Preview: Grimsby Town

Any illusions that we might make a game of it against Blackburn on Tuesday night were quickly dispelled when the line-ups revealed Mark Robins had opted for a weakened team. While the performance of Duckens Nazon in attack threatened to things interesting, the sad reality was that we were easily beaten by a (top-drawer) League One side playing in second-gear.

Blackburn are clearly going to be far better than any side we’re going to face in League Two this season, but what was close to a first-choice defence will maybe feel like they could have avoided at least two of Blackburn’s three goals. Whether that was because the midfield struggled to impose themselves on the game is a debate to be had, but I left that game feeling like there was a clear need for a leader in that back four.

The returns of Liam Kelly and Michael Doyle to the midfield should hopefully mitigate for some of those defensive wobbles for this trip to Grimsby. Jordan Willis could well return too, and although it feels like he’s still to show he can be a top-class centre-back in a back four, he would be an improvement on Dominic Hyam who’s done to stake a more regular spot in the side. Additionally, on what could be a difficult away day, Peter Vincenti’s height could prove a useful asset in giving us a reliable out-ball if we’re struggling to keep the ball.

The main selection debate will be which strike partnership to pick from the options of Stuart Beavon, Duckens Nazon, Maxime Biamou, and Marc McNulty (if available for selection after dental surgery). Nazon really should be the first-choice out of those four – not only is he clearly our most skilful player, but he has a drive and awareness to his game which marks him out as something more than just a fancy-Dan. McNulty doesn’t seem a natural partner for Nazon, but could benefit from the space he opens up, Biamou struggled to make an impression against Blackburn, which probably means Beavon is the likeliest strike partner for Le Duck.

The signing this week of goalscoring midfielder Tony Andreu adds something different to the mix, although it’s hard to see him being played with Nazon just ahead of him through the middle, in an away game especially. Unless Robins moves Nazon out wide, as he did later on during Tuesday’s game, where he seems less effective, Andreu may have to start his Coventry City career on the bench.

Last Time We Met

Grimsby will probably be best remembered as an opponent for us in recent-ish times as having handed us a 1-0 defeat at Highfield Road in the first season after relegation from the Premiership in the final days of Gordon Strachan’s reign at the club.

Grimsby hung around in the second-tier for one more season after 2001-02, but were twice beaten by Gary McAllister’s Sky Blues as they suffered a relegation from a level to which they haven’t returned to since.

How Are They Doing?

Grimsby steadily dropped through the divisions and into non-league after 2002-03, before winning promotion back to the Football League two seasons ago via the play-offs. Last season was an odd one for them, where they lost the manager and goalscorer that won them promotion but then sacked their next manager for not picking up results in what was clearly a transitional year, and then appointing Russell Slade.

Slade’s appointment seemed to suggest a degree of ambition at Blundell Park to put together a side capable of challenging for the play-offs, however, the summer transfer activity has only really seen incredibly old veterans and incredibly raw youngsters brought into the club on loans and free transfers. Unless Slade can summon up a strong team-spirit, it’s hard not to conclude that Grimsby have a fairly uninspiring squad that could well see them in danger of the drop.

The main exciting talent at Grimsby this season is winger Siriki Dembele – brother of Celtic wunderkind Karamoko Dembele. Siriki has caught the eye over pre-season having not played professional football until joining Grimsby, and carried that form over into the opening day of the season with a wonderful half-the-length-of-the-pitch assist to help Grimsby to a win over Chesterfield. Dembele’s ability to carry the ball on the counter and deliver a final product makes him a major danger-man.

Possible Line-Up

Sam Jones, brought in by Russell Slade’s predecessor, Marcus Bignot, is another attacking talent to watch. The midfielder scored seven in 18 appearances after signing in January and has been deployed as more of a striker by Slade thus far this season. A bit of a physical presence and an excellent finisher, Jones will have to be well-marshalled.

