By Katie Whyatt
The last time Bradford City went 15 games unbeaten in the league, Stuart McCall was in the side. He was 19 back then, in November 1983, and enjoying a heady winter run that came to an end in the March of the following year. That was 33 years ago – about 14 years before I was born. City have not lost in the league yet under McCall; the tally reaches 15 undefeated and stretches back to the 4-0 win over Walsall in April if you include the accomplishments of erstwhile boss Phil Parkinson.
If you’re a fan of symbolism, it will doubtless feel an especially attractive statistic, the club legend emulating and overwriting his own history more than three decades on. And it was heartwarming to read – because the thing buoying the mood around the club right now is that it all stems from a core embodied in Stuart McCall. Our Stuart. This would be good if it was happening under Parkinson, or Uwe Rosler, or Nigel Adkins. But THIS good, man?! With, like, ALL CAPS?! This guy is Bradford City, all over, and the climate of mutual respect and affection that he has so obviously cultivated in the dressing room only serves to underscore that. Running to high-five Mark Marshall at the final whistle, as the rest of the City midfield circled towards the Kop to applaud, you were reminded again of the intensity and potential of what might be brewing here.
This team play with a consistency akin to the constancy of Stuart McCall’s unchanging haircut. Even throughout the scores of personnel and formational changes, they’ve never even hinted at coming off the boil. Truthfully, the second half performance was probably their weakest display of the campaign, and was certainly a tighter affair than the first as a combative Shrewsbury allied a defensive robustness with attacking purpose; but it surely stands as a barometer of just how good this team are if a showing that falls below their usual fluidity is still one of cohesion and, ultimately, grinds out the result. From a tempo point of view, McCall’s sides are different to Parkinson’s: where the 2013 side famously upped the ante after the break, repeatedly tearing down the flanks, the current incarnation work with a quieter guile, dominating for longer periods with an impressively guarded composure.
McCall’s intention had been to play with two definite wingers for the first time, but gave Morais and Law a license to move centrally when he saw the Shrewsbury set-up, with Dieng situated a little deeper. What followed was, in theory, a stretched and mutated midfield four, but one of startling fluidity that repeatedly encompassed Billy Clarke. It’s difficult to discern whether this side function on instinct or organisation: when Marshall raced down the flanks to become City’s highest man, Billy Clarke would drop to the centre to patrol the space and Nicky Law would drift wide. When Dieng ventured forwards, Law would drop, Morais biding his time in the box, waiting. Morais and Law interchanged constantly, impossible to pin down. In one notable passage of play, Jordy Hiwula found Clarke from deep, who picked out a first time pass for Morais to fire into a pack of blue and white shirts.
Dieng and Law are the key pistons in the engine, moving ceaselessly, tirelessly, perceptively in a team that embodies – and is tailored to – their strengths. Even up against two holding midfielders and a pair of wingbacks, their ability to hunt out pockets of space and tear gaps for runners to weave into was in evidence once more, and was the foundation of City’s approach. Morais, too, seemed to mirror an intensity that began in the centre, collecting Joe Riley’s misdirected clearance on the left and picking out Marshall on the edge of the six yard box. Marshall spun, as though on a pivot, and squared for the onrushing Morais, whose rebounded shot fell to Nicky Law to fire home from close range.
“I think you’ve got to play to your strengths,” McCall has said of the freedom underpinning his playing style. “You look at the players that we’ve got here – from the back, through the midfield, to the wide areas up front – they can al handle the ball. They’re good footballers. A lot of the training we do is based on passing and moving and taking people on – expressing yourself. There’ll be some days where it will be backs to the wall and a gritty display, but you’ve got to let players express themselves. You’ll obviously have an idea of the defensive shape you’ll fall back into, but we’ve got good players, and I think if you try to stifle them or play them like robots, you won’t get the best out of them. We try to be inventive and it won’t always work, but, when you’ve got good players, you’ve got to let them go and play.”
A Shrewsbury side anonymous in the first grew into the game during the second half, but Romain Vincelot and Nathaniel Knight-Percival were, um, classic Romain Vincelot and Nathaniel Knight-Percival in how they marshalled George Waring. Lively substitue midfielder Antoni Sarcevic was problematic and an obvious focal point, but, though the visitors were direct in the centre and ambitious in the final third, they drew but a single save from Colin Doyle. It was arguably a more staggered affair than City have accustomed us to, but the Bantams’ late penalty did at least finish the job. Sarcevic rammed into substitute Danny Devine on the edge of the box after Vuckic picked out the City youngster and began to tail off behind. Jayson Leutwiler dived left as Vuckic slotted the resultant spotkick low and hard into the bottom right.
The last time Bradford City went 15 games unbeaten in the league, Stuart McCall was in the side. As City faced a managerless Shrewsbury Town today, in limbo following Micky Mellon’s switch to Tranmere, perhaps that stat felt particularly pertinent. At this stage in 2009, McCall’s erratic City had lost 3-2 at home to Crewe. Maybe that means something. But maybe it doesn’t. When asked about his side’s unbeaten run, McCall met Radio Leeds with gentle repose: “Yeah – you know me,” he said, visibly relaxed. “We’ll just look to the next game.”
All the doubts and misgivings aired in August stemmed from McCall’s inability to mentally separate himself from the task at hand during his initial spell. The thought of letting people down pained him. He admitted he began to dread the weekends. It sums up McCall as a person that his hamartia was so something as good-natured as being too wholehearted. And it speaks to where we were as a club, and a fanbase, in 2009, that those unfair expectations were matched – and fuelled – by us. Looking back, it feels a little like that era, emotionally, was lived in extremities that have since subsided for something still romantic, but a little more rational and forgiving. The landscape has changed, and McCall is navigating it with a distance and a clarity that he didn’t have in his first spell. And so are we.
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Categories: Match Reviews