By Katie Whyatt
“City are bold, cavalier and adventurous – but on occasions they are not smart,” said Jason McKeown seven months ago, summarising one of the few flaws of last season’s Bradford City. Those flaws – ‘shortcomings’ might even be a more accurate term – proved fatal if not manifold, evidenced most brutally and clearly on that May day at Wembley that condemned City to a fifth crack at League One.
First, the image of Billy Clarke overthinking the game’s one golden opportunity and taking one touch too many as he latched onto Mark Marshall’s cutting through ball embodied the team’s overall lack of bite in front of goal. Then, the manner in which Marshall lost possession high up the pitch, and set City scrambling to recover before Steve Morison delivered the sucker-punch tattooed so painfully onto our minds, exposed the one drawback of a side built on such relentless forward thrust and commitment. Finally, a last ‘what if?’ snapshot over which to ruminate during the summer: the moment McMahon elected to fire into a pack of white shirts as the game ticked towards its conclusion, City’s lack of goalmouth composure and nous laid bare on the biggest stage.
They were there, all of the troublesome tropes that had pockmarked the season, albeit not always at once. The campaign finished along the antitheses on which it had lived for ten months: dominance without danger; creation without conversion; speculation at the expense of security; at times touching greatness, but in the end not quite. At this stage last season, for instance – a year ago on Sunday, in fact – City were rueing a Romain Vincelot slip that had seen them draw with Bristol Rovers, despite racking up 17 shots. Already at that stage, City’s limitations were becoming apparent: that was their fourth draw on the bounce, and Stuart McCall’s comments during the week had proved prophetic: “For the possession and the way we’re playing, we’ve got to start getting more attempts on goal.”
A year on, and McCall’s wish has been realised at last.
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So to last Saturday, and the events of this season more generally, and the conclusions one can draw from a grand total of eight league games. It is an obvious point to make but the squad’s renewed sharpness – and bolstered firepower – is frighteningly clear. Charlie Wyke has done what Charlie Wyke always hinted at doing last season; Dominic Poleon, possibly the capture of the summer, has exhibited a nerve and opportunism in front of goal that belies a previously underwhelming goal haul; what’s more, the two have gelled together – and with Alex Gilliead and Tony McMahon – more successfully than McCall probably ever dared to envisage over the summer.
Billy Clarke established himself as an early standard-bearer last season, for obvious reasons. It would be overly-simplistic to argue all the squad’s offensive ills rested with him last season, but the way in which the team’s identity has evolved since August has uncovered a sharpness they found only occasionally last term. Despite the summer of upheaval – only 6 of the starting XI from Saturday were at the club at this stage last season – ‘personnel overhaul’ still feels too strong a label. Instead, it has felt like a lighter touch, more akin to a refinement, that has begun to realise several of the club’s ambitions at once.
McCall’s demanding style – slick interchanges and expansive play, ideally enacted at a bruising tempo – was always going to highlight rather than mask his side’s goalscoring shortcomings, and when his 2016/17 charges weren’t at their best – they were winless in December, and notched up four draws in February, probably tellingly as Nicky Law’s influence began to wane – they had a tendency to lapse into the ponderous. Pretty, intrepid, daring – but not always sharp, and not always “smart”. McCall had strengthened and played a difficult hand well, but their lack of an edge suddenly feels so obvious when compared to their current menace.
It was a case of fine-tuning more than ripping up the blueprint – for all the changes in the summer, McCall has largely stuck with what’s worked. This doesn’t feel like as drastic an overhaul as the summer transfer activity threatened to render it. There’s no need for a Taylor Swift-inspired soundtrack, a cold ‘Sorry, but the old Bradford City can’t come to the phone right now’ of a monologue shoehorned into one of the weirdest songs I’ve ever heard. Jason McKeown and Tim Penfold have already discussed at length the revised forward line and slight restructuring of the middle of the park, but McCall’s core principles have otherwise remained in place despite those changes. It has been a natural – but due – evolution. There is a renewed guile about them, with players to fulfil McCall’s on-field – and Edin Rahic’s off – vision perfectly.
In a sense, last Saturday marked a next step in the squad’s growth and maturation, with a happy marriage between caution and abandon. Kilgallon had already spoken to BBC Leeds earlier in the month about managing games, being streetwise, evidenced in the 3-1 win over Bristol Rovers: “We take the ball in the corner, we walk to throw-ins, we stayed on the floor, we rolled around a bit more. Whereas at Walsall, we ran over to the throw-ins. Let’s make it four. Let’s make it five. Let’s take short free kicks, when we could just punt it up to Charlie in the corner and let him get something for us. We’ve learned.”
Kilgallon and Knight-Percival bought the ballast to a defence under siege against Rotherham – both love a clawed off-the-line – but grit with which McCall’s side pulled through marked a particularly key moment in the side’s journey, and a triumph for McCall’s ‘horses for courses’ mantra. As he summarised on Saturday: “They asked a lot of questions of us. Thankfully, we had the answers.”
“I don’t like bringing everyone back from corners but we had to today, because they were having six or seven or eight players in the box,” McCall said, post-match, to BBC Radio Leeds. “There’s all different ways to win a game, but we had to be… Resolute was a word today, but determined, dogged.
“I thought we started terrifically well and we were on the front foot. That’s got us the win, getting the goal when on top. How many times last season were we on top in games, and we didn’t score and we didn’t get ahead? We haven’t sat back and invited pressure. We’ve been forced back by a good side, but when we’ve been forced back we’ve had the answers and defended well.”
It feels odd to applaud City for at once allying caution with improved ammunition, but Saturday was the most overt demonstration of the balance this squad can happen upon. You wouldn’t accuse last year’s side of being soft-centred but there was certainly a susceptibility, a proneness, to conceding preventable goals against the run of play. It is too early to decide whether last season’s issues have been eradicated completely – at the end of the day, this is League One – but City have already survived a testing learning curve and emerged enhanced for the experience. And we’re in September.
The way some people have talked up the change in playing style would have you believe City have spent the last fortnight moving from the most pragmatic Phil Parkinson team to a peak Jurgen Klopp one, Motorhead thundering in the background as McCall’s glasses sail into the middle of next week. It’s not quite true (McCall doesn’t wear glasses, duh) but they have nonetheless sought to retain their present tempo: “I think, this season, you’re going to see us going for more games,” Kilgallon continued to BBC Leeds. “Let’s start winning this. If one goes in the back of the net, let’s go for it and have a proper crack at it.”
It continues a marked departure from Parkinson’s policy in his final season, when a stern defence became a particularly critical tool to compensate for a shortage of goals. City look, this time, the most balanced and equipped for a promotion tilt than they have at any time since 2013, with, at last, a striker who can replace the nerve and numerical prowess of Nahki Wells, and a striker operating in a team tailored to, but not defined by or limited to, his strengths. The result? As McCall said on Saturday: “We look a team.”