|Bradford City 1|
|Bolton Wanderers 1|
By Alex Scott
Daniel Ellsberg is probably most famous as the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, but in a previous life, Ellsberg was a respected Harvard economist, who even developed his own eponymous paradox, still discussed by academics today.
The Ellsberg Paradox establishes the human tendency to strongly prefer definite information over the unknown, the devil they know, so much so that people often make decisions that damage their own interests as a result.
Sam Hornby sprinting up to the Kop end to try get on the end of a last-gasp Elliot Watt corner certainly classed as caution being thrown into the wind. For almost the first time in their three-month tenure, Conor Sellars and Mark Trueman were looking down the barrel. And they went for it.
This was out of character for a pair who’ve become known for keeping things close to the chest, forging an incredibly successful career so far by clinging onto the devil they know, winning close games that an objective eye would suggest they were fortunate to do so.
But the last few months in League Two have shown these two clubs to be skilled in knowing when to stick and when to twist.
On 31 October last year, Bolton Wanderers suffered a 4-0 defeat at The Breyer Group Stadium – Brisbane Road for the uninitiated – at the hands of Leyton Orient. The latest nadir for the club in a season of them, slumping to 19th in League Two, with only two wins in ten to show from what was supposed to have been a procession back to the third tier.
“Next season I want to be in League One…. I want to talk about promotion” pledged the newly-installed former Barrow manager, and Blackpool defender, Ian Evatt before the season. He also shed some light into his thinking as a manager, making clear that “I have to win. I’m addicted to winning and I want to win and, as I said, we want to win every game this season.”
Yet, two months later, driving back up the M6 on the back of a humiliation in East London, the wheels were coming off. The owners of Bolton Wanderers had a decision to make. Had they bet on the wrong horse? They’d invested in the squad, they’d given the manager everything he wanted. Even if taking the plunge now made them look stupid, surely someone else could do better than this? Should they stick or twist?
Six weeks later, 40 miles across the Pennines, Ryan Sparks faced a similar conundrum. Things were not going to plan for him either. The ink had barely dried on a contract extension for his manager – his first act as Chief Executive – yet another dismal defeat at Oldham prompted him to reconsider. Should he wait it out, or face the music and see what was behind Door Number Two?
Almost three months on and both clubs arrived at Valley Parade in very different circumstances. Both were riding the crest of waves as clubs at the top of the form league, though they had arrived here in different ways: Bolton by trusting their judgement, gambling on the devil they knew; City by embracing the unknown.
Despite neither having threatened the top three all season long, Saturday had the feeling of a promotion battle.
City began again with their tried and tested, conservative 4-2-3-1. The consistency with which it is being deployed under Trueman and Sellars probably the defining characteristic of their management so far. Consistency and conservatism are probably also the two key contrasts between them and their predecessor.
The first half was played at a frenetic pace, with lots of pressing and little finesse. Bolton shaded the half chances, and looked very dangerous when breaking. They were at their most dangerous when Alex Baptiste brought the ball up into midfield, creating an overload on the left, exploited to good effect by Dapo Afolayan on several occasions. But City held on relatively comfortably.
Summarising on BBC Radio Leeds/iFollow, Andy Kiwomya noted City’s struggles to get men in the box from open play, leaving them overly dependent on set pieces and long shots to create chances. This is a common theme for City under Trueman and Sellars, under whom City have drastically outperformed their expected goals, with their chance creation statistics amongst the lowest in the division during their tenure.
And this was certainly the case in the first half, with City only threatening from free-kicks and the rare counter. A snapshot into the top deck from Andy Cook all they had to show for their considerable efforts pressing and defending.
It was, in this sense, in keeping with their performances to date under the new managers. They battled hard, didn’t give much away, without looking that much like scoring either.
The first goal is often decisive in games but it felt somehow even more so here. These were two good sides, and two very good defences. One goal looked like it would be enough.
Bolton came out much the stronger in the second half, and following a good Hornby save from Afolayan, City were holding on. They showed their first signs of cracking under the pressure in the 65th minute with a flurry of chances for the away team before Eoin Doyle headed wide from six yards with the goal at his mercy. No wonder he doesn’t like heading the ball.
Trueman and Sellars resisted the urge to throw caution into the wind, bringing on Danny Rowe and Billy Clarke, but retaining the same system, as they have done in almost every game so far. Sticking with the devil they knew. The pattern of the game remained unchanged. Bolton were banging on the door.
Then, finally, they broke through in the 82nd minute, after Doyle was freed once more in behind, before cutting inside and seeing a deflected shot loop over Hornby and bundled over the line by substitute Nathan Delfouneso with what would have been a deserved winner. It had certainly been coming.
This prompted, for pretty much the first time under Trueman and Sellars, caution being thrown into the wind, with two out and out strikers, and men being thrown into the box. They lifted the handbrake and took the game to Bolton.
First Anthony O’Connor brought a fantastic save out of Matt Gilks in his first action of the game, then a sweet Elliot Watt strike was deflected wide as City pressed, before finally, as the game entered its 93rd minute, following an initially cleared corner, Levi Sutton’s hooked ball back into the box found its way to Danny Rowe in space at the back post in front of the Kop.
This is probably the moment this season that the absence of fans has felt most stark. As Rowe was mobbed by teammates in the corner of the pitch, Anthony O’Connor punching the air repeatedly, the silence felt so jarring. This was the biggest game of the season, and the biggest of all moments; it deserved more than it got. Though the living rooms across Bradford and beyond will have made themselves heard.
Many of Danny Rowe’s strengths and weaknesses have been on show since his arrival at Valley Parade, but today he certainly showcased his Windassian trait of standing up in the big moment. A talismanic finish. One which should have been his first ‘big’ moment in front of the Kop, though hopefully many will come in time.
As the game ended with City – just about – dealing with another dangerous Bolton ball into their six-yard box, the pre-match vibe of a promotion battle felt about right. On today’s showing, and certainly the performances out of the last month demonstrate, there aren’t three better sides than these two in the league right now, and with a third of the season to go, all is to play for.
Both clubs have shown today – and this season – different approaches to problem solving, sticking and twisting, and the fact that both of them can be successful. There’s no right way to decide; both can work.
Trueman and Sellars have forged themselves a career out of the idea of sticking with what they know, what they trust and keeping things tight. And they have certainly built one of the best defences in the division, the back four again excellent under intense pressure here. Though as good teams tend to do, Bolton found a way.
But in their last 10 minutes here, City have shown their joint managers that they can create chances and take a game to their opponent, given the opportunity. They created more opportunities in the last five minutes here than they did in the previous 85, and more than they have in some entire games so far under Trueman and Sellars.
Ultimately, most decisions come down to the decision maker’s (or makers’) willingness to embrace the unknown, to take risks.
Those at the top of Bradford City have shown themselves to be more than happy to gamble so far this season. And whilst the managers again mostly stayed in their comfort zone today, they saw the first glimpse of what might be possible if they embrace Ellsberg’s lessons: take a leaf out of their boss’s book, and a take a little step into the unknown.
Categories: Match Reviews