It’s not over yet

Bradford City 2

Richards-Everton 6, Connolly 45+2

Plymouth Argyle 1

Hardie 87

Written by Jason McKeown (photos by John Dewhirst)

There is still life Bradford City after all. Following a week where it appeared the white flag was about to be hoisted up a flagpole above Valley Parade, the players – who have been widely written off – delivered a huge three points to revive fading play off hopes.

Ryan Lowe’s Plymouth Argyle were ultimately defeated by a resurgent Bantams – although the visitors’ enduring spirit, in the face of several significant set backs, was hugely admirable. No matter how hopeless it seemed for them on the pitch, Plymouth’s inner steel remained in tact. They kept pushing, and so nearly snatched an improbable point.

That City crawled, rather than glided, over the finishing line will be keeping Stuart McCall awake tonight. The home side got the breaks along the way, but lacked a ruthless streak to take greater advantage of a very strong position. Argyle, with only 9 men on the field by the end, forced a nervy closing stages which took much of the gloss off this victory for City. It nearly went very, very wrong.

When the dust settles though, the significance of the result and overall performance offers plenty of encouragement. Argyle have been topping the form table and looked every inch a side capable of winning a tight division. On Valley Parade evidence – and Crewe are yet to travel to these parts – the Pilgrims are the best side in the division. The bold, adventurous way Lowe sets them up – coupled with a never-say-die attitude – makes them a worthy template for McCall and City to follow.

And so to come out on top of such a difficult contest should act as a real confidence boost. The character and dedication of the City squad has been strongly questioned over the past fortnight, with McCall serving notice that many of them face an uncertain future. Yet right from kick off, City displayed encouraging levels of urgency and purpose. The early goal struck by Ben Richards-Everton – the centre back heading home a Connor Wood corner – was validation of their improved workrate.

McCall had set City back up in a similar manner to the Stevenage victory, last time out at Valley Parade. Shay McCartan was back, tasked with playing on the left but coming into the middle as often as possible. With a front two of Clayton Donaldson and Lee Novak, crosses into the box seemed an obvious potential source of rewards. Dylan Connolly – who has not started since a disappointing performance against Grimsby, in McCall’s first game back in charge – was given another opportunity to be that supply line.

It was a hugely eventful afternoon for Connolly, who was involved in almost all the game’s key moments. The on-loan winger had already suffered a nasty injury after colliding with the advertising boards in front of the Bradford End, when five minutes before half time he was crudely taken out by Gary Sawyer. The referee, Carl Boyeson, took his time and consulted the assistant referee, before brandishing a deserved red card to the Plymouth defender. Connolly again needed treatment and even had to change his shirt. Within minutes of his return to the field, the Irishman produced a stunning curling effort that flew into the top corner for 2-0.

It capped off a first half of real promise from City. Plymouth were always in the game and caused problems through the terrific Danny Mayor. Callum McFadzean missed a great opportunity when put through one-on-one against Bantams skipper Richard O’Donnell, who did well to narrow the angle. But City’s front four players all produced strong displays that kept the visiting defence occupied. It was a return to form for Lee Novak, who led the line well. Donaldson and McCartan regularly linked up effectively – the latter is finally starting to show that he could be a key figurehead for the Bantams. Connolly was terrific, and this was arguably his best game in a City shirt.

On a quagmire playing surface, the secret of City’s success lay in getting the ball forwards in a direct manner – the front two winning and holding up the ball, and midfield runners quickly getting forward to support attacks. Some decent stuff was played in the final third.

The frustration for City lay in their failure to kill off the game after half time. As Lowe refused to throw in the towel, keeping his charges set up to attack, Argyle took huge risks that should have been punished. The first 15 minutes of the second half saw Connolly and McCartan get behind the visiting backline several times, but chances were wasted. Novak blew a straight forward one-on-one chance against Alex Palmer, who blocked a tame shot. Connolly ran through from an angle and was also denied by Palmer. More criminally of all, Donaldson fluffed an easy chance after running onto a Connolly cut back.

