Crawley Town 1
Pritchard (OG) 25
Bradford City 1
By Jason McKeown
This was the type of reset, back-to-basics performance that Stuart McCall was unable to find over his final weeks in the dugout. The rot of six straight defeats was stopped by the caretaker management team of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellers. And a base camp established that can hopefully act as a launch pad to better things.
It wasn’t pretty. Cohesive football was in short supply once more. But a safety-first approach, with players showing discipline to keep in a compact shape, was a big step forward. Overall pass completion, possession and shots on goal was comfortably below City’s average this season. But on tackles attempted and successful interceptions, there was progress on what has taken place so far this campaign.
The Bantams were vastly improved defensively. Trueman and Sellers opted to return to four at the back, with the two O’Connors of Anthony and Paudie lining up as the two centre halves for the first time since the end of Gary Bowyer’s era. They lack balance, given they both prefer to play on the right side of defence. But the pair were organised, hard-working and solid. Setting the tone for the rest of the team.
Ben Richards-Everton was nowhere to be seen. McCall will argue he had no other options after Reece Staunton was injured, but giving Richard-Everton so many opportunities – only for the player to let everyone down – contributed to the City legend getting the sack. With Richards-Everton in the side, City have won just 15% of their games. Without him, it’s a still-not-great-but-notably-better 30% win ratio.
City were much better without the former Accrington centre half. And much better in a rigid shape that saw Lee Novak deployed on his own up front in a 4-2-3-1. It won’t win points for style, but it did earn City a precious point.
The Bantams took a surprise early lead when Novak capitalised on a dreadful piece of goalkeeping from Crawley’s Glen Morris, after he spilled a dangerous Austin Samuels cross into the striker’s path. And though Crawley responded soon after when Anthony O’Connor gave away a daft free kick – which Harry Pritchard inadvertently headed into his own net – the home side were frustrated for long periods.
Crawley edged the first half for sure. Despite City’s greater solidity, the Red Devils continued to find joy on the flanks, as Sam Matthews and Jake Hessenthaler kept getting behind Connor Wood and Finn Cousin-Dawson. The latter was making only his third ever senior league start, and asked to play out of position at right back. He struggled from the lack of protection Samuels offered in front of him. An issue Trueman and Sellers clearly sought to address at half time.
For in the second half, Crawley’s threat rescinded and City had a very good spell that was unfortunate to go unrewarded. Samuels, Pritchard and Novak all tested the reflexes of Morris with some decent on target efforts. Callum Cooke, Elliot Watt and Levi Sutton were effective in the middle, linking up well to create these opportunities. Cooke (86%) and Sutton (79%) had the best passing accuracy out of everyone on the park. This was arguably Sutton’s best performance in a City shirt so far.
Novak’s presence up front tonight should not be underestimated. The Geordie striker held up the ball well but was also adept in running at people and finding space. He has already proven himself to be City’s most effective striker by some distance this season. And his recent prolonged absence from the team has really hurt the Bantams. That’s now five goals in 10 games this season.
If McCall was watching online tonight – and you suspect he wouldn’t have been able to resist – he would surely have been left ruing what difference a fit Novak might have made over the last few weeks.
Although Crawley came on stronger in the final 30 minutes, particularly after the introduction of Ashley Nadesan and Nathan Ferguson on the hour, in truth the pressure was sporadic rather than sustained. Richard O’Donnell had nothing to do. It’s telling that Crawley did not muster a shot on target all night (Pritchard’s own goal hardly counts). City’s rearguard action successfully frustrated them.
So all in all, an encouraging night for the Bantams. They showed that they can dig their heels in. And the frustration only grows, in many respects, that McCall didn’t continue to deploy the more basic approach he used against Cheltenham two weeks ago, where City were unfortunate to lose. A gritty point against Carlisle or at Oldham, and the tide might have started to turn sooner.
But equally this remains a group of players that are difficult to trust. Anthony O’Connor and Paudie O’Connor were excellent here, but they have let down City and McCall several times this season. How do you get them playing at this level of positive intensity week in week out? These are the standards they must maintain, but unfortunately history suggests they won’t.
It’s similar for Wood, Sutton, Samuels, Cooke, Watt and Pritchard. Not everything they tried came off, but they each showed good levels of application. Perhaps that greater endevour came from each City player knowing that their next manager was probably watching and judging.
In the last minute of the game, Anthony O’Connor almost accidently trod on Nadesan, causing the pair to start shoving each other. Within seconds, almost every single outfield player had rushed over to join in, sparking memories of the infamous City-Crawley brawl in 2012.
Ultimately this was tame compared to that dark night under Phil Parkinson – which saw five players sent off – but just like eight years ago, the collective willingness of City players to stand up for one another was in its own way heartening. Maybe this lot aren’t a complete lost cause after all.
With Stevenage having to sit out two rounds of fixtures due to a Covid-19 outbreak at the club, Grimsby and Barrow in freefall, and Mansfield’s resurgence slowing, the opportunity is there for City to start scrambling away from the bottom two. If they can build on the no-frills approach displayed here and maintain this belated show of steel, they should continue to rise. And this night might ultimately be remembered as the moment Bradford City began to come back to life.
Categories: Match Reviews