|Bradford City 2|
|A O’Connor 28, Vernam 63|
By Jason McKeown
On the rarest of moments – and it really is rare – the lack of crowds inside stadiums can be a blessing. So it was 62 minutes into this hard-fought League Two encounter, with the game tied at 1-1, when the Bradford City managers Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars introduced the fit-again Danny Rowe from the bench.
The Bantams were playing one up front once again. And the expectation from City supporters watching at home was to go for a more adventurous set-up in order to win the game. But instead, Rowe was brought on for lone forward Andy Cook – a like-for-like change that kept City playing just one up front.
In more normal, fans-present-at-Valley-Parade times, it would have been a moment where collective groans would have filled the air. How many City managers in the past have been criticised for making like-for-like substitutions? But with supporter dialogue consigned to households, WhatsApp groups and social media, Trueman and Sellars had no concerns about crowd feedback influencing their decisions.
They have the upmost faith in their 4-2-3-1 formation approach. And it was a confidence that would be quickly rewarded. Within a minute of the straight swap for Rowe, the January arrival turned and ran with the ball before spraying a pass out wide to Charles Vernam. The fellow transfer window signing – making his home debut – cut inside and delivered a cross that evaded everyone and ended up in the back of the net. Two goals in two games for Vernam, who like Rowe is hitting the ground running.
It was a goal that earned City three precious points, lifting them to 16th in League Two – their highest league position since early November – and within genuine touching distance of climbing into the top half of the table. The cushion above the bottom two is a healthy 11 points now.
Testament, once more, to the virtues of the settled 4-2-3-1 formation that Trueman and Sellars have largely maintained since they were first put in charge, two months and one day ago. It is a system where City look organised and tough to break down. Proving the platform to play some very attractive football.
The cultural challenge Trueman and Sellars still face is that this is a club and a fanbase that retains a deep-seated love for a 4-4-2. Supporters have habitually accused past managers who went with one up front of being too negative. On the risk vs reward spectrum, the dynamic duo’s 4-2-3-1 is a much more cautious set up than Stuart McCall attempted, and as expectations rise it is one that the pair will inevitably face criticism for.
But tonight will give them a lot of confidence in sticking to their principles. As they demonstrated how 4-2-3-1 can be the right approach even in adversity.
At WOAP we wrote only two weeks ago that two of the biggest unknowns of Trueman and Sellars is they had yet to be tested with falling behind in a game, and they hadn’t had the opportunity to show how they would respond to a defeat. Tonight, we got some answers in the shape of City’s first come-from-behind victory since September. It was a positive response, also, to the Exeter City defeat 10 days ago.
It wasn’t always pretty, and the Bantams were far from brilliant over the 90 minutes. But there is plenty to admire about the way they dug in after the set back of falling behind in the ninth minute. Heart to take from the bright, methodical manner they attacked and earned an equaliser midway through the first half. Encouragement from how they improved significantly after the break, earning the breakthrough through Vernam’s winning goal. And pride about the way they held out for victory with relative comfort.
More than anything though, it’s the self-assured manner in which City are passing the ball that offers the greatest encouragement. Morecambe can reflect on the match statistics that showed they had more attempts on goal and won more corners, which indicate they merited the three points. But City had 63% possession, and a 76% pass success rate that was comfortably above their 69% average for the season.
In contrast, Morecambe’s pass success rate was a dismal 52% – in other words, one out of every two passes they attempted saw them lose possession.
Of City’s 487 passes attempted, 368 were accurate – that’s more than double the 147 accurate passes Morecambe managed from 284 attempts. Callum Cooke successfully completed 93.9% of his passes, Niall Canavan – who had an excellent full debut – kept City in possession 84.8% of the time. Elliot Watt was just behind with 80.3%. Morecambe’s best passer from their starting XI? Nathaniel Knight-Percival with a 69.6% pass completion. Eight of City’s XI bettered that ratio.
It was this greater care in possession that ultimately enabled City to wear down a spirited Morecambe side who possessed plenty of talent. They are a typical Derek Adams side, ugly on the eye. Some very good players that are clearly being utilised effectively, given the Shrimpers’ impressive league position; but it’s not a style of football you’d pay to watch. A good job then, perhaps, that rumours of City’s interest in Adams to succeed McCall seemingly came to nothing.
Adams will feel, with justification, that his team were unlucky to lose this. The early stages of the second half were wide open, as both teams attacked. And the dangerous Carlos Mendes Gomes got in behind the two O’Connors, with just goalkeeper Sam Hornby to beat. The Spaniard got his feet twisted, and Anthony O’Connor nipped in behind with a crucial touch that stopped Gomes’ charge but left him lying on the ground.
City hearts were in mouths, but no penalty was given. “Seen them given” is probably a fair description of the validity of the visitors’ appeals.
