Match review: Bradford City 1 (Clarke) Walsall 0
By Jason McKeown
Bradford City edged closer to a play off finish because of a penalty appeal that went against them. 52 minutes into a forgettable contest, Billy Clarke headed the ball across the area towards Charlie Wyke, only for the Walsall defender Matt Preston’s outstretched arm to illegally intervene. Every City player appealed frantically for a penalty; every Walsall defender walked away sheepishly. The referee, Graham Salisbury, was unmoved. No spot kick was awarded.
And that decision won Bradford City the game.
It proved decisive because it woke everybody up. A crowd of 17,880 were largely watching proceedings in silence. The home team were unable to raise their game and exert meaningful pressure on a Walsall team that were content to sit back and deny their opponents time and space. It was shaping up to be the dullest of stalemates; or even worse, setting the scene for a first City league home defeat in 396 days.
Something was needed to shake up the lethargic atmosphere; and a City crowd and team who believe they have been wronged proved just the antidote. As injustice suddenly swirled around Valley Parade, a sense of purpose finally emerged and the Bantams began to swarm all over the Saddlers, urged on by a belatedly vocal Kop. The pressure was heightened. Chances were created. The roars grew louder.
Within six minutes of the handball moment, Billy Clarke had netted a vital goal and Bradford City are three points further towards sealing a place in the play offs.
Even if Sailsbury had seen the handball, and thus awarded City the chance to go in front from the spot, it might not have had the desired effect of sharpening the players and supporters. At that point, their overall play hadn’t merited a goal. Scoring without any great effort can sometimes count against a team, causing complacency to creep in.
Those six minutes in-between Clarke screaming handball and screaming in delight about scoring saw the players raise their game and do much more to earn the decisive breakthrough. This mood-changer carried the players and fans through to the final whistle (albeit the performance on the pitch and in the stands became more muted once more). It enabled City to win the game if not many plaudits. But at this stage of the season, winning is all that really matters.
This was certainly not as fluent or impressive of a performance as the one put in at Glanford Park six days ago. But the fact City lost to Scunthorpe and won this one helped to readdress some of the balance that went astray when Timothee Dieng lost his man last weekend. There were no defensive frailties this time around; although only sporadic bursts of the attractive attacking football of a week ago.
Walsall didn’t let them play so freely. The visiting manager, Jon Whitney, set up his team in a 5-4-1 formation that was designed to cut off the oxygen supply to the three City forwards; particularly wide attackers Mark Marshall and Alex Jones, who even when they did receive the ball were double marked. After closely watching Walsall in the warm up, Stuart McCall opted to play a 4-2-1-3 formation that pushed Tony McMahon and James Meredith back to defence and Romain Vincelot into midfield. There was no need to have three central defenders against one Walsall striker.
The two contrasting styles meant City dominated possession but found it tough to attack with conviction. Indeed, Walsall had the better of the first half chances and Colin Doyle – criticised of late – deserves credit for a couple of excellent saves to earn the clean sheet. City were so passive in the first half that a Walsall lead would have been the catalyst towards falling down a much darker path. When playing so average, the outfield players needed their keeper to excel and he did.
In midfield Josh Cullen’s return added greater composure, and he and Vincelot continued their promising partnership. But attempting Clarke in the hole behind the three once again delivered limited rewards. With Nicky Law fit enough for the bench but not deemed ready to start, you could understand why McCall persisted with Clarke. Yet he was crowded by Walsall playing so deep. In a game when the ball needed to be pushed up the park and into the front three much faster, Clarke was largely an unnecessary bottleneck.
That said, he did score for the first time in almost five months. Marshall was the catalyst for the team’s second half improvement, and delivered a ball into the box that Jones couldn’t control. It fell to Clarke, who had an unguarded goal to aim for and finished in style. He raced over towards the section of the Kop where I sit, the roar of delight on his face was visible. The drought is over, and Clarke looked a picture of relief.
A 1-0 advantage is never safe, but City looked as comfortable as they could be in such circumstances. Walsall forced a few corners towards the end, without seriously threatening an equaliser. City were compact, solid and grounded throughout. Not spectacular, but a performance that cemented the achievements of the season so far.
18 years ago Stuart McCall was captain of a Bradford City team that played enthralling, attack-minded football which left them on the cusp of promotion to the Premier League. In April of that season, they beat Grimsby and Portsmouth despite performing a long way below their true capabilities. They were victories that had to be grounded out, and in the long-run mattered just as much as the thrilling, free-scoring wins over Crewe, Bristol City and Norwich that are more fondly remembered. Today might just have been one of those crucial moments in this Bradford City season.
Because with Millwall and Southend winning, this was clearly a big three points for the Bantams. One that keeps the cushion above the dotted line in tact. Every promotion-chasing team with a game in hand plays their catch up match midweek. And so by 10pm on Wednesday we will have a more complete picture of where City stand and what they need to do over these final five games.
A Southend victory over Bolton on Tuesday would push the Shrimpers above City and into fourth; whilst a Millwall win at Shrewsbury would close the gap between City and the Lions to just three points. It could get tight, the job is not yet done. But City are in fine fettle. This was a fifth victory in eight, and the third in a row at home. There is nothing to fear about the run-in, with the chance of sewing it up with a game or two to spare there to be taken.
Quietly successful days at the office such as this bring us closer to another crack at winning the play offs. Championship football is edging nearer.
Categories: Match Reviews