Match review: Morecambe 3 Bradford City 2 (Vukic 2)
By Jason McKeown
There were two distinct narratives for Bradford City tonight, so let’s start with the positives.
Four academy prospects featured in the starting line up here in the shape of Tom Windle, James King, Ellis Hudson and Danny Devine; with a fifth on the field – Sam Wright – before the end. Two of the unused substitutes, Kwaeme Boetang and Reece Webb-Foster, have figured in previous group games.
A whopping seven youngsters have already been given a first team chance this season. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the revamped Football League Trophy, it has proven beneficial to the club’s academy. The joint chairman, Edin Rahic, has talked up a change of philosophy in giving youth a chance, and he must be delighted by the way this is taking shape.
You have to go back just over a decade for the last time the Bantams gave so many young players a first team opportunity. That was during the days of Colin Todd, with the club’s struggle to emerge from the shadows of administration led to an over-reliance on youngsters that ultimately had a detrimental effect. The current crop of City’s youth deserve first team chances, but are not quite ready yet for the pressures of playing week in week out. And so this competition has proved a perfect in-between.
The idea of bringing B teams into the Football League Trophy is to develop Premier League youngsters and enhance the future prospects of the England team; but Bradford City have been able to piggy back it to nurture their own stars of tomorrow. The long-term benefits could be huge.
All five of the youngsters who featured tonight showed promise, with Ellis Hudson once again the standout. Charging up and down the left wing and linking up well with the returning James Meredith, Hudson was sharp and creative. His pace is a major threat, and with more experience will come a greater intelligence to make more of the right decisions in the final third.
Tom Windle had a tougher evening but battled well, James King was quiet for spells but looked tidy on the ball. Danny Devine was excellent throughout, and his greater first team experience – compared to Hudson, King and Windle – was obvious in the greater assurance he displayed.
None of them are the finished article, and clearly they won’t all make it. But they’re grasping these opportunities and growing in stature. For the first time in years there is a clearer path to the first team, and these players are benefiting from the Rahic philosophy. For now, we watch their development with increasing enthusiasm.
The other story of the team tonight was the senior players who lined up alongside the young charges, and the worrying gaps that are suddenly appearing between Stuart McCall’s first choice XI and his squad players. There’s troubling signs of a dip in morale and motivation from his back ups. This brings with it clear illustrations of the scale of the challenge the manager faces keeping everyone happy.
In the last Football League Trophy group game, at home to Bury, the fringe players brought into the side looked fired up to succeed. To demonstrate to McCall they were worthy of a place in the startling XI. But on Saturday in the FA Cup, many of those same players flopped, and there were similarly concerning signs at the Globe Arena tonight.
Having a squad full of talented players is a good thing of course, but not so much fun for those stuck on the bench or not even always in the matchday squad. Clearly for the players in this position, the issue gets worse over time, as the initial motivation to keep going and force yourself into the reckoning wanes, and disillusionment threatens to creep in.
There was much said on Saturday about how under-performing fringe players – who had been brought in for the winnable-looking cup tie with Stanley – failed to grasp their chances, and now have made it even easier for McCall to leave them out. But that misses the point. Because if these players really don’t think they can play their way into the regular starting XI, how are those who are in the first team supposed to believe there’s a credible threat to their place?
And if they’re not pushed to keep playing to the absolute maximum, standards can drop and results with it. And then when McCall seeks to make changes to shake things up, his options are reduced by virtue of how poorly his back up players are performing.
So it does matter that, tonight, Filipe Morais was once again well below par, and increasingly looks a shadow of the player he can be. Bradford City needs a fired up, in-form Morais to drive standards upwards.
It matters also that Nathan Clarke and Rory McArdle are struggling to find their uncompromising toughness of last season. Three goals were conceded here, making it 10 in the last four games. This from a club that went over 20 games without conceding more than one goal. Something is going wrong at the back.
And it matters that, up front, performances were mixed. Haris Vuckic was better than Saturday but ponderous and wasteful when City attacked, frequently taking the wrong option or failing to find the execution to match his vision.
The contradiction here was that Vuckic ended the night with two brilliantly taken goals – his free kick a wonder to behold – and can reasonably believe he should start against Rochdale on Saturday. But for now, his positives are weighed down by his negatives. He is not the most mobile, he doesn’t put himself about, and when City don’t have the ball he doesn’t work hard enough to win it back.
Marc McNulty meanwhile was poor for long spells and a petulant booting of the ball into the air in frustration, after he was pulled up for a foul, was very disappointing to see. It just hasn’t got going for McNulty at City just yet, but he is now past the point of being excused time to bed in.
None of this is to suggest the fringe players who lined up here were lacking in effort – the opposite is true, with frustration in themselves and each other palpable – but it is concerning to see them fall short of what they can deliver. McCall should not have come away from the last two cup matches with team selection for the next game feeling relatively easy. He’d have wanted to be weighed down by problems over who to leave out.
City’s continued progress in this competition – the 3-2 defeat here meant they won the group – will present another opportunity for youth and squad players to impress. But in the meantime, the latter group in particular is not one McCall can afford to ignore. He needs to get these players firing on all cylinders. He needs them all to stay bought into what he is trying to do, and to accept their roles in making it happen.
The City boss has a first XI that is performing and functioning well, as evidenced by the league table. But it’s a long season, and he’ll need everyone to pull together to drive higher standards. Losing to Morecambe here and Accrington last weekend is not the end of the world, but it hints at cracks in the spirit of the squad that cannot be allowed to get worse.
Categories: Match Reviews