Brilliant Bradford City take a step closer to promotion with first leg play off success

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Match review: Bradford City 1 (McArdle) Fleetwood Town 0

By Jason McKeown

This was a wonderful night for Bradford City. In front of a passionate, loud and proud home crowd, the management and players delivered a superb display that edges them tantalisingly close to Wembley.

Rory McArdle’s almighty leap was a small step for Bantamkind. His late headed goal from a corner gives City a precious advantage to take to the West Coast on Sunday. There was no repeat of the first leg calamities of 1996, 2013 and 2016. City turned up for the big home occasion, and rewarded the hoarse voices of their own supporters with a victory to savour.

In the first half especially the home side were dominant, pushing Fleetwood back and knocking on the door from all angles. An attack spear-headed by Charlie Wyke and Billy Clarke in the hole was fluent, with the front pair causing problems through their trickery and unpredictable positioning.

Clarke – who received an unexpected recall, after Alex Jones was ruled out with injury – particularly excelled. His first half showing was his best since his lay off in November. He hit the post with a low shot from distance, and was behind all that was good about City as they attacked the Kop end.

With Mark Marshall and Nicky Law finding limited joy in the wide positions – Fleetwood’s two full backs were outstanding – Josh Cullen drove on the team through the middle. He revisited the ghosts of his own personal horror show in the play off home game with Millwall, to stand out as the best player on the pitch. Cullen continually picked up the ball from deep and charged forward with purposeful runs, instigating attacks. Just after half time, Cullen produced a dangerous free kick effort that forced a superb tip over from Alex Cairns.

It was not all plain sailing for City. The intensity and pressure of the play offs can do strange things to people, and in the opening minutes Tony McMahon came close to over-stepping the mark during a heated exchange that other referees might have punished with a yellow card. Nathaniel Knight-Percival and Romain Vincelot were tentative and unsure at first. Colin Doyle nearly paid for a moment of madness when he passed the ball straight to David Ball, who in return almost chipped the ball into the Irish keeper’s goal.

Fleetwood were second best in the possession, shot and corner count; but they still showed they are a well-drilled, talented side. Uwe Rosler instigated a deliberate strategy of slowing down the game’s tempo whenever his team could, and his players were physical in trying to break up City attacks. Rosler joked on Sky afterwards that his team had played like Juventus. There was a gameplan in evidence, and it wasn’t far off succeeding.

For in the second half, and after soaking up an hour’s worth of heavy pressure, Fleetwood suddenly started to show greater ambition and attacked with more urgency. City were looking tired, and for the first time all evening the Kop’s enthusiasm began to dip. If Town had a better striker than Devante Cole – who’s first touch was abysmal – or his second half replacement, Ashley Hunter, the Cod Army might have given their subdued travelling support something to celebrate.

Nevertheless it became a war of attrition. Those players who had struggled early doors – Vincelot especially – improved and became really important players. Just at a point where City had to dig and show grit to mirror their graceful first half football, the team stood up to be counted. James Meredith and Tony McMahon deserve special mentions here.

City were great in the periods they dominated, and strong in the tougher moments. That combination really mattered.

As it was Stuart McCall was able to reverse the falling momentum with a clever substitution. Clarke faded after the interval, and replacing him with Jordy Hiwula enabled City to go 4-2-1-3, with the on-loan Huddersfield man and Marshall high up the pitch. Suddenly there was an edge to Bantams attacks once again. A second wind was found. Wyke had an opportunity blocked; but after smart play by Hiwula resulted in City winning yet another corner, the big moment arrived.

McMahon crossed, Wyke did a brilliant job blocking Fleetwood defenders, and McArdle peeled away at the near post to power the ball into the net. Just like he did in Aston Villa league cup semi final in 2013, and during the play off final at Wembley later that year. It was another big Rory McArdle moment, greeted with the familiar arms-out celebration. A 15th goal in City colours over 229 appearances. His place in history as one of Bradford City’s most beloved players is now surely assured.

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

There were still 13 minutes left to play, but neither side carried any great ambition to add to the scoring. Fleetwood seemed wary of taking huge risks that might have been punished on the counter attack. City’s in-game management was strong, with the drive for another goal secondary to maintaining a clean sheet. Only one goal has been conceded in the last six City home games, and the unbeaten Valley Parade run will continue into next season.

Which division City will be in, to keep that record going, remains the big question. Fleetwood will feel they under-performed, but are clearly a side blessed with an intelligent manager. They will be disappointed but are not yet defeated. McCall has vowed that City won’t go to Highbury and play for a draw, adding that doing so could prove to be a dangerous game. There are 90 massive minutes to be played, to see this one out.

But if City can play with this same level of intensity and desire, there is no reason to believe they won’t complete the job. Fleetwood spent much of this evening trying to thwart the attacking menace of Marshall, but on Sunday they’ll have to show greater ambition and this could play into City’s hands.

That now becomes the focus. But whatever happens next this wonderful Valley Parade evening will be remembered for a long, long time. It was a terrific game, with the sizeable home crowd playing their part by creating a cauldron of noise. Valley Parade under the lights can often feel momentous, and at times tonight the occasion touched the heights of the League Cup upsets over Arsenal and Aston Villa four years ago.

