A Law unto himself as City’s unbeaten run continues

Picture by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Picture by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

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

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9 replies

  1. I remember well the last 15 match unbeaten run.
    My first ever away game for my 13th birthday at Brentford 26/11/83 was the first of the record ten wins on the bounce!!

  2. It is strange how different people see a game differently.I thought the scoreline flattered Shrewsbury. They were slow, and bereft of ideas in the first 35 or so minutes, then got into the game when City slackened off. But I thought they never looked like scoring, and 3-0 would have seemed, to me , a better reflection of play.
    City look very good, pleasing to watch, but just somehow lacking a real incisiveness in front of goal. Hopefully, that will come. One worry to me is that Doyle might one time get caught out with his passes out from his penalty area.

  3. Well done another well written article. The constancy of Stuart’s haircut is an observation that made me chuckle. Stuart was a cornerstone of an earlier era of Bantam Progressivism and this is another case of unfinished business. Exciting times.

    • Stuart was the cornerstone of two earlier eras of Bantam Progressivism and I’m enjoying the third just as much. Exciting times indeed!

  4. Stuart comes across as such a fair and decent bloke. His approach in the dressing room is obviously working at the moment (Mark Marshall being the most obvious example). I just hope that when things get tough, which they inevitably will, fans don’t change their perceptions of how his approach suits management. I think we all know enough about #bcafc to predict that opinions will change from some people.

  5. During the first half 3-0 or 4-0 would not have been an unfair half score such was City’s dominance. Mark Marshall on fire and the rest of the team carving Shrewsbury open so often.

    However in the second half only the back four and the keeper can take any plaudits. I thought all the midfielders and forwards failed to retain the ball which just kept putting pressure on the defenders. Admittedly Shrewsbury raised their game significantly in the second half…but it was a bit disappointing to see such a regression in ball retention.

    To the eyes of my row Knight-Percival is the only player who could get even near the MOM award…in the first half many played very well, but he was the only one to do so for 90+ minutes followed by his fellow defenders….

    • I totally agree. Stuart said as much in his post match comments. He is as honest in his interviews as he was as a player. Our success is built on his ethos. A quarter of the season unbeaten and he still is striving for better. This is what I was begging for during the PP era. That added hunger and determination to get better and better.

      Funny that the headline centres on Law in my humble opinion. Personally (I note he got MOTM in a Twitter poll) I thought Dieng and Marshall were better than him TODAY in the midfield, and KP better than anyone else on the pitch. KP is so utterly cultured and unflappable. He never dives in and won the ball from standing and reading the game umpteen times today.

      Dieng plays such a role that you don’t even notice him. A level of praise once levelled at Makelele. A real unsung hero. But that’s a sign of a great team. He just does his stuff and others take the plaudits.

      Finally, a massive mention from an apologetic me. When we kept Marshall I was totally underwhelmed. His attitude is exceptional this year. That 92nd minute run down the right, after being chopped all game, knowing he would be smashed again showed just what he’s become. And although slightly tenuous, we then doubled our lead from that.

      Brilliant stuff all round.

  6. For Paul Brear – what do you think of this piece? Compare and contrast – Parky with Stuart.
    They come from different philosophies, don’t you agree. One a defensive stance, the other with an acknowledgement of the need to entertain. I’ll leave you to work it out!

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