|Bradford City 0||Harrogate Town 1|
By Jason McKeown
This was a very bad night for Bradford City. Defeat on national TV to their upstart neighbours, Harrogate Town. And a timid performance that does little to ease the delicate supporter mood. It all adds further unease about the prospects of a Bantams promotion push this season.
It was, without question, a deserved victory for the enthusiastic visitors. Right from kick off, Harrogate signalled their intent, pressing City high up the pitch and attacking in numbers. In total, Town recorded 25 shots on goal and performed with a bravery and vigour curiously lacking in their hosts. It was a remarkable moment in Harrogate’s heady rise up the football pyramid – but it was a message, also, that they have the capability to climb higher yet.
For Stuart McCall and Bradford City, it will now be a week of trying to find solutions to issues that this dismal defeat has brought to light. Harrogate’s adventurous approach sharply brought into focus the limitations of the diamond formation. The large amount of space it leaves on the flanks, which Harrogate’s attack-minded full backs gleefully exposed. And the formation’s heavy reliance on the player at the tip of the midfield diamond – the number 10 – to provide the creative spark.
“Sometimes a diamond works, sometimes it doesn’t,” McCall reflected after the game, adding that his hope was that City would have passed the ball better, got their own full backs higher up the park and enabled Billy Clarke to be more influential. Harrogate’s approach to counter the diamond was far from flawless, and City did create chances, but the visitors were largely able to override the Bantams’ system.
For large parts of the evening, the home side were caught on the backfoot. Reliant on good defending and the goalkeeping heroics of captain Richard O’Donnell, who produced one particularly excellent first half block to keep out a header from former Bantam loan hero Jon Stead.
But the problem for McCall is that his backline always seems to have at least one mistake in it. One lapse of concentration, that typically is punished. So it was that with just over a quarter of an hour to play, Elliott Watt lost track of Lloyd Kerry, who stole in behind Reece Staunton to convert Jack Muldoon’s brilliant cross. It was a good goal from Harrogate’s perspective, but an exceptionally poor one to concede when viewed through claret and amber lens.
City were already seemingly battling to hang on for a 0-0 before falling behind. And they really struggled to muster a response. Even though substitute Austin Samuels could and probably should have salvaged a point, blazing a shot high and wide with three minutes to play.
An equaliser would have been a get out of jail card moment for City, who just couldn’t get going save for a decent spell midway through the first half. There were few, if any, outfield Bantam players who could leave the field at full time with any credit. The game proved to be a significant examination of the squad’s character, and it didn’t throw up encouraging results. “We had too many 5 out of 10s tonight,” rued McCall.
The familiar problem of a lack of attacking prowess was evident once more. But the gloom it has been causing was added to here by the fact the hunt for the striker had reached its conclusion 48 hours before the game, with the arrival of Samuels. It’s no longer about waiting for reinforcements, it’s hoping that what is available is going to be good enough. Evidence was in short supply here.
Samuels, who came on with 21 minutes to play, looked incredibly raw. He was caught offside several times and gave the ball away often in attack. McCall had sacrificed Billy Clarke and moved away from the diamond by introducing Samuels, but the 4-3-3 was overrun by a Harrogate side who never dipped in their energy levels. Kurtis Guthrie also made a late cameo, but his own personal hunt for a first City goal goes on.
McCall started with Lee Novak and Clayton Donaldson, and it wasn’t without some flashes of decent moments. A first half link up between the pair saw Novak fire a half volley at Harrogate keeper James Belshaw, who made a decent save. Donaldson also had a reasonable first half effort saved by Belshaw.
Those opportunities were as good as it got for City. Too often, the build up play in the final third was laboured in its tempo – a contrast to Harrogate’s urgency at the other end. Several times City worked the ball into decent positions, but a lack of incisiveness led to one pass too many, seeing play either go backwards or the move breaking down. It needs to be faster.
Worryingly, Gareth Evans – who’s arrival feels like a genuine coup – had a second full debut to forget. Playing on the left in the diamond, he offered little going forward and was reluctant to take opposition players on.
Too often, Evans looked for the easy pass. He has the talent and experience to take on much more responsibility than he seemed wiling to offer. Defensively, he also left Connor Wood too exposed. He was taken off at half time due to an injury. He will perform better. He has to.
Callum Cooke – who has also made a slow start to the season – replaced Evans. However, the substitute also missed a glorious opportunity, two minutes into the second half. Donaldson had held up the ball very well and backheeled it into Cooke’s path, but from an angle the midfielder flashed his shot across goal and wide of the post. A huge moment.
City did look more solid in shape after Cooke’s arrival, but also lost a bit more of their attacking impetus. What had been an end to end contest trundled into a war of attrition, but Harrogate’s threat remained throughout.
Minute by minute in the second half, City players seemed to lose their confidence. Levi Sutton had a very poor 45 minutes, where he gave the ball away often. Tyler French and Connor Wood were less composed in possession and reluctant to go forward – perhaps fearful of their opposite full backs counter attacking. Clarke struggled to find room to operate. Watt wasn’t up to the same high standards he has shown this season. Novak and Donaldson were increasingly feeding on scraps.
McCall wants City to play out from the back, which is commendable. But as Harrogate pressed high up the pitch, home defenders would be rushed into rash clearances that routinely gifted possession straight back to the visitors. The plan, whatever it had been, seemed to be lost along the way. If a City crowd had been allowed into Valley Parade, it would have turned on the team. Harrogate smelt blood, and eventually took their opportunity.
“The best team won,” admitted McCall, before vowing there would be “no panic or knee-jerk reaction”. Nevertheless this is a test of his management skills, as he seeks to revive a squad that will want to lay low for a few days.
Criticism will come pouring in from all corners, making this a long week for the players, coaching staff and management team. There is little they can do other than take their medicine. Accept they will be written off. It’s about how they react from this.
To be out-played and out-thought by a newly promoted side is one thing, but it was the obvious sense of fear and panic in the players that will surely be the biggest concern to McCall. In front of a national TV audience, they froze. Faced with an opposition stronger in quality and sense of purpose than the previous three league opponents, they had no answer.
There is a long, long way to go in the season – but on this evidence, the level of improvement needed from City is huge.
Categories: Match Reviews