With a slow and old defence – with Nathan Clarke at 33 years-old likely to partner Danny Collins at 37 in central defence – and a target-man to lump it up to in Scott Vernon, Grimsby are likely to defend deep, play direct and try and hurt us on set-pieces. Knowing what we do about Russell Slade’s tactical approach, they will only sit deeper and deeper should they take the lead, so we’re going to have to ensure we start strongly and try to force them to chase the game.

Prediction

Although Grimsby should be the kind of team we should be beating as a matter of routine if we have serious aspirations of promotion, we are still gelling as a team and this game could prove an early lesson in how to deal with a robust and physical League Two team keen to claim our scalp. I’m still far from convinced by our defence based on the opening two games of the season and they could be found wanting against a direct side if they continue to show poor positional discipline and aggression in their play.

Since returning to the club, Mark Robins is yet to win an away game for us – although away wins were the main feature of his first spell at the club. Getting that first away win of the season before it comes a thing is important. However, I can see this being a frustrating 1-1 draw.

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Preview: Sheffield United

How to put Sunday into words? It was just a beautiful day and 43,000 Sky Blues fans were there to witness it. For a while, it didn’t feel like any other game of football, and by the time that it did, we were a goal up and were then not only playing at Wembley, but were winning at Wembley.

While Oxford were clearly the better team, the difference between the two teams on the day was that it mattered more to us. Seven academy players played for us, two got on the scoresheet and one lifted the cup – it was very much a homegrown triumph. What we witnessed was a group of local lads coming together to win something for their city, that made the win especially sweet.

If ever you needed reminding though how fleeting moments of success in football are, look no further than to this upcoming midweek game against Sheffield United. While Mark Robins and the players are outwardly stating that they still feel survival can be achieved, we would have to break the club’s record league winning streak in order to do so and still have to hope that other results fall in our favour. This game is more about Sheffield United winning a game to potentially secure promotion than it is about winning a game to keep us in this division.

Possible Line-Up

Making things even more difficult for Mark Robins is the current injury situation. Kwame Thomas and Callum Reilly were both out injured for Sunday’s game and it’s unclear whether they’ll be back fit for this game. Jordan Willis limped off injured in the closing stages on Sunday and may not recover in time for this game. Then Robins has got to contend with the fatigue that comes with playing games in such quick succession – especially as so many put everything on the line for Sunday’s triumph.

There is a decision to be made in defence where Farrend Rawson and Nathan Clarke have both done well in the past few league games but Jordan Turnbull and Chris Stokes excelled in central defence against Oxford. With all four players presumably available for this game, Robins may be tempted to keep at least Jordan Turnbull in the side from Sunday given that he not only played so well, but is contracted for next season. Equally though, Sheffield United’s physical threat may see Robins plump for Rawson.

Last Time We Met

If you wanted another reminder of what a terrible season this has been, cast your minds back to December 2016 when we last played Sheffield United. Sky TV cameras were in attendance to capture a sparsely-attended game that was heavily disrupted in the second-half by a pitch invasion led by fans protesting SISU’s ownership of the club. The game looked like somehow playing out into an unlikely 1-1 draw, before Sheffield United won the game in the final minutes to make a depressing evening even worse from a Sky Blues perspective.

How Are They Doing?

As mentioned earlier in this post, Sheffield United are on the verge of a long-awaited promotion back to the Championship, with a win in this game possibly enough to seal it. Having spent the past five seasons with one of the division’s biggest budgets and best attendances, this has been an inevitable moment that has somehow been delayed by a combination of bad managerial appointments, rewarding average players with expensive salaries and bad luck. This season has been different thanks to the appointment of Chris Wilder, cutting the dead wood from the squad and dominating games to the extent that luck has rarely been a factor.

Wilder was ruthless in the summer in releasing and transfer-listing unwanted players, making a few smart additions to the squad and quickly establishing a winning formula. Much like Antonio Conte at Chelsea, some poor performances in the early part of the season led to a change to a three-man defensive system which has turned the team into an irresistible force.

The goals of Billy Sharp have been a huge factor in Sheffield United’s bid for the League One title this season. He has 26 to his name this campaign, with the next highest-scoring striker in the squad being Caolan Lavery with four goals. However, goals have come from all areas of the team with wing-back Kieron Freeman on an impressive 10 goals for the campaign and centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell on five.

