Bradford City 3
Hanson 58, Jones 59 + 84
Crewe Alexandra 3
Ikpeazu 11 + 54, Pogba 78
Saturday 8 February, 2014
By Jason McKeown
Gary Jones isn’t going to live forever, yet neither is he ready to relinquish his role as the heartbeat of Bradford City.
The skipper looks revitalised. He remains such a relevant and inspirational figure, and was the catalyst behind the Bantams coming from two goals behind to avoid a panic-inducing defeat against a vibrant Crewe side. Jones was magnificent, Jones was heroic. Jones was – as the Kop sung loudly and proudly – magic.
Twice the 36-year-old levelled the game with stunning strikes from the edge of the box, but that only told half the story of his age-defying display. Post-Christmas fears had been understandably raised about whether the veteran’s powers were fading. Since the interval at Bramall Lane three weeks ago, Jones has silenced his critics to deliver a succession of rousing displays. After the match, Phil Parkinson spoke of Jones experiencing a second wind to his season and the manager is right. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated.
The significance of his role in City’s comeback cannot be fully realised right now, but this had the feel of a season-turner for the club. As Crewe found themselves 2-0 in front just after half time, the already darkened mood around Valley Parade threatened to turn into a blackout. Had City accepted defeat, the gap to the relegation places would have shortened to a twitchy five points. You could only have imagined what the impact would have been on the pressure gauge.
Yet City refused to give up; springing into life with two goals in a minute and then bouncing back from the further shock of going 3-2 down to claim a point. A point that still means the ‘one win in…’ counter turns to 20; but all signs suggest that the illusive victory is getting closer.
Perhaps the rut should have been stopped here. Certainly if the Bantams hadn’t waited until 4pm to turn up, the story could have been different. A pedestrian first half performance understandably prompted half time boos as City handed the initiative to a Crewe side that are plunged deeper into the relegation quick-sand than the still-paddling home side. Early City efforts to dictate the tempo carried promise but lacked genuine threat. Crewe scored with their first attack and proved well worth their lead.
The goal was a bad defensive mistake from the gifted but relatively inexperienced Carl McHugh. A late switch kept him in the team after Rory McArdle cut his eye badly in training 24 hours earlier. McHugh had started well but failed to deal with a bouncing ball that would have been meat and drink to McArdle. Jon McLaughlin made the split-second decision to rush out and close down the now-clean-through Uche Ikpeazu, enabling the on loan Watford striker to lob the ball over his head and into the net.
McHugh looked shaken by his misjudgement but eventually recovered his composure. Nevertheless, the defensive reshuffle caused by McArdle’s absence undermined City’s efforts all day. The left-sided Andrew Davies was moved to the right to accommodate McHugh and suffered as a result. Still very good, but not irrepressible. Reducing the effectiveness of your best central defender, even by just a few percentage points, is an unwise strategy and hopefully won’t be repeated at Brunton Park on Tuesday evening.
The reaction to the goal was poor, as the 45 minutes went by without City creating a meaningful chance. New on loan signing Matty Dolan was brought straight into the side and, though showing promise, initially succumbed to the Jason Kennedy syndrome of not understanding his role alongside Jones. Parkinson must have used his half time team talk wisely, for Dolan and Jones emerged from the interval with a much greater balance in their responsibilities that meant, for Jones, there was more of a licence to get forward. How it would pay off.
Indeed the whole team began the second half with poise and purpose, showing urgency in winning back the ball and the speed at which they got it forwards. James Hanson had a header well blocked by Crewe’s impressive teenage goalkeeper, Ben Garratt. A scramble in the box saw Garratt again save from Hanson before Dolan smashed the rebound shot, from an angle, wide of a sparsely guarded net. Another flurry of shots in the box from Hanson and McLean went unrewarded. It seemed that the equaliser was coming.
