By Jason McKeown
They needed a moment like this. For all the positive signs, and for all the compliments and back-slapping, patience was begin to erode. Credibility was being stretched by five consecutive draws. Doubts were being raised about their striking prowess.
When you’re still unbeaten you shouldn’t really be placed under the pressure of a game being considered “must win”, but we all know that anything less than three points here would have significantly dampened the mood, fuelling a more negative narrative of talking down the new-look City. This was an important moment.
And so it mattered more that goals from Filipe Morais and Billy Clarke earned a first victory in six than it did the accompanying performance was below par. Playing well but not winning was starting to become a routine. An ugly victory was far better than no victory. It also spoke volumes for the character of the new-look team.
Winning ugly is not a new idea around these parts. It was a regular occurrence over the near-five years of Phil Parkinson. Nights like these were the satisfying filler to the more headline-grabbing moments. They were the foundations of promotion pushes, and this forgettable victory can do the same for Stuart McCall’s charges.
Whether Parkinson left too little inside the building upon his exit remains a matter of fierce debate, but the continuity of the spirit and grit he built up was a welcome gift to leave behind. On nights like this especially, the legacy of Parkinson remains on display. Bottled up, it will continue to serve McCall well over the battles ahead. McCall’s City teams of 2007-2010 lacked it and it proved their downfall.
And that steel was the difference tonight, when the style and energy of his Bradford City team was only seen sporadically. At times they struggled badly to find the cohesion and rhythm that has been such an eye-catching feature of the opening two months. By their own high standards, it was a below average display. Still it got the job done, and it bodes very well to win when so far off your best.
Fleetwood will certainly feel hard done by. Manager Uwe Rosler was heavily linked with replacing Parkinson at Valley Parade over the summer, but became The Ignored One. He moved to Highbury instead, and has quietly made a reasonable start.
Like Coventry a month ago, Rosler got his players to press City high up the pitch. In particular they had noted space behind James Meredith in recent games and targeted the left side of City’s defence. Nathaniel Knight-Percival had a tough night and one early mistake allowed former City striker Devante Cole to run through on goal. Colin Doyle came to City’s rescue with an excellent save.
But that side of the Bantams’ defence was breached again just after half an hour, with Bobby Grant running through to score. It was punishment for a slow start from City and that is becoming a worrying theme. They are taking too long to get a foothold in games.
Not that it was one-way traffic. McCall opted to play a diamond once again, with Marc McNulty and Jordy Hiwula selected up front and Haris Vuckic given a full debut in the hole (sometimes switching with Filipe Morais). Hiwula merited a start after impressing from the bench at Bolton on Saturday, but his rawness continues to hold him back. There’s a good player there, but it’s not quite coming through yet.
McNulty was better here than at the Macron and saw a shot whizz across goal but wide of the post. He was hurt badly after colliding with the Fleetwood goalkeeper Chris Neal, cutting his night short before half time. Vuckic’s physical presence and skill on the ball looks a useful combination. Getting the best out of him represents a puzzle.
The move to a diamond also recalled the issues that Parkinson found two years ago, namely around Billy Knott and Gary Liddle. Josh Cullen – like Knott – was trialled in front of the back four and at times threatened to run the show. But pushing Timothee Dieng into a wide diamond position exposed limitations in the Frenchman’s game. Dieng looked very uncomfortable all night, something Liddle would be able to relate to from his time shunted into a wide diamond position back in 2014.
The unplanned withdrawal of McNulty helped City come roaring back. Billy Clarke made a major impact in his place, setting up Morais for the equaliser with a lovely turn and lay off. Minutes earlier he picked out Vuckic in the area, who should have scored with a low shot. It is well known that Clarke thrives in the diamond. And if McCall is willing to use him in the hole and two strikers in front it could prove the solution.
But we are not there yet. The last 20 minutes were arguably the least impressive of City’s season. Rosler threw centre back Cian Bolger up front, and the long balls from Fleetwood caused all manner of problems. City were hanging on and desperate for the final whistle. They were far from in control of the match.
But with Romain Vincelot especially outstanding, they saw it out and claimed the victory that mattered so much. With Bolton losing to Rochdale, City are back up to third and still unbeaten. A mid-table Chesterfield and struggling Shrewsbury are up next in the league. The Football League Trophy contest with second place Bury next week looks intriguing.
The big irony of City’s season so far is that – despite the major change in style and personnel – the same strengths and weaknesses persist. The Bantams are outstanding at the back – they’ve not conceded more than one goal in a league game since 1 March – but continue to struggle to create chances and score goals.
We know from last season that this blend can still take the club a long way, and there remains every reason to be buoyant. McCall might not have found the answers to the lack of goals here, but he’s three points nearer to delivering a successful season.
Categories: Match Reviews