Possible Line-Up

Another key player for the Blades has been Mark Duffy, who leads the team with nine assists this season. Duffy played a major role in Burton’s promotion from this level last season as a winger, but has played just behind a front two for Sheffield United for much of the campaign. John Fleck and Paul Coutts in midfield both offer creativity from a deeper-lying position, while the wing-backs Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty provide valuable width.

At the back, the signing of Simon Moore in goal has proved to be a pivotal moment of Sheffield United’s campaign. Academy graduate George Long had looked set to be the number one goalkeeper this season after a promising previous campaign, however, some sloppy errors in the opening few games saw Chris Wilder act decisively in bringing Moore in from Cardiff before the end of the summer transfer window and Wilder has never been offered pause for thought on that decision following some solid goalkeeping displays from Simon Moore.

Prediction

It’s a shame that we’ve got to play such a difficult away game just days after the club’s greatest triumph in a generation. It would be easy to take the foot off the gas for this game as we’re not expected to win and the players could easily point to fatigue as an excuse. However, Mark Robins is clearly someone who’s not going to accept taking such a mentality, and he may see this game as an opportunity to assess which players he can trust for next season.

Taking a rational look at how these two teams compare against each other, Sheffield United are clear favourites for this game and should be able to win with ease. I think this will be a 2-0 loss.

Preview: Bradford City

It’s March and we’re nearly already relegated to League Two, however, the re-appointment of Mark Robins as manager has us heading into back-to-back home games against play-off contenders with something approaching optimism. And who knows? Maybe if we won both of these games the situation wouldn’t like quite as hopeless as it currently does.

With that the remote possibility of survival in mind, it will be interesting to see how Robins approaches his first few games in charge. Does he persist with those on loan and short-term contracts order to get results? Will he use these games to lay the foundations for League Two football next season? There is no pressure on Robins to keep us up, but equally, he must be aware that there need to be signs of improvement as a result of his return as manager.

As with any change of manager, predicting the starting line-up for their first game in charge is a difficult task as they are looking at the squad with fresh eyes and a different approach. However, we do have the benefit of knowing Robins’ approach more intimately than we would a normal new manager, so I think there are certain things we can expect to see from a Robins Coventry City side.

In general, the approach during Robins’ first spell in charge was either to defend well and hurt teams on the counter-attack, or to work the ball out wide and create overlaps leading to crosses into the box. The former will favour pacey players like Jodi Jones and Kyel Reid, while the latter should be good news for our attacking full-backs Ryan Haynes and Dion Kelly-Evans. Given that this is a tough game to start with, it’s likely that we’ll look pack the midfield and play a counter-attacking game.

Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see whether Robins makes a break from the brief Slade-era in utilising both Ben Stevenson and Gael Bigirimana in midfield. Stevenson is the kind of intelligent and tactically aware player I think Robins will get a tune out of, Bigirimana is less of a disciplined player who will either make improvements under Robins or struggle to get into the team.

In defence, almost all of the places are up for grabs, with the possible exception of Ryan Haynes at left-back due to lack of competition. I would imagine that Robins will initially place trust Nathan Clarke, so it will be a competition between Jordan Willis, Farrend Rawson and Jordan Turnbull for the remaining spot in central defence. I’ll be intrigued to see whether trusts Dion Kelly-Evans at right-back over Kevin Foley or Jordan Willis.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Bradford almost injected life into our woeful start to the season. Dan Agyei had been signed a few days before as our number nine for the season and he displayed plenty of promise in opening the scoring early in the game and being a general menace in disrupting Bradford from playing out from the back on their home turf. However, we struggled to maintain that level of performance into the second-half and Jordan Turnbull conceded a penalty and got himself sent off in the game’s decisive moment.

Tony McMahon, a player Tony Mowbray had tried to sign for us the year before, emphatically converted the penalty. Almost straight from the kick-off, Mark Marshall (a former player of course) scored a worldie from 25-yards out. McMahon then had another chance to score from the spot to seal the win, which he took and then rubbed salt into the wound by becoming the world’s oldest and most northern player to dab by way of celebration.

