|Bradford City 1||Wolves U21s 1 (Wolves win 5-3 on pens)|
Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst, taken outside the ground during the game)
The finish was oozing with the type of quality you’d expect from a striker who is in his 18th season as a professional, now just three short of knocking in his 200th career goal. And yet Clayton Donaldson’s moment of class came 83 minutes into a performance that suggested the 36-year-old was struggling for enthusiasm. Simply going through the motions.
In over 600 career appearances, Donaldson has regularly topped divisional goalscorer lists, achieved promotion from League One, played in the Championship and Scottish Premier League, and earned international caps for Jamaica. He’s scaled much bigger heights than his current status as benchwarmer for a League Two club that is struggling to score goals. He’s played in far bigger matches than a Football League Trophy group stage encounter with an Under 21s side.
Yet up until Kian Scales delivered a delightful through ball into the veteran’s path, in the 83rd minute, it was difficult to find evidence that Donaldson has much left to offer his hometown club. Then came that finish. A terrific lob over the onrushing John Ruddy, which arrowed into the back of the net.
It was a goal of real quality. Arguably Donaldson’s best finish since his return to these parts 15 months ago. He didn’t exactly race off in wild celebration, but the beaming smile on his face was unmistakable. The goal was a reminder – to his manager, to his team mates, to supporters and, heck, probably even to himself – of just what he is capable of.
In a summer dominated by striker recruitment concerns, no one has been putting forward Donaldson’s name as the answer. Stuart McCall’s decision to allow James Vaughan to leave was a big call that could yet haunt the manager. But as the hunt continues for a replacement, the positive platitudes have been directed towards the potential of Kurtis Guthrie to at least temporarily fill the gap.
Donaldson has so far achieved just 16 minutes league playing time. This was his third cup start in a row, but he’d not exactly offered a lot in the previous two to suggest McCall should redirect that arm he’s kept planted around Guthrie’s shoulder. The veteran Donaldson’s contract renewal was the player’s decision to make, rather than the club’s choice. And it seemed to show in McCall’s early season selections.
Yet so far, it just hasn’t happened for Guthrie – causing plenty of headaches for a team already looking over-reliant on Lee Novak’s goals. After this goal from Donaldson, McCall might just be tempted to tweak his forward line for Monday’s visit of Harrogate. At least until some sort of cavalry arrives.
Donaldson’s superb finish was the highlight of a night that will be all too quickly forgotten. With the 2020/21 fixture list heavily compressed, and the recent blow of supporters returning to stadiums being delayed for potentially six months, in hindsight League One and Two clubs might regret retaining the unloved Football League Trophy for this season. You just hope that, as the Football League desperately pleads for financial help from the Premier League, the helping hand that lower leagues are still providing for top flight Under 21 sides isn’t forgotten.
Not that this was a night without benefit for City. In keeping with the opening group game at Doncaster, McCall entrusted his young up and comers with valuable game time. Deploying a 4-3-3 formation, Finn Cousin-Dawson was pushed from defence to a holding midfield role and really caught the eye. The 18-year-old was strong in the tackle and confident bringing the ball forward. His range of passing was hugely impressive, suggesting that he could competently deputise for Elliott Watt at the base of the diamond formation used in the league recently.
Playing alongside the more experienced Paudie O’Connor, Jorge Sikora once again had an accomplished game in defence, dealing well with an energetic Wolves attack. Kian Scales also had a decent evening as part of the midfield three, whilst Shanks’ second half introduction from the bench included setting up Donaldson’s equaliser.
City fell a goal behind on the hour after dozy defending from a corner allowed Austin Samuels to tap Wolves in front. Owen Otasowie was allowed too much freedom to power a header at goal that Sam Hornby did well to save. But no one tracked Samuels’ run, enabling the 19-year-old to gobble up the rebound unchallenged.
It was harsh on the Bantams at the time, but there was a wearily frustrating feeling that decent build up play and clever passing was lacking an end product. Over the course of the 90 minutes, City recorded 14 shots on goal, but only four were on target (seven of Wolves’ 11 shots were on target).
As in the league, City just aren’t hurting opposition teams enough in the final third. Lacking the crucial bit of quality, both in front of goal and from wide areas in providing better service. There were plenty of wayward crosses. The only decent ball in, during the first half, saw Jackson Longridge find Donaldson, whose header was cleared off the line.
It wasn’t a sparkling night for the wide forwards, Dylan Mottley-Henry and Zeli Ismail. The latter did at least come alive in the closing stages of the first half, but was withdrawn at the interval. For Mottley-Henry, these nights are opportunities he needs to grasp better. He did very well to earn another deal from the club during the summer – the much-discussed 1,400 out of contract footballers are a cautionary tale of what might be waiting for him if he doesn’t make the most of his big chance this season.
Wolves attacked less over the 90 minutes, but cut through more often when they did. Full backs Longridge and debutant Bryce Hosannah struggled to defend the extra space in front of them that often arises from a 4-3-3 set up. Hornby was forced into two excellent blocks in the first 45 minutes. The back-up keeper played very well, aside from misdirecting a clearance against Samuel that nearly rebounded embarrassingly into the net.
Nevertheless when Wolves scored it was far from a shock, simply because of their more clinical edge. The Bantams had shaded possession and territory up until that point, but struggled after to respond. They were indebted to Hornby, who made a terrific one-on-one block from Samuels that would have put Wolves out of sight.
It was a huge moment, given Donaldson’s brilliant equaliser shortly after. And as the clock ran down, the Bantams had a second wind that led to O’Connor and Scales going close to grabbing a City winner.
It ended in a draw, with another penalty shootout defeat meaning City once again missed out on the extra point. Harry Pritchard – who deserves respect for his committed display – scored City’s opening penalty. Hasannah netted after. But a poor effort from Shanks would ultimately cost City, despite Scales netting the fourth spot kick. Wolves, who went first in the shootout, scored all five of their efforts.
It can be difficult to gauge the quality of a City performance against a Premier League youth side, but the fact Wolves rocked up with the aging John Ruddy – a member of the England one-cap club – plus 30-year-old Ryan Bennett, showed there was quality and experience in the visitors. Bennett spent last season on loan at high-flying Leicester, who had an option to buy him for £5 million. In the visitors’ backline, Ki-Jana Hoever, has recently been signed from Liverpool for £9 million, and came on as sub in Wolves’ Premier League victory over Fulham two days earlier.
City end the group stage in early November against an Oldham side with six points on the board, already assured of their spot in the second round. But before then, there’s the small matter of seven league matches in just 22 days, starting with Monday’s TV encounter with Harrogate.
With such a grueling schedule, those fringe players who featured tonight – young and old – could well be expected to play their part. That includes Donaldson, who given the confidence boost of only his fourth goal in a Bradford City shirt might just have given himself the springboard to a late career reawakening.
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Categories: Match Reviews
Disappointing result on the night, Penalty shootouts always a lottery. Citys previous record of shoot outs seems to have deserted them as the years have passed. Highlight for me was the continued performances from the youngsters following on from their efforts at Doncaster in the previous game. Plus the Dons sublime finish. Also enjoyed watching the game on iFollow down here in the pub in Cornwall with beer on table service. Beats 16hrs on a coach and a cold windy Valley Parade. Well almost. How I miss my visits to live matches. Means I have to talk to the wife instead.