Bradford City 0
Lincoln City 5
French (OG) 4, Scully 6, Montsma 29, Jones 41, Morton 90
By Jason McKeown
What was proving to be a calm and composed start to Bradford City’s season has suddenly jolted into calamity.
Atrocious defensively, toothless up front and collectively lacking bravery, the Bantams bowed out of the League Cup – and the opportunity to play Liverpool – in the most fainthearted way imaginable.
Lincoln City might be in a division above, but this was embarrassing. Hopes took their first dent as early as the fourth minute, when Tyler French sliced the ball into his own net. By the sixth minute, City had a mountain to climb. By the 31st minute, it was all over. And by the 41st, it was humiliating.
A horror show is an understatement. This goes down as a new low point in Bradford City’s post-Wembley 2017 demise. The starkest of illustrations of just how far the club has fallen. And just how much work there is to do in order to climb back.
Lincoln were always likely to win this contest, that was never really in doubt. Michael Appleton made only a couple of changes, picking a strong team. Like Swansea City at Wembley in 2013, or Reading in the FA Cup quarter finals of 2015, Lincoln are a middle-of-the-road club that meant they were never going to waste such a big cup opportunity by underestimating opponents from a lower league.
But it was the margin of victory that was so shocking. The Bantams were swatted aside with such ease. They barely laid a glove on the Imps. Fortunate, in some respects, to go in at half time only four goals behind. That the second half was more even was of no consolation. By that stage, Lincoln had taken their foot off the gas, save for adding a fifth in stoppage time. It was their biggest ever win in this competition. And next week, they’ll welcome Jurgen Klopp to Sincil Bank.
What added to the City worries was that Stuart McCall had picked a strong side as well. It was hugely troubling to see the back three – which had only conceded one goal in three games – look so awful, just from changing one player around.
The resting up of 18-year-old Reece Staunton, and deployment of the experienced 28-year-old Ben Richards-Everton, backfired badly. If Richards-Everton was feeling aggrieved to lose his status as first choice centre half, he failed miserably to stake his claim. His performance was so bad, you can’t see McCall giving him any game-time for weeks.
French’s early own goal was a careless flick by the inexperienced defender yet it had an element of misfortune too. But it set the tone for a defensive collapse. Two minutes later, Richards-Everton had crept up to half way to press and try to win possession. But he dived in without success, and the ball was worked to Harry Anderson to charge through the space Richards-Everton had vacated. To push so far up, just minutes after conceding, but still so early in the game, was utterly stupid.
With Richards-Everton left on the floor, Anderson passed to Conor McGrandles, whose low shot from distance perhaps wrong-sighted Richard O’Donnell. The keeper still might have done better as the ball rolled past him onto the post, and Anthony Scully tapped home the rebound.
It was such a terrible goal to concede, and at 2-0 down with only six minutes gone the Bantams looked shell-shocked. Their considered, patient, passing football was lost in the panic. We want this team to be made of stronger stuff than the 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20 Bradford City teams. The signs were not encouraging.
City did eventually settle down and have a spell. Callum Cooke struck a low shot from distance that Alex Palmer did well to keep out. A goalmouth scramble saw several City players stab efforts at goal that red and white shirts blocked. Clayton Donaldson – brought in for Lee Novak – missed a glorious chance when he turned and volleyed over from just yards out.
But just as the pressure was mounting, Lincoln earned a free kick from a Richards-Everton foul. The City centre half had the chance to head the resultant set piece away but failed to make contact, and Dutch defender Lewis Montsma volleyed home.
The fourth, scored by midfielder James Jones, was a belter. A stunning drive from a long distance. When you’re 3-0 up away from home, you can try such things. When Harry Pritchard spurned a great chance from much closer range, the difference in attacking quality between both sides was glaring. The Bantams were limping to half time, with O’Donnell making a great save after yet more shambolic defending.
A furious McCall made two half time changes, taking off French and Richards-Everton. French won a lot of plaudits for his performance as right wing back at Bolton, but this was a cruel reminder of the importance of City getting a specialist for this position, if the back five approach is truly going to work.
