Saturday sees Charlton Athletic make their final northern expedition of 2016, with a trip to Valley Parade to face Bradford City.
In recent years, there has been little reward for those who have made travels up north during December. Heavy defeats to Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn Rovers, and Burnley telling only half the story, with the Addicks so often finding additional ways to make these journeys more miserable.
At least on this occasion supporters will not be informed by an underqualifed head coach that we shouldn’t be turning “Charlton…into a team who are going everywhere and must win and must be better than the home side” after apparently being “good for 44 minutes” during a pathetic capitulation at Turf Moor.
For instead of dealing with Karel Fraeye’s embarrassing efforts and words, the Addicks will be led by Karl Robinson in a league game for the first time. If nothing else, the recently appointed boss boasts competence and enthusiasm that far outweighs the man who was in charge this time last year.
But the trip to Yorkshire provides a very tough test for Robinson, not simply because games of this nature in recent years have ended in misery and a ruined Christmas.
The Bantams boasting one of only two unbeaten home records in League One, with the other belonging to leaders Scunthorpe, while the Addicks head up north still adapting to Robinson’s ways and without key personnel.
An impressive effort required to avoid another unpleasant December northern adventure.
LAST MEETING – BRADFORD CITY 2-0 CHARLTON ATHLETIC (13/04/2001)
The last meeting between these two sides took place when they were both playing their football in the Premier League. A 2-0 victory for Bradford delaying their inevitable relegation, and meaning Charlton’s chances of sneaking into a European place were heavily dented.
The Bantams taking the lead with 74 minutes played, as Sasa Ilic brought down Gunnar Halle inside the box. Robbie Blake converting from the spot.
And their lead was doubled six minutes later, as a mistake from Ilic presented Benito Carbone with an opportunity to guide the ball into a near-empty net from the edge of the area.
The goal confirming defeat for Addicks, after a performance that boss Alan Curbishley described as “not good enough”.
There was an element of uncertainty over how Bradford would respond to the departure of Phil Parkinson, with their long-serving and successful boss joining Bolton.
The one-time Charlton manager, having taken the Bantams to the League Cup final and led them to promotion from League Two in 2013, guided the Valley Parade club to a top six finish, unfortunately falling to Millwall in the play-off semi-final.
But, under the stewardship of returning boss Stuart McCall, Bradford have responded positively to what might well have been a damaging double disappointment at the end of last season. Flirtation with, and often occupying, the division’s top two throughout the campaign.
A touch of inconsistency in recent weeks, however, has knocked McCall’s side back a little. The impressive home efforts maintained, but three away defeats in their previous four games on the road leaving the Bantams five points off the top two.
However, while they continue to maintain home form that has wielded twenty points from ten games, there remains every chance that, with some improvement on the road, Bradford can successfully challenge for an automatic promotion spot.
That Charlton currently sit two points off the top six with a game in hand reflects two things. How horrendously poor this division is, and the improvement that has been made either side of Russell Slade’s rather bizarre sacking.
For the Addicks have disappointed for much of this season. Sluggish, underwhelming, and not nearly supporting Katrien Meire’s claims that a top six finish will be achieved as an absolute minimum. Nor supporting her claims that she and the regime she’s part of have changed their ways.
However, 15 points from the previous eight league games represents a very positive return. Interrupted by the 3-0 defeat to Swindon that rather unfairly did for Slade, but also including comprehensive victories over Coventry and Bristol Rovers.
The newly appointed Robinson inheriting a squad that contains individuals who are slowly improving, providing a degree of positivity to contrast from the overall despair and disconnection that Roland Duchatelet’s regime has instilled upon the club and its supporters.
But, in spite of that on-the-pitch improvement, it would be wrong to disregard the performances in the previous two games. A very poor effort, and a very fortunate point gained, against Sheffield United, and a rather disjointed performance in Robinson’s first game against former club MK Dons in the FA Cup last weekend shows further improvement is required.
Particularly, there is a need for the squad to adapt to Robinson’s style of football. From the rather conservative style that Slade deployed, to the passing, expansive and attacking brand that Robinson is associated with.
Bradford top scorer Billy Clarke is a doubt for Saturday with a calf problem that has kept the forward out of the Bantams’ previous three league fixtures.
The Irishman, who has struck on six occasions this campaign, would be a big miss for McCall’s side, for his general play as much as his goals. Jordy Hiwula, Haris Vuckic and Marc McNulty the trio competing for a place alongside James Hanson should Clarke be unavailable.
But Tony McMahon, who hasn’t played a league game since scoring twice and tearing a thigh muscle in the August victory over Coventry, will be available to Bradford after making his return in the cup-that-must-not-be-named on Wednesday night.
Defender McMahon, who made a pre-planned appearance 25 minutes into the victory over Cambridge United, is unlikely to start given his lack of game time, but is an option for McCall.
Johnnie Jackson and Kevin Foley are likely to return to the Charlton squad having been rested for last weekend’s FA Cup draw with MK Dons.
Jackson will be competing for a place in midfield, though that Robinson started Jordan Botaka and Ademola Lookman in his first game as boss suggests two natural wingers will be deployed, while Foley may come back into the XI at right-back.
Foley could come in for Ezri Konsa, who should be available despite suffering a nasty head knock last weekend and being replaced midway through the first-half, while Jorge Teixeira is also an option, with the previously forgotten defender doing a respectable job at right-back against MK Dons and apparently now having a “clean state”.
Whoever is selected at right-back, they’ll be protecting Dillon Phillips, with Declan Rudd still kept out by a hip injury. Chris Solly (knee) and Ricky Holmes (foot) are also remain unavailable.
KEY BATTLE – A SETTLED SIDE AGAINST ONE THAT NEEDS TO ADAPT
During last weekend’s draw with MK Dons, there were signs that some time may be required for the Addicks to adapt to Robinson’s style of football.
Charlton slightly uncomfortable with playing the ball out from the back, passing in midfield sometimes panicked and erratic, and the dynamic forward play that has been promised was rarely seen.
There no doubt that Robinson will have some kind of impact on this side, with many hoping his more adventurous style of football will benefit the forward talent that the Addicks boast. Particularly allowing Holmes, upon his return, to have an even greater impact.
But these sort of changes, whether subtle or a complete alteration in mentality and strategy, are unlikely to have the immediate impact that many crave. A result not only of the need to adapt, but the current lack of options available to Robinson.
By contrast, Bradford are relatively settled all over the pitch. Not a particularly flamboyant side, but a structured one under McCall’s leadership who are comfortably collecting points at Valley Parade.
And so it can be argued that the Bantams have something of a double advantage. Not only the fact that they’re playing at home, but that they are a side already accustomed to a style of play and their duties within it.
A need, therefore, for the Addicks to show greater adaptability than was on display in the FA Cup draw in order for them to have the best chance of coming away from Yorkshire with points gained.
Ending Bradford’s unbeaten home record unlikely, but, with a busy schedule on the horizon, this Charlton side must show clear signs of adapting to Robinson’s style of football even if points can’t be picked up. Competing, and being worthy of something, would be pleasing regardless of the result. Bradford City 2-1 Charlton Athletic