By Phil Abbott
A sublime acceptance of reality set in today, as the Bantams began to come to terms with their exceptional giant killing achievements. If fellow City fans are like me, you will have already relived the game more than once on the Sky+ box since midnight on Tuesday, largely to confirm that you were not dreaming and that we did actually knock Arsene Wenger and his full-strength Gunner artillery out of the Capital One Cup at the quarter-final stage!
In what was a remarkable night of football at Valley Parade, our wonderful team of warriors made my prearranged task of rating the players’ performances for Width of a post almost impossibly difficult. And what is pleasing, no, I mean overwhelmingly heartening, is that there isn’t a single City charge who deserves anything less than full marks for their astounding performance. In context, if you place the perspective of League 2 versus Premiership (including 10 full International players) there wasn’t a significant weakness anywhere on the park for the mighty Bantams.
So, if you would humour me, I am going to hold back on the usual numerical ratings and opt instead for a critique of each City player involved. Readers might want to make their own assessments in response to the article – I’d really like to see what you thought too.
Take a bow son! Duke was a commanding, decisive and formidable figure between the posts. Such was the quality of his work last night, he made a string of vital saves in the closing stages in particular. Perhaps the most impressive factor of his display was his ability not only to block some savagely stinging shots, but to parry the ball strongly into less dangerous areas of the penalty box. Nothing fell for the gazelle-like Arsenal stampede following up strikes at Duke’s goal. But ultimately, despite his in-game heroics, his most memorable efforts were plain to see in the penalty shoot out, saving brilliantly from Carzorla, and ‘forcing’ two miscues onto the posts, the last sealing the most unlikely of cup upsets. He was, in my opinion, a strong candidate for Man of the match.
I would argue that without doubt, Darby showed us his best yet in a City shirt, with a terrific shift at right-back. He literally popped up everywhere, more than holding his own against a tricky and direct Arsenal attack. He showed a superb maturity in his decision making, pressing hard, standing up and forcing attackers to do something special to beat him. Often, the only option available was a backwards ball for the flustered Londoners. Another impressive facet on display was his superb positioning in both attack and defence. His alert defending snubbed out more than a few tantalising, well timed slide rule passes.
If the first 15 minutes was anything to go by, Meredith could have had a nightmare of a game. Dealing manfully with the incessant waves of pressure down the Arsenal right hand side, he never gave up a tackle or chase to the dead ball line. Meredith adapted his positioning and summonsed reinforcements in the shape of Will Atkinson, to eventually snub out the early threats. Going forward, Meredith presented a turn of pace that relieved pressure on the defence, whilst often distributing sensibly to the midfield and attacking machines. He played with his heart on his sleeve, a number of times putting his body on the line to ensure he won tackles.
This boy must be pinching himself! Young, inexperienced and with plenty still to learn, McHugh calmly hid his shortcomings with a quite superb display of defending throughout. I’ve got to be honest, and I hold my hands up, that I felt McHugh would be the weak link for the Bantams, clinically exploited by Arsenal’s mobile and skilful forwards. How wrong I was. With a number of hugely important blocks, McHugh surely wins the ‘coming of age’ prize from last night’s extraordinary bonanza.
I’m still only on the defenders and quickly running out of appropriate superlatives! To think that he was essentially the defensive lead in a very inexperienced lower league line-up only serves to show the magnitude of McArdle’s efforts. The aerial battle was well and truly won by the City centre backs with McArdle throwing himself around at anything spherical and within a stretch of his straining torso. He’s proven to be a real constant in the Bantams team and is growing game by game. He worked the back line well, catching Arsenal offside in dangerous positions on a number of occasions.
Whilst there is great frustration amongst large sections of the City support about Thompson’s patchy league form, there can be no denying this man has an eye for a cup shock. Of course, his performance will be referenced historically to the stunningly finished goal on 15 minutes, but his overall contribution brought fouls against him in advanced positions, whilst his distribution was much improved from previous outings. On the goal, he reacted superbly in a split second as Jones’s fine cross scraped off Atkinson’s head and into his path. The sweetly struck volley sent the Valley Parade crowd into a frenzy.
