By Jason McKeown
This was a mightily impressive reboot of Bradford City. A quickfire return to the values and characteristics that were the cornerstone of their history-making resurgence, until it came crashing to a halt 15 months ago.
Phil Parkinson would have been proud of the dogged organisation of the first half, capped off with goal-saving blocks of the ilk that made heroes of Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby. Stuart McCall would have approved of the adventurous second half attacking approach that was rewarded with three wildly celebrated goals. With a partisan Valley Parade crowd harassing the officials and roaring approval at every tackle, it was as though the old template of success had been rediscovered, after lying dormant within the confines of the manager’s office.
This is what Bradford City are all about. And for Gary Bowyer to achieve such a result and performance so quickly into his reign speaks great volumes about his leadership. The new manager’s positive impact on the players was glaringly evident, as to a man they chased and harassed their opponents, running themselves into the ground.
Such workrate was a joy to watch yet tinged with frustration. Why has it been witnessed only sporadically all season, and barely at all since the turn of the year? Can we dare to believe it will occur more regularly, or will this prove to be yet another false dawn? This is a team that has routinely played below its true ability. And watching them so impressively apply the basic principles here only serves to illustrate the depth of their underachievement. There’s the bar lads, now for goodness sake maintain it.
David Hopkin would certainly have struggled to recognise the high levels of application served up here by his former charges. But the real secret behind Bowyer’s success was in changing the fundamental approach from the one his predecessor had stuck so rigidly to – indeed, Hopkin’s failure to adapt to the opposition countering his tactics was ultimately his undoing.
In other words, Bowyer moved away from having a team built around its number 10s. Of the three in which Hopkin placed so much faith to the end, only David Ball survived the starting cut, and even then he was deployed as an out and out striker with telling effect. Jack Payne joined Billy Clarke on the bench, where he would stay for the full 90 minutes. Bowyer elected for a diamond 4-4-2 that saw Hope Akpan in front of the back four, Jacob Butterfield pushed to wide left and Jermaine Anderson brought in for a full debut on the right, with Lewis O’Brien operating at the tip. For the first time in weeks, Eoin Doyle had a strike partner to lead the line alongside.
The diamond shape worked really well in keeping a dangerous Peterborough side at bay during a first half the visitors undoubtedly shaded. United were sharp in possession: always looking for a clever inside pass and with runners off the ball. But City kept their shape in commendable fashion. There was clear organisation, and a back-to-basics outlook of staying compact.
At times Peterborough had some joy in the wide areas, running behind City’s attack-minded full backs, Kelvin Mellor and Calum Woods; although ultimately there was always cover. Akpan enjoyed what was unquestionably his best performance in a Bradford City shirt, standing firm and winning possession higher up the park. Anderson and Butterfield did their jobs tracking back when needed. The back four – often horribly exposed over recent weeks – was better protected and performed well. Anthony O’Connor deserves a special mention. In a week where big questions have been asked of his character, he was immense.
After falling on the wrong side of several controversial refereeing decisions over recent weeks, they got a helping hand in the first half when Marcus Maddison crossed from deep and Matt Godden headed past Richard O’Donnell. Godden was judged to be offside by the officials, although TV replays suggest that’s harsh. At this point in the game, Peterborough were on top and would have merited their goal. Fine margins, but City would make use of their fortune.
Their first half display was substance over style. Bowyer had hit the reset button on City, and was at the beginnings of reconstructing the side in gentle fashion. Butterfield’s free kick hitting the bar aside, they created little while attacking the empty Bradford End. And when just before half time both Mellor and Woods had to exit early through injury, you feared another hard luck home defeat.
Yet the second half saw City become an attacking threat, and it was here where the transition from Hopkin’s number 10s, to a more speedy approach of getting the ball into the final third, paid off. Butterfield revelled in the extra space no longer congested by Payne and co, becoming increasingly influential. Doyle looked far more effective working off the intelligent Ball, and the home side began to dominate.
The crowd responded by turning up the volume, with a series of poor decisions from Matt Donohue only hardening the backing afforded to the team. And so when fine work on the right side from substitute Paul Caddis allowed Ball to play Butterfield in space, the roof came off as the Bradfordian spotted Conor O’Malley slightly out of position and clinically fired the ball into the bottom corner. Butterfield raced over to the corner of the Kop and Main Stand in celebration, chased by jubilant team mates. There were 20 minutes to go, and this was a huge, huge goal.
City might have feared a Peterborough response, but it never came. In the second half they had retreated further and further, and the deadly Ivon Toney was introduced too late by Darren Ferguson. Peterborough seemed so typically Peterborough, based on previous visits to Valley Parade – easy on the eye, but with a suspect soft centre. They were demoralised and on the floor.
And so the Bantams were able to finish the job in clinical fashion. Peterborough were on the attack with bodies in the box, only for Ryan Tafazolli to make a hash of sending the ball over. It allowed Akpan – the new Bradford City captain – to dink a through ball into the path of Ball, who found Doyle. The Irishman fooled three defenders by cutting inside, before unleashing a low left foot shot that saw the ball roll into the corner.
When three minutes later O’Brien charged through and finished with the aid of a deflection, the feverish scenes of celebration within Valley Parade were a joy to behold. Not since the turn of the year have the Bantams won on a Saturday afternoon. So many recent weekends of feeling hurt and angry by dreadful performances, it was so good to know that this one is going to be emphatically different.
Peterborough did pull one back with a minute to go, when Caddis was wrongly penalised for a clean tackle that saw him clearly win the ball. Maddison dispatched the resultant spot kick, but this wasn’t Posh’s afternoon. The failure to keep a clean sheet clearly frustrated Bowyer, but this was surely a day that surpassed his expectations. The response he has got from his players was remarkable. It’s ironic that Butterfield and Anderson – two Hopkin signings yet to shine – were so influential here. Butterfield is beginning to look like the Championship player he is meant to be.
The relegation picture has only marginally improved, but this is a result and performance that will crucially shift the outlook of supporters – winning us back onside after a trying period that sent the mood ugly. But of course, nothing has been achieved by winning this game. The challenge to the players is they must repeat this performance. 10 more times.
Whether they had stopped responding to Hopkin, or his resignation and Bowyer’s arrival has shocked them into action, displays like this demonstrate that this Bradford City squad should not be in relegation trouble, never mind going down. They’ve done the basics badly all season, and it has continually tripped them up. Phil Parkinson used to have a saying when his Bantams team played well – “that was a Bradford City performance”. It is dogged and determined displays like this that he meant by “Bradford City performance”, and these players will do well to realise that.
This was arguably City’s best result of the season – the first time they’ve beaten a top 10 side all campaign – and it will shift expectations. The Tuesday night arrival of Luton to Valley Parade, who are unbeaten in 23 matches, is the last follow-up fixture you want. But even if the Hatters are victorious as expected, we want to see the same levels of fight. Not the type of rollover that allowed Portsmouth to hit five last weekend. After Luton, a run of games against Oxford, Blackpool, Charlton and Doncaster must somehow yield a couple of wins.
With 10 games left to play, City can retain their League One status by winning half – especially if they pick up victories in late season six-pointers against Bristol Rovers, Gillingham, Scunthorpe and Wimbledon. It feels possible, when all seemed to be lost after the Walsall defeat. It’s going to be a huge ask, but Bowyer’s strong first week in the hotseat means we have hope of beating the drop once again.