Bristol Rovers 3
Branston 2, Eaves 33, Smith 62
Bradford City 3
Wells 28, McHugh 55, Hanson 68
Saturday 24 November, 2012
By Jason McKeown
Afternoons such as this not only stir the soul, they add further fuel to the growing belief that this could be our year.
Behind three times, up against physical opposition who sought to bully the Bantams all over the pitch, and with cold, driving rain seemingly getting heavier by the second, it would been easy to buckle under and admit defeat. And we have seen so many City sides over recent years toss up the white flag in such situations, revealing a soft centre that would eventually undermine lofty ambitions.
But not the Bradford City class of 2012/13. Not on this afternoon. Not with so much character and self belief. They battled back on all three occasions, they battled valiantly against the tough tackling and long balls, and they battled on through the elements. And though the tremendous character spilled over into ugly scenes at the end that resulted in both teams – incorrectly, it seems – losing a player to an early bath, the brightness with which the team spirit shone all afternoon was the biggest positive to take home.
A point gained. But perhaps more significantly in the long-run, a point proven.
Sure, this was far from a perfect afternoon for City. That impressively tight-fisted defence of recent weeks seemed to fall apart at times today, as three untidy goals were gifted to Bristol Rovers. The first of which came with the clock not even a minute old, when the oh-so familiar sight of Guy Branston’s balding head connected with an early corner and the ball bounced over the line when it appeared as though Will Atkinson should have stopped it. The inquest to determine just how Branston had been left unmarked concluded with the blame attached to Carl McHugh – though he would have his revenge – but the way in which Branston choose to race over and celebrate in front of us supporters on the away terrace was disappointing.
Branston has apologised for this moment, and I’m pleased that he has done so. There’s no doubt the former City skipper has legitimate grievances about the way Phil Parkinson pushed him out at Valley Parade – and equally no one should begrudge him cheering a first goal for his new club – but we City fans were, in the main, always very good to Guy and that should not be forgotten.
Against a team who had lost six from seven, and for whom the manager Mark McGhee was under pressure, it was hugely disappointing to give what would have been an edgy home crowd an early boost, rather than cause them to turn on their team as the game progressed. But City gradually recovered from such a slow start to provide the first glimpses of that character which we know is instilled in the players who represent our club. Bristol Rovers’ physicality in both defence and attack – on-loan Bolton striker Tom Eaves looks a hell of a prospect – was never something that City could match. But when the ball was on the floor and the attacking players began to find their rhythm, the route to an equaliser opened up.
Nearly half an hour in, Will Atkinson was fed the ball just inside the Bristol Rovers half, performed a clever turn and then ran and ran. Nahki Wells – who was already causing Branston a few difficult moments – timed his run superbly (I have freeze-framed the Sky Sports News Footage, two defenders, one Branston, play him onside) and raced onto Atkinson’s through ball. From a tight angle, the Bermudian wonderfully curled an effort into the top corner past Sam Walker. You just knew he wouldn’t miss.
As Wells celebrated, Branston made a solo dash to berate the linesman. And somehow it seemed justice had been done and that – although Branston has slightly tainted his standing amongst City fans in my eyes – we can firmly forgive and forget.
It should have been cue for City to push on, and the away pressure continued. But then the direct, high tempo and press-down-the-pitch approach from Rovers paid off. A warning shot had been fired when Nathan Doyle was robbed of possession but brilliantly raced back to win the ball before the trigger was pulled, but when a long pass found Eaves in space on the left flank and he was able to run into the box and fire a low shot into the corner, there was a second deficit to make up.
The goal saw two City players culpable. First Matt Duke should have saved what was a fairly tame shot from Eaves. With Jon McLaughlin harshly dropped for one mistake against Burton last month, Parkinson faces another dilemma over whether to stick or twist with his choice of goalkeeper. The second player guilty was Garry Thompson, who throughout the first half had failed to provide Stephen Darby with anything close to resembling defensive cover, leaving the former Liverpool full back with a tough time dealing with Rovers’ doubling up on him. The home side clearly targeted this side of the pitch and enjoyed success via this goal, added to by the fact Darby was also caught up the pitch meaning no one could prevent Eaves cutting inside and shooting.
At this point you began to wonder if this was to be one of the final nails in Thompson’s City coffin. He continued to labour half-heartedly for the rest of the half, firing over twice when a bit more awareness could have seen him play the ball to a better-positioned team mate. The groans in the away end grew louder. And as the players went into the dressing room at half time, you doubted whether Thompson would emerge with them for the second half.
But something happened during the 15 minute interval. Parkinson no doubt spent a good portion of it speaking to City’s winger and his words had a positive effect. Because the Garry Thompson that came back onto the rain soaked pitch for the second act was a different player. There was suddenly urgency, energy and a level of desire that, frankly, we were beginning to fear had been lost somewhere in-between the night he destroyed Stuart McCall’s City in October 2007 and this summer. From playing with 10 and a half men, the Bantams now had their full complement.
