Leyton Orient 0
Bradford City 1
Saturday 29 March, 2014
Written by Alex Scott (image by Gareth Walker)
It was the surprise that was weird. The ease of it all. City have had to work so hard to score over the last few months, but as Aaron Mclean slotted home unmarked at the back post, it appeared almost simple. A deep corner over the crowd, a wheeling centre forward who has lost his man, and a carefree finish. City were in front, and it was all so simple.
Watching from afar in the depths of south London, there’s a frequent powerlessness about being a City fan. Things “happen” and everything changes. The last couple of weeks has been one of those times. I last saw City play at Colchester three weeks ago. An impressive, gutsy win which felt at the time to quell any rifts in the City camp, and reinforce again that whilst this team may lack for many things, determination wasn’t one of them. They would be fine.
The intervening weeks between leaving that service station on the A12 and jumping on the Central Line to Leyton appear to have changed everything. The grace period from last season is definitively over. The reaction to the past week’s defeats appeared to have mutated into something. We’re going down; we won’t get another point. This was either the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. After this troubled winter, the City fan in all of us had come back. It did feel like the end of something.
This hasn’t been helped by James Hanson’s back and a horror show at home to Walsall on Tuesday. Simon Parker noted the other day how we haven’t won in two years without Hanson and that really isn’t difficult to believe given his reliability, and after watching them struggle through so many times. In Jon Stead they may for the first time have an at least competent replacement. He looked rusty at Brisbane Road – and I imagine our, um, agricultural approach was a bit of a culture shock from what they play down the six-four-one – but he did fine. He didn’t particularly threaten, but away against 3rd in the league I suppose that’s an unfair metric through which to judge him. He facilitated City playing “their” way in the absence of Hanson, which I can’t remember happening since he first broke into the team under Stuart McCall.
Given the prevailing narrative, there wasn’t much optimism headed in. When there is talk of ambitions which are limited at just “getting a shot on target”, you know things aren’t going well. I’d wager, like myself, a large proportion of the 700 City fans who attended on Saturday were at the Brentford game a few weeks ago also, and as such were probably entitled to a little resignation headed in. All the talk of Orient’s wobbles were an irrelevance really, “I’m just after a shot on target”.
The game began with City immediately giving away a corner, but after that wobble, they were oddly comfortable for much of the first half. Not like they were threatening or anything, but they weren’t being threatened either. Leyton Orient did not look like a team chasing promotion, and given this performance, I’d be stunned if they made it out of the division come the end of the season. Frankly, they looked like us. They looked like us, playing against us, which was baffling, given we had Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle comfortably absorbing each long ball with an apparent nonchalance like winning the header was just a frustrating distraction from their engrossing conversation about True Detective or something. It was simple for the entire first half.
The Samaritan in me wanted to scream “Pass it round us! We can’t do teams what pass and stuff!”, but I kept my voice down as Davies battered another header into the stands. For a side as supposedly good as Leyton Orient, it was a truly baffling strategy to beat us.
Whilst the City goal did come out of the blue, that wasn’t a result of overwhelming pressure on the other end. The game was quietly meandering its way to a 0-0 half time score when Aaron Mclean notched a volley at the back post. Against the club where it all started for the striker, Mclean had by far the best performance I’ve seen him play. The manager mentioned after the game how Mclean was singled out on Tuesday for his performance, but he has to be credited for his reaction today. Whilst some of the usual pitfalls were there, he showed glimpses of the player he could be for us. I’d wager little of that is to do with being paired with Stead (who really is a Hanson facsimile, poorer in the air but with a better touch), but that is a situation worth monitoring.
Ever since the ball went in the net, I’ve been wondering if it was planned. City had a couple corners early and they did “look” a bit different. The first dangerous one saw Jon Stead attempt to wheel around to the back post and get manhandled to the floor to no avail. Then for the goal Mclean pulled a similar move, losing his man just as the Orient keeper ran into a wall of players and was stood completely free at the back post to volley home into the unguarded net.
I’m used to the McArdle wheel to the front post. The long throw to Hanson on the by-line. The long free kick from the halfway line to Andrew Davies one-on-one away from the main action in the box. We may have a new move to add to the repertoire.
In a related note, the referee, David Phillips was incredibly – if consistently – lenient on aerial challenges which undeniably played in our favour. (Although it was hard not to wonder how impactful James Hanson could have been under similar oversight.) This absolutely was a factor in the goal. Many other days that could have been pulled back.
The key decision in the match came on the stroke of half time as a suspiciously apparent handball from Davies in the box was ignored by the referee who had just blown for half time before being surrounded by Orient players.
Whilst not as stark as the Jonathan De Guzman opportunity at the Emirates midweek, it looked like Orient had a right to be frustrated, and it was this catalyst which led to the “altercation” in the tunnel. (Like weather being “inclement”, I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word “altercation” in a context outside of “a fight between two or more grown men in a tunnel”.) Stories diverge on what actually happened at half time, but Parkinson never made it out for the second half.
