Another Bradford City victory showcases the talents of Trueman and Sellars

Tranmere Rovers 0
Bradford City 1
Novak 62

By Jason McKeown

The decision over who should be the next permanent Bradford City manager has just got even tougher. The caretaker management team of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars continue to hugely impress, delivering their finest 90 minutes of work so far, as the Bantams ground out victory at Prenton Park. Relegation fears are easing, and the lengthy gap to the play offs is narrowing.

Lee Novak’s second half goal has made it 10 points from a possible 12 under Trueman and Sellars. Three victories in a row, for a club who had only won three games all season prior to the caretaker pair taking the reins. Novak capitalised on woeful Tranmere Rovers defending to plant a free header past Scott Davies. It followed an excellent Levi Sutton cross, and came just three minutes after a double City substitution prompted a tactical reshuffle that paid off.

The clever in-game management of Trueman and Sellars further strengthened their credentials for the vacant manager position. Before kick off, they’d raised eyebrows by tweaking their winning formula and going with a different formation – an approach that saw Callum Cooke and Harry Pritchard demoted to the bench. It was a decision partly influenced by ensuring they could maintain their freshness with games still coming thick and fast.

The changes did not work. But to their credit, they quickly reacted by altering the shape of the team midway through the first half. And, just before the hour, bringing Cooke and Pritchard on for the players who had started ahead of them, Clayton Donaldson and Gareth Evans. Cue Novak scoring and City defending resolutely to earn three points. A victory made sweeter by the fact former Bantam James Vaughan departed the field goalless and defeated.

If you want to be harsh you could make the argument Trueman and Sellars initially picked the wrong team. But their adaptability to recognise tactical issues and fix them during the match is to their credit. And the apparent thinking behind the tweaks to the strategy shows an awareness of the need for City to still improve. That the previous victories against Cambridge and Grimsby should really act as a base camp, rather than be seen as the peak of this team’s powers.

The biggest difference in City since Trueman and Sellars replaced Stuart McCall in the dugout has been defensively – and, more specifically, the number of shots on target they’ve faced. Including the five Tranmere managed here, it’s eight shots on target against City in four games (an average of two per game). A huge, huge contrast from the final four games under McCall, where City faced 26 shots on target (6.5 per game).

Making sure you face less shots on target naturally leads to conceding fewer goals (just two in four, compared to eight in McCall’s last four). Conceding fewer goals leads to more clean sheets. And that leads to more victories.

But ever since City started out again in League Two, initially under Gary Bowyer in 2019/20, City managers have faced a dilemma over how best to set up the Bantams defensively – and especially protecting a backline and goalkeeper that has remained largely unchanged over the past 18 months. The longer Bowyer went on, the more he became consumed with protecting his defence. Lining up with five at the back, and a midfield set up to prioritise guarding the backline over supporting the attack. The result was a style of football increasingly difficult to watch, and a slow drifting out of the play offs.

This season, McCall has mainly tried to play a 3-5-2 with wing backs relied on to provide attacking support, and the wide centre backs encouraged to play out with the ball. It worked okay when Reece Staunton was available, but when the promising centre half got injured McCall should have moved to a back four. Instead, he continued to play in a way that left the defence too exposed, and the concession of too many opposition chances on goal.

Trueman and Sellars have fixed that issue with the 4-2-3-1 approach, as it required the full backs to stay back, with Sutton and Elliot Watt providing protection to the centre halves. And City have ground out some very good results – some much needed victories. Steering the ship away from the fast-approaching iceberg.

The challenge, which seemed apparent in the tweaking of the starting line up today, is how to move forwards from there. The rot has been stopped, with back-to-back victories full of character and heart. But for City to really take off, they still have to be a better attacking force. Relying on stunning goals against Cambridge and Grimsby – all long range efforts – is not necessarily a sustainable way to win games. The forward line still needs to be more potent. As expectations inevitably rise again, City will need to be more than simply tough to beat.

So today, Trueman and Sellars attempted a 4-1-3-2 approach that they hoped would slightly tilt the balance towards being more effective at attacking, without losing the defensive solidity. Watt was left on his own protecting the back four, with Sutton moved to a wide right midfield position, and Billy Clarke moved to the left. Donaldson was recalled up front with Novak just behind, lining up close by Gareth Evans. It basically meant City had five outfield players who were predominately attack-minded and five defensive-focused, compared to the four-six split of before.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a tactical success. Tranmere started the game brighter, with Corey Blackett-Taylor revelling in the gap between Sutton and Finn Cousin-Dawson, giving the City youngster a really difficult time. In the sixth minute, Blackett-Taylor should have opened the scoring but screwed a shot wide after a defensive mix-up between Cousin-Dawson and Paudie O’Connor. Calum McDonald also ran into space and hit a powerful long range shot that Richard O’Donnell did well to block. Early doors, City didn’t get going. Evans continues to disappoint.

