Bradford City 0 Exeter City 1
This season is already shaping up into one of the most entertaining and memorable ones in years.
Here we are in mid-November and City are contenders at the right end of the table for once and still in all three cup competitions.
Even the most hard-to-please critic will admit that it makes a welcome and long overdue change.
But the Achilles heel to the club’s progress has been the aftermath of all those cup dramas. They are still to win a game that follows one.
Saturday’s setback was only City’s second defeat at Valley Parade but it also marked the seventh occasion when they have failed to win after playing a cup tie.
Phil Parkinson will point to the varied personnel on display and there were seven changes from the team that had begun the latest knock-out epic against Northampton four days earlier.
But having to shuffle and freshen up the pack so regularly is a symptom of all those extra games.
However enjoyable – and lucrative in the case of the FA Cup and the approaching arrival of Arsenal – there is little doubt that the unexpected cup progress does carry a cost.
A month or so ago, a run of fixtures that included home games with Exeter and Plymouth and a trip to Bristol Rovers looked potentially rich pickings.
But with the injury toll and inevitable fatigue from such a heavy workload biting into resources, the challenge has suddenly become much stiffer.
The numbers on the home shirts were the giveaway on Saturday. James Hanson’s nine was the only one in the first 11.
Even allowing for Gary Jones, Rory McArdle and Nathan Doyle preferring to wear double figures, they were the only four outfield survivors from the starting line-up on the opening day at Gillingham.
With no James Meredith or Stephen Darby, McArdle is the critical figure in the back four, the senior servant by a mile.
Two of Saturday’s defence were in nappies when Exeter’s evergreen match-winner Jamie Cureton played the first game of his lengthy career for Norwich. Carl McHugh had not even been born.
City’s rearguard has coped remarkably well with all the upheaval since the Pirelli Stadium cruelly ripped out both halves of its heart within ten minutes. Of course Luke Oliver and Andrew Davies have been missed but nowhere near the extent that many feared at that moment against Burton.
Derby right back Tom Naylor was the latest new face and slotted in fairly comfortably considering he’d had just an hour of training with his team-mates the previous day.
The dilemma for Parkinson is further up the pitch, where the loss of Kyel Reid continues to hit hard.
Six weeks have gone since he could not get up from that scything tackle at Rochdale. He is on the road to recovery but it takes time – another month according to his manager.
Zavon Hines is the closest like-for-like replacement but he, too, is in the sick bay with an injured ankle.
Parkinson wanted to exploit Exeter’s narrow team shape by using the spaces on the flanks. Unfortunately, as he admitted afterwards, he did not have the players at his disposal who fitted the job.
Will Atkinson has had a cracking campaign so far, overcoming his many doubters with consistent performances week after week. But he is at his happiest drifting inside, not taking on the full back like an out-and-out winger.
And Craig Forsyth may offer natural balance as a left-footer but he is foremost a midfielder rather than a wideman. He does not have the pace or guile of a Reid or Hines to take defenders on.
Forsyth had a poor game, highlighted by his guilty role in the afternoon’s only goal.
Parkinson had warned about the goal-poaching nous of his old pal Cureton before the game. The neatly-taken volley two minutes before half-time was his 13th of the season and edged the 37-year-old nearer to the 250-goal milestone in close to 700 appearances.
But the ball should not have reached him in the first place as six-footer Forsyth was beaten in the air to Craig Woodman’s cross by the smaller Matt Oakley. In a tight game, how City paid the price for that momentary lapse in concentration.
Cureton had already cracked the post as Exeter made their positive intentions clear. Alan Gow, playing in the free role behind their front two, was a constant threat as he picked up the ball from deep and proved very difficult to mark.
Parkinson reacted to City’s plodding first-half effort by ditching Forsyth for Alan Connell. The diamond was dusted off once again as the home side mirrored the Grecians’ set-up.
It worked far more effectively and they looked a different side after the break. Picking up the tempo, the crowd came alive and there was a genuine spark to City’s play that had been noticeably absent.
John Egan, who really does look good at centre half, dropped a header wide from a corner and Connell went agonisingly close with a delicate chip.
And City should have had a penalty when Nahki Wells appeared to be clothes-lined by Exeter defender Pat Baldwin. Referee Andy Haines, who infuriated City from start to finish, glanced at his assistant for confirmation but the flag stayed down.
Parkinson diplomatically declined to comment on the officials beyond pointing out that “you normally get those at home.”
James Hanson’s long wait to get back on the scoresheet goes on after he put a free header into the Kop. But sub Garry Thompson blew the juiciest chance late on when his ten-yard volley scuffed wide with the goal beckoning.
“Thommo knows those sort of chances have got to go in,” admitted Parkinson. “It was the same with Hanson’s header over the bar.
“If there are tired legs, you need one of your goalscorers to bang one into the net and all of a sudden the whole stadium lights up. Then you can go on to win that game.”
To put things in perspective, this was only City’s second loss in 11 games – and first since that calamitous afternoon at Burton.
But there is a nagging fear among many fans that all the good work of the first three months could start to unravel because of the strain on resources.
City did not lose any ground on the top three despite the defeat. With Cheltenham losing at Rotherham, they remain four points off the third automatic spot.
But the same difference the other way takes them down to 13th as the league table squeezes up once more.
Tomorrow’s date with more West Country visitors has taken on added importance to put minds at rest.