The other side of living on the edge

Newport County 2
Dolan 77, 90+6 (pen)
Bradford City 1
Cook 46

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

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28 replies

  1. Complete brainfart from Sutton. The least that we deserved was a draw but we paid the price for not putting the game to bed and left ourselves open to being punished by a worldie and a mistake.
    Very very frustrating but the players need to get their heads up and bounce back like they did after the Exeter defeat. Don’t let it undo all the good work done over the last few weeks.

  2. This was a result waiting to happen tbh. In the past few games we could have had draws eg orient hit the post we got a late penalty after not creating much. We aren’t creating much but the defence have been very good. Indeed tonight the back 4 will be sat on that coach knowing they have done their job. If we want to really get in the play-offs and then actually succeed in them we have to create more. The management duo have taken a sensible approach in making us hard to beat, but can we go the next step and actually outplay our opponents? We now have a supposed better squad, and we definitely have far better options than Stuart had to choose from. The test of TnS is whetehr they can actually change the system to win games rather than not lose games. For me the subs were wrong and perhaps they were over thinking regarding the fitness of Cooke when naming the team. IMO he should have been the first sub on, so we could try and keep the ball. Indeed the pitch suited Callum’s passing game. Clarke has been very ineffectual since his last injury. Vernam has actually been disappointing in recent games for me and Rowe is sometimes a luxury when you consider the work rate of those around him. We now have to beat a falling carlisle side and need to find a way to have more focus on attack then solely on defence…imo 🙂

  3. Spot on Jason. This game was heading the same way as city’s last 2 away victories. City in cruise control seeing out the game for another 3 points.

    I thought the first half was as tepid and dull as the away comentary on ifellow. Newport offered absolutley nothing going forward and City pressed Newport well leaving them aimlessly passing the ball around before losing possession in the last third.

    Unless I missed a tug on Sheehan it looked like a fresh air shot not a fowl although the free kick was expertly despatched as was the penalty from Newport’s best player on the night Matty Dolan.

    The penalty was needlessly given away by
    Sutton to gift 3 points to Newport who barely deserved a point from this game never mind all 3.

    Although the turn around has been remarkable and enjoyable there is so little room for menouver and 1 defeat in 7 still leaves City 6 points off the play offs.

    I would be happy for City to finish the season as strongly as possible and to expect a few more defeats on the way. if we miss the play offs we can reassess in the summer and build with further additions for a promotion push next season.

    For all the strengths of the the current squad and there are many there is plenty of development required in keeping the ball better, improving our set pieces whilst creating more goal mouth opportunities in the last third. Big game on Saturday and we will all be looking for this team to hopefully bounce back with win.

    • Surely we now have managed to get ourselves into a position and opportunity to get in the play-offs we need to be looking to take it? I think we are been far to negative to achieve that aim as when it comes to the crunch in a one off play off match where a team has to win will we go for it? I appreciate that the management duo will say that they had the remit just to stay up and then they made us harder to beat, but imo we were never going down once we had a fit first team squad and a transfer window to address squad depth and quality. Turnbull was signed on before Stu was sacked and thus the intention to sign was always there. We have now effectively stayed up. Well done to T and S. Now i think its time for them to show that they can start to show we are ‘better’ than other teams and create some chances. As results like tonight will happen when you rely on simply not conceding. IMO

  4. Those in the game say that things tend to even out over a season.
    On Saturday we managed a very late goal to gain a point and tonight we conceded in the last minute to lose 2.
    Footballs like that.
    Of concern to me over the last few weeks has been a tendency to gift free kicks to the opposition in key areas.
    Up to tonight we have blocked them but sooner or later the opposition was going to get it right. Tonight was that night!!
    A point would not have been a disaster, however we could have added to Cooks goal and made the game safe.
    Whenever you see a hand raised in the manner that Sutton did to concede the penalty, you often wonder why?
    Why did he do that?
    Is it a rush of blood, seeing red, or just instinct?
    It cost us tonight but as we said, these things tend to even themselves out over a season.

  5. Setbacks are inevitable but as others have said, they are all the more costly when you are in the chasing pack trying to make up ground. Results in the past fortnight however are a sufficient reminder that our rivals are not immune from setbacks and I would be massively surprised if we did not see a few shock results before the season is over. Hence I don’t think that there is reason to panic.