So it was completely against the run of play that Crewe doubled their lead a minute later. Braddan Inman powerfully shot from distance, as Crewe counter-attacked; and though McLaughlin did everything right in pushing the ball away from danger, Ikpeazu charged in to smash home the rebound from an angle even tighter than Dolan’s miss.
But City, to their huge credit, refused to let the blow knock them out of their stride. 36 minutes still to play, they came roaring back and had levelled the contest with 31 left on the clock.
It was just like the 2-0 recovery at Sheffield United, when Jones rebooted to life. Aaron McLean set both goals up; first delivering a wonderful low cross that Hanson ran onto and clinically finished for his third goal in four games. Then Jones, the other Bramall Lane scorer, ran onto McLean’s knock down and hit a stunning strike that flew into the net. Valley Parade erupted as Jones ran to the front of the Kop to take supporter and team-mate acclaim.
As much as Jones was at the forefront of the fightback, the highly impressive McLean and Adam Reach deserve great credit also. McLean enjoyed comfortably his best game so far in a City shirt and there are tangible signs that his partnership with Hanson is beginning to gel. Reach is hugely talented and, though lacking the deadly pace of the man he has replaced, Kyel Reid, has a wonderful box of tricks and commendable accuracy in his crossing. Provided he can maintain this form, he will surely be troubling the first team spots at Middlesbrough next season. Let us enjoy him while we can.
With Dolan sitting and Jones driving forward, Reach’s intelligence causing problems and Hanson and McLean reading each other’s runs and flicks, the initiative was surely available to be claimed. Crewe’s concern perhaps exemplified by Steve Davis’ decision to take off a bewildered Ikpeazu when he was on a hat trick.
Only Kyle Bennett, of the forward players, was a disappointment. The Doncaster loanee’s slow start to life at Valley Parade was continued with a frustrating unwillingness to run wide and, at times, curious failure to present himself as an option to others, by standing statuesquely close to his marker. Garry Thompson’s stock may not be what it was, but his introduction from the bench for Bennett was welcomed and the former Morecambe man performed well.
Hanson should have capitalised on his side’s momentum with 14 minutes to play. Bates – again letting down no one at left back – whipped in a ball that Hanson did well to control and dribble past the defender, only for his effort from eight yards out to sail harmlessly over the bar. That he took it on his weaker right foot might excuse the wastefulness, but when two minutes later Crewe made it 3-2 through the excellent Mathias Pogba it looked as though Hanson’s miss would prove very costly.
No matter, as McLean and Jones were soon at it again. Good control from the striker, and a low finish from the midfielder that arrowed into the bottom corner to spark relief. McLean might be yet to break his scoring duck, but he has played a part in every goal that City have scored since he arrived. Whether he is able to succeed in replacing Nahki Wells’ goals remains to be seen, but he could offer significant value to the rest of the team in other ways.
Both teams could have snatched a fourth in the final minutes, with Chuks Aneke forcing a memorable save from McLaughlin and Hanson heading Reach’s cross straight at Garratt, when placing it either side of the keeper would have resulted in a hedonistic-sparking winner. Still, the positives outweighed the negatives.
When compared to the desperate Christmas period, where confidence looked shot to pieces and ideas had run out, the corner is slowly being turned. The new signings have added fresh impetus, more goalscoring chances are being created during games and – though it’s one win in 20 and no victories in 11 – it’s only one loss in five. No team in England’s top four divisions can match City’s 14 draws this season. Yet the further improvement needed to turn stalemates into victories is hardly vast.
Not with Jones back to his best, demanding everything from the players around him and lifting the way in which the whole team plays. The talisman of City’s League Two promotion looks set to repeat that role in our survival bid. Gary Jones isn’t going to live forever, but he’s going to bloody well give it his best shot.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, Davies, McHugh, Bates, Bennett (Thompson 77), Dolan, Jones, Reach, Hanson, McLean
Not used: Jameson, Taylor, Atkinson, De Vita, Gray, McBurnie