Staying on the fringes

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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.

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9 replies

  1. Might be a context thing tho? Surely unlikely McCall will have to make that many changes at once in the league. Would potentially be more minor ones, which bodes better for players coming in and doing better

    • It is, but as an example if McCall wants to go back to 4-4-2 on Saturday (as opposed to the diamond) and Marshall gets injured 10 minutes in, is he going to want to turn to Morais?

  2. Credit for you to going to this game Jason. In my opinion, this competition is one too many. We have enough games with the bread and butter of the league, the FA Cup and the League Cup. It’s the same for the clubs that play European football, too many games in the European Cup and the Europa League. It’s all driven by money which is ruining our game. Why can’t young home grown players be picked for league games and the two main cup competitions? It’s because the pressure to win is massive. Too many managers take the short term view so won’t give young home grown players the opportunity, especially in league games. Credit to McCall and our two Chairmen for wanting to give youth a chance in the first team, however let’s scrap the Checkatrade/ Auto windscreen/ Mickey Mouse cup competition and blood our home grown players in league games. I know that not everyone home grown youngster will be good enough but our track record of developing our own home grown players is poor. Onwards and upwards, hopefully with Devine, King etc playing for us!

    • Us as fans play a big part. For some strange reason local and youth players don’t seem to get that patience from fans needed to develop.

      Players are not allowed to have a bad game or make a mistake nowadays. No wonder as a country we never produce flair players anymore

  3. Two consecutive defeats in a week and to League 2 sides has certainly not enhanced the claims for a first team place by any of the fringe players.
    On reflection I believe the main reason for the below par individual and collective performances was that perhaps too many changes were made to the starting line up.
    With the players keen to impress but not wanting to make a mistake it proved to have a negative and disruptive impact on the overall performance of the team.
    As you have pointed out the outcome is that some disillusion may follow but hopefully a return to winning ways will maintain a happy camp.

  4. It’s been coming over recent weeks and standards have definitely slipped, but the results that really matter have thus far still gone our way. The question being, if the writing is potentially on the wall, how long before performance issues lead to a dip in results? As you correctly stated, Stuart needs to work out how to motivate the full squad and get them all chasing the same dream.

  5. I don’t think the “uncompromising toughness” of N.Clarke and McArdle was even evident last season when they were playing together. They each had an excellent season but only when one or the other was paired with Burke. For whatever reason their skills don’t complement each other. A distinct lack of pace could be the main reason.

    Soccerbase confirms the importance to the defence last season of Burke (all competitions):

    Burke/McArdle 13 wins/ 9 draws/ 4 defeats
    Burke/Clarke 6/1/2
    Clarke/McArdle 5/4/6

    Maybe an opportunity to move Kilgallon to the centre of defence to avoid this partnership in the next round?

  6. Beat Rochdale and the last two games will be brushed under the carpet, but we need to win the next 3 for me to start believing we are more than play-off contenders.

    I was not so worried about our youths than the fact that the team on Wednesday repeated worrying patterns of play.

    We were just lucky that the bizarre rules meant that a 3-2 loss was exactly enough for us to triumph! If we had equalised I would have gone straight to the pub, and the warm, rather than wait to see who got the extra point.

    Morecambe put out as close as a full strength side as they could manage. Us having 4 youths with practically zero first team experience between them was risky; especially as we only had youths on the bench!?

    The worrying thing for me is how often players with the ball passed it short and square, or backwards, for no gain. It’s alright pretending we’re Brazil but there were times on Wednesday when we had 4 players on a wing passing around with just 1 man in the middle! And why do we insist on passing the ball sideways from flipping free kicks more than 40 yards out?

    Vuckic was easily our best player. He did give the ball away, but I don’t think Morecambe scored, or even got one of their many missed chances, as a result. He was also the only one beating men with the ball, bringing it forward, and having a go. In fact he seems to be the only one in the squad doing that to any effect!

    We are now just 4 games from Wembly. We have no other Cups to worry about. We get prize money for each round won. We need a better them put out against Cambridge.

  7. I was not so worried about our youths than the fact that the team repeated worrying patterns of play.

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