Bradford City 0
Cambridge United 0
By Jason McKeown
This was oh so typical Bradford City. A big occasion, a huge level of expectation and palpable excitement from a boisterous crowd. But anticipation gave way to disappointment. The buoyant enthusiasm slowly seeped out of supporters like a deflating bouncy castle.
How many times over the years have we set ourselves up for big things, only for the players to fail to deliver? The pressures of playing for this football club are significant. Players need to learn quickly, or the crowd will turn. So it was here. An afternoon that began with the Kop chanting “100 points, Gary Bowyer” ended with a smattering boos. A ridiculous over reaction at such an early moment in the season, but the sense of frustration was shared by all.
There’s no getting away from the reality this was a discouraging performance from the new-look Bradford City. Opening the campaign against a Cambridge United side who finished 21st in League Two last season was as kind of a start as you could ask for. The visitors played with 10 men for the final half of the game, after Liam O’Neil’s dreadful lunge on Clayton Donaldson saw the defender red carded. But City could not take advantage of a favourable hand, labouring to a draw that underlines the true scale of the League Two challenge.
Cambridge weren’t great but they were streetwise and organised. After a dismal spectacle, the celebrations of United supporters at the full time whistle told its own story about the hellhole that is League Two. The Bantams had 22 shots on goal, but only three on target. They had over 60% of possession, but habitually used the ball poorly. In the closing stages they piled forward in growing desperation of finding a winner, but there was no real conviction to suggest they were on the verge of making a breakthrough.
Gary Bowyer spoke afterwards about how players need to make better decisions. This is undoubtedly true, as several promising attacks broke down through taking the wrong option. But Bowyer will surely also need to reflect on how his tactical approach failed to get the best out of his charges, meaning they were predictable and easy to contain.
City lined up in a diamond formation that enabled Bowyer to accommodate Eoin Doyle, James Vaughan and Donaldson, but it proved to be a classic dilemma of whether to go with the best system or the best personnel. The urge to go with all three was understandable, but on this occasion DVD was more DUD.
You can’t fault their effort, and Vaughan – who had the game’s best moment with a flick up and overhead kick effort that crashed back off the crossbar – looks capable of scoring a hatful this season. But Doyle does not suit playing at the tip of the diamond, and the steps taken to incorporate him behind Vaughan and Donaldson stunted the supply line. The limitations of the diamond – a lack of width – were once again on show.
What didn’t help was an anonymous performance from Jermaine Anderson – playing on the right side of the diamond – and the absence of a partner for Matt Palmer. The on-loan Rotherham man impressed and was probably City’s best player, but he was also guilty of giving the ball away too often and his corners were terrible. On the left, Jordan Gibson showed promise. As he was asked to tuck inside, there was greater onus on the young winger to make better decisions – with experience will come greater consistency over 90 minutes.
With 14 minutes to play Bowyer made moves to change formation by taking off Doyle and introducing Sean Scannell, who was sharp. But the manager probably waited too long to make this change, especially given Cambridge had retreated everybody back to protect a point. With the clock ticking, the team’s composure on the ball went out the window. Nevertheless, the 4-4-2 City ended with looked far more effective – with substitute Danny Devine catching the eye by producing some clever passes.
Doyle is one of the club’s highest earners. He is too expensive, really, to sit on the bench. He has ability too, which makes it difficult to leave him out. But Doyle is not a number 10. With City evidently needing to get players out before Bowyer can strengthen further, it will be interesting to see what the club decides to do if an offer for Doyle comes in.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for City here. At the back they performed reasonably well, with Anthony O’Connor quietly taking a step forwards on the path to redemption. The full backs, Kelvin Mellor and Adam Henley, were useful both at defending and in getting forwards. Cambridge offered up little attacking threat, save for a few half chances that City snuffed out. Biggest tests await, but the imminent return of Paudie O’Connor will mean City’s defence will offer a strong platform this season.
Paudie will surely take Ben Richards-Everton’s place, after a decidedly mixed debut. Defensively, the summer signing from Accrington Stanley was solid, making some crucial interceptions. But his distribution isn’t great, and his confidence appeared to visibly drain in the closing stages, as the crowd got on his back following several wretched passes that flew out of play. In the final minute of stoppage time and with City on the attack, the ball came out to Richards-Everton in a slightly wide position, surely requiring him to launch it back into the box. He chose to shoot from an impossible angle, compounding the poor choice by slicing it dismally wide.
So City are very much a work in progress. Normally that would be understandable at this stage of the season. But with all 10 summer signings in the building before pre-season friendlies had begun, there was an expectation the team would be much more fluent by now. Bowyer bemoaned the losing of a second 45 minutes at Rochdale last week as a contributory factor, but he also wasted two pre-season friendlies playing trialists who largely looked nowhere near good enough for the club. They should be ready.
The wait to get high-earning, unwanted players off the books means recruitment is in a state of limbo. On this evidence, City badly need a midfield enforcer to set the tempo and drive the team forwards. They also need other options on the bench, which could look stronger. The windfall from Oli McBurnie’s £17 million move from Swansea to Sheffield United is welcome financial news, although this money will largely be used to pay off debts to Stefan Rupp. You suspect there’s going to some significant ins and outs before the transfer window closes.
The team will get better, of course. And if this underwhelming performance causes sky-high expectations to be dampened, that’s probably a good thing. Bowyer has the ability and experience to build something effective from the tools he does have, and there’s a long, long way to go.
The players deserve praise for their effort levels. This was far removed from the gutless shower who represented the club last season. But effort is only part of the challenge. The players have to be braver on the ball. Try difficult things. Make better off-the-field runs. Deal better with the weight of groans from the crowd by doing what’s right for the team. Each player needs to show a greater sense of purpose and demonstrate true individual responsibility.
Ultimately, this scrappy and disjointed performance offered only crumbs of comfort. On the opening day, City failed to live up to the big billing. Typical Bradford City perhaps, but with the scars of last season far from fully healed, it needs to improve quickly. Patience is a commodity in short supply.