The fan’s lot

After plans for the evening came up in conversation yesterday morning, a Manchester United-supporting work colleague told me he couldn’t imagine a worse place to be that night than Spotland.

His views were partially based on the ignorance Premiership supporters like to inflict upon us lower league fans – his evening was to be spent in front of the TV watching Liverpool fool themselves into believing a 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid was the stunning achievement it might have been a few years ago – but as Rochdale charged forward in the final few minutes and almost delivered their own 4-0 win, I couldn’t help but look back on his words as prophetic.

Just getting to Spotland had been a tension-packed episode. I had booked a half day holiday and went through to Bradford with my friend Steve to meet my wife Rachel, a Primary School teacher, who was holding a parents evening. It overran by 40 minutes, which left us very late getting onto the M62 and subsequently stuck in horrific traffic in the ridiculously badly-planned roads leading into Rochdale, with less than an hour to kick off. After more stress finding somewhere to park, we finally got into the ground just as the teams were coming out onto the pitch and the consistent stream of people who arrived after us demonstrated the traffic congestion had not got any better.

So the least we deserved was a decent performance, right?

That’s the problem with football. Ultimately success is enjoyed by the few and the rest of us are left regularly coping with the heavy feeling of disappointment we had to bear as we made our back to the car at full time. The last few games for City have triggered a huge contrast of emotions that leave you wondering why we allow ourselves to be so openly exposed to them. It’s horrible to watch your team lacking the stomach to fight back while knowing there is nothing you can do to change it – and it’s a feeling we’ve become so used to in recent years.

It’s easy for us to feel sorry for ourselves, but many of us at least have the consolation of having seen City succeed and what better days are like. My feelings were more of concern for my wife, who first started watching City on a regular basis four years ago and who’s time as a season ticket holder has not seen anything like the level of success this season has been.

On evenings such as this I think I’m paying my dues and that, when success does eventually come around again, I can look back on these darker times and enjoy the moment that bit more. How do you keep faith without the good times to fall back on and if the belief grows that success will always be someone else’s preserve?

In the last two seasons City have grown their fanbase thanks to the season ticket offers and for away games there’s been rekindled enthusiasm. The true damage of last night’s defeat may not be reflected in the league table, but in maintaining the level of support the club has worked so hard to gain.

Stuart McCall talks about the players feeling the pressure when playing in front of large away followings like the one at Spotland and there’s an absurdity about the situation. Whether long-time supporters or relatively new, no City fan believes the Bantams should be playing at this level and getting thumped 3-0 by a League Two promotion rival falls woefully short of expectation levels.

Unfortunately this present team does not look equipped to compete at a higher level and the pressure of at least getting there is weighing them down. It cannot be a coincidence that the players have generally performed better this season in front of smaller away followings, something which might be more of a regular occurance if next season’s fixture list again includes Accrington and Barnet.

Maybe my friend knew what he was talking about when he said Spotland was the last place to want to be last night, in the second half it certainly appeared the players felt that way.

Another bad repeat

Shortly after half time at Spotland, Bradford City’s players found themselves rueing missed opportunities and a two-goal burst from the home side which left them chasing a deficit. As symbolism goes it was a pretty fair analogy of City’s promotion challenge to date – and of the size of the task this defeat leaves them in achieving that goal.

Fortune certainly favoured Rochdale and the three-point advantage they now look down upon City from in 3rd place is less comfortable than this three-goal victory might suggest; but while manager Stuart McCall can point to a woeful refereeing display from Scott Mathieson contributing greatly to his side’s fourth away defeat in five, he will also know much of it was self-inflicted.

Quite how the evening went so wrong is something Stuart will be pondering for the next few days. Having spent the first 20 minutes under the cosh from a vibrant Dale side who passed the ball around with fluency and alternated attacks down both flanks, City were the better team for spells during the rest of the half and could easily have gone in at the interval one or two goals ahead.

