|Bradford City 2||Stevenage 1|
|Novak 61+81||List 37|
By Jason McKeown
At half time and with his Bradford City charges a goal behind, Stuart McCall must have been consumed with thoughts over what to do about the club’s striker problems. 45 minutes later, he had a partial answer as Lee Novak stepped up to deliver a match-winning display. His two, well-taken goals earned the Bantams their first league victory of the season. And also eased some of the pressure on his manager to make a decisive move in the transfer market.
Novak’s double means that in four appearances this season, the 31-year-old has netted four goals. Only Salford’s Ian Henderson has scored more in League Two at this early point of the season. In contrast to Novak’s strong form, the much-debated James Vaughan and Eoin Doyle have just one goal between them so far. You would have got long odds on Novak outscoring those two, just a few short weeks ago.
Of course, Novak is far from the answer to City’s goalscoring problems on his own. As the interval inquest took place over how City were trailing to Stevenage, the finger of blame could be pointed as much towards Novak as at the ponderous defence.
At 0-0, and a quarter of an hour into the contest, Callum Cooke had floated over a terrific cross that was on a plate for Novak to bury, but his header was too close to Stevenage keeper Jamie Cumming, who pulled off an excellent save. Novak should have scored. He might also have done better just before the break, when he was sent through on goal in a wide position. But he lacked the pace to maintain his head-start over a visiting defence that ultimately did very well to get back and block his effort.
Novak lacks that clinical touch. He had already wasted City’s best opportunities in their goalless draw with Colchester that kicked off the league campaign. And over his 11-year career, he has only twice netted more than 15 in a season. On his own, Novak will not score the amount of goals needed for City to challenge at the top. Still, it’s been a very promising start to life at Valley Parade since his January arrival. 10 appearances, six goals.
He ultimately made the difference here, grabbing a 61st minute equaliser after peeling away from his marker Luke Prosser and nodding home Tyler French’s superb cross. A great bit of movement, which left Prosser with his head in his hands. And then with time running out, Novak expertly flicked on a high ball into the path of Billy Clarke, who produced a wonderful turn and low pass that the big striker finished off. A really good Bradford City goal that – in normal times – would have sparked delirious scenes in the Kop.
Over the 90 minutes, City were a strange combination of brilliant and brittle. Demonstrating their credentials but failing to disguise their weaknesses. The post match plaudits were tempered by the relatively low hurdle they had only just managed to clear. If this had been a computer game, playing Stevenage was a bit like choosing to play in easy mode. Good for building up rhythm and confidence, but carrying with it an unshifting suspicion that this can and will get tougher.
Stevenage were the worst team in the Football League last season, only spared from falling into non-league by Macclesfield’s obliteration. And their pre-match plans had been seriously disrupted by a Covid-19 outbreak that looked set to result in the game being cancelled. With plans to travel to West Yorkshire on Friday abandoned, a 9am decision the match could in fact still be played led to Stevenage dashing 170 miles up the A1, minus three players, just hours before kick off. It was hardly the smoothest of preparations.
Yet even accepting the kind hand City were dealt, there was much to be encouraged by from the way the Bantams went about their business. As predicted a few weeks back, McCall has continued to move away from the 3-5-2 approach that was torn to pieces in the first 45 minutes against Lincoln, opting for a diamond formation that is offering a better balance.
Aside from Novak, City’s best performers were amongst their middle four. Elliott Watt took on the base of the diamond, and his willingness to tackle and energetic setting up of attacks is working very well. Clarke played at the tip, and largely produced an excellent display. So far this season, Clarke has started games well but faded. And it seemed a repeat again here when he struggled for the first 15 minutes of the second half. But Clarke came on strong at the end and made an important difference.
Cooke and Levi Sutton took the wide positions of the diamond, with Sutton in particular catching the eye with a hard-working display. The summer signing has had to sit out four of the first five games because of suspension, but made up for lost time by impressing in the way he broke up Stevenage attacks and carried the ball forwards. He could still use the ball better at times, but his whole-hearted attitude demonstrates why McCall was so keen to bring him in. Cooke, who has started the season slowly, was better too.
For the opening 30 minutes of the game, City dominated the ball and set the tempo. Clarke, Novak and Cooke (twice) had opportunities. The passing moves were inventive and easy on the eye, with the skillful Connor Wood and diligent French getting forward to support attacks. Stevenage were defending well but offering little going forwards. It seemed to be a case of when, rather than if, City would score.