Trueman and Sellars reacted by switching back to 4-2-3-1. Clarke was moved to wide right, with Sutton pushed central and back tucking in alongside Watt. And though City didn’t especially improve – relying on long distance efforts from Connor Wood as notable goal attempts – they were more solid out of possession. Vaughan did twice pick the pockets of Wood and almost created openings, but the home side’s attacking impetus faded as the first half wore on.

It became a war of attrition that would be unlocked by the second half substitutes. Tranmere’s Keith Hill made the curious decision to replace the dangerous Blackett-Taylor in the 56th minute, whilst City introduced Pritchard and Cooke to fully restore the proven game plan. Sutton had already got forward well and almost set up a goal, just before he got in behind again to lay on the cross for Novak to score. He is making some really clever runs and linked up well with Clarke to lay on the goal.

Sutton’s emergence in form is a curious one. He is the modern day equivalent of Luke Oliver, it seems, in that they were both signed by a manager who had managed them before (in Oliver’s case, Peter Taylor), but really struggled to impress, only to suddenly come to life after the manager who signed them was sacked. And just as it was strange to ponder why Taylor couldn’t get the performances out of Oliver that Peter Jackson and Phil Parkinson subsequently achieved, it is currently a mystery why Sutton wasn’t playing like this for McCall.

There was still some 30 minutes for City to see their 1-0 advantage out, and Tranmere pushed hard. Lots of balls pumped forward, crosses into the box. But again, the back four was terrific in standing up to the challenge. Tranmere sub Morgan Ferrier did test O’Donnell, and an Anthony O’Connor mistake resulted in a chance for Vaughan that the City keeper kept out. Another sub, Paul Lewis, had a late, late stab at goal following a scramble in the City box, with Billy Clarke producing a heroic block to preserve the clean sheet.

So another credible City victory, and the Trueman and Sellars show continues to prove a hit. This was the first time their in-game management skills were evidently needed – and they demonstrated their acumen to improve the team over the course of the afternoon. The return to fitness of key players has also made a real difference – instead of bringing on Kian Scales and Connor Shanks, Trueman and Sellars could introduce Cooke and Pritchard. It must be bittersweet for McCall. As it will be for him to keep seeing that Novak has scored for City.

The hunt for the next Bantams boss has proven to be a highly confidential process – those on social media professing to be in the know have so far been proven hopelessly wrong in their forecasts. It appears Paul Hurst is the frontrunner – although the Grimsby vacancy could change that – but Trueman and Sellars are making it as hard as possible to be overlooked.

Really, they couldn’t do any more.

Despite how brilliantly they’ve done, it remains a huge gamble to give them the job and right now they are undoubtedly benefiting from reduced short-term expectations. They’re probably smart enough to know this too, hence the attempts to be more attack-minded here.

As Novak put it earlier this week, “There’s no way that we should be 18th in League Two with the squad we’ve got.” In the words of WOAP’s Alex Scott, what we are seeing is a regression to the mean. City were badly under-performing before Trueman and Sellars stepped in, and they’re still a long way short of their true capabilities in terms of the league position. It can be dangerous to place too much weight on an improvement curve taking the club from sub-standard to mid-table.

The search for the next Bradford City manager is about so much more than who can save it from relegation. This is a club and a fanbase with ambitions of climbing to a much higher level. Deeply dissatisfied with staying in League Two. And that’s what the next manager needs to be capable of delivering – promotion. Not this season, anymore, but come next August the goal is obvious.

As the bar inevitably rises, this is a managerial appointment Bradford City has to get right. Trueman and Sellars have to be in contention for the position, but – ironically – with each win they achieve, the urgency to make a decision over the next Bradford City manager actually recedes. (And also, ironically, the more attractive the position might be to out of work managers who two weeks ago might have turned their noses up at the vacancy.) The need to make a call is also eased by Lee Turnbull all but announcing he’s joined the club as “recruitment director” through his social media activity. Transfer ground work will surely be taking place.

There is absolutely no harm in giving Trueman and Sellars longer in the role. Why fix something that right now isn’t broken? But there’s an awfully long road ahead to return the club back to the level that fits its aspirations. And the strategy to get there needs greater consideration than just the form table.

