Bradford City 2
Reach 11, Hanson 42
Zoko 23, Freeman 65+87
Saturday 1 March, 2013
By Katie Whyatt
That hurt. To see City so hesitant and frenetic, so soon after clawing out two consecutive wins, was painful. To see them sank by two worldly goals was like deja vu. To see them go from leading – twice – to trailing was disheartening.
As former Arsenal prospect Luke Freeman – who, undeniably, looks a class, class act and rivals Swindon’s Alex Pritchard as the best opposition player I’ve seen at Valley Parade this season – curled his superb free-kick over City’s scrambling wall, my heart sank. It was, unfortunately, inevitable – the bottom clubs have always presented a curious stumbling block for Bradford, and today proved to be no different as the Hertfordshire side dominated proceedings with a dogged display that instantly belied their standing as one of the division’s basement teams.
But there had been some naïve hope in me, somewhere, that the Bantams would hold out for three points or a draw. There have been games amidst the burdensome run where City have unjustly left empty-handed; and I thought today, for all the performance might not have merited a haul of all three points, Lady Luck would finally place herself on the Bantams’ side.
It hurt that they couldn’t make it a hat trick of home wins.
You can blame who you like for the two second half goals that sank the Bantams – the consensus on the concourse seemed to point towards shoddy refereeing and a haphazard defensive display – and, while no one could have done anything to stop Freeman’s superb free-kick, it was exactly what the visitors had deserved. Though it was easy to ask questions about their ruthlessness and rule-bending in the first-half, Stevenage were quick, smart and clinical right until the death. City were tentative and backed off after Andrew Davies departed – it was unsettling to see.
Yet, the opening stages of the game had looked promising. Boro were undoubtedly in the game, but so were City, and the hosts retaliated to Zoko’s early effort. Aaron McLean’s surging run forward was ultimately blocked at the eleventh hour by Jon Ashton, but the move boded well for the Bradford.
City opened the scoring just minutes later. Carl McHugh’s cross was knocked into the path of a lively Adam Reach by James Hanson, and the influential winger fired home with a textbook volley from the edge of the area. While McHugh can understandably struggle defensively at full back, his partnership with Reach continues to look brighter and brighter, and the pair’s early work marked another huge step forward from last week.
Both had a mixed second half, but McHugh’s link-up play and distribution is definitely improving, and there’s no longer the hesitancy going forward he showed earlier on in the season. In any case, it was a top-drawer finish, and Reach’s composure in the final third is proving a naturally desirable outlet going forward.
But the visitors were soon level through the hugely influential Francois Zoko. Davies (Mr. March on the club calendar, by the way – the curse continues) slipped to allow Freeman to run on through, and, although Stephen Darby excellently blocked the midfielder’s effort, the striker was on hand to fire a low equaliser.
City seemed to struggle following the visitor’s resurgence, which crucially coincided with Davies’ departure, and there seemed a renewed hesitancy about the Bantams’ play. However, Hanson, who was again inspiring despite being swarmed by several defenders whenever he was on the ball, put City back in front just before half time, again with another wonder strike the Kop would have been delighted to witness. The forward’s smartly struck effort sailed under the outstretched arms of goalkeeper Chris Day, and, as the whistle blew for half-time, there was hope Bradford would carry through to a top second-half display.
Much like City, though, Stevenage never know when they’re beaten, and Boro entered the second half with a fluidity, tenacity and vigour that City’s disjointed erraticness – sedated only by Darby and Nathan Doyle – struggled to match. Within minutes, Stevenage were level, Freeman having smashed in from 25 yards after neither Rory McArdle nor substitute Matthew Bates closed down.
The Bantams uncharacteristically imploded and struggled to remain composed. Even a reversion to finely honed directness saw them jitter and stumble, and the side seemed to lack the confidence to be ambitious in possession. Mark Yeates was introduced for Garry Thompson (who, for the most part, performed well) and Andy Gray replaced McLean in a double substitution, but Gray’s anticipated hold-ups only marginally turned the tides.
By the time Freeman’s jaw-dropping second had flown in, there was a sense City had been playing for a point for a while. Perhaps it was justice served, but perhaps it wasn’t – not that deservedness ever has any impact in football. Either way, as the Stevenage entourage burst into impassioned cheer on the sidelines, it was sickening to leave with nothing. For a time, we’d sought to take all three, and now they were going empty-handed. It wasn’t the most uplifting game.
Nonetheless, it will be intriguing to see how the Hanson and McLean partnership progresses. McLean – though today evidently struggling to hit the heights of his previous outings – has almost looked too creative to be placed in the same mould as his predecessor (whose name escapes me – I think it began with an ‘N’), and be tasked with winning knockdowns to function solely as a finisher.
For me, McLean’s style would warrant a slightly different approach. Though very little came off for him and he struggled to retain composure in the final third, it was plain to see that he was seeking to create something – unlike Nahki, and for all his goalscoring record seems to suggest otherwise, he looks to be the origin, rather than the end result. While I wouldn’t at all advocate a mid-season shake-up for fear of the disruption it would cause, it shall be interesting, in the long-term, to see what kind of dynamic the two will yield.
In a narrower context, against the backdrop of the infamous ‘one win in 21’ statistic, six points from a possible nine would have been gobbled up without question, regardless of the opposition’s league standing, and performances like today’s have remained in isolation throughout the course of the season. No one should go home pounding the panic button, as, for all the table is tightly-poised, City remain in a healthy and comfortable 11th place.
The task now is to move on from today’s blip, and go to Brentford determined to maintain the momentum two wins in three inevitably brings.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies (Bates 36), McHugh, Thompson (Yeates 80), Jones, Doyle, Reach, Hanson, McLean (Gray 80)
Not used: Jameson, Bennett, Atkinson, Dolan