Match review: Bradford City 3 (McMahon 2, Marshall) AFC Wimbledon 0
By Jason McKeown
Almost eight years ago to the day, Stuart McCall was bearing up to the bitter disappointment of his Bradford City side failing to reach the play offs, whilst wrestling with one of the biggest decisions of his career.
He’d previously vowed to quit if he couldn’t lead the Bantams to a top seven finish. But during the final home game of the campaign, a 3-0 victory over Rotherham, fans held up Save Our Stuart banners begging him to stay. He looked a broken man. The sea of support helped him to change his mind and stay on for another season managing his beloved City, but it only prolonged the inevitably sad ending for a few more months.
How times have changed. Today, McCall was truly able to put to bed the ghosts of his first spell managing the club. Just like eight years ago, this home league season has ended with a 3-0 City victory, only this time it has sealed a play off spot and a major shot at promotion.
The 2017 Bantams will be in the end of season knockouts after completing the job. Whatever happens from this point on, it is a fantastic achievement for a club that was plagued with so much uncertainty last summer. It is to testament to all the new people who have joined over the last 12 months – from Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp, through to Greg Abbott, the coaching staff and every new player. It is a great reflection, too, of the character of the members of the squad who were part of last season’s play off disappointment to Millwall, given they’ve bounced back so strongly.
But above all else, it is of great credit to Stuart McCall. His fourth coming at Valley Parade was greeted with high scepticism from some quarters, and the negative reaction of last Monday’s hiding at Sheffield United shows he still has his critics. But he has truly proven himself to be a better manager. His leadership, composure, tactical acumen and motivational skills have been on display throughout the campaign. This moment of celebration is another to add to the weighty back catalogue of Stuart McCall achievements with Bradford City.
As McCall joined his players and coaching staff on a lap of appreciation around Valley Parade at the final whistle, you wondered if the difficult memories of eight years ago flashed through his mind. After the pain and misery he endured back then, and the evident affects it had on his health, he’s shown remarkable courage to come back and risk going through it all again. Today, as it has been all season, his name was warmly chanted by supporters. Few people can match McCall’s passion for Bradford City. He fully deserved this moment of triumph.
His players did him proud over the 90 minutes that preceded the lap of appreciation; as indeed they have for the vast majority of the season. Wimbledon, with nothing to play for and in wretched form, put up an early fight and for half an hour threatened to upset the play off party. But once Tony McMahon put City in front from the spot after Josh Cullen was clumsily tripped in the box, the visitors retreated and went through the motions for the rest of the game. Wimbledon minds already looked to be on the beach, after a season of promise has petered out.
Which meant the contest was ultimately a comfortable one for City, particularly after Mark Marshall’s superb run and shot from a tight angle made it 2-0 on the stroke of half time.
The home side were excellent from long periods, controlling the tempo and cutting through Wimbledon with ease. It was encouraging to see players who had struggled at Sheffield United five days ago bounce back so well; with Cullen and Nicky Law looking far more effective and Nathaniel Knight-Percival dominant at the back.
City had three times as many shots as the Dons, with Charlie Wyke and Alex Jones leading the line well and Marshall a constant menace alongside them. Not everything City tried came off, but at times in the second half they came agonisingly close to netting a wonderful team goal. Stuart McCall must have been proud of what he saw from his team, with a further boost of decent cameos from the bench from two players who have dipped of late, Timothee Dieng and Billy Clarke. Jordy Hiwula was also a threat when he came on.
A third goal was achieved five minutes from the end, after Marshall ran at the Dons defence, waited for the right moment and then released the overlapping McMahon to score with aplomb.
It was fitting that City’s two best players on the day combined in such an effective way to seal Bradford City’s play off finish. McMahon’s form of recent weeks has got better and better, and the best compliment you can pay him for his performances since Christmas is that City no longer look as one-sided and reliant on James Meredith as they were over the first half of the season.
McMahon celebrated both his goals by paying tribute to former team mate Ugo Ehiogu, who tragically died two days earlier at just 44. An emotional McMahon talked after the game about how much he looked up to the former England and Middlesbrough defender. Ehiogu would surely approve of the leadership and character McMahon in turn demonstrates at Valley Parade. He is following Ugo’s footsteps in being a great example for the next generation of players to follow. Whichever division City are in next season, they must surely retain the soon-to-be-out-of-contract McMahon’s services
As they must do with Marshall. On Monday the official player of the season awards are held, and if there is any justice the City wideman will be getting up on stage several times, as each supporters’ organisation presents their winner. Marshall’s performances prior to the turn of the year were excellent; but he’s found another level since his match-winning display at Northampton. It has been a true team effort that City have got to where they are, but players like Marshall make the difference and the Jamaican has been in top form for months.
The scoring of that third goal ensured a healthy Valley Parade crowd were in fine voice as the final whistle confirmed City’s place in the play offs. Bolton’s victory at Port Vale has finally closed off any faint hopes of a top two finish, but no matter – the play offs was always the target. The Bantams have completed an entire season unbeaten at home, and won nine of their last 12 games, to extend their season.
What a contrast to 2009, when McCall’s City criminally went nine games without a win and missed out on a play off place that looked assured for most of the season. There were fears of McCall’s history repeating itself this season, especially when City slipped up at Fleetwood and dropped points at home to Bolton in February. But since that point, when the pressure was hotting up on McCall and his players, they’ve found top gear to charge across the finish line. They are a side the rest of the play finishers will respect and fear.
Results elsewhere continue to suggest the Bantams will line up against Scunthorpe in the semi finals; although it could still be Fleetwood. Either way, the league season ends with a relatively relaxing trip to Rochdale, before the intensity of the play offs cranks up. McCall is getting closer to delivering another Bradford City promotion – and at the very least has now succeeded where he failed eight years ago.
Categories: Match Reviews