Categories: Match Reviews

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20 replies

  1. A quick comment to make that the last couple of match reports (Grimsby and Tranmere) have involved a lot of input and ideas from Tim Penfold especially as well as Alex Scott. A big public thanks for their help and ongoing support.

  2. Thank you for the reviews and updates Jason – to you and your team. I’m chuffed to bits at the recent turn in form and can’t quite believe what I’m seeing. Today was a great win for us and that will tide me over till Tuesday. Thing is, I want more of this now!
    Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for 2021 to one and all.

  3. Trueman has shown more guile in 4 games than McCall has shown all season
    Sad to say
    For the first time this season we are good to watch
    Look like scoring
    Don’t look like we are going to concede every time the opposition are coming forward.
    And 3 yellow cards for deliberate fouls ..
    As against god know how many goals scored
    Trueman well done
    Keep this up

  4. Another excellent summary Jason – both of the game and our current managerial situation.
    Whilst it’s tempting to start looking upwards and talk about the play offs, we still have some big six pointers coming up. Starting with Port Vale on Tuesday plus Scunthorpe, Southend and Barrow in January.

  5. The longer the current situation is played out, the more it looks like Sparks is waiting for them to fail, in order to justify appointing his favoured applicant. A decision has to be made, without delay. You can’t expect the short list to hang around waiting for the caretakers to experience a reverse and, the longer Trueman and Sellars are in the limelight, there may be a backlash in having the pair unsettled when returning to their Academy roles, if they aren’t appointed. Be in no doubt that their success will not have gone unnoticed.

    As welcoming as this turnaround is, any delay in making a decision on the permanent role, could rebound badly on us. So, it’s time to bite the bullet, Ryan – stick or twist – you just can’t wait for things to evolve.

    Like you, Jason, I was surprised to see Lee Turnbull virtually announcing his appointment as Recruitment Director. A move that reflects badly on the club’s PR department.

    • In the first place it’s unlikely that a manager appointment would be announced over the holiday period so unfair to say that RS is ‘waiting for them to fail’. However by not acting in haste the club gets the chance to make an informed decision. I’d be more concerned about a knee-jerk reaction. Of the candidates being mentioned none appear to be stand out appointees and there’ll always be a pool of recently redundant managers to choose from. I agree that the caretakers need to be treated fairly and frankly if we got into the new year with a couple more wins I’d appoint them. The dynamic with Turnbull is a big factor and hopefully provides an effective team of complementary skills. RS deserves credit for the judgement call giving them the chance.

      • I would say that time is running out for Sparks to make a decision. I have yet to see anything from the players that indicate that they are anything but a mid-table squad. The January transfer market is only days away from starting. If there is to be any hope of improvement and potential challenge for a playoff spot then decisions need to be made sooner rather than later.

        Hopefully, this will be the week that announcements will be made on coaches and recruitment manager. After the season we’ve had it’s important that Sparks shows leadership and ambition.

  6. Remarkable change in fortunes in 4 games. The return of Novak has helped matters no end but the switch to 4 at the back with 2 holding type midfielders to protect the defence was always the way forward. A back to basic approach that has worked a treat so far.

    I really dont understand what McCall was trying to achieve with this team and the 5 at the back formation that left the team too stretched with no protection at the back and offered nothing going forward really exposed McCall’s judgements, tactics and stubbornness.

    To T&S credit they have removed the deadwood and we now have round pegs in round holes with every player knowing their roles within the team. The 2 O’Connors look much more confident in a back 4 with conventional full backs.

    This squad with 3 additions a midfielder, winger and centre forward in the window will give T&S better attacking options. However, the back to basics approach is pushing the club towards mid table and safety something that looked impossible only 4 games ago.

    The more games the club continues to win under T&S the more likely Sparkes will give the dynamic duo until the end of the season and then review in the summer. It’s only 4 games but the improvement in style, formations and results deserves credit and has made my christmas a much happier one and its feels like we are at least on the road to recovery. Great result today and here’s hoping for another victory on Tuesday.