Thompson had the half’s first shot in anger, and Wells and James Hanson came close shortly after. Then City won a corner from the opposite side to the one where Bristol Rovers had opened the scoring, and Gary Jones fired over a superb ball that McHugh powered into the net. Delirium on the increasingly slippy terrace. Redemption for the Irishman.
The pattern repeated itself. City on top, looking like overwhelming favourites to get the next goal…but then Rovers scored. The ball pinged about in the box with a couple of City blocks, before Michael Smith’s volley from distance flew past a crowd of players and past the unsighted Duke. You couldn’t help but wonder how many times City could climb themselves back up off the canvas, and whether this would prove one morale-denting blow too many. But they just keep proving you wrong.
Goal of the game soon arrived. Wells danced past Branston and fed the ball to Hanson, who hit a first time lay off to Thompson. City’s number 11 found a yard of space, and sent over a fantastic cross that met Hanson’s forehead at the backpost. The man who has kept missing for 16 games this time found he couldn’t miss, with a powerful low effort bouncing into the opposite corner of the net. The new father celebrated Bebeto USA 94-style by cradling his arms back and forth, and looked a born again player thereafter.
Suddenly Hanson, who barely got a kick out of Gary Kenneth before that, became the lovable bully we know he can be. He started winning everything in the air and was a menace on the ground. Hopefully this is the kick-start in confidence that his season badly needed, and he can get back to the top form he was producing at the start of the campaign.
Two sub-plots dominated the final quarter of the match. First, there was the Bantams’ push for a winner that they arguably deserved. Ritchie Jones replaced Thompson, which did seem a little harsh considering he had responded to Parkinson’s half time words so well and done what his manager had asked of him; and later on Alan Connell was brought on for a fading Wells. Connell had the game’s best chance deep in stoppage time, when he should have tapped home Hanson’s low knock down with just the keeper to beat, but by that stage sub plot number two had threatened to overshadow everything.
Because Bristol’s attempts to get going again carried an increasingly nasty edge. Tackles became that bit fiercer, and soon both sides were trading angry words with each other. The fast-deteriorating conditions – had the game had much more to go it would surely have been abandoned, with the pitch increasingly unplayable – did not help. And though referee David Philips’ attempt to let the game flow, rather than stop-start it with bookings, was commendable, it ultimately led to players taking matters into their own hands.
It threatened to boil over when Atkinson saw his shirt pulled by Kenneth for which the referee blew for a foul, and then a Bristol player struck out at City’s winger but was not spotted. Seconds later Wayne Brown disgracefully lunged into James Meredith right in front of the dugouts, prompting an ugly melee involving both sets of players and benches. In particular, the red midst had taken hold of Doyle and he had to be repeatedly dragged away by team mates as he sought to square up to Brown. Neither Phillips, his assistants or the 4th official seemed to know what to do next, and eventually Doyle was red carded and Brown issued a second yellow.
There is no justice that one player will now get a three match ban and the other – the instigator – just the one, because he was given two yellows. Although Doyle’s three-match suspension is not as bad as it might seem, given two of those games are cup ties and both Ricky Ravenhill and Ritchie Jones are available, TV footage suggests that Doyle does nothing to warrant a straight red, and you wonder if the club will consider an appeal. Of course going to the FA to complain about a decision, armed with footage of what was almost another brawl, may not be the best idea after Crawley-gate, but they appear to have a case.
That Crawley moment was the low point of last season, but looking back onthe adversity it triggered it now feels as though certain seeds were sown that night. McLaughlin’s flying punches might have been inadvisable, but the statement of sticking up for team mates and that everyone is in this together was laudable and has been developed upon since. Coming together to avoid relegation from such a difficult position has further instilled a steeliness into the club that now stands us in good stead.
Because the type of spirit, courage and determination so evident today is no longer a surprise – it’s become the normality. And when you look back on previous promotion-winning Bradford City sides (or for those of us not old enough, read about them) what stands out is that they always seem to possess these types of qualities. This group of players are not only hugely talented, relatively speaking, they are giving absolutely everything for this football club.
Afternoons like this fuel our belief these player can achieve promotion, and they should also further fuel the players’ mental toughness – to help them continue delivering this re-defined normality over the weeks and months ahead.
City: Duke, Darby, McArdle, McHugh, Meredith, Thompson (Ritchie Jones 77), Doyle, Gary Jones, Atkinson, Hanson, Wells (Connell 82)
Not used: McLaughlin, Naylor, Ravenhill, Forysth, Turgott
Categories: Match Reviews