|Grimsby Town 1|
|Bradford City 2|
|Novak 21, Sutton 45|
By Jason McKeown
When you’re on a car journey, there is often that moment where you’ve endured the frustration of being stuck in a traffic jam or behind a very slow driver, but finally you get through and there’s a clear road ahead – enabling you to accelerate with glee.
That is what it feels like for Bradford City right now. The road rage has subsided and the engine is purring. The Bantams have found a higher gear, charging away in the fast lane – especially in the first half at Blundell Park, where City raced past Grimsby thanks to a pair of sublime goals. It tarmacked the way for back-to-back victories and seven points from the last nine.
It is a Bradford City win that lifts the club to 18th position – the highest placing for a month. They’re seven points clear of Stevenage and Southend. The bottom two sides do have games in hand on City, but with only five league victories between them you’d struggle to make a convincing case for them quickly catching up. The relegation fears are disappearing from the Bantams’ rear view mirror. Whisper it with caution, but the play offs are only 10 points away.
This was another evening when the caretaker management team of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars greatly impressed. The settled 4-2-3-1 system – with same XI – provided the platform to another effective display. The balance of the team is much greater, with Elliot Watt and Levi Sutton doing a great job of protecting the defence, enabling the four attacking players in front of them to push forwards.
There is less adventure in City’s approach. Less freedom to express and attack in numbers. But the rigid, organisational style has been vital in turning around the six-game losing run that did for Stuart McCall. The recently sacked manager could often pick a team packed with forward-minded players in the belief that they would overrun the opposition. But he neglected to adequately consider the actual winning of the ball that would provide the foundations to successful attacking football. Trueman and Sellars have fixed this issue.
In the first half, Grimsby suffered from the growing restoration of confidence within the Bantams ranks. Compare and contrast the start to this game with the Oldham defeat just 10 days ago. City did not begin here with any notable attacking impetus. They did not race forward in numbers. But they also ensured they didn’t hand the initiative to the hosts by conceding a soft early goal.
It is not football to set the pulses racing, but it does lead to a very, very satisfying outcome.
21 minutes in, Callum Cooke sent over a cross that took a slight deflection. Lee Novak chested the loose ball down, before producing a glorious overhead kick that flew over the badly-positioned James McKeown and landed into the net. A goal of stunning quality. Harry Pritchard’s claim to the goal of the season – following his wonder strike against Cambridge on Saturday – was suddenly ripped out of his grasp.
Yet even more remarkably, Novak’s wonder strike was arguably eclipsed by City’s second. Billy Clarke angled a delightful through ball into the path of the late-charging Sutton, and the summer signing produced an audacious lob that McKeown had no hope of keeping out.
2-0, at half time, through two of the best goals you’ll see anywhere. The dark clouds that had engulfed City over recent weeks have firmly lifted.
But before any City supporter got too carried away, an early second half Grimsby goal from Harry Clifton put the game back in the balance. Ian Holloway – who had made a double substitution at half time – pushed bodies forward. The two ex-Bantams lining up as Grimsby’s wideman – Kyle Bennett and Filipe Morais – caused lots of problems.
But though Grimsby won the possession battle and bettered the overall shots and corner count, in truth City looked more comfortable than the scoreline suggested. Richard O’Donnell had very little to do, as his defence did a good job dealing with balls into the box. It was powder puff from the home side. At no stage did they seriously look like they were about to equalise. Although Holloway did claim, “I thought we played better than we did on Saturday, but we won Saturday.”
If there is a club that has especially suffered from the pandemic, it’s surely Grimsby Town. Back in early February, when McCall first took charge of City again, the Mariners had rocked up at Valley Parade with nearly 3,000 fans. They were reinvigorated by Holloway, and though the play offs looked beyond them it felt like they would be really set for a promotion push this season. But robbed of that sea of support at games, and after a seemingly difficult transfer window, Grimsby are drifting badly amid acrimonious takeover activity. They looked a side bereft of quality here.
