|Cheltenham Town 0|
|Bradford City 2|
By Jason McKeown
The first stage of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars’ mission can now all but be ticked off as completed. After this, a second Bradford City victory in four days, the gap above the relegation places has been extended to a considerable 14 points. Fears of falling into the National League can surely be put to bed.
So what’s next? Stage two of Trueman and Sellars’ mission could well be to make a late charge for promotion. The Bantams now stand just seven points away from the play off places, still with games in hand on many of the teams who are setting the League Two pace. They were set to climb into the top half of the table for the first time since September, until Crawley Town struck a late winner over Colchester. Even so, City are up to 13th and making remarkable progress. Promotion? The improbable now appears faintly possible.
They underlined their potential at Whaddon Road with an impressive away victory over a Cheltenham side who sit in third place. If the defeat at Exeter two weeks ago suggested there was still a gap in quality between City and the teams at the top end, the response has been emphatic. Firstly, the defeating of play off chasing Morecambe and now this victory over the Robins – arguably their most notable win of the season.
Confidence is soaring. The team is organised, focused and consistent. Topping the form table over the last 10 games. Trueman and Sellars will understandably play down promotion talk, but they’ve given us supporters the opportunity to daydream of glory. An especially welcome gift, in the midst of continuing lockdown gloom and the daily struggles getting through the pandemic.
Just consider how bleak the situation looked just over two months ago. After the 3-1 defeat to Oldham in mid-December that trigged Stuart McCall’s sacking, City were only above the relegation zone dotted line by goal difference. 13 points from 16 games was a troubling return. With just three wins all season up to then, no one was thinking about promotion. But if anyone did torture themselves with a glance at the League Two table that weekend, they’d have seen the gap to the top seven was a whopping 17 points.
That considerable deficit has been more than halved since. In fact, City are now only 10 points off third place Cheltenham with a game in hand – they were 19 points shy of the automatic spots following the Boundary Park loss.
The form under Trueman and Sellars is proving spectacular. And they continue to demonstrate that Midas touch in the success of the decisions they make. Eyebrows were raised, and conspiracy theories aired, before kick off when it was announced Danny Rowe was again on the bench, despite his inspirational midweek cameo. But 90 minutes later, the interim managers were fully vindicated for keeping faith in Andy Cook, after the on-loan Mansfield forward scored both goals.
It took just 12 minutes for Cook to make his mark, when an outswinging corner by Callum Cooke caught out Cheltenham’s 19-year-old, West Brom loanee goalkeeper Josh Griffiths. As Griffiths was left grasping thin air, Cook stole in to head the Bantams in front. It was a crucial moment in a game where the early knockings had lacked any pattern. City did carve out one early chance when Levi Sutton half volleyed over, but otherwise had not threatened before Cook struck.
The goal advantage allowed City to set up on the counter attack. Cheltenham had plenty of the ball and impressed with their quick fire passing, but City’s high pressing meant they struggled to create clear cut chances. Their most threatening moments came from the long throw ins of Ben Tozer, which left Sam Hornby looking uncomfortable on a couple of occasions. But apart from worrying about a wide free kick attempt that smacked off the crossbar, the City stopper didn’t have a lot to do.
In front of him, the back four were outstanding whilst in the middle of the park Levi Sutton and Eliot Watt competed well against Cheltenham’s midfield five. The pair were aided by Gareth Evans, who put in a real shift when not in possession. Watching from the bench, you hope Jordan Stevens was paying attention at Evans’ workrate, after the on-loan Leeds winger did such a poor job of providing defensive protection when he stood in for Evans in the Exeter defeat.
It wasn’t City’s strongest first half performance, but not for the first time they improved after the break. Cheltenham had started the second half pushing hard for an equaliser – the talented Alfie May took advantage of an Anthony O’Connor slip and set up an attacking move that was thwarted by a crucial last ditch block from Niall Canavan. As the game swung end to end, Charles Vernam – who had a relatively quiet game – charged forward on the counter attack and saw his shot blocked. The next goal felt huge.
Cooke and Cook once again linked up to provide it. Callum had found space just inside the Cheltenham half and played Andy in behind the home back three. Cook calmly rounded the onrushing Griffiths and slotted the ball into the empty net from a tight angle. It capped off a really promising afternoon’s work for the 30-year-old – a big improvement in his sharpness and effectiveness, compared to Tuesday. Those pre-match grumbles of why Rowe wasn’t in the team were long forgotten. There’s surely no greater statement of the depth of the quality City now have that, suddenly, Rowe can no longer be deemed a guaranteed starter.
Indeed, the confident way in which City kept Cheltenham at arm’s length during the second half was an illustration of just how far they’ve come. Only five of the starting XI here played in the Bantams’ early December home defeat to Cheltenham, during the final knockings of McCall’s tenure. Five of the 18 players in the matchday squad that night have left the club. In such a short space of time, it feels like a different team compared to the grim struggles of early December. Watching the way the players calmly managed the game here made a mockery of the idea City were habouring serious relegation fears just weeks ago.
They might have made the scoreline even more emphatic, with Vernam missing a decent one on one opportunity, Watt having a long range effort tipped over the bar and Cooke shooting just wide on yet another counter attack following a superb Sutton pass. Cheltenham’s heads had dropped, but they did battle on. May sprinted clear of Paudie O’Connor but screwed his shot wide of the post. Their hopes were firmly ended in the 90th minute when substitute Andy Williams wastefully smashed a shot over the bar from a good position.
Rowe, who did eventually come on for Cook, was slightly underwhelming against big expectations. City struggled to press Cheltenham to the same level after Cook made way. You started to appreciate the tactical thinking of Trueman and Sellars in preferring Cook to Rowe. The latter prefers to drop deep and link up with others, but that means there is no one up top stretching the play. Cook performed that role today – limiting just how many numbers Cheltenham could dare to commit forward. It allowed City to repeatedly break with purpose when they won turnovers.
It was a professional away display from City. They had less possession, completed fewer passes, gave the ball away more often, and didn’t have as many shots on goal. But, ultimately, they were better in both penalty areas – the complete opposite of earlier this season. And there were so many strong performances. Callum Cooke was terrific again – what a great signing he is proving to be. The central defensive partnership of Paudie O’Connor and Canavan has the potential to prove the best in recent years.
The big question now is: what can City achieve over the final 19 games? Seven points off the play offs, when a week ago they were 11. Eight points behind fifth place, with a game in hand. Nine points off fourth place, with two games in hand. If – and it remains a big if – City can maintain their Trueman/Sellars average of 2.1 points per game, they’ll end the season with 77 points. Good enough to have finished 4th in the last completed League Two campaign (2018/19). It would also be eight points more than Phil Parkinson’s 2012/13 vintage earned en route to promotion.
This season’s League Two is a curious one. Cambridge lead the way but have already lost eight games. Just five points separate 2nd place Forest Green and 9th place Carlisle. It’s a much of muchness. No real outstanding teams. Who is there to fear? If City keep their momentum going, they’ll shortly catch up to the peloton.
Promotion talk might still sound fanciful, but that they can now be deemed to have a chance of such a prize is testament to the magnificent job Trueman and Sellars are doing. So far, they’ve confounded nearly every doubt. Answered every single question. From the darkness of December, they’ve restored smiles to supporters’ faces. Injected confidence and belief into players. Banished dark fears of a drop to the National League. And given the club a level of momentum that has been completely absent since the start of 2018 and the subsequent collapse.
The next mission for Trueman and Sellars isn’t entirely clear right now, but it’s certainly about dreaming bigger.
Categories: Match Reviews