A familiar tale of joy turning to frustration

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

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.

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27 replies

  1. I’d love to reply. Simply lost for words.

  2. Great reflective piece so soon after the final whistle. What a frustrating outcome but what a clear demonstration of the contrast in styles; it is a long time since I have seen a City team play as superbly as they did in the first half, and the team has played some terrific football this season. Two defensive lapses have cost us and, to be fair, their first goal had more than a touch of good fortune. I feel very sorry for Stuart. I am desperate for him to succeed and I am as frustrated as the next City fan but I have to say I am enjoying every game this season (Shrewsbury away aside). The missing ingredient can’t be much – let’s not wobble now – and if it transpires that we are in league one next season, lessons learnt will surely make us very formidable. Let’s enjoy the journey to the season’s end.

  3. Well said Jason. The immediate reaction of many these days is to highlight the negatives of a performance. We’re all gutted after today, mainly because we were that good in the 1st half. I’m as frustrated as anyone but Stuart and this team will always have my backing.

  4. Give me Stuart’s style over PP every time. Whilst winning is the ultimate prize, playing the way we are is how to do it. Although results could be better we are slowing building a team for the future, which I believe will take us to the next level and maintain the progress.
    Well done Stuart for his philosophy and his undoubted passion.

  5. I agree with all your comments Jason. Much rather watch proper Football, the passing and moving in the dmfirst half was sublime.
    Winning 1-0 and playing dour stuff is not for me. If we don’t go up this season, so what I don’t think we would get away with parky style forever.
    Those fans moaning about McCall are probably the Hanson haters , and whinged about the long ball stuff, you can’t win can you.
    I hope McCall style will prevail in the end.

  6. Best 45 mins of football from Bradford iv seen for a very very long time .id rather watch us everyweek playing like that than watch bolton play the way they do.We will finish in the playoffs & beat bolton at wembley and do it in style.

  7. Stuart,s passion for this club to succeed is without question, his interview after the game clearly demonstrates this. We have a few issues to address, defensive lapses and collectively switching off for the first 20 mins of the second half, but Stuart will sort it. I would much rather watch our entertaining style of play than watch that rubbish Parky turns out. I hope all the moaners get behind the management and the team, it’s never over til it’s over. Have faith.

  8. Whilst I enjoyed the football in the first half I think we need to consider facts. We failed to beat an under strength Bolton, we have 3 points from 12 or 2 from 9, this is relegation form. Whilst the football is pleasing on the eye it is ineffective. When did we last beat a decent side? When did we last keep a clean sheet against a decent side? We have fallen down the league since November. I want McCall to succeed it would be a great fairytale but he is sadly falling short, there is a level of mental weakness that is developing, we can’t win, we are nervous and none of this is being addressed infact it is getting worse.

    • Remember Parky only won 1 in 21 a couple of years ago. Relegation form indeed but we stuck with him despite not looking like winning games. We made the play offs last year after going through a similar sticky period before finishing the season strongly.

      We also went through a period 2 seasons ago where we were nervy and throwing away wins late in games which ultimately cost us the play offs but we stuck with Parky.

      This year we actually look like winning games and although there are certain frailties that need sorting should McCall not get the chance the same way Parky did. I think the only game I’ve seen us not deserve to win this year was Shrewsbury away.

      Look at our remaining fixtures I think we’ve got 4 of the bottom 5 to play. And I think the vast majority are in the bottom half of the table.

    • A totally over.the top reaction to yesterday’s game. Yes, the result was disappointing, but consider this – if the team had trooped off at half time 2 down and come out in the second half and played Bolton off the park and salvaged a draw, it would have been seen as great result.
      As for ‘falling down the league’ we’ve dropped from fourth to fifth. Still in play off places. Hardly a drop. You’re comments give the impression we’re fifth from bottom.
      As for ‘mental weakness’ I for one didn’t see any of this yesterday. I saw errors and a lack of concentration which cost us goals. I didn’t see City go to peices and but for the preverbial ‘width of a post’ we could have snatched a winner.
      I don’t think this team is the finished article. I see.the recent signings as proof of that. Replacements rather than strengthening the team. We’re 95% there. We just need the extra 5% . And veiled or outright calls for SM to go are borderline lunacy.
      Just look at Birmingham City as an example of what happens when the lunatics take over the asylum.

  9. What can i say? Wyke looks like he’s gonna turn out to be a first rate acquisition, brim full with confidence. contrast that with Clarke, the list of his missed gilt edged chances grows with every game. I don’t subscribe to the oft quoted excuse for such front men “he works his socks off for the team”, strikers are there to score goals and I for one can’t wait till Wkye is partnered with the fit again and equally prolifiv Jones up front.
    our once solid defence (on which our early season form was based) now seems anything but secure with many fans far from surpried at the manner in which we conceded.
    the two most quoted half time comments round me were “we should have been out of site by now” and “the next goal will decide the result. we score and it’s game over….they score and we’ll probably end up drawing again”.

  10. Thanks for this report. I went to the Fleetwood match and many of the comments equally apply. City well on top in the 1st half, chances missed, failure to close out the game, sloppy defending, conceding against the run of play resulting in points lost – in the case of Fleetwood all 3. Clearly, Rosler won the tactical battle on Tuesday and PP yesterday. This seems to be a repeating pattern of SMc’s 1st stint as manager so why did anyone think that he would be any better 2nd time around?

