The kids are alright

Doncaster Rovers 0

Bradford City 0

(Doncaster win 4-1 on penalties)

By Jason McKeown

In a season where games will come thicker and faster than usual, and where salary cap rules begin to limit your senior pro numbers, Stuart McCall issued a statement of intent about his supporting cast.

For this opening Football League trophy outing, McCall selected a Bradford City team with a distinctly homegrown feel. Four 18-year-olds – Jorge Sikora, Finn Cousin-Dawson, Kiran Scales and Connor Shanks – were handed their first ever starts for the Bantams. They lined up alongside former youth product Dylan Mottley-Henry. Reece Staunton – who impressed in Saturday’s League Cup victory at Bolton – was ‘rested’ on the bench, brought on for the final 10 minutes.

In the long, long break because of Covid-19, there’s been the odd local media story about the favourable prospects for City’s youth players. But that kind of talk is nothing new. Several Bantams youth teams have performed well in their respective leagues over recent seasons, with little to show for it in terms of youngsters actually getting anywhere near the first team. Danny Devine was the exception rather than the norm.

Tonight suggests that could change this season. That there is substance behind the quiet hype. Squad depth is going to be so important over the coming months. And though the salary cap rules for 2020/21 do allow McCall the freedom to bring in five more over-21s before the window closes in October, this was a night that gave weight to the argument of trusting the kids.

There’s no question that Sikora, Cousin-Dawson, Scales and Shanks took their opportunity here. They were not merely making up numbers. They didn’t look out of place. The more senior City players were not required to carry their younger team-mates. In a solid away performance, it was the 18-year-olds who were competing for the Bantams’ man of the match award.

The players acquitted themselves well against a Doncaster side from a higher division, who fielded a stronger XI. With Rovers having a longer break given their first round League Cup tie was played 10 days ago, compared to City’s three-day turnaround, manager Darren Moore picked nine starters with notable senior football experience. Just goalkeeper Louis Jones – who would be Doncaster’s penalty shootout hero – and midfielder Taylor Richards were sampling their first taste of action at this level.

Doncaster used their greater maturity to dominate possession (68% to City’s 32%). And when it came to chances on goal, the home side’s 21 shots (four on target) vastly outstripped City’s seven shots (none on target). And yet over the course of the 90 minutes, McCall’s charges merited the draw. They stood tall, and gave a good account of themselves.

It was the young players who excited the most. Centre back Sikora – who did get 24 minutes of action in this competition for City last season – was terrific at the back. A good reader of the game, and extremely accomplished on the ball, Sikora did a great job against the difficult Fejiri Okenabirhi.

Finn Cousin-Dawson – who initially played right back, as City began with a flat back four – was also impressive. He defended well and has the attacking attributes that McCall values in his full backs. City’s best moment of the first half was when Cousin-Dawson charged into the box to get on the end of a brilliant Scales pass. He couldn’t quite make more of the opportunity. But it was encouraging play.

Scales was playing higher up the park, deployed just behind City’s other locally born, but somewhat older, starter Clayton Donaldson. Scales showed good energy and an eye for a good pass. Shanks took up an advanced wide position and was a menace too. With Dylan Mottley Henry playing on the opposite flank. Both had to work hard off the ball and put in the hard yards.

Watching the young players flourish helped to liven up a far from thrilling contest. There was certainly little over the 90 minutes that had you longing to be sat in the Keepmoat Stadium away end. But Football League Trophy group stage games are hardly known for being rousing contests, even when supporters can attend.

Doncaster had spells on top, where they asked questions of City. The former Rotherham winger Jon Taylor was their chief attacking threat on the right wing. He ensured that Jackson Longridge endured a tough evening, with the deputy left back regularly beaten by Taylor’s mazy dribbles. It wasn’t the best of games for the Scot, as he was wasteful on the ball too. He worked hard, but on this evidence he is going to struggle to close the gap on Connor Wood.

