A familiar tune with different notes, as Bradford City rediscover the winning touch

Colchester United 1
Nouble 42
Bradford City 2
Scales 10, Cook 58

By Jason McKeown

Something old, something new, something borrowed – left Colchester feeling, well, something blue.

This proved to be an afternoon of reclamation for Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars. They unearthed much-needed solutions to Bradford City’s recent problems, to earn a first victory in six games. The managerial pair have faced criticism for their struggles to arrest a decline in results. But they found some unlikely answers from within their squad, to successfully get the season back on track.

The something old was the considerable frame of 37-year-old Clayton Donaldson, awarded a first start in three months. Few would have anticipated the veteran targetman filling in the giant Callum Cooke-shaped hole with such aplomb. Yet the wily Donaldson rolled back the years to lay on two assists and comfortably earn the man of the match award.

The something new was a player at the complete opposite end of the career spectrum to Donaldson. The 19-year-old Kian Scales was pushed to a wide right position and scored a wonderful first senior goal that gave the Bantams the platform to Essex success. Scales had not even celebrated his first birthday when Donaldson made his own senior debut, for Hull City, back in October 2002. Yet the second youngest player in either side linked up terrifically with the oldest player on the field. Giving City a zip to their attacking play which had been glaringly absent of late.

The something borrowed was loan striker Andy Cook, who early in the second half headed home what proved to be the match winner. The January arrival from Mansfield now has five goals from eight starts, and is closing in on City top scorer Lee Novak’s total of seven. He’s also netted just under half of the Bantams last 11 goals.

The old wedding day bride tradition proved to be a good luck mantra for Trueman and Sellars, who delivered an assured response to the sudden swelling of criticism they’ve been facing in recent days.

The uninspiring performances against Carlisle, Oldham and Scunthorpe had raised questions over their ability to take City to the next level. And when their attempts at Glanford Park to play more expansive football led to a decline in the team’s characteristic solidity, the fear was that the inexperienced Trueman and Sellars were showing signs of not knowing how to fix their first slump in form.

When, an hour before kick off in Colchester, the Bradford City official Twitter account suggested Trueman and Sellars were swapping the 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2, eyebrows were raised even further. In the end, it turned out to be a mischievously incorrect formation graphic, designed – perhaps – to fool their opponents. As soon as the game kicked off, it was obvious City were still lining up in their trusted 4-2-3-1. Albeit the pieces had been assembled in a different order.

Donaldson took the number 10 role that City are strugglingly badly to fill. It seemed a strange move that would have certainly attracted post-match angst had the visitors failed to win. Yet it proved to be an utterly inspired decision by the managers. Donaldson reveled in the role behind Cook, linking up really well with midfielders and producing several eye-catching flicks and passes. He even unveiled a useful powerful long throw that could proven an effective weapon over the coming weeks.

The other big line-up change was to move Anthony O’Connor into the defensive midfield position next to Levi Sutton, with Elliot Watt afforded a much-needed rest. O’Connor looked uncomfortable at times in terms of his positioning and what to do with the ball further up the pitch, but he gave it a really good go and his presence seemed to give Sutton more of a license to get forward.

This is a curious period for Anthony O’Connor. His infamous three-year contract is finally nearing its end, and this week the 28-year-old revealed he would like to stay at the club. Yet the central defender is rumoured to be one of the club’s highest earners, and it might be difficult to justify offering similar terms to a player who – overall – hasn’t lived up to his potential.

Since mid-February, O’Connor has been moved out of his natural position to fill in at right back, with Paudie O’Connor and Niall Canavan forming a useful partnership without him. And today, he was pushed to central midfield. Anthony deserves a lot of respect for his willingness to do a job for the team wherever he is asked to play. But evolving into a utility player comes with its risks.

With O’Connor deputising for Watt, Finn Cousin-Dawson was recalled at right back, behind Scales. It was a youthful right side to City for sure, but the balance of the team looked better for all these changes. The injuries to Oli Crankshaw and Charles Vernam allowed City to line up with three players behind Cook who were more focused on passing to each other than running at people and trying crosses. It seemed to work better.

