By Jason McKeown
Do you remember that frustration of trying to tune an old analogue TV? Waving around a portable aerial frantically, and then suddenly achieving a perfect picture, only for it to fade back in blurriness?
Yeah, that was watching Bradford City today. After months of staring at a white screen filled by fuzzy dots, a sharp, HD-esqe picture of what Bradford City once were – and could again be – flickered into life. We viewed commitment from the players. A purpose to their attacks. And they were roared on by a passionate home crowd who contributed greatly to a superb Valley Parade atmosphere. But just before you could sit back and enjoy the restoring of the picture, it went off again. And with it came that all too familiar static noise of misery and despair.
Did those fleeting glimpses of a full colour City exacerbate the frustration when it went away again? Or was this an afternoon to offer hope that the picture could yet be restored?
It was certainly the best game of the post-Stuart McCall era. The bar is of course incredibly low on that one, and at full time there was that familiar feeling of despondency. But make no mistake, there were reasons to take heart from City’s narrow defeat to Sunderland. They made a game of it. They were on the wrong end of some narrow margins of misfortune. They actually deserved more than they got for the first time in months and months. And, at times, they actually looked like a decent football team.
In short, the team looked like it actually gave a shit. They might seem harsh on previous performances – and no one would accuse the players of not caring about their poor results – but today, there was actually some ownership of individual displays. No one went hiding from the ball, or deflected their own shortcomings onto others. As fans we could see that, and in the most part showed our appreciation. We can forgive mistakes made with honest intentions. And that’s what we started to see here.
As the players trooped off the field beaten at the end, a large number of fans in the Kop stayed back to applaud their effort. It felt like an afternoon where the huge chasm that has grown between City players and supporters began to narrow at last. And that could be significant in the long run.
It wasn’t enough to take something from this game. In four of Sunderland’s last five league visits to Valley Parade, the Black Cats have netted four goals. So when after 20 minutes Josh Maja diverted a long range shot into the net, suspiciously appearing as though the ball had deflected off the striker’s hand, you feared a repeat thrashing.
City had played okay up to that point, but they had done okay against Barnsley and Charlton before conceding the opener and then falling apart. The first real test of the day came from coping with yet more adversity, and on this occasion there were positive signs. Sunderland absolutely dominated possession, but City didn’t let their heads drop. They created some first half chances. They stuck to the task.
The reward came seven minutes into the second half, when Kelvin Mellor’s long throw caused panic and centre back Anthony O’Connor volleyed the ball into the corner of the net from close range. The first City goal in front of the Kop this season almost lifted its roof off. It was, by some distance, the most hedonistic moment of the season so far. A sad indictment of the opening weeks of the campaign.
But then the picture cut out again. Nathaniel Knight-Percival hastily conceded a free kick that wasn’t cleared, and the excellent Jack Baldwin swung a loose ball into the far corner. It came just two minutes after O’Connor’s equaliser. Just as City seemingly had lift off, they had come crashing back down to earth again.
To their credit, City kept going and had their best spell of the game. Mellor, such a disappointment so far, got forward effectively. Jack Payne thrived in finding little pockets of space. David Ball and George Miller once again had scant service, but harried Sunderland’s back four. Sean Scannell didn’t hit the heights of last week but his pace was a threat.
When Ryan McGowan challenged for a ball and knocked Max Power to the ground inside the visitor’s box, the Sunderland midfielder kicked out petulantly. The referee Anthony Backhouse paused and sent off Max Power, subsequently pointing to the spot. And with a man advantage, a penalty kick to take and a quarter of the match still to play, the stage was set for a famous come-from-behind City victory. But Payne’s penalty was expertly blocked by former Bantam Jon McLaughlin. And, criminally, City’s number 10 made a hash of tapping home the rebound into an empty net. Sunderland made the most of their reprieve.
The last 20 minutes were frantic but, in the cold light of day, simply not good enough from City. Sunderland defended for their lives, but they were hardly put under excessive pressure. Long range shots aside, the Bantams never looked like equalising.
Playing against 10 men is invariably more difficult than it seems, but David Hopkin’s tactics didn’t help. He is not the first City manager to react to this type of in-match circumstances by going route one, with ineffective results. But it is unbelievably frustrating to see him repeat such mistakes.
With an extra man and time on City’s side, they should have started passing the ball around more, switching play across the flanks, finding the inevitable gaps and exploiting them. Going direct so soon simply allowed Sunderland to defend deep, and win as many headers as they could. City were reliant on winning first balls and then players latching onto flick ons. It was meat and drink for the Mackems, and there was no grandstand finish. City’s lack of composure was summed up by Scannell’s stoppage time red card. He gave away a silly free kick and then shoved a Sunderland player in the face. His deserved dismissal now rules him out of important upcoming games.
That will only add to the familiar issue that hampers Hopkin. The squad depth simply isn’t there, and that’s not entirely due to a sizeable injury list. The summer recruitment once again comes into question. And in the middle of games like this, Hopkin simply doesn’t have adequate options on the bench.
The three substitutions here made City weaker rather than stronger. Bringing on Kai Brunker was never going to be successful, but it isn’t as though the head coach is blessed with alternatives. Every time I see Brunker I shake my head at recalling how back in January the club claimed they were trying to sign Kieffer Moore, and somehow ended up bringing in a German fifth-tier forward. It says everything about the direction of the club this year. Another sub, Sherwin Seedorf, has been a big disappointment so far. When Hopkin took off a tiring David Ball, he needed to somehow bring on a fully charged David Ball.
So City were beaten if not, at least, outclassed. There was a lot to take from the way they performed in spells, and the manner in which their public forcefully backed them. But the form book of a relegated team is to play well in games like this, when the pressure and expectation is lower; only to believe too much in the hard luck tale of a battling defeat, and to screw up in subsequent games against weaker opposition.
The fact City have fallen back into the bottom four underlines the scale of the challenge. A quarter of the season is gone. And Hopkin has now managed the same number of league games as Michael Collins, losing just as many. The next three league games look absolutely huge. They have to keep up these levels now.
There are some early questions and doubts aired about Hopkin, but really what choice is there unable to fully back him? The club cannot afford another change of head coach any time soon. Hopkin has to be given the time and tools in the January transfer window to fix the mess he has inherited.
Until then, City will operate a long way short of picture perfect. And it may largely remain grim viewing.