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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 18/10/03, 3.00pm
Bradford City
By Ian Grant


Quietly does it. Tiptoes, one step at a time. No sudden movements, nothing to attract attention. Nobody's noticed yet....

So - in a whisper - that was all it took to climb out of the relegation zone. Now we know, at least. And, yes, it'll certainly take plenty more to stay out of it, even to climb well clear of it...but, like I say, now we know. No need of miracles just yet, then. No need to panic.

In many ways - well, some ways - the First Division is much like a Fall album. It repeats itself for all eternity, year after year...and yet with enough variations within the repetition to retain some purpose, some interest for the observer. (That said, I haven't bought a Fall album since 1987, so I shan't push the metaphor too hard.) It is, for example, pretty much certain that supporters of at least three quarters of the division's clubs will harbour hopes of a playoff place at some point during the campaign, despite the obvious fact that only four teams will make it.

And the central, marvellous contradiction of this thoroughly absurd league is that supporters of at least half of the clubs will also melodramatically pronounce the inevitability of their team's relegation during the same campaign. And only three of those clubs will go down, at least two of them by a fairly slim, last-day margin. And, as it stands currently, the other one doesn't have any supporters to mourn its demise.

Perspective is a valuable thing, certainly, but perspective has precious little to do with supporting a football team. So we've already done our bit for First Division tradition, loudly and painfully displaying our wounds for all to see. And now we've discovered that those wounds aren't necessarily fatal after all. And if we lose on Tuesday night, we'll start all over again. And if we win, we'll suddenly find ourselves in the dizzy heights of lower-mid-table and get all carried away with dreams of a comfortable life in the top half. Ah, God bless this splendid nonsense....

Certain things are always true. Even those who are finally relegated will accept their fate approximately three months before it actually becomes inevitable. Because you have to put a fair amount of effort into being completely cast adrift of the rest, and one can only continue to admire and applaud the tremendous achievement of Stockport a couple of years ago. Here, no matter how atrocious you appear to be, there is always a worse team to make you feel a little better...although, on this evidence, Bradford might not want to push the theory too much further. And here, like dollars in developing countries, three points go one hell of a long way. Always the same, always different. And almost never inevitable.

Quietly, softly...but four matches unbeaten, eight points from twelve, out of the bottom three. Sure, the opponents have been far from impressive, but that's rather the point - finding three candidates for relegation in our place isn't exactly a mindbending puzzle. We have to continue, naturally, and it could all be undone so quickly and so easily. But Ipswich - remember them? - are sixth as we speak, out of sight after sharing our plight just a few short weeks ago. When we last found ourselves towards the foot of a division, in the Premiership, our fate was effectively decided for us by universally superior opposition. But here, we'll decide our own destiny.

It would be very easy indeed to get carried away by this most comprehensive of victories. We shouldn't, for it is impossible to escape the fact that Bradford were utter drivel, barely bothering to turn up for a match that quickly became almost farcical. Before kickoff, you looked over to the Vic Road end to pick out a few meagre handfuls of away supporters, clustered like flea-bitten regulars around the bar of a particularly dingy, long-forgotten backstreet pub. After kickoff, you realised that travelling hundreds of miles to watch such a sorry bunch might not come top of your things-to-do list either. They were simply dreadful.

So, for the sake of keeping our feet on the ground, we should add a small cloud to our bright silver lining by noting that it took an hour to find the net and ninety minutes to secure the three points, in what was a quite ludicrously one-sided encounter. When, with half-time approaching, the Rookery decided that we were gonna score in a minute, the obvious response was that we should've scored in a minute about half an hour earlier. And then scored again, and again. A minor complaint in the circumstances, of course, for the only thing that really mattered here was the result. But still, you know what I mean.

The reservations duly noted, however, we can move onto brighter things. For there was a distinct freshness about this, especially in the first half. Encouragingly, we began not with a load of fist-pumping bluster, although that would've been perfectly welcome too, but with football that was neat, sharp and full of ideas. Too good for Bradford and, perhaps, too good for others as well, we moved the ball around quickly and with genuine purpose, with the confidence and invention of Paolo Vernazza and Paul Devlin to the fore. It was everything, bar a goal, that we needed from an opening spell in such a vital match, and it further lifted an already more positive and light-hearted atmosphere.

The notebook simply records a string of chances and half-chances, no room for the numerous attacks that never quite made it that far. In the first five minutes, speculative shots from Paul Devlin and Paolo Vernazza were charged down by the Bradford bodies that littered the pitch without seeming to have any particular idea what they were doing there. A Stephen Kelly - and there's a player who's emerging quickly - cross nearly found the head of Scott Fitzgerald, unmarked as he and others would be so often. We were being given so much space to play...but we were playing in it, accepting the invitation gladly.

There should've been goals. But the lack was in itself refreshing in hindsight, for our failure to score was nothing to do with the previous reluctance to take a chance, merely a combination of bad luck and marginal inaccuracy. Paul Devlin, one of those players whose brain seems to flicker and spark when the ball is at his feet, flashed a couple of shots across the face of goal and narrowly wide, mis-hit a left-footed shot past the post, thumped a neatly-executed free kick into the hoardings. Micah Hyde sent a difficult but well-executed half-volley bouncing wide, Marcus Gayle floated a header to the keeper. The total of goal efforts ticked over nicely, even if too few of them were on target. More importantly, we seemed to grow in confidence quickly, establishing a firm belief that it would come, and our attacks benefitted from that conviction with movement, pace and invention.