It felt like those spurned opportunities might be rued as Argyle came back. Niall Canavan had already wasted a glorious chance, before Byron Moore produced a good run and shot that O’Donnell did well to save. They never gave up and attacked in numbers. Considering Plymouth were at least one man short for more than half the game, the fact they had more possession over the 90 minutes doesn’t reflect well on City. What a contrast to the recent home game with Cheltenham, when in a similar situation the 10-men Bantams had only 23% of the ball. On that night Cheltenham let the ball do the work to press home the man advantage. It was something City struggled to replicate, giving possession back too readily.

As Plymouth worked up a head of steam, you were longing for City to have a spell of just keeping the ball, to slow their impetus. It was laudable that McCall’s charges didn’t sit back and continued to push for more goals, but they need to be cuter at times.

When the lively Antoni Sarcevic was also sent off for a second yellow card with six minutes to go, it seemed like game over. The midfielder was dismissed for a foul on Connolly – who else – although unlike Sawyer’s red card, it was far from clear cut. From my decent view of the incident in the corner of the Kop, where the players came together, Sarcevic appeared to get the ball. That Lowe made a point of marching up to confront Connolly on the pitch, at the final whistle, probably said much about his view of the incident. “He made a meal of it all game to be fair. He was throwing himself around like a baby,” the Argyle manager claimed about Connolly after the game.

There was to be that late twist, as Moore set up Ryan Hardie, who ran at substitute Adam Henley and struck a shot that squeezed past O’Donnell at the near post for 2-1. With five minutes stoppage time signalled, it was an unnecessarily nervy ending for the Bantams. With two extra men on the field, they just needed to see the game out, not give Argyle such late encouragement. And though Novak almost added a third right at the end, the overall game management was poor. All season long, City’s ball retention has been dismal. They lack the intelligence and composure to see games out. And it almost cost them again.

The defence once again had an afternoon to forget. They continually retreat when facing players running at them with the ball. They make so many poor decisions, putting themselves and their team mates under too much pressure. The ongoing issue of a lack of defensive midfielder to provide protection continues to inhibit the back four. Whilst Jake Reeves had another good game at home, Hope Akpan once again struggled to impose himself and gave the ball away too often. “There’s a lot of work to do,” McCall reflected after the game.

Yet whilst a poor defence cannot be fixed without a transfer window, the change of emphasis under McCall is bearing fruit. Gary Bowyer recognised that his defence wasn’t good enough earlier in the season, and so increasingly went down a path of setting up his whole team to protect the back four, to the detriment of attacking intent – and results. McCall has not surprisingly gone the other way, giving his creative players renewed confidence and freedom to express themselves. His philosophy has always been to outscore the opposition.

It means the back four is now much more exposed, which is a problem. Although the average goals conceded under McCall’s first five games (1.4) is narrowly better than Bowyer’s last five games in charge (1.8). At the other end, the 1.6 average goals scored under McCall so far is a big improvement on the 0.6 average at the end of Bowyer’s tenure. Expect to see more City goals, but few clean sheets, during the run-in.

Ultimately, this victory could be a big moment – but will mean nothing if they don’t follow it up at Salford City next week. They have to address the troubling trend of five defeats from the last six on the road, if they’re going to have a realistic chance of finishing in the play offs. The mud-drenched Valley Parade is a fortress, with 38 points gained from 18 matches. They’ve achieved less than half that points total (16) on the road.

They should travel to Moor Lane next week in greater heart. They still need to improve greatly, and the margin for error is wafer thin – with just 10 games to go. But this victory could revitalise the Bantams, offering them a shot of momentum at exactly the right moment.

Categories: Match Reviews, Opinion

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21 replies

  1. Today was all about the result if we were to keep our season alive and thankfully despite the usual scary last few minutes we’ve come to expect we came through and fully deserved the 3 points.
    Whilst the pitch was the worst I’ve seen this year it did not detract from the entertainment, which was a credit to both teams. In spite of the misgivings especially in ball retention, the change in attacking intent under Stuart is clear for all to see and I really hope that he succeeds at City be it this season or next.

