Signs of change show why Bradford City must embrace David Hopkin’s plan

By Jason McKeown

It’s turning. Slowly. Perhaps too slowly to save Bradford City from further self-implosion. But in defeat against Charlton, there were signs the players are capable of arresting their early season slide. And that some faint green shoots of recovery have roots beneath the surface.

It was not enough, yet, to bring an end to a run of consecutive losses that now totals four, pushing Bradford City into a relegation spot for the first time since promotion to League One five years ago. But it was a game they were desperately unlucky to lose. It was better than Blackpool, which in itself was better than the last knockings of the dismal reign of Michael Collins.

Turning. Slowly. Improving. It gives us supporters hope. Something to cling onto. Even if that’s all we have.

David Hopkin’s external perspective on the mess of before is vital. The recent failures are not his, and crucially he operates independently of the high emotions swirling around Valley Parade. He has a plan for a club that was previously operating towards a muddled strategy at best. He has a calm and measured level of confidence that he is projecting well. In the midst of turmoil, it is exactly what Bradford City needs.

Straightaway there is a greater level of organisation to the Bantams, underwritten by enhanced commitment and courage from a group of players who, at times this season, have looked overwhelmed by the challenge of playing for this club. The team was determined, and ran themselves into the ground trying to recover from conceding in only the third minute. And their public responded with magnificent noise and support that so nearly saw the ball sucked over the line.

Charlton’s second, with 10 minutes to go, came against the run of play. And though some fans headed for the exits before the end, and some booed at full time, most fans applauded the players off the field. An acknowledgement of their efforts. In the commitment stakes, this is the level they must reach every week.

Of course, success will ultimately come from showing more quality. Making better decisions, and conceding fewer mistakes. Both Charlton goals were very poor from the home side’s perspective. Firstly, from Charlton’s opening attack, Jack Payne lost possession and a direct ball wasn’t dealt with by McGowan, meaning Karlan Ahearne-Grant had time and space to finish emphatically. The second saw the highly-rated Lyle Taylor finish well from an angle, his powerful shot nestling in the top corner. Sean Scannell, looking worn out, had struggled to get back and protect the space Taylor found.

Hopkin clearly favours the 5-3-2/3-5-2 set up, but his three centre backs are the obvious weak point at the moment. At times, McGowan resembles Guy Branston in the way he creeps out of position and dives into challenges, but in doing so risks leaving a gap if he fails to win possession. It looks great when he gets it right. But it can prove very costly when it goes wrong. Many of the best City centre half partnerships over the years have seen one defender aggressively challenge for possession and the other mop up any errors. If McGowan is to be City‘s new Andrew Davies, someone else needs to step up to the Rory McArdle role better.

Right now, the back three look to have too many errors in them. Although the system deployed does leave them very exposed. Charlton’s best spell of the game came in the 20 minutes before half time, when their diamond midfield overran City’s central two. At wing backs, Scannell and Connor Wood arguably produced their best performances so far for the club. But they need great energy levels to keep getting back, in order for the system to work.

The other fundamental issue is that Hopkin’s direct approach – get the ball quickly up the pitch, and press to force errors – lacks a targetman. Eoin Doyle – captain in place of the injured Josh Wright – battled hard, but asking him to win long balls or get on the end of high crosses is proving ineffective. City’s second half improvement stemmed from playing the ball more through midfield and then in to David Ball and Jack Payne. Backed by the two wing backs, they began to overload the space and City looked a greater threat.

City still aren’t creating clear cut chances – tellingly they had only one shot on target all afternoon, when Doyle’s second-minute shot was saved, and it is damning that no City player has scored in front of the Kop this season.  Nevertheless, the threat of an equaliser grew stronger and stronger – McGowan was denied what looked a plausible penalty. A City goal would have lifted the roof off the place, and may have proven to be the badly needed turning point in the season.

The late Charlton settler rendered the final stages academic, but further highlighted one of the key threats against Hopkin succeeding. A substitutes bench of seven, where not one player has more than 30 senior appearances in English football, seriously undermined Hopkin’s hopes of effecting the outcome from substitutions. Kai Brunker was typically ineffective – the answer to the targetman problem he is not.

The huge mistake of appointing Michael Collins may have been undone, but the damage of a poor summer planning is there for all to see. Hopkin lacks the players he needs to make his system work. Whatever stopped him from taking up the job in the summer, it meant he has not overseen recruitment that would surely have been very different. So for now, he must work with a group of players built for another strategy. Twice he has commented on the folly of bulking up your squad with youngsters. It is clear that he will seek to move towards favouring experience when he is able to.