  7. I rarely disagree with anything you write, Jason. However when you say that ‘The search for the next BC manager is about so much more than who can save it from relegation,’ I have to disagree.
    The first priority of any manager post McCall has to be the avoidance of relegation.
    The current team of Trueman and Sellars are clearly on the way to achieving this first all-important objective.
    But a corollary of this – especially so early in the season — is not only that the team moves up the table but that the play-off places (not to mention the the top three) become a real possibility.
    The objective then changes, but that surely does not demand a change of management. You just have to keep winning football matches in a division where you have already shown your competence.
    You may gain promotion. Do you then immediately fire those who got you there because the new division will provide a greater challenge? Almost certainly not.
    This brings me to your point about an overarching strategy. Yes, I agree there should be a corporate objective and a cogent strategy to achieve it. This is the task of those who run and own the club. But, unless you have an Alex Fergusson in the hot seat, is it realistic to think that you can appoint a manager to carry out to conclusion a carefully thought out five year plan, say, when the turnover of managers for so many different reasons – even at the highest level – is so alarmingly high?
    Surely managers are employed initially to achieve a short term objective: get us out of the relegation zone, get us promoted, consolidate our position in the league we’re in etc.
    It is unrealistic to think that, at the lowest level, you can find one man who will even want to stay for 5 years, say, let alone have the ability to see through an ambitious long-term (in football terms) plan.
    Let’s just see how far T and S take us.
    However far they do take us, unless they really are Clough/Taylor clones, they will soon enough promote themselves above their own capabilities.
    And then we will have to appoint someone else to take us on the next step of the journey.
    For now let’s forget about employing a new manager. The time when we have to will, in all likelihood, come about sooner rather than later.
    Let’s back T and S for now and (hopefully) enjoy the ride.

    • Interesting piece Mr Haine, however, your point, and I quote, that we should “forget about employing a new manager” is far too short sighted in my opinion. I fear that a handful of victories is leading your emotion here. Every organisation requires a clear management / leadership structure and the appointment of someone to this role is vital..and quickly (for the record, my vote would be to promote T&C to this role). Should we continue as we are, there will come a point whereby the players start to drift and wonder who is actually in charge for the foreseeable future. Results will consequently worsen and an inevitable relegation battle would ensue. BCFC owners and fans have always been guilty of letting their emotions rule their heads (hence we’ve employed McCall, a clearly average at best manager, on three separate occasions to do nothing but worsen the position of club). Should we wish to progress properly, I believe this club needs to be taken in a more “business-like” direction (Peterborough and Brentford come to mind). Clear strategy and a long term management ethos is vital, with significant investment needed in the club’s infrastructure to build a more sustainable and successful future (recruitment, scouting, academy etc). Provided the long-term strategy is communicated well with the fans, we can all climb aboard and hopefully see this team progress up the leagues again..and the appointment of a manager as part of this vision is required ASAP.

      • Kingstonian Bantam, a very good post. If Trueman and Sellars are the ultimate choice. I would also expect the appointment of an experienced recruitment manager or possibly a director of football. This would ensure at least one person with experience managing a professional football club.

      • Sorry, Kingstonian Bantam, that I did not spell it out that the new manager should be announced with immediate effect: Trueman with Sellars as his right hand man.
        Your point about objectives and a detailed strategy to get there (investment in a scouting system, better medical facilities, academy coaches, training ground improvements etc) is, of course, true but these are areas for the people who run and own the club.
        The manager is of paramount importance but to expect one individual to see your grand vision through to the end is naive.
        Managing football teams is not an exact science; there will be bumps in the road. When these occur it may be necessary to replace the incumbent and hope the new appointee can get the dream back on track.
        I hope this may clear any misunderstandings on your part.

  8. “The lengthy gap to the play offs is narrowing” is true with the points difference to seventh placed Exeter City being eight points although they have a game in hand and a far superior goal difference. We are still nearer to the relegation zone and I believe that the WOAP team are teasing their readers with brief mentions of the play offs in their last couple of game reports!
    That said, the results in the past four games have been quite remarkable. Credit to everyone involved for their input.
    Still a long way to go this season and a lot of hard work required to maintain our league status.
    The appointment of the next manager remains an intriguing one too.

  9. Great piece Jason – These fellas Motivation is genuine and not buzz words laden. Maximising potential of the players by putting them in the right positions and not expecting miracles of them. Systems simple and straight forward. Tactical awareness during a game. Calm demeanour. All attributes that have served well at academy level. Trueman has respect from players. he’s still a player himself semi pro level which will be respected along with Sellars who’s played at same level and father was a more than decent player and now a respected coach with Wolves. I’m at a point where is simply don’t give a damn who the gaffer is on paper after witnessing Dolan Kamara and Jewell all start off in the same way I ask myself why not? What have the others potential guys really got to offer that is so so special? Keep us up lads, build a back room and infrastructure team around yourselves like Parky did and make it happen. If we can’t afford the back room team then do what James Mason cajoled us to do with a new scoreboard and get a whip round going I’m sure we would all chip in to get another scout or 2! (Tongue in cheek but partly I mean it) Getting out of this league and level isn’t about over complicating things it’s the opposite of that. Lee Turnbull acquisition is encouraging on lots of levels and maybe just maybe Mr Rupp has clocked on that we need some extra infrastructure to progress. Our club needs it and our fans deserve it. PS – IMO judgment on Evans continuing to disappoint seems a little early and harsh given match fitness levels. Barely had 2 hours on the pitch with us yet. Feel sure he will come good as we progress. Here’s hoping. Seasons greetings to all.