Twice, these were more than just half-chances. On sixteen minutes, our pressure on a distracted, disorganised defence led to a stray back-header, and Danny Webber nipped in immediately to home in on goal. He struck it well, but at a helpful height for Paston, who dived and parried to his left for yet another corner. Another five minutes, and Neal Ardley stood over a free kick, pointing and waving while his targets pulled their markers this way and that, until the delivery found Marcus Gayle all alone at the far post and just six yards out. Inexplicably, he attempted an acrobatic volley rather than simply meeting the cross with his head, and made an awkward, miscued contact. It still hit the outside of the post with Paston beaten.

All of which led to some understandable frustration. Yet the prospect of Bradford somehow nicking a goal against the flood of play still seemed incredibly remote, and only when Forrest took advantage of a rare lapse from the diligent, if clearly nervous, Jack Smith to run down the right and thump a rising shot into the stand did Lenny Pidgeley have to do more than watch from a distance. And so that frustration was never allowed to get too much of a grip, always swept away by the excitement and expectation of the next attack, the attack that would surely break the deadlock. It didn't. But here comes another one, and another, and another...Danny Webber firing at Paston's near post, Neal Ardley curling a free kick wide via a deflection from the wall. Even the most battle-hardened Hornet couldn't have failed to believe....

Pleasingly, we continued in much the same vein after the interval, ignoring the fact that Bradford were perhaps slightly less wretched than before. They were still completely unable to contain our attacks, orchestrated by the supremely assured and yet thoroughly combative midfield trio of Micah Hyde, Paolo Vernazza and Neal Ardley, each complementing and supporting the others, albeit it against feeble opposition. Up front, Paul Devlin supplied a constant stream of bright, crafty ideas on the right, while Danny Webber, if some way below his peak, darted this way and that with and without the ball. Scott Fitzgerald worked damn hard too, even if his all-round play might not justify his selection without his knack of poaching vital goals at vital moments.

And so on. Neal Ardley chipped a delightful pass up to Scott Fitzgerald on the left wing, Danny Webber picked up the lay-off and set off towards the penalty area, before sending in a swerving drive that curled away from the target. Paul Devlin drifted in a splendid cross from the right, Micah Hyde ghosted into the far post to lift a volley over. Stephen Kelly sauntered forward without meeting opposition, then smashed a fierce effort at Paston from distance. And the only concern was that the goal still hadn't come, and that Bradford were starting to have a little more joy in our half. Sean Dyche, on for Marcus Gayle at half-time, stepped across to challenge Kearney as he broke into the area and the resulting fall probably deserved more of an appeal than it received; Muirhead struck a solid shot at Lenny Pidgeley from twenty yards. Minor footnotes in the great scheme of things, perhaps, but useful reminders that we hadn't yet won the match, even though it felt as if we'd won it several times over....

In the end, the goal that did win it was a delight. It was all about movement, both with the ball and without it, as Paul Devlin's run across the face of the penalty area created new angles and opportunities. He picked out one of them, Micah Hyde drifting into space again and inviting a sly ball into the box. A low, hard cross-shot, and Scott Fitzgerald in place to score from barely six yards. A crafted goal, a goal of real, undeniable confidence. And long, long overdue.

From there, it should've been straightforward. And it was, pretty much. The immediate substitution of Lee Cook for Micah Hyde, while presumably due to the latter's lack of match fitness in part, seemed a particularly astute move by Ray Lewington, encouraging the team to do something other than retreat to defend the lead after the painful experience against Ipswich. Although Lenny Pidgeley dived to hold a swerving drive from Kearney and, late on, Evans' free kick from the edge of the area missed the top corner by mere inches, we retained the positive attitude that had brought us this far...or until a bout of corner flag bothering in injury time, at least....

It was a curious period, in many ways. Such had been our dominance of the match, it was hard to remember that we weren't two or three goals up, that the result hadn't yet been secured. Idle, happy chatter and laughter spread on a sunny, if chilly, afternoon, and it felt as if we were coasting to a thoroughly deserved victory. Indeed, we were coasting to a thoroughly deserved victory, but the margin was much less comfortable than it felt. And heaven knows that an equaliser would've been utterly devastating, particularly given the pattern of the match itself.

All of which was probably our own fault, given that we had chances to put the outcome beyond doubt. Good work from Lee Cook set up Paul Devlin, whose slashed half-volley dipped just over the bar from twenty-five yards. Then a thoroughly absurd attack, in which Lee Cook took the ball from the right of the penalty area across to the left wing without taking any number of opportunities to have a shot, resolved itself with a fine cross and an unmarked header from Scott Fitzgerald. He really should've had his second, but the ball bounced up, hit the top of the post, and back out. Late on, Neil Cox's long ball gained a flick from Danny Webber, and Bruce Dyer thrashed a drive over with the aid of a deflection. Yes, we should've had about six; yes, we'll be very happy if it turns out that we've saved them for another time, and for better opponents....

A bit of a non-event, in some respects. But a much more pleasurable non-event than Tuesday, for more reasons that just the result. Certainly, we can expect to be tested far more, that our confidence will again be battered and bruised. But it's not easy to maintain the tempo, the composure, the poise that we maintained yesterday, when your opponents are contributing virtually nothing to the game. We were allowed to get on with it here, but the joy is that we did get on with it, even when we'd yet to be rewarded for an hour's efforts. We had to win, we did win...but the manner in which we achieved that goal was enormously pleasing and encouraging.

How much it matters will be decided on Tuesday, on Saturday, and onwards. We're giving ourselves a chance, though. In the First Division, nothing's inevitable.