Match review: Sheffield United 3 Bradford City 0
By Jason McKeown
There’s a great line in the film Spinal Tap about how it’s such a thin line between stupid and clever. At Bramall Lane and in a game where a win could have delivered such big rewards for Bradford City, Stuart McCall’s tested that thin line theory and paid the price.
A gung-ho approach of three at the back, and deploying the two full backs as wingers, was an almighty risk that ultimately backfired. The Champions, Sheffield United, tore through a badly exposed Bantams defence in clinical fashion. It was brutal, it was devastating and it was highly damaging for City. It cost them the game and may have extinguished automatic promotion hopes just as suddenly as they had been revived.
And yet as foolish as McCall’s plan was made to look by the Blades, the tantalising glimpse of what might have been makes it difficult to be too critical of the City manager. If the Bantams were to have any hope of catching Bolton they had to win here and McCall tried to play the odds in his team’s favour. When in the opening 12 minutes the visitors attacked with promise and showed urgency and bite, everything they did in possession hinted at delivering a surprise win. They badly needed to score the first goal.
That they didn’t manage to do so allowed Sheffield United to run riot. The game was lost by poor shape off the ball and the midfield being left wide open and easy to overrun. When Leon Clarke emphatically smashed United in front, City were in big trouble. Before a quarter of the game was over Billy Sharp had run through to make it 2-0 and it was pretty much game over.
McCall reacted to his own mistake by making a very early substitution and reverting to a proper back four. Timothee Dieng had endured a harrowing afternoon that was reaching Chris-Routis-at-Oldham level, and had to be put out of his misery. Alex Jones – who took the wide forward position of a 4-3-3 – played well.
City got better from that point, but the damage had already been done. Sheffield United sat back, let City have the ball, and defended superbly. For all the possession the Bantams had over the last 70 minutes, they rarely looked like scoring.
Indeed Sheffield United made sure it was game over just before half time, with a third goal on the counter attack that was smashed home by Clarke. He and Sharp were outstanding all afternoon, and on this evidence City’s forwards are a long way behind the best in the division.
As are more of their Bantams team mates for that matter. Sheffield United were understandably in jovial mood and played like Champions. The difference in the two sides’ level of fluidity and speed of thought was vast. United are on another level, and if City don’t succeed in getting promotion this is the standard they must aspire to reach in League One next season.
They’ll also need to develop more of the nasty streak that champions like United so nearly always seem to possess. When the third goal went in, Sharp chose to goad us City fans in the away end, with Clarke eventually running over to join in. We City fans had earlier joined in the clapping the Champions, and the players sportingly gave their counterparts a guard of honour. All nice, classy things, but some will argue not necessarily the best approach for a must-win game. Ultimately City were too obliging guests to the Blades’ party.
It was so disappointing for the Bantams. To their credit they kept going and attempted to begin an unlikely comeback, but the bravery from the start had long evaporated. While Mark Marshall and Jones deserve credit for not letting their heads drop, Josh Cullen was below par and lacking in the levels of responsibility he is usually prepared to take. The Cullen chant was aired frequently in the away end once more, but it seemed a little hollow this time.
Charlie Wyke was too quiet and ineffective. Aside from his tap-in at Bury, Wyke just hasn’t looked effective enough in away games and needs to produce more. His superb performance at home to Oxford on Friday showed he can offer more than just goals. He needs to maintain those standards but dipped here. James Meredith and Nathaniel Knight-Percival also had afternoons to forget. Romain Vincelot had a rough time playing in the back three but got better after being pushed back into midfield. Nicky Law needed more courage to try more difficult things.
McCall sounded downbeat post match, but talked in a positive way about the situation. With two games to go, the focus has shifted back to making sure enough is done to finish in the play offs and, ideally, to ensure the second leg is at Valley Parade. Wimbledon and Rochdale are relatively kind fixtures to have. One more point seals top six, after defeats for Millwall and Southend.
But the true cost of today could lie in the surrendering of 4th place and, with it, the guarantee of a play off second leg at home. Scunthorpe’s win over Chesterfield pushes the Iron a point ahead of City, and their last two games are at struggling Swindon and at home to already relegated Coventry. Somehow City need to overtake them again over the final two rounds of games.
Providing that does happen, the disappointment of this afternoon will be quickly eased – although the lessons shouldn’t be forgotten. McCall is not a manager to shut up shop away from home and play for a draw, but if in three weeks time City are embarking on a first leg trip to Scunthorpe, Millwall or Southend, with the cushion of a second leg at home, they should remember they don’t need to take undue risks to win the tie there and then.
Last year City lost the semi final tie before the first leg reached the half time break. McCall’s City cannot go all out attack in the first leg and risk a damaging deficit that leaves them with too much to do in the second tie.
The rewards that come with the play offs get bigger, and how McCall manages the risks could be the telling factor. To get through the play offs and win promotion City are going to have to defend as well as they attack. They’ll have to be clever. Not stupid.
Categories: Match Reviews