Bradford City 1
Donaldson 11 (pen)
Oldham Athletic 2
McAleny 18, Rowe 47
By Jason McKeown
“No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse.”
After a week of off-the-field announcements advocating the virtues of stability, this dreadful defeat was another sharp reminder of the urgent need for Bradford City to demonstrate they’re not heading down the wrong path.
The current situation is only getting darker. Signs of green shoots of recovery are becoming increasingly hard to find. There was no let up on the recent misery. No prospect of a third round FA Cup tie to spark some much-needed excitement. Oldham’s comfortable victory consigns the Bantams to concentrating on the league. Where they desperately need to rectify their unrelenting decline.
And they’ll have to do it with the huge handicap of their best defender being ruled out of actions for months. Reece Staunton’s unfortunate midweek injury reoccurrence against Leyton Orient has done more damage than just costing City a share of the points at Brisbane Road. His now-confirmed long-term absence is casting another shadow over Stuart McCall’s side.
It is yet another injury that a thinbare squad lacks the quality to compensate for. And is perhaps the most crucial one yet.
Staunton is rightly winning plenty of admirers for his performances so far this season, and his value to Bradford City is truly amplified by their struggles to cope without him. At Salford last Saturday, McCall had tried to minimise the loss of Staunton’s influence by sticking with the same approach that was showing signs of promise, only for the team to fall apart without him. No wonder the manager had been so desperate to put Staunton straight back into the team last Tuesday.
Without the 18-year-old’s services again here, this time McCall opted to alter the team to compensate for the lack of an alternative left-sided, ball-playing defender. The 3-5-2 was switched to a straight 4-4-2, designed to make allowances for back-up centre back Ben Richards-Everton’s weakness in passing. But the move only served to neuter the strengths of others.
Billy Clarke, for example, was shunted to a left wing role that he is simply unsuited for. Pace is not amongst Clarke’s qualities, so he struggled to run past defenders or get back to provide defensive support to Connor Wood. Also asked to play a different role was Anthony O’Connor, who was pushed into the middle of the park and looked every inch a defender playing defensive midfielder. Ultimately, he and Elliot Watt were overrun by a vibrant Oldham.
Still, for a brief few moments, it threatened to be an afternoon of positivity for City. They actually started the game well, with the more direct approach initially pushing Oldham back. In the 10th minute, Clarke’s cross into the box found Clayton Donaldson, who was tripped over for a penalty. The veteran forward calmly chipped home the spot kick himself, and City had their first goal in two-and-a-half matches.
But just like on Tuesday, the injury curse struck again – changing the outlook. Zeli Ismail was making his first start since he went off at half time of the Wolves Under 21s Football League Trophy game with injury. And after just 14 minutes, the Albanian winger pulled up again. Playing on the right, Ismail had started promisingly and was proving adept running at people whilst keeping the ball. Something that couldn’t be said of his replacement, Dylan Mottley-Henry.
Within minutes, Oldham were level. Conor McAleny cut inside from Bryce Hosannah – the on-loan Leeds defender was also making a return from injury, but looked slightly off the pace – and he struck a thunderous shot from distance that flew past the helpless Richard O’Donnell.
It was Oldham’s first attack. And the goal seemed unjust at the time. Although it wasn’t long before they stamped their authority on the contest.
The effectiveness of City’s 4-4-2 approach faded without the outlet of Ismail to stretch the play, and Oldham began to enjoy more possession. Harry Kewell’s men kept laying in wait to counter attack in numbers and at pace. City lacked the ability to win the turnovers, with Anthony O’Connor, Clarke and Watt easily bypassed. And there was too big of a gap between City’s midfield and back four, leaving Paudie O’Connor and Richards-Everton struggling to judge whether to attack the ball or run back towards their goal.
If you’re going to play 4-4-2 you have to be compact. The backline and the midfield four have to move up and down the pitch whilst maintaining the same distances between each other – as do the forwards. The ball has to stick up front. And when possession is lost, the team needs to have a clear shape to be ready to win it back.
None of these things happened.
The Oldham chances began to pile up. McAleny got in behind Paudie O’Connor and produced a great piece of skill, only for his shot to fly just wide. From another counter attack, Wood was committed too far up the pitch and the ball was worked into the space behind him. A cross into the box left Brice Ntambwe with an almost open-goal, but he somehow prodded the ball wide.
McAleny produced a good save from O’Donnell, and then from the same attack hit the bar with a powerful header. Danny Rowe had effort that deflected just wide. Ben Garrity shot wide after another counter attack caused by Anthony O’Connor weakly giving the ball away.