When Alex Ferguson famously sold Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis in the summer of 1995, it wasn’t simply because he thought Manchester United’s young players deserved more of a chance. It was because he knew that in David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary and Phil Neville, he had a group of kids who were genuinely ready. City’s efforts to focus more on young players should be applauded, but you can’t partly build a first team squad on the assumption unproven youngsters will be ready to play their part. It needs to happen more separately from first team matters, and only if and when a young player makes the grade should they come into the head coach’s thinking.

Defeat leaves City in the bottom four, eight months and three head coaches after sacking Stuart McCall when fifth in the league. It was a highly questionable decision at the time, but now looks like utter, utter madness. With one-sixth of the season done, the question is whether the club’s objective must now be downgraded to avoiding relegation. There’s a long way to go, but the squad isn’t going to miraculously turn into world beaters. Promotion looks highly improbable. Saturday’s opponents, Doncaster Rovers, sit inside the play offs, already nine points ahead.

A grim relegation battle looks unappetising, but falling back into League Two would be an unthinkable setback. The club must stabilise. Stop the damage over the rest of the season, if nothing else.

Strong leadership is vital. David Hopkin’s steely determination certainly offers that, and on the field against Charlton, a new figurehead emerged. Jim O’Brien, signed by Hopkin this week, was a true revelation. A tough tackler, all-action midfielder, he drove the team forward in the second half especially. A hard, crunching but clean sliding tackle – just after half time – had the crowd on their feet roaring in approval of O’Brien. And over in the press box, the watching Gary Jones would have doffed his radio headphones in appreciation. O’Brien’s bite is exactly what Bradford City need. A loyal lieutenant who can imprint Hopkin’s philosophy. He set the standards here. Others followed him. And that could be huge.

Defeat never feels good. This was no different. But whilst the dark clouds still loom large, it’s turning. Slowly. And given the rashness and panic that has badly damaged Bradford City over 2018, it is vital that we show patience to allow David Hopkin to turn this around.

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Categories: Opinion

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22 replies

  1. MESSAGE FOR PETER WHITEHEAD

    Your friend, Gary Bowerbank, who sits in block C of the Main Stand and is currently in Sweden is trying to get in touch with you. He has experienced email problems. Please email widthofapost@gmail.com and I will pass you his new contact details.

    Jason

  2. Agree with that. Reminded my unimpressed thirteen year old son today what the word supporter means. If he wants to be a customer, complaining about quality of entertainment, he’s mistaking it for the cinema. Next Saturday, the slate is wiped clean at 3pm, and we go again. We need to get behind the squad and manager we’ve got, and sod the off pitch politics.

  3. Great article and insight Jason, but one shot on target and two goals conceded is damning arithmetic. Looked like a penalty but we have had one each in the last two matches. Grandson has taken home the programme but the size of our squad shown on the back page looked 30-40% larger than Charlton’s and completely bloated.

  4. As always, a spot on article.

    I said to my Godson walking out of Valley Parade this afternoon that today’s performance was so much better than the one against Wycombe Wanderers.

    There is hope. At the moment, finishing above the dotted line this season would be a success on the pitch.

  5. Great writing as always Jason.
    There have been times during my fifty odd years supporting City when I have been really proud of our supporters and today was one. Obviously the display of flag waving and unconditional support when 0-5 down to Swansea at Wembley was one. And another was the reluctance to drag Bradford City’s name amongst the mud by reacting to extreme provocation at Wembley as the Millwall idiots ran riot on the pitch.
    But today, following a week in which City supporters, have on the one hand called for a show of support for the new manager, whilst others have called for a demonstration against the owner they got behind the team and welcomed the new regime.
    Going a goal down so early could have triggered a reaction against Rahic but fair play. The City support concentrated on what was happening on the pitch.
    It felt so much better and the team, and I agree with your comments about O’Brien, were a tad unlucky not to get a point.
    At least Hopkin knows he has the backing of the fans, and the owner cannot complain that we are not having his choice.
    Rahic however has dodged one this week, but be aware, we are watching you!

  6. As long as the players continue to show the passion and commitment that was on display today, the fans will stay with them. O’Brien has the look of a potential legend – hard tackling, looking for the ball and marshalling all the players around him. Lack of communication within the defence was the most conserning aspect of today’s game.

  7. My point was that they did back the team and welcome the new manager but may have been tempted to have a go at Rahic. Many do want to do that. But City fans got it right today and despite the lack of unity amongst our ranks, they did us proud.