The good times keep on rolling. The party shows no signs of stopping. Being a Bradford City supporter continues to feel incredibly special.

Categories: Match Reviews

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20 replies

  1. I could be wrong but IMO Clarke and Wyke aren’t that suited to each other. Either that or they need time to work together. Wyke performed better when Hiwula came on. IMO that’s because in Hiwula he had someone who would run to get to any through balls

  2. Looking at this uniquely from a statistical point of view : 11 shots wide, 6 on target and 10 corners. And only 1 goal. By a defender.

    With this much control of the game and so many chances, it should have been 2-0 or 3-0 to City.

    That being said, I was following the game through live updates on a football website here in Canada so I ultimately have a different perspective than anyone who was at the game.

    I’m sure it was a great night out though. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to cross the Pond and see a game with my own eyes …

    • I would have to have been there but sat in my plastic chair at home watching the live stream. As I have done so many time before Matt, I have looked at stats after a game and thought yeah, should have been more because they paint a picture of dominance and a clear failure to score. However by watching the game you see just how we throttled the game with possession and Fleetwood fans should be worried, as good as Fleetwood can be, they never got into their stride last night and in fairness tried to simply sit deep and counter. Unfortunately they failed to counter with any real threat.

      So, overall only 1-0 but a completely dominant performance which gave me confidence of our ability to progress.

  3. Long time fan, first time commenter. Finally decided to do so because I took in the first match since the cup final to Swansea. Being from my corner of the world, I don’t get any matches for League 1 on TV. This one was rare. If we get to Championship, I’dd be watching regularly.

    That said, here’s my take on the match. (Disclaimer: They might be unpopular) :-

    1. Defensive Positioning – It’s average. It might work at league 1, we’ll get torn to shreds in the higher division. That’s something we’ll really need to work on. For all our stellar defensive record, there were a couple of counters that opened us up. McCall will have to work on this much more, should we get promoted.

    2. Passing – Should be improved. We play from the back, and higher up, they’ll pressurise us & nick the ball tons. This needs to be worked on, a lot. There were a few passes which a faster player, or someone with better anticipation would easily run onto. On the flip side, we pass a lot. This bodes well. Always a good sign.

    3. Finishing – We missed so many ‘clear-cut’ chances. Clarke had 2-3 that were easy. Wyke, Vincelot & Meredith too. These were easy, potable chances that we missed. The match would’ve been ‘over’, had we taken these. Instead, it’s very much in the balance.

    4. Teamwork – Wow. This was the real surprise. The entire team ran for each other. If Meredith got caught upfield, Cullen or Law was covering for him. Same for almost all positions. They’d press together, too. If one put pressure, the others backed him up, giving the man with the ball no easy passing options.

    5. Fleetwood & Rosler – We keep praising McCall, deservedly. There was a lot of scepticism before we arrived, and there’s been no drop in results & an upswing in performance, despite a change of ownership. That said, somethings I read here & the commentator mentioned yesterday, Fleetwood was a relegation candidate last season. They were expected to consolidate in this one. Instead, they were in the fight for automatic promotions until the very last. Wow. Another thing, they’re doing this with a very young squad, and pretty much match us in stats. Top stuff. Supposedly, new owners wanted Rosler too. Don’t know what led to McCall & not Rosler, but I’m not complaining. Just pointing out that the guy deserves his props, even on a Bantam blog.

    All-in-all, the match was a joy to watch. If this is how we played the entire season, it must have been a fun watch. Just how succesfull this play will be in the championship is up for debate.

    • Almost forgot to add, good job with it, Jason. I found out about it after trying to read up on the new owners. Have been reading it since.

  4. Dominant performance but we cud still be playing now and would not score from open play because our approach was so predictable and this has been our problem all season. I feel for Charlie wyke he is feeding off scraps or as last night 3 centre halves and we insist on crossing it. His goals will dry up unless we try a different approach. 66.5% possession which is brilliant we need to be better at using it.

  5. Wyke and Jones, Wyke and Hiwula or any combination thereof are my favoured choices to bring goals.
    I get angry and frustrated when we ‘gift’ the ball to the opposition with risky ‘too’ short passes. Then I remember (sometimes) that we are playing 3rd Division (pre decimal) football.
    “Hello” Sports Direct.
    “Stuart McCall here, have you got any of those ‘on target shooting boots’
    “11 pairs please”…..

  6. For all Fleetwood’s defensive capabilities I thought that they looked ordinary and the goalkeeper in particular looked weak. However I felt that the game was won because City had the confidence and the urgency. Whether Fleetwood were over-awed or simply bottled it, I can’t say but City will carry the psychological advantage into the game on Sunday. The players know that they have bossed Fleetwood on the last two occasions and I believe that that will be the key factor this weekend. My only niggle is that we have only one goal for our dominance but I think that self-belief will be a massive advantage to filleting the cod in Fleetwood.

