|Newport County 2|
|Dolan 77, 90+6 (pen)|
|Bradford City 1|
By Jason McKeown
They’d been in this position many times of late, and so the impending danger was difficult to envisage. A goal in front, playing reasonably well, and demonstrating their characteristic composure, Bradford City were once again mastering the art of seeing out the game by keeping limited-looking opponents at a comfortable arm’s length.
But in football, a 1-0 lead is never safe. The fine margins can’t always go your way. And from nowhere it seemed, Newport County came roaring back to earn three points and inflict some damage to the Bantams’ growing promotion aspirations.
City couldn’t see it out in the way they had edged close games in recent weeks against Mansfield, Walsall, Leyton Orient and Morecambe. Just like those narrow victories, there had been an encouraging level of self assurance on show in Cardiff, which suggested the players and manager duo were content with living on the edge. Confident at completing the job, even with such little margin for error.
Then on 77 minutes Andy Cook – who for a large part of the evening looked set to be the match winner – gave away a silly free kick on the edge of his own box. The former City midfielder Matty Dolan struck a powerful free kick that flew past Sam Hornby. And in the last minute of stoppage time, Levi Sutton needlessly handled the ball to give away a penalty converted by Dolan.
Somehow, City had lost a game they were controlling. And they’ll have spent a large part of the long coach journey back to West Yorkshire scratching their heads over how. It hadn’t been their most enthralling performance, but Newport – without a home victory, beyond defeating bottom club Grimsby, since early December – were comfortably second best. Only coming alive after Dolan’s superb free kick equaliser.
Really, City should have been further ahead by that point. They’d taken the lead just a minute into the second half when Newport’s January window signing Priestley Farquharson had attempted to bring the ball out from the defence, came under pressure from Eliot Watt and turned and passed it backwards – without realising Cook was lurking.
Cook gleefully seized onto the loose ball, ran down the middle, and had time to pick his spot before two Newport defenders could get close enough to stop him. The finish into the bottom corner of Nick Townsend’s goal was terrific. Cook might lack the blunt, forthright power of Danny Rowe’s shooting, but his technique and accuracy is no less impressive.
The expertly taken strike made it four goals from his five starts since the January loan move from Mansfield. Not a lot was expected of Cook after his patchy record at Field Mill, and with Rowe quickly crowned the new hero of Valley Parade. But his acquisition is proving to be a really clever piece of business by the club, and calls will surely soon begin to grow louder for him to be offered a deal at City when his Mansfield contract is up in the summer. Lee Novak, also out of contract in a few months, must be watching on with some concern.
Either side of Cook’s goal, there were some good chances for City that will be looked back on with some angst. Cook had already missed the best opportunity of the first half, when Billy Clarke had played him into space inside the box, he took the ball past one challenge but then took one touch too many, causing him to stretch to get his shot in and losing the ability to be more accurate in his effort as a result. Townsend saved well, but Cook will know he could have made it more difficult for the Exiles stopper.
After later going a goal ahead, City were in the ascendency and breaking with typical pace when they won the turnovers. Connor Wood struck a powerful shot from distance that Townsend scrambled to tip over. From the resultant corner, Paudie O’Connor slipped clear of his marker but could only poke the ball wide of the post.
There were other good moments when City attacked in numbers, but they couldn’t fashion a shot at goal. Chances to create chances, that might have settled the outcome in the visitors’ favour.
Newport were offering nothing at the other end, with Hornby only called into action to save a tame Dolan effort. They were there for the taking, and City went into those final 30 minutes with two choices – take it up another gear and finish County off, or carefully see it out in the manner they had in other victories of late. To no one’s surprise, they took the latter. With past success suggesting it would be an approach that worked once again.
The equaliser changed all that. City were looking increasingly leggy and tired, and they struggled to deal with the sudden burst of Newport vigour that followed Dolan’s clinical effort. They were also guilty of giving possession back to Newport too quickly. No one more so than substitute Charles Vernam, who wastefully struck two long range efforts that flew well over, when the opportunity was there for City to slow down Newport’s tempo, work the ball around the final third, and fashion a clearer sight of goal.