  8. Effort a plenty but past half way quality still missing.Flanks poor still no dangerous crosses.(Gibson put 5 in in his 20 mins against Wycombe).I saw the effort too.Vast improvement.Little came of it today but on other days it might.Payne has some talent but today an easy ball to Scannel first half who was free in tons of space would have created danger.Instead he cuts inside and tries his trickery through 2 men to failure.Wrong option and hangs onto it just a touch too much.I see dark clouds still with 40 names on the back of the programme many ghosts we do not see.Charlton listed 30.Marshall could not even get in today.A new manager may help but the season is a write off for me.The body language of Rupp and Rahic was interesting as I sat 10 feet away.Not sat together indeed nobody sat with RAhic.

  9. For me the true extent of the Rahic fiasco is now public property, opposing teams already know how to get a cheap 3 points. 13 injuries but would any of the infirm make a difference? A torrid season in prospect until what will have to be a very active January window. I’d be amazed if they survive and following yet more lack lustre recruitment and the comedic appointment of Collins, I was convinced of relegation from the start I sincerely hope I am wrong.

  10. Was Rupp there? Interesting.

    • Indeed he was.Surrounded by family and friends or kids.Rahic cut a lonely figure on his own at the end of the box seats near the box I was in.The only time I heard him first half telling whoever was taking a throw, who to throw it too.Animated.Manic.Yes he wants to manage alright.Will try fix a meet with him.He can manage my walking footy 5 A side team if I ever form one.In the Black Forest.

  11. It shows how bad things are when some fans are talking up a 2-0 defeat as though it was a victory.

    • No one is talking it up as a win. What you want to see is improvement and change as improved performances eventually mean results.

    • I agree Steve. 12 months ago we had realistic expectations of promotion and performances that merited that belief.
      A year on and thanks to Rahic’s mis-management of our club, now mean we”re happy if we stay up and see a 0-2 defeat at home in positive terms.
      It really does show how bad things have turned in such a short time that we’re clutching at such meagre straws.

  12. Any port in a storm and all that – but a shocking defensive display and an impotent attacking one doesn’t bode well at all. It may well have been better than Wycombe (I couldn’t go) but from what I understand that is a pretty low bar.

    My biggest concern was there was no pattern to the play. Whilst Charlton swept the ball through midfield we relied on lumping it to Doyle (how frustrated must he be feeling) or individuals trying to dribble through 4 defenders. Those tactics translated into one shot on target which is never going to be enough to win a game.

    The fact that our best player – O’Brian – had been with the club for 48 hours and was essentially unemployed on Wednesday says it all really.

    Its going to be a long haul to 50 points..

  13. Better performances since Hopkin as taken over .
    Still results are what we need and hope Hopkin does get the time to implement his way of working on the players.
    Remember it took Phil Parkinson good season and transfer windows to really make difference.
    It’s very sad state of affairs we are in now , relegation form many believe we will be relegated… I sincerely hope Rahic now understands that BRADFORD CITY is not a toy.
    Rahic stands to lose his investment and Rupps if relegation happens.

  14. My first game of the year and I feared what I was going to see! Jason’s report is pretty much spot on with what I thought, City certainly showed no lack of effort but certainly the skill and control were Charlton’s. The second half we looked much better and just needed a bit of luck from a number of scrambles and ricochets. However, we couldn’t really argue with result.

    I thought the defence looked extremely shaky – statuesque I would say. Up front we were quite lively with Doyle having that early great chance and Scannell scuffing another great opportunity. I thought we looked low on confidence (as we would be) and were galvanised by O’Briens. I deliberately say plural, because Jim was certainly a galvanising force behind the effort of the team but Lewis was in my opinion our best player, skilful, assured.

    Hopefully Hopkin can turn it around quicker and crucially get our injured midfield back in action – Reeves is going to be like a new signing when he returns.

    I have more hope than I did before Saturday!

    PS – last note, I thought the referee was superb.

    • Rob, I’m not sure if your PS is sarcastic or not? He certainly got the two bookings for diving spot on but they were so obvious (and not contested) that they were easy to give. As for the rest of his performance I thought it left a lot to be desired, in particular the blatant penalty he failed to give in the second half when he was looking straight at the incident. A City equaliser then could have made a massive difference to the result.

      I do agree with your praise for the younger O’Brien. Before they announced the man of the match it seemed a near certainty the name O’Brien would be read out and I would not have been surprised had it been the younger man. For such a young lad making his full league debut I thought he was superb. It’s just a pity he’s not ours! The contrast between the O’Briens and Wright/Akpan was stark and gives me hope that we can get out of this Rahic created mess.

      • I wasn’t being sarcastic. I couldn’t tell if that was a penalty or not but all the decisions on our side of the pitch he was spot on.

  15. I also thought the ref was decent. He has received a fair bit of criticism from our fans but booked two of their players for simulation. Other refs might have been fooled. We should have had a penalty too but that one was missed.

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