Bradford City 2
Clarke 10, Staunton 45
Exeter City 2
Jay 20, Bowman 27
By Jason McKeown
The painful memories of Bradford City’s last Saturday outing at Valley Parade hung in the air before kick off, but to the Bantams’ credit there was no repeat of the Newport capitulation in the face of another strong League Two visiting side.
Though it was far from an unblemished display against the highly rated Exeter City, the home side produced a promising performance that suggests they can, in fact, go toe-to-toe with the best of the best in the division. And that recent victories against weaker opposition have had substance in shifting the season’s direction of travel.
In a topsy turvy first half, City threatened to produce a handsome victory, then fell in danger of falling to a worrying defeat, before coming back to level. A half time tweak to the game plan saw Stuart McCall’s men look a little more solid, although the gaps left at the back in pushing for a winner were almost punished, with the concession of some huge late chances for Exeter to grab the three points.
As the dust settles, there will be much to encourage McCall but also areas of concern. The afternoon illustrated many of the issues that must be addressed if City are to climb the table, but also showcased the squad’s capabilities.
McCall had spoken pre-match about not being worried about City’s low early season league position, but with only three victories so far – all coming against teams in the bottom four – the need to leave a marker on this fixture was obvious. They had to build on recent results. Another poor performance and defeat would have quickly ripped up the recent green shoots of positivity.
They got off to the perfect start, at least in terms of opening the scoring early doors. Callum Cooke had picked possession after an Exeter corner broke down, and charged forward on the counter attack, threading a perfect through ball to Billy Clarke who finished well. The goal was a further illustration of the merits of McCall’s recent tactical move of nudging Clarke up front and allowing Cooke more attacking midfield space to operate.
But in truth, the goal had come against the run of play after Exeter started well. Matt Taylor came with a game plan of overloading the wide areas to leave City’s wing backs isolated, and the inside centre halves were torn over whether to move out of position to help them out. Especially as City’s midfield three were slow to track back.
Clarke’s goal followed some significant early Exeter pressure, but when visiting heads dropped after falling behind, it looked like City had ridden out the storm and could get their shape sorted. Clarke and Clayton Donaldson had chances to make it 2-0, and a potentially comfortable afternoon lay ahead.
That the game was then turned on its head left City with only themselves to blame. A ball into the box should have been defended, but Richard O’Donnell and Elliot Watt seemed hesitant over who should deal with it. Watt was pickpocketed by Jake Taylor, who quickly set up Matt Jay to fire home. A completely preventable equaliser.
Reinvigorated, Exeter were once again emboldened to come forward in numbers, with the overload on Tyler French resulting in Archie Collins getting to run past a dozing Cooke. Collins’ cross towards Ryan Bowman should have been dealt with by Reece Staunton, but the young City defender somehow allowed the much-travelled Exeter striker to poke the ball past O’Donnell. “They are in my eyes the best team we’ve played from an attacking sense,” McCall later admitted of Exeter. “But the two goals we gave away were absolutely criminal.”
Two goals in seven minutes, and a repeat of the Newport collapse began to feel like a very real prospect. The rest of the first half was vital in ultimately deciding the contest. City looked on the ropes, defending dismally and stumbling towards further calamity. Both O’Connors – who have been earning plenty of plaudits this week – once again displayed frustrating inconsistency. French and Connor Wood really struggled with being outnumbered. Watt, Cooke and Harry Pritchard needed to do more.
Thought Cooke and Paudie O’Connor did come close to equalising, Exeter continued to look more threatening and only last ditch defending and a decent O’Donnell save prevented them scoring a third. “We were hanging on a bit,” McCall stated. But the Grecians were not great defensively either. A minute into first half stoppage time, Watt swung over a corner that Staunton poked home. His first senior goal, which more than made up for his earlier error.
Exeter had let City off the hook, and McCall evidently used the half time break effectively. Ironing out some of the defensive issues, and bringing on Austin Samuels for Cooke, with Clarke dropping into midfield. There was a more solid shape, with better organisation in defence. It set the team to attack with decent effect, although they didn’t create a better chance than when Samuels latched onto a Clarke through ball but shot over.
There was plenty of decent possession, with Anthony O’Connor and Staunton encouraged to get forwards and support attacks on their side of the pitch, and French and Wood doing better in attack than at defending. Clarke continued to play well in the deeper second half role – he is in excellent form right now. Samuels remains raw, but is starting to show more of what he can do. Donaldson came to life after an anonymous opening 45 minutes. He did a decent job for the team in the habitually under-appreciated targetman role.
City produced 410 passes over the 90 minutes, which was notably better than Exeter’s 365. The majority of the contest (36%) was played in the third of the pitch the Bantams were attacking.
But when Exeter pushed forward, they looked more likely to score. They were more prepared to shoot than the hosts when in a decent position, which was nearly rewarded with a late winner. Randell Williams wasted a free header opportunity after failing to hit the target. Joel Randall had a shot on goal that O’Donnell palmed up in the air slightly unconvincingly, but the City skipper quickly got back to his feet to brilliantly deny Bowman from the rebound. Ex-History Maker Rory McArdle and Sweeney also saw efforts go wide late on. Stoppage time had followed a similar pattern to the opening stages of the game.
Exeter won the contest on expected goals (2.34 to City’s 1.83), but where it ultimately counted the Bantams dug in to take a point. It leaves them still languishing in the depths of 16th place in a league table that is now beginning to take meaning, although they are only six points off the play offs. To close that gap, City have to reduce the number of individual errors. They also need to be a greater goal threat. 42% of home shots on goal were from outside the box, which given their greater difficulty means City are less likely to score from such attempts.
Although French battled hard and showed some quality going forward, there is no escaping how much of a loss it was that Bryce Hosannah had to sit this game out through injury. The lesson gleaned all the way back in 2013/14 – when Andrew Davies and James Meredith suffered a long-term injury and Matthew Bates had to step in – is that your backline is only as good as its weakest member. And with City’s defence far from outstanding in the first place, losing Hosannah – with his natural wing back abilities – really hindered the side.
French is ultimately a centre back playing wing back, and when it comes to defending it shows. Almost all of Exeter’s best moments came from his side of the pitch.
But the fact City have dug in with yet another injury deserves credit. As supporters, it has become fashionable to react to City team news by making adverse comments about the lack of quality on the bench. Yet City have Gareth Evans, Lee Novak, Zeli Ismail, Levi Sutton, Kurtis Guthrie and now Hosannah on the sidelines. That is a significant unavailability list at the best of times, but when McCall – like Phil Parkinson – prefers a small squad approach, resources are really stretched. It is no wonder the bench looks weak.
To finally have a blank midweek will be a boost to McCall in getting bodies back, with Ismail and Evans said to be close to fitness. Although the manager will be concerned about Cooke and Clarke’s second half withdrawals through injury adding to the problems. If and when the injury backlog eases, there’s plenty of reasons to feel positive. Evans, Novak, Hosannah would walk straight into the first XI, and Ismail and Sutton would enhance the bench.
“I was really pleased with the effort from everyone and the opportunities we’ve created.” McCall summarised. “We’ve gone against a good side today and it was a good point.” It was certainly a contrast in mood from the lows of the three straight defeats at the end of October.
City have over the past fortnight played their best football of the season so far. Performances are getting better. And results are improving. There are tangible signs of progress. At least compared to the last time they trooped off Valley Parade on a Saturday afternoon.
Categories: Match Reviews