Wolves 2, City 0
Nathan Doyle got his timing completely wrong.
The timing of the tackle that made his early exit inevitable was well off; already on a booking, lunging in late on Kevin McDonald gave referee Scott Duncan no choice but to dust off his red card for the first time this season.
The timing in the match itself was awful; not quite half an hour in and at a stage when City seemed to have snuffed out the expected early old-gold storm.
And the timing regarding Doyle’s own future was pretty wonky too; his early bath came barely hours after City had tried to rush through a deadline-day move for a younger player in the same position.
The clock ultimately beat their attempts to snatch Matty Dolan after Middlesbrough played hard ball on the sell-on percentage they demanded in any permanent deal.
But the 20-year-old will arrive later this week on an emergency loan through to the end of the season. That’s when his contract is up – and so is Doyle’s.
It is obvious that these young loanees arriving at Valley Parade are almost here on an audition basis. Play well now and there could be the strong prospect of something more permanent come the summer.
Phil Parkinson has said that talks will soon begin with “one or two” individuals. Doyle will currently do well to be among them.
For a player who can make midfield play look so easy, Doyle has been a frustrating figure this season. His form has spiralled away as City have dropped down the table.
Taking the step up a division in his stride, he bossed it for the first couple of months and did as good a containing job on McDonald at Valley Parade when the sides first met in late October as anyone.
But that input has tailed off over the winter – and Saturday’s red-mist slide into the Scot left his side in the deepest of holes.
It was hard enough for them anyway, given the absence of Hanson and Davies against a side currently marrying ominously powerful form on the pitch with unmatchable financial muscle off it.
Wolves had let three big-hitters go the day before – but that hardly left them in ‘bare bones’ status with a new £1million-plus strike force on display. A £16million parachute payment certainly cushions the blow in these difficult times.
Parkinson had opted for caution with Davies after his supremely confident return to arms against Preston in midweek. He wants his defensive talisman fully fit and firing and felt two games in four days from the off would be too much.
In hindsight, that was probably the right decision as City once again had to play an hour with ten men. And on this occasion, the opposition did have the extra advantage.
No wonder that Doyle’s post-match apology in the dressing room met with a grudging response from his shattered team-mates.
Their efforts should be acknowledged as Wolves looked to make the pitch as big as possible to make the battered Bantams run, run and run some more.
Defensively, they threw bodies in the way; blocking and smothering with anything they could put in the route of the ball.
Nobody summed that up better than Carl McHugh. With no Davies, he had the chance to bury his Bramall Lane demons – and how the young Irishman took it with a bravery and willingness to hurl himself into every challenge.
The man of the match nod for the visitors probably came down to a photo finish. As impressive as McHugh’s recall had been, Stephen Darby was simply Stephen Darby.
The right back, who should get presented with the player of the year award right now, was magnificent once more. But it almost goes without saying.
His fast feet in stopping Leon Clarke’s dinking shot crossing the line would have impressed Michael Flatley. Then there was the thunderbolt drive that smacked against Aaron McCarey’s left post.
That was one of two occasions when City were thwarted by the woodwork. Adam Reach had earlier enhanced his growing reputation by catching the angle of post and bar.
Reach was another plus for the travelling fans getting soaked and frozen along the side of the pitch. Just imagine how good he might be if his team can manage to keep full numbers out there.
The winger’s cracking effort on the break had been the closest either side had come in a first half of attack against defence.
But with the half-time whistle tantalisingly close, City’s resistance was broken up in the final minute of added time.
Bakary Sako squared to McDonald on the edge of the box and he almost stroked the ball past Jon McLaughlin.
It was a dagger to the heart for travelling morale – and the ten men were further frustrated when Darby surged forward, exchanged passes with Garry Thompson and pinged the upright.
Two minutes later the defender did get a decisive touch on a goal – but at the other end. Sako drilled a fierce low cross into the goalmouth, where Darby appeared to get the final contact in the bundle which saw Nouha Dicko claiming his third in as many appearances since signing from Wigan.
That was the contest done and dusted and Wolves were content to play keep-ball. There were further chances, including Darby’s hot-shoe shuffle on the goalline, but Parkinson also decided for discretion over valour to make sure City were not on the end of a hiding.
The Bantams manager said: “The spirit and the effort from the lads left on the pitch was outstanding. That was a tough afternoon for them.
“The sending off was poor. We’ve gone ten v ten on Tuesday and it was a big ask to go ten v 11. Nathan apologised to everybody but he’s an experienced player and that’s a costly decision.”