Colchester United 0
Bradford City 0
Saturday 20 September, 2014
Written by Alex Scott (images by Kieran Wilkinson)
Liverpool-Newcastle 1996 this was not. For those short of time and/or inclination: the game finished nil all, City were fine, and nobody appeared to get hurt or suspended. Feel free to move along if you wish, I won’t take it personally.
City and their opponents Colchester played out a stalemate; Ed Chamberlain may have described the contest as “intriguing” or “engrossing”. It wasn’t particularly either. Tidy? Sure. Competent? Absolutely. But precious little to write home about.
The whole game was a first half that never went anywhere. Two sides feeling each other out, teasing each other without really threatening much either way. By the end, the two sides were in a staring contest, willing the other to blink first. Neither did.
I can’t say Colchester is near the top of my away day list. Stationed in a service station off the A12 somewhere in deepest darkest Essex, the soulless, clean cut ‘Weston Homes Community Stadium’ isn’t exactly an enticing prospect.
The stadium and its surroundings feel like something dreamt up in a boardroom of a corporation; an idea of what the perfect ground should look like. Close to a motorway? Check. (You can see a service station on the walk to the away end.) Structured, efficient car park and shuttle bus operation? Check. Neat and tidy, full of straight lines, space for future expansion and far too many overpriced blue and white seats? Checkaroo.
The fact that every spare section of concrete is plastered in ‘WESTON HOMES PLC’ does little to hide the lack of humanity in this place.
The most likely answer is an ill-advised grab at social capital, with a long-term dream of establishing the home club as a second or third tier team. How realistic that is for a small club that can’t approach half-filling this stadium, is the question. Is this dream of advancement really worth lifting the club out of its community, away from town, in this quiet service station on the A12?
The surroundings seemed linked to the lack of urgency and tempo in the game throughout. Whenever a head of steam was built up, it dissipated before a sprint ever broke out. Despite the perfect pitch, you have to wonder how beneficial this ground is to the home team.
The game itself wasn’t one of those terrible nil-nils between two inadequate sides where nothing at all happens save long balls into touch. I mean, little did happen, fair enough, but it was played the right way by both teams, for whatever that’s worth.
Parkinson’s men were perfectly fine today. The played with consideration in possession, managing the tempo of the game and keeping mistakes to a minimum. The starting eleven was unchanged from the midweek, morale-boosting 2-1 away win in Milton Keynes, the first time in eleven they had won a match without James Hanson and Andrew Davies in the team. (Credit goes to Simon Parker on that stat.)
The aftermath of that win raised as many questions as it answered though, with a subsequent scan ruling City’s aforementioned star centre forward out for the next month. It was an impressive away win, but how sustainable was it?
If today is anything to go by, City are absolutely capable of playing well without Hanson; but how repeatable the efficiency seen in front of goal Tuesday night is remains unanswered. The main drawback from today is that they barely created a chance to spurn.
Aside from a couple of snapshots from Aaron Mclean and Oli McBurnie, and a good cross from Stephen Darby that evaded Jason Kennedy, nothing particularly springs to mind with regard to chances to score.
James Hanson’s absence was screamingly conspicuous today. Not that Mclean or his partner Billy Clarke were particularly poor; they were, like pretty much everyone else, some variation of ‘fine’. But the side were clearly missing something.
On that point, picking a man of the match from today is a particular challenge. At a push, I’d offer up Gary Liddle – but I wouldn’t be able to give you a great reason.
The primary issue today was that the team lacked a focal point. An anchor in the front six for everyone to float around. The midfield can, and did, pass the ball around neatly and mesmerically at times, but to little end other than the filling of time.
They couldn’t play a long ball until the introduction of Mason Bennett and McBurnie late on; comically accompanied by the manager outlining an arcing long ball signal to his goalkeeper, like he was tracking a particularly impressive 9-iron shot over his head.
It isn’t that City played poorly; they were perfectly fine today. And I am absolutely not wishing them to go back to the Peter Taylor days. It’s just when they play this way without Hanson, they appear unanchored, detached.
Last year’s team, for all their flaws, early in the season, they looked to have a clear strategy to score and attack. This team’s method for scoring without Hanson is less obvious.
