Bradford City 1
Cheltenham Town 1
By Jason McKeown
There’s a famous scene at the end of The Italian Job where the anti-heroes are riding off with all the gold, only for the bus they’re travelling in to skid off the road and be left dangling on the edge of a cliff. The crew are left stunned and clueless over what to do next, knowing the slightest of movements could have serious ramifications.
It seems the perfect analogy of where Bradford City are, where manager uncertainty and transfer window controversy leaves the club clinging on the precipice, knowing the actions of the next few days could haul them back from the brink – or push them over the edge. And in truth, this battling draw at home to Cheltenham offers no decisive outcome on the uncertain direction of their season.
Is a draw enough – with the mitigating factor of City playing with 10 men for more than half the game – to save Gary Bowyer from the sack? Probably just about, but he remains under huge pressure and is probably still a bad day at Oldham away from losing his job. And what does that mean for the Eoin Doyle/James Vaughan situation? All eyes will remain glued to what happens at Valley Parade over the next few days.
Bowyer will rightly take pride from this City performance. Amid rumours that a disunited squad would be happier without Vaughan and Doyle in the dressing room, the players on show here rewarded their manager with a hugely committed display. Almost to a man, they ran themselves into the ground. This looked to be a team playing for its manager.
There were some genuine heroes out there on a difficult night. Circumstances meant that Clayton Donaldson had to be fast tracked back into the starting line up, where he assumed Vaughan’s captain’s armband. Donaldson gave it absolutely everything for an hour, in what was his first start since October. He must have collapsed with exhaustion, back in the dressing room.
Donaldson gave City an early lead with a cooly taken penalty after Shay McCartan was deemed to have been fouled in the box. A soft penalty decision, but one City absolutely needed on a night where the first goal was so vital.
Alongside Donaldson up front, Dylan Connolly put in a huge shift. His work rate and dedication for the Bantams is hugely impressive, given he is a loan player. On a night where he and his team ended up with so little of the ball, Connolly’s non stop running was priceless.
Bowyer had returned City to the five at the back set up, but made tweaks to midfield that for the first half proved fruitful. The recalled Callum Cooke played in a deep role, while in front Jamie Devitt and McCartan lined up as number eights. The pair did well as City attacked the Kop end during the opening 45 minutes. They found space to run into and bring the ball forward with purpose. There was an obvious aim to play more football on the deck, and plenty of attempts to thread throughballs for Donaldson and Connolly.
The opening half hour belonged to City, although by half time the game had descended into a heated battle. The referee, Seb Stockbridge, lost control of the match, upsetting both teams with some bewildering decisions.
Devitt was slightly harshly yellow carded as the tackles started flying in. And then just before half time, when cool City heads were needed, Devitt again went in rashly for a tackle, earning a booking and red card. It was a silly decision from Devitt, given he made the challenge in a harmless area of the pitch. He might have got something on the ball, but he gave Stockbridge an easy decision. City went into the interval a goal up, but with the complextion of the match suddenly looking very different.
Cue a second half of attack vs defence. Cheltenham had already bossed possession, and in the second 45 took it even further – overall they would have more than 77% of the ball. They were an impressive side, knocking the ball around patiently but with a purpose. City’s defence – which early in the second half included Adam Henley, who replaced the injured Kelvin Mellor – fought an impressive rearguard action.
If Donaldson had been fit enough to last 90 minutes, it might have been a different story. But after he and the fading McCartan departed on the hour, Cheltenham really stepped it up. Donaldson’s replacement, Aramide Oteh, had a very poor game. As City held a good shape off the ball, they badly needed Oteh to press the Cheltenham defence and stop them coming forward with the ball. Oteh was utterly ineffective and that ultimately really hurt City.
Cheltenham corners and free kicks piled up, but despite several promising opportunities Luke McGee didn’t actually have much to do. Nevertheless, City’s ball retention was exceptionally poor. Everytime they won possession, they gave it straight back. The pressure ultimately told, and Alfie May bundled home a loose ball for the equaliser, with six minutes to play.
It was hard to begrudge Cheltenham their point, but there was some satisfaction to take from the spirited way City dug in. Valley Parade was worryingly empty tonight, but those of us who were there produced one of the best home atmospheres in months. There was recognition, in the stands, of the difficult position the team had been left in by Devitt’s foolishness, and an appreciation for the high level of effort put in.
If Bowyer loses his job in the next few days or weeks, it won’t be based on performances like tonight. The manager and team have struggled in recent weeks, and deserved the outpouring of anger directed their way. But this was an evening where they stood up for themselves and for the club. There is still fight there to turn around a season drifting away.
Too little, too late? Perhaps. But it might also be the first shoots of recovery. Now, a strong end to the transfer window is vital. The club remains dangled on that cliff edge, bracing itself for a tumultuous few days.