Bradford City 2
Sheffield United 0
Saturday 24 August, 2013
Written by Nick Beanland (images by Claire Epton, see note below)
How good does this feel? After six years of purgatory in the basement division Bradford City have the distinct smell of a club on the up. I’ve always felt that momentum is inordinately important to a football club and, after 12 years in which the direction of travel has been almost unrelentingly downwards, City are on an upward trajectory. At last.
The journey to the game offers small indications of the strides the club is making. The roads are busier, parking spots harder to come by, the throng outside the ground thicker than it has been for some time. Inside it’s a sea of claret and amber and there are just under 2,600 Sheffield United supporters contributing to a fantastic crowd of 18,041. The noise level from the Kop was considerable, even with 10 minutes to go to kick off. Say what you like about ‘Take Me Home Midland Road’ – my view is that the original song is awful, though it’s easily sung and gets everyone clapping, which isn’t to be sniffed at – but it does make for an impressive sight and sound.
The Bantams were unchanged from last week’s defeat at Port Vale and started sharply, forcing a corner inside the first 90 seconds. It was cleared as far as Mark Yeates, who ran up a blind alley, giving the ball away cheaply and United broke swiftly, with Lyle Taylor cleverly sliding the ball through for Jamie Murphy to race in on goal. Murphy curled a low shot towards the bottom left hand corner of the goal and Jon McLaughlin did well to save with his legs. An early let off.
City then started to dominate territorially with Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle their usual combative and classy selves – Doyle’s volley from 30 yards was ambitious and ultimately futile. But on 15 minutes the home side should’ve taken the lead. Yeates’ header put James Meredith in behind the United defence. He squared to Nahki Wells, but his shot from eight yards was slightly scuffed and George Long – understudy to Connor Ripley at this summer’s FIFA Under 20 Championships – palmed away.
The opening quarter saw a barrage of City corners and free kicks but the Blades defended well and increasingly the away side looked a threat on the break. The exotically monikered Febian Brandy was quick and tricky and stung McLaughlin’s hands with a powerful drive on 25 minutes, with the consistently excellent Andrew Davies on hand to clear the danger. It was Brandy again who came close on the half hour when he cut inside Meredith and sped into the penalty area, only for Rory McArdle to slide in with an excellent tackle. Back on his feet, McArdle’s first act was to loudly remind Meredith of his lapse – this team has high standards and clearly demand the best of each other.
Shortly afterwards a mammoth and, it has to be said, mildly amusing, goalmouth scramble in the Blades’ box saw several City players take a swing at the ball but each time it was repelled by a red and white shirt. With half time nearing Meredith made inroads into the United box again and his cross was blocked by Callum McFadzean. It looked a handball from my seat 100 yards away, but Chris Foy decided from his position slightly nearer the play that a corner was the right call. Foy was involved again shortly afterwards when he got in the way of Neil Collins’ attempted pass out of defence and the ball fell kindly to Wells, whose shot from 20 yards out was well dealt with by Long.
With a minute to the break, Yeates’ curled free kick from 25 yards out was pushed wide by Long and that looked to be the end of the action in a pulsating first half. However, on 45 minutes Garry Thompson did well to flick his header into the path of Wells on the right hand angle of the penalty area. Wells strode on, jinked and jived to throw Collins off the scent, before driving a powerful low shot into the bottom left hand corner of the goal from 14 yards. A great finish from a striker bang in form. Roll on the 3rd of September. Quickly. Please.
The second half opened with City continuing to have the better of things, if only just. McArdle’s long clearance invited Long out of his area to deal with the danger, the young keeper could only slice the ball into the air, but his centre half Collins saved him with James Hanson lurking. Just past the hour mark McLaughlin again saved excellently as sub Ryan Flynn’s shot from 25 yards took a wicked deflection and looked set to dip under the bar until the keeper tipped over after a hasty backpedal.
Just past 70 minutes Wells cleverly played Thompson in behind the United defence and, going shoulder to shoulder with Flynn, the City man went to ground. Many around me were convinced it was a penalty, but it looked like Thompson was playing for the foul. Foy was correct in ignoring the appeals. This marked the beginning of a period of Blades’ dominance as the game entered its final quarter.
Substitute Ryan Ironside fired over on the stretch from the edge of the six yard box and centre half Harry Maguire nodded wide from close in. Both should have done better. With the clock edging towards 90 minutes, United looked increasingly dangerous but City’s defence were as resolute as they so often are these days, with Davies in particular an absolute rock, whilst McLaughlin looked as assured as he ever has in a City shirt.
On 87 minutes the game was up as sub Raffaele De Vita lashed a fierce drive from 18 yards which Long parried, only for Hanson to nod the ball back to Wells, whose mis-hit shot wrong footed the keeper and bounced slowly over the line. 2-0 and the team celebrated as one with Wells in front of an ecstatic Kop. Job done.
This is not a vintage Sheffield United team. They’re clearly under instructions to pass, pass and pass again and, at times, the approach worked, particularly as they broke quickly in the first half. However, on today’s evidence they lack a goal threat and a team as young as they are may start to lose heart if their possession of the ball doesn’t have a tangible end product. It’ll be interesting to see if David Weir sticks with this philosophy as summer turns to autumn and then to winter.
Bearing in mind City are fresh from an extended break in League Two, the casual observer may have been surprised that it was the home team who had the nous, the ability to ride out the periods of the game where the visitors hogged the ball. But that’s what we know this team has. Character, experience, a willingness to work for each other and work in an intelligent way. And goals. With a striker celebrating scoring in an eighth successive game and breaking a club record in the process we always have a chance, whether we play well or not.
Nahki Wells will quite rightly take the headlines for his performance in this match, and for his ever lengthening goal streak, but what sticks in my mind today are the 15,000 City fans I shared the experience with. Normally a big away following will make a big noise. United’s fans may even had made that noise today but if they did I couldn’t hear them, so loud and constant was the home support. The achievements of last season have drawn lapsed and virgin Bantams alike to Valley Parade and the feeling around the ground is one of relentless positivity.
There was a period in the middle of the first half where both teams were trading blows, both playing decent football on an excellent pitch. I sat spellbound, not by the football – excellent though it was – but by the sight and sound of City fans, young and old, male and female, all playing their part in getting behind this fine team. At long last we are shaking off the inertia and negativity bred by years of underachievement.
Not every day will be like this, so we must make hay while the sun shines. And when the sun doesn’t shine we must continue to back this team. They deserve it.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Meredith, Thompson (De Vita 78), Doyle (Ravenhill 88), Jones, Yeates (Reid 65), Hanson, Wells
Not used: Ripley, Taylor, McHugh, Connell