By Jason McKeown
There are faint hints of optimism around Bradford City at last, but the overriding mood of this pre-season is still lacking in the traditional levels of excitement. There’s no getting away from the fact we are entering a season of huge unknowns, and it is impossible to know what lies ahead. It could be glorious. It could be awful. It could lie some in-between.
Tuesday’s opening pre-season friendly defeat at Guiseley certainly offered hints of all three directions. It felt good to be back. It was interesting to observe the new coaching team at work. And the first glimpses of the new signings showed signs of promise. But the 2-1 loss felt merited, following a spirited second half Guiseley display. On this evidence, City have a long, long way to go. It was all a little too flat.
Naturally, the usual disclaimers appear at this time of year. It’s only a friendly. The result does not matter. The performance means little. Squad building is not yet complete. But still, you do often see indicators of what lies ahead for the season on evenings such as this – from the style of play, to the attitude of certain players. Guy Branston struggled badly at Guiseley in the pre-season of 2011, for example – a precursor of what was to come. While 12 months later, Gary Jones first demonstrated his inspirational leadership on this same ground. Some aspects of games like this don’t matter, but other elements do.
In terms of the new faces on show, Joe Riley was undoubtedly the pick of the bunch. The young right back impressed in his tackling and rampaging runs forward. He is not afraid to take people on, and such positivity will be valued over the months ahead. In midfield, Josh Wright smacked the bar with a long range effort, and looks a decent passer. He favours the deep-lying position of spraying passes across the park. Another Jake Reeves perhaps, which leaves questions over the former Wimbledon man’s future – Reeves was nowhere to be seen tonight.
In defence, centre back Anthony O’Connor slotted in comfortably. He is a good reader of the game and a good tackler to boot. A clever-looking signing. Richard O’Donnell was largely quiet during his 45-minute first half appearance in goal, but seems comfortable passing the ball around. On occasions City tried to play it out from the back, although Guiseley pressed, and O’Donnell showed glimpses of the kind of footwork Pep Guardiola might approve of.
As history has repeatedly shown, signings that look good on paper don’t always work out. But what is undeniable is that the squad is in a better place than this time a year ago, when City were firmly on the backfoot from losing Rory McArdle, Mark Marshall, Billy Clarke, James Meredith, Stephen Darby and Josh Cullen. The transfer committee struggled, and ultimately failed, to replace the quality that had left the building. And, eventually, it showed in the results.
This summer’s recruitment begins from a stronger position than 12 months ago. This time, most of the departures have been squad players like Nicky Law, Dominic Poleon and Timothee Dieng, or fading forces like Tony McMahon. Only the loss of Colin Doyle has felt like a serious blow, but even that has been heavily compensated by the signing of O’Donnell as his replacement.
The summer transfer business does look increasingly promising. That said, there’s a lack of stella signings who you could point towards as significantly improving last season’s squad. Hope Akpan is more on those lines, but you hope there are still bigger signings to come.
Certainly the second half team that City fielded suggests there remains limited strength in depth. Aside from Romain Vincelot and Ryan McGowan, everyone else was below the age of 24 and the lack of experience showed. City did take the lead when Alex Jones – who looked sharp – sent over a pinpoint cross that was headed home by first-year pro Reece Powell. But a scramble in the box saw Will Hatfield equalise, and then with two minutes to go 19-year-old midfielder Scott Smith ran through to grab the winner. Guiseley’s ageing forward line of Paul Smith (33) and Kayode Odejayi (36) caused City’s defence problems. Tom Isherwood’s debut was tentative at best.
It might be the point. Edin Rahic has long talked of his desire for young players to get a chance, and the appearances tonight of Christian Farrar, Curtis Peters, Danny Devine, Ellis Hudson and Reece Powell could be a sign of things to come. A new EFL rule this season is that matchday squads must feature at least one homegrown player; so a place on the bench – if not more – is a reachable prize for all these players. Jordan Gibson will also be pushing for more game time this season.
Perhaps what surprised the most over the evening was the lack of identity in City’s play. I was expecting to see a more refined style of football. A clear sense of purpose. But there were flashes at best. Lining up in a 4-4-1-1 formation in both halves, City tried to play from the back and be patient in the build up, but lacked the cutting edge and tempo to attack with any decisiveness. At other times, City were very direct, aiming long balls to Charlie Wyke in the first half and Kai Brunker in the second. It takes time to bed in new principles, and the pre-match warm up featured a clear emphasis on one-touch football. Still, if there is a footballing revolution about this new head coach model, it’s yet to be realised.
The big unknown remains Michael Collins. The 32-year-old has never been in this position before, nor worked closely with anyone who has. Collins might have the tools he needs, in the shape of an improved squad – but that doesn’t mean he has the ability and experience to use them wisely. With the players said to be bought into his approach, he certainly has a chance. Does he possess the man-management skills needed to get the best out of this group? Time will tell.
There are more twists and turns to come before the big kick off against Shrewsbury in 25 days’ time. Areas of the squad need strengthening, and there’s a big question mark about the future of Charlie Wyke. Some of the new recruits have no experience of playing week in week out, and that could throw up issues down the line. Will there be sufficient strength in depth across the team?
But with the seeds of Bradford City’s 2018/19 strategy planted, there are signs of tiny green shoots starting to emerge. Whether they bloom – and whether they prove strong enough to withstand the storms of a high pressure season – remains to be seen. But it isn’t all doom and gloom.
Maybe, just maybe, Bradford City’s future won’t prove to be the barren wasteland that – a few weeks back – many of us feared it would be.
Categories: Match Reviews