Hartlepool United 0
Bradford City 0
(City win 3-2 on penalties)
Tuesday 9 October, 2012
By Jason McKeown
Perhaps it was the result of confusion about whether the final penalty of the shootout had in fact crossed the line. But the delayed celebrations for Bradford City’s spot kick success over Hartlepool seemed to carry a certain level of reserve that saw the good feeling quickly fade away into a shrug of the shoulders – even before you’d left the stadium.
Are we spoiled? Not in terms of success over recent years, of course; but when it comes to Johnstone’s Paint Trophy shootout excitement we’ve had our fair share in two of the last three seasons. And the reward for triumphing at Victoria Park is that an already busy fixture list – aided by City being the only League Two side left in the League Cup – gets that little more congested. Another Tuesday night in action, when league rivals will be sat at home resting up.
Not that City travelled back from the North East with just an unwanted raffle prize. Three winless League Two games – one of which seeing the Bantams concede three or more goals on the road for the third time in six league away matches – demanded a positive reaction last night. And although it took a long, long time to get going as a contest, City shaded this second round tie against higher league opposition, with a confidence-lifting performance.
After Phil Parkinson used his half time team talk to iron out one or two issues, the 4-3-1-2 formation began to impress in the second half and offer strong signs the City manager has found a more effective way of playing away from home. Key to ‘Plan B’s’ success is the link up play of Alan Connell – the closest the Bantams have come to having a traditional number 10 in a long time – who was as prominent and effective in the second half as he was quiet in the first.
In front of him, Garry Thompson was afforded another chance of playing the striker role he apparently prefers – but once again failed to make that position his own. James Hanson started alongside him and – although missing two very good chances in a matter of minutes that was quickly followed by his early withdrawal – proved a more effective frontman than Thompson. The first of those sitters came when Hanson charged to the backpost but could only head Thompson’s cross wide of the post from a yard out. But it should not be overlooked that Thompson’s cross itself had been wayward in direction, after he was in a position on the edge of the box to deliver something much better.
At that stage City were on top. Ritchie Jones had forced an excellent save from Scott Flinders after a superb flick on from Connell placed the ball into the returning midfielder’s path. Connell and Thomspon linked up to present Jones with another opportunity two minutes later, but this time he shot over the bar. Later on substitute Nahki Wells fizzed an effort across the box that Flinders did well to keep out, and Ricky Ravenhill hit the bar with a slightly misdirected header following some superb City build up play. Hartlepool had several chances too, but a visiting defence marshalled in Andrew Davies’ typically authoritative style performed well. I like the look of Carl McHugh at left back, but I do wish Rory McArdle would improve his distribution.
The performance was the night’s true positive. The three man midfield worked well, with Ravenhill sitting in front of the back four and Jones and Will Atkinson – again very impressive last night – able to get forward. It seems strange to see such a narrowly-shaped City side without wingers, and it might prove a hard sell in home games where the inevitable hollows of “where’s your width City?” will swirl in the air. But to see City defend resolutely and attack with a conservative purpose appears suitable for away matches, at least until Kyel Reid is back.
Despite a flurry of late Hartlepool corners, the game went to penalties and there was great confidence that City’s strong record in shootouts would be continued. Thompson blasted the first penalty into the home stand – in some ways summing up his night – but Pools’ Jonathan Franks smashed his side’s second spot kick onto the bar and Ryan Noble hit the post with their next effort. Substitutes Nathan Doyle and Wells, and then Connell, successfully converted for City.
It was set up for Davies to be the hero and clinch it with the Bantams’ fifth penalty, only for Flinders to make an excellent save. However, when Jon McLaughlin got a hand to Evan Horwood’s attempt, so it rattled onto the bar and bounced down on the line, City were through. It was unclear if the ball had crossed the line and only Connell dared to start the celebrations, but eventually the referee ruled that McLaughlin had kept out Horwood’s effort and his team mates rushed to join Connell in congratulating City’s keeper.
With Bury, Crewe, Coventry, Doncaster, Port Vale, Preston and Sheffield United/Notts County in the Northern hat alongside City, the potential of a half-decent draw is reasonably high. So perhaps we should feel more jubilant about reaching the next round, and be proud of the fact that we’re in October and still competing in every competition we have entered.
It’s just the good start to the league campaign has seen eyes fix onto a bigger prize, with realistic hopes grow of achieving something very special this season. And, as important as last night was in terms of the team recovering from Saturday and rediscovering its composure and rhythm, the target of celebrating a promotion next May might be aided by having as few distractions as possible.
Or to look at it another way, only a City fan could return from watching their team beat higher league opposition in the cup and still find something to moan about.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Oliver, McHugh (Meredith 71), Ravenhill, Ritchie Jones (Doyle 69), Atkinson, Connell, Thompson, Hanson (Wells 69)
Not used: Duke, Hines