There was huff and puff about City in the second half, but never really a sniff of the beginnings of any comeback. Kurtis Guthrie – who had a very poor night, frustratingly failing to justify McCall’s public words of encouragement towards him – should have done better with a header. The only bright note was how much better City’s set pieces were tonight, with several very good balls pumped into the box by Elliot Watt and Connor Wood. But it’s not much comfort to take.
On this evidence, the team looks miles away from where they need to be. Staunton slotting back in for the second half did see City look largely more comfortable at the back, but placing too much weight on such a young person’s shoulders is not without its risks. Watt looks a decent player, but Cooke’s form so far this campaign is starting to worry.
Up front, there’s just nothing to suggest the firepower is there. Donaldson’s first season at Valley Parade was underwhelming, and this one hasn’t begun much better. Just 17 goals in his last four seasons – the 36-year-old’s powers are fading. He offered nothing here. Guthrie (32 goals in the last four seasons) and Novak (also 32 in four seasons) aren’t likely to provide much more. Since 2016, Donaldson, Guthrie and Novak have averaged 20 goals a season – but that’s between them.
It’s becoming very clear that the hunt for a top striker goes right to the heart of supporter confidence in the direction of the club. And whether accusations of a lack of ambition, and claim there is no real plan, have merit.
Letting James Vaughan leave made a lot of sense, but he is unquestionably a quality player that has to be adequately replaced. The pre-match revelations that City have tried – and failed – to sign Kieran Agard, Jordy Hiwula, Nicky Maynard and Ian Henderson do hint at an ambitious intent for the club to aim high. But it ultimately counts for very little. When the dust settles on this transfer window, there isn’t going to much patience for hard luck stories. No medals are given out merely for trying.
There is pressure on the club to bring in a good striker as a statement that they really do mean business. That promotion is not just as aspiration, but a genuine objective. There is said to be budget available. It must be used wisely, not in a late panic.
There is plenty of time still – and options – before the transfer deadline. As clubs settle down into the new season, several players will be discovering they are not in their manager’s plans and start eyeing up pastures new. Others, still out of contract, will have to start lowering their sights.
McCall is clearly trying to hold his nerve and bag the right striker, and his judgement deserves to be backed. But if City get this wrong, they’re not just going to be going into League Two with a limited strikeforce – they’re going to be battling against a disillusioned fanbase, wondering how on earth the club could get itself into this position. And the fallout will get ugly, especially towards Stefan Rupp and Julian Rhodes.
McCall has talked about how goals can come from unexpected sources, citing the rise of Nahki Wells from nowhere. He can point, with justification, to the scorer of Lincoln’s fifth goal, Callum Morton, as a good example of this. The 20-year-old West Brom loanee had a terrific impact at Northampton last season, helping them to get promotion. Success is not always achieved by bringing in big names, as Donaldson sadly proves.
But relying on unproven potential, or hoping players with previously moderate goalscoring records can suddenly net 20+, isn’t a robust plan. So far, there’s not being anything to suggest City’s current forwards can step up and out-perform their moderate goal records – and there’s no sign of the next Wells waiting on the sidelines. Ultimately, the answers have to come from outside the club.
A bad striker signing arguably condemns Bradford City to a third season in League Two. Potentially ends McCall’s managerial career, six or 12 months from now. So with such much riding on it, McCall is justified taking his time to sign the right player. But the clock is ticking. And the stakes are getting higher.
“Judge us after 46 games,” stated a frustrated McCall after the match. The team is not far off being effective. The promising 2-1 win at Bolton was an early benchmark of what it is capable of. But they’ve not scored a goal in the subsequent three games. And they go to Forest Green on Saturday dealing with an angry fan backlash. “I don’t want supporters thinking there is no ambition at the club to sign a 20-goal striker,” declared McCall, adding he is looking to bring in players in other positions too.
“For the fans out there, rest assured, we know that’s not good enough. Rest assured, we’re not resting on our laurels and thinking we don’t need players in the building. We know we need players in the building…I could go out tomorrow and sign 20 players, but they’ve got to be better than what we’ve got.”
McCall’s passion is evident as ever, but the supporter disillusionment is hard to shift. Bradford City has a fanbase scarred badly by its post-2017 collapse, and after this morale-smashing defeat the club has got to come up with some positive answers. And they’ve got to find them very quickly.