By Jason McKeown
There will be no financial bonus of a day out in Teeside. It is back to concentrating on the league. But Bradford City should return to their relegation fight with great heart. The pain of losing on penalties heavily compensated for by this tremendous effort.
This was probably the best Bantams performance of the season so far. One that offers genuine reasons to believe a strong bid for survival can be mounted. They took some knocks, but overcame set backs.
There was fight, spirit and commitment. Most of all there was character. A quality it seemed this squad was completely devoid of just a few weeks ago.
When midway through the first half, a sudden two-goal burst from Ivan Toney put Peterborough in a commanding lead, you rolled your eyes and sighed wearily at the prospect of another Bradford City collapse. Toney’s opener was a wonder strike but the second the result of feeble defending. So often this season, conceding one goal has led to the team folding. But faced with another huge task, this time the players stood up to the challenge.
George Miller – who enjoyed his best game for the club, leading the line with great gusto – tapped home following a messy scramble. And even though Peterborough would go 3-1 ahead just before the break, there was a confidence within the home crowd that the game wasn’t up.
Cue second half goals from the excellent David Ball, the bold Paul Caddis and the energetic Miller that lifted City from 3-1 behind to 4-3 in front. Valley Parade may have been relatively empty tonight, but the scenes of celebration in the main stand were gleeful and something to remember. In a season of such misery and so little cheer, it felt really special to witness these scenes of joy.
Of course, City are yet to be fully repaired from their vulnerabilities, and too much space was afforded by Adam Chicksen that allowed a cross to be floated onto Toney’s head. The 22-year-old summer signing from Newcastle United completed his hat trick and levelled the game 4-4. Despite conceding four times, Ben Wilson, City’s number two, acquitted himself well.
In the closing stages of the 90 minutes, City pushed Peterborough back and created numerous opportunities to win the game. Jack Payne, playing alongside Ball and behind Miller, had another lively match and created plenty of openings. Behind them Lewis O’Brien and Kelvin Mellor were solid in wide roles and contributed both attackingly and defensively.
City couldn’t turn their territorial advantage into a fifth goal. In extra time, the home side never really got on top again and Peterborough looked more likely to snatch it. But with no further goals, penalties ensued.
Eoin Doyle scored. Karl Henry – who had struggled in extra time – saw a telegraphed effort saved. O’Brien put away his. But then Payne and Caddis had their efforts saved too. Peterborough celebrated victory. Meaning that man Steve Evans is still undefeated against City. But the rousing applause the City players received from supporters demonstrated the depth of appreciation for their efforts.
There’s no doubt the shackles are off for City. David Hopkin struggled to get a leaky defence tougher to beat, so has gone on the offensive instead. 10 goals scored in the last three games. But of course 10 goals conceded over that time too.
In Payne and Ball, Hopkin has two of the best number 10s in League One. He has found a way to accommodate them both into the side, linking up with the hardworking Miller, who loves to run the channels. And City look much more of a goal threat. Behind Payne and Ball, the three-man midfield base of Mellor, Hope Akpan/Karl Henry and O’Brien offers attacking support and a degree of protection for the back four. It isn’t a perfect system and the January window remains pivotal. But City are now hurting opposition teams. And it’s much more enjoyable to watch.
Most crucially of all, you can see the team spirit is now there. The players no longer look like a collection of individuals, weakly hiding from the ball and hoping the crowd picks on someone else in the team to be the scapegoat. They look like they care about each other. They are prepared to be brave. And they won’t give in the towel so easily.
One of the most heartening moments of the night for me occurred in the aftermath of Payne’s penalty miss. He looked crestfallen, understandably. But as he jogged back to the centre circle, Doyle went over to console him, and seconds later every other player had gone to him to commiserate. It looked like a team grasping collective responsibility. Doing their bit to pick up a player who at times this season has carried the team.
None of this will lead to a trip to the Riverside in January. There will be no payday at a relatively local Championship club. But if City can bottle the spirit of this evening and use it as another positive step towards redemption, they can go into these crucial back to back home games against Walsall and Scunthorpe United with a real chance of closing the gap. And of making a genuine fight of staying in League One for next season.