Bradford City 2
Akpan 17, Vaughan 19
Scunthorpe United 2
Gilliead 33, McAtee 74
By Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
How much longer can this go on for? It’s difficult to remember a time when there was such a disparity between Bradford City’s league position and the mood of its fans.
The table remains healthy. The underlying stats look impressive. But football supporting isn’t about numbers. It’s about heart and soul. And right now, this Bradford City manager and squad just aren’t doing enough to fuel morale.
This was another really damaging afternoon for Gary Bowyer. Losing a 2-0 lead at home never looks good, but in a climate when even a three-month unbeaten home run doesn’t protect the City manager from criticism, he was never going to find Valley Parade in a forgiving mood here. Just like at Carlisle United on Boxing Day, the closing stages saw many City fans loudly chanting their disapproval of Bowyer’s style of football. The boos at full time were by some distance the fiercest at home this season.
It’s hard to find reasons to defend Bowyer for this lacklustre City performance. The team was set up so badly, allowing Scunthorpe astonishing levels of freedom in the middle of the park. Only two sides had lost more than Scunthorpe on the road this season, but after achieving an eye-opening 63% possession and registering almost three times more attempts on goal, the visitors will justifiably feel disappointed not to have won the match.
Although they’d have bitten your hand off for a point, 20 minutes into the contest. Having started brightly and seen George Miller denied one-on-one by City’s debutant on-loan stopper, Luke McGee, Scunthorpe suddenly found themselves two goals behind, as the Bantams flexed their muscles.
Firstly Eoin Doyle sent Hope Akpan scampering through with an excellent cross-field pass, with the recalled midfielder finishing well from an angle. Akpan was aided by Jordan Clarke pulling up with an injury as he attempted to chase after the former Burton midfielder. Two minutes later Akpan released the overlapping Connor Wood, and the left back crossed for James Vaughan to stab home for 2-0.
Akpan’s influence going forward had been impressive. His huge inconsistency continues to blemish his reliability, but he produced some strong forward play in the first half which you want to see more often. It was also encouraging to see Wood proving creative again after a slight dip in performances. Vaughan is also now into double figures for the season – he has six goals in his last nine games. With a strong wind, he should be pushing towards reaching the 20-mark over the season’s final 19 games.
Just before and after the two-goal burst, there was much to admire about City’s forward play. Vaughan had hit the post, and Eoin Doyle had seemingly struck a third but was denied by a linesman’s flag. Callum Cooke and Matty Palmer looked confident. A long overdue City thumping of someone looked very possible.
But it all began to unravel, which is where the set up became such a problem. Playing a 5-3-2, with Cooke, Palmer and Akpan in midfield, is useful going forward. But ultimately the trio provide no balance. Their strengths are too similar, and their weaknesses identical. None of them can tackle or track back, and they left a huge gap behind them.
This imbalance, coupled with poor game management, offered Scunthorpe encouragement. Ironically given criticisms of Bowyer’s safety first approach, it was a reckless push for a third goal that was more his team’s undoing.
Bowyer needed Akpan, Palmer and Cooke to be more disciplined and, well, brave. But even when they did go back to support their defence, they were weak and ineffective. Palmer pulled out of several 50-50 challenges – a disgrace, frankly, that does little to enhance the suspicion that many loan players can lack commitment. Even more tellingly, Cooke failed to support Wood in stopping Alex Gilliead from cutting inside and running into the area, and the former Bantams’ loanee finished well to put Scunthorpe back in it. There was no question it was a game-changing moment.
Over the final 12 minutes of the first half, Scunthorpe pushed hard for an equaliser. City’s midfield continued to leave alarming gaps behind them, and the Bantams were indebted to McGee for producing an excellent save to deny John McAtee. The half time whistle was a relief, but Bowyer failed to use the time out to address the midfield balance problem.
He lacked a suitable option to bring on from the bench. He doesn’t have an adequate midfield ball winner. It is criminal that, over a year after his departure, City still haven’t replaced Jim O’Brien. Bowyer has brought in several number 8s who basically offer the same qualities, without signing a proper number 4 to complement them. That is on him. Stefan Rupp used his programme notes to reveal money is available to strengthen. Bowyer must use it to recruit a midfield enforcer.
There was no change to the pattern of the game after half time, as City continued to play on the back foot. Scunthorpe kept exploiting the space, with the deeper lying striker McAtee especially effective. The Bantams were desperately disappointing at keeping the ball when they had it, too quickly putting themselves back under pressure. They needed to slow down the tempo. Just pass it around slowly. Be horrible. Embrace those darker arts.
