By Jason McKeown
At 5am on Saturday morning, Colin Doyle was on the Dublin airport tarmac, having just completed an 8-hour flight from Antalya, Turkey, where he had just played his first appearance for the Republic of Ireland national team in over a decade. Doyle must have rightly felt proud of his achievement. And the fact he had played well in Ireland’s friendly defeat. But he refused to rest on his laurels.
His sporting weekend wasn’t done.
Nine hours, another flight and a short nap later, Doyle was lining up in goal for Bradford City. No one expected him to rush back and play another game so quickly. But he volunteered to do it anyway. In total, his journey from Antalya to Bradford stretched 2,913 miles. By the 90th minute Doyle was dead on his feet and struggled to find the energy to leave his six yard box to claim several high balls. His reward for such endurance was to earn Bradford City’s first clean sheet in four months. One which earned a first Bradford City victory in more than 80 days.
With such dedication from their goalkeeper, there would have been no excuse for any of Doyle’s team mates to have given anything less. And so, at last, the Bradford City players produced a display full of commitment in front of a crowd that had started to fear they were no longer playing for the club. There was courage. There was fight. There was character. And now there are signs of belief. It remains a mammoth task for City to reach the play offs. But it no longer looks preposterous.
It wasn’t a classic performance. And, speaking in the press box minutes after the final whistle, both Simon Grayson and Gillingham boss Steve Lovell acknowledged the visitors had deserved to win, but the fact City have stopped the rot is all that matters. After the horror second half show at Doncaster on Monday, and after all the abject performances before that, the players needed to prove themselves. Show that they do care about the club. And that, no matter the goings on behind the scenes, they are prepared to fight to salvage this season.
After a timid first half, City came strongly out the blocks after the interval and took the lead through Dominic Poleon’s terrific low strike. Poleon, overlooked for the last two games in favour of inexperienced strikers, had a point to prove to his manager and made it strongly. Whilst he continued to rashly miss chances before and after his match-winning strike, Poleon ran himself into the ground harrying defenders and chasing every last cause.
Poleon reminds me of Barry Conlon. A player who when on top, top form could really put in a shift for City, but who lacked the ability to maintain high levels of intensity. If Poleon could play like this every week, he would rarely be sat on the bench. This is the marker he needs to live up to, week in week out.
City, who played a 3-5-2 again, but this time with subtle changes, looked more fluent. Playing this more direct style favoured by Grayson means City are no longer dominating possession as they did under Stuart McCall. But with Tony McMahon moved to holding midfielder, and the excellent pair of Alex Gilliead and Stephen Warnock as wing backs, the shape worked better.
Grayson has made City better without the ball, at the sacrifice of no longer being as stylish with it. Gillingham had plenty of possession in the first half, but found Matt Kilgallon in particular difficult to get past.
McMahon, who has shown clear signs of decline this season, suited the holding role. He doesn’t have to run as much, and can have greater influence on attacking moves. When he received the ball, he focused on looking for options and spraying the right pass. This also allowed Callum Guy to get forward more, and his excellent all-action display left him head and shoulders above everybody else as the best player on the park.
But it was in other areas that the foundations of recovery really lay. Nathaniel Knight-Percival and Romain Vincelot struggled again, but they were better than in recent weeks. Shay McCartan isn’t suited to playing up front and found it tough, yet he kept going. Nicky Law can do better, but the effort was there. Even Kai Brunker did okay when he came off the bench.
Every player played better than they have been doing. In some cases, it wasn’t by much. And they all still need to improve considerably. But it was a step in the right direction. Little about City’s performance was wonderful. However, they got the job done. They did the ugly things to get over the line. Each and every one stood up to be counted.
With results elsewhere playing into City’s hands, a push for the play offs can’t be ruled out. A trip to Ewood Park on Thursday is as tough as it gets, but it can now be approached with greater heart. The players have remembered how to win. Charlie Wyke is back. And with the outstanding backing of City fans – the noise returning to Valley Parade in the closing stages here – anything is still possible.
The mood isn’t transformed, but it is brighter. An afternoon of marginal gains, but one which could sow the seeds of something bigger and better from Bradford City over the final few weeks.
The season isn’t over. And that, at least, is progress compared to 5am this morning.
Categories: Match Reviews