By Jason McKeown
You learn a lot about a football squad when you get to look under the bonnet.
Stripped back on Tuesday, with many of the high-performers of late rested, Bradford City’s strength in depth shone through with another hard-working and industrious performance that was enough to see off a spirited Bury side. There are some really good players at the club currently far from guaranteed a regular starting place, and that is a major sign of progress.
It looked good because the attitude was spot on from every player who took part. We’ve seen it many times over the years that fielding a side featuring players seemingly with a point to prove doesn’t work out. Instead of taking the opportunity, they can look hesitant and disinterested. It makes it easier for the manager to continue leaving them out, but doesn’t inspire much confidence if injuries were to strike.
Three years ago an under-strength Bradford City were smashed 5-0 by a beleaguered League Two Hartlepool side in the same competition. It didn’t augur well for the depth of Phil Parkinson’s side, and as that season progressed it proved to be a real problem. On occasions like this, you want players to demonstrate their ability and worth – and most of all you want them to show the right character.
It was evident in abundance on Tuesday. At the back Matthew Kilgallon, Rory McArdle and Nathan Clarke all made their first starts of the season. They are very experienced players of course, but would have expected to have been in the first team and will probably be unhappy about the state of affairs. They all knuckled down and set the tone for the rest of the team. It is, relatively speaking, an embarrassment of riches to have such excellent back up options. Even Stephen Darby isn’t guaranteed a starting place when Tony McMahon is fit again. Tuesday’s defence could well prove to be our reserve back four.
In front of them was another player under the spotlight and facing a testing occasion – Danny Devine. The young midfielder’s astonishing August was followed by a quiet demotion from the matchday 18 over September. He was back Tuesday and eyeing up Josh Cullen’s vacant midfield position for Saturday’s home game with Shrewsbury. How has he handled losing his place when doing very little wrong? Would he be able to show resilience?
Devine was once again outstanding. A wonderfully composed display in the middle of the park alongside man of the match Timothee Dieng. Devine gave absolutely everything and impressed in the tackle and in driving attacks. This is a real gem of a player emerging through the ranks. A potential big star of the future. Stuart McCall will struggle to leave him out on Saturday.
If Devine is on the bench, it will be because McCall has elected to reward Haris Vuckic with another opportunity after a seriously impressive first half performance. Playing in Billy Clarke’s number 10 role, Vuckic built upon the flashes of brilliance seen so far to produce a dazzling display. His first touch and vision are above League One level. He has an eye for a good pass and an intelligence to make the right decisions.
Finding a place for Vuckic in the starting XI is a real dilemma. He can’t play ahead of Clarke right now, and isn’t necessarily suited to playing the wide midfield position of Nicky Law – he doesn’t have the pace. But what he does have to offer is really interesting, and if McCall doesn’t opt to keep the Devine/Dieng partnership going on Saturday he may play Vuckic wide left and bring Law into the centre.
The Bury win leaves them top of their group in a competition increasingly unloved by the public and the clubs taking part. The sight of Colin Doyle being substituted for Rouven Sattelmaier just three minutes in – so McCall and Kenny Black could get around the selection rules – will live longer in the memory than the game. Doyle didn’t even get to touch the ball. I wonder if he got a clean sheet bonus?
It also brought back memories of when then-Sheffield Wednesday manager Gary Megson did the same trick at Valley Parade for a JPT match. On that occasion the attitude of the Wednesday team was woeful and City – in a division below – played them off the park.
On Tuesday Bradford City generated national headlines for the keeper swap, but they can’t seriously be accused of going through the motions. Whatever they and others think about this competition, the attitude of the team was terrific.
It all generates further reasons to be optimistic about the way this season is shaping up.
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