Match review: Bradford City 2 (Wyke 2) Bolton Wanderers 2
By Jason McKeown
This was a match that demonstrated all that is good and bad about Bradford City this season. The football from the home side was joyous, but ultimately undermined by a soft centre. The attacking dominance was highly commendable, but missed chances continue to hold the team back. The defence can largely be solid and uncompromising, yet frailty on set pieces is maddening.
City should have won this game, just as they should have defeated Fleetwood, Bristol Rovers and Gillingham over the last fortnight, and just as they should have won so many other matches over the campaign. It has become such a common conclusion to draw that patience is thinning and frustration is building. At full time here, the faint sound of booing could be heard from the Kop as the players trooped off scratching their hands over how they’d squandered a 2-0 advantage.
They didn’t do a lot wrong in the second half, but they did enough things badly to throw away the victory.
As a result they remain in fifth. If there was a chance of challenging for the top two, the last fortnight has all but seen it become an impossibility. Since Christmas Sheffield United, Scunthorpe United and Bolton Wanderers have wobbled for periods, but City’s form has not been good enough to capitalise. The trail of missed opportunities grows longer.
If they don’t go onto finish inside the play off spots, the content of the inquest will be easy to envisage. It will be afternoons like this that will be revisited under the microscope.
City were absolutely cruising, after a high tempo start blew Bolton away and should have secured the three points before half time. It was a magnificent 45 minute performance, one that set a new high water mark of what this team can achieve.
Stuart McCall moved back to a diamond last seen blowing away Oldham in January, with Billy Clarke dropping into the hole behind Mark Marshall and Charlie Wyke. It was a reshuffle that brought the best out of all three players, and left Bolton’s three-man central defence struggling to cope with their pace, trickery and movement.
10 minutes in Marshall picked up possession deep inside Bolton’s half, charged powerfully down the centre of the pitch, and slipped the ball through for Wyke. It wasn’t the greatest of passes, but Wyke had an exceptional first touch that set himself up to fire a low shot which Ben Alnwick somehow allowed to bounce into the net. The Bolton keeper didn’t fare much better six minutes later, rushing out to meet the charging Nicky Law when defenders were around; which enabled the City midfielder to chip the ball goalwards, with Wyke on hand to force it over the line.
The Valley Parade crowd – which some have criticised over the lack of noise this season – were ecstatic. Right from the start of the match they roared on their players and did their best to drown out a healthy Bolton away following. They warmly welcomed Stuart McCall onto the pitch before booing the former City manager Phil Parkinson. It was a cauldron of noise that continued for most of the 90 minutes.
And the combination of the team and crowd on top of their game made for a truly special opening half. Wyke led the line superbly and is beginning to justify his relatively high transfer fee. Marshall and Clarke caused chaos, while behind them Romain Vincelot, Nicky Law and Josh Cullen easily won their battles.
The one-touch passing, the clever on and off the ball running, the commitment to attack in high numbers – it was sensational to watch. A reminder, at a point where after the Fleetwood defeat it was needed, of how talented this group of players really are. It was almost one-way traffic for 45 minutes, with Bolton shell shocked and wretched. The returning Filipe Morais barely touched the ball.
But as richly deserved as the half time standing ovation from home fans was, a sense of fear filled the unseasonably warm February air. City should have scored more than two goals, with a guilt-edged opportunity passed up just before the interval when Billy Clarke mustered up an air shot from just a few yards out, the goal gaping.
Clarke perfectly personifies the strengths and limitations of his side. The 29-year-old’s skill on the ball, vision and work rate make him one of the top forward players in League One; but he isn’t clinical enough in front of goal, misses easy chances, and ultimately doesn’t get into the box enough. He has failed to score since returning from injury in January, and his overall moderate goal return goes someway towards explaining why City are the lowest scorers of League One’s top 10.
Clearly Clarke has too much ability to be ignored, but to get the very best out of him will probably necessitate sticking with the diamond approach that worked so brilliantly here.