  2. The continual selection of Akpan defies all logic. He will be playing non league at best when he is released at the end of the season

  3. I thought City were better 11 v 11. Yes Plymouth played the better football but did not threaten. However, City did defended well and caused anxious moments in the Plymouth defence. When the Plymouth skipper was red carded, city continued in a positive manner. Connelly scoring a brilliant second goal. The second half was bizarre. City created good chances. There were 2 one on ones but nothing came of it. The worse was Donaldson’s miss. One he connected with but embarrassingly missed the far post. I can say this it was more difficult to miss so give him credit for that. The second half continued in that vein. Plymouth became more confident. City became more careless. I thought if Plymouth scored then they would have got a second. City were all over the place. It was important to win this match and give McCall something to work on going forward. I would like to know why Stuart insists in picking Akpan. Today he was hardly in the game.
    Let’s hope that this is the start of more positive results.

  4. I’ve always said I’ll take a scruffy game a scruffy goal and a scruffy 3 points, but this game should have been a canter had we have had 2 descent forwards,Donaldson and Novak couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo,and don’t get me on about Akpan.We won but not convinceing.

  5. Connolly was a spark that team and fans needed, but Akpan was so poor. Interesting seeing the possession stats, definitely something to work on

  6. Please stop playing Akpan. He gives the team nothing defensively or offensively. He’s a passenger and isn’t interested in getting stuck in. The amount of time I saw a teammate run past him to make a tackle was embarrassing. We have better midfielders who aren’t afraid to get stuck in.

  7. Only we could concede a goal with the opposition down to 9 men, OK this was about the end result and thankfully we got all 3 points, but going forward from this, the simple fact is that we cannot handle forwards running at us and that is how the goal was scored and sloppy goalkeeping, we might have a chance now if Stuart addresses the defending and getting a tackle in and even taking one for the team if necessary to prevent a goal at a crucial time in the game, like all other teams would have done especially with them down to 9.

    One really big positive, was Dylan Connolly’s goal, take a bow, I keep watching it and it gets better every time you watch it, what a goal to score for your 1st professional career goal.

    This was no hit and hope, the ball was brought down to a stop, a look up and curled into the top right on the stroke of half time, I am absolutely chuffed to bits for Him, because if anyone deserved it for a season of commitment, desire and passion it was Dylan Connolly, the 2 red cards were at His feet, cos they could not handle him, for me this was the most accurate Man of the match all season.

    Can we turn this around, one six pointer completed, 5 left go, 10 games in total, if we win the 5 left above us, then this becomes a different story, let’s hope Oldham can do us a favour, what a result they got, anyone can beat anyone in this league at the moment.

    Tightening the defence up and we are in with a shout, but that is must………

  8. Akpan is being played because frankly there is nothing better. He might get us a goal as he does go forward more than the rest. But with Callum Cooke who else in centre midfield is there – Jermaine Anderson, Danny Devine? With contracts up at the end of the season, I think this is where the rebuilding will be concentrated (the central defence are still under contract). Meanwhile Akpan is just about our best answer to a long standing question and deserves (at worst) our tolerance and support. He came with a reputation which on the evidence of the last 2 seasons was way over the top and I think “We Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

    • Whoops, should read “Callum Cooke out”

    • Whoops should read “with Callum Cooke out”

    • The gap in midfield is huge when Akpan plays. I honestly would rather play with a 17 year old in there than Akpan. At lest you know the 17 year old will pressure the balk carrier who is 5 meters away rather than let another player run past him to do the job instead!

      For me if they can’t play Devine then AoC should play as a holding midfielder instead of Akpan and let Paudie or even Staunton come in at centre back. Even play a winger a striker or a full back in midfield we will get more out of that position!

      Akpan on the field is actually worse than having ten men, as with 10 at least the players will play then play accordingly. When he is on the pitch no one knows if he will do his job or not and that indecision kills us.

      Definitely the worst player in the squad right now.

      • Obviously this is only when one of Cooke and Reeves are not available.

      • Just read your post after I had already commented on A O’Conner playing in a central defensive midfield role and Paudie replacing him at the back.

    • I think A O’Connor could do a job as a defensive central midfielder and his usual position at the back could be filled by P O’Connor.