How Are They Doing?

In general, it’s been a good season for Bradford. Stuart McCall, something of a club legend from his time at the club as a player before a less successful spell as manager, returned to the club for a second bite of the managerial cherry and had helped the team evolve from the fairly route one stuff of the Phil Parkinson-era into a more entertaining, aesthetically pleasing team to watch. However, they have failed to really threaten the automatic promotion spots due to a number of drawn games and there is a sense at times that they haven’t quite been playing to their potential.

Probably the biggest issue has been the lack of a prolific goalscorer in attack for the Bantams. Huddersfield loanee Jordy Hiwula is blessed with plenty of pace but seems to lack a truly killer instinct to make the most of the good positions his speed lets him get into. The January signings of former Port Vale man (and former Coventry City trialist) Alex Jones and ex-Carlisle striker Charlie Wyke have looked to address this, with some success thus far. Wyke is a real presence in attack, not only being someone capable of getting on the end of crosses, but also linking play very well. Jones is a fairly typical goal poacher in that he doesn’t offer a great deal outside of the box.

In midfield, the creativity of Nicky Law and Mark Marshall out wide has been a major success story of the season for Bradford. Law had been signed over the summer following a fairly unsuccessful spell at Rangers in the Scottish lower divisions but he has offered real drive and energy to Bradford’s midfield. Marshall was overlooked last season by Phil Parkinson in favour of Kyel Reid, but has been involved in more goals than any other Bradford player this season, with four goals and six assists to his name.

Possible Line-Up

Elsewhere, Josh Cullen in the centre of the pitch is another key player to look out for. The West Ham loanee had a successful loan spell last season and has picked up where he left off this season, another player who carries the ball forward from midfield really effectively. It would be remiss of me not to mention Romain Vincelot, one of the heroes for us last season, who is the captain of this Bradford side and has been key when played in either central defence of midfield.

At full-back, Tony McMahon and James Meredith are great attacking outlets to have, further heightening Bradford’s all-round threat. While, Nathaniel Knight-Percival is a composed presence in central defence, operating in front of the experienced and reliable Colin Doyle in goal.

Prediction

The optimism that comes with the arrival of not only a new manager, but the statistically best manager we’ve ever had, has to be tempered by our poor form and the quality of the opposition that we’re up against. A win in this game would be the perfect way to mark the beginning of a new era at the club, but these remaining games of the season could well be about making gradual improvements and figuring out who to keep next year rather than going out to get those seven or eight wins that could keep us up.

I can see us losing this game 1-0.

Preview: Bury

If there was any further proof needed that this is a relegation season, then Saturday supplied just that. It wasn’t just that we lost the game in such a poor manner, it’s that the game was such a big opportunity to inject a sense of momentum into the season and we failed to take it. Being unable to win important games, or to build momentum at any point in the season, is what relegates teams – in addition to being crap.

The three goals we conceded against Swindon demonstrate just why we’ve struggled since Slade’s appointment. Given his reputation as a defensive manager, it was to be expected that we’d defend deep, however, failing to not only prevent crosses going into the box but also to deal with them renders his entire raison d’etre for being here pointless. If you’re going to be defensive, defend well, if you can’t defend, you’ve got to be more attacking.

This upcoming game against Bury is not so much last chance saloon as it is earning the right to call future games ‘last chance saloon’. We’re 11 points adrift of safety and the requirements to survive are getting bigger with each passing week. A three or four game winning streak may change the mood around the club, but it’s not something that would be nice if it happened, it simply has to happen over the next three or four games.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Having picked an unchanged team for the Swindon game, Russell Slade has promised changes for this game. It’s likely to be bad news for Dion Kelly-Evans, who seems likely to make way for Jordan Willis now that he’s available. Farrend Rawson could well step back into the defence too, likely to be in place of Jordan Turnbull given that Nathan Clarke is seemingly Slade’s man.

