Bradford City 4
Morais 54, Hanson 58, 72 + 73
Saturday 23 April, 2016
By Jason McKeown
The play offs, Wembley stadium, the Championship, world domination. When you’re in this kind of form and producing these kind of results, there is simply no limit to what can be achieved – and how far you can go.
It is truly those rarest of rare moments when every single player in the team is on the absolute top of their game. When collectively they carry out the gameplan to such a clinical degree, they smash their target. When they crush the opposition to such an extent, nine-out-of-ten ratings are merited all round.
Today was one of those rarest of rare moments.
This was a sensational Bradford City performance. To a man, every single player delivered a stunning personal display that collectively helped the team reach another level. In a league match at least, and in relative terms, you would have to go back more than a decade for a performance that bettered this one. It was certainly the best league display of Phil Parkinson’s reign.
And to do it in such circumstances. When the pressure of promotion is so intense, and when the last two games have been laced with disappointment. To do it against such a good League One side, who for an hour stood up to everything that City could throw at them. This was no Walsall rollover. Their supporters exited Valley Parade in droves before the final whistle, but they cannot have doubted the commitment of their players.
They were simply blown away.
Walsall went home with their automatic promotion dreams shattered in pieces. They will now have to make do with a play off spot, and could very easily be back at Valley Parade for a semi final that would fill them with dread. Bradford City have a five-point cushion inside the top six, with only two games left to play. They are not mathematically certain of a play off finish, but one more victory will guarantee it.
And on this evidence, that is certain to happen. This day could not have gone better, both in terms of the results elsewhere and on the Valley Parade pitch. They brought along an overwhelming level of intensity and focus. Every City tackle and every pass had purpose and thought. Every person knew their job, and nothing was going to distract them from fulfilling it.
The composure and the strong mentality of the team was best evidenced by the half time switch around. They had absolutely dominated the first 45, creating a succession of good opportunities that were either wasted or thwarted by superb Walsall defending. They pushed the visitors to the edge; but the Saddlers held firm, with centre backs James O’Connor and Paul Downing absolutely outstanding and Neil Etheridge making several great stops. Yet City didn’t let their heads drop or feel frustrated as they trooped off at the break.
Rewind all the way to nine years ago on this very same weekend. City, in League One, were in deep relegation trouble but with three games to go knew it was still in their hands. They welcomed bottom four rivals Leyton Orient to Valley Parade, absolutely battered them for 45 minutes, but didn’t score. And caretaker manager David Wetherall later admitted his team went in at half time – the score 0-0 – feeling dejected and deflated. The rookie boss knew there and then City would lose the game and, as it would turn out, go down to League Two.
And he knew it because his team had such a weak mentality.
There was no chance of history repeating itself here. Lee Evans should have buried a first half header when Filipe Morais crossed the ball to him inside the box. But the Welshman didn’t buckle or go into his shell, he dusted himself off and carried on. From another Evans drive that was blocked by Etheridge, Morais had a chance to put the ball into empty net but was denied by an amazing block from Downing. The Portugese knew he should have scored but did not beat himself up. He carried on demanding the ball and making things happen.
Morais’ introduction to the team was key. The 4-4-1-1 of Billy Clarke and Jamie Proctor has been hampered by the former’s fading confidence and complete lack of form – but Parkinson evidently still believed in the system. So he took Clarke out of the firing line and put in Morais, whilst swapping Proctor with James Hanson.
It looked a big gamble, but it paid off handsomely. Morais was a revelation in the hole, bringing far greater levels of energy, pace and trickery than Clarke. He took on the Number 10 position and turned it into a free role. That was crucial for making it work with Hanson, who unlike Proctor – a striker that likes playing with his back to goal – fares better when someone is running ahead of him to get on his flick ons.
So Morais became part Billy Clarke, linking up with midfield, part Nahki Wells. Given this was his first start back after a long-term injury, it was an almighty big ask. Yet he more than justified the faith of his manager. In the first half, you could witness with your own eyes the development of this most unlikely of strike partnerships. Morais ordering Hanson around, Hanson telling Morais where to run.
By the second half, it had clicked.
They had continued to dominate, and the inevitable and richly deserved City opener came from a scramble in the box. McMahon’s free kick had caused mayhem, and Hanson kept the attack alive by flicking the ball towards the far post. There was Morais – in a Wells-type position – to steer it over the line. Every player rushed over to join Morais in celebrating the goal with the City coaching staff.
In a game between two mean defences, the first goal was always going to be crucial. Walsall barely threatened, but had rattled the bar. For how well Walsall’s backline continued to perform, the ball was routinely gobbled up by City shirts, who swarmed around Walsall players whenever they tried to keep hold of possession and mount an attack. Such a relentless approach had finally worn the visitors down through Morais’ goal, and there was to be no let up from here.
