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Bradford City: Cup heroes' league form takes worrying nosedive
Alan Connell takes exception to something Michael Duberry says. The result was a yellow card for both players
Bradford City 1 Oxford United 2
Jekyll and Hyde January goes on for the Bantams.
The first month of 2013 could go down in folklore with the club on the brink of their first cup final appearance in over a century.
It could also be looked back on as the hole in the road where the promotion bandwagon came a cropper.
The ultimate near-miss campaign or one that will be fondly talked about with the grand kids? City’s season – as exciting and exhilarating as it has been at times – could still tip either way.
City are not the only member of the pacesetting bunch to suffer an attack of the collywobbles. Southend and Fleetwood, who share 40 points with them, have also come off the tracks in the last couple of weeks.
So while the focus remains on catching those in front, all of a sudden there are a stampede of mid-table clubs snapping at the heels.
Oxford’s win was their fourth straight – hauling in an 11-point deficit on the Bantams during that time. They have a game in hand to ease past, as do Northampton.
City may still be only goal difference outside of the play-offs but most of the division, right down to 16th-placed Torquay who have played two games less, have realistic designs on closing that gap.
And where do the Bantams – who have slipped to their lowest league position since early September – go next? Ah yes, leaders Port Vale on Saturday.
Before then there is the obligatory midweeker with the JPT northern area semi-final at Crewe. Another route, possibly more realistic, to Wembley beckons, with only Coventry standing between the winners and the national stadium.
But given the wintry conditions kicking in, it would not be a bad thing if the Gresty Road clash was iced off. A chance to clear heads still clouded by Aston Villa and rest limbs wearied by the punishing programme.
Phil Parkinson, whose own future is now top of the agenda after the Blackpool interest was confirmed, gave James Hanson a much-needed breather on Saturday. The big man has been playing through a toe injury because there was simply nobody to take his place.
Andy Gray’s arrival remedied that and he was thrown straight in for his second coming as a Bantam. Unfortunately, nobody told his team-mates, who proceeded to deliver the usual aerial diet of passes that Hanson feeds off.
Gray is a different type of targetman and while he demonstrated some neat hold-up play on occasions, he could not replicate Hanson’s power at dominating centre halves. The hopeful punts upfield proved meat and drink for Michael Duberry and one-time Bingley Grammar School pupil Jake Wright.
City’s other new face, left back Ryan Dickson, had another uncomfortable debut. The Southampton man seemed to be trying a bit too hard to impress but , just like Gray, will clearly make an impact as he settles in.
In fact, it was an afternoon which few will look back on with any fondness. After the Lord Mayor’s show of Tuesday night, Saturday’s performance left the crowd as cold as the bitter easterly wind.
The notable exceptions were at the back, not surprising considering that Oxford out-shot their hosts ten to two with efforts on target.
Carl McHugh has had a remarkable time since his first appearance as a raw trialist in his native Ireland last summer. The maturity and composure in his play is incredible for a lad who has only just passed double figure in first-team starts.
He has not been fazed by any Premier League opponent – and there was no hint of any comedown from the frenzy of scoring the third goal against Villa. He delivered another rock-solid display at the heart of the defence, topping it all off with an acrobatic clearance off the line to thwart Alfie Potter’s header.
But once again the star performer in the City ranks was keeper Matt Duke. Having defied pretty much everything that Villa threw at him, Duke was just as commanding and confident against League Two’s form team.
It was only thanks to Duke that City got within touching distance of grinding out a point. He pulled off important saves from Sean Rigg and Lewis Montrose and an absolute belter just before half-time at his near post to deny a disbelieving Potter.
As City disputed the victory-clinching penalty, Oxford could point to those chances, the one off the line and a point-blank Rigg header that came down off the underside of the bar.
Nobody would dispute Chris Wilder’s claim that the visitors had dominated the second half, even if it took until the 89th minute to make the breakthrough.
The bobbly pitch did not make for the free-flowing football that had carved open Villa but City also never got to grips with Oxford’s 3-4-3 set-up.
The widemen constantly found themselves pushed back by the blue-shirted wingbacks Damien Batt and Liam Davis.
Zavon Hines had to make more tackles in an hour than he’d probably expect all season. He stuck at it doggedly but you don’t want to see a potential match-winner having to track back into his own half all the time, especially at home.
There was no more joy for Will Atkinson or the second-half replacements Kyel Reid and Blair Turgott. Not once did any of them manage to isolate a defender one-on-one around the Oxford penalty area.
Yet City had still struck the first blow after a comical miscommunication between Duberry and Oxford keeper Wayne Brown.
Duberry thought he was heading the ball back to Brown; instead he nodded it firmly past him and Nahki Wells turned on the turbo to divert it into the gaping net from an acute angle.
His 17th goal of the season did come at a cost as he clattered into an advertising board and cut open his knee – which could well spare him Johnstone’s Paint duties.
But Oxford were level within a few minutes thanks to a stunning strike from Rigg. Potter’s cross was half-cleared by Dickson and the former Port Vale man met it with a sweet left foot from the edge of the box.
The winner came in contentious circumstances with City sure that Stephen Darby had got a toe on the ball before Potter went tumbling.
It was hard to tell from the TV angle but looked more of a penalty than the blatant dive which earned the one that beat Villa at the weekend.
Referee Jeremy Simpson, chalk and cheese compared with Howard Webb, was sure. Given his poor performance in the previous 89 minutes, nobody in claret and amber was remotely convinced.
Peter Leven, a one-time City trialist and Peter Jackson target, left no doubt about the spot-kick. Deep down there was no doubt that the right team had won either.
“It’s getting tight but when you don’t win for four games you expect to be dropping out of it,” admitted Parkinson. “We’ve got to pick ourselves up and we will do.
“Dukey made some tremendous saves again and it wasn’t a day when we had loads of chances.”