Colchester had a chance in under 40 seconds when Brendan Sarpong-Wiredu got in behind Paudie O’Connor and Cousin-Dawson, but his low shot was easily saved by Richard O’Donnell.

From there, City took control.

With Donaldson pulling the strings in the hole, they got themselves into an early lead when a brilliant Donaldson back-heel into the path of Scales was rewarded with the youngster producing a fine curling shot that flew into the top corner.

Trueman and Sellars would not have been surprised by the quality of the strike from Scales. As youth team managers, they’ve observed and nurtured the attacking midfielder’s rise through the ranks. In fact, the way in which Scales ran onto the pass and confidently struck such a powerful shot was similar to a goal he scored at Brunton Park 15 months ago, during the City youth team’s memorable run in the FA Youth Cup.

Scales had already scored two goals in the previous round’s victory over Rochdale, as City’s young guns went all the way to the fifth round, losing to Chelsea. Before Covid struck a year ago, curtailing the season, Scales was in double figures for the under 18s side. He is a player full of qualities that Trueman and Sellars know only too well, and they’ve been rewarded for showing faith in the youngster over the last two games.

Having done okay as number 10 in midweek, the decision to nudge Scales to a wide position really paid off for City. Scales enjoyed a hugely impressive 90.9% pass completion rate at Colchester. “I heard that people weren’t backing him,” Trueman said of the reaction to Scales’ performance at Scunthorpe. “But he repaid our trust today in how hard he worked. He’s one of the best finishers at the club.”

Scales’ memorable goal was a clear demonstration of that. And in the second half he was unfortunate not to get a second when powerful shot from an angle smacked back off the crossbar.

Not that the game was completely one-sided. Following the shock of conceding early and after getting to grips with City’s formation, Colchester began to show fight as the first half wore on. They matched City’s 4-2-3-1 and played on the Bantams’ preference to keep men behind the ball when not in possession, enjoying spells of decent territorial advantage.

They had good chances too. The Jamaican forward Jevani Brown knocked the ball past Anthony O’Connor for Ben Stevenson to run onto, but from a good position he was caught in two minds between shooting and crossing and blazed the ball over. Courtney Senior got away from Connor Wood and pulled the ball back for Brown – who blazed over. Richard O’Donnell made one decent save, although the referee had blown for a foul.

Just before the interval, Brown swung over a free kick that Frank Nouble headed home for an equaliser that their first half efforts merited. They had a shout for a penalty on half time when Gareth Evans pushed a home player over in the box, whilst United felt aggrieved that Cook wasn’t sent off for a flying elbow and, later, a crude late tackle.

But although Colchester started the second half on the front foot, they clearly suffer from the same lack of mental toughness that has dogged City in recent years. Just as they were bringing the ball out of their own half, Sutton brilliantly pickpocketed Stevenson and laid on a superb pass towards the out-wide Donaldson. The cross from the old-stager was absolutely on the money, and Cook stole in to head City back in front.

The final 30 minutes were almost as though City had transported themselves back two and a half weeks to when they were leading Newport Country at the Cardiff City stadium. Once again, they looked in control and comfortable managing the fine margins. They showed good gamesmanship to know when to slow down the tempo, and when to counter. They kept the ball well.

Late shots over the bar from Harry Pell and substitute Noah Chilvers aside, Colchester never looked like saving themselves from a seventh defeat in 11 games. In fact, City could have made the outcome more emphatic, with substitute Jordan Stevens knocking the ball past goalkeeper Dean Gerkin but seeing his effort cleared off the line. “We need to do better with disappointments that we have,” admitted Colchester interim manager Wayne Brown after the game.

This was a really promising return to form for City. Even accepting Colchester – sliding dangerously towards relegation trouble now – were a poor team, the composure and authority shown by the Bantams was encouraging. Whilst Evans had a poor game and Wood continues to struggle to find his best form, there were lots of positive individual performances to suggest City can get back to their excellent form of before.

The next game, at home to a fading Forest Green, looks very interesting. Especially with the play off gap reduced to an intriguing six points.