They also came up against a worthy opponent in Colchester, who played with a confidence and a verve that belies their lowly position in the league. The decision to replace Joe Dunne with academy manager Tony Humes is paying dividends, even at this early stage in his tenure.
The manager is understandably, and successfully, embracing the young players in the squad, the team that started that game against Sheffield United had an average age of 21 years 7 months. (That stat was mine.) And today’s was not much higher.
Since his appointment, the U’s have turned over Orient away from home (with 10 men), held Walsall and City to 0-0 draws, and come within a whisker of knocking off title favourites Sheffield United. In fact, in these four games, if you ignore the crazy 11 minutes at the end of the 3-2 defeat to the Blades, they haven’t conceded a goal.
The explanation for this impressive defensive record is that they restrict chances by recycling possession at all costs. The opposition can’t hurt you if they don’t have the ball.
The home team mirrored Parkinson’s men in formation and strategy, with both sides happy to stand off and pack the defence and midfield without the ball, and retain possession with a calm consideration throughout.
Throughout much of the game, the two teams traded 20-pass moves that didn’t really go anywhere, and just ended up filling time. It was like watching a basketball game without a shot clock. They went, then we went, but neither side playing with any particular urgency.
This meandering first half wasn’t helped by the lack of atmosphere, unavoidable in such an empty ground. The only noise for much of the first half came was the constant quiet droning of the nearby dual carriageway from the back of the vacant stand behind Jordan Pickford’s goal.
Add in the featureless grey sky and sterile concrete surroundings and you can forgive a guy for daydreaming.
After another neat and tidy 22-pass move was ended by a hopeful 40 yard ball that winds up at the feet of the Colchester keeper, who rolls out the ball to restart the cycle, the same question as before jumps to mind. What is the objective? Both sides are playing quite well, keeping the ball, without ever going anywhere, but what’s the purpose? What’s the point of any of this?
I’m lulled out of my existential crisis as a defensive slip lets Freddie Sears in to fire into the side netting. This is pretty much how the game progressed through the entire match. Jab, jab, jab, Colchester chance, jab, jab, jab.
It felt like fighting your clone; cartoon fists crashing into each other, a never ending staring contest. Neither side’s approach changed particularly, jab jab jab; nobody blinked.
If any side deserved the win, it was the home team, who came close to breaking the deadlock on a few occasions in the second half, the closest necessitating in Stephen Darby to unleash an impressive sliding goal line clearance to keep the clean sheet in tact.
The only difference between the two sides was that Colchester did have a focal point, in the pace of their front three of Sears, Sanchez Watt, and Gavin Massey. Their strategy for scoring was clear: hold onto the ball and wait for a mistake to spring a counter attack.
They weren’t particularly successful in this approach as that ‘nil’ would imply. City put in an impressive defensive display, retaining possession themselves and clogging up channels defensively.
It is worth noting that new recruit Christopher Routis looked as if he was beginning to settle in alongside Rory McArdle. He impressed in his defensive work, much of which was on the deck, and he was a willing participant with the ball. It does give the team another dimension with a centre half willing and able to bring the ball out at his feet into, and sometimes beyond the midfield. Alan Sheehan’s immediate re-insertion into the team should be questioned.
It wasn’t just Routis though; today was a well drilled, organised defensive display throughout the team. A few slips here and there, but for the most part, it was a highly polished defensive performance.
A useful away point after a perfunctory, competent away performance. Get something out of your away games and win your home games and you’re doing alright they say. A decent week on their travels sets City up nicely in and around the play off hunt.
A midweek return to Stadium:MK is now on the agenda with an all-important place in the League Cup Fourth Round at stake. Whilst the team have already proven that they are capable of winning down there, not five days ago, this time around the already-threadbare squad will be missing two more components in Pickford and Bennett.
What’s more is that after two games, and an impressive four points, they are really no closer to solving the James Hanson problem.
City: Pickford, Darby, McArdle, Routis, Meredith, Knott (Morais 66), Liddle, Kennedy, Yeates, Clarke (McBurnie 78), Mclean (Bennett 67)
Not used: Williams, Wright, King, Webb-Foster
Categories: Match Reviews