Bradford City 1 Doncaster 2

FOOTBALL is not always the beautiful game; sometimes it can be downright cruel and unforgiving.

City were left to reflect on its vicious nature as they tried to fathom how Saturday suddenly turned out so wrong.

They should have been celebrating a first win in five games; a much-needed shot in the arm after a difficult October.

Instead, Doncaster became the fifth visiting side to leave Valley Parade with maximum points – the same number of home defeats as three of the bottom five.

And that is the area of the table that is rapidly coming into focus after the Bantams slipped below halfway for the first time. The gap to the relegation places is four points and shrinking.

Phil Parkinson talked positively afterwards – and in terms of the general performance it was hard not to. But in the cold light of day, one point from the last five games – coupled with that woeful home run – makes grim reading.

Suddenly Sunday’s local affair with Halifax in the FA Cup is taking on very significant proportions.

It could have been very different if they had not come up against a goalkeeper in elastic-limbed form. Paul Dickov could not have asked for a better 42nd birthday present than the second coming of his on-loan Man United stopper Sam Johnstone.

It could have been very different if they had not come up against another belligerent referee determined to defy the clear opinion of the masses and not award a penalty for a blatant handball.

It could have been very different if someone other than James Meredith had been presented with the gilt-edged late opportunity right in front of goal. It’s unfair to be too harsh on the left back, who had a decent game, but if only that had been James Hanson or Jon Stead.

For the most part, City had shown more intent than in previous home efforts. Of course there was a stage of the second half when things tailed off – brittle confidence levels do that – but it was far more satisfying fare than most of that served up to the Valley Parade faithful.

The fans stuck to their half of the bargain by delivering the passionate backdrop that the club had urged. And the players showed the “front foot” mentality that their manager had demanded after the tame display at Oldham the week before.

When Stead opened his account for his second loan spell, that looked the catalyst for a change in fortunes. For the first time this season, City went back to the home dressing room at half-time with the lead.

It was no more than they deserved – and but for Johnstone’s athleticism, their advantage could have been far more comfortable.

The first half was not chock-a-block with chances but barring one sharp save from Jordan Pickford to deny Richie Wellens, the goal-mouth action was focused on the Doncaster end.

Parkinson had made four changes from Boundary Park, only two of them enforced, and there was no sign of Aaron Mclean whatsoever.

So once again, just like the previous home match against Sheffield United, the pre-match chatter focused on a striker who wasn’t even at the ground.

The whys and wherefores of Mclean’s position were quickly forgotten though as Johnstone set about defying the Bantams with his one-man show.

After an early block from Hanson’s half-volley, he defied Felipe Morais from close range before pulling off his most spectacular save from his own defender as Luke McCullough diverted a Mark Yeates centre towards the top corner.

Yeates was once again City’s brightest spark and he should have earned a penalty when another cross was blocked by Cedric Evina’s outstretched arm.

Parkinson went apoplectic on the sidelines when referee Kevin Wright saw nothing wrong. “Absolutely criminal” was the manager’s verdict at yet another unsuccessful appeal, adding the Peterborough civil servant to a lengthy list of obstinate officials who “want to show they’re not affected by the crowd”.

But City’s pressure got its reward four minutes into the lengthy time added on for Evina’s knee injury.

Stead, having rapped a volley just past the post minutes before, deserved his moment.

It was a quality goal and came from another assist by Yeates. The Irishman’s first touch was a heavy one but he recovered quickly with a “Maradona” turn to elude the grasp of two blue shirts.

He fed Stead on the edge of the box and one neat movement from the Huddersfield man created enough room for a decisive finish with his left foot.

The pressure lifted, City saw out the half with a bombardment of the Donny goal and both Billy Knott and Alan Sheehan went close to doubling that lead. The whistle could not come quickly enough for the visitors.

City tried to maintain that momentum after the break but their grip loosened. Doncaster started to ask questions and McCullough should have levelled with a header.

Stead’s day was done with a dead leg and within two minutes, Rovers were back on terms. Sub Liam Wakefield crossed to the far post where Reece Wabara, switched to left back after Evina was stretchered off, powered through the crowd to convert.

For the first time, south Yorkshire voices could be heard amid the din. Familiar doubts and shortcomings rematerialised.

Then Wellens set up a deadly counter-attack with a perfectly-placed through ball and Curtis Main, only noticed up to that point for his hairstyle, came to the party with a whack that flew past an unsuspecting Pickford at his near post.

City tried to shake their heads and find a way back. Sheehan’s header deflected over the bar off a team-mate then Knott flicked on a cross and Meredith arrived with a diving header straight into the keeper’s midriff.

There were a few grumbles at the whistle – the home record does make shocking reading after all. But the overall feeling among the crowd was one of utter bewilderment.

City v Doncaster picture gallery