Restoring the foundations

Bradford City 3

McCartan 49, 54, Novak 90+4

Stevenage 1

Carter 26

By Jason McKeown

This was a night where visible signs emerged of the substance behind the Stuart McCall effect. That beneath the legend hype lies an effective manager, capable of galvanising a group of players.

Bradford City were so poor in the first half, and a shivering Valley Parade was threatening to turn up the heat on the team. Trailing at home to the bottom club, no wins in eight games, and a play off challenge beginning to drift away – this was no place for the faint hearted.

Yet at half time McCall was able to turn around a demoralised dressing room, and get them to produce a potentially season-changing second half performance full of bravery and no little flair.

Whatever was said during the interval worked wonders. McCall revitalised players who looked shot of confidence. He tweaked the gameplan, and engineered an impressive turnaround. It was the best half of football City have produced since before the Christmas break. A significant step forward, after such a difficult period.

The players needed this so badly. After the weekend draw with Grimsby, Ian Holloway had praised the effort and workrate of City’s players, but pertinently questioned why they had not shown it over recent weeks. Gary Bowyer rightly copped a huge amount of criticism for the way City’s season was unravelling, but with some justification he can feel let down by the character and fight shown by his squad.

They are flaky bunch of players. Good when they want to be, but unreliable. The unfortunate legacy of haphazard recruitment for which many different people are culpable.

During a first half here where the Bantams struggled to produce any coherent football, questions were beginning to be asked more loudly about the players and their stomach for the fight. When the chips as down, can you trust this group to deliver? City – and McCall – have no choice until the summer at least. So Valley Parade really needed to see a positive response.

It had been so frustrating, up to the interval. A beleaguered Stevenage typcially displayed no subtleness in their time-wasting, physical and direct approach. But City were disappointing in the way they allowed the visitors to set that tempo. The basement club began to get on top, and it was no great shock when Charlie Carter ran at Connor Wood and Ben Richards-Everton and clinically smashed the ball past City captain Richard O’Donnell.

Whilst Wood and Richards-Everton didn’t cover themselves in glory with their defending for the goal, they weren’t helped by Hope Akpan missing a tackle in the build up. Or Anthony O’Connor wastefully giving up possession a minute before. There was so much sloppiness to the way City went about things in the first 45 minutes. So many bad decisions that were taken.

Few players went in at half time deserving any semblance of credit. The only bright spots were once again Dylan Mottley-Henry – who revelled in his first City start, running at his full back and producing several excellent crosses – whilst Jake Reeves and Lee Novak did okay too. But for 40 minutes, the Bantams were almost playing with passengers, such were the weak performances of Shay McCartan, Kurtis Guthrie and Akpan.

Just before half time, McCartan should have equalised when he got on the end of a superb Novak flick, but he saw his low shot beaten away. You suspect it was a moment that McCall discussed at length during the interval. The City manager clearly instructed McCartan – who had been played out of position on the left wing – to cut inside more when City attack and work between the lines. To be a presence in the box, especially when Wood had the ball on the opposite side.

McCartan took on board the message, and within nine minutes of the restart he had turned the game on its head.

The Irishman struck the equaliser with a superb long range shot after a terrible Stevenage pass straight to him. And from there, City grew and grew in confidence. At last, they were setting the tempo. And five minutes after his first goal, McCartan got into the box again to expertly steer home a brilliant Wood cross. Guthrie deserves credit, too, for his part in the build up play.

Stevenage heads really dropped, and City largely took control. To a man, the team played much better – all lifted by the half time words of McCall. The defence got a grip, with Adam Henley catching the eye. Reeves’ performance went up another notch. McCartan had two more glorious opportunities to seal a hat trick. On this form he can be a really important player for City.

The substitutions made all had a positive impact. Stevenage had enjoyed a spell of possession, with Akpan’s performance still a little too erratic. Harry Pritchard came on for Akpan, and City began to keep the ball better. Chris Taylor was an effective sub in doing the ugly things well, whilst Dylan Connolly’s cameo was full of impact as he continued to stretch the visitors.

City looked more likely to get a third than Stevenage come back, and in the final minute of normal time Reeves had burst into the box, but couldn’t quite get on the end of Connolly’s cross.

Still, with only one goal in it, memories of Grimsby’s late equaliser stuck in the mind as Stevenage pushed forwards in stoppage time. Ultimately, their over-commitment led to a much needed breakaway City goal, as Novak ran and finished really well. It was a fitting reward for the City number nine, who put in a real shift all night – often without reward. Whilst the early signs of Guthrie’s value look less than encouraging, Novak is quickly starting to prove a decent signing.

So a much needed victory, and City remain right at the heart of the promotion chasing pack. Whether they are good enough to finish in the top seven – never mind win the play offs – is highly debatable. But at last, they have some momentum.

They need to use this win as a springboard to bigger and better things. To feed off the confidence boost taken from a first come from behind victory since September. And now they need to finally start winning on the road again.

This was a far from perfect night from City. But green shoots of recovery popped up through the Valley Parade mud. McCall is already having an impact on his return. And the manner of this victory will only encourage the players to buy into his philosophy.



Categories: Match Reviews, Opinion

Tags: , , ,

12 replies

  1. City survived a slow start and poor first half. The second half was an impressive turn around. My big take away is City now have some momentum to build on.

  2. I thought Wood made so many geat tackles and recoveries tonight and yes could have done better with the goal for sure. For me Wood, Henley and Mottley Henry had good overall games and McCarton a great second half not just the two goals and the near hattrick, but also he made a couple of great second-half tackles right in front of the main stand protecting Wood from attacks.

