The countdown is now down to just a couple of days so I thought it was time I started looking at the fact that a football match is the main focus of Saturday afternoon and not just a trip to Wembley! Aidy Boothroyd played both legs of the semi-final to perfection tactically but he’s going to have some big decisions to make in the lead up to the big day in terms of his starting eleven.
For what it’s worth, I think he may just stick with the same eleven that started the first leg at Sixfields against Cheltenham to allow for more attacking flair to match what will need to be another dogged defensive display. That team was as follows:
GK: Lee Nicholls
DEF: Tozer, Carlisle, Cameron, Collins
MID: Hackett, Harding, Guttridge, Demontagnac
ST: Akinfenwa, O’Donovan
I think the biggest locks for starting places are Nicholls, Hackett, Guttridge, Bayo and O’ Donovan. I would have said Clive Platt may feature if I’d have written this a few weeks ago but Bayo, if not on the goal scoring front, has signalled a return to form just at the right time and little Roy has shone over the past month.
Elsewhere I do think Ben Tozer will play because of his lethal weapon but with him it’s all about whether Aidy will prefer a five man midfield with O’Donovan moving back or whether John Johnson will be sacrificed at right back. I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment but there’s plenty of room for speculation (and to keep Bradford guessing!). Another argument would be Johnson in at right back and Tozer replacing Harding in the middle of the park but I would worry about the protection of the back four should that be the case.
Kelvin Langmead is one who you would never have imagined being considered for a place on the bench in the biggest match in many a year but the inspired form of Clarke Carlisle and Nathan Cameron in the semi-finals have given Boothroyd a good headache there. I say stick with Cameron and his pace with Langmead coming off the bench late on for one of his dramatic injury time winners! Based on what I think Aidy will do, then, here are some of the key battles that will likely take place on the hallowed turf of Wembley on Saturday afternoon…
As mentioned, before the playoffs you would have put Langmead in here without question but Cameron was outstanding in both legs of the playoffs. His pace is likely to win him the battle to get into the Town side because of the nippy and energetic Nahki Wells leading the threat of the Bantams’ attack. Wells has a good history against the Cobblers with a hat-trick in last seasons’ 3-1 win at Sixfields and the only goal of the game in both of the league meeting between the clubs this season.
The Bermudan forward is City’s top scorer with 21 goals and his form in the final should have a major hand in which way this game goes. Cameron was drafted into the Cobblers side towards the end of the season after cutting ties with Coventry City and after a shaky start helped the side to three clean sheets in a row. He will need to be alert for the entire ninety minutes – keeping Wells quiet could well prove key.
After the 2-0 home defeat to York City that all but ended our automatic promotion hopes, every Town fan wanted Luke Guttridge back in the team to provide his energy, experience and craft in the middle of the pitch for the season’s run-in. We got just that and were unbeaten for the rest of the season with the midfielder striking a goal that will go down in Cobblers history at Whaddon Road in the playoff semi-final as well as scoring in the final league game of the season against Barnet.
Guttridge faces a big test at Wembley against the vastly experienced Gary Jones. Jones has been consistent in the Bantams side this season and was key to their push into the playoffs late in the campaign with his usual committed and hearty performances. This is likely to be a real battle in the middle of the park and I’m betting that both men cannot wait!
Chris Hackett’s performance will be huge for us on Saturday and he comes up against one of the best left backs in League Two in James Meredith. Meredith has been another consistent performer for the Bantams since joining them in June of last year and has had an excellent first season in Bradford colours. He’s a full back that loves to get forward so it will be interesting to see if Hackett is able to cope as well when pushed back.
The Cobblers man has bags of pace and seems to have rediscovered his form of late, creating the Roy O’ Donovan goal in the first leg of the playoffs and terrorising the Cheltenham full backs all night. He had a quieter second leg but with a big pitch at Wembley to escape on to he will be desperate to really get at Meredith from the get go.
Will Beast Mode be on at Wembley? We have to hope and pray that it is because Bayo has a stiff test ahead of him as he comes up against former Middlesbrough and Stoke City man Andrew Davies. The 6 foot 3 defender is rock solid and managed to keep Burton Albion’s star striker Calvin Zola under control in the playoff semi-final second leg having missed the first leg. Davies, then, will be confidant of keeping Bayo quiet too, though the man who could be playing in his final game for the Cobblers is out to banish the memories of his last playoff final appearance.
Akinfenwa was a part of the Swansea City team in 2006 who were beaten on penalties in the League One playoff final against Barnsley and missed a crucial spot kick in that shoot out. A lot may also depend on Bayo’s patience as the game wears on and if referee Keith Stroud takes the usual stance of giving free kicks against him for standing up. Both players have bags of experience and Bayo needs to keep it calm and do what he does against very strong opponent here.
The main battle is between the two managers and that in itself is as intriguing as it comes at this level. Both men are in the process of rebuilding their respective reputations after tasting life at a much higher level earlier in their careers. Boothroyd took Watford into the Premier League in 2006 whilst Parkinson was, at the same time, taking charge of Hull City. After relegation for Boothroyd at the first attempt and a bad start for Parkinson at Hull, both found themselves in League One by 2009 – Boothroyd at Colchester United and Parkinson at Charlton, who were relegated from the Championship under his watch.
Since then, Aidy has spent time at Coventry City whilst Parkinson saw his Charlton side beaten by Swindon Town in the 2010 playoff semi-finals, eventually departing The Valley in January 2011. The paths of the two managers then brought them both into League Two by the end of 2011 and since then they have both been through a rigorous process of making their squads capable of first competing and then winning at this level. Both have created squads that are capable of escaping League Two at the right exit after coming so close to losing their places in the league just twelve month ago and both should be commended for the efforts of reaching Wembley just one year later.
Tactically, Boothroyd gets unfair criticism for his ‘long ball’ tactics but you would struggle to find many League Two sides playing flowing football I would suggest. His direct approach has worked and if it gets us over the line on Saturday I can’t see many of the 20,000+ Cobblers fans in attendance complaining! Parkinson has already helped Bradford to the League Cup final this season, of course, and that run saw some outstanding performances full of organisation and utter commitment to the cause. It’ll be a cracking head to head on the benches!