Bradford City 1
Cheltenham Town 2
May 45, Clements 76
By Jason McKeown
Stuart McCall has staunchly held onto certain principles over his managerial career. He will always set up his side to win matches, even though he admits that in the past such an ethos has sometimes cost his team points and hastened his own unemployment.
But in these increasingly dark times, this is not a moment for idealistic fundamentals. And so tonight, McCall did something that went against his managerial characteristics.
He went ugly.
With Bradford City going through such a torrid spell, and the injury list growing further in volume, McCall took a pragmatic approach by setting his side up in a dogged, safety first manner that – frankly – befits the desperate situation. A 4-3-3 set up that reverted to 4-5-1 when City didn’t have the ball. Defenders were asked to perform unfamiliar jobs, in a line up designed to provide solidity over flair. To no longer be so open, only to be cut to pieces, for the sake of principles.
McCall got an encouraging performance as a reward. A much improved display in adversity. One that offers greater hope for the future, at least compared to the past three defeats.
But he also got the same result. A fourth straight loss, and a slip further towards the most dreaded of relegation zones.
It was a defeat that was so, so hard to take. McCall will rightly argue that his team did not deserve to lose. But not for the usual reasons that he likes to highlight – the attacking intent of his team, or having greater possession. It was because they went down fighting – really fighting – and the greater spirit on show deserved more reward.
McCall has made an awful lot of mistakes this season. But this was the right approach for him to take right now. Earlier in the season he seemed too trusting of his ability to set up the team in different, dynamic ways – when he patently didn’t have the quality in the squad to embrace his attacking bravery, compared to the squad of his second managerial spell. He went back to a 3-5-2 approach that suited his players. But injuries have mounted and confidence has dipped.
It needed to go even more back to basics.
So tonight we saw an approach that would not have looked out of keeping with the Phil Parkinson years, especially those troubled early days when City were last in this sort of position. The team was encouraged to be more direct. To not be overly worried about making mistakes. Or booting the ball into row Z. To be compact, stop crosses and work harder off the ball. Win those second balls.
Stand up. Be counted.
Ben Richards-Everton’s presence in the team continues to rankle, but tonight he flourished in the more dogmatic team approach. He is undoubtedly more comfortable in a back four than the three centre back approach, and he did well dealing with high balls into the box. In the second half, Richards-Everton produced a stunning off the line block. He’s not going to win any awards for style, or find any sudden popularity from fans, but he genuinely did a job for the team.
To make the back four work, Anthony O’Connor was shunted to right back. Again, a nod to the Parkinson days – the modern day heir to the Marcel Seip throne of 2011/12. Anthony O’Connor looked awkward at times and was caught out on a few occasions, but he stuck to his task. You want a right back to be better on the ball. But Anthony O’Connor’s willingness to sacrifice his comfort meant City had a more physical presence. It also allowed Paudie O’Connor to look more capable than he has in weeks.
The Anthony right back experiment meant Bryce Hosannah was asked to play a wide attacking position that he performed extremely well. The on-loan Leeds youngster was up for the battle and helped City win the ball higher up the park. He showed much-needed composure with the way he ran at people with the ball. And he was arguably City’s strongest attacking threat.
Dylan Mottley-Henry played on the opposite flank. He remains a player painfully short of confidence but at least put his body on the line. Tonight, his quality on the ball was typically lacking but off the ball he was more effective. The smallest of steps forward, from a pretty low base.
In the middle of the park, Eliot Watt lined up with the returning Callum Cooke and Kian Scales – making his full league debut. Not everything they tried came off, but they stuck closely together which allowed them to link up effectively at times. We need more from Watt, but he is only young still. Up front, Clayton Donaldson toiled hard before the veteran predictably tired over the final thirty minutes.
In normal, less pressurised, less bare-bones times, would Richards-Everton, Mottley-Henry and Scales be in the starting line up? Would Anthony O’Connor be pushed to right back? Would Hosannah be turned into an attacking threat? Would Donaldson need to plough a lone furrow up front, with no one to share the responsibility with?
Not under McCall’s watch, usually. But needs must. Billy Clarke, Gareth Evans, Reece Staunton, Lee Novak, Kurtis Guthrie, Levi Sutton and Zeli Ismail were all unavailable. McCall shook off his values and was more practical-minded than he has been all season.
