|Colchester United 1|
|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