  9. Two big takeaways for me. First, a change in tactics, with the emphasis on an effective counter attack. Hopefully, a bit of fine tuning and that will be the catalyst for a playoff challenge. Second, with the return of Cooke we hopefully have seen the last of Akpan. A player with no interest in defending and totally ineffective in attacking. Quite puzzling what Stuart sees in him.

  10. My opinion was that Novak was poor. Had two chances he should have buried! Yes Donaldson should have scored too but if you watch both, Clayton’s all-round play is better and has a better touch that brings others into play. Novak doesn’t really have a style? A bit of a nuisance but not as good at it as Vaughan and definitely hasn’t the fear factor of Vaughan and finishing ability. Some of the chances we’ve created recently would have been taken by Vaughan. If Novak continues to play in the 10 role Pritchard, McCartan or Devitt surely are better options in there?

  11. Got to agree with Ian on Akpan and the attitude of some does not help the player or the team. Both Stuart and GB seem to have similar opinions on this, and that will do for me.

  12. we were much weaker defensively when Henley replaced Mellor, i’m not a huge fan of Mellor (he’s no Stephen Darby) but he does have positional sense. from the moment he came on Henley’s positioning was woeful. standing at the edge of the six yard box when their guy, his man, was attacking down the flank and only moving to cover when their guy ran into the area unmarked.
    as an aside, i only noticed Akpan was in the side when he finally touched the ball in the 24th minute and he has a habit of marking space, following the play but being yards away from the action. he must do something for Stuart’s side but for my money Cooke brings much more to the side. he always wants to be involved and is often seen demanding the ball. something fans never see from Akpan.

    • I found Stuart’s statement that next year we could see a slimmed down squad, with more quality and
      less quantity spot on. At the risk of being just an armchair manager, I think we should get rid of : Longridge ,Vaughan, Hornby, French (all out on loan),
      Guthrie (despite contract to 2021)
      Anderson, Akpan, Henley, Devine (sadly) and Riley (all out of contract)
      and send Middleton back to Rangers. That’s a whole team-worth of salaries to save.

      For me the jury is still out on Donaldson, Ismail and Taylor. They all bring something but is it enough?
      Our goalie team is good enough, I think, if McGee can stay.
      The others on contract to 2021 are OK, including the centre backs.

      That would mean extending the contracts of O’Donnell, Mellor, Reeves,
      McCartan, Gibson and Sykes-Kenworthy, and trying to extend the loans of
      McGee, Cooke, Devitt and Connolly, or take them over.

      We would then need a hard tackling defensive midfielder, another
      left sided defender as cover, and a creative person up front.

      It is of course easy being an armchair manager…

  13. On Akpan, I think Stuart will be well aware of his limitations but will also factor that against the squad’s limitations. We all know Stuart favours a fluid form of 442 where the full backs get forward and the wingers get inside/in behind. But that is based around a central midfield pair that has to get through a significant amount of work and be able to cover space between each boxes quickly. Think back to the energy the likes of Vincelot, Cullen & Dieng had to provide us in L1 – we were fortunate to get 40+ games out of each those three.

    The fact of the matter is that other than Reeves & Cooke, I think only Akpan is equipped enough to to do this. The frustration is with Akpan’s inconsistency but given that Reeves & Cooke are prone to an injury, Akpan will get gametime. Against the other options of Taylor, Devine, Anderson or squeezing a wide player/centre back into midfield (which Stuart has tried with Pritchard), you can see why Stuart has been sticking with Akpan. And that’s not a defence of Akpan, its more to highlight that the squad is still very imbalanced so Stuart is working with what he has.

  14. Thanks Jason….good report as usual.
    Much of the subsequent comment highlight the performance of Akpan. I would love to see the stats – i.e tackles made, passes completed – on Akpan. My impression is that they would be damning. He excels in contributing nothing. He has bulk but doesn’t deploy it. Devine is (was) far a better tackler and could successfully move the ball forward. Akpan has bulk but doesn’t deploy it. On Saturday Cooke did more in 10 minutes than Akpan over 80. I pray that the “Akpan question’ is now academic and that a fit Cooke will replace him. If we can avoid having to play him again we have a chance.

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