And so a team fighting relegation was set up like a team fighting relegation. Reality has well and truly bitten.
The agony lies in the fact that it almost stopped the rot, yet ultimately didn’t. City started the game with a good structure and solid intent. Scales had an early volley that deflected wide, which came from a long Richard O’Donnell punt that was flicked on by Hosannah.
Football, but not as we know it under McCall.
Richards-Everton – who dealt well early doors with the threat of Ben Tozer’s long throw in, attacking any ball into the City box – should have put City in front. Paudie O’Connor’s header had been unconvincingly palmed away by Cheltenham keeper Josh Griffiths and fell into the former Accrington man’s path, but he shot wide with the goal gaping.
But Donaldson made the breakthrough soon after, getting up well to head home a Cooke cross with Griffiths caught in no man’s land. And the form book – not to mention league table – threatened to be turned upside down. “I thought when we were fresh and energetic, we were terrific,” McCall would later reflect. “We limited a good side.”
Second place Cheltenham struggled to offer any attacking threat, although Liam Secrombe did hit the bar when the visitors got in behind Anthony O’Connor. City were largely defending well. Watt threw himself in front of one effort, Mottley-Henry tracked back to successfully block crosses. It wasn’t pretty, but the Bantams stopped the visitors getting into a rhythm.
Just get to half time…
Alas, in the 45th minute, Cheltenham equalised when the excellent Alfie May’s shot clipped off Paudie O’Connor’s foot and deflected into the net. City heads dropped, and they only just made it to half time without incurring more damage. It was a real body blow moment, for a team with such a lack of mental toughness.
Sure enough, over the second half the performance began to unravel for City. They lost some of their compactness, and were less of a threat. Hosannah’s run onto Cooke’s through ball and low one-on-one effort that bounced agonisingly wide of the post was as good as it got.
There was a return to old habits of playing it out from the back, leading to possession being lost in the middle of the park, as home players attempted passes through the eye of the needle. The ball was no longer sticking in the final third.
But it was the fatigue and fitness that sped up City’s demise. With fitness issues so prevalent, and players rushed back into action sooner than would have been ideal, there were players in the side who were in no position to last the full 90. The substitutes had to add to what City were trying to achieve, not weaken it. Unfortunately, the early endings for Hosannah and Cooke had that diminishing effect. Tyler French and Harry Pritchard couldn’t offer the same thrust.
As if to rub salt into the wounds, it was a Cheltenham substitute who struck the winner. Chris Clements had started the Robins’ last eight games but was afforded a breather by being rested up for the first half. With 14 minutes to play, the former Grimsby, Mansfield and Crewe midfielder stole clear of the ball-watching Scales to head home a flick on, following another Tozer throw in.
City had put so much energy in the game, but were running out of steam. Austin Samuels was brought on and Richards-Everton pushed forward to beef up the attack, but once again barely a chance was created. Wood’s long shot from distance fizzed just over, but that was as good as it got. So many times City stupidly gave the ball away or just launched it forwards with no thought. They fought right to the end, but were undermined by their own lack of quality.
“I think it was really cruel on them,” McCall stated. “They gave everything they had tonight, and I don’t think we could have got more out of them with the shape we had and the way they worked. Decision making and a bit of quality were lacking. But the spirit and togetherness, the desire is all there.”
It all leaves City dropping to 21st place and the pressure cooker only building. More players are expected to be back fit for Saturday’s visit of Carlisle, but it feels like we are building up to a make or break moment in City’s season.
They simply have to avoid a fifth straight defeat.
McCall can go into a huge, huge game with some crumbs of comfort. The pragmatic approach is not how he would want to manage in the long-term, but right now he has to get results and what was encouraging here is that it almost worked. Tonight, he showed he was a better manager than recent results and performances have suggested. But it won’t count for anything if the first half display isn’t replicated and built upon on Saturday.
It’s all about stopping the leakage and turning the ship around. If McCall can get a couple of results, instill confidence and get more players back from the treatment room, the more open and expansive stuff can return with City on a surer footing.
But if he can’t get results – new contract or not – some tough decisions lie ahead for a football club who simply cannot afford to be relegated out of the Football League.
Categories: Match Reviews