Barry Conlon, recalled ahead of Michael Boulding, ably linked up with Peter Thorne and was effective in holding up the ball and allowing others to get forward. Steve Jones carried on where he left off Saturday with some teasing dribbles and dangerous crosses. Nicky Law and Dean Furman, while never able to dominate the middle of the park in the manner they’d succeeded in the last two home games, competed well against the industrious Gary Jones and Clark Keltie.

The best chances fell to Thorne, who twice saw one-on-one opportunities against on-loan Blackburn keeper Frank Fielding blocked. The first one stemmed from good play by Conlon which left City’s top scorer with time and space to do better than the scuffed effort straight at Fielding. The second was a more difficult chance but better attempt, which needed to be pushed wide of the post. Just after half time Graeme Lee’s header from a corner was superbly stopped again by Fielding and, with other half chances created, most of the goal action fell in Rochdale’s penalty area. Rhys Evans did see one headed effort flash wide of his post.

Yet shortly into the second half Rochdale scored after Joe Colbeck, who endured another tough evening, fouled the dangerous Will Buckley and the resultant free kick was nodded home by Rory McArdle. With new purpose to Rochale’s game the tide quickly turned, although it was the dubious help from the officials in adjudging that Conlon’s attempt to clear the ball from a corner included his arm which put them in a stronger position. Adam Le Fondre, twice scourge of City last season, dispatched the resultant spot kick despite Evans getting a hand to it. When an even softer penalty was awarded following Matt Clarke’s challenge in the box – which looked clean from my position – Le Fondre repeated the feat.

But whatever sense of injustice City felt, demonstrated by assistant manager Wayne Jacobs getting sent off from the dug out and Stuart holding a long conversation with Mathieson at full time, it should not disguise another poor response to adversity. A decent performance once again fell apart and the final 35 minutes did not make pretty viewing from a Claret and Amber perspective. Rochdale continued to attack with purpose while desperation became too quickly evident in City’s forward play. Having successfully harried home players into mistakes during the first half, it was now the away team who couldn’t get time on the ball.

A premature panic on the touchline didn’t help either. As soon as Le Fondre struck his first penalty a double substitution was made by Stuart which had little effect. I’ve been told all season that Stuart “never makes his subs early enough” – funny how Todd, Law, Jefferies, Jewell et all were just as bad at this – so maybe this action was applauded by some, but considering City hadn’t done a lot wrong up to then such drastic action seemed a bit much.

Certainly Conlon was unfortunate to be taken off and, though his replacement Boulding was a willing worker, the ball stopped sticking in the final third. Substituting Colbeck was probably the right decision, though some of the abuse he is getting from some fans right now is unfair. Somehow last season’s player of the year has become the “worst player ever” and jumping up to scream when he struggles to keep an attack going is hardly going to help him rediscover confidence that has been lost since returning from a first significant career injury.

Lee Bullock came on, with Law moved out wide and doing a decent job, but the likelihood of City coming back had diminished long before the second penalty. At that point change three had been made after Paul Arnison was rescued from the roasting Buckley was dishing him and Zesh Rehman brought on. With Lee’s form notably dipping, arguments for bringing Rehman into the centre or keeping him at right back and recalling Mark Bower from Luton are being aired. Stuart must be pondering how a defence which has looked so strong at home can be so feeble away.

Something which, with two important away games in Devon and Dorset this next week, urgently must be improved on. Results elsewhere still leave City in a decent position but the team’s failure to deliver extraordinary results rather than just good results may ultimately leave it facing an extended end to the season rather than a top three podium place. There’s been too many poor performances on the road and there was no evidence at Spotland to suggest this would be the last.

Stuart did an excellent job of ensuring his team responded positively to the Barnet and Notts County set backs and the immediate challenge is to do that again. But for City to achieve promotion this season – automatic or via Wembley – his ability to get to the bottom of why it keeps going wrong will need to come through.