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Bradford City head into cup distraction in fine fettle
Carl McHugh climbs above the Bristol Rovers defence to meet Gary Jones’ corner with a thumping header that made it 2-2
Bristol Rovers 3, City 3
Phil Parkinson does not need to cover his eyes when the TV flashes up the latest League Two table.
City can put their weary feet up for a couple of days before slipping back into cup mode without fear of retribution from the boss.
Their latest mission has been accomplished. Saturday’s eventful draw at the Memorial Stadium ensured they had answered the manager’s call to keep tucked into the play-off pack before the latest knock-out distractions.
After the home loss to Exeter, Parkinson had laid down the law. With the division tighter than Rylan’s trousers, a sloppy week would have seen City tumble into mid-table.
Four points from two games later and fifth-placed status quo has been maintained as focus switches to the other fronts that they are still fighting on.
Parkinson said: “I told the players at the start of last week it was so important we were in that top seven. I personally wouldn’t have enjoyed the cup games if we weren’t.
“It would have been hard if I’d had to keep watching Sky tick around with the league table and we were out (of the play-offs). We’ve got to be in there.
“It’s still very close but I firmly believe if we can maintain it into January and keep strong, then we’ll have a good chance.”
City have overcome numerous hurdles to get this far. Serious injuries to key players, a punishing schedule and another contentious red card on Saturday have constantly put them to the test.
But the resilience of this present squad should not be under-estimated. That was vividly demonstrated once again in the monsoon-like conditions where they clawed their way back three times from falling behind.
History may mean nothing but City have never beaten Bristol Rovers away from Valley Parade. They have won only three out of 22 meetings all told.
The previous nine visits to Rovers, whichever ground the nomadic club were occupying at the time, had all ended with defeat.
And when Guy Branston, of all people, headed the home side in front from the game’s first corner, the long-standing curse looked alive and kicking.
The fact that City bounced back from falling behind on three separate occasions marked this down as one of the bigger points of the season.
Yes, Rovers have been on a shocking run of late. But as Parkinson pointed out, they had splashed the cash during the summer and were tipped to be among the leading pack.
In the cold light of day, City should have left the south-west with maximum points. They certainly dominated the game for long spells as Rovers’ nerves threatened to betray them.
But this was a statement that the current-day Bantams are not going to be pushed over – and I’m not just talking about the stoppage-time free-for-all following a shocking touchline challenge on James Meredith.
City would haul themselves back into the contest and then concede again. On a foul afternoon, it would have been easy to curl up and admit defeat.
But it’s not just those weather-beaten travelling fans on the open terrace who are made of sterner stuff. These boys bent but they did not snap.
And had substitute Alan Connell got any sort of contact on that ball that flashed into the box right at the death, then the comeback would have been complete.
Parkinson will have concerns about the slack manner of City’s defending, though maybe it was a case of recent events finally catching up with them. The extra day off he granted the players because they finally have no Tuesday game will be much needed.
But there was no doubting the spirit within the ranks to ride each blow and put things right again.
That salvage operation started straight away after Branston drifted away from a dawdling Carl McHugh to meet Jim Paterson’s corner. His header flew like a bullet, although again there was some culpability on the goalline where Will Atkinson should have kept it out.
That was the only mistake the in-form midfielder made all afternoon as his rehabilitation in City colours continues apace.
Bright and intelligent on the ball, prepared to run all day and graft off it, Atkinson is fast becoming one of the first names on the Parkinson team sheet.
With the energetic Meredith a willing link on the left flank, City dusted themselves off quickly from that early shock.
The first of three equalisers was coming for a while. It arrived just before the half-hour mark, with Atkinson’s intelligent pass taking a handy clip off Michael Smith to fall perfectly for Nahki Wells.
The outcome was never in doubt as the Bermudian took his season’s goal tally to 14 with the confident finish of a striker bang in form.
Strike partner James Hanson went into the game the polar opposite on a shocking stretch of 16 successive blanks. He scooped one effort over when the ball would not sit down but his moment would come later.
But no sooner had City got back on terms, more sloppiness at the other end proved their undoing again. This time it was a loose pass from Gary Jones which Tom Eaves picked off in front of its intended target Stephen Darby.
The Rovers striker showed good strength to hold off the combined efforts of Nathan Doyle, Darby and Rory McArdle before shooting past the unsighted Matt Duke.
Parkinson used the half-time break to call for more attacking urgency, particularly from the goal-shy Hanson.
The big man almost had City level again with a downward header that unruffled Rovers stopper Sam Walker. But it was McHugh who made it 2-2 with a thumping connection from an inviting Jones corner.
Once more the stage was set for the visitors to push on for victory. Once more they allowed Rovers to steal their thunder seven minutes later.
Derek Riordan’s close-range volley was blocked by Darby but the rebound pinged out to Smith on the edge of the box and he fired through a crowd of bodies. It looked one setback too many for City but again they refused to lie down.
Garry Thompson, whose 32nd birthday had been announced on the PA system with two dedications from his team-mates, delivered the kind of cross that Hanson lives for.
The targetman’s trademark header did the rest and his ‘rocking the baby’ celebrations were as much out of relief at ending a two-month drought as celebrating the arrival of daughter Lexie.
That signalled the end of the goals but not the drama. The game had been played in a feisty spirit throughout and Seanan Clucas had been lucky to escape with only a yellow card for a swing at Doyle.
But the Rovers midfielder lit the fuse on the fireworks in stoppage time with a brutal foul on Meredith just yards from the City dugout.
Parkinson and Steve Parkin were straight on the pitch to protest and the home staff quickly joined them, the scene soon descending into a mass of pushing and shoving.
It was hard to work out who did what to who, if anything was done at all, but once referee David Phillips had picked through the debris there were red cards for Doyle and Wayne Brown, who got a second yellow. Clucas, whose rashness had instigated it all, got away scot-free.
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