders and less through his front man. Chalobah – oddly – is on loan from Chelsea. He has a very brought future.

Tweak

Parkinson’s tweak was to have the ball played through Billy Knott and Filipe Morais – and to have Knott and Morais pick the ball up deeper – and then allow Clarke to drift left and right effectively taking himself and Chalobah out of the game.

And so City enjoyed more of the game in the second period. Morais had a chance just after half time which he passed when he could have shot – he seldom is accused of “making the wrong decisions” as a Kyel Reid or Omar Daley was although he probably does as much – and James Hanson swept a ball the wrong side of the upright after good work by Jon Stead.

The best chance of the game presented itself when Morais bent a free kick in and Andrew Davies connected but watched his headed chance take the paint off the post as it skimmed wide. Davies’ reaction suggested he knew that the best chance of the game had gone, but that the tie would have more chances in it, and so it will prove on Monday week.

Reading’s Pogrebnyak tried to handle the ball into the goal in the last moment. That was all the City defend had to cope with in the second half.

It would be easy to miss

In the swirl of a crowd of 24,321 at Valley Parade and the first FA Cup sixth round since the mid-1970s, and in the media coverage which seems to have decided that this game was not worth watching, it would be easy to not give credit to Phil Parkinson’s team. (Hob Nob Anyone? can give Steve Clarke’s team credit.)

That City went toe to toe with a Championship side is impressive. If one were to ask which side regularly played at a higher level one would be simply guessing an answer. There was a character needed from City’s side today to handle being favourites and there was a character needed to turn the performance around at halt time.

That good performances and great character are common does not make them less impressive.

Looking forward

One wonders what City have to do to win the second game which was not done today. Away from Valley Parade the Bantams have a tendency to replace Billy Clarke with Billy Knott and play Andy Halliday – a late sub today – to create a different shape to the midfield and that shape seems more effective.

City have won more games away from Valley Parade this season in League One than at home, and on travels to Chelsea, Millwall and Halifax Town have shown character in different ways. The Valley Parade turf was better than it has been (which is, of course, not down to Roger Owen who is not responsible for the pitch) but is heavy and the ball bounces little from it. A better surface will not suit City any more than it does Reading, but it will allow for City to play the tight triangles that much of Parkinson’s attacking play is built around.

City face trips to Coventry City and Gary Jones’ Notts County in the nine days before Reading. In League One today City slipped to tenth and the expereince in the build up to this tie did not suggest that the Bantams will be turning games in hand into three points.

1911, and all that

But those worries are for another day. It will be the 16th of March and City will still be in a cup competition and that has not happened in over one hundred years.

Not for Parkinson though. The manager who has as a modus operandi not being out of a game is not out of a tie. Nine days to assess Reading, and the game that passed, and to plot a victory which will make City more than a name on a ball in a bag.

Nine days cannot pass soon enough.

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