Bradford City 1
Grimsby Town 1
By Jason McKeown
What it must have felt like to be Stuart McCall at 2.58pm on Saturday. Those close to him said he didn’t want a fuss. That he was only focused on the task at hand. But as he made the familiar walk down the touchline to an incredibly warm welcome from a bustling Valley Parade, the emotions within must have been overwhelming.
This is the third time McCall has debuted as Bradford City manager, and the reception he received was just as enthusiastic as the other two. There is no one alive who can generate such a fervent reaction in this part of the world. It was like a rock star playing a homecoming gig. Claret and Amber scarves were held up proudly. The familiar ‘Stuart’ chant echoed around the stadium. There were smiles everywhere you looked.
There’s been a tidal wave of positivity since McCall’s return was announced earlier in the week, and it has clearly rubbed off on the team. They weren’t quite able to hold on to achieve a first victory in eight games, conceding a stoppage time equaliser to Luke Hendrie of all people. But this battling draw was a huge, huge leap forward from the pitiful display at Oldham last weekend. A major raising of the bar.
What McCall brings as manager is an ability to breed confidence into his players. They were full of energy and endeavour. Showing for the ball, playing with urgency, and battling hard to win back possession. In contrast to Gary Bowyer’s reserved style, players were encouraged to get forward and support attacks. There were more shots on goal than in recent weeks – albeit a familiar lack of efforts on target – and the corner count was high.
Players were told to express themselves. To try and make things happen, and not let set backs dent their belief. When midway through the first half, Jake Reeves blazed over from a good position, there were groans from crowd. But McCall turned to the main stand and encouraged applause for the intent.
It’s easy to dismiss the decision to reappoint McCall as heart ruling head. That it is merely a simplistic way of getting people back on side. But for all the unavoidable sentimentality, there is plenty of logic in bringing him back. CEO Julian Rhodes spoke well during the week about the scale of McCall’s achievements last time, particularly given he produced it on a budget significantly lower than City’s promotion rivals.
Indeed, what has been notable about McCall’s tone going into this game was a determination to show his serious side. That as much as he is emotionally anchored to the club, he is not a circus act. Here, only, to raise morale. His steely determination was demonstrated in his post match comments, where he rejected the easy route of waxing lyrical about the effort. Instead, he made several critical comments about the lack of quality his charges had shown. Making it clear it hadn’t been good enough.
He was honest enough to admit, also, that City didn’t merit more than a point. The contest had proved an absorbing, if not enthralling watch. The spectacle unsurprisingly failed to match the occasion, especially as it took a while to get going.
McCall lined City up in a Phil Parkinson style 4-4-2, with one out and out winger – Dylan Connolly – and the other – Harry Pritchard – tucked inside, whilst left back Connor Wood was encouraged to get forwards. Despite poor performances at Oldham, Reeves and Callum Cooke kept their places in the centre of midfield. And it was some display from Reeves, who drove the team forwards whilst also proving useful in tracking back and putting effective tackles in.
Reeves, Cooke and Pritchard shared the duties of compensating for the lack of ball winner and there was undoubtedly a better balance to the midfield, which the back four benefited from.
City were fast in getting the ball forwards, and proved particularly adept at counter attacking. Connolly saw plenty of the ball, but his end product was disappointing. It didn’t help that he was up against Grimsby left back Anthony Driscoll-Glennon, who had an outstanding game. But it was frustrating to see Connolly fail to make more of several promising opportunities to get a good ball into the box.
Connolly would have benefited from more dynamic running from the strikers ahead of him. But whilst Clayton Donaldson and Lee Novak led the line well, they lacked the agility and movement to get more involved in the build up play. It remains to be seen if they can prove an effective partnership. Although if City can start to deliver better crosses into the box, they should both find plenty of joy.
The first half was largely forgettable, but the contest grew into life as the afternoon daylight began to fade. Grimsby played well in patches, with former Bantams James Hanson and Billy Clarke offering Ben Richards-Everton and Anthony O’Connor plenty to think about. But for all the action in both boxes, Richard O’Donnell and his opposite number, James McKeown, will have much busier days.
The atmosphere was hugely impressive. The crowd of 17,668 – aided by a superb Grimsby turnout – was the highest in League Two all season. And, across the full Football League today, this attendance was bettered by just five other fixtures. A 17,000+ plus crowd in the fourth tier is a strong statement about the health of lower league football. What a pity no one had invited Louise Taylor.
It appeared as though the contest had tipped into City’s favour. McCall’s decision to replace Connolly with Dylan Motley-Henry gave a fresh impetus, as the young winger proved more effective at taking people on and finding space. From one such Mottley-Henry attack, the ball was cleared into the path of Cooke, who stuck a powerful shot from distance that was deflected home by Novak. Grimsby players appealed in vain for offside. Whilst Valley Parade erupted.
And though Grimsby never gave up, in truth City seemed quite comfortable going into stoppage time. They had seemingly found a good balance between not sitting back too much and not taking silly risks. Nevertheless, a familiar failing of recent weeks – poor ball retention – came to bite. A mistake by Adam Henley, some good wing play by Charles Vernham, and from out of nothing Hendrie struck a dramatic equaliser. The scenes of celebration in the away end were impressive, if painful, to watch.
Grimsby almost stole an unlikely winner with a final free kick chance. But they’ll gladly settle for this point. And so, with some frustration, will McCall. It was not quite the lift off moment hoped. But there was plenty to build on and take into Tuesday’s tussle at home to bottom club Stevenage.
So the winless run continues. And after a week of wild optimism, this was a sizeable dose of reality. Still, this was a day to remember. A huge leap forward from the drab grayness that has been a regular feature of City matches this season. A statement of intent, about what the rest of the campaign will be like.
It is days like this that bring vibrancy and feeling back into Bradford City. A reminder – and one that was frankly needed – about how special this club can be. How there is nothing better than a Saturday afternoon out at Valley Parade, when the crowd is in full voice. That football can – and should – be exciting.
And the restoring of McCall at the heart of City can provide that momentum so desperately lacking since his unjust sacking, two years ago. Saturday felt like a football club that is trying to recapture its soul. Whether it leads to success is still to be seen, but at least it feels as though Bradford City are going about things in the right way again.