Cheltenham Town 3
Riley 59, Doyle-Hayes 69, Tozer 80
Bradford City 2
Anderson 51, Richards-Everton 76
By Jason McKeown
This uncomfortable evening for Bradford City should go a long way to extinguishing any remaining hopes that League Two is a walk in the park. After a topsy-turvy second half, the Bantams came out the wrong side of a five-goal thriller against an impressive Cheltenham side who now sit third in the table. There were positives about City’s performance, but it was hard to make a case for the visitors meriting a victory.
Cheltenham’s 60% possession spoke volumes about their superiority. For much of the evening, they were enjoying more than 65% of the ball overall. It was only the late push for an equaliser that made the possession count slightly more respectable for City. Michael Duff’s men are in excellent form and their soaring confidence showed. They were a cut above every other League Two side City have so far faced. These are the standards the Bantams must ultimately reach.
As City still adapt to their fall into the League Two abyss, it can be difficult to make allowances for any defeat. But in the players’ defence, Cheltenham Town deserve respect for their achievements. They are now unbeaten at home in 15 games – the last defeat on their own patch coming all the way back on 12 January. That was a 3-1 loss to Tranmere, which came on the same day the Bantams were trounced 3-0 at Barnsley in what proved the beginning of the end for David Hopkin. That day at Oakwell feels like an awfully long time ago now, illustrating the length of Cheltenham’s home invincibility.
So this was far from a disgrace from City. They might not have seen much of the ball over the 90 minutes, but the 4-4-2 approach proved reasonably effective and – shot-wise – City gave as good as they got.
Jermaine Anderson was brought in for the struggling Danny Devine and didn’t exactly cover himself in glory. An early booking for a late challenge left the former Peterborough midfielder walking on a tightrope and he was caught in possession more than once. Nevertheless, City had a decent shape and Dylan Connolly was a major threat.
In a first half of little incident, City had a decent spell before the interval when Clayton Donaldson and James Vaughan spurned promising opportunities. Ben Richards-Everton also saw an effort cleared off the line. City were more direct in style, either in launching it forwards quickly or using Connolly and Harry Pritchard to run with the ball. Cheltenham’s passing football was easier on the eye, but City – with the O’Connors swapped over, as Anthony started ahead of Paudie – defended resolutely.
It all burst into life after the break. Cheltenham looked dominant initially, with Luke Varney firing just wide. But a terrific counter attack saw Connolly given room to charge through, and the Irish winger did brilliantly to cut the ball back to Anderson as he raced into the box. After a scramble, Anderson eventually bundled the ball over the line at the third attempt.
A third straight City win beckoned, but it proved a fleeting possibility. A good piece of Cheltenham passing in the final third saw Gavin Riley get away from O’Connor to clinically finish past Richard O’Donnell for 1-1. After Riley missed a good chance to put Town in front, Jake Doyle-Hayes fired an excellent half volley into the net, following a long Cheltenham throw in that was flicked into his path.
Gary Bowyer will be encouraged to see City again fight back in adversity, and within seven minutes it was 2-2. Richards-Everton – outstanding once more – equalised with a powerful header from an excellent Pritchard free kick. But the summer signing’s joy over his first City goal was quickly tempered by him giving away a rash free kick four minutes later – a set piece that led Ben Tozer heading home what proved to be the winner.
It was that sort of evening for City. Promise at times, but ultimately the players paid the price for some sloppy moments. They put in a better performance than the scrappy display at Walsall three days ago, but to concede three times in the league for the first time this season – two of the goals from set pieces – was hugely frustrating. The final 10 minutes saw the Bantams push hard for another equaliser, but a Vaughan header from a Zeli Ismail cross was the only late save Scott Flinders needed to make.
Bowyer will be far from down-hearted, but this was a defeat that once again highlighted the weaknesses in his squad. It’s getting repetitive, but that central midfield hole isn’t getting repaired. Anderson will be boosted by his goal, but like Devine doesn’t appear to offer the solution. Callum Cooke’s 20 minutes from the bench saw another accomplished display from the Peterborough loanee. It is hard to see how Bowyer can keep him out of the starting XI much longer, but the fact remains Cooke’s attacking style will only be effective if City can find a competent ball winner to shore up midfield.
The defeat also highlighted the need for City to be more resourceful with possession. Cheltenham’s commitment to passing wasn’t flawless, but they had 81% passing accuracy compared to just 65% from City. In other words, one out of every three passes the Bantams attempted saw them lose the ball. This is in keeping with their season – they’ve averaged just 65.3% pass completion over the nine games so far, the 18th best in League Two. This simply has to improve.
Yet for how disappointing this defeat feels, it doesn’t feel right to be too downhearted. The uncomfortable truth is that Cheltenham are a better side than City right now, further on in their development as a group of players. This was a fifth home win out of six for the Robins. They’re at the top end of the standard of opposition the Bantams are up against this season.
City need to take on board the lessons of defeat, but there is no reason to approach Saturday’s home game against a struggling Carlisle United side with dented belief. League Two isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but there is also nothing to fear.