And that wasn’t the only big decision to go against them. Vernam’s winning goal had more than a hint of controversy about it, as his cross was almost converted by Gareth Evans who was probably just offside. Evans didn’t touch the ball, but certainly tried to. And his actions could be argued to have affected goalkeeper Kyle Letheren’s decision-making. A tight call, that City benefitted from. Them’s the breaks.
What was perhaps the most bizarre aspect was the similarities between Vernam’s match-winning goal and the way Morecambe had taken the lead early doors. Attacking the Kop end, the ball had been worked to Morecambe’s right side where winger John O’Sullivan ran into space left by Connor Wood. His cross strangely looped away from everyone, and flew into the net past Hornby. Two goals in the same match, from the same side part of the pitch, that were crosses gone wrong.
It wasn’t Hornby’s finest moment, and threatened to lead to a post match inquest over why Trueman and Sellars had kept faith in their back up when Richard O’Donnell was fit to return, at least on the bench.
It’s been a curious few weeks for Hornby – his biggest opportunity, yet, to make an impression at Valley Parade, with a clear run of games. But all the match postponements have robbed him of more game time, and right now the jury remains out on whether he should have a future at the club beyond his contract expiry in the summer. Is he good enough to be Bradford City’s first choice goalkeeper? We still don’t know.
Morecambe’s early goal was a bolt from the blue after early stages that had no real pattern – both sides creating a good chance, with Vernam shooting wide after great work by Wood and Levi Sutton. But rather than allowing the Morecambe’s breakthrough to rattle them, there was an encouraging level of composure from City and they grew into the game.
Having not quite been at their best in recent weeks, it was a welcome return to form for Watt and Sutton – who are striking up an excellent understanding in the holding roles. At one stage Watt weakly lost the ball, but then quickly won it back, set up an attack, and won the ball back straightaway when that attack had broken down. You forget he is still only 20. Sutton excelled in bursting forward with the ball. His energy is infectious.
It was Sutton who set up City’s equaliser when he ran into the box and received the ball, before turning and laying it back into the path of the onrushing Anthony O’Connor. The make-shift right back – who had an excellent game – struck a shot that deflected off former Bantam Kelvin Mellor before bouncing into the goal.
Morecambe had their best spell in the 17 minutes in-between City’s equaliser and the half time break. But the defensive solidity provided by the 4-2-3-1 meant there were few visitor sights on goal. Still, there were a lot of corners conceded by City during this spell, and some untidy defending led to dangerous free kick opportunities. Trueman and Sellars will have spent the half time break making clear their displeasure at aspects of the performance.
City were much improved after the break. They survived the Gomes scare and Mellor should have done better when played through on goal in a wide position. But there was good City play too. One particular passing move between Anthony O’Connor, Levi Sutton and Callum Cooke was delightful, ending with City’s number eight shooting just wide. Cook also headed over after Anthony O’Connor teed him up.
It wasn’t a great night for Cook. Given a full debut – after the Scunthorpe game was called off – he was too isolated. It threatened to expose the limitations of the 4-2-3-1 – at least until Rowe came on and showed much better mobility and movement than Cook. The on-loan Mansfield man lacks the presence of Rowe and also Lee Novak. He will need to show more if he is to nail down a starting berth in a team with just one opening for a striker.
Rowe’s instant impact in setting up Vernam was just the beginning of another impressive run out for a player who is fast becoming a City cult hero. As the Bantams played out the final 25 minutes with one eye on getting a third, Rowe produced a beautiful piece of play and cross from out wide that Vernam wastefully headed over. Another terrific Rowe cross almost saw fellow substitute Oliver Cranksaw tap home. No matter, as the home side held out.
It was a really good City win. One that re-injects enthusiasm after the mood was slightly dampened by the Exeter defeat, Scunthorpe abandonment and Salford postponement. Performances were strong across the park – Paudie O’Connor continues to impress, and his partnership with Canavan has real promise. Gareth Evans, now that he is fit, is starting to look like a very good signing, and Cooke and Vernam were also excellent. If 4-2-3-1 sounds negative, the bright attacking movement of Evans, Cooke and Vernam provides genuine flair that is difficult to play against.
The players are bought into the system, and it’s offering the balance between defending much better than earlier in the season whilst attacking with greater purpose. The new additions are starting to prove their worth, and the substitutes bench is looking its strongest all season. It can only get even stronger too. Bryce Hossanah, Reece Staunton, Billy Clarke and Lee Novak are all still to come back into the mix when fit.
Nights like this should offer a real confidence boost to everyone connected with the club. The managers have a clear plan, which is getting the best out of the players. The underachievement of the first few months of the season is being rectified. And, for the first time since McCall’s sacking, they had the opportunity to demonstrate that the foundations are stronger than before. Something they showed by bouncing back from defeat, and by recovering to win after falling behind.
Little by little, bit by bit, it’s getting better and better.
Categories: Match Reviews