Bradford City 2
Harriman 77 (OG), P O’Connor 88
Northampton Town 1
By Jason McKeown
At last. After 20 long months – 614 days – Bradford City have come from behind to win a game of football. It is a significant moment, and this dramatic victory might just have belatedly given the Bantams’ season its lift off.
With 76 minutes on the clock, the dark clouds were once again swirling over Valley Parade. Bradford City were 1-0 down, heading for a third straight League Two defeat. The home crowd’s frustration towards its own players was palpable. A week of arguments about the future of Gary Bowyer seemed inevitable. It was that oh so familiar sinking feeling.
But huge credit to the players. They’d found it tough going, but they demonstrated true character. Through sheer determination, City grabbed an equaliser. And, after continuing to throw caution to the wind, a later winner was found. One that sent Valley Parade into a frenzy. The gleeful celebrations brought the crowd and players together, soothing a difficult relationship that had been frosting.
The positive mental effects of going through this come-from-behind experience could prove priceless. City dominated the second half, but it would have counted for little had Northampton held out. No one was in the mood to indulge in a hard luck story – the team had to deliver and mercifully did just that. Confidence should be shooting through the veins of everyone at the club after this. It really is something build on.
When the dust settles, Gary Bowyer will still be left to ponder on how far he still has to go in finding a winning formula from his squad. The City manager went back to 4-4-2 here, deploying Harry Pritchard and Dylan Connolly as out and out wingers, with Danny Devine and Matt Palmer in the middle of the park.
It was far from a success. Northampton’s 4-2-3-1 formation meant the visitors had an extra body in the middle, which made it difficult for Devine and Palmer to take charge of the tempo. They were overrun at times, whilst Connolly especially was a peripheral threat. The front two of James Vaughan and Clayton Donaldson were starved of service.
The last two promotion-winning Bradford City teams – 1998/99 and 2012/13 – played 4-4-2 with wingers, but what made it successful was how strong they were in the centre of midfield. The current City badly need a competent ball winner or it simply isn’t going to work.
The first half, especially, was further evidence of this. A series of set pieces and crosses into the box worked the Northampton defence hard, but they stood up to the challenge. Vaughan got in behind the backline once after an excellent Pritchard flick on, when he should have scored, but the overall threat was limited.
At the other end, the Cobblers took the lead against the run of play 20 minutes in, after Charlie Good got free of his marker and directed a low header at goal that somehow squeezed over the line despite Donaldson’s efforts. The mood soured quickly, and City spent much of the rest of the half struggling to find their composure.
Northampton’s time wasting from early doors largely went unpunished by a soft referee in Leigh Doughty. Although the officials did a least correctly rule out a second Northampton goal when Andy Williams tapped home after the ball had gone out for a goal kick just before he netted.
At half time it felt like a huge 45 minutes for Bowyer and the team, but they approached it in the right way. Bowyer’s words at the interval clearly had a positive effect, as right from the restart the players performed with purpose. It wasn’t always pretty and there was much to remain frustrated by, but at least you could see they were giving it everything.
That said, it took a couple of substitutions to tip the balance into City’s favour. Callum Cooke’s introduction for Devine made a real difference. His near-half hour on the pitch (including the stoppage time) suggesting he could be one of the answers to City’s weak central midfield. It wasn’t a good day for Devine, with continuing question marks over whether he can truly make it at this level. The difference in quality and application between Cooke and Devine was stark.
But it was Zeli Ismail – on for Connolly – who made the late headlines. After watching countless high hanging crosses be dealt with by Northampton up to that point, it was refreshing to see the Albanian try low balls across the box that caused considerable panic. Ismail also kept charging into the area with the ball – instead of floating crosses over from the touchline like Connally and Pritchard – to find a better crossing position.
From one such moment, pressure from Donaldson caused Cobblers left back Michael Harriman to divert the ball into his own net. Harriman had only signed for Northampton three days earlier, as he was without a club after leaving Walsall. Upon arriving, the Northampton Chronicle reported he was “ready to hit the ground running”. This was a debut moment to forget.
The equaliser sparked joy and relief in the stands, cuing up a frantic final 13 minutes. Whilst City continued to pour forward, Northampton also rediscovered attacking ambition and pressed too.
On such thin margins, seasons can blossom or fall to pieces. Richard O’Donnell – who minutes before City’s equaliser produced a great tip over from Vadaine Oliver – made a wonderful save from Oliver again to keep it at 1-1. And minutes later a Northampton counter attack left them clean through on goal and looking certain to score. But Connor Wood never gave up the chase, and made a terrific last ditch tackle in the box, emerging with the ball that he had won cleanly. Had Northampton retaken the lead, City’s prospects for the season could now look very different.
Instead, with two minutes of normal time remaining, City struck a deserved winner. Pritchard crossed for Kelvin Mellor, whose looping header was unconvincingly palmed away by the visitors’ keeper David Carnell. The ball fell to Paudie O’Connor, who couldn’t miss. The goal sparked joyous scenes in the Kop, as some fans raced onto the pitch to embrace the players. Somewhere in the melee, Vaughan picked up a slight injury. I doubt he cared. The scenes were fantastic.
Amazingly there was still more drama to come. The announcing of five minutes injury time prompted groans – especially as it was mainly due to Northampton’s tedious time-wasting when 1-0 up. After City won a free kick near their own box, Ismail and Jordan Turnbull squared up. It seemed trivial, but Doughty – who didn’t appear to see the initial incident – gave Ismail his second yellow card, whilst booking Turnbull.
A massive shame for Ismail, who will now miss out on a return to Walsall next week just as he was proving himself a strong contender to start at the Bescot. Still, the 10 men of City held out.
So much of the talk around City this season has been about tactics and formations. Nothing was massively solved here – a 4-4-2 approach still has obvious central midfield weaknesses – but ultimately this became one of those occasions when tactics went out of the window. City did it through sheer force. Good players, for this level, demonstrating their worth.
Bowyer will be pleased by the impact of his subs. By the tireless 90-minute performance from Pritchard. By the way Vaughan and Donaldson led the line. By the heroics of Wood. By the defensive superiority of O’Connor, Ben Richards-Everton and Mellor. By the heroics of O’Donnell. By the professional manner the team saw the game out.
Most of all, he will be encouraged by the resilience of his team. They might have folded at 1-0 down in the first half, when the mood in the stands threatened to turn ugly. They might have lost heart in the second half, as Northampton stood up to their constant pressure. But they kept going. They retained belief. And that courage is something that had been badly lacking from the club for 614 days.
This performance doesn’t fix those well-documented early season issues. But it does goes a long way to demonstrating a strength and aptitude to ultimately resolve them.