Bradford City 2 Stevenage 3
Stevenage’s first visit to Valley Parade will be remembered as the win that got booed off.
That stinker of a game in August 2010 also marked the beginning of the end for Peter Taylor, who lost the fans from that day onwards following his criticism of the crowd.
Saturday’s fare did not dip that low – certainly not in terms of the quality of some of the goals – but there were still some audible grumbles after the final whistle of a foot-shooting exercise from the home side.
City should be building up for a hectic and potentially decisive March period in the best of spirits after luxuriating in the glow of a third home win on the bounce.
Instead, they are once again casting nervous looks behind them after a defeat that, for most of the game, nobody had seen coming.
After two steps in the right direction, this was a big one back the wrong way. In fact, it feels more like one and a half given Bristol City’s win that slashed three points off their current safety margin over the bottom four.
While Graham Westley and Stevenage cavorted on the touchline as their own escape bid gathers pace, Phil Parkinson’s side were kicking themselves at a missed opportunity.
The missed opportunity in particular came 12 minutes into the second half.
City were 2-1 to the good and knocking on the door. Stevenage keeper Chris Day was put in trouble by a hanging cross from Adam Reach and fingered the ball in the direction of Aaron Mclean.
Six yards out, the goal gaping... this was surely the moment for Mclean to finally announce himself on the Valley Parade scoresheet.
But no, the shot squirmed off his boot across goal and wide. And with it, ultimately went City’s ambitions of that home hat-trick.
It is easy to point a finger at the well-paid marksman but it was the sort of gilt-edged chance that you would expect a striker of his former prowess to gobble up in his sleep.
But at the moment it is just not happening. Parkinson was right to commend Mclean’s workrate afterwards, he runs and closes defenders down as willingly as anyone.
Unfortunately, sweat and toil doesn’t justify the big bucks of a targetman. Goals are the currency with which they are judged and right now he is broke.
It was the pivotal point in a strange contest that featured too much long ball, too little midfield and two of the sweetest second-half strikes you will see.
Stevenage boss Westley, as is his wont, had bragged before the game that City would play right into their hands.
Despite arriving in West Yorkshire in bottom spot, he had confidently predicted a “powerhouse” finale to the season.
They did spring a surprise with an attacking approach that you don’t usually find from a visiting side in such a precarious league position.
Rather than bottling it up tight and trying to kill the game, Stevenage looked to use their attacking pace and power at every opportunity.
It was a rude awakening for a City defence flying high on the back of successive clean sheets.
Jon McLaughlin, in particular, had an uncomfortable ride from the early skirmish with Francois Zoko just outside the box. Lucas Akins forced a frantic save from the keeper’s legs from the free-kick – an indication that Stevenage had come to have a go.
All looked well when City went in front after 11 minutes, Adam Reach converting their first goal before half-time for eight games with a fizzing volley inside the near post.
After a muted display against the MK Dons, the left winger was back on his game and looking to shoot whenever the chance was there.
Unfortunately, a significant part of City’s subsequent demise was the way he was under-used after the break.
Another problem was the loss of Andrew Davies to a calf injury ten minutes before the break.
Stevenage were already level by that point, Zoko picking his way through to make room for a low drive after Stephen Darby had blocked the initial shot by Luke Freeman.
But we all know City’s record without the talismanic presence of the blond number five marshalling the ranks. The back four was never the same for the remaining hour.
That did not seem an issue when the hosts restored their lead just before the break. Reach was again at the heart of it, Day denying him well before the ball came out for James Hanson to calmly slide home his fifth goal since waving goodbye to Nahki Wells in January.
Before Saturday, Stevenage had lost all 16 games when they had trailed at half-time.
So with noses back in front as the teams headed off, thoughts of a looming third home win on the bounce were understandable.
Had Mclean then displayed the necessary composure, that would surely have been the case. Instead, Stevenage were able to wriggle off the hook.
Bira Dembele sent an immediate warning, rattling against the City bar from Freeman’s cross. Then the midfielder took matters into his own hands.
Nobody in a claret and amber shirt went to close him down when Freeman picked up possession 35 yards out.
Nathan Doyle loitered to his left, Matthew Bates hung back in front: their reticence to move in making up Freeman’s mind to let fly.
He really gave it some welly, though maybe McLaughlin might have done better. His team-mates certainly should have, to ensure the scorer was not given quite so much of an invitation to line it up.
Gary Jones tried to fire City back in front for a third time but it was Stevenage who then shattered the stalemate after 87 minutes with a free-kick move straight from the training ground.
Carl McHugh felled Freeman right on the corner of the box and Westley’s groans that “it was five yards inside” were quickly silenced as the victim exchanged quick taps with Jimmy Smith before blasting into the top corner.
City should still have salvaged something but Mark Yeates smashed wide from right in front of goal when a side-foot option would surely have scored. It summed up their sloppy afternoon.