|Leyton Orient 1|
|Bradford City 0|
By Jason McKeown
No one is in the mood to indulge in a hard luck story. Not after the year we’ve just had. And the year before that. And the year before that too.
So it barely matters that Bradford City did not deserve to lose this game. That for a good hour of this contest with Leyton Orient, the visitors were the better side and carved out several promising chances. That the balance of the team looked better. That Austin Samuels and Clayton Donaldson showed signs of forming a competent partnership. That this was much improved on Saturday’s abject hiding to Salford.
It barely matters, because Bradford City lost. Again. A sixth defeat in nine matches. And it pushes them a further place down the league, to the troubling position of 20th in League Two. Two points above the relegation zone. Their next league opponents, Cheltenham, are second in the table – with double the amount of points the Bantams have recorded.
You just despair. It’s cruel to do this, I know, but it’s almost exactly three years to the day that City had just recorded a 1-0 away win at Shrewsbury to climb up to fourth in League One. They’d recovered, it seemed, from the heartache of losing the 2017 League One play off final. They were pushing for the Championship, again.
2018 would prove horrendous. 2019 barely any better. And now 2020 – the most challenging of all years for everybody – has offered no football-related relief for us long-suffering Bradford City supporters. It’s just getting worse and worse.
How we could do with a team capable of grinding out a 1-0 away win, like the Stuart McCall side that defeated Shrewsbury three years ago. There was a mental toughness about the Bantams then, which has subsequently proven impossible to regain. A resilience. A spirit. A club where fans and the team were on the same wavelength, refuelling and inspiring each other.
Not like now.
When, 64 minutes into a contest the Bantams had up to then bettered, Jordan Maguire-Drew swung over a free kick and Dan Happe found space between two City defenders to head home, a weary sense of familiarity crept in. It was Leyton Orient’s only attempt on target all evening, but was entirely preventable. Paudie O’Connor had given away the initial free kick cheaply, and Happe was granted too much space.
Teams that habitually concede goals like this aren’t unlucky. They get relegated.
It was a goal that undid a great deal of promise. With Billy Clarke and Reece Staunton surprisingly able to return to the starting line up, City looked much stronger. Clarke slotted into the number 10 role that Callum Cooke had been playing well in before injury. He provided a good link between Eliot Watt and Levi Sutton and the front two. When the ball went to Clarke, it stuck, and this allowed Connor Wood and Tyler French to get forward.
It looked good from City. Samuels is beginning to show what he can offer. He has a good turn of pace and looks increasingly confident running with the ball. Donaldson continues to exceed some admittedly low expectations and perform the targetman role with some effect. For periods in the first half, City were quick in tempo and bright in their passing.
Wood had two decent chances that arose from getting forward and cutting in, but his shots on goal went wide. From a brilliant piece of passing football, Wood was able to set Clarke up for a header that flew just over. Clarke had another shot that deflected off a defender and forced Lawrence Vigouroux into an excellent block. Donadson, Samuels and Anthony O’Connor also tested Vigouroux.
The return of Staunton at the back made such a difference to City. They were confident bringing the ball out from the back, linking up in midfield. They dictated the tempo, and Orient looked second best. But they didn’t score when they were so on top, and that came back to bite.
The game really went away from City when injury struck. 10 minutes into the second half, Staunton went down and was in no fit state to continue. The gamble of rushing him back for this game ultimately didn’t pay off. Within five minutes, McCall also elected to take off Clarke – the plan was probably to always give him an hour, but seeing what happened to Staunton probably spooked the manager.
Staunton and Clarke have arguably been City’s two best players this season. And when not available, the side has suffered. So when they went off, the momentum went away from City. Ben Richards-Everton and Kian Scales could not match the performances of the players they replaced.
It was a painful turn of events. 55 minutes, Staunton off. 60 minutes, Clarke off. 64 minutes, 1-0 Leyton Orient.
But we don’t have patience for hard luck stories. And besides, tales of misfortune struggle to hold weight when the reaction to going a goal down was disappointing. City couldn’t recover from the blow of conceding. The composure, authority and confidence of the first half faded into the East London night. Without doing a great deal themselves, Orient saw out the remaining 25 minutes in comfort.
It’s the lack of intelligence in the team that infuriates. The poor defending from the goal, but then the lack of fight to come back. The unnecessary mistakes, and the woeful passes, quickly tallied up. The ball was rushed forwards with little thought. The side woefully lacks a character to calm everyone down and get them playing again. It was as though they’d forgotten everything they had done well up to going behind.
There was no threat of an equaliser. A couple of free kicks into the box caused a bit of discomfort, and City earned a few corners, but there was no sustained pressure. The expected goals graph of Bradford City’s performance shows they stopped creating anything the minute Clarke left the field.
Three years on from that win at Shrewsbury Town, and City have subsequently won just nine league games on the road. Frighteningly bad.
We’re all familiar with the current storyline, but the problems still need to be mentioned. In his previous two spells as manager, McCall was always successful in inspiring players to give everything they have. He’s not getting that same response from these players. They’re not running through brick walls for the club. And that’s a real concern, because if the quality is lacking you at least want to see players show the right commitment. Clearly, confidence is a real issue.
As for McCall, it’s becoming painfully clear that the small squad ethos he choose was the wrong one for this season. The games are too compressed, throwing up the greater risk of injuries flaring up. City need far greater depth. We need players on the bench who are capable of improving the team over the 90 minutes, not weakening it.
McCall has once again made clear he does not intend to bring in any out of contract players, reasoning that it would take four weeks to get them up to speed. On the one hand this logic is understandable – the January window opens in five weeks – but the fear is that there is so much football to be played before any cavalry arrives. Even if a player signed this week can’t play until late December, the chances are we’ll still be desperate for more bodies by that time.
It also leaves a large reliance on the January window to fix the problems. And, well, the club’s form of addressing problems in that window in recent years is utterly appalling. It’s a library of farcical tales and shattered promises. It has to be different this time.
Whichever way you look at it, there are no quick solutions to the current issues. The injury situation will hopefully ease, but results will continue to be overly influenced by who is in the treatment room. All McCall can do is build on the positives that were in evidence tonight. And keep that tin hat on, as social media criticism intensifies.
“It’s not a good position to be in,” McCall reflected after the game. “We’ve got to keep at it. But I’m not stupid and I understand people’s frustrations and grievances. As we stand here at the moment it’s not good enough, but there have been mitigating circumstances.”
McCall was defiant about his future too. “Give me 18 months here and I will get the club back where we want to be, I’ve got no doubt about that,” he explained. “This will end up – and always was always going to be – my last job in England. Either being really successful or unsuccessful.
“I know what’s been going on at this football club behind the scenes for the last 18 months and I know where this club is at this moment. On the pitch not good enough, no doubt about it and I can’t make excuses for that. But I’ve still got a belief that I can get it moving. I’m going to do absolutely everything I can in my power to get the club back to where we want to be.”
What has become painfully clear is that this season is not going to turn out how we’d hoped. The expectations of a promotion push are sadly giving way to merely surviving. A mid-table finish will be gratefully accepted if it was offered at this point. Because when you look over your shoulder, it’s incredibly worrying.
Ultimately, this club has not rebuilt from its falls of the recent past. Short-termism has been corrosive and continues to be. If results don’t improve soon, some tough decisions might have to be taken. We all know how this plot goes.
It may yet get worse before it gets better. Or it might continue the form of the last three years, and just keep getting worse.
And that’s a story no one wants to experience.
Categories: Match Reviews