|Bradford City 1|
|Mansfield Town 0|
By Jason McKeown
Considering the way their careers have quickly climbed to such stratospheric heights, there remains a remarkable level of calmness in the way Mark Trueman and Connor Sellars speak. But it’s perhaps evenings as labouring as this that explain why the Bradford City managers remain so grounded about the record-shattering progress they’re achieving.
This hard-fought, battling 1-0 win over Mansfield Town means the Bantams have recorded five successive wins for the first time in 17 years, lifting them into the highest league position of the campaign, with the gap to the play offs chiseled down to just three points. But it was by no means a convincing display. The visitors merited more than a fourth defeat in five. They pushed City all the way, but a lack of conviction in front of goal betrayed their purposeful efforts.
It was a crawl rather than a sprint over the finishing line. And that’s been a notable part of the story of City’s stunning run of form. Of the now-10 amazing victories in the 14 games Trueman and Sellars have overseen, eight have been achieved by a single goal. City are beating all before them, but success is being habitually achieved through fine margins rather than being delivered at a canter.
Trueman and Sellars might still be relatively new to this Football League managerial game, but they’re clearly not daft. Those fine margins can easily go the other way, and they seemed guarded against getting carried away. “There’s loads of things to work on and improve,” reflected Trueman after the match. “But if we can win games that way we’ll take it.”
In so many ways, this Bradford City team reflects the personality of their managers. They are not flashy. They do not play with a swagger or an arrogance. They just quietly get on with the job, chalking up victories with a devastating level of consistency.
The players look incredibly organised, displaying commendable assurance from knowing exactly what they need to do. If, at the top of English football, Liverpool have made their name for playing “heavy metal football”, this Bradford City team are producing soft melodies that subtly lift your spirits and leave you feeling warm inside. It is invigorating if not always pulsating.
Whatever feelings of injustice Mansfield Town will take with them on the journey home to Nottinghamshire, the bottom line is Nigel Clough’s men didn’t register a single shot on target all night. They edged possession and won more than twice as many corners as their hosts, but Sam Hornby was protected magnificently by the back four.
It’s a common theme of recent weeks. In both good and average spells of overall play, City have developed an uncanny ability to keep their opponents at an arm’s length. No shots on target for Mansfield tonight, after Walsall, Leyton Orient and Cheltenham were each restricted to just one shot on goal in the games before that, and Morecambe had only two on target attempts before that. It all means that, across these five straight Bradford City victories, they’ve let the opposition collectively have just five shots on target.
That is mightily impressive.
Mansfield’s best moment of the night came with the game less than two minutes old, when Jason Law produced a wonderful curling effort at goal that flew past Hornby but smacked back off the post. The visitors were compact in their 4-3-3 set up. Winning the ball high up the park and knocking it around with no little creativity to try and find gaps. But City just defend incredibly effectively. When the ball is worked into their box, they are organised and methodical in snuffing out the danger.
It can look untidy at times. The Bantams give away an awfully large amount of free kicks in the wide areas or in front of their box. But it all seems to be part of the plan when there is any hint they might be about to be stretched by the opposition. Take the foul, stop the momentum and regroup to successfully defend the free kick. Which they invariably do. “We’ve set the foundations collectively in how we defend, how we press from the front, but also in how we defend our box,” Trueman added.
On a night where none of City’s attacking players really hit the heights they are capable of, the home side found joy in playing on the counter attack. Charles Vernam’s pace is a real threat that was sorely missing in the City’s armoury before the January window. At one point he intercepted a pass and carried the ball from his own half to the edge of the box, and he was only stopped by a crude foul from Farrend Rawson.
On the opposite side in the attacking midfield three, Oli Crankshaw produced a mixed display but showed flashes of his talents. Callum Cooke continues to look a player reborn. Even if not everything he tried came off, he rarely seems to lose the ball. Eliot Watt and Levi Sutton were once again solid.
But much of the headlines will go to the man brought back in up front, Danny Rowe, who netted the game’s only goal just after the half hour mark. City had won a free kick that Watt swung over the Niall Canavan, and his header towards Rowe caught Mansfield unawares. Rowe delivered an exceptional side footed volley that Aidan Stone had no chance of keeping out.
The crown on Rowe’s head has slightly fallen of late after such an attention-grabbing start to life at Valley Parade. The illness he suffered at the start of February has had a lingering impact on his fitness, and performances began to dip, with Andy Cook stealing a march as first choice striker.
But with Cook ineligible to play, Rowe took his chance and looked much more his old self. Over the game, Rowe had five characteristically powerful attempts at goal that kept Stone on his toes. It was a welcome reminder of his qualities, especially after his less than inspiring substitute cameo at Walsall on Saturday.
The second half proved to be a war of attrition. Mansfield continued to push City back, but the defence was exceptional. Anthony O’Connor does not look like a centre back playing out of position, and he produced several terrific clearances and blocks. Connor Wood has benefited from getting back to basics and was solid, whilst the two centre halves Paudie O’Connor and Canavan mopped everything up.
What a brilliant signing Canavan is proving to be – against some heavy competition, he might just be the pick of the January bunch. “He talks really well and helps the players around him,” Trueman enthused of Canavan, adding of the back four, “Collectively as a unit they’ve got that togetherness.”
In the final minute of normal time, Mansfield’s Ollie Clarke somehow headed the ball wide after latching onto Law’s corner. And the midfielder’s swift demise from potential Stags hero to villain was sealed in the 93rd minute, when in frustration he swung an elbow at Wood. A deserved red card, as much for the intent as it was for the amount of contact he made.
If Mansfield had possessed a more clinical striker, it might have proven a different story. And that, coupled with the impact he’s made at Valley Parade, makes Clough’s decision to allow Cook to join City all the more curious. Since Cook left Field Mill on loan, Mansfield have won just one of their subsequent seven games, scoring just six goals along the way. One wonders what Cook – watching on from the Main Stand – made of his parent club’s toothless display in front of goal.
But if Clough might be facing some uncomfortable questions from his own fans, for Trueman and Sellars the supporter goodwill towards them continues. It’s now 33 points from a possible 42, and a climb of 12 league places. Oh, and in case you’ve forgotten to check recently, City are now 20 points clear of the relegation zone. “Are we mathematically clear [of relegation]? That’s our focus,” Trueman batted back when asked about rising expectations.
The next three games look really, really interesting. On Saturday Bolton travel to Valley Parade – the only team in League Two who can edge City’s form over the last eight games – for a true test of both teams’ resurgence. Then on the Tuesday, City travel to previous League Two pacesetters Newport County – who are fading fast. Before they go to Carlisle United the Saturday after – the Cumbrians are another frontrunner now stumbling to stay in contention.
The nine points up for grabs represent a real opportunity for City to demonstrate their promotion credentials. To make that scarcely believable leap into the promotion places. And to have City supporters believing that a return to League One could be on the cards.
Just don’t expect Trueman and Sellars to start sounding giddy.
Categories: Match Reviews