Bradford City 1
Vaughan 45 (pen)
Port Vale 2
Worrall 18, Atkinson 90+3
By Jason McKeown
This was a night that confirmed ongoing suspicions of a fragility within this Bradford City squad. That as encouraging as results in recent weeks have proven, they’re not quite as sure-footed as the form table suggests.
As the post match inquest begins, it’s difficult to pinpoint one definitive issue undermining the City cause. When three minutes into injury time, the former Bantam Will Atkinson played a one-two in the box and finished easily to win the game for Port Vale, defensive frailties were once again evident. Just one clean sheet in the last 13 games is not an obvious platform to a promotion charge. They have to fix the leak.
But as the back four slumped to the ground, whilst Port Vale players ran off to celebrate an unlikely winning goal, the City defenders could also justifiably point the finger at the players in front of them. The home side were well on top and had hemmed Port Vale back, but then a poor Callum Cooke pass was the prelude to the Valiants’ late winner. Danny Devine was also guilty of failing to track Atkinson’s run into the box. They didn’t do their defenders any favours with such sloppy play.
The attack wasn’t blameless either. City had bossed the second half, and were camped out in the box, but the forward line didn’t get in enough attempts at goal and missed some decent chances. And what about Gary Bowyer, who curiously elected against making any substitutions until it was too late. Bowyer had a good hand but was reluctant to push it further. The unused Shay McCartan must feel utterly deflated.
Small but not insignificant failings everywhere then, on a strange night for City. In the first half they absolutely stank the place out, producing a timid performance that was a long way below recent high standards. Did the pre-match talk about injuries – Dylan Connolly and Harry Pritchard weren’t fit enough to make it back – hinder morale? Everyone seemed to be looking towards someone else to take a lead. Cooke was the only player to deserve a semblance of credit.
Port Vale’s highly impressive Dave Worrall put the visitors in front after cutting inside and finishing smartly from an angle. It was not the first time this season City have conceded after a wide player found space on Kelvin Mellor’s side. The right back had been instantly recalled after it appeared he had been dropped for Adam Henley on Saturday. Tough on Henley. And although Mellor slowly improved over the 90 minutes, there remain questions over his defensive positioning.
In Mellor’s defence, City just didn’t get to grips with Port Vale matching their 4-3-3 formation. Both Mellor and Connor Wood were left too exposed to the threat of Vale’s talented wide players. City’s middle three were narrow, and Mellor and Wood needed the off the ball support of Zeli Ismail and Aramide Oteh, which didn’t happen until Bowyer clearly instructed them to help out better at half time.
It meant that with Vale a goal to the good, they could keep white shirts behind the ball and hurt City on the counter attack by working possession wide. On either side of Worrall’s opener, Vale had terrific chances. In contrast City created little, with Ismail having little impact on the right. After recent improvement, Hope Akpan reverted to being anonymous. He needs to get more involved.
Amazingly they went in level at half time. A hopeful punt forward by Cooke went straight through to Vale keeper Scott Brown, but off the ball Devine went down suspiciously as he ran by Jake Taylor. The referee, Graham Salisbury, pointed to the spot. It looked like a clear dive from Devine. James Vaughan finished clinically for an undeserved equaliser.
To their credit, City took advantage of the reprive. They were much, much better after half time. Switching Ismail to the left made a major difference, as he came alive and found joy running at James Gibbons. Devine showed improvement and did well bringing the ball forward, Akpan was more of a menace in the box, whilst Cooke was pulling the strings by setting up attacks.
It became one way traffic. City played some good passing football and cut through a decent Vale defence. When the ball was worked along the ground quickly, City looked as though they would score. But frustratingly there were too many high crosses into the box, which Vale dealt with well. Brown made some good saves and Leon Legge cleared one effort off the line. Ben Richards-Everton, Oteh, Akpan and Ismail went close to scoring. It felt as though there was only going to be one winner.
Cue the Atkinson sucker punch, and a first home defeat in two months. A late City winner would have sent them joint top, but instead they have slumped down to fourth.
Fine margins has been the story of City’s season. Only two of the 15 league games so far have been settled by more than one goal. It has habitually left City wrestling on the edge of glory or failure. There appears to be more in the tank. That even the recent impressive victories shouldn’t have proven such hard work.
In some ways, then, this defeat was coming. A warning, if it is was needed, about the dangers of complacency. But whilst this was a set back, in truth there aren’t too many reasons to be down hearted. Injuries can often be painted as an excuse, but no club could continue to flourish with 10 players on the sidelines. Disruption leads to bumps in the road. Ultimately, this was an under-performance by a thinbare City team, and for that they were punished.
Saturday’s trip to Macclesfield gives Bowyer and his players the chance to quickly move on. There are lessons to absorb from this defeat, but confidence need not be sapped. It’s a long old season and – even with their frailties – City have demonstrated they’re capable of much better.