McCall tried to stem the tide by moving City to a 4-3-3, with Mottley-Henry pushed forwards to support Donaldson and the quiet Austin Samuels, but they were hanging on for the half time whistle. Oldham pressed well. They were full of confidence and vigour. Fuelled by the boost of winning their last four away games.
The half time break could have brought salvation for City. They remerged from the dressing room several minutes after Oldham, as McCall looked to reshape his charges. He choose to return to 3-5-2, with Gareth Evans brought on for Hosannah. It worked better than the first half formation, but not until after the team gifted Oldham a second goal.
There was no danger it seemed, as Rowe held up the ball on the edge of the City box and began ambling back with it towards the half way line. But Richards-Everton followed him closely, moving himself out of position and leaving space that none of his team mates noticed. Rowe suddenly turned Richards-Everton with a great piece of skill, and was left with a clear run at goal and all the time he needed to pick a shot. The finish was superb, flying past O’Donnell. But the defending was absolutely pathetic.
Where do we go with Richards-Everton? He is not a McCall player for sure but the fact Staunton is the only other left-sided centre back option keeps giving him opportunities in the team that his performances do not deserve. He has let McCall, the club and us supporters down so many times already this season. And yet here we are, with very little choice but to persist with him. It’s a real problem. You can’t trust him.
Davis Kellior-Dunn could have finished the game off shortly after, but O’Donnell made a fine block. This was the City skipper’s 100th game for City and – given what has occurred since his arrival in the summer of 2018 – it was probably fitting that such a landmark moment was marked by a dismal loss. But for all the critics of the City keeper over recent weeks, he played well here and kept the score down.
In fact, O’Donnell’s heroics meant City continued to have a chance of forcing an equaliser and extra time. Whether Oldham dropped off, or the Bantams improved, is hard to tell, but over the final 30 minutes the home side did force some pressure. Donaldson headed a Wood cross wide, and Evans should have netted his first goal since returning when a loose ball in the box fell at his feet, but he took to long and his shot was deflected wide.
City won plenty of corners and throw-ins in dangerous positions. They worked the ball back and forth across the two flanks, to try and get crosses into the box. But it was all a bit too slow and predictable. They lacked the sharpness to really trouble Oldham, with the pace in the attack a huge contrast to what the visitors offered for long spells.
Ultimately, the quality just isn’t there. Mottley-Henry is trying, but he lacks the confidence, bravery and speed of thought to create chances. Evans did play pretty well, and the return of Callum Cooke – as a second half sub – offered promise. But in all honesty, did City ever really look like they were about to score? One shot on target all afternoon tells its own damning story.
With Staunton out for months, the problems are mounting. Just how does McCall set the team up from here? The 3-5-2 won’t work if there is only one centre half capable of bringing the ball forward – Anthony O’Connor – and the other two senior centre backs – Ben Richards-Everton and Paudie O’Connor – can’t defend when there is a gap in front of them. Meanwhile, the attack is too toothless to score anywhere near enough goals to make up for the fact the backline can’t keep clean sheets. McCall cannot afford to give Clarke such a peripheral role again
It’s hard to see how it won’t get worse before it gets better. But City cannot afford to go on like this. They are dangling too close to the relegation zone for comfort, and the potential cavalry of January recruits is at least eight games away.
McCall has to find solutions right now. The club’s show of confidence in him this week – in awarding him a new contract – is very laudable. But without an upturn in results, it will do nothing to appease the growing group of supporters unimpressed with the way the manager is going about things.
This is a really serious situation. Bradford City cannot afford to be relegated out of the Football League. Supporters need reasons to feel calmer about the situation. That can only come with results.
The decisions announced this week – the promotion of Ryan Sparks to CEO and extension of McCall’s deal – have very understandably split opinion. As fans we have seen the club go backwards and backwards since the summer of 2017. The failures in leadership are there for all to see. The atmosphere and mood is getting more and more toxic. We need reassurance and positive answers to the ever-louder questions being asked.
Right now, believing that Sparks is the right CEO and McCall is the right manager requires a leap of faith. Some of us are willing to make that leap, others very understandably are not. At least not yet. Only time is going to tell if the right moves have been made.
Ultimately the club is only going to be successful if everyone can get behind it. That’s only going to start happening if the ship turns before it hits another iceberg. If visible signs begin to emerge that City are taking the right path. If as fans we actually see something that we can believe in.
So the next few days, and next few weeks, could be absolutely vital in setting the tone for the months ahead. Bradford City has to start delivering now. Otherwise, winter really is coming.
Categories: Match Reviews