  10. Thanks for the report Jason (and Tim).

    Given the Tuesday / Saturday / Tuesday schedule I wasn’t surprised to see the Caretakers make changes. I also think the roles that Pritchard and Cook are currently filling are the roles where the Caretakers have options and they need to see what works. As others have pointed out, credit to them for recognising it wasn’t working and changing it.

    The Caretakers have bought the decision makers (we’re still not sure who’s making the decisions by the way…) some time to make the right managerial appointment for the club’s future. It’s no longer an urgent search for someone who can stop the rot. As you point out, the club is more attractive to potential managers four matches on but should the club really be considering managers now who weren’t interested less than a fortnight ago?

    I would like the right team to take the club forwards. If that means the caretakers jeep the job until summer then so be it. But we mustn’t lose sight of how much good work these two have done developing younger players and we don’t want to jeopardise that with short-term and perhaps romantic thinking that we’ve found our “Pep”.

    If the club has finally learned from its short-termism and is trying to define its ethos and appoint a head coach to work alongside a recruitment manager then they could do a lot worse than have the two caretakers working with the next generation of Bradford City footballers.

  11. The stand in manager is that a stand in, who has done a great job and should be involved in the first team squad from now on as coaches, but have they got the experience and contacts in the game to move city to the next level , at this stage I don’t believe we can take that gamble ,I know if they win the next two home games the momentum will build to appoint them on a permanent basis , in my view i would go for experience other than that I would look to get a director of football on board and give them until the end of the season.

  12. I’ve not seen so many youngsters brought through on the fringes of the first team since ????

    Some of this was brought about by our injury situation, but long may it continue.

    What we don’t want to do is jeopardise this work and if the two incumbents do return to their former posts, let’s hope that they don’t take the huff and they carry on in the same manner as before.

    The worry is that they “take their bat home” if not appointed full time against their wishes.

    Let’s hope not!

    We could have nuggets in these two, to provide a steady stream of home grown products that’s not been seen before.

    We do seem to have a very good development set up in place (for all age levels) which is surprising considering the mess the rest of the club appears to be drifting along in.

  13. Whilst there is no doubting the coaching ability of Trueman and Sellers we still have an unbalanced squad, short on quality, a few bad eggs in there and a need to make changes to sustain the recent upturn in form. As long as there is someone with good experience looking at this behind the scenes to assist the caretakers then fine with me.

  14. You talk of the need to improve our attacking force and can’t rely on worldly goals. However we’re left with one decent striker in Novak and the last piece of the jigsaw according to McCall is more Bradford park avenue standards. What we do see under the new management team is that we are now creating chances, Novak and Pritchard both missed when clean through against Crawley, we made plenty of chances against Cambridge with both Novak and Cooke failing to put the game to bed and similarly Cooke should have hit a 3rd at Grimsby near the end. McCall was not playing exciting attacking football but toothless attacking and leaving us open at the back. It was a collection of hardly a shot on target, totally disorganised at the back, players looking unfit. To put it in perspective if we win on Tuesday night Trueman in 5 matches equals McCalls points total that he achieved this season.

  15. Trueman & Sellars, have fallen into a situation that they would have never expected to happen, working with the youth development bringing players on and having the no pressure to change and switch things to try and get the best out of youth players is something they do day in day out and it is obvious they know how to set up with formations of protecting defense and reducing shots from the opposition, and from the Tranmere game they did change the set up and soaked up all the pressure from Tranmere, made two changes and bang a goal for City to defend, and this is what these two are quite good at taking the lead and holding out, calm, controlled and full of grit, the scene’s after the game show that in abundance.

    So here we have a situation that is working with season pro’s and all the team look confident and happy within their roles playing with more freedom, Levi Sutton is like a new signing from a league above, I still think more improvement is required to continue but with Trueman & Sellars + Lee Turnbull and the January transfer window we could be onto something special as they know what is required to tweak and add to the mix of a team they have turned around within 4 games 1 draw and 3 consecutive wins.

    If we beat Port Vale on Tuesday, once again Bradford City go into the history books.

    Thanks to Trueman & Sellars.

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