A familiar story, but more dogged Bradford City performance offers a route to get out of the growing mess

Bradford City 1

Donaldson 23

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

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19 replies

  1. “McCall has made an awful lot of mistakes this season.” Jason, so very, very true and yet most of your readership are unlikely to wholeheartedly support that view.

  2. A disappointing end to the evening but, for once Jason, I think you have been a little too negative. Sure they tired but I certainly thought they did better than your report suggests. Maybe it’s because we are coming from such a poor standard. but I thought we did enough to get a result tonight. City do lack quality in many areas but they couldn’t be faulted for effort.

    • Cheltenham Town, played an extra 30 minutes over the weekend. They had a lengthy coach journey.
      Why is it that Radio Leeds and others always talk about tired legs and fatigue, in relation to City and not the opposition? Does the fitness coach work with the players, the three physio’s condition them and McCall and Black employ them in a manner which means they do not tire to such a degree, that they ‘run out of steam’.
      Perhaps in the first half City did enough to ‘get something out of the game’, however the full 90 minutes ended up with a fair, if displeasing result.
      Jason’s report coincides with my own view. I would add poor passes from the O’Connors and being caught in possession.
      I struggle to see how DMH gets a slot, I watched Wood look to see who was in front of him, realise it was DMH and play a pass backwards. It was symbolic in my view.

      • I’m becoming a stuck record on this topic, but also question the mounting body count- almost all hamstring injuries? And yes, the fatigue. Surely the issues (lack of pre-season etc) apply to every other club. So why are we struggling markedly more than other clubs with these things? Is there an underlying issue with our fitness regime compared to other clubs?

  3. Good points Jason praise with a hint of realism ,but if you talk to other supporters it’s very worrying regarding what they think of the club and the uptake for season tickets next season there’s no signs of any ambition ,it just seems to be happy for the club to tread water simply not good enough and the club will pay the price with the erosion of the fan base ,a lot have just about had enough of city management and how distance they are ,and where is the plan for the way forward where’s the vision and leadership this can only come from owner,he really does need to come out and lead from the front admit that mistakes have been made and he his prepared to finance the club with investments to get some positivity in to the club and it’s starts in January with the transfer window.

  4. Watt frustrated me with attempting Hollywood balls whenever he had the chance to pass forwards when a simpler pass would be more effective. Hes good at receiving the ball under pressure and wriggling out of trouble, but needs to move the ball quicker and shorter after that, or else work on the accuracy of his long passes.

    Scales looks promising, it’s to be hoped we dont over-use him in his first season at this level like Staunton. His shot in the second half was terrible but I like that he attempted it. As you say in the report Jason, we’re judging things from a very low base, but his performance was encouraging.

    Can’t fault DMH for effort, but surely with the games and years under his belt he should be showing more than he does. Hes not a fresh 18 year old, and looks well below this level.

    Thought the O’Connor twins were both at fault for the equaliser, both caught out of position and slow to react.

    Over all, this wasnt an “oh FFS!” type of performance, but all this feels scarily academic. I genuinely can’t see things improving until January at least, and we all know how bad we are in that window.

    Would the club survive relegation to the NL? Especially if it became more than a flying visit? would we be able to afford our rent and bills or have to leave VP and try find a groundshare?

    Feels like we’re staring into the abyss.

    • Bit harsh on EW. His form has dipped a bit but as you say he is quality in a tight spot and when he is on it his range of passing is good. Better decision making will come with experience.Thought he put a shift in last night without the ball and the “hollywood” pass to BH was class and could have been a game defining moment. Together with Staunton summat we can build on for the future.

      • Fair point on the near assist, that was quality. Harsh I may be but was just an observation from last night that it was the biggest part of his game missing. Wasnt singling him out as such, more that he clearly does posses a bit of quality and would be good to see him very his passing.

      • Pass of the night that. There is a lot more wrong with this side than Watt. I think he is a positive signing by Stuart who will improve with experience and better players around him. A lot of fans appear to forget that a lot of our squad was playing youth football earlier this year. And players like even Paudie have just over a season in league experience/appearances.

  5. When i saw our team sheet and bench i thought anything other than a tonking would be great so was pleasantly surprised with the performance and result to some extent.

    Players like Scales, in a normal season, should be on for 10/15 mins here and there but we are having to rely on them from the start in tricky games.

    We miss Novak and a fourth striker (Guthrie) because Donaldson can only manage 60 minutes in reality and has to play as a lampost for the last 30.