Trueman and Sellars will go into that game with the unexpected bonus of having Donaldson showing he is capable of filling in for Cooke. Especially as much of the recent decline in results and performances have rightly been attributed to the long-term injury picked up by the influential midfielder, and the failure to find an adequate replacement.

What Cooke has exceled at is keeping the ball – he had the fourth best pass completion average in League Two – producing key passes (ones that lead to a City shot on goal) and assists. The table below shows Cooke’s 90-minute averages over the season, plus total assists, and how the range of players tried in the number 10 role in his absence have fared in recent games.

On each of these metrics, Donaldson’s performance here was remarkable.

But for Trueman and Sellars, they can go into these final 10 games with renewed belief that they are capable of addressing the challenges managing this team. They’ve had so many well-wishes from City supporters over the last few months. But in the last fortnight, they’ve experienced the other side of management. The criticism that gets loudly aired when things aren’t going to plan. The doubts raised about whether they’re right for the job long-term.

They’ve had to take a lot on the chin, but outwardly appear to have handled it well. They weren’t getting carried away when City were sweeping all before them, and they seemed to have maintained a similar sense of perspective in defeat. “We reflected on what gave us success to get away from the bottom and showed the players that,” Trueman revealed.

Trueman and Sellars will be well aware that victory here does not mean the tough moments are over. That there won’t be further set backs over the coming weeks. But perhaps today they have shown to the rest of the world – and perhaps even to themselves – that they can succeed by staying true to their convictions.

And they’ve also demonstrated the rewards of trusting in a wide range of players to deliver for you – be they old, new or borrowed.

Categories: Match Reviews

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27 replies

  1. Thanks for a great write-up. I was puzzled for the first half with Donaldson playing so deep, thinking surely he isnt in the hole, but the longer it went on the more certain I was. Full credit to him and the two managers he was absolutely superb today and definately his best performance in a City shirt to date.

    • A superb performance from The Don today. But I do worry that Cooke won’t be back for the rest of this season. And with amount of games we still have to play, the 37-years-young Don isn’t the answer as to who can fill the Cooke shaped hole in the team.

      • I agree however I wonder if we only have one game a week then Don gets the role, if we have a midweek game then Clarke drops in for that game. I think leaving Scales time out on the right either way is the best way so as not to keep chopping and changing him so early on in his career.

    • This is an extremely well written and accurate assessment of the match. I find this writer wholly superior to the professional journalist from Portsmouth. Apropos of City’s performance, my own opinion is that a better, more confident side than Colchester would have won with something to spare. It was a good team to play to stop the rot

      • Stuart R- I had exactly the same thought re the Big D- every other match, with Billy Clarke alternating would be a good solution on the stamina front for both. I had a fiver on with my middle son that the Big D wouldn’t last the full match, and paid out £3- he did technically last 90 minutes, with the first half extra time!
        We were incredulous at both the Big D’s stamina & quality yesterday (albeit his hold up play has always been good). I suggested to my boys that it was the pent up energy & determination to grab an opportunity after being side lined for 3 months. The big question is if he can be consistently as good as yesterday.

      • “This is an extremely well written..I find this writer wholly superior to the professional journalist from Portsmouth” Are you, Isn, by any chance one of Jason’s relatives..? Or a pseudonym for his partners in crime, Tim or Alex?

        I say this with a smile, as like most of the readers here, I am a big fan of Jason’s work (written & podcast)…but lets keep his ego in check….

  2. Very impressive stats for Donaldson in the number 10 role. 42 passes with an 81% sucess rate with 2 assists is superb from the old stager. Credit to T&S as this is what city having been missing recently, a player who can hold the ball up, link the play and not give the ball away cheaply.

    Well done scales who was unlucky not the score a further goal and he looks comfortable wide right. On to FG on Friday which will be intesting to see if T&S go with the same players for a game that looks well winnable.

  3. As ever the response to a few bad results was completely over the top and yet understandable perhaps, given we have nothing else to focus on.

    T&S now have 20 games under their belt. 3 games short of half a season. 11 wins. 5 draws and 4 losses.