That rule is likely to keep Kevin Foley in the side too, although where he’ll be shoe-horned in will be of some interest. The 4-3-3 Slade deployed in the past few games could well be abandoned to allow Kyel Reid and/or Jodi Jones to play as wingers, while Stuart Beavon is likely to be given a partner to play alongside in attack. If I had to guess, that could mean Foley will be played as a central midfielder in a 4-4-2, along with Callum Reilly.

Last Time We Met

It was one of the least memorable games of the season when we last faced Bury, back in August at the Ricoh Arena. Off the back of a somewhat unfortunate draw against Shrewsbury, this game looked a chance to kick-start our season with a win. However, the game transpired to underline just how lacking we were in physicality and experience in an insipid display that somehow ended in a 0-0 draw – although Dion Kelly-Evans had a great chance in the second-half to win the game.

How Are They Doing?

It’s been an odd season for an erratic Bury side who have been through three managers and have used more players than any other team in this division. Having cut the budget massively over the summer, Bury started the season in excellent form under David Flitcroft. However, that good start quickly petered out, the club went on a record winless run, replaced Flitcroft with the academy manager, Chris Brass, and seemed content with blooding a few youngsters and finishing bottom of the division.

However, results improved around the turn of the year, they signed basically any player they could get their hands on, then they somehow managed to lure Lee Clark from a job at Kilmarnock to help them out of the relegation zone. Two games into Clark’s tenure, and Bury have had two wins to help them out of the relegation zone and now seem to have some real momentum behind them.

Bury currently have the division’s second top-scorer in their ranks in the form of James Vaughan, who has missed the past few games but could be fit for this one. They also have beanpole centre-forward Tom Pope in attack who has proved a pretty effective foil for Vaughan in attack this season. A 38 year-old Ryan Lowe scored the winner for Bury in their most game against Charlton, while there’s also the sprightly youngster George Miller who’s proving to be an effective attacking option from the bench, with five goals to his name this season.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

In the middle of the park, Jacob Mellis has proven a useful creative outlet this season with five assists and offers both drive from a central midfield position and composure on the ball. Also in midfield, Callum Styles, born in the year 2000, and Scott Burgess have emerged as bright prospects in recent months. While winger Danny Mayor could be available for selection after returning from injury recently.

Bury boast some useful experience in defence in the form of Antony Kay and Leon Barnett, who’ve been used as part of a back-three recently. That change in system has allowed the impressive Greg Leigh at left wing-back greater freedom to demonstrate his attacking instincts, while the recent addition of former Birmingham City talisman Paul Caddis provides Bury with further quality from right wing-back. Additionally, Bury have added Joe Murphy to play in goal to provide them with additional quality and experience at the back.

Prediction

Bury’s recent form, and the possibility that they could select the division’s second top-scorer tonight, should render them pretty heavy favourites for this game. Russell Slade has made noises this week about wanting to stay beyond the end of the season, but failing to win either of these next two games should really be grounds for sacking, even though that it would be unlikely affect our hopes of staying up.

All signs point towards a Bury win, I’m guessing it will be 2-0.

Preview: Bolton Wanderers

Given that most, myself included, were expecting to be hammered by Peterborough on New Year’s Eve, to have taken a point is a big step forwards, even if it should really have been all three. With Russell Slade having added some much-needed experience and presence to the team in Nathan Clarke and Stuart Beavon, there is a level of excitement heading into what is a difficult upcoming game against Bolton.

However, this is a really daunting challenge against a physical and direct Bolton side who have found excellent form in recent weeks. Coming just two days after our last game and with the three new faces only having had one day of training to integrate into the team, anything we get out of this game is probably a bonus, although we need to start getting wins as soon as possible.

Of the three new signings, Nathan Clarke seems the likeliest to come straight into the side, despite having not started a league game all season. After Lewis Page hobbled off against Peterborough, we’re short in numbers in defence, which probably means Clarke will play alongside Jordan Turnbull at centre-back with Jordan Willis moving to right-back and Jamie Sterry switching to left-back. Alternately, Ryan Haynes could slot in ahead of Jamie Sterry in that left-back position.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Given that we could be playing much of this game without the ball, Stuart Beavon’s work-rate could be a valuable asset as a lone striker in this game. With Reid’s pace on the counter-attack and George Thomas and Andy Rose capable of getting up to support, Beavon could be a useful foil in attack in this game.