That ridiculous encounter does illustrate how up for this game City were; this was not another Brentford-style sacrifice of three points with key men rested in the stands. There was a “steely” determination about the players which they tried to clearly illustrate before the match, Gary Jones running over the fans screaming maniacally before the warm-ups. There was also a team wide bear hug operation before kick off with every player forcefully embracing every other player in an intriguing showing of team unity. As it’s not a huddle – boo!!! – I’m fine with it, and it was quite endearing to see as a fan. It was reflected at the final whistle, surrounded by Orient players on their backs.
Orient came closest to an equaliser in the first period after a breakdown from a corner with the ball falling to Scott Cuthbert eight yards out. He fired a goal bound shot and the apparently stranded McLaughlin appeared from nowhere to save the day. Jonny Mac put in a very Jonny Mac performance, struggling with aerial balls from time to time, but let us not forgot how remarkable a shot stopper he is. The defence limited chances magnificently, but they still needed him once and he was there to save the day.
The only downside of the first half was to see Adam Drury hobble off. He has provided a sense of stability over recent weeks and started the game well, but he was replaced not long after falling awkwardly defending a dangerous corner. James Meredith absolutely has more upside than Drury, but the Leeds man looks just the candidate for a squad role that should have been recruited last summer.
He was replaced by Carl McHugh who put in maybe the McHughiest performance of his career. He spends so much time in the last ditch that he is paying council tax there, but there is no way to watch him and not love him. Every ill-timed dive makes me like him a little more, and after he poleaxed the dangerous Moses Odubajo midway through the second half the Irishman’s customary yellow card was on its way. As the game wore on McHugh’s introduction appeared more and more a blessing as the Londoner’s continued their direct approach, targeting him often in the air. The fools.
McHugh’s inclusion meant that Davies stayed back on the halfway line for corners in the second half. Something not planned as it was clear Davies told McHugh to go up in his stead. I’ve been watching Davies for a couple of years, and the only times I’ve ever seen him stay back in those situations have been when he’s been injured. There was no available defender on the bench at this point, and with City obviously placing a lot of importance on this game, he wasn’t going off even if he was hurt. There has been no mention of any knock, but it is worth monitoring with two games in four days on deck.
Another thread of the past few weeks has been about Matty Dolan as the heir apparent to Gary Jones. Saturday proved yet again that Gary Jones is this team. Dolan was competent and combative again, but there is no City without Gary Jones. As Parkinson was fighting in a tunnel – or getting fighted at, dependent on who you listen to – Jones was there throughout, on the front lines, forcing everyone to push. I try to think of myself as quite objective and avoid buying in to the intangibles, but Gary Jones’ effect on this team is there for anyone to see. It was tangible, if invisible. Reports of Jones’ demise have been greatly exaggerated.
With promotion hopes subsiding rapidly, Shaun Batt was unleashed by Russell Slade as the home side went in search of an equaliser. Replacing an anonymous Mooney, he was an immediate upgrade. There are definitive correlations with Jay Emmanuel-Thomas in his play, and the City defence spent the rest of the game on alert. He came closest in the second half for Orient, firing over the bar from 20 yards late on. That that was as close as they came tells the story.
As time trickled away and the crowd was getting more desperate on each end, Ol’ Reliable Garry Thompson was brought on up front and was an immediate upgrade, forcing two impressive saves from Jamie Jones. It’s looking more and more likely that he will be moved on in the summer as his contract expires, but this brief appearance showed again his value.
City wound down the clock with consummate ease and grabbed a well-earned victory away at a side third in the division. It was, weirdly simple. The vocal away support was delighted, but that didn’t have anything on the players. The spirit and the relief was there for everyone to see, a noticeable weight lifted. I haven’t seen them this happy all season. They wanted this so badly, and they earned it.
I was at Walsall, I was at Milton Keynes and I was at Colchester. Whilst not as polished a performance as the one at the Bescot Stadium in early October, or as all-action as the one in Milton Keynes, this win epitomised everything that we all love about this team. They have this ability in them. An ability to will themselves through tough times. The next time things get tough, when you want to turn and shout, think of this game. Think of them. Not to steal an aphorism from the manager, but this is what Bradford City are about. Performances like this. Again and again they have proven they will always come through.
Today did feel like the ending of something. This was a good performance and a deserved win away at a promotion contender. The clocks have moved forward; the weather has turned. City are back, and are in the top half again, a successful game in hand from seven points off the play offs. Seeing Kyel Reid beaming in the away end reminded everyone there of what has been forgotten. In the reflected shine of three points, with Joy Division ringing around the away end, it all came back.
That supporting City can be fun. It still is fun. If people take just a second to breathe and look around at where we are, they will see that the sun is shining.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury (McHugh 21), Bennett, Jones, Dolan, Reach, Stead (Thompson 75), Mclean (Bates 88)
Not used: Bentley, Yeates, Stockdill, De Vita
Categories: Match Reviews