Despite Taylor’s best efforts, and the intelligence of Okenabirhi, home pressure was sporadic rather than sustained. In the middle of the park for City, Levi Sutton caught the eye with several excellent tackles and good positional play. He will need to improve his distribution when in possession, but this was a debut full of promise. Sutton played alongside Harry Pritchard, who displayed a good attitude.

Doncaster started the second half much stronger and penned City back for 15 minutes, but it fizzled out after McCall brought on Tyler French for Mottley-Henry, opting to return to a wing back formation, with Cousin-Dawson switching to centre half alongside Sikora and the solid Ben Richards-Everton. French once again impressed as right wing back.

But although the game was more even, City’s attacking threat was little. This wasn’t a great performance from Donaldson, but he was left very isolated and increasingly short of runners to link up with. McCall was basically playing a 3-6-1 that enabled City to be more solid, but it won’t be an approach that leads to a glut of goals.

City would have lost but for an excellent late save from Sam Hornby that denied Okenabirhi. As good as a block as it was, Hornby was recovering from spilling the ball badly in the first place. The former Port Vale keeper didn’t deserve to end the night the villain after generally playing well. But in the penalty shootout that awards the winning team an extra group point, he couldn’t be the hero either.

Doncaster scored all four of their spot kicks. Substitute Kurtis Gurthie netted for City, but Pritchard’s effort was saved by Jones and Longridge hit the bar. Still, it mattered little in the grand scheme of things.

There’s been a fierce online supporter debate in recent weeks about team strengthening. And as City prepare to begin the league campaign on Saturday, valid concerns about the quality of this Bantams squad remain. But the excellent victory at Bolton, and now this performance, have softened a lot of the noise.

What’s emerged so far is a squad that has plenty of heart. A group of players who appear to buy into McCall’s approach. The cavalry of a couple more notable signings does still need to arrive, but the panic and urgency has subsided. McCall is determined to get the right players rather than sign anyone just to appease fans, and these last few days have bought him some time from supporter pressure to complete transfer business.

Whatever happens in the transfer market, how good would it be if Sikora, Cousin-Dawson, Scales, Shanks and Staunton could play a significant role in a successful Bradford City season? It’s 14 years since the Bantams last had a core of youngsters at the heart of a matchday squad. Almost a decade since the last youth product achieved more than 50 first team appearances for the Bantams. We’re not very good at producing our own. Or at least when we do, we sell them at a young age.

The latest crop of City youngsters to give it a go will face bigger and tougher tests than this, but there was something refreshing about watching them given this opportunity and grasping it. Especially after the last few years of watching senior professionals with no attachment to the club going through the motions.

The realities of this season are that McCall needs this quintet to be good, so he can rely on them when needed. Early days they may be, but in the first week of the season all five have demonstrated they can be trusted when called upon.

Categories: Match Reviews

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3 replies

  1. As a footnote, what adds to the notable element of four 18 year olds getting first starts is that even in the unloved Football League Trophy, youngsters haven’t been get huge starring roles in recent seasons.

    The squad Gary Bowyer picked for the opening game last season, at Bolton, had only Devine who was a homegrown player, for example. Staunton, Sikora and Connor Morris did play against Man City’s kids in the next game, but only as subs. The final game vs Rochdale was just Devine again.

    In 2018/19, David Hopkin only gave opportunities to Eliot Goldthorp and Staunton. In 2017/18 just Ellis Hudson and Staunton, and in 2016/17 Hudson, Windle, King and Wright played in a dead rubber at Morecambe and made the odd sub appearance.

  2. Its always good when you see youth players making that step up into the senior squad. However over the year’s most of our stand out youth players get sold well before we ever see them in a city shirt unfortunately. I’m crying out for local youth player to make the grade. Only time will tell if these young lads will make the grade.

  3. Hi, I thought we controlled large parts of the game, the players knew their roles and played with great unison, I was impressed with Sikora especially but the other players played with a sense of experience and guile, even though Stuart put out a young side, if this is the future then I’m sure it’s a bright one for city.

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