Bradford City 2
Meredith 33, Cole 47
Sheffield United 2
Meredith (own goal) 65, Sharp 70
Sunday 20 September, 2015
By Jason McKeown
In full control of this Yorkshire derby and with only the closing stages to see out, Bradford City were on the cusp of making a firm statement about their promotion credentials. But then their early season demons came back to haunt them again. Their frailties were unearthed, with discouraging results. On the edge of demonstrating League One excellence, they stumbled back to square one.
Going 2-0 in front two minutes after half time, it appeared as though the Bantams had put the game beyond a dispirited and limited Sheffield United side. They had won every single individual battle on the field. If this were a boxing match, it would have been called on points there and then. It was a perfect illustration of the Phil Parkinson way at Bradford City. It was a performance characterised by City’s power, work rate and bravery. They just needed to keep it going another 25 minutes and three points were assured.
But a combination of effective Sheffield United substitutions by Nigel Adkins, and City switching off, proved decisive. Out of nothing a throw in from Sheffield United resulted in James Meredith attempting a back header that looped over a badly positioned Brad Jones, to put the Blades back into the contest.
City couldn’t rediscover their authority, and five minutes later Billy Sharp ran onto a perfect long ball from Jose Baxter, struck a low shot that was well saved by Jones, and was on hand to smash home the rebound. A great moment for a great goalscorer. After a dreadful week, Sheffield United were back from the dead and had sucked up all of the home side’s momentum. It was a remarkable turnaround.
There are questions that will be asked by Parkinson of his players in the aftermath. How could they get so complacent? Why did they become so sloppy? But he will worry too that this is not the first time. This is the fifth game in nine this season that City have scored first but not won. And there were issues last season too with failing to hold onto winning positions. It is maddening and it simply has to be addressed if City are going to mount a serious promotion push.
A gripping last 10 minutes could have resulted in a winning goal for either side. Sharp smacked the sanction with an angled effort. In the game’s last moment, James Hanson’s header from a corner was blocked on the line by Baxter. City tried to undo the self-inflicted damage by chasing the victory but were somewhat held back by a fear of losing it too. Gaining a point in such circumstances was a hollow experience.
The secret to Sheffield United’s revival lay in matching what City had done so well. If City brought the brawn, the Blades initially tried to contest it with brain. They were tidy on the ball but bullied by a City side who relished every tackle and the huge cheers that occurred from home fans whenever they won possession. After the dreadful start to the season Parkinson talked of getting his players to produce ‘Bradford City performances’ and this is what he meant. With Lee Evans brought in for the unlucky Billy Knott it was clear that City wanted to make the game a battle and succeeded in doing so.
A lightweight Sheffield United couldn’t compete. Their ball playing players were starved of possession. Evans and Gary Liddle ran the show in the centre, aided by an effective, no-frills performance from Paul Anderson, who tucked inside whenever City didn’t have the ball. The former Ipswich man also left space for the over-lapping Meredith to rampage forward with menace. The Aussie was free to attack at will knowing Anderson would be holding the left back position for him behind, in case of a United counter attack.
With Devante Cole and Mark Marshall working as hard as anyone, the tone was set. Former City trialist Mark Howard made a good early save from a dangerous Evans free kick whipped into the box, but on the half hour Meredith was first to a ball that had spun free in the area following a loose header by David Edgar, with the City man lifting it over the keeper and into the net. It was a first goal in nearly three years for Meredith and a sign of how he can still offer more to City’s attack. He deserved this moment as he built on a terrific start to the campaign.
Sheffield United might have emerged from the half time break fired up, but Cole struck a third goal in four games before most of the visiting players had touched the ball after the restart. A long ball by Liddle prompted panic in Edgar as Cole was breathing down his neck, and his attempted clearance hit the City hot shot’s foot and bounced into the goal. When you’re on form and doing the right things, lucky goals like this happen. Cole was excellent today and is on course to net a hatful over the coming months.
The game seemingly won, City initially maintained their dominance before slack standards started to creep in. They dropped deeper. They stopped pressing the ball inside the opposition half. When a home player was in possession, other people stopped making runs into space for them to find. The frantic tempo of the game dropped. City couldn’t ramp it back up again when it was suddenly required.
Eventually Adkins went for brawn against brawn. In particular, the introduction of Connor Sammon added physical presence lacking and his team mates were inspired. They started to do to City what City had stopped doing to them. The pattern of the game was reversed.
Neither of Sheffield United’s goals reflected well on City’s defence. Parkinson opted to bring Jones in for his debut, which seemed very harsh on Ben Williams. Whilst Williams has struggled to convince, his form had improved over recent games and the fact he was dropped following a first mistake in a while, at Fleetwood last week, suggests Parkinson had been waiting for a slip up in order to switch it. It is rarely a helpful culture to have players dropped for one mistake, as it dissuades people from taking risks. If Parkinson prefers Jones as his number one he should have changed his keepers around sooner.
For now Jones has come in and had a shaky debut. Imagine what the reaction would have been had Williams conceded a goal like the first one here? Jones looked hesitant on crosses too. Parkinson needs to stick with him now that he has made the change, but on this evidence Williams still has a future at Valley Parade. You could envisage a scenario similar to how Parkinson rotated Matt Duke and Jon McLaughlin during the promotion season.
Jones was not the only player visibly rattled by the end. Liddle and Evans looked shaky in the closing stages and lost control of the midfield, not helped by Adkins’ other inspired substitution, Jose Baxter, tucking inside so the Sheffield United midfield could outnumber their counterparts. Reece Burke had a few uncomfortable moments at this point, but overall he continues to look a class act and it was notable to see him ordering around other members of the back four. Much of City’s prospects seem to depend on how long Parkinson can persuade West Ham to let City to keep Burke.
Nine games into the season and it is still hard to make firm judgements on the Bantams. There have been some real lows but also some memorable highs. The issue of replacing Andrew Davies has been addressed by Burke, whilst at the other end Cole looks the answer to the long-term problem of a lack of goals.
When City were in control and coasting this contest, the summer upgrading to the squad looked like inspired business. There is, as yet, no reason to believe that it ultimately won’t work out. But City have not yet reached the standards that are needed to take the next step and improve upon almost making the play offs last season.
Perspective is needed. This was the first set back for a month, and it is a fifth game unbeaten too. But with a heavy fixture schedule over the coming six weeks, they must produce a positive reaction quickly. And they must learn the painful lessons from this morale-sapping draw.
City: Jones, Darby, McArdle, Burke, Meredith, Marshall (James 90), Liddle, Evans (Knott 79), Anderson, Hanson, Cole (Davies 79)
Not used: Williams, N Clarke, Leigh, McMahon
Categories: Match Reviews