    Disagree on Watt though, with what the carnage he has going on around him, being 20 years old and having played almost every game, I think he is doing remarkable in the circumstances.

  6. Where among the City faithful did the argument we needed to rebuild a new team from scratch get eroded away you seem to think buy a few players and its done get on with it and why are we not top of the league by now and because we are not, Sack the manager get rid of all the players We need new owners, I hope no-one takes much notice of all the rants and ravings going on right now, IS it not the Fans that need settling down for a while, Stop nit picking player mistakes and managers decisions and start to support show you are sportsmen after all, We need to be fair minded and I’m sure most of you know a new team needs loads of time to Gel together get to know how each other plays and work things out even in the heat of battle on the pitch, Old and young players even fit and not so fit, Looking back at all the players and managers we have rubbished over the last few seasons and the network of people they will talk to Do you think any one decent will come to Bradford just to be rubbished if they don’t make it in the first few games, Would YOU.
    But on a better note it does seem that Stuarts team is nearly through the mincer and is emerging out the other side as a team YES a team one that is putting up a bit more fight and not going under so easy and yes it will always make mistakes But its something that can be worked on and bettered. Only hope you all stop moaning and get on the hard ride with Stuart and he gets his team to top half of the table……..Don’t know how the moaners and groaners will feel then glad for your help and support

  7. David, what you’re requesting is tantamount to expecting people to go out in six inches of snow in just swimming trunks and flip flops. Anyone in any doubt as to the seriousness of the situation, needs only to look at the league table. Don’t kid yourself that we’re building anything at the present. It’s a constant downward spiral.

    • Well Steven even you must agree we cannot fall much further this season so why not try and be optimistic show support for the team and manager If it works we might have a team and we cannot get relegated until after the last match so we have a way to go just yet

      • Yes, David. We all hope for the best but these last few years have proved tiresome.

      • David, I think optimism is the wrong term. I think the better term is FAITH. Reality check: City are currently flying on one wing and a prayer. I think it’s quite normal for fans to question the logic that supports the recent CEO appointment and contract extension. Both are BOLD decisions and truly requires a leap of FAITH.

      • Yes, I support that, albeit as Phil W says, its faith not optimism, hope over expectation. The one comment I disagree with in Jason’s article is that this Saturday is a MUST win game. Certainly, we are desperate for a win. Bit if we lose that, what then? With 30 plus games to play?
        It’s a marathon, and we need the team to show grit & determination in EVERY game. And we need to keep willing them to do that.

  8. As you rightly suggest Jason all City fans who watched last night’s game will be praying that come Saturday we can at least match this level of effort and performance and ideally build on it. But we seem to manage one half decent effort and then fall back into the mire of incompetence, lack of focus and half hearted effort.
    I was worried by McCall’s comment after the game that he doesn’t know where we are in the table; indicating that he would only look it at when we started winning again. Mmm …that could be sometime yet. By implication, it seems to me, he is not thinking about an escape plan. We need one. The detail is for him, Black and Sparks to work out but it needs to have targets (maybe 20 points by Xmas ?); targetted games where the points might most realistically be gained and a clear commitment to recruit two or three fit and tall players in January, not injury prone lightweights. (Cheltenham have a squad of just 22 – but all would appear fit as a butcher’s dog – just good luck or part of a carefully thought out plan ?).
    If he continues acting like Mr Mikawber (‘something will turn up’) he may not survive long into 2021 and the club, likely as not, will follow him into oblivion.

  9. Agree with much of what you say in that there was an improvement in certain aspects of our play, however we were still woeful in certain aspects of our play. How many times do we surrender possession with sloppy passing. Woods throwing going for a dead ball, French running the ball out of playing and Paudie passing into touch under no pressure was amateurish and you could even say unprofessional.
    I don’t think we were that unlucky either – look at the stats. Cheltenham had more possession, more shots, more corners, better pass completion, more dribbles – that doesn’t seem too unlucky to me.
    Of the missing players Guthrie Sutton wouldn’t improve us. Only really Staunton and Novak come in that category.

  10. Bradford City are in almost exactly the same situation Bradford Park Avenue was in their last 5 years in the League, but they were saved by re-election until the other League clubs got sick of them. If we finish 23rd or 24th we are out. We also had an absent chairman; but Herbert Metcalf actually put money into Park Avenue until he died. We have one that doesn’t seem to care if we live or die.

    The best I can see is us avoiding relegation. There is noting in the ownership, management, players and support that suggests we can ever do any better.

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