When Stevenage’s goal came, it was out of the blue, but it was also full of self inflicted wounds. The ball was crossed into the box and Wood wasted the opportunity to head clear. Elliott List was given too much time and space by Ben Richards-Everton, and City stood back and admired as the former Gillingham midfielder fired home.
With the two O’Connors kicking their heels in the stands, and the hunt for a right back still to be resolved, there was a weak-looking feel to the Bantams defence. But overall, the back four played well over the 90 minutes. It’s just that at crucial moments, they lack the bravery to really go in where it hurts. The full desire to do whatever it takes to keep the ball out of the net.
This goal was a great example of collective hesitancy that can probably be fixed by having a true leader slotted into the Bantams backline. Whilst Richards-Everton took a positive step towards redemption here, he is ultimately not that leader. Unfortunately, there are also doubts about whether the two O’Connors are the answer.
Compare the way that List was afforded so much space with the manner Stevenage’s Cuthbert defended during that Novak clear-on-goal chance which followed minutes later. As Novak poked his shot at goal, Cuthbert threw himself in front of the ball to deny him. Prosser and Cuthbert are aging defenders who have seen better days – as Novak ultimately proved – but they offered a great example in commitment that City’s own defenders would do well to follow.
Going a goal behind was a blow to City’s composure, and for a time the dark clouds began to hover over Valley Parade. The focus began to fall on Kurtis Guthrie, who once again had a really poor game. The former Stevenage striker had a good chance just before the break but headed a Clarke cross harmlessly over the bar.
Guthrie looks woefully short of confidence, and his tepidness saw him fail to impose himself on the game. You wanted to see him be a pest, put Prosser and Cuthbert under pressure, especially as their legs tired during the second half. But it seems beyond Guthrie’s wit and ability right now. He is a player who desperately needs the boost of a goal. But he’s got to do a lot more than just stand there waiting for the perfect chance to fall into his lap.
Still, he kept going. As did City. And after good build up play by Cooke and Sutton, French was able to cross for Novak to equalise. The goal put the spring back into City’s step, added to further by the second debut of Gareth Evans, from the bench. The Bantams merited their later winner from Novak. And they might have added more in the final stages, with both Evans and Wood hitting the crossbar.
A single goal lead is rarely safe though. And there was nearly a repeat of last week’s late misery, as a late Stevenage corner led to a goalmouth scramble that saw Guthrie clear a stabbed effort off the line. The closing stages saw more worrying City defending and not exactly fantastic in-game management by the whole team. But they held on to chalk up a valuable victory.
In these strange and dark times, we don’t quite know what’s next for City. Their trip to Grimsby next Saturday was announced as off by the Mariners due to midfielder Jock Curran testing positive for Covid-19, with chairman Philip Day calling for the entire League Two season to be suspended. Following further discussions with the EFL, Day is now more hopeful that the meeting with the Bantams can still go ahead. But much will depend on the results of Covid-19 squad testing and if they are allowed to reopen their training ground.
With Leyton Orient’s fixtures also being disrupted, and the nationwide Covid-19 picture looking more and more negative, there’s a growing uncertainty over just how feasible it will be for the season to continue for much longer. At least without widespread testing coming in. Stevenage Chairman Phil Wallace might not have won many friends at Valley Parade for the way they handled the news of the squad’s Covid-19 issues on Friday, but his suggestion the PFA could use their vast resources to fund a proper testing programme is a very good one.
EFL clubs are looking at a bleak future, according to chairman Rick Parry, following the news that crowds might not be allowed back into stadiums until next March. Financial help could be coming from the government, or the Premier League, or maybe there’s no support on the horizon. Everything seems to be on the edge. With the next few days and weeks looking incredibly important.
City are in a comparatively decent position to withstand the storms, but the uncertainty of these unprecedented times has an unavoidable impact on the level of joy to take from this victory. It might be the first many City wins, or it might be the last before another hiatus.
Still, this was an important moment in City’s fledgling season. The warm glow of the Bolton Wanderers cup win was beginning to fade, especially after the calamitous League Cup hammering to Lincoln City. The lack of transfer business has stirred up plenty of unease, and had they failed to win this game the post-match debate would have been predictably all about the urgency of needing reinforcements.
They had to win this sort of game, and eventually they did. The picture looks brighter now. It means City have begun the campaign with five points from nine. Unbeaten in the league, with a run of winnable fixtures to come. And for all the criticisms made over the supposed lack of imagination and thought on the players brought in, almost all of the new arrivals are looking like good pieces of business.
There is plenty of work to do, but City are up and running. Led by a striker who is confounding expectations.
Categories: Match Reviews