By Jason McKeown
Two years ago, Nathaniel Knight-Percival was winning rave reviews for his performances for Bradford City. Signed in the summer of 2016 from the relative obscurity of a struggling Shrewsbury Town defence, Knight-Percival’s composed and stylish performances were the epitome of the bright new era that followed the departure of the successful-but-gritty Phil Parkinson days. And as new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp embedded a new transfer recruitment model which removed sole control from the manager, Knight-Percival was the poster boy of the merits of the collective-thinking transfer committee approach.
How times have changed. In October 2018, Knight-Percival has become a shadow of what he used to be. A calendar year blotted by countless poor games reached a new low at Accrington Stanley. He was given an absolutely torrid time by Stanley’s Congolese forward, Offrande Zanzala, which was a telling factor in this wretched defeat for the Bantams. A mistake-ridden afternoon for Knight-Percival hit a nadir moment early in the second half, when he weakly allowed Zanzala to charge through one-on-one and net a crucial second goal for the home side. It was poor, it was costly and it is indicative of months of inconsistency.
Knight-Percival was far from the only player to let the club down at the Wham stadium, but his fall from grace is the most striking. Good players do not become bad players overnight. The largely assured Knight-Percival displays of his first season are a measure of what he is capable of. So why can’t he, and pretty much all his team mates, perform that way now?
There is truly something rotten at Bradford City Football Club. It has completely destroyed the winning culture and pride that Phil Parkinson worked so hard to bring back to Valley Parade six years ago, and which Stuart McCall was able to build upon for 18 months. There have been all manner of scapegoats for the collapse: managers, coaches and, of course, players. But many of these suspects have been removed and the decline continues at a pace.
And this deterioration in standards has slumped so low that the Bantams went to a vibrant Accrington and half the team acted like passengers. Sporadic bursts of creativity are nowhere near good enough over a full 90 minutes. Too many players duck their responsibilities. They look for others to grasp the mantle, and hide into themselves. Unbelievably poor decision making. A lack of football intelligence. Certain players look out of their depth. Others just look bereft of confidence.
Clearly the issues runs deeper than a bad weekend in Yeovil. In the second half of last season, the squad were accused of downing tools and almost all were pushed out during the summer as punishment. Yet the problems have got worse, suggesting they were not the source of the problems that some accused them of being. The 2017/18 side that Knight-Percival was a part of were clearly worse the 2016/17 team, and now the 2018/19 squad is worse than the 2017/18 group. An astonishingly mis-managed football recruitment approach that leaves the club in an almighty mess. Clearly, Edin doesn’t know football.
At Accrington, it was painful to watch so many players go through the motions. Half-hearted tackles. Poorly thought out crosses and passes. Rash decisions. Sloppy standards. It could be evidenced in the second and third goals, but they were littered throughout the match. On occasions there is good play from City and signs of encouragement. Only for it all to unravel with far too much ease.
David Hopkin picked the wrong team for this one, which didn’t help. Eion Doyle was rushed back into the starting line up, but putting him alongside Kai Brunker was a mistake you hope is not repeated. The City head coach’s direct style demands a targetman, and you can understand – with no other options – why Brunker had to be considered at some stage. But the German forward just isn’t up to this level. He had a miserable afternoon where very little went right.
In midfield Joe Riley was also rushed back into the starting line up and only carried on where he left before his injury. He has a great pedigree with his Old Trafford background, but he just hasn’t shown it at Bradford City. Apart from one solitary menacing run on the right wing, Riley was poor on the ball and neglected any defensive responsibilities. Hopkin picked a midfield two of Lewis O’Brien and centre back Anthony O’Connor, who competed well in the tackle. But neither had sufficient quality on the ball.
Having two defenders in the midfield of a 4-4-2 meant City were more conservatively tilted, and though they had plenty of the ball they failed to create much in the first half. Accrington, more direct themselves in style compared to the John Coleman Stanley sides that City battled against during the League Two years, posed more questions, with Zanzala’s pace and strength their biggest threat.
The Bantams were unfortunate to go a goal behind just before half time. Zanzala chased a ball over the top that, thanks to Ryan McGowan’s shielding, was running through to Richard O’Donnell to collect. But then Zanzala nudged the Australian centre half, causing him to lose balance and at the same time touch the ball with his hand. The referee Kevin Johnson waved away Stanley appeals, only for his assistant, stood on the far side to the incident, to deem it a penalty. After huge protests, Billy Kee duly dispatched the spot kick.
City’s response was characteristically poor. They just don’t have the mental strength and character to handle adversity. Stanley could easily have taken advantage and netted a couple more goals before the break, but went in at half time a goal to the good.
It was also vindication for the home side choosing to switch the direction to play for the first half, after winning the toss. Traditionally, Accrington play towards their own fans in the second half, but swapped it around and kicked towards them for the opening 45 minutes. It was crucial, given heavy first half rain and strong winds blew in the direction of O’Donnell’s goal, giving Stanley an advantage. In the second half, the conditions improved meaning City didn’t get to benefit from them in the same way.
