By Jason McKeown
Bradford City remain anchored to the foot of League One but suddenly have hope. The green shoots of recovery, faint but noticeable over recent weeks, provided the platform for this badly needed victory. One that places the Bantams within touching distance of their fellow strugglers.
The defeat of Oxford United was the first Bantams win in 12 games. The first home victory since August. The first Saturday afternoon Valley Parade success in eight months, for that matter. It has been far too long in coming, yet might not have arrived too late to save Bradford City.
Because this wasn’t just three points. It was a template to success. David Hopkin set up his team really well. The players rolled their sleeves up to produce a truly collective display. And they were roared on from the stands by more than 18,000 City supporters, who responded positively to the vastly improved endevours of the club.
Hopkin deserves immense credit. It has been, to say the least, a tough start to managing Bradford City for the head coach. He has walked into a toxic environment of huge leadership problems at the top. He has inherited a badly built, character-less squad, and up until recently has not readily received the tools he needs to fix it.
Since Julian Rhodes’ return, Hopkin has finally been able to start shaking up his backroom staff. And in Paul Caddis and Karl Henry, added players who had been training with the club for some time, but with no deals over the line. Both Caddis and especially Henry are the wrong side of 30. Players of the age Edin Rahic was reluctant to allow the club to sign. Yet they have the kind of experience and bravery that’s absolutely crucial, for the desperate situation City are in.
Hopkin’s record so far is undoubtedly influenced by mitigating circumstances. But of course, that doesn’t stop him coming under scrutiny from supporters expecting more of an uplift. The destructive effects of short-termism are there for all to see over 2018, and so for everyone’s sake Hopkin needs to be a success. However, patience is never endless.
But now, with greater tools and support from the top, Hopkin is making a more positive impression. His team selection for this one raised eyebrows – no one’s idea of a must-win game was starting Kai Brunker – but by 5pm Hopkin would be utterly vindicated.
The three centre halves approach was abandoned, possibly after its struggles as a system in the Aldershot replay. Hopkin reverted to a back four, with Karl Henry sitting in front, and David Ball and Lewis O’Brien wide midfielders. Up front, Brunker partnered Eion Doyle, with Jack Payne operating in the hole.
And despite Oxford starting the game better, the system worked. Ball and O’Brien excelled in their roles, linking up effectively with their respective full backs Caddis and Adam Chicksen. Henry was quietly significant in the centre. Nothing flashy, and not much running, but influencing the game greatly with his tackling and passing.
Up front, Doyle thrived from passing the targetman baton onto Brunker, and instead running the channels. Doyle looks much sharper than a few weeks ago, and though he is still sacrificing part of his game he is now more of a goal threat. Crucially his body language was much better.
Brunker is far from the ideal targetman, but this was by some distance his best game for the club. He is raw but was a menace. Challenging for flick ons, and forcing mistakes from the visitors when he couldn’t get on the end of high balls. And it wasn’t just Doyle who profited, as Payne joining the attack from deep. He found space left by the Oxford backline troubled by Brunker’s threat, where he instigated several attacks.
The mark of the strong team ethic could be seen in the fact Payne and O’Brien, by their standards, were less involved. They had clear roles to play for the team, on and off the ball, and willingly performed them. Everyone had a job to do. After months of watching a team of individuals, it felt reassuring to finally watch a team.
Oxford, unbeaten in seven, initially looked more confident and purposeful on the ball. But City dug deep, began to find some rhythm, and amazingly raced into a two goal lead in the space of three minutes. Firstly a corner caused a scramble and Ball’s header was brilliantly saved by former Bantam loanee Simon Eastwood, only for the ball to loop up in the air and over the line, with Oxford defenders slow to react. The second saw good work from Doyle and especially O’Brien leave Payne able to apply a simple close range finish.
Valley Parade erupted. Weeks of pent up anger and frustration was released. The return of the forgotten feelgood factor lifted everyone into half time, where Stephen Darby came onto the pitch to a stunning and emotionally charged reception.
There were still 45 minutes to see out, and the second half became a mission of preservation. Oxford huffed and puffed, but ultimately couldn’t lay a glove on City. It was an exceptional performance from the home team out of possession especially. The shape stayed strong. There was vastly improved composure and wily game management. The dark arts of seeing out a game by killing opposition momentum were in evidence. A welcome throwback to the Phil Parkinson days.
The game was seen out, despite a hotly disputed red card for Nathaniel Knight-Percival for an alleged elbow. Knight-Percival didn’t deserve the indignity of an early bath. He and the rest of the back four were outstanding. Anthony O’Connor and Chicksen had their best games in some time. Caddis looks like a terrific signing. Exactly what was needed.
The league table has tightened, with the gap to safety cut from seven to four. City still have only 14 points. Reaching the magic safety target of 50 points remains a tall order. Tuesday’s trip to Luton will be a tough one.
But hope is restored. And that can only be a good thing. The rudderless Bradford City ship that was sinking fast is suddenly in the hands of true captains. Rhodes has clearly had a huge impact. Hopkin is starting to get the players to give their all. Their partnership would appear to be strong. And that gives the club a chance.
Most importantly of all, today showed the club can come together. Fans, players, head coach, behind the scenes staff and Rhodes. As Edin Rahic increasingly disappears, his negative influence more and more minimised, there is a growing appetite amongst all of us for the fight ahead.
This awful chapter for the club is coming towards its end. We are starting to get our football club back. Rahic is out of sight. And with everyone coming together without him, this victory can act as a springboard for rebuilding Bradford City.
If you support independent, profit-free writing about Bradford City…
…you might also want to consider buying a copy of the new Bradford City book, Who We Are, written by Jason McKeown and published by Bantams Past. Details of the book and where to buy can be found here.
Categories: Match Reviews