With Chris McCann having returned to his parent club, Callum Reilly could also be in line for his debut, although he’s hardly a like-for-like replacement. Gael Bigirimana may possibly come into the team instead of Reilly, but I wonder whether his manic style of play quite suits what Russell Slade wants from his midfielders, Bigi could possibly be another surprise departure in this January transfer window.

Last Time We Met

We last played Bolton towards the end of November, just when it was becoming painfully obvious that Mark Venus wasn’t going to cut it as our manager. Off the back of an utter tonking at Oxford, Venus switched to a back three and Bolton took advantage of our defensive disorganisation to score early on through Zach Clough. After switching back to a back four, the second-half was slightly better, but not good enough to earn us a share of the points at the Macron Stadium.

How Are They Doing?

Following a 2-1 home win over Scunthorpe on New Year’s Eve, Bolton have moved into the automatic promotion places and are starting to move up through the gears after a start to the season that has endured a few teething problems at times. The Trotters have arguably the strongest squad in the division, and that quality is starting to tell as the season prepares to enter its decisive stage.

As ever with Phil Parkinson, the game-plan is simple, but has been effective for much of the campaign. They look to physically dominate the opposition before bombarding them with long balls towards a big target-man up-front. With the quality that Bolton have in the final third, it’s probably not the worst idea to supply them with the ball in that area of the pitch as often as possible.

With two giants in David Wheater and Mark Beevers at the back, Bolton have a solid platform to build on, and pose a sizeable threat from set-pieces. Those set-pieces are generally taken by ex-Liverpool man Jay Spearing, who is also part of an aggressive and energetic midfield partnership with homegrown kid Josh Vela., who has scored five league goals this season, several of them some wonderful long-range howitzers.

Gary Madine is the side’s target-man in attack, which is interesting as I felt his hold-up play was a flaw in his game when he was with us briefly two seasons ago. However, Madine seems to be doing a decent job of it this season for Bolton, as he currently has five goals and two assists to his name. Phil Parkinson can also call upon Jamie Proctor on the bench to give Madine a rest in that target-man role as the game wears on.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Likely to partner Madine in attack for Bolton is the wunderkind Zach Clough, who has shown this season why he has been so highly-rated in his career thus far. A small, quick and technically skilful forward, who you wouldn’t imagine would flourish in such a route-one side, Clough has benefited from the amount of second-balls Bolton win to lead the club’s scoring charts this season with seven goals.

The other man to watch out for is Sammy Ameobi, who is one of those attacking players who’ll frustrate the life out of you for most of the game, before flickering into life and producing something truly extraordinary. There’s also Wolves loanee James Henry to look out for, who is a typical touch-line hugging winger with excellent delivery, who has been in and out of the team this season, but on his day is Championship quality.

Prediction

As exciting as it is to see that Russell Slade has moved so quickly in the transfer market to address some serious issues in this squad, it shouldn’t be forgotten that we’re up against one of the division’s best teams and Slade has only had one training session to integrate the new faces into the squad. Like in the past two games, I would imagine that the focus will be on keeping a clean sheet first and then seeing what we might be able to nick at the other end of the pitch.

Bolton boast the division’s best defensive record, which will make the task of nicking a goal or two on the counter rather difficult. This is probably not going to be a great game and one that Bolton will win 1-0.

Preview: Bradford City

At least we put an end to the winless run, we’re still likely to finish woefully short of where we should have after an excellent start but it was just nice to see us win again. The red card undoubtedly helped us but it still took plenty of commitment and desire to eventually force the result against a resolute Millwall side.

Tony Mowbray had the right idea in attempting to stretch the play against Millwall’s ten men, only it meant that we were forced into crossing situations where we had neither the crossing ability to put in telling deliveries nor the players to actually head the crosses in. John Fleck‘s stunning equalising goal, was just reward for displaying the endeavour to pen Millwall back, even if the application to match the ideas and effort wasn’t quite there.

