By Jason McKeown
Billy Clarke seemed angry after the midweek MK Dons victory. After a close season soundtracked by supporter pleas to sign a new striker, the Irishman hit back by talking up the merits of those forwards already on the books, which includes himself.
And with Clarke following up his stunning Tuesday night winner in Milton Keynes with an outstanding second half performance against Coventry City on Saturday, he is justified to hit out at those people who – in his words – “bellow on” about bringing in another striker. He and and his fellow forwards have a lot to offer, and may have to be relied upon more than some were hoping.
Stuart McCall correctly observed post-match that Clarke was the best player on the pitch during the Coventry second half. He more than anyone was the catalyst in the come-from-behind victory. At 1-0 down but with the Bantams increasingly dominant, Clarke was played through on goal before being dragged down in desperation by Jordan Turbull, the Coventry defender conceding a penalty and earning a deserved red card for the deliberate foul.
Clarke’s all round performance was excellent after half time. He not only popped up deep in space but at other times led the line. He was full of tricks, and routinely bamboozled the Coventry defence with his intelligent twists and turns. He linked up well with Josh Cullen and Nicky Law behind him, and showed signs of forging a useful partnership with Jordi Hiwula up front. It was the best Clarke had played in over a year, and a long overdue reminder of the quality he possesses.
The timing was very welcome. Pre-match whispers reached WOAP’s ears that the much-publicised striker search continues to bear no fruit, and the club is not particularly close to bringing anyone in. When the first half against Coventry saw a dreadful home performance and only one shot on goal, the need for a new forward looked more urgent than ever.
Clarke was poor in the first half, but he was in good company. McCall’s efforts to continue playing out from the back and producing patient passing football was undermined by the most tentative of opening 15 minutes from his players, with the Bantams barely able to get out of their own half.
Coventry had a plan that included pressing City high up the pitch. They couldn’t string more than a couple of passes together without surrendering the ball to blue and white shirts, who swarmed around their opponents with energy and enthusiasm. That the Sky Blues scored following a mistake from Danny Devine is hardly a major reflection of the young City midfielder. Others – most notably Nathaniel Knight-Percival and Romain Vincelot – had already conceded good chances to Coventry after similarly getting caught on the ball.
Coventry’s ultimate undoing would be their failure to build further on this early lead. Their 4-3-3 formation saw Devine and Josh Cullen outgunned in the middle of the park, with Nicky Law and Mark Marshall failing to provide adequate support to the pair. Clarke was playing too deep, leaving Hiwula badly isolated.
City continued to try and play it out from the back, but were outnumbered and isolated when they got in the opposition half. Coventry’s considerable height advantage also meant that they were never going to surrender their lead from set pieces.
Yet Clarke’s midweek words about not discounting the answers from within would prove to be a neat summary of Bradford City’s second half revival. For McCall’s success in turning the game around was not due to some inspired tactical changes or clever substitutions. Disappointed by what he had seen, the manager’s half time words were centred upon asking his players to show better in-game management, and to take greater responsibility for the team’s overall performance.
Words that Clarke followed as well as anyone else. Playing so deep meant there weren’t enough options ahead for his forward play to be effective, so instead he was tasked by McCall with also running the channels and stretching the Coventry backline, meaning Hiwula had support. “Everyone knows Billy wants to come short and he’s good at it, but then he mixed it up,” stated McCall. Clarke’s move forwards also meant the team as a whole could push a few yards up the park, to press opponents who up until then had enjoyed too much space on the ball.
Clarke did what was asked of him very impressively. He stepped up his efforts, and played an increasingly influential role in the pattern of the game. The run on goal he made for penalty was one that he wouldn’t have made in the second half – nor indeed last season. It was a player realising he has more to give the team.
It set the tone for others. Mark Marshall had experienced a tepid first half but his wonder strike for 2-1 did his confidence levels the world of good. Nicky Law – tasked not only with playing on the left wing but cutting inside to support Cullen and Devine – got to greater grips with his own dual role and shone. Josh Cullen showed why he could prove to be the best central midfielder in League One this season. Devine displayed no ill effects from his first half mistake and was tidy on the ball.
It enabled City to dominate the second half, and they never looked back after equalising through Tony McMahon’s penalty and taking the lead with Marshall’s sensational goal. After Cullen was tripped in the box, McMahon scored a second spot kick. And at 3-1 the game was well beyond a Coventry team who had played well first half but completely collapsed after going down to 10 men. The Bantams could easily have scored two or three more goals.
A big part of opening up the game was the efforts in wide areas, with McMahon and James Meredith outstanding as full backs. They both show great energy levels to charge forward and are proving to be major creative outlets. McMahon’s late injury is a huge blow if early reports of a six-week lay off prove accurate. But even though Stephen Darby should return before then, the club skipper is a less of a creative force and faces a real fight keeping the right back spot he has cemented since 2012 ahead of a resurgent McMahon.
McCall evidently wasn’t happy with the first half performance, but the way in which he delivered improvement by putting greater responsibility on his players’ shoulders was really impressive. Although instructing them to not be afraid to go more direct, the team stayed true to their new principles and came roaring back. Not through over-powering Coventry, but out-footballing them. By the end, it was City who were pinning Coventry back.
Good teams get stronger and thrive from going through such experiences. The first half seemed hopeless at times, and there was some booing from fans at half time. But to their huge credit the players didn’t buckle and they achieved success by becoming braver on the ball rather than getting desperate. So many players ranked 4 or 5 out of 10 at the break, but then took genuine responsibility for their performances and scored 7 or 8 for their second half displays.
The foundations are looking stronger and stronger for Bradford City. The core principles of how they will play were maintained during the first genuine sign of adversity this season, and the spirit and togetherness can take them a long way.
A new striker understandably remains the priority. But if the right man can’t be found, McCall might still have the tools he needs to produce a team that scores goals. He will take huge encouragement here that his players had the courage to out-football Coventry, are willingly accept greater in-game responsibility, and are firmly embracing his creative philosophy.
Categories: Match Reviews