The problem of Clarke’s miss – and that other presentable opportunities weren’t taken – is that the half time scoreline left the door open for the visitors. Bolton were never going to play as badly again in the second half, and Parkinson must have been relieved to go in at the break only trailing 2-0. The scoreline did not reflect the extent of the one-sidedness. Parkinson returned from giving his players a rollicking in the dressing room to belated warm applause from home fans, and instigated the kind of turnaround he so often achieved in his five years at Valley Parade.
Initially City carried on as they left off – this wasn’t a repeat of the sloppy opening to the second half that cost them in the last home game against Gillingham. But on the hour Parkinson abandoned his 3-5-2 wing back formation to go to a more conventional 4-4-2, the visitors became even more unapologetically direct, and the up-to-that-point outstanding City backline began to crumble.
David Wheater reduced the arrears in bizarre style, as the ball pinged around in the City box and his sliced shot at goal fooled everyone and bounced in off the post. It was unlucky to concede in this manner, but partly self-inflicted. Seconds before the ball had fallen to Wheater, Vincelot had the chance to clear his lines but failed to take it.
And then, even more criminally, City completely fell asleep at a free kick that Bolton took short. Nicky Law allowed substitute James Henry to charge past him and cross the ball, and Nathaniel Knight-Percival left Gary Madine unmarked to head home the equaliser. It was a really, really poor piece of defending from City – one that undid 90 minutes of exceptional effort.
To their partial credit, City didn’t collapse at that point and pushed forwards, with substitute Timothee Dieng unfortunate to see a long range drive smack back off the post. But the clock ran out before they could find a winning goal. And that is an oh so familiar story.
There is, understandably, a mixed reaction amongst supporters to yet another draw. Losing a 2-0 lead never looks clever, and the run without a victory now stretches to four. Intriguingly City’s first half record over this run of games reads scored 6 conceded 2, while in the second half its scored 0 conceded 5. Over the course of the season, City have scored a lot of late goals and earned important points, but right now they are struggling to see out strong starts.
McCall was clearly pumped up speaking after the match, defending his team and his judgements in a passionate and honest manner. His heart-on-sleeve approach is why we loved him as a player, and goes a long way towards explaining why most of us want him to succeed as manager. His management style, tactics and persona is very similar to Kevin Keegan’s, and that brought the clubs he managed success, albeit not in a sustainable way.
Above all else, McCall is a nice guy and it would be great for someone of his character to succeed as manager of this club. Clearly he has some big challenges and we know from his last period in charge that he struggles to cope with set backs. But his defiant post-match words demonstrate a stomach for the battles. He is realistic enough to know elements of his public are starting to distrust him, but he seems determined not to allow this to become an issue. Achieve this, and he can achieve big things in time.
And for all the disappointment, what this game also showed was the contrast between the present and the past. After the match Nicky Law stated he wasn’t impressed with Bolton as a team and they certainly offered little that was pleasing on the eye; but they were functional and effective. Parkinson knows this division well and has developed a style of play that succeeds at this level. Against a backdrop of turmoil off-the-field at Bolton, his results are impressive.
Meanwhile under McCall, the style of football is completely redefined and the results aren’t a long way behind, especially considering the budget City are operating on is lower than Parkinson’s at Bolton. And although it’s very easy to pick holes, find faults and question this strategy, ultimately this comes down to ideology. How do each of us want Bradford City to progress? What do we individually think is the best route to success?
A year ago City were a winning machine. The pragmatic Parkinson formula delivered a best season’s points total since 1999, and a highest league finish for 12 years. But it was ultimately tainted somewhat by how dour it became as a spectacle. At times last season I was bored when watching City. Success is important, but style matters too. And the balance had gone too far in one direction.
So although recent results have been frustrating, and the season isn’t quite turning out as well as we hoped it would be a few short months ago, I back this approach 100%. I love watching this Bradford City team. The insightful, intricate passing football, the freedom everyone has to go forwards; all of which is married together with some of the leftover ingredients of endevour and commitment that Parkinson instilled into the club.
Of course we must defend better, learn to take more of our chances, drastically improve in-game management and understand that at times it is okay to be pragmatic, but none of this should be beyond this group of players. There is no reason to believe they can’t kick on and end the season strongly.
We are so close to becoming an outstanding League One team. And just because we have been saying this all season, it doesn’t make it any less true.
Categories: Match Reviews