  7. A very interesting game with us just coming on the correct side of the result. We should all enjoy this result because Sunday will be another difficult game and im looking forward to seeing battle re-commence with McMahon and Grant

    A few negatives which we need to address in the next game and the final especially on the big Wembley pitch are

    Even though Clarke had a good game he doesn’t work with Wyke and Hiwula looked a better partner for him but hopefully Jones will be back before then

    Marshall was poor tonight and so many times his first touch let him down and he wasn’t his usual mazy jinking self. Hope he’s not tiring at this stage of the season.

    Our crosses again were poor either straight to 1st defender, too low or too high. The one good cross we did we scored

    Colin Doyle his kicks were very very poor last night and every time we did a back pass my heart was in my mouth. I honestly think Sattlemaier is the better keeper and should have had more game time and hopefully he will do next season if we keep him.

    Its also amazing to think just under 16,000 fans there ( and im quite disappointed with that) as I was expecting at least 18-20,000 there.

    The positives

    I thought NKP and McArdle were great last night and for me Mcardle MOM especially with a great goal

    Wyke didn’t have his best game but holding 3 defenders up leaving Rory for a free header to score was great in play management from him

    Cullen was immense and so unlucky with the free kick and from his interview with a paper he could be leaving West Ham so maybe we might sign him permanently

    We played with a great tempo and we absolutely battered them and we deserve to lead and even though its going to be tough there I’m confident we will be at Wembley hopefully against Scunny

    • Unless we have a couple of million £ then Cullen won’t be ours. Our best chance is promotion and other season long loan. He will be playing Championship next season come what may.

  8. I thought we were great last night for the vast majority of the game.

    My only concerns are that:
    1. Fleetwood can’t possibly play so bad again on Sunday
    2. Only a 1 goal cushion after dominating

    This tie is far from over.

    Cullen was fantastic last night and, bar the odd blip, we looked assured at the back. For me though we over play too much at the back and create unnecessary risks.

    We lacked a cutting attacking edge. Although I can’t see Stuart changing things from the starting 11 for Sunday.

    Wyke is due a goal and fingers crossed it comes on Sunday.

  9. We all see things differently, but I don’t class a 1-0 nil win against a team that came looking for damage limitation, as a “brilliant” performance. For all our dominance, we continue to miss too many chances. Stuart has done a wonderful job, but promotion would necessitate a major rebuild job and I’m not sure the appropriate funds are available. Personally, I’d be happier watching a leading league one side next season, than a struggling championship team.

    • There is no doubt that the championship would be a massive step up.

      Look at Wigan and how they have struggled.

      However, equally look at Burton and Barnsley. I would take 4th bottom in the Championship now if offered without a doubt.

  10. I think we were v unlucky to get 1 and Fleetwood were frankly lucky to get 0. The most talented member of the squad is definitely Rosler as their gameplan was well drilled into his team and evident from the start. When they got the ball however, they showed a distinct lack of anything resembling quality or ability and the only clear chances they had we gave them. I was nervous that shouting City reject at Cole would have spurred him on to do something special but in the end it just seemed to batter any confidence he had left as he had an atrocious game all evening.

    If we keep our head and play the same way on Sunday I’m confident we’ll be fine, but as its City you never know!

  11. A 1-0 lead is probably the best result for the second leg. 2-0 could create complacency (ala Blackpool). At 1-0 we still know there is a lot to do to get us over the line.
    I thought the game opened up for us once we started to tire and Fleetwood started to get more ambitious, which is exactly what they’ll have to do on Sunday.

    • My thoughts too – they have to come after us tomorrow – its going to be a nail biting game!

  12. I thought man to man, our team was better quality. I’m not a fan of possession for its own sake, but 72% in the first half was astonishing. I remarked here after the Sheffield game that they’d need to find a different gear to succeed in the play offs. They found it last night. The tempo and intensity, despite their goalkeeper’s efforts to play slower than his granny, was high. I turned to my son (who demands goals) at half time and challenged that although 0-0, you couldn’t get more exciting football.

    The Pulse Provident Man of the Match was tied between Cullen and McArdle and I don’t disagree. Cullen was on fire. We sit in W block so saw nothing of the goal, but watching McArdle’s defensive work, he is simply a rock. He out runs their strikers getting back, wins every header, intelligently manages the ball in possession. We also saw close up, in the first half, in attack, some fantastic footwork and team play from Meredith, Cullen, Marshall, and Clarke, that- literally- took my breath away.

    I agree that Doyle had some erratic moments, unusual this season. But I continue to be fiercely proud of this team and what they’ve done. It’s a privilege to be a Bantam at VP right now- so totally agree with your last remarks, Jason.

    • Last post above: apologies, thumb slipped, meant to be a”like”. Positive comments and wholeheartedly agree on the attributes of the players mentioned.

  13. I think Rosler was the more pleased of the two managers. His young team calm away from a hostile environment just one down. Stu seemed very low key, some of that was optics, but maybe he knew on another day we would have scored at least 3. I feel the tie is still 50:50. Fleetwood will have the bit between the teeth, so we definitely need cool heads on Sunday. As we nearly shot our selves in foot on couple of occasions in the 1st leg. Fine margins, that all it is. Focus, focus and focus.

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