Indeed, City might have made the game even safer, coming on stronger in the closing stages thanks to the positive impact of Clayton Donaldson and Kurtis Guthrie. A particularly brilliant piece of link up play between the pair saw the ball worked to Cooke at the far post, and he all the time to pick his spot. But the shot on goal lacked conviction, enabling McKeown to block. Had Grimsby earned a late equaliser, Cooke’s miss would have felt extremely costly.
So where has it all suddenly gone so right for City? As ever, there are many reasons rather than one overarching factor. Though Trueman and Sellars deserve credit throughout.
Firstly, the tactical switch to a back four has paid huge dividends. Especially the removal of Ben Richards-Everton, who was badly letting everyone down. Sutton has added bite to central midfield, whilst also helping Watt rediscover his mojo.
The second factor is the return of key personnel who were badly missing during the final few weeks of McCall’s reign. The returning Novak’s influence is there for all to see – two goals in four games since finding fitness, making it eight goals in 18 games since his January arrival. He is proving to be an inspired piece of business left behind by Gary Bowyer.
Clarke has been instrumental as well. All of City’s best moments this season have occurred with Clarke around the team, and when McCall lost him after the Oldham FA Cup loss, there was simply no like for like replacement. Much was said early doors about whether Cooke and Clarke can play in the same team. But the record with the pair in the side (City have won 60% of the games Clarke and Cooke have both started) compared to when one or both are unavailable (City have won just 6% of these games) is incredibly stark.
Whatever the feelings about McCall’s performance as manager, there is no denying that the injury list during his final few weeks was a really telling factor in the poor run. At the absolute worst moments – the losses to Oldham in the FA Cup, plus Cheltenham and Carlisle in the league – there was nothing on the bench. McCall had no options that could seriously improve the team in the closing stages, and they became weaker each time. The difference tonight – with Guthrie, Donaldson, Gareth Evans and Austin Samuels options to come on – was huge. In those final 20 minutes, City grew stronger and successfully kept Grimsby at an arm’s length.
The third point is the players are trying harder. Harry Pritchard has not exactly been subtle in his criticism of life being a little too easy under McCall, and evidently the recent bounce does not reflect well on the City legend. But there is little doubt, also, that a few players really let the former manager down for the way they performed. Watching the two O’Connors mop everything up tonight was great to see, but can they both claim they were showing the same level of application a few weeks ago?
That the players are showing more effort and endevour is great credit to Trueman and Sellars. But it will also be likely because of a desire to impress the next manager, whoever that might be. And perhaps, for some, with an eye on the transfer window. They key question is can these players maintain these levels of workrate and dedication? Past history offers reasons to be sceptical for now.
Finally, this is a team that is not facing the same level of adversity as it was a few weeks ago. They’ve taken the lead in all three games so far. And whilst scoring first is hardly a guarantee of success – look at the Oldham cup loss and Cheltenham league defeat – this is not a team with a great record of coming back from a losing position. They’ve gained only five points so far this season from losing positions. It is a team that gives up.
The latter factor remains the biggest question mark against giving Trueman and Sellars the job just yet, if – as reports suggest – they are increasingly in the frame to be appointed full time. They have done a brilliant job reviving sagging spirits and turning around a worrying league position. Tactically, it’s been very good. But there are bigger tests for them to face. Perhaps only when they endure a set back can a decision really be taken on giving them the job.
But the biggest thing they’ve achieved so far is enabling the club to slow down the urgency of recruiting the next Bradford City manager. It’s working really well right now, so why rush in to change it again for the moment? Especially if the long-hinted recruitment manager comes in to take a lead on the fast-approaching January window.
There are big doubts about whether the caretaker team is the right one to take Bradford City forward at this stage of their careers, and in light of the challenges the club still faces. But for now, there is absolutely no reason why Trueman and Sellars shouldn’t take the team at Tranmere on Saturday, and indeed the home game against Port Vale on Tuesday. They’ve more than demonstrated they can keep the car running.
Categories: Match Reviews