Bradford City 2
Sweeney 31 (OG), Vaughan 45+1
Exeter City 0
By Jason McKeown
This was the biggest moment of Bradford City’s season so far. Their promotion credentials were authenticated with an impressive scalp of a top three rival. Confidence should be soaring through the veins of everyone connected to the club. For this was a victory of real significance.
The intelligence and wit of this City team is what stands out. For possession, territorial advantage, shots on goal and corners, the Bantams were second best here to a confident Exeter City side. Yet they showed tremendous character and application to find a way to win. As the Bradford skies grew darker in the second half, the vibrancy of Exeter City faded until they were reduced to a frustrated shadow of what they had been.
By eventually demoralising the Grecians, City have climbed four places up through a congested leading pack. They sit second in League Two, and would have gone top had Cheltenham found a late equaliser in their home game against Forest Green. It was the perfect way to bounce back from the disappointing performance against Port Vale. And in doing so, that grit and resilience is once again on show.
Of course, it could have been a very different story. After James Vaughan smacked an early effort against the post following an excellent cross from the returning Harry Pritchard, Exeter bossed the first 30 minutes and delivered the strongest opposition performance that Valley Parade has witnessed all season.
Matt Taylor has Exeter playing some very good football. From front to back, players look comfortable in possession and well-drilled at running into space to receive tight passes. It was notable that even in wide areas they were reluctant to swing over high crosses. Instead they would look for another pass, and work the ball into the box for a shooting chance.
For a 10-minute spell City barely saw the ball. Every time they cleared their lines, Exeter quickly won it back and swarmed forwards. Even the centre backs ran with the ball to join in the attacks. Over the 90 minutes, the Bantams only had 34.3% possession. It is rare to have so little of the ball at home.
But, tellingly, when City did have possession they made better use of it. They were more direct for sure, getting the ball down the channels for Zeli Ismail and Aramide Oteh to run onto. Pritchard and Hope Akpan were in decent form, albeit Callum Cooke was curiously quiet. Still, when City went forward, they were a greater threat. The Exeter backline looked suspiciously weak.
Sure enough, on the half hour mark a deep cross by Adam Henley caught Pierce Sweeney napping, and Oteh got free to head the ball downwards and over line via the Exeter defender’s body. Then right on half time, wretched Exeter defending somehow allowed Oteh to help the ball onto Vaughan, who went in where it hurt to stab home from close range. It was a complete mess from Tom Parkes and Aaron Martin. The latter was having a ferocious battle all afternoon with Vaughan. The former Guiseley goalkeeper, Johnny Maxted, didn’t cover himself in glory for the goal either. He was very unconvincing during the first half.
So against the run of play, City went in at half time 2-0 up. But any Exeter indignation was undermined by the wounds they’d inflicted on themselves. Ultimately, Exeter played like a team of Nicky Laws. Enjoyable to watch, and often on the verge of producing something truly devastating – but ultimately limited. That the former City midfielder Law is Exeter’s top scorer, on six goals, speaks volumes. They are a couple of decent strikers short. And that may hold them back in the promotion race.
Attacking the Kop in the second half, Exeter pushed forwards to get a goal back, but were up against a much more resolute defence than their own. City’s back four was outstanding, with Ben Richards-Everton and Anthony O’Connor winning everything and both full backs working so hard. Henley – recalled for Kelvin Mellor – shook off a slow start to play very well. Connor Wood is growing into a truly excellent League Two full back.
Huge credit also belongs to Richard O’Donnell, who early in the second half made a crucial save from Sweeney. A goal back for Exeter would have changed the complexion of the game. But O’Donnell’s heroics allowed City to keep Exeter at arm’s length.
The final half hour amazingly saw three red cards, none of which could be disputed. Jake Taylor recklessly flew into Wood for no other reason but frustration, giving Exeter a mountain to climb. But two minutes later, Cooke tripped Law for a warranted second booking. It was the only lapse of intelligence from City. Cooke was trying to atone for a poor touch that cost him possession. But he was never going to win the ball back, and Law was running away from goal. Cooke’s actions threatened to put City back under pressure.
As it happened, the swapping of reds hurt Exeter more. Law had to drop deeper, and became less effective. Exeter kept going, but belief ebbed away as the clock ticked down. Gary Bowyer bought on Dylan Connolly, who hit the post. He was later hauled back by Parkes when through on goal. Another red card, and there really was no way back for 9-men Exeter.
City have played better – much better – this season. This was not a performance full of man of the match contenders, apart from the back four who earned a first clean sheet since mid-September. Nevertheless, to come out on top of this six-pointer is a real statement of intent. To win in this manner, and with all those injuries still, speaks volumes.
The mood amongst Bradford City fans feels very fragmented this season. From some quarters there has been fierce criticism of the club even with City’s strong run of results. From other areas, a passionate defence is regularly aired over how well the club has responded to the nightmare of last season. But whatever your view, there was something truly special about the atmosphere in the second half. A loud and resolute coming together, to support the players over the line. A Bradfordian defiance that their team would not be breached.
Bradford City is gradually getting its soul back. There is a long way to go and you still want to see more from this team. But there is a depth to their levels of resolve. They don’t fall to pieces like last season. They know how to win football matches. There is substance, even though at times it comes at the expense of style.
Something is stirring once again at Valley Parade, and this is the kind of result that will make everyone sit up and take notice.