    There is sufficient evidence that the team and squad is strong enough and better in quality than the vast majority of other sides in this division. We reached the play-offs with 69 points in 2013 and I am confident that we can exceed that number – 74 (equivalent to 9 wins from the last 14 games) would surely suffice in achieving that objective in 2021.

    I think the managers have the tactics sorted and the team is comfortable in the game plan that has been established. Against Bolton and again last night showed that tired legs could be a factor in the outcome of the season and thankfully there is a midweek break next week. I think that the deciding factor for us will be physical and mental stamina. Maybe Sutton’s mistake came down to a momentary loss of focus from exhaustion. Who knows but it’s unfair for him to be singled out as the post-mortem of the game.

    Hopefully the self belief will be restored at Carlisle. Onwards and upwards.

    • John, I wish I had your confidence in City’s established game plan. City are likely to win more than their fair share but finishing in the top seven is far from being a given. City currently rely on one formation with a loan striker. The team is structured and relying on arguably the best back four in the League.

      City’s reliance on good fortune may have run it’s course in these commonly tight affairs. Time will tell if that is true. If City are to be successful in reaching the playoffs they are likely going to need to be more productive in scoring goals. This means City need a plan B and C and involves a two striker option with one of the strikers having pace.

      • Phil, it’s nonsense to suggest that T&S have relied on good luck to achieve their recent run of success and I am not the first to make that point on this forum in response to your claims. If it is the case that we need to be ‘lucky’ to succeed then maybe the contingency plan is for us all to invest in lucky charms to provide another dose of good fortune. A rabbit’s foot maybe or a horseshoe, what is in vogue nowadays?

        I really wish there could be a physical fans forum at which you could attend and ask T&S in person how they manage to be so lucky. I’d be interested to witness the response.

        My belief – as I have said above – is that the critical success factor for the remainder of the season will be the collective physical and mental stamina of the team. Without it, tactics (old or indeed new) will come to nothing.

        Encouraging a team to be productive and score goals ultimately relies upon the self-belief and determination of individual players. Incidentally you don’t encourage that sort of self-belief by propagating the view that they have relied upon good fortune to make a difference.

      • Give them a bit of leeway to implement additional strategies. They will have had little time with fixtures coming thick and fast do much meaningfully on the training pitch. The fact that they have fixed the major problems already is commendable.

  6. It looked like we were going to take the win and then some stupid mistakes happened, yes, Sutton what was he thinking but on the whole he has been a very good player. it wasn’t bad luck it, wasn’t Trueman & Sellars, it was a couple of players that stuffed up that caused the goals and like every team does we lost. I’m sure T & S are kicking themselves wondering what they could have done to better to protect their lead, did they make the right the substitution ?, are they playing the right formation ?

    This was bound to happen at some stage, the run that that Trueman & Sellars have had has been phenomenal and 2 losses out of 16 is something teams dream about. To expect to win nearly every game from now on comfortably is a bit too much.

    Let’s face it, (and I was a Stuart supporter) we were heading out of the football league under McCall who had only 13 points out of 16 games. Trueman & Sellars have now also had 16 games and got 34 points. Stats like that don’t lie they make a bold statement.

    So yes last night didn’t go to plan and we are all disappointed but I have faith in our new management and haven’t felt this happy about my beloved club for a long time. They will bounce back like they did after Exeter and hopefully a win on Saturday will put us back in the hunt for the play offs.
    Keep the faith.

  7. There are three common themes developing. Firstly, the starts to games are very frantic, characterised by many loose passes. Games are not won in the first fifteen minutes. Secondly, we conceed far too many free kicks unnecessarily, particularly in dangerous positions and inevitably the opposition will eventually score. Others will analyse why we deploy this tactic, is it through panic or just trying to disrupt the flow of a move? Thirdly, we don’t actually create an abundance of chances. We possess some fast forwards, but how often do we see a winger beat his full back and cross the ball from the bi – line? Frequently we opt for the safer route of passing backwards, by which time the defence has recovered its shape.

    Last night was a game we should have won, because quite simply for the most part we were the better team. Very happy with the new management team, but no need to blame the referee when clearly the result was of our own making. Hoping lessons have been learnt in time for Carlisle.

