The next level

Cheltenham Town 0
Bradford City 2
Cook 12

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

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15 replies

  1. I’m very impressed with our management duo. They have us playing to a system and every player knows his role and job. The improvement in some players has been massive. Callus Cooke to name a notable one.

    I think the interim tag is designed so that we don’t lose them from the setup if they didn’t continue to perform. But I think the deserve the job full time now and I can’t see them wanting to return to the Under 18s.

    I have a feeling we will get in the playoffs and the its a lottery. But If not if we can match the January recruitment in the summer then next season will hopefully be a good one.

  2. I am excited.
    I cannot remember city winning a game as comfortably as this. I won’t go into the details or mention individuals but a number of aspects struck me.
    City were faster to the ball and stronger in the tackle.
    The much vaunted long throw was nullified by good planning and organisation.That is down to the managers thinking well.
    A city player in the first half made a great block and was surrounded by team mates. That is real team spirit.
    City outplayed outfought and defeated a good team away from home.
    I’m not thinking play offs.
    The final good news is that turnbull is already planning the transfer window.
    It’s great to be happy again.

  3. An excellent away performance from City. A classic counter attackng style and we looked liked a top 3 side today. T&S are not scared to make the big decisions in relation to not starting with Rowe over Cook. Cook worked tirelessly and deserved his 2 goals.

    The back 4 were excellent and the midfield supported them well when picking up or getting a body in the way of the second ball from numerous Tozer long throw ins.

    Lots of positives at the club at the moment and the team are still gelling together. T&S are doing are a cracking job in terms of game planning and management both on match day and on the training ground. I believe the management duo have done enough to earn a 2 year contract. They deserve the security of a contract and the opportunity to manage the club without the interim tag given where we were in the league only 11 games ago.

    19 games to play and with the current organisation, belief, depth of squad and injured players returning its not beyond this team to win 12 of the remaining 19 games to secure a play off spot.

    Roll on Tuesday for the Leyton Orient game and as the momentum and belief grows with this team anything is possible.

  4. This is the most optimistic I’ve been about City for years and the biggest frustration is we can’t be in Valley Parade to witness, live, this incredible turnaround.

    Just imagine the atmosphere that would be generated by this new era.

  5. It’s absolutely unbelievable what Mark & Conor’s Bradford Army have achieved so far with practically a new squad still bedding in & gelling pulling result’s out against top sides, surely the more they play & bond the better they will become at the right end of the season, look at all the new forward players that have come on board & they have all scored and broke their duck’s straight away, that has to be a good sign.

    After the transfer window, I took advantage of some of the big betting prices knocking about for winning the league at 200/1 & 175/1 obviously e/w at 1\4 odds for 1st 2nd or 3rd, not looking that unrealistic now, we will see what the league looks like when all have played the same games, if we continue in the same way for the next 11 games, then maybe just maybe I could pocket £13,000 or £2,742.50 as well as promotion.

    Give them the manager’s role 💯%

  6. Two goals & two assists. No such thing as too many Cook(e)s.
    (One is now top with speed of scoring, with a goal every 73 minutes; the other is 6th in the league for assists).

  7. I predict automatic promotion

  8. Really enjoyed that game – well almost all of them these days to be honest!! ! Was tipping us for the away win but the way in which we won was the highlight. It just felt so comfortable once we went in front. I wasn’t worrying that Cheltenham would get back into the game at any point. How good does it feel to think about City like that? I’m not thinking the Play Offs are a possibility now – it’s nailed on for me! C’mon City!!!

  9. Another good victory. What leads me to thinking that the playoffs are a realistic option in this season is that we have not really seen any obvious promotion candidates in the division. There are a lot of competent enough teams, often with one or two dangerous players, but no really outstanding teams. Almost every team can put in a good enough performance once and beat a team higher up it seems.

    City are showing a steel that was missing earlier in the season, and showing it consistently. If they can hold their nerve, they can make the playoffs this year. The field will be tight of course, but we can do it!!

  10. Well well well. I’m full to the brim with humble pie. In December I was trying to cajole some into a protest against Steffan Rupp and the mess that we were in. I tip my hat to him now for rolling us through financially , for allowing Ryan S to take the reigns and giving him authority to bring in Lee T and also not jumping in with an experienced manager that we all assumed was needed until the 1st 3/4 of T+S games had taken place. Since then the roller coaster of joy has been unreal. For me the identity of a team has been clear, well communicated and well played out. Love the fact we got rid of the obvious ones who were not up to it. Love the fact that we don’t try playing it about from keeper along our own area etc as if we are Man City. We tackle , fight, score, defend like a City team should. Everything for me is measured and prepared by Mark and Connor in sensible grown up fashion. Also like the way Hornby has been kept in , Paudie is a captain in waiting even if R’OD gets back in for rest of season. Cannavan is a great signing , Every one of the midfielders have stepped up their game 25% and we have a goal threat from 3/4 players with this system. I really hope Danny Rowe isn’t sulking in any way by not being straight back in or something happened as he looked unreal in those first few games especially. I also like the fact that the 1 up front isn’t expected to press and run himself ragged in this system. We do press but in an organised way from midfield. The more we play this system the better we are getting with it. Play offs or not they have made us all fall back in love with our great club and given us some real hope for the next season and beyond. Ryan’s interview on the podcast “the hard truth’ was very interesting even if he referred to JR when he meant ER !
    We’ve got some new hero’s and thank you SM for bringing in the midfield your recruitment wasn’t as bad as it looked just needed another window with Lee T and a bit of help with tactics. SM we still love you pal.

  11. it’s hard to believe that not so long ago I would have been on pins thinking the opposition would nick one and we’d struggle to see out the game.
    Today I felt so comfortable near the end and that’s a testament to the defensive qualities we now have. Canavan looks solid ,Paudie is looking like the player we signed and hats off to AOC for turning his game around. I felt Connor Wood was our best player season before last ,he’s beginning to come again, our midfield are gelling and the new signings have improved us as a whole ,but for me the one player who makes it all click is Callum Cooke who’s revitalised under this management duo who surely must be given the job fully.
    Can we make the playoffs ? , Hell ,it’s only a couple of months ago we feared the worst ,let’s enjoy the ride and see what happens , I for one can’t wait to get back to VP

  12. This is great.
    A team the fans are actually proud of.
    Such a shame.e we can not go ti VP to cheer them on. The support they would get would be fantastic.
    Keep it going city….as one fancy dan premier league club says…….TO DARE IS TO DREAM !

  13. Arguably City’s best game of the season. In particular, I was impressed by City’s first half performance against the wind and keeping the ball on the floor.

  14. They’re tactical geniuses!

  15. A couple of months ago I was in the strange position of watching City one goal up, hanging on for the win, thinking – “I remember this!” Very tense and nervous.
    What I enjoy so much abut our recent wins is the absence of these emotions. On Saturday, 2-0 up, we held them at arms length, defended with spirit, kept attacking, countered their niggling, and restricted them to one good chance.
    I felt pretty relaxed, and proud of our team.
    We have goalscorers, a rock-hard centre half, skilful midfielders, and fighters (in the football sense)
    We’ll not be bullied by anyone.
    And Danny Rowe was only on a short time but still shoved over one opponent.

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