    • I am don’t understand your comments. Why criticise mcCall.? Where playing well, hit the post twice etc. Yes sloppy defending but what the heck. And the second time around thing. ?Give up being so negative please, not sure why you keep following City with this type of mentality. We are still in good position.

  11. “especially considering the budget City are operating on is lower than Parkinson’s at Bolton” You really think so??

    • Given a number of Bolton players are on £20k a week – a level none of our players are close to – I think it is a given. Also you out-bid us for Beevers in the summer.

  12. Just to say the first goal, Vince did try to clear well, just happened to hit a Bolton player 5 yards away and they got lucky, not sure where the Bolton free kick came from for the second goal either. Bolton, I thought I’d seen all the biggest, ugliest teams playing uninteresting tat in league one but then you showed up.
    It’s so frustrating not getting the wins we should when all I’ve seen this season is us outplaying everyone and still not winning, should be on about 85 points by now.

  13. We all need to hold our nerve. The team, the supporters, Stuart and the Board. I really believe this team has the potential to develop into the best team we have had at Valley Parade for years. I have watched City since the mid 1960`s and I am struggling to remember a team that has produced such a brilliant style of football that is a joy to watch. (The `nearly` team of McCall, Hendrie etc. in the 80`s bore some similarities). Yesterday was so frustrating but if we continue to play the way we did for most of the game the results will follow. The performance of Wyke was exceptional, not so much in the 2 goals he scored but the way he led the line, brought other players into the game and his physicality in standing up to the Bolton Centre halves without conceding free kicks. A great prospect. This team can really go places with a bit of fine tuning.

    • Steve I echo your sentiment. We are not the finished article and whatever happens this season I think we’ll only be stronger next. Seeing PPs long ball game yesterday provided a stark contrast to our current style of play. I know which I prefer. Many positives both on and off the pitch, which shouldn’t detract us from our medium/long term vision.

      We are on a journey and it feels good. Our fan base is growing and the potential of the club hasnt been fully tapped. My glass is half full for sure. A lot more twists left in the next 13 games. Just enjoy it, it’s only a game after all 😉

  14. I have supported Phil Parkinson on this website on many occasions (and I am proud to say that I didn’t boo him yesterday), however I have said that based upon our style of play last season, I was amazed that we finished in a play off position. Thus, despite leaving Valley Parade disappointed yesterday, I was extremely pleased with how we played overall especially in the first half. I acknowledge that our points haul over the past half a dozen games has been disappointing, however the fact remains that we are still in a play off position. At the beginning of the season, I didn’t expect us to be in a play off position so I suppose supporters will be happy or sad at the moment based upon their pre season prediction. Remember, whilst a glass can be half full or half empty, it can always be refilled. IMIT.

    • I agree , Richard, and I like Jason’s article. For reasons beyond my comprehension, City simply cannot finish the job off this season. From what I see of McCall, Abbot and the owners, I believe they will put it right. Remember they said they were long-termists, and long-term does not mean just one season. I like, at City, what I see, and am more optimistic for the future than at any time since Chelsea in 2000.

  15. Spot on insightful as usual. From where Stuart picked up the reigns he has done a phenomenal job. His style of play is exciting, an emotional roller coaster, but can leave the back doors open. City really are a joy to watch when on top and in my years of having a ST I cannot remember a more aggressive, attacking, determined front line so completely dominant in the attacking half as we were for the first 45 minutes on Saturday.
    As stated, we certainly didn’t play badly in the second half but chunks were appearing and a fearful Bolton managed to capitalise. We need to put away a higher percentage of chances, defend for 100% of the game as though the players lives depend upon it and if we can, will be invincible at this level.

  16. Just a quick question mainly aimed at Idler. if you had one of those days where everything went right for you and you vastly overachieved at work youd expect a pat on the back. However if a week later your boss came up to you and said. You are not doing what you did a week ago, I’m very disappointed what would you say and think?

    • Not sure of the relevance of your question. This is not a reaction to the Bolton game we have not been getting it right since November. Fed up of hearing the football is great McCall is doing a fantastic job. Whilst I appreciate what he is trying to achieve I am afraid we are in decline and this is evidenced through the league position. I am not saying Stuart needs to go, but he needs to improve in game management and look to change tactics and team selection and it needs to be accepted that we are in a poor run of form and are currently underachieving. It is also worrying that Stuart is demonstrating similar traits that he experienced in his first spell and he could not find a solution then, he is not showing that he can find a solution now.

      • Can you help me defining what the traits are that McCall showed in his first spell and is repeating now?

        Are these the traits that have left us undefeated in 4 matches against the top 3 clubs in the division?

        I must have been away for those games in his first spell in charge.

  17. I cant believe people are questioning Stuart. Great football and with Wyke we have a striker that can get us those 20 goals per season.

    If we stay in this division I truly believe Wyke will be one of the leading scorers. Even though I like Billy Clarke if we want to get promoted which I think we will next season, I believe we need a different partner to start with Wyke. He would be a good team player. Possibly Jones but too early to tell and if we keep Hiwula he might be more consistent next season (and I would try to sign him) or someone else completely but id go with the Millwall approach of 2 front men both strong and mobile

  18. Keep the faith, we are the best footballing side in league one and we will get into the playoffs and nobody will want to play us, and when we reach Wembley on that big bowling green of a pitch our pure passing football will see us into the championship.

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