    • It does look like we have a plan to pull back or foul players when they have got through or look like they may break through our midfield. Watt has done this a few times and earned bookings, Sutton does too. Its like we have adopted Pep’s ‘tactical fouls’ approach.

  8. You don’t always get what you deserve. Having said that, despite being in control, we didn’t do enough to kill the game off and we’ve been punished for it.
    The referee was poor to say the least. Whistle happy, and did his best to kill the game.
    Hopefully, we’ll learn from this, move on and get back on the winning surge quickly!

  9. The really sickening thing about last night was how poor Newport were. They offered nothing at all! I started watching iFollow for T&S first game (coincidence) so I’ve had a good run and Newport are the worst side I’ve seen.

    So that could be deemed a positive that if they’re 7 points ahead of us, we can overhaul them.

    For what it’s worth I don’t agree that we were poor or that we were leggy. We completely dominated the game but the end product was not there. Even in injury time, we were on top until that last moment.

    Also an extra point, the Newport commentary team – a cure for insomnia? I had to turn them off.

  10. Things are still tight and flexibility in terms of the squad is limited. People forget that we still have players injured. Staunton, Hossanah, Lee Novak and Ismail. At least 3 of those would be expected to play or provide better options for squad rotation. In fairness, I think T and S, have to be congratulated for what they have achieved. I believe it is important that they try close opportunities with a single goal advantage. Opportunities will come as the opposition open up in in search of a goal. Let’s see what happens moving forward. I am still confident we will get into the play offs.

  11. It’s a mark of how far we’ve come when we’ve come away with nothing from a game we could have won or should have got a point, comments from Newport fans back that up. Midway through the 2nd half i could only see us adding to the lead we had , but a mistake opened the way for them to get momentum.
    The lads will be gutted but for large parts we controlled the game.
    I’m sure they will put things right Saturday

  12. It’s great that people are saying the play offs are still on and of course they are still on. Let’s however reflect where we were in December when having been hammered by Oldham we stayed out of the bottom two because Stevenage got hammered at Carlisle more than we did at Oldham. Trueman and Sellars have now turned us from genuine relegation candidates to potential play off candidates, but if we don’t make it and fall away slightly I just hope people don’t start to turn on them as some supporters have set the bar very high. To obtain 34 points from 16 games would have been beyond our wildest dreams when they were appointed, and a team that conceded goals for fun as well as finding it difficult to get a shot on target never mind scoring has now been transformed into a consistent unit that is hard to beat. There will be setbacks but we are now starting to get things right at the club.

    • Keith , too right !! Thanks for driving us to the City games in the 70’ s 😀

    • I totally agree Keith but the hammering against Oldham could have been avoided. There was hardly anything wrong with that team we put out.
      A. O’Connor P’O’Connor . Richards Everton
      B. Hosana C. Cooke E. Watt H.Pritchard C.Wood
      Novak Donadlson
      Apart from BRE who in my opinion shouldn’t have been in the team that’s not a bad team. The problem and reason for the hammering was the formation. You just invite the counter attack and if your midfield are not prepared to track back at speed your done. That loss lies well and truly at Stuarts door. Lets face it the first thing T & S did was revert to a back four and the rest is history.

      You’re perfectly right when you say they have set the bar very high and we all talk about them and expect to win every game now and that is testament to how far they have taken us.
      I like you hope the fans won’t turn on T&S if we don’t get promoted or make the play offs but to be honest I don’t think that will happen . We have an incredible fan base who have been through some bad times. I think there is a genuine buzz about the fans that we haven’t witnessed in ages and we can all see what an incredible job they have done so far and I think their best is still to come.

      All I wanted originally from them was to not get relegated, then finish mid table, then finish top half but now I want play offs. You could say I keep moving the goalposts but that’s football and there’s no better team to experience it with than BRADFORD CITY

      • Even BRE had the excuse of being hopelessly exposed by the lack of a midfield screen with midfield runners breaking from all angles unchallenged. He was not the only defender to look very shaky in that formation

      • In that defeat we still had over 20 chances to score. Stuart could not account for Donaldson for instance falling over with an open goals from 3 yards out. Stuart could easily say that to have 20 plus chances away from home that the system allowed this and it was the players application that failed.There is also contaxt about that team to consider. It was also Novaks first game back from injury, Cooke had just come back too and Everton knew Stuart didn’t want him. The also look at the bench that game and there was no options available. Stuart should have gone to a back 4 thats true imo to try and tighten up during this period of games , but still the stats that game show that with better finishing we could have won and had more chances to do so than the opposition. So you could argue that the manager did his job but the players didn’t?