    A 55% win percentage and 1.9 points a game. Yet, a few bad results and they’ve received criticism. I just don’t get it at all.

    This off the back of recovering a complete dogs dinner under McCall.

    Let’s try and stick to the clubs new mantra. Don’t get too high with the highs and too low with the lows.

    It’s only my perception but I don’t think these lads have been given the credit they deserve. I may be wrong but there seems to be an anticipation for them to fail.

    • Ben, it also worth noting Colchester’s current run of form at 1 win in their past 22 games. If Trueman and Sellars were going to be “experimental” this was the game to be brave. City were the better team but they also clearly struggled against a very inept attacking team. Congratulations to Donaldson and Scales for standout performances.

  4. “I heard that people weren’t backing him,” Trueman said of the reaction to Scales’ performance at Scunthorpe.

    Proof if it were ever needed that football managers do indeed read social media.

  5. Totally agree Ben

    Far too much unnecessary pressure, we are in a great position with 10 games to go, it will be what it will be, we are safe and OK.

    • Exactly Ant

      The prime objective of the club (or any club for that matter) is to stay in the league, then go from there. I think any sensible person would have taken a mid to high table finish when we were languishing at the edge of the real threat of relegation in November.
      There will always be the negative Neds at any club who think their team should be beating all before them and as soon as a blip in form appears they are in full blown hysteria mode.
      Listening to the pre-match on BBC Bradford and you would have thought T&S had never seen these players and choosing the Don was so left field and it was a “make or break” moment for the duo.

  6. I thought City started off well but then after scoring lost complete control against an abject side in Colchester. They got back in it because they deliberately targeted FCD, who whilst he did well in his first few games, in a position that he isn’t accustomed to, has been too easily exposed at times. This happened today and Colchester had virtually all their success against him.

    After half time we started to get control back, regained the lead, maybe against the run of play slightly, but then took total control once Watt came on and AOC went to RB. We were solid and began to look like a good side again – in fact we should have had another goal really.

    By the end I had regained the faith. We can still finish the season strong and sneak into the playoffs but we will have to play better than this over the 90mins.

    Donaldson was outstanding. He was so far better than anyone else on the field, that it made you wonder what happens in training – why hasn’t this been picked up on! I guess you can only pick 11 but I think with him playing with Cook and even more so Rowe we will fare better.

    I think T&S have done amazing job, we owe them a huge debt and hopefully they keep performing wonders and get us in that top 7 after 46 games.

    • I agree about fcd. City look weak on the defensive flanks. Big Clayton was a revelation and seemed to me to be a class above the others.
      I honestly don’t think City are far from being a good automatic promotion team.
      The number of injuries and the length of time out of the game worry me. The management must address this apparently serious problem.
      Surely there is a big role somewhere for a player of Rowes skill and power.
      Thanks Jason for your reports. So welcome after matches. And between matches. And to all your team.

      • I was enthused by Rowe’s first couple of appearances but, the more I’ve seen of him, the more I wonder “how do you fit him in?”. Even yesterday’s, albeit short sub appearance, won’t have enhanced his prospects of a start. Pre-match there were moans on social media that he should have started ahead of Donaldson. Well, Don’s performance put that argument to bed! You might get the odd 30 yard worldly from Danny but, right now, he looks destined for an “impact” role from the subs bench. Cook certainly looks the better option up front

  7. Thanks for a great match report. The only thing that surprises about Clayton’s impact today is how long it has taken for the most naturally talented player at the club to be played in his natural role. Given the freedom to play the part for which he is designed, Donaldson will have a significant impact in more games than not. Due to injuries, Stuart unsurprisingly threw him in as a lone striker, but it’s not obvious to me why T&S have not made more frequent and better use of Donaldson.

    Clayton also, and crucially when few others seem to make it enough of a priority, knows how to keep the ball. Retaining possession is one of the biggest issues T&S need to address at the present time, I think, as we regularly give the ball directly to the opposition very cheaply, and often due to aimless long balls by the keeper and defence.

