Bradford City 2
Pritchard 18, Devine 49
Crawley Town 1
By Jason McKeown
If this wasn’t the crowning moment that had looked to be on the cards for most of the afternoon, it was nevertheless a further demonstration of how much Bradford City has rediscovered its resilience.
Ahead from early doors, around Valley Parade mobile phones lit up to the sight of live league tables that showed City heading to the League Two summit. But two late Crewe goals kept the Bantams off top spot. And then some of the shine of this victory was taken away by a needless late scare.
As the dust settles, this was clearly a good day for City – if not the great one it had threatened to be. To climb up to second is still a laudable achievement. Beating Crawley has made it four home victories in a row. Whilst picking up 19 points from the last 24 available is tremendous going. Overall this season, City are averaging just short of two points a game – maintain that, and they’ll be promoted.
But there are nagging doubts, too. City are thriving in League Two but they are not dominating it. They are grinding out victories but not blowing anyone away. They look solid at the back but can’t keep clean sheets. They are full of attacking threat but aren’t scoring enough goals.
It’s why their resilience is so important. It is City’s edge right now. They’ve toughened up. They’ve redeveloped the habit of winning football matches. And given the fact there are now 10 players injured on the sidelines, it deserves genuine respect. The triumphant applause from the stands, as the players and manager Gary Bowyer celebrated this latest victory at full time, shows the club’s knowledgeable supporters recognise this.
It came at the end of a game that showcased much of what is good – and not so good – about City this season. The Bantams came racing out of the traps, and for 35 minutes produced a display of high energy attacking intent that was gripping to watch. Bowyer would label it amongst City’s best of the season so far.
Crawley Town had arrived at Valley Parade without a clean sheet on the road this season. When, inside two minutes, Adam Henley cut through a nervy defence and James Vaughan went close to scoring, it seemed implausible they would achieve a first shut out here.
In the end, it took only 18 minutes to break Crawley’s resistance. It was a goal brimming with quality too. Richard O’Donnell had rolled the ball out to his defence, who patiently played it around. Possession was worked to Callum Cooke, who squared it to Henley. The full back ran forwards, releasing Zeli Ismail out wide, and the Albanian’s low cross was clinically tucked away by Harry Pritchard.
It was brilliant passing football from City. Yet despite the goal offering the springboard for a convincing home win, the players didn’t press home their advantage. City dropped from fifth gear to second, allowing Crawley a strong final 10 minutes to the first half that offered them encouragement.
The second 45 minutes initially began in the same manner as the first. City got back on the front foot. And in front of the Kop, the local boy Danny Devine – on at half time for the injured Pritchard – struck a shot from distance that deflected into the net for 2-0. It was a huge confidence fillip for Devine, who has been falling down the pecking order of late. With Pritchard joining Matty Palmer on the sidelines, there is suddenly a first team opening again for Devine.
Two goals to the good, City were firmly in cruise control with plenty to admire about their performance. In the centre of midfield, Cooke was once again pulling the strings as he contributed a man of the match display. What a signing the 22-year-old is proving to be. The former Middlesbrough youth trainee has had a stop-start career, but seems to have found a home in the engine room at Valley Parade. His quality is growing more evident with each passing week.
Impressing too, in the 4-3-3 formation, was the recalled Henley. Despite the occasional defensive mistake, the former Blackburn man caught the eye with his forward runs. Connor Wood was his usual excellent self, whilst Anthony O’Connor rewarded Bowyer’s surprise decision to keep him in the team ahead of Paudie O’Connor, with another solid display alongside the returning Ben Richards-Everton. One of the wide forwards in the 4-3-3, Zeli Ismail was his usual bag of tricks.
For so much of the contest, it felt like City were on the verge of bursting open the floodgates and netting a hatful. They should have put the game to bed, especially when a menacing run by Ismail saw the ball squared across the box for Aramide Oteh, who had to score. But from three yards out, the striker’s shot was blocked by Glenn Morris. That let off, and the introduction from the bench of Ashley Nathaniel-George and Gyliano van Velzen, altered the pattern of the game in Crawley’s favour.
As City seemed content to run down the clock, Crawley grew more and more into the contest. A whopping 22 shots on goal from the visitors, to City’s 10, tells its own story. They bossed possession for the final 25 minutes, and O’Donnell had to make several saves. Just as Bowyer tried to shore things up by preparing to bring on Kelvin Mellor, Reece Grego-Cox struck a powerful low effort that beat O’Donnell to reduce the arrears.
There were still nine minutes plus injury time to see out, and boy it did it get nervy for City. Their in-game management worryingly disappeared, as panic set in. The home side sat far too deep, and when they did win possession they wastefully gave it straight back. O’Donnell had to make a superb late save to ensure the three points. From sprinting out the blocks, City ultimately crawled over the line. They will have to see out games better than this.
There are some worries lingering. Vaughan – back leading the line with Clayton Donaldson out for two-months – increasingly looks frustrated with how things are going. There’s no disputing his effort and commitment, but he is starved of opportunities to score. You have to go back to August for his last goal, given his winner at Walsall in September was really an own goal. He was expected to be prolific this season, but it isn’t happening. A conundrum Bowyer must solve.
It feels greedy to be critical of City for not smashing all before them in League Two, and yet it seems as though it is within their capabilities to do just that. Still, with another home game on Tuesday offering the chance to top the table – almost exactly a year to the day since they first fell to bottom of League One – there is much to be excited about.
There is real substance behind the inconsistent bursts of style we’re seeing. The foundations for a promotion push appear credible. The League Two competition is not exactly the strongest. If, when the injury list recedes, Bowyer can unlock that missing 5% from performances, City are going to take some stopping.