Bradford City 2
Richards-Everton 6, Connolly 45+2
Plymouth Argyle 1
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.