The strain of every sinew of Atkinson’s punished body was the manifestation of a quite unbelievable effort from the wide man. Atkinson, fast redeeming his early poor City form, covered just about every blade of grass on the field, making timely interceptions and clever cameo runs to relieve the pressurised back line. Had he have played into extra time, he may well have pushed for Man of the match. It is really heartening to see the change in Atkinson, who has had unrivalled support from Phil Parkinson, which adds affirmation to the manager’s ability to sign, develop and mould players into the current City squad.
Like Will Atkinson, Jones was everywhere. He put his body on the line from start to finish and crashed in a hugely important penalty. Jones is another of those players who wears their heart on their sleeves and his post match mumblings on Sky were symptomatic of the love he has for the game. Stirring performances in midfield from himself and Nathan Doyle were, in my mind equally matched, but in the eyes of the match sponsor, Jones was Man of the match for his dramatic and energy sapping work ethic.
For me, Nathan Doyle oozed class and practically ruled the midfield. Working incredibly hard to negotiate defensive duties, balancing them against the setting up of meaningful attacking phases was the role that we all suspected someone like Doyle could handle in league 2, and above. The truth is that he was, in my opinion, the best midfielder on show at Valley Parade last night. Not only is he a workhorse, but he is a skilled passer, a hard tackler and a magnificent leader on the field. Man of the match would not have been an unfair call.
The former Co-op shelf stacker scared the living daylights out of two multi-capped international centre backs to the extent where they eventually left him to win the initial headers on his own, so they could deploy two men around the live wire Wells running off his flicks. You can see clearly why just about every opposition manager this season has said in support of Hanson that he is a real handful and pivotal to the Claret and Amber. It was a genuine joy and I am pleased to see James Hanson pull out such a positive game on the biggest of stages. He may not score as many goals as some would hope, but my goodness, last night he earned the accolades for a unique and technically outstanding display of a very high quality. He was another player who would have been a fine and worthy recipient of he Man of the match award.
The only disappointment from Wells’ remarkable performance is that he cannot have gone unnoticed by scouts and managers watching on. I suspect a promotion-less season would herald an almost guaranteed departure of the emerging city cult hero. Wells displayed some quite superb qualities, twice forging himself shooting opportunities from nothing, turning the experienced Mertesacker inside out each time. His work off the ball was immense, his work on it meant that Arsenal began to double up on him 20 minutes into the game, as he was having too much success down the wing in particular. The pairing of Wells and Hanson was too hot to handle. The Sky team called them the ‘Little and large show’! I thought they were absolutely superb!
Mr Reliable did it again; nothing special, nothing silly, just real hard, honest graft for the benefit of the team. When he came on, it was difficult for him to make a significant impact going forward, but in completing his defensive duties, he ensured that Arsenal sorties into the Bantams’ danger area were often thwarted, or at worst, redirected. He forged some good passing triangles with Blair Turgott and Alan Connell.
Fresh legs helped Connell get up to the speed of the game quickly. Even with his very first touch he controlled a tricky ball with his feet, played a neat layoff and darted into space to receive a return ball. This ability meant that City could begin to really load the defensive quarters knowing that Connell was able to hold up most ‘out balls’ until reinforcements arrived. Connell brought energy and a calm head to what was a tired Bantams team. His penalty was crucial, and one of a very high calibre. When you see a player pull out an untouchable top corner effort in the heat of a cup cauldron, you know you are looking at a great finisher.
From the moment Turgott entered the field it was clear he would add significant threats to Arsenal. His dancing and jiggery-pokery was a pain in the Arsenal backside as he muscled excitedly into every challenge like a spring lamb fighting for milk. Even though he didn’t have many opportunities to get onto the ball and make one of his probing runs, he was a constant hassle for the Gunners back line. Knowing they had to clear their lines quickly, it forced the Arsenal defenders into speedy decisions, giving them no time on the ball. His joy was clear for all to see at the end of the game, his sense of pride at being part of the City team was even greater.
I’m going to go and watch the match again now. You?