By Jason McKeown
It is dispiriting afternoons such as this that remind you just what a wasted opportunity this season has proven for Bradford City. With the biggest playing budget in 15 years, this should have been the year the Bantams pushed hard for a place in the Championship, competing with Barnsley at the top of the league.
Instead, a fixture pitting fifth-top against fourth-bottom produced the type of result that reflects the league standings. City could not live with their South Yorkshire hosts, who eased to a win with an impressive swagger. They scored three but could easily have netted double that. City couldn’t lay a glove on Barnsley, failing to even register a shot on target.
Of course, the Tykes have a playing budget that will significantly exceed City – but the Bantams are said to be in the top five of League One budgets. They should be able to compete better than they did here, and they should have competed better than they did in the earlier parts of this season. But last summer’s poor recruitment activity has seen the financial gifts of Stefan Rupp frittered away. He didn’t invest all this money for a relegation battle.
In the summer of 2017, the team that reached the play off final under Stuart McCall was broken up because of a refusal to meet certain wage demands. Yet there are now players on the books earning wages far higher than the 2016/17 side, some of whom can’t even get into the team.
This expensive yet dysfunctional squad was a strange inheritance for David Hopkin to have received when he took charge last September, and it continues to present headaches. The Bradford City manager had found a winning formula that led to a two-month resurgence in form, but the key components include players borrowed from other clubs. Those who took up larger portions of the inflated budget have disappointed to the point they are not in his plans, or have been dogged by injury. And so the squad needs more financial backing. Not, as would have been expected, to push City closer to promotion. But just to keep them in League One.
The heavy defeat at Oakwell underlined the urgency of new recruits in January. But with the likes of Josh Wright and Joe Riley having no future under Hopkin and said to be on significant money, freeing up funds could require further departures to add to the exit of the well-compensated Kai Bruenker. It’s all very well expecting Rupp to inject more money, but at some point the wage bill is going to have be trimmed. The wastage can’t go on forever. There’s still a mess to clean up.
Hopkin will be given the extra support he needs, and has demonstrated his ability to steer City from trouble. But this setback was a reality check of the size of the task in hand. Forget that fanciful talk of still reaching the play offs, this battle to avoid relegation remains far from won. It won’t be decided on afternoons such as this, against a high-flying team that no one has yet conquered on their turf. But it was an occasion for facing up to and accepting lessons. Where mistakes can be forgiven, provided they are not repeated.
Although bullish at full time when he spoke to the local media, Hopkin will probably reflect that in hindsight he got his team selection wrong here. A desire to move back to the 5-2-2-1 formation that has proven effective in away games was understandable, but with Jim O’Brien having left Valley Parade – unhappy the club wouldn’t back him by offering a longer deal – and Hope Akpan not fully fit, Hopkin’s solution for the important midfield anchor position caused too much disruption.
Paul Caddis – exceptional at right back since his November signing – was asked to take on the holding role. Ryan McGowan – who has made a solid return to the side as the right-sided centre half – was switched to right wing back. New loan signing Paudie O’Connor was thrown in straightaway for a debut. It was a lot of change to the defensive side of the team, when a settled backline has just delivered four clean sheets in five games.
The changes didn’t work out. Caddis’ influence was curtailed in the middle of the park. His energy getting up and down the right hand of the pitch could not be compensated for by McGowan. And the effects spread through the team, with Lewis O’Brien, Jack Payne and Eoin Doyle looking well short of their recent vibrant standards. There was an uncomfortable body language about the side. They just didn’t look themselves.
Hopkin responded to the charge of getting his tactics wrong by stating the players should still have shown him more. He is right to a point, but he shoulders some responsibility too. Ultimately, it is a reminder of just how lacking in depth this squad remains. The irony is that in Riley and Wright, Hopkin has round pegs who could have slotted into the round holes he had. But of course, no one would disagree with his reasons for overlooking them. Everything comes back to last summer’s farcical events.
It’s easy to forget now that City actually started this game very strongly. For 20 minutes they were on the front front, taking the game to a Barnsley side who initially were tentative and looked out of form. The high press saw home players harassed for possession in their own half, and mistakes were routinely made from those in red shirts. At one stage, City had 67% of the overall possession, but crucially only had a Nathaniel Knight-Percival header over the bar to chalk up as an attempt on goal.
Against the run of play, Barnsley struck. Payne stopped tracking the run of Alex Mowatt, and Caddis was unable to get across in time to stop the cross. Jacob Brown was one of two Barnsley players queuing up at the back post, and headed the ball into the bottom corner.
At that point Barnsley found their verve and City reverted into their shells. It was an unwelcome return to the dark days of autumn when the reaction to adversity was so poor. After having a goal correctly disallowed Barnsley doubled their lead with a terrific passing move that began in their own penalty area. The former City transfer target, Kieffer Moore, applied the finishing touch, though Richard O’Donnell might have done better at keeping it out.
Despite a half time reshuffle that saw George Miller replace the disappointing Paudie O’Connor, with City going to a more conventional 4-4-2, there was no revival. They occasionally threatened by winning the odd corner or free kick; but Barnsley kept their opponents at arm’s length, whilst displaying a clinical professional edge to see the game out. There just wasn’t a moment to really encourage City’s huge away support that their team had the capacity to come back. Caddis was replaced by Hope Akpan, and in the final knockings Connor Wood came on for Jack Payne. But O’Donnell remained the busier keeper.
The superb Cameron McGeehan came close on three occasions. Mamadaou Thiam – who had a bizarre game where at times he produced moments of magic and skill and at others looked woeful – missed a glorious chance. In the 89th minute, Adam Chicksen earned his second red card of the season when he collided with Brown as the last man – a harsh call. Mowatt was played through for 3-0 in stoppage time. Referee Jeremy Simpson blew up for full time with Barnsley pushing hard for a fourth.
No City player performed at their best, though Anthony O’Connor and Knight-Percival deserve some credit for their displays. David Ball too was a willing worker. City have opened talks with the on-loan Rotherham playmaker about agreeing a permanent deal, but have yet to agree terms. An unfortunate mention for Wood, who was covering as left back in the final stages and had a dreadful time of it. For all the criticism of Chicksen, his absence for the next three games is a concern.
Since the start of November, Bradford City have played 11 league games – winning five, drawing two and only losing four. And those four defeats came at home to leaders Portsmouth, away at second-place Luton, up at third-place Sunderland, and now here at fifth-placed Barnsley. The pragmatic handbook of how to avoid relegation will tell you that these games against the top clubs are not what will define your survival chances. That any points gained in these games are a bonus, and limiting the damage to goal difference is the main priority.
It is games against teams around you that will make or break your hopes – and all five of City’s wins over this period were against sides around them in the table, or still looking over their shoulders. The Bantams have pretty much inflicted maximum damage on their rivals during these two months, and that is what they must keep doing.
So whatever mistakes were made here today, this was the game to make them. However downbeat we feel after this hiding, it shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the positive momentum of the last few weeks. Like every other City boss who came before him, David Hopkin will make mistakes. But he is proving to be a very good Bradford City manager, who represents our best chance of staying in League One. And if he succeeds, and when he, Julian Rhodes, Stefan Rupp can rebuild this squad, the future of this football club will look bright.