Bradford City 1
Vaughan 58 (pen)
Newport County 0
By Jason McKeown
They needed this. With the goodwill towards Bradford City’s season showing signs of fading, and after five games without a win, this was a timely pick me up. A welcome, if stuttering, return to form. A victory that can be the springboard to better things.
In many ways this was a performance that summed up the Bantams’ promotion push so far. They had too much quality for their opponents, and eventually made it count. But it was far from convincing, and City certainly won’t win any awards for entertainment.
It wasn’t a win to shake off the lingering suspicion that City should be capable of more than they’re showing this season. That with the quality available in the squad, it appears they have the capacity to become more dominant. Of playing a more attractive style of football. Of creating more chances. They won here through a James Vaughan penalty, after the striker had latched onto a poor backpass and was fouled in the box by Newport keeper Nick Townsend. There was no particular pattern in play that had led to the opportunity. Not many noteworthy chances that suggested City were on the cusp of scoring.
That’s not to deride the efforts of the players – or the simple value of winning football matches. After a stronger second half, City undoubtedly deserved to win this game and they deserve credit for grinding this out. With both teams lining up in a 3-5-2 formation, it was a war of attrition that City did well to conquer. Newport were very physical and worked hard to deny the Bantams space in wide areas especially. The game management of City at 1-0 was also largely exceptional.
After a sticky run that has fuelled doubts, they couldn’t pass this opportunity by. This might not be a performance to allay recent criticism, but it shouldn’t exacerbate the grumbles either.
Gary Bowyer’s decision to go 3-5-2 raised eyebrows. The positive was City lined up with a front two pairing, leaving Vaughan less isolated as he regularly linked up with Aramide Oteh. Whilst a 4-4-2 formation would also allow for a front two, having the extra man in the middle through a 3-5-2 enabled City to play without an obvious midfield ball winner. A middle two of just Callum Cooke and Jake Reeves would be unlikely to work, as they’d be easily bypassed. But with Chris Taylor joining them, City were solid in the centre of the park.
However the downside was that, even with a set-up that should have encouraged playing short passes through the middle, City still resorted to playing long ball. Putting Adam Henley and Connor Wood as wing backs failed to provide the attacking thrust. The Bantams were crying out for someone to run with the ball, take people on and stretch the game. But wingers Zeli Ismail and Dylan Connolly were benched. In a wing back set up, there is no starting place for either – which suggests this isn’t going to be a long-term solution. A 4-4-2, with Taylor a tucked in wide midfielder, could ultimately be where we’re heading.
Both teams cancelled each other out during the first half. City were too direct, regularly handing possession straight back to Newport, who almost as quickly did the same. Oteh and Kevlin Mellor wasted decent opportunities. It was a cagey affair. This was not one for the purists. No one will be petitioning for the club shop to bring out a DVD of this game.
But in football, we all have a part to play. And it was a more vocal home crowd who did much to inspire the players to up their urgency after the interval. There is regularly a major contrast in noise when City are attacking the Kop end compared to the halves where they’re playing towards the Bradford End. Here, without a lot to cheer, the Kop came to life early in the second half. The chants grew louder and more regular. And the players responded. Given it was Newport mistakes that ultimately gifted Vaughan the decisive penalty, we can attribute the assist for the goal to the back of the Kop.
Townsend’s trip on Vaughan when he was last man brought predictable howls for a red card. The double jeopardy law meant the County goalkeeper was never going to dismissed. But there was an irony that, after conceding the penalty, Townsend played a huge role in keeping Newport in the game. He tipped an Oteh header onto the crossbar, and later produced an excellent low block to deny Paudie O’Connor.
Oteh had the most efforts on goal of every home player. He is now six games without a goal for City. The on loan QPR man is well liked by the crowd for his work rate, but in crucial moments can lack quality. If there is one club who should be concerned about Bowyer going back to playing a front two, it’s probably Swindon Town with their heavy reliance on Eoin Doyle. This 3-5-2 set up would certainly suit Doyle’s game better than the 4-3-3 of before.
The failure to get that second goal meant for a nervy ending, especially when an inexplicable nine minutes of injury time were announced. The groans around Valley Parade quickly gave way to fear and panic in the stands. It went eerily quiet, as though a late Newport equaliser was an inevitability. With the Newport manager Michael Flynn having sent on Dominic Poleon as substitute, you grimaced at the prospect of another painful episode of Law Of The Ex .
Yet whilst Newport pushed hard, they were restricted to half chances from distance. City’s trio of centre halves played very well – it was especially good to see Paudie O’Connor back in the side – and Richard O’Donnell had very little to do. Newport only had one shot on target all afternoon, and that was a slow rolling effort from distance that was straight at O’Donnell, deep in added time.
Full time was met with relief, but not exhilaration. It was 90 minutes to get through rather than savour. Of course, no team in any division plays rip-roaring football every week. Those who are clutching the trophies and the prizes in May can inevitably point back to moments in the campaign where they had to dig out ugly victories like this one. Afternoons like this are the bedrock of a promotion push. And with City back to only trailing second spot by two points, with a game in hand, they’re in a strong league position once again.
It’s just that the worry remains that performances like this are towards the ceiling level of what this team will achieve this season. We’ve seen a lot of afternoons like this already, where City have won but not particularly won with conviction. With the injury situation now upgraded from crisis and heading towards run-of-the-mill level, Bowyer now has a much stronger squad to choose from. It feels like he needs to start making more of what he has, otherwise supporter patience could start to wear thin.
Bowyer has real quality at his disposal. Jake Reeves, in what was his third start since returning from injury, was once again terrific. This was his first outing back in front of a full Valley Parade crowd, and he got a great reception throughout. If Callum Cooke can rediscover his best form alongside him, Oteh and Vaughan can build on promising signs of forging a strike partnership, a place is found for at least one out and out winger, the ball is passed more often on the deck rather than so routinely direct, the defence continues its strong form, and if Bowyer is prepared to let off the shackles – City could really take off over the second half of the season.
There’s a massive opportunity for Bradford City this season. And this victory was a small step forwards towards grasping it.