Four minutes later, a long punt forward enabled Hanson to bring the ball down and run at Downing. He dribbled the ball past him, before cutting inside, selling O’Connor a dummy, and finishing low past Etheridge for 2-0. In a matter of seconds, Hanson had just destroyed the best three Walsall players of the previous 62 minutes. It was a really special goal, and City’s top scorer wasn’t done.
After Rory McArdle – recalled to the side ahead of Nathan Clarke – and Morais forced two more excellent saves from Etheridge, a Tony McMahon free kick was headed home powerfully by Hanson for 3-0. And then a minute later, Morais produced a Robbie Blake-esqe turn away from his defender and whipped over a delightful hanging cross, from which his strike partner couldn’t miss. 4-0 to Bradford City and – seven years after joining the club – a first ever James Hanson hat trick for the Bantams.
This is the part where those of us who defend James Hanson through thick and thin get to rub our hands and say smug things – so here goes. I don’t think anyone can disagree that Hanson has not been at his best for large periods of this campaign. There have been times when he could – and should – have produced much more. His recent demotion from the team was entirely justified.
But we are talking about form here, not ability. Hanson’s critics in the stands have used the last few months to argue – at times shamefully – that he is not good enough for the club, and should have been sold to Millwall during the summer. Much of City’s struggles to score goals this season have been dumped solely upon his shoulders. Astonishingly, on a couple of occasions over recent weeks, you could hear faint boos when he was brought on as a sub.
When James Hanson doesn’t play well, he doesn’t play well. But that’s it. He is no less qualified to be a League One footballer than anyone else in the squad. His shelf-stacker background used to be celebrated by us supporters, but it has been muddied along the way. Some of the things that are directed towards Hanson simply wouldn’t be said were his background more Everton than Eccleshill.
There’s a bit of football snobbery going on.
I don’t understand why every single City fan isn’t rooting for Hanson all the time. This guy is living our dream, playing up front for his hometown club. Our club. He has shaken off so much rejection in his life, never given in, and that character has resulting in him delivering some of the most iconic and celebrated moments in the club’s history. He is wearing Bradford City’s number nine shirt on merit.
When James Hanson plays as well as he did today, he is amongst the best strikers in League One. It cannot be forgotten just how good Walsall’s centre backs were for an hour today, and how demoralised they looked at the end. Hanson bullied them, Morais out-smarted them, and the result was a four-goal thrashing that no one saw coming.
This performance from Hanson won’t change the minds of those doubters. After all, they sat through the Aston Villa and Burton and Northampton and Leeds games, cheered Hanson’s goals just as wildly as the rest of us, and still continued to deride his ability. But it deserves to shut them up for a moment. If you don’t rate him – even though all of his team mates and his manager clearly do – then fine, but be happy for him at this moment. After all, if this guy really is stealing a living, we’re all enjoying the rewards of his swag.
City saw the game out comfortably, with Parkinson taking off Morais, Reece Burke and Hanson to afford them standing ovations. He could have taken any of the other eight starters off and everyone in the home sections would have similarly risen to their feet to applaud.
The defence was back on top form with McArdle slotting in seamlessly alongside the brilliant Burke, James Meredith charging up and down the flanks all afternoon, and Stephen Darby never missing a tackle. Evans and Josh Cullen ran the centre of midfield with an evident greater licence to support attacks compared to recent weeks. McMahon sent over the odd poor corner, but was otherwise a threat on the ball and just so full of heart. Kyel Reid was once again in top form and gave his full back marker a torrid afternoon. Ben Williams might have had little to do, but an excellent late tip over earned yet another clean sheet.
It wasn’t an easy win, but in the end City made it look that way. Their commitment and dedication to the cause – their obvious desire to gain promotion – is so commendable. Their character in facing up to what was a high pressure game was really impressive. They demonstrated that they do have the ability to earn promotion, and now the prospects of that happening have been greatly enhanced.
It all comes back to Phil Parkinson – it always does. Chris Kamara was clearly a wonderful motivator and almost always got his Bradford City side up for the big occasions, but Parkinson has taken that style of man-management to another level. When the chips are down and when the stakes are their highest, Parkinson proves himself to be a big game manager and almost always comes out on top. The job he has performed this season just gets better and better.
Phil Parkinson is getting closer to his fifth anniversary at the Bradford City helm, and you wouldn’t bet against him reaching that landmark as a Championship manager.
City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, Burke (N Clarke 83), Meredith, McMahon, Cullen, Evans, Reid, Morais (Proctor 78), Hanson (B Clarke 87)
Not used: Cracknell, Thorpe, Morris, Anderson
Categories: Match Reviews