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A fantastic start, depressing middle and solid end was the story of the Bantams' season
CHEERS AND TEARS: An emotional Nahki Wells after scoring in a 1-1 draw against Leyton Orient in December – his final goal for the Bantams
No disrespect intended to Walsall, but they do not seem the most obvious yardstick to measure City’s progress on their return to the third tier.
But maybe Phil Parkinson’s name-checking of the Saddlers after the final whistle at Tranmere was more logical than it appeared.
As opponents, Walsall probably represented the highest and lowest points of a topsy-turvy campaign.
Saturday, October 5, Bescot Stadium: The sky was the limit for the buzzing Bantams. Kyel Reid unleashed the 18-carat goal of the season on the way to a third straight win and fourth place.
Tuesday, March 25, Valley Parade: The sky falls in on the injury-hit home side, who are booed off following a dismal defeat which left them looking nervously over their shoulder. Andy Gray played with the onset of shingles, James Hanson could barely move when summoned from the bench.
The chalk and cheese of City’s year in two matches against the same team.
So you can understand the point made when Saturday’s late one-two lifted City over the West Midlanders and into the relatively rarified air of an 11th-place finish.
It was a strange season, 15 games less than the unforgettable marathon of last year but equally as draining. An adrenaline-fuelled opening, a worryingly barren mid-season and then the solid finish of a side justifying their final placing.
Three wins from the last four games represented the best run of form since Walsall part one – and ensured City signed off a healthy dozen points clear of the trapdoor back to League Two.
The final flourish took some of the wind out of the sails of the nay-sayers who have condemned City’s form since that Indian summer.
“Just imagine if the season had started in October” became a tiresome refrain. It didn’t – although it is fair to say that City’s certainly stalled from that point long enough to turn the focus round from the top six to the bottom four.
Sheer weight of numbers ensured they were never seriously in danger. There were always plenty of teams below them to break the fall.
But the relief expressed when Carl McHugh buried that late, late header against Port Vale to end a run of only one win from 20 was proof of the growing anxiety. Valley Parade’s smallest crowd of the season witnessed arguably the biggest three points.
It was not all plain sailing from that February night, especially after Walsall’s visit five weeks later but four days on from that no-show, City ripped up virtually every betting accumulator in the country when they won at Leyton Orient and panic subsided.
They assured League One safety with another victory over a side bound for the play-offs by beating Peterborough.
But then City generally pulled off some decent results against the top sides, with draws at Preston and Rotherham and that 4-0 thumping of Brentford early doors, who were admittedly down to ten men and before they had built up a serious head of steam.
The problems came at the other end of the table – City were beaten by all of the bottom six.
Notts County dished out their heaviest defeat of the lot, 3-0 on New Year’s Day, although the result was inflated by two late counter-attacks as the visitors threw caution to the wind.
But that was one of only four occasions when City lost by more than one goal. They were pretty much always in games.
The fact that the goal difference, boosted by those hefty home wins over Carlisle and Brentford at the start, never dipped into the negative all season was testament to that.
City’s staying power and stamina had proved crucial weapons in their previous promotion. They also took those qualities into the next level.
Nobody in League One rescued more points from losing positions at half-time – 13. Only the top three had a better record in the second half.
Goals were an issue at times; the fact that Nahki Wells left in January but still topped the pile backed that up.
Hanson’s on-going groin issue – and City have to get that sorted before August – cost him a realistic chance of overhauling his long-time partner. Certainly his form in the immediate aftermath of the Bermudian’s departure suggested a man on a mission.
Injuries were a bugbear throughout. Parkinson’s faith in sticking with the side that clambered out of League Two looked a good call early on until the casualties mounted.
Andrew Davies, the glue that holds the defensive walls together, was first to go when he needed knee surgery in the wake of the Walsall win.
The subsequent drought of wins – and clean sheets – in his near four-month absence was no coincidence.
City managed only one shut-out without Davies; on the other side of the coin, a dour goalless draw at Crewe was their only one with Matthew Bates in the side. No wonder he even called himself the team “Jonah”.
James Meredith again fell foul of “January-itis” as an innocuous training accident took him out for half a season. Then Kyel Reid’s campaign was cruelly halted by a heavy tackle at Sheffield United.
With Hanson’s growing absence, Parkinson was forced to turn more and more to the loan market – never an ideal situation, although Adam Reach in particular made a telling contribution.
The departure of Wells was contentious, with the undisclosed nature of the fee from Huddersfield leading to accusations that City had undersold.
Wolves were believed to have offered more but the striker’s heart was set on Championship football there and then. He was not prepared to wait until the end of the season.
There were groundless rumours of other interest but Newcastle were the only top-flight club understood to have inquired. Nobody else came in.
Aaron Mclean was signed as the much- heralded cavalry in his place, with nobody blowing the trumpet louder than the man himself. He confidently grabbed the number 21 shirt with a bold promise of continuing down the same goal-laden path of his predecessor.
It didn’t take anyone long to realise that he is not another Wells – and how City adapt their game-play to that will be crucial to Parkinson’s assertion that the well-paid hitman can hit the ground running next term.
The two quality strikes with which Mclean rounded off matters suggests that his goal-scoring mojo is still intact. But he needs the appropriate service.
City’s front two head off on their summer jollies in an unusual position. They are both still contracted on July 1.
That’s a rarity in the dressing room right now as Parkinson addresses the issue of so many senior players with deals running out.
It is a clean slate for the manager. A chance to demonstrate the same squad-building capabilities of two summers ago when the foundations were laid for a rise of 30 league places in two seasons.
Fingers were rightly pointed about the recruitment from last year. None of those brought in have convinced.
Mark Yeates, supposedly the marquee capture, still has time – if City are prepared to give him the chance. A player of his ability needs to impose himself far more.
While the arrivals will be scrutinised keenly, it appears inevitable some popular faces will go.
Stephen Darby, who rightly dominated the prizes at last night’s player of the year awards, is one City are desperate to keep. Meredith and Rory McArdle are likely to be others high on Parkinson’s list.
City have put down roots as a League One club again but there is no time for standing still. Not if they want to stay ahead of the Walsalls of the world.
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