That Vernam had begun the night on the bench underlines the challenge Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars face in rotating a group of players who have coped admirably with an unprecedented schedule of Saturday-Tuesday fixtures, but who are now showing signs it’s catching up on them.
Tonight, Vernam and Callum Cooke were given a breather after looking jaded against Bolton. And though Billy Clarke and Rowe are good standard replacements to bring in, the worry for Trueman and Sellars will be just how much the absence of Vernam and Cooke was felt in reducing City’s fluency.
Rowe’s starting inclusion suggested a switch to 4-4-2, but this remained the 4-2-3-1 set up that has served the managers so brilliantly. Rowe took the number 10 role and contributed positively, he had by no means a bad game. But he only passed the ball 22 times over the 90 minutes. Without Cooke – who has been averaging 33 passes a game – City were less cutting in the final third. That Rowe only had one shot all evening also suggested some of his usual strengths were neutered by playing deeper.
It was certainly admirable that Trueman and Sellars attempted to start with both Rowe and Cook for the first time, but you suspect it might be not be repeated. All least whilst they rightly keep faith in their proven 4-2-3-1. Expect Cooke to be straight back in the side at Brunton Park on Saturday.
The closest City have to Cooke in number 10 qualities is Clarke. But to allow Vernam to have a breather, the veteran forward was asked to play the wide right role he has been performing in January before injury. It was a far from successful night for Clarke. Even accepting he was playing in front of Anthony O’Connor, who doesn’t have the same overlapping attacking qualities as a Bryce Hosannah. The balance of the team did suffer compared to usual, which Trueman and Sellars attempted to address by getting Clarke and Ollie Crankshaw to swap sides in the second half.
Even with a squad of much higher quality than before January, rotating players will have an impact when the team has been so consistently unaltered, and so successful in a relatively settled XI. We saw signs of that disruption here, but it’s an unavoidable situation with such a high volume of fixtures to complete.
If there is a instruction manual to follow right now, Trueman and Sellars could do worse than look at how Phil Parkinson managed City’s flagging squad at this stage of the 2012/13 season. With the marathon run of games that season, there was a post-cup final slump that saw key players struggle for fitness and form. Parkinson tried to give everyone a breather, even though results were dipping, and in the end the team was refreshed and in full flow for the vital promotion run-in. They came on strong when it really mattered.
Even with the slight issues that emerged with the line-up changes here, this was still a very decent City performance. It’s hard to feel too down, even in defeat. The back four were once again excellent. Levi Sutton – before his last-minute rush of blood – was solid alongside Watt. Crankshaw is such a lively player who causes problems. With the run of games he’s getting at City, he could turn into a really good player over the next 6-12 months. He is certainly on the right path.
With 13 minutes to go, Trueman and Sellars were about to take City over the 50-point mark that would remove any tiny doubt about the Bantams’ Football League status. They’ve done brilliantly over the last three months, as have the players. Ultimately, you simply can’t win every game.
Nevertheless, even with the amazing run of results of late there have been some concerns about the underlying stats and performances. Those xG figures – whether you love or loathe such analytical thinking – have suggested City have been overachieving in recent weeks. That they’ve had bits of luck along the way of late, which has been a contributory factor to the run of wins.
And tonight was a reversal of that. City weren’t bad. You could argue, with justification, that they played better here than in victory over Mansfield last week. But when games are being habitually won on slim margins, on some occasions it’s going to go against you. When you benefit from luck sometimes, you’ll also fall foul of bad luck at other points.
Under Stuart McCall earlier this season, there was an openness and lack of organisation about City that – when injuries to key players struck – left them far too exposed and susceptible to defeat. Trueman and Sellars’ organisational approach has seen City gain a much greater level of control in the outcome of games – no one is going to thrash this team, for example – but questions remain over how much they can truly dominate games, when they operate in such a restrained way. At some point in a push for promotion, City might need to have that something extra in their locker.
No need for panic. Not a time for doom and gloom. But perhaps tonight was a gentle reminder that, as much as the bar has been risen over the last few months, it doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to push it even higher.
Categories: Match Reviews