City 1 Northampton 2

THE message was loud and clear and shaped like Nathaniel Knight-Percival.

Stuart McCall may have denied that the centre half's unexpected appearance at centre forward was a direct dig at his employers as he continues to wait for striking back-up for Charlie Wyke.

But the presence of the defender leading the line demonstrated how short City currently are compared with some of their promotion rivals.

It brought uncomfortable flashbacks of the time that Peter Taylor started Luke Oliver up top.

Phil Parkinson was also not averse to throwing Andrew Davies forward in the closing stages when desperate measures were needed.

But at least City's previous boss could call on more conventional support for James Hanson with the likes of Jamie Proctor or Steve Davies to come off the bench.

On Saturday, McCall's alternative options were Dominic Poleon – whose game is hardly built for winning flick-ons or hold-up play – and five midfielders.

He looked on with envy as Northampton replaced front man Chris Long, scorer of their second goal, with Alex Revell in the last few minutes.

McCall had already been spotted having a touchline conflab with Revell before the second half resumed – the former Rotherham man would be the ideal type to share the load with Wyke.

But City, with nobody in the same mould, had to make do and mend with a 'false number nine' system by pairing the shorter duo of Shay McCartan and Paul Taylor.

The pre-match revelation of Wyke's absence produced the inevitable conspiracy theories that spring up with any injury to a prominent player during the transfer window.

It is a twilight zone when anything or everything is not what it seems – or at least that's how the sceptics dissect each shred of information.

McCall was adamant that this was no 'fake news' and Wyke had been troubled since Yeovil with a back problem that had prevented him from training since.

Yet there was no disputing the gaping hole his non-appearance left in City's line-up.

As one wag suggested on social media, the striker's bad back has been brought on from carrying the team week in, week out.

Twitter on Saturday night became a toxic ground as the anger at another Valley Parade flop was stirred up by the suggestion that Tony McMahon will be going to Scunthorpe after all.

The club fiercely denied it and will dig their heels in to stop anyone joining a top-six opponent.

But there is no doubt the McMahon issue remains a live one as the spotlight turns brightly on Edin Rahic and his January intentions.

The chairman's rallying call that automatic promotion is still within City's grasp looked hollow after such an anaemic afternoon.

Results elsewhere may have been kind to the Bantams – the difference to second place stayed six points after Shrewsbury's setback at Blackburn – but there was no evidence to suggest this team can bridge that gap.

And it is true that another patched-up team will certainly not do that. But consider the list of absentees – only six of those who started the win at Northampton in September were fit to do so this time.

It is difficult to stay rational in January with so much speculation, rumour and downright nonsense flying about.

Rahic and Stefan Rupp should be judged at the end of the month and not before. Then, and only then, will we know how strong – or otherwise – City's squad will be down the home stretch.

But McCall is right to call for help now. However tough negotiations can be during this narrow market, the club must go all out to bring in reinforcements before things drift.

A dodgy run at this stage could jeopardise all the good work that has gone in to putting the Bantams in such a challenging position once again.

Rahic himself has said that January and February are arguably the most important months of the season. That needs to translate into backing for his manager with fresh personnel.

For the second week running, City came up short against opponents who had wasted no time in filling their boots in the transfer window.

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink got the Northampton job in the first week of September – it has been a long four months waiting for the chance to impose his own thinking on recruitment.

Hence the five new faces that have turned up at Sixfields since New Year's Day.

Not that Northampton morphed from relegation fighters into world-beaters overnight. They simply cashed in on some more worryingly-generous home defending and played the conditions better on Valley Parade's pudding pitch.

Fears that City would lack any cutting edge minus Wyke looked well-founded by their slow start. A quiet, edgy crowd made for an odd feel to an occasion as grey as the weather.

Matt Kilgallon briefly lifted the mood just before half-time when he rammed in the rebound after keeper Richard O'Donnell, one of the Northampton new boys, spilled Paul Taylor's fierce free-kick.

But the flag was raised for offside – and City's best chance disappeared with it.

Within two minutes, it was Northampton celebrating as John-Joe O'Toole lost marker Romain Vincelot to plant a free header from a corner past Lukas Raeder.

McCall responded by promoting Knight-Percival to the frontline. But again City paid the price for lapses at the other end as Jacob Hanson failed to clear O'Donnell's boot upfield and Long latched on to the loose ball to finish.

The hosts finally woke up in attack to launch a late salvo but luck deserted them.

Poleon, Timothee Dieng and Knight-Percival all saw efforts somehow kept out in a ping-pong scramble. Then Knight-Percival's knockdown found Poleon for a bar-rattling effort that he should have buried.

Hasselbaink amusingly described it as "squeezy bum time" for the Cobblers. But he was punching the air this time rather than the dugout roof as he had famously done on a previous Valley Parade visit with Chelsea long ago.

Taylor did pull one back in the second of the five added minutes with a trademark long-range strike.

There was then brief hope with a late four-man break. But Kilgallon's cross failed to find a claret and amber shirt and full-time boos ensued.