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.
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