Bradford City 0
Colchester United 0
By Jason McKeown
There was a moment midway through the second half of this stalemate when Billy Clarke received the ball in the final third and you could almost hear the Bradford City forward sigh.
Clarke surveyed the options in front of him, and certainly wasn’t short of claret and amber shirts to pick out. But they were equalled in number by Colchester grey, and there wasn’t a single team mate making an incisive run. He reluctantly worked the ball out wide, and the move eventually broke down.
Clarke, Stuart McCall and Bradford City have been here before. Indeed, watching today, it was almost as though time had gone backwards four years, and this was the Bantams in early 2016/17 all over again. The last early beginnings of McCall holding the managerial reins.
Just like 2016, there was much to admire about the stylish manner of City’s football. The way that Clarke linked up in the middle so well with Elliot Watt and Callum Cooke, and the attack-minded overlapping full back play of Connor Wood and Dylan Mottley-Henry, had echoes of 2016/17’s Josh Cullen, Nicky Law, James Meredith and Tony McMahon. Then, a lack of cutting edge up front held the team back from league domination. And history could be repeating itself.
This looks like a good Bradford City team. But it’s a clinical striker away from being a very good one. McCall deserves great credit for the impressive levels of organisation that he has instilled in his players – it already seems a world away from last season. They play with a freedom to take risks, both on the ball and in how they are encouraged to get forwards. The football is pleasing on the eye. Yet the big question is whether it will lead to enough goals. To enough victories.
That all makes it eerily similar to how 2016/17 began, where McCall kicked off the campaign with Clarke, James Hanson and Jordy Hiwula as his striker options, as the club scrambled to bring in more forward quality. That year’s transfer window closed with Marc McNulty and Haris Vukic added on loan – neither proved more than bit-part players.
And though City were consistently in the play off pack in 2016/17, they fell behind the frontrunners. The January signing of Charlie Wyke eventually changed that dynamic, and City’s form over the final three months of the campaign was as good as anyone. Had Wyke being at Valley Parade all season, a campaign that would end in heartache could have proven very different.
This history lesson offers a cautionary tale to the current hunt to sign a striker. The window remains open, and the moves that McCall eventually makes are going to be pivotal to his team’s chances. This was a game and performance that adds urgency to that forward search, but ultimately it’s about who City sign more than when. There are hundreds of striker options available in these Covid-19 financial times, but the manager needs to find a diamond who can truly elevate this team.
Pace and craftiness would certainly be high on the list of attributes to seek. McCall again paired up Lee Novak with Kurtis Guthrie here, and they were willing workers. But they are too similar in style, and each would benefit from playing alongside someone with the legs and intelligence to get on the end of their flick ons.
Neither striker has made their name for being prolific in front of goal, as Novak’s early miss illustrated. City’s number nine forced Colchester keeper Dean Gerkin into a block eight minutes in, but really should have scored. He – and City – would not produce a better chance all afternoon.
In the Bantams’ opening two games of the season, they have barely had any possession. That changed here, with an early pattern set of the home side retaining the ball well and building up patiently. City produced 334 short passes – a significant improvement on their 2019/20 average of 268. But Colchester were happy to play deep and use their pace on the counter attack. They were ready for the forward runs of Anthony O’Connor and Reece Staunton, and worked hard to limit the space for Clarke, Cooke and Watt to operate.
It was notable just how regularly City’s build up play led to the ball being worked to the sides, away from the congestion in the middle, with Wood and Mottley-Henry performing well. It quickly grew predictable, as the ball was habitually crossed into the box and dealt with. Over the 90 minutes, City attempted 33 crosses, that’s a rate of 1 cross every 2.7 minutes.
Wood’s crossing was excellent at times, and Anthony O’Connor and Guthrie did come close with headers. But with the technical excellence of Clarke, Cooke and Watt, it felt a waste to resort to flinging in so many hopeful balls from outwide. It needs that craftiness in the forward line to unlock the team’s potential through the middle.
Not that Colchester were just here to defend doggedly for a point. Forward Jevani Brown was the best player on the pitch in the first half, causing plenty of problems to City’s back line. In the 23rd minute he flew past Staunton in the box and pulled the ball back for Noah Chilvers, who forced birthday boy Richard O’Donnell into a superb save. The Bantams captain also made a decent second half block from Luke Gambin, after the United forward broke clear on goal from an angle.
O’Donnell’s heroics were matched by City’s backline, which played very well. Staunton is looking a real revelation, with the 18-year-old shrugging off an early booking to deliver an accomplished performance on and off the ball. The three centre half approach was heavily criticised last season, largely due to the safety-first manner that Bowyer deployed it, but McCall’s pre-season work in this area is paying off. It looks effective both defensively and in how City attack. Anthony O’Connor’s average position on the pitch was remarkable, as he got forward so often he effectively played in midfield. (The average pitch position of Guthrie and Novak was also telling.)
The second half proved much more open. Gambian and Novak both found the back of the net, but were denied by offside flags. With eight minutes to go, City sub Harry Pritchard struck a powerful half volley from the edge of the box that required a fine save from Gerkin. Clayton Donaldson – who did pretty well after coming on – could not convert a headed chance. And with the last kick of the game, Staunton almost drilled home a winner.
The frustration of not collecting three points is a familiar feeling at this stage of the campaign. City have now won only one of their last six opening home games of the season. And for the third year in a row, they’ve failed to score on Valley Parade’s opening afternoon.
There are a lot of encouraging signs to take into the battles ahead. A growing confidence that this could be a good season for the Bantams. With an improved style of football, and a group of players committed to the cause who you can genuinely get behind. It all feels very exciting.
But it’s 95% of what’s needed to achieve success. And finding that missing 5% remains a concern. For all the disappointment of James Vaughan’s departure, his style of play suggests he wouldn’t have been the answer to the problems evident today. It might ultimately prove a blessing in disguise that Vaughan left, but only if the hunt to replace him unearths a striker of the right quality.
There’s an awful lot resting on the next few weeks.
Categories: Match Reviews