Fleck’s performance was a reminder just what we’ll be missing when he moves onto pastures new in the summer. Not only did he score a wonder-goal and have a big hand in the winning goal but he simply took control of the game. The caveat is that his influence was exerted against ten men who weren’t putting pressure on him but it still showed great character to orchestrate the proceedings.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

This Tuesday night fixture against a Bradford side with still an outside chance of automatic promotion, and likely to last the 90 minutes with 11 men, is going to be a stern test of both the mentality of this side and its organisation. If we defend set-pieces as poorly as we did against Millwall, we’re not going to get the chance to make up for it at the other end against one of the division’s best defences.

I’ve got no idea what Tony Mowbray’s thinking is going to be heading into this game. I still think he got the starting 11 wrong against Millwall, playing Romain Vincelot in an attacking role meant moving Joe Cole to the wing and leaving us without any real penetration to assist Adam Armstrong up front. If Cole starts again, I would like to see him in his more influential central role and with three players ahead of him of genuine pace and movement. We should look to play to our strengths rather than attempting to match a successful robust League One side for physicality.

Last Time We Met

In a sense, our last meeting with Bradford was one of our more disappointing results of the season, even if we didn’t actually lose the game. Hot off the back of that handsome win over Gillingham, Tony Mowbray decided to completely disrupt a winning team, far too cautious in his attempts to rest players. In a common theme of our mid-week matches this season, the approach was self-preservation rather than momentum-building. A flat performance until the late introduction of Ryan Kent began a run of poor results characterised by defensive errors that saw us fall off the pace at the top of the division.

How Are They Doing?

Talking of flat, that was how Bradford’s season was panning out until the last couple of months. Having been expected to challenge for promotion this season, partially down to having one of the better squads and managers, partially down to an incredible season ticket sales drive of around 18,000, Bradford started the season slowly and struggled for goals even as they picked up a little.

Manager Phil Parkinson’s effective, uncomplicated gameplan has eventually come good as the season has wore on. The Bantams have won four of their past five games, and were unlucky not to beat a Shrewsbury side who scored a late equaliser with their only chance of the game on Saturday. That ability to win games in the season’s final stages has turned a season that threatened a late play-off push at best into one where they still have an outside chance of automatic promotion.

Undoubtedly, Bradford’s strength this season has been their rock solid defence, marshalled by the impressive West Ham loanee Reece Burke. They have the joint-second best defensive record in the division, but since Burke’s arrival at the end of August, they actually have the joint-best. Burke not only is an impressive, dominant centre-back but his performances have coincided with improvements in his defensive partner Nathan Clarke and goalkeeper Ben Williams who have excelled this season.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

A key move in the transfer market in January has given Bradford an extra element in attack that they lacked earlier on. It seemed a strange move to have exchanged Devante Cole, who started the season in impressive form and looked to be a player of great potential, for Fleetwood’s Jamie Proctor, who had struggled for goals for much of his career, yet it’s proven to be an inspired decision. Proctor has been a more mobile target-man than James Hanson which has made Bradford that bit tougher to defend against. Devante Cole meanwhile is yet to score in 11 appearances for Fleetwood.

Proctor though is a doubt to start this game, which would give our perennial thorn in our side James Hanson the chance to stake a claim in the side again for Bradford’s final promotion push. With the skill of Billy Clarke in support, the pace of Kyel Reid on the left wing and the deliveries of Tony McMahon on the right, whoever starts in that target-man role for Bradford is going to have plenty of quality in their service.

Prediction

Mathematically, we can still make the play-offs despite having won just four of our last 24 games. It would require us not only to win all our remaining games, we’ve only won four of our last 24 games, and collapses in form from at least three teams above us in the table to happen. Anything is just about possible still, but we’ve only won four games from our last 24.

Bradford are a big, physical side in form and with something conceivably attainable to play for, you just can’t look at this game as an opportunity to build a late play-off push. I would love to be proved wrong here but I just don’t think we’re equipped to win this game. A 1-0 defeat and the last ember of our play-off hopes extinguished for those who still commendably have belief.