By Tim Penfold
Who would have seen this a month ago? Bradford City will spend Christmas outside the relegation zone after a 2-0 win against Stuart McCall’s Scunthorpe. It is a remarkable turnaround for a team that was looking like like it might get cut adrift at the bottom of the table, and is testament to a lot of hard work from both players and coaching staff.
What was most notable about City’s performance, as well as the win against Walsall, is that this team now has an identity. Phil Parkinson’s teams were about defensive organisation and heart, while Stuart McCall’s teams were about fluent, attacking football. For so long we watched City struggle and wondered what David Hopkin was trying to make them do and now we can see it. This team presses.
It was George Miller that led the way today, charging after defenders and unsettling the returning Rory McArdle into some uncharacteristic errors. But unlike earlier in the season, the rest of the front line followed.
Scunthorpe’s attempts to play out from the back were stifled by the likes of Jack Payne, David Ball, Eoin Doyle and particularly Lewis O’Brien hassling them into errors and winning the ball back. And when they did win the ball back they broke quickly and found space with Scunthorpe players out of position – the first goal came from Doyle winning it, charging forward and slipping it to Payne. The sheer intensity of the pressing made Scunthorpe jumpy, and the second goal came from Miller forcing an error and being brought down with Doyle converting from the spot.
From the penalty to half time City were a genuine joy to watch going forward. Scunthorpe could not get out of their own half and when City won the ball there was outstanding fluidity – the forward line were interchanging positions and dragging the visiting defence all over the shop. And at the centre of it all, in the eye of the storm while teammates whirled around him leaving devastation in their wake, was Jack Payne.
Stuart McCall has called Payne probably the best player in the division and on this showing it is hard to disagree. Everything good went through him – he scored one and would’ve had a second if the ref had played advantage rather than giving a penalty. And as he orchestrated City’s attack it was only excellent goalkeeping from Jak Alnwick that kept the score at 2-0.
Scunthorpe reorganised at the break with the shaky Rory McArdle being subbed and caused a couple of problems. But City’s defence, unusually for them, stayed firm and the lunge from Cameron Burgess on Lewis O’Brien that reduced the visitors to 10 men ended the game as a contest. From there, barring a couple of minutes of Scunthorpe pressure, it was a question of how many, with the impressive Alnwick keeping the scored down again – one save from David Ball was as good as anything I’ve seen this season.
City even took the opportunity to rest Miller and Payne, while sub Kai Bruenker almost managed a first league goal for the club, denied only by an excellent block.
This turnaround in form has been dramatic and unexpected, but it’s no coincidence that since Hopkin has been able to bring in his own staff and since City have had a proper fitness team to work on, the players’ performances have improved. Earlier in the season the team was not fit enough to press like this, and didn’t understand each other’s games enough to play with such fluidity. The manager and the backroom staff deserve huge credit for this change.
There is still work to do to ensure safety – the defence needs reinforcement and the weakness of the subs bench today shows that the squad lacks both depth and options for tactical changes – we aren’t playing with wingers at the moment for example but it would be useful to have one in the squad to give us the option. January is still a vital month, but the mere fact that we don’t go into it a long way adrift at the bottom will make recruitment a whole lot easier.
In the meantime, we can just sit back and enjoy the sight of City both outside the relegation zone and in good form. It finally feels like we have our club back, and that was all I really wanted for Christmas anyway.