Although composure had been regained by City at the interval, they conceded that crucial second goal on 54 minutes and were left with a mountain to climb. They did actually start playing better and putting Accrington under serious pressure, with Eion Doyle’s well-taken volley from close range – his first goal from open play for the Bantams – reducing the arrears just after the hour mark. Jack Payne set up the chance with a header across the box. He and O’Brien at least deserve to come out of today with credit. Payne’s bravery and skill on the ball is an example others simply have to follow if City are to get out of relegation trouble. In the second half, much of the visitor’s improved attacking play stemmed from Payne.
But after a strong penalty appeal was waved away, City tripped over themselves again and conceded a third goal. Doyle had the ball out wide near Accrington’s penalty box and with bodies in the box, but opted to come inside and was easily tackled by the excellent Michael Ihiekwe. Accrington quickly broke with numbers, and Sean McConville netted emphatically.
Hopkin did try to chase the game to a point. Switching to a 4-3-3 and later a 3-4-3. The introduction of George Miller and David Ball – two players desperately unlucky to have been dropped in the first place – brought notable improvement, especially as Brunker and Riley were the players who made way. But when Josh Wright was brought on for Doyle late on, with Alex Jones another option on the bench, there was a suspicion of damage limitation too. Interestingly, wide players Jordan Gibson and Sherwin Seedorf were both left out the squad, denying Hopkin another potential team-altering option.
At the final whistle, the City players faced the angry wrath of disgruntled City fans. It is never nice to see such scenes of anger, but it is hard to muster any sympathy for the team. They have to give much, much more than this. The penalty incident was unfortunate, and the margins were small at times. But no one can deny that City deserved to lose this game.
Hopkin too was on the receiving end of supporter discontent as he trooped off to the dressing room. He proceeded to keep the players in the dressing room for a good half hour. As he emerged to speak to those of us in the media section, there was a huge sense of deflation in his body language. He chose his words carefully, and tried to be calm. Ultimately, he was badly let down by the players. He must now get a strong response from them. The team selection for next week’s visit of Rochdale will make very, very interesting reading.
Whilst criticism of Hopkin – whose nine games at the helm have seen six defeats – is merited here, there is a danger that comes with turning on him. The mess that the club finds itself in is not his doing. The under-performing players are not ones he would have chosen to sign. He is caught in the middle of the badly damaged relations between owners and supporters. Right now, he offers the calmest, measured and knowledgeable leadership available. As fans, we should stay right behind him.
Ultimately, the club is not just still paying the price for the collapse last January, but the utter shambles that was the summer. From the prolonged and ill-judged head coach recruitment search, to the badly run transfer activity that leaves the club with a collection of individuals but no cohesive team. And of course, the loss of James Mason. In the summer Rahic had a chance to undo many of his mistakes of last season. Sadly, it appears he’s only made them worse.
And what adds to the stark misery of this defeat, and Bradford City in 2018, were the cosy and happy surroundings of Accrington Stanley. A club that has made an unwelcome habit in the recent past of exacerbating the Bantams’ failings by embarrassing them on the pitch.
Accrington’s achievements over the last few years are amazing, loved by any football fan who cares about the soul of the game. And today we saw a football club united on and off the field. Succeeding through collective endevour and a close-knit relationship between fans and club – you know, what Bradford City used to be.
An hour and a half before kick off, the Wham Stadium was buzzing. The Accrington owner Andy Holt was a visible presence, walking around saying hello to everyone. The fanszone attracted early punters to have a beer, food and enjoy the live Sky game on a large TV. And next to the main stand, a band belted out cover songs with people singing along. After the game, the club bar was open to fans and another band got on stage. Hundreds of fans didn’t rush home at 4.45pm. They stayed and sat in the stand, or the bar, enjoying pints and chatting about the game with Holt and Tony Warner. And young kids had a kickabout on the Stanley pitch.
Accrington Stanley have successfully turned a trip to the football into a full afternoon’s entertainment. They don’t have the biggest fanbase of course, but actively encourage supporters to arrive early and stay late. Not only are such efforts increasing supporters’ engagement with the club, it’s undoubtedly boosting overall revenue. All of this is helping to foster a collective spirit. This felt like a community football club, where everyone is a part of the success.
(And it really is success too. The newly-promoted Accrington sit in sixth place – a play off spot – after this victory.)
A few years ago at WOAP, in the midst of the cup runs, promotion and general progress, we speculated over whether any set of fans in the country were having more fun than us. And we concluded with conviction that, no, there can’t possibly be anyone else experiencing quite the adventure we were. Well now of course, that mantle has been well and truly passed on to others, who are having all the fun. And that includes Stanley.
Meanwhile as Bradford City’s dreadful 2018 continues, it’s probably fair to speculate, now, that no other set of fans in the Premier League or Football League are having a worse time than we are. Football-wise, this feels as bad as it gets. The life and soul draining out of of us. We are all feeling like Nathaniel Knight-Percival.