Bradford City 2
McMahon 17, Hanson 74
Southend United 0
Tuesday 16 February, 2016
By Katie Whyatt
Stop the press: this season is, by no means, over. Less than a fortnight ago, as the boos rang out at the Pirelli and Bradford City had nought but a Rory McArdle consolation goal to take from their 3-1 defeat to the league leaders, that looked to be the end of that, the last death knell of a fragmented season in which everything and nothing has changed.
Exeter away. The nail in the coffin. Thank you and goodnight. See you next season. Theoretically, the play-offs remained plausible – in actuality, the Bantams looked miles off the chase, a ticket to the season finale dangling high above their outstretched arms. For all the talk of top six, going into the season, they just didn’t have the stature when push came to shove. After all, things had felt slightly incongruous all year, City the perfect ‘nearly’ team. And the lamentable 5 O’clock post-mortem unveiled the same old story, broken records looping their ubiquitous refrains.
The midfield went missing today.
What’s the deal with our strikers?
All of which serves to make the salient improvement of the last four days rather remarkable indeed. Given the fragility of the mood going into the trip to London Road – the feeling that this was the last chance saloon for any promotion ambitions this team still harboured – the 4-0 win over Peterborough could now be looked back upon as a game-changing moment for this squad: the moment that turned boys to men, players to a team. The moment that remedied this side’s underlying capriciousness, and left them balanced and consistent.
Tonight, it was an outstanding Tony McMahon free kick just after the quarter-hour mark that handed the Bantams the advantage, before James Hanson rose amidst the crescendo to nod McMahon’s corner home at the near post deep into the second half.
Southend had one particularly Leicester City-esque triangular passing movement down the left channel in the first half, but – typically – it came to nothing. The visitors lacked any overall cohesion and direction, routinely running down blind alleys. A few troubling moments in the second half drew two saves from Ben Williams: one last-gasp free kick just two minutes from time, which the City keeper held assuredly, and a late attempt from Anthony Wordsworth. Beyond that, there was nothing.
In truth, it probably warranted a repeat of the infamous Hull City team-talk circa 2008/09, but there was no such brutality from Phil Brown tonight. Instead, it was one way traffic, City mustering 14 shots to the visitors’ two and creating so many chances from open play. It was a night of sevens and eights out of ten right across the board for the home side.
Within this period of change has come a shake-up to the forward line, in the form of Birmingham City striker Wes Thomas. At the moment, he looks 25% Billy Clarke, 25% Nahki Wells and 25% Steve Davies, then 25% of something else – there’s a grit and guile in abundance, but an intelligence and vision that allows him to read the game well and know where he needs to be.
Thomas’ movement and hold-up play were sound again today, and he was vital when dropping back to aid Cullen on the offensive. He probably won’t be able to match Clarke for outright intelligence and will never be the playmaker of this team, but is more valuable for what this side needs now. His versatility allows him to complement James Hanson, while his overall adaptability makes him far easier to accommodate within a Parkinson set-up.
A free agent at the end of the summer, Thomas is playing for his future – and the signs thus far indicate it could be a promising one if he signs here. At the other end, Nathan Clarke was outstanding, and Reece Burke was again unflappable, providing another able in the middle and thrice bursting through with mazy runs to open up the left hand side for James Meredith.
In the midfield, Lee Evans impressed once more: he was a visionary in his distribution and won back possession repeatedly, his increased mobility and willingness to navigate around the park proving vital in keeping things kicking over and recycling possession. Evans is comfortable assuming a deeper or more advanced midfield role, making him an invaluable asset for this squad.
Josh Cullen is a slight player and looked initially to struggle with the visitor’s physicality, but he grew in stature and was vital as Southend swamped the middle of the park. Picking up Evans’ quasi-clearance, Cullen’s surging run picked out Wes Thomas on the edge of the box, who fired narrowly over. It was the high point of a decent home debut for the West Ham man, who added a new energy and dynamism to the Bantams midfield.
It has long been the Phil Parkinson way to team an out-and-out winger with a more conservative counterpart, an approach that paid dividends once more tonight. McMahon and Darby were superb on the right; on the opposite side, Kyel Reid and Meredith worked tirelessly. Reid lacked an end product at times and not everything he tried worked, but he was bold, ambitious and vital in maintaining City’s momentum.
More than anything, tonight was about laying down another statement of intent: for the Bantams to sense Southend’s fear, and realise the Shrimpers were there for the taking. Throwing caution to the wind, Reid, Evans and Meredith’s perpetual dominance undermined any Southend attempt to instigate a meaningful counter – not that a comeback looked forthcoming.
It wasn’t always polished, but it inevitably won’t be this season. What matters is that the Bantams served up their best home performance in several months, and have recaptured the hallmarks of a Parkinson team once more. The grit and relative inventiveness underpinning the display – the willingness to be brave and creative – underlined the importance of marrying flair and pragmatism. This side look hard to beat, but have teamed that with the energy that allows them to take the game to teams.
One discourse marker that invariably surfaces after such season-changing periods is, “If only we’d played like that from the outset.” What-ifs are par for the course in football, especially at this level, but you wonder if the team have needed the past two thirds of the season in order to become what they are on the brink of being now. To discover who they are. To find the right pieces, and to find the right assembly instructions.
It’s been a project, a paragon of the old adage Rome wasn’t build in a day. But with that surely comes as assuaging of most of the qualms that have dogged this team over the past seven months.
The first: is this squad a realistic improvement on last season’s, or, even, on the History Makers? It was a valid comment, coming out of the festive period: in League Two, City boasted one of the most prolific striking partnerships in the country, while one of their weaknesses the following year was a midfield pairing often outgunned in the face of five man midfields.
In January, you could look at this team and reasonably wonder if we’d moved forward, or gone full circle. It’s probably revisionist to say Parkinson should have kept Jon Stead, but the points about the efficiency of the forward line have soundtracked the season. Parkinson had to be brave, and Gary Liddle’s departure represented another – questionably – bold move at a time when Chris Routis and McMahon were the first choice central midfield duo.
Tonight, at exactly the same moment when Tony McMahon’s free-kick soared to infinity, Gary Liddle was shown a straight red card. His Chesterfield side would eventually manage a draw to give themselves a fighting chance of avoiding the drop. Meanwhile, Stead bagged a brace for Notts County, but Parkinson’s decisions nonetheless look to be paying dividends. It’s early days, but it looks highly likely he will emerge vindicated in these calls.
What’s more, who are you scared of, realistically, in this division? Southend were poor tonight; Burton, by all accounts, are efficient but disappointingly average. I think Gillingham, maybe Coventry, are the strongest two teams we’ve seen this year, but both have just come through tricky spells. Sheffield United looked impressive, but evidently haven’t sustained that. Is there anyone you really look at and go, “We don’t have a chance here?” This league is there for the taking if City dare to dream.
They are just three points from the play offs with a game in hand. Tonight’s lifeline might be just enough – this team might be just enough. That game in hand might be just enough. Sixteen games to go – that may be just enough. This is by no means over. Stop the press: there could be one more twist and turn left in this already frenzied season.
City: Williams, Darby, N Clarke, Burke, Meredith, McMahon (Knott 90), Cullen, Evans, Reid (Marshall 90), Hanson, Thomas (Davies 64)
Not used: Cracknell, Routis, Leigh, B Clarke
Categories: Match Reviews