City 2, Oldham 3
Phil Parkinson had warned us all before the game. Rewind to Thursday’s press conference where he insisted that his forward planning was looking no further than the weekend.
Eight points above the dreaded drop, and seemingly home and hosed at that stage, but the Bantams boss refused to talk about next season. He wouldn’t even reveal any plans for next week.
It sounded an unnecessarily cautious approach from a team boosted by four points and back-to-back clean sheets on the road.
Surely it was the moment to put this current campaign to bed and start analysing how to right the wrongs over the coming months.
But no, Parkinson was adamant that this season was still very much alive. The job, in his words, was far from done.
And like his Oldham oppo Lee Johnson, who had told Jonson Clarke-Harris in the warm-up that he would end a four-month goal drought by scoring two, Parkinson’s clairvoyant skills proved spot on.
Unfortunately 2013-14 has not been consigned to history at Valley Parade; far from it.
It would still take a collapse on a monumental scale for City to plunge into the bottom four by tea-time on Saturday, May 3.
With six points and eight teams between them and the final relegation spot, not to mention a plus goal difference, they hold a strong enough hand for the desperate game of ‘stick or twist’ in the closing weeks.
But City’s future remains a gamble for at least another week or so – and who would they least like to play after the latest home no-show? Ah yes, it’s Rotherham again on Friday.
A visit to the ultimate bogey side and bogeyman with the Sky TV cameras to capture the night in all its glory ... no end-of-season niceties on the agenda there.
The masochists might suggest that at least it keeps the final month interesting. But this is not the same kind of interest generated by the same stage a year ago when City were going full throttle towards the play-offs.
How they could do with a few games of nothingness to let things wind down – and allow Parkinson to start putting a few future thoughts in place.
Some budget discussions have already taken place with the board but the details have to remain sketchy for now. Nobody can afford to make any big decisions when City’s destiny for next August is still not guaranteed.
It should have been. Saturday should have seen them break the 50-point barrier – that almost mystical mark that means safety and survival for those who pass through.
After all, it’s four years since Gillingham were the last side to reach their half-century at this level and still be relegated.
But City are still tantalisingly short by a point – and they can have no complaints about that after another sorry showing on their own patch.
A feature of Parkinson’s legacy in the Bantams hot-seat has been the way his team have performed at Valley Parade.
Acutely aware of the stage fright suffered by many of his predecessors, one of his priority tasks on taking the job was to rebuild that home ‘fortress’.
It played a large part in keeping them in the Football League in his first season; its significance was even bigger in getting City promoted in the second.
But now the gremlins are back – and like a band of squatters intent on trashing the place, they seem in no hurry to move along.
Three defeats in four home games, one point out of 12 – those are stats from the bad old days.
Stevenage was sloppy, Gillingham unlucky, Walsall awful. Sadly Oldham, certainly in the flattest of second halves, felt like Walsall part two.
Once again, there was no hint of a fightback when the going got tough. Too many simply disappeared; content to be second best against opponents who appeared to want it more.
Parkinson blamed himself for the tired legs after sticking with the bulk of the team that had looked so strong on the road. There was definitely a jaded air to the home performance.
But any slowness in thought and deed should not excuse some of the basic errors when City simply switched off.
All three Oldham goals looked poor defensively – and this from a team that had not conceded a goal in the previous three hours of away action.
But back at base camp, they were too often at sixes and sevens. Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies, the heartbeat of that back-four invincibility, played like they had never seen each other.
Oldham, backed by the largest away following since Rotherham brought 2,500 on Boxing Day, sensed blood; in particular, the whippet-like teenager Clarke-Harris – no wonder his manager had been so confident of ending a scoring drought dating back to December 29.
He was the provider for the first goal, outjumping McArdle for Connor Brown’s deep cross. Adam Drury was caught on his heels by James Wesolowski and the Australian converted from close range.
City responded within 13 minutes. Matty Dolan lifted the crowd with a sliding tackle to win back possession on halfway and then delivered the best home pass of the day to find Adam Reach.
The winger took it well in his stride, negotiated the challenge of one-time Leeds keeper Paul Rachubka and finished with aplomb. So far, so good.
But the decisive moment arrived right on the break. Gary Harkins poked a pass into the goalmouth, nobody in a claret and amber jersey twitched a muscle and Clarke-Harris was all alone to lash in Oldham’s second.
Cue plenty of tea-potting and finger-pointing among the home players and a stunned silence in the stands – at least in three of them.
That deflated feeling lingered into the second half, both on and off the pitch. There was no conviction about City’s play and the subdued support reflected that.
Instead, Jonathan Grounds swept a long, low pass forward and Clarke-Harris outpaced McArdle and outmuscled Davies to steer in a killer third goal.
Gary Jones pegged one back in the final minute of stoppages after Mark Yeates had rattled a post but its only significance was to keep City in positive goal difference.
Boos once again accompanied the final whistle. It is suddenly becoming a Valley Parade habit.