  8. Sorry but i can’t agree with the “return to form ” comments and i feel the overall performance is been over hyped. Well done to the management duo getting 3 points. And well done to them changing the system and getting the win. Indeed i doubt that prior to kick-off not a single city fan would have picked that side. However for me Colchester were a really poor side yet with better finishing in the first half they should have been ahead. Our performance was very disjointed imo, yep Donaldson played well and i thought that Sutton too was influential in getting some of our pressing back on track but the rest were very average for me and that includes Scales apart from his quality finish. We didn’t dominate possession again and lacked quality. We got the points and that is the aim at the end of the day but i am left feeling that against better opposition some of their chances would have been put away and much more improvement is required going forward.

  9. Another very good report in a neutral manner , well done you .

  10. Superb write up with totally relevant and intriguing stats.
    Should be working for The Athletic Jason!

  11. Thanks as ever Jason for a well written assessment. I think context is required right now across the board. We are safe, we have 2 young managers who’ve shown wonderfully well that they have the minerals for management so far. They will have better tools to work with next season for sure. We have some work to do yet getting the right squad for a promotion push. I think we did amazingly well in January to get these signings made which is no mean feat. We also identified the ones that needed to go and got rid. On this basis I would back T&S RS and LT to identify the next requirements and get them over the line in or out. Obviously we were/are a central midfielder short. The amount of injuries we had missing yesterday in attacking areas Novak, Cooke (another possible captain and most improved player), Zeli(ish), Crankshaw, Vernam, Clarke would all have made some appearances yesterday and with that in mind I’m more than happy with our result. I’m hoping that a new keeper with height and presence will come in if they don’t fancy Hornby then someone of that ilk will do. Richard doesn’t have enough height and presence as we’ve seen for a few years now and certainly that’s a requirement as a keeper / Captain. Canovan for me is captain material. It will be an interesting window as always. For me if we are mathematically in contention with a few weeks left I will be amazed but a good 6 points over Easter then who knows. If your 3 points short with a game to go then it can still be done. Whatever happens next season will be the one to start any real and fair judgment on our new team at the top. Cannot wait to be back at VP for that first full crowd event. Keep calm and carry on for now.

    • Queeny Rich means I’m called Richard from Queensbury FYI.
      Not a reference to anything else as I’ve been asked recently!!
      Just saying!

    • And of course Harry Pritchard also on the missing list! It beggars belief the injuries our front men have acquired. Time for a fresh fitness conditioning team behind the scenes? The last 2/3 seasons not been great has it??

    • How tall does a goalkeeper need to be? O’Donnell is 3cm taller than Pickford, a few cm less than Pope.

      I thought the main attributes of a goaly is their handling, shot stopping and organisation. Some goalies also have a good leap on them.

  12. We made hard work of this one, but getting the three points is all that matters, so credit where it’s due.
    Clayton Donaldson deservedly MOTM.
    Don’t know what the referee saw to award Colchester the free kick that led to their goal?

    • Handball – seemed pretty clear to me. However, not sure how he didn’t spot the push that made him handball it.

  13. And where have they been hiding the secret weapon?
    Namely the Clayton Donaldson long throw.
    Very effective and if he can play that for the rest of the season and use those long throws we have another string to our bow.
    But seriously have they not known he could do that?
    Has he been famous for it in his past.
    Have they not seen it in training?
    “Errrrr boss, I used to do this when I was at Brentford” he said
    ” Is it any use”?

  14. I agree with most of the the above (article but also comments). I’ve been desperate for weeks for the managers to put into practice the rotation they’ve talked about and rest fatigued players, especially Watt & Sutton. Somehow I think they need to do that still for Sutton & also Wood. So when I heard the team sheet I told my boyz that I thought they were doing the right thing- I’d wondered in advance about playing AO’C as a temporary holding midfielder.

    I agree with remarks above that a stronger team would have punished us and put away some of the opportunities that Colchester missed. We are still vulnerable. But great to see some new upfront options being tried eg the Big D at No10, and I really hope Danny Rowe can play a bigger part too.

    11 wins, only 4 losses in 20 games. Still early days, but no other City manager has achieved a 55% win rate, so I’m willing them to keep plugging away at making history, however they get there.

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