    Guthrie does seem a little bit casual at times however its early days and he did produce a couple of deft moments that suggest he could improve.

    In his last spell at the club I recall a few half time results being converted in to wins following McCalls team talks and thats something that no one else has seemed to be able to do, so it was great to see that he can still do that to a team which is not of his own making or had time to fully embrace his philosophies.

    Definatley some promising shoots appearing, I wont get carried away about where we can go, but for the second game in a row I was quietly happy that we were heading in a positive direction and that there are things worth cheering about on match days.

  3. We have been missing someone to do “the ugly stuff’ in midfield for years. One of the bright spots for the end of this season, including the slim chance of promotion, is that Hopeless Akpan will no longer be at City.

  4. I would not read too much into this game. We were only marginally better than one of the poorest teams seen at VP for many a year. Wood excellent again (despite the goal) and surely a shoe in for P of Y. Hats of to McCartan for some real quality when we desperately needed it. Not really sure what qualities Guthrie will offer on that showing apparently no great pace or physicality. No evidence of clever movement or really good feet. Akpan continues to frustrate. A guy who should be dominating League Two midfields with his Championship pedigree and his physical attributes was a peripheral figure again chasing shadows There is a nucleus of decent players but there are many who will be looking for a new home in the summer.

  5. City stepped up a gear in the 2nd half, whstever was said at half time worked. Push on now men and give your supporters something to warm on these cold nights. Novak a fine game and an equally fine goal, Akpan sadly, oh dear!

  6. I missed the Grimsby game but you can see the similarities in the set up in the last two games with Stuart’s L1 play off final team already (albeit with quality relative to each league):
    A flat back four with both full backs allowed to get forward – McMahon & Meredith vs Henley & Wood.
    Two hard working ball playing central midfielders – Vincelot & Cullen vs Cooke & Reeves
    A pacey winger out right with licence to join the forwards as much as possible – Marshall vs DMH/Connolly
    A midfielder out on the left who moves into central positions – Law vs McCartan/Pritchard
    Then two forwards with one in particular leading the line – Wyke vs Novak

    The issues that Stuart will no doubt be working on will be that his defence isn’t as shrewd as what he was working with previously and we will see if the midfield can compete against a better side than Stevenage. Jake Reeves won’t be able to cover for Hope Akpan all the time, the sooner Callum Cooke is back the better.

    The positives though are that Connor Wood is being allowed to get into excellent positions (still needs to improve defensively – but so does everyone). Jake Reeves is playing with much more tempo to his game. Mottley-Henry showed promise which might allow Stuart to maximise Connolly’s impact from the bench. And Lee Novak looks to be a perfect addition to ease the strain on Clayton Donaldson – Stuart will be pleased that he didn’t have to call on Donaldson and could allow him a rest on his way back from injury.

    Stuart’s impact and ideology is starting to show already but there is still a lot of work to be done for when we come up against teams far better than Stevenage.

  7. Whilst this was a welcome win, it doesn’t hide the fact that if you didn’t know it (based on the first half performance) you’d think we were the team propping up the football league. This was as bad as the first half at Oldham, just without the goals

    The possession stats showed that Stevenage just shaded it. Not surprising as again, the players look scared of the ball. As soon as it comes to most of them they look to offload it straight awa. This results in lots of high and hopeful long balls up to the front men, who up against a big, physical back 5 meant the ball coming straight back. This must drive Stuart mad, especially as his teams like to keep the ball.

    This fear of the ball leads to lots of silly mistakes. A one point Wood looked to offload it with a long ball that went out of touch. Very frustrating, especially as he had the time and space to hold on to the ball, give a better pass or even push up further field.

    The second half performance was much better. I thought Reeves played really well. Especially when Akpan was subbed. McCarten looked like he was playing a role he is best suited to. Novaks goal was what you want from a striker. Too many times in the last 24 months, this would have been shanked high and wide. DMH was great. He makes a few mistakes but he doesn’t hide and kept at it for the full 90 minutes.

    The caveats – the pitch was awful which doesn’t help. And the weather was bloody horrible too.

    I’m not sure based on last night’s performance we’re play-off contenders. The performances will need to be better than this against our next two opponents.

  8. Agree with a lot of this. The possession stats only tell part of the story. The pass completion rate for City was awful- and other teams, including Stevenage, are doing that far better. How many balls came straight back for last ditch defending? I recollect in Stuart McC’s last stint, he instilled a strong discipline in possession.

    I assume Akpan was a last minute sub for Cooke. Personally, I thought he did OK. Whilst Reeves energy & tempo were much better, he still seemed to struggle to hold the ball, and, for me, lays it off too quickly, often to players in less space than him. Agree with the general comments above on DMH, Novak, Wood- who is a fantastic crosser.

    Yes, the rest of the season will be a roller coaster, but for now I’m revelling, on a freezing night, in the glow of Shots on target. a second half with 3 dream goals & some great runs.

  9. Jason, do you know what’s happened to Martin Drury? I’ve seen nothing reported in the press as to his current employment status. It appears he’s not assisting the first team but enquiries on the internet show him still being attached to City.

  10. I believe an announcement is due in the near future. Can’t say any more than that right now I’m afraid.

  11. The pitch at kick off resembled a poor Sunday morning recreation ground and sadly the first half football reflected that!
    I feared for our season at the interval and was regretting my travel plans for Cambridge on Saturday but come the final whistle my promotion hopes were well and truly back on.
    I can’t praise Stuart enough for lifting a team low in confidence in such a short space of time especially given he didn’t have the transfer window opportunity to bring in his own players.
    The next 2 away games will be key to where we end up this season, but if anyone can turn our fortunes around, Stuart is the man who can.

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