Sizzling second half Bradford City performance puts season back on track

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Match review: Northampton Town 1 Bradford City 2 (Marshall, Hiwula)

By Jason McKeown

The second half of this contest could double up as a promotional video to show to every striker that Bradford City attempt to sign this month. A goal down, and with a season in danger of fading, the Bantams responded to mounting pressure by producing a superb 45-minute display of scintillating attacking football. They overwhelmed their opponents with a gung ho approach. One where the risks delivered big rewards.

And if you’re a striker, you’d surely relish playing in a team that can be this creative. This attack-minded. James Meredith bombing up and down the left flank. Mark Marshall tearing apart his full back on the right. Nicky Law everywhere, finding space and always judging the right pass. Josh Cullen winning back possession from deeper and driving forward with menace.

When Stuart McCall’s Bradford City are good, they are exceptional. And the second half showing at Northampton was as impressive as anything they have served up all season. They were relentless in pushing the home side back. Rob Page’s men valiantly tried to withstand the tide, but they were outnumbered by a City side who attacked in numbers and took chances with the huge gaps they left behind them.

Even after they had got back to 1-1 with Mark Marshall’s fancy footwork and low finish, there was no question of sitting back and settling for a draw. Northampton were offered encouragement they might snatch an undeserved winner, as they found some late joy on the counter attack. But City were unperturbed and continued to accept the risk of losing the game in pursuit of victory. They kept piling forwards, and with four minutes to go Jordy Hiwula slid in to convert Marshall’s cross.

There have been some criticisms that McCall could have been more attack-minded in recent home games, but he really threw off the shackles in the second half here. In the first 45, his attempts to play a diamond was thwarted by a clumsy team performance that never quite got going. Romain Vincelot was pushed into midfield for only the second time since his summer arrival, and Haris Vuckic was brought in up front. The fact both players were subbed at half time said everything you need to know about how well it worked out.

It had been cagey up to then. And with the season starting to feel on a knife edge in terms of the direction it would go, you worried this could be one hesitant City performance too many. And that a deluge of criticism was waiting to be unleashed on the team from the away stand and on social media.

When Alex Revell was left with too much space to head Northampton in front, worst fears began to be realised. Minutes earlier a City shot from distance had sparked the black humour of ironic celebrations. “We’ve had a shot” boomed out of the away end. No one on the pitch, in the dug out or in the away directors’ section could have pretended not to hear it.

Ultimately the diamond experiment ended with the familiar frustrations as it did under Phil Parkinson. Stephen Darby – returning for the rested Tony McMahon – was left too exposed. Timothee Dieng was underutilised. Cullen and Law were the best two City players as usual, but couldn’t get the ball into areas where Vuckic and Hiwula could cause genuine problems. It was all too narrow.

The half time switch back to 4-4-2 – aided by bringing on James Hanson and Mark Marshall – turned the game on its head. Colin Doyle could have joined us in the away stand, so little was he involved. With the returning Rory McArdle looking solid alongside Nathaniel Knight-Percival, the foundations were in place for City to push forwards. They completely dominated the half.

It was so typically Stuart McCall, who was often gung ho during his first spell in charge. And it was also typical of McCall’s management that success came from the wide areas. He accepts that wingers are inconsistent beasts capable of leaving you tearing your hair out one week, only to be match winners the next. Marshall had been a long way short of his best on Saturday, but he rewarded his manager’s long-term faith in his ability here.

Today might just go down as the Mark Marshall show. Just as Omar Daley and Kyel Reid had games for City where they were electric, this was an afternoon where Marshall’s contribution deserves to be long remembered. He was flying here. Time and time again dribbling the ball around defenders. Time and time again having an end product to his game.

He was probably only edged out of man of the match because Meredith was just as impressive on the left. The decision to rest the Aussie on Saturday had raised some questions, but keeping him fresh for this contest paid off massively. For Northampton it must have been difficult to decide whether to double mark Marshall or Meredith. And even if you could keep the wide players quiet for a few minutes, there was Nicky Law and Josh Cullen ready to drive on.

The punches were coming from all angles, leaving Northampton dizzy. It was an extraordinary performance.

And that’s why a top striker for League One level could make such a huge difference. It was great to see Jordy Hiwula’s hard work and solid attitude be rewarded with the winning goal, but in truth the young striker largely endured a difficult game where plenty went wrong. He could, and should, have scored more than one. James Hanson was excellent. If McCall can find a more ideal partner for the targetman, results will better reflect the level of performances City are delivering.

Before the game it was announced Marc McNulty had been recalled by Sheffield United. He is a player of talent who may flourish elsewhere in his career, but my lasting impression of McNulty was his poor attitude when picked at Morecambe in the Football League Trophy dead rubber in mid-November. He has not done himself justice over his loan spell, and can have no complaints about how his time went at Valley Parade.

This afternoon proved to be Vuckic’s last for City, and he returns to Newcastle having underwhelmed. A player of talent without question, but lacking in application and team intelligence. It will be interesting to see how his career shapes up from here, but he is unlikely to be anywhere near Rafa Benitez’s plans. He needs to be at a club willing to build a team around him, and will probably have to drop down the leagues to find it.

The departures of the pair leave McCall short up front for now but with resources and squad space freed up for new recruits. There is no question the team have collectively underachieved in front of goal this season. Having three loan strikers to challenge James Hanson and Billy Clarke has failed. Will the owners’ be prepared to invest more money in this vital area?

City stay fifth after this victory, and the next two games are against teams in the bottom four. The automatic promotion places look unlikely but not impossible. A good fortnight on and off the pitch, and the Bantams’ promising half-season could develop into something truly special.

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3 replies

  1. At half time against Bury I said to my brother in law that right now we need a Parky type performance that is powerful and at times direct to put them under pressure. I was amazed when exactly that happened in the second half. I was therefore disappointed to see the team line up for Northampton. We were ‘ok’ in the first half, if you like watching a team going through the motions, certainly better than the first half a few days earlier, but not good enough to win a game, or even dare I say “draw one”
    The second half blew away those stodgy Xmas/New Year feelings. Pace, Power and Passion combined to absolutely batter “NTFC 🎶🎶”
    That was a mix of styles, direct, probing and full of guile. Only wanting to play pretty short pass pass pass is not the answer in the ‘3rd Division’ it’s the ability to mix it up and get the opposition on the back foot. More please…..

  2. Spot on summary of the game which produced a second half performance of continued ‘attack and defence’ from City. I can’t recall an away game that we have dominated in such a way that Northampton couldn’t escape their own penalty for virtually the whole of the 2nd half. You could sense the fear in the home fans and the nervous anticipation of City fans wondering if our superiority would result in a victory.
    The answer was a resounding YES!

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