The whole team structure just looked wrong. The front two are habitually isolated. Doyle’s loan at Swindon underlined how good he is in the final third, but too often here he had to come deep to get involved with the build up play. Playing three centre backs leaves obvious confusion over who should pick up opposition players during open play. Kelvin Mellor and Wood struggle to get up and down for a full 90 minutes. Both would be much more effective with a winger on their side of the pitch to link up with.
Scunthorpe’s equaliser was ultimately no surprise. McAtee produced a nice bit of skill to beat Paudie O’Connor, who had tried to plug the regular gap between midfield and defence. The 20-year-old McAtee – who up until the summer had been playing non league football – ran and ran, with Anthony O’Connor guilty of standing off, and he had time and space to unleash a powerful low shot into the corner for his first Football League goal.
There were 16 minutes to go, and attention quickly shifted towards the familiar Bowyer failing. Having lost the initiative, the onus was now on City to push hard to regain the lead. Bowyer’s substitutions were predictably safe, prompting boos. As the minutes ticked by, Valley Parade was near silent. There was no confidence in the crowd that we were about to see a late Bantams’ rally.
Bowyer’s supporters often point to the fact that Phil Parkinson – the last manager to get City promoted – played a dour style of football with obvious success. They have a point to an extent, but it ignores the Parkinson Push – he would often keep it cagey, only to let the players off the leash in the final 20 minutes. So many times, in the closing stages Parkinson would set up the team to go for it, relying on the wonderful fitness work of Nick Allamby to ensure there was sufficient energy in the tank. There is no Bowyer Push. His risk and reward outlook remains on the low side. And even when City did try to push forwards in the closing stages, many players like Mellor looked exhausted and unable to physically drive on.
Still, there was so nearly a late City winner. Substitute Shay McCartan broke clear with claret and amber shirts in support. His ball to fellow sub Dylan Connolly was poor, but the Irishman was still able to send a low cross into the box. Doyle got in front of Jake Reeves when he should really have left it for him to try and score, but even then you were waiting for Europe’s top scorer to get his shot on target. Alas, he got right underneath the ball and it flew harmlessly into the Kop. Not even close.
The sight of a crestfallen Doyle shaking his head summed up City. Since October, at Swindon Doyle had struck in 12 out of 13 matches. Two games back at Bradford City, and he’s yet to score. Absolutely typical.
Bowyer struck a curiously upbeat tone after the game, talking up the positives. It didn’t feel authentic. Privately, he must be feeling the pressure of seeing his public increasingly turn on him. Anxious to avoid it becoming toxic. Bowyer is right to preach calmness, but his skewed take of events doesn’t inspire confidence that he fully grasps the issues.
The manager is of course the focus of the post match ire, but in his partial defence he can justifiably feel let down by his players. In truth, this was one of the worst home performances of the season. To a man, the 90-minute display wasn’t good enough. So many poor decisions, dreadful passes, silly fouls. A contagious lack of bravery, especially by the end. They are capable of so much more than this.
The debate about Bowyer’s ability as Bradford City manager boils down to the question of whether you believe he is making the best of a poor hand, or is making a good hand look poor. Days like this suggest it’s probably a bit of both. But ultimately, with the right set up and greater trust in his players, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Bowyer could be getting more from the resources he has.
There is no chance he will be sacked as long as City remain in the play offs, and ultimately it is entirely right that his job is safe right now. City have won almost half of their league matches and lost just six times all season. They have third-best defensive record in League Two. And the division’s strongest home form. They are just two points and two places off the automatic promotion places. It is a record any replacement manager would struggle to beat.
But of course, it comes back to the hearts and minds. We were playing some decent football up until mid October. But now, it’s horrible to watch. There’s little joy to take, even from recent victories. And when the team inevitably has dips like this, no mercy is shown from a cynical crowd.
There continues to be this argument from some that ugly football is the only way to succeed in League Two. That is simply not true. It is, of course, an effective way to succeed in a division of low skill, but not the only way. The four teams sitting above City are all well regarded for playing a more passing, adventurous style. We can reasonably expect more than what is being served up.
Bowyer is entitled to play the way he sees fit, even though of late his vision seems increasingly muddled. But with such a pragmatic approach, it all comes down to if he can deliver success. Get promoted, and the ends will justify the means. But if City fall short, it would be difficult to make a case for keeping Bowyer in the summer – if we keep playing like this. He might have another year on his contract, but another year in League Two, deploying this type of football, would do nothing to attract season tickets and restore trust from supporters in the club.
Any day of reckoning is still a long way off. But things cannot go on this way forever. No one seems to be happy – not fans, not players, and not the manager. This had been an afternoon that had offered the chance for everyone to come together. To ease the growing tensions. But instead, the levels of frustration are up to the highest they’ve been all season.
Something is going to snap soon.