Bradford City 3
McCartan 49, 54, Novak 90+4
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.