      • Danny I’m struggling with your rationale here. You can’t say in one breath the players had 20 chances to score and with better finishing we could have won and then say the manager did his job but the players didn’t . I will reiterate what I said. That team Stuart put out was a good team and by your own admission they had 20 chances and should have won but in that there is a lot of would haves, should haves, could haves. You don’t win games with hypertheticals, you win games by scoring more than you concede. So for me the team did their job or played in the formation and position that Stuart asked them to play in and in my opinion there lies the problem.
        As proven by the stats that count” the result” you leave yourself wide open to the counter attack. You need a pacey midfield who work together and can track back quickly as a solid unit. Yes we created chances but the pay back was disastrous by conceding too easily.
        So for me Stuart is at fault, that system never worked for us and after the first goal we should have changed to a back four but by this time in the season the players didn’t know where or how they should play and it was clear team morale was low .
        In both your posts and your reply to mine you do keep referring to Stuart as if it wasn’t his fault and you come across as wanting to defect any blame
        I was a Stuart fan and still am, as a player he was superb and will always be a hero to me but I had to put my head in front of my heart and accept we were in freefall and he was probably taking us down so something had to be done . Again the stats prove that to sack him was the right one. Stuart 13 points from 16 games against 34 points from 16 games from Trueman and Sellars, both had 1 transfer window and Stuart had the advantage of a fresh team at the start of the season.
        The fact is T & S are not only holding their own they are doing incredible well with an unbelievable record but most of all this team clearly believe in them and want to perform for them and as fans we cant ask for anything else.

      • Paulo……in my post i agree with you about the reverting to a back 4, but my point is context goes missing often during analysis. You name the first team that day and not the subs. Immediately when T and S took over they had returning players that Stuart had missed badly during what was a poor run of results and better options to choose from and this has been increased further. Indeed the current side are feeding off far fewer chances but managing to find the net from them. One wonders what they would do with 20 plus chances. Of course this can leave you more open at the back too obviously. Both management teams still need to find the balance between the two imo. I am not attempting to undermine the latters achievements thus far but merely trying to balance some of the issues that Stuart faced at the time from what i perceive has unfair criticism. The players should also take some of the blame during that time too imo, and to my knowledge only Sutton has said that he let him down. I repeat that Stuart was not blameless and i said so but there were also other factors than just saying it was all down to his poor management IMO

  13. We conceded from a free-kick and a penalty. This report could have been so much different. I thought at times we were an absolute joy to watch. The football we played in the second half was brilliant and we looked so comfortable on the ball. I don’t think there’s any need to panic. Newport are a good side, but they didn’t score from open play. As long as we finish in the top 7 then it’s anybody’s game. We’ve proved we’re as good as anyone in this division.

  14. I found it difficult to take that defeat. City never looked in danger of even drawing, and I think they were by far the better team.
    But they lost, and that was for two reasons.
    They did not create enough chances. In fact, they only really created one because the goal was a gift.
    They conceded two silly free kicks, one being a penalty.
    But it’s not season ending. It’s a drawback, hopefully a wake-up call. I hope the management and players see the need for more urgency in attack.
    City are miles better placed than we feared 3 months ago, and thanks to Trueman , Sellars , Sparks and Turnbull for that. If we miss the play-offs this season we’ll be very well placed next.
    But one plea. Don’t blame the referee. He had to give the free kick and penalty, and our defeat was our own fault , not his.

  15. City were very unlucky. Any referee that awards a questionable deciding penalty 6 minutes into 4 minutes of injury time has some serious psychological problems. With a referee without an acute attention seeking disorder City would’ve won. Even with that under par performance city were a much better team than Newport County. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Especially with the standard of refereeing in league 2.

    • I was watching the clock when the long throw came in and it was on 3:55 of the four minutes when Sutton handled it. I’ve no idea where your six minutes comes from?

  16. I guess for those of us who wondered how a Rowe / Cook pairing would go, that’s been put to bed.
    At least as a starting line up.
    Another great article Jason, thank you.

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