By Jason McKeown
It was not an achievement to shout from the roof tops, but it was a feat that underlines the growing levels of resilience Bradford City are displaying.
A goal down to Stevenage early doors, they summoned up an equaliser from Clayton Donaldson against the run of play. It earned a point that certainly keeps the final few weeks of the season interesting, and it ensured the Bantams had accomplished something they’d not managed for 457 days.
That is, falling behind on the road, and managing to come back to earn something. Before Donaldson’s Easter Monday goal at Stevenage, you had to go all the way back to the County Ground, Swindon, in early January 2020. When in the 89th minute, Shay McCartan fired home a stunning free kick equaliser to rescue a 1-1 draw for Gary Bowyer’s City.
Since that point, City have fallen behind in 15 away games, and never once got back on level terms over the remainder of the match. They went onto lose every single time. As soon as a home team have got themselves in front when hosting the Bantams, it proved game over.
It is a run of dismalness that precedes even McCartan’s moment of magic. In away games over 2019/20, that Swindon equaliser was one of only three games where City fell behind on the road and recovered to earn something. The other two were 1-1 draws at struggling Macclesfield in November 2019, and a 10-men Scunthorpe side in September 2019. Before the pandemic curtailed the 2019/20 League Two campaign, City had won just three away games all season. Little wonder, when they were so bad at coming back from falling behind.
The season before? Just one point was picked up in an away game that City went behind in, a 1-1 draw at Burton Albion in February 2019 when Hope Akpan scored. And the last time City went on to actually win on the road after falling behind? A 2-1 success at Fleetwood Town on New Year’s Day, January 2018.
The last game before the wheels fell off the Bantams and they went into a colossal decline.
If there is one thing that has characterised Bradford City’s painful fall from permanent League One play off occupants to the relegation zone of League Two, it has been the pitiful reaction to adversity. If everything is going their way, City have often looked a decent team capable of playing good football – even during the wretched 2018/19 relegation season. But when the chips have been down and courage needed, all too often City have folded.
Against such a dismal backdrop, Donaldson’s brilliantly directed header at Stevenage was a valuable moment that suggests a greater level of resolve exists within this team. After all, City had been very poor early doors at the Lamex Stadium. The in-form hosts had been loudly knocking on the door well before they deservedly took the lead. Bradford City teams with a weaker mentality – and we’ve seen plenty of them over recent years – would have caved in. Going onto lose by a few goals.
Without being brilliant, without looking too clever for a time, this Bradford City side found a way to dig in and hit back. And after a much-improved second half, they might even have engineered that long-elusive come-from-behind victory on the road – not seen since the days of Tony McMahon, Nicky Law, Charlie Wyke and Romain Vincelot.
In the list of achievements that Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars can already feel proud to have overseen, coming back for a draw at Stevenage is unlikely to make the top 10. But it might just be one that has long-term significance in their bid to get the Bantams back to the heights of pre-2018.
Delve into City’s modern history, or indeed any part of their glory days for that matter, and triumph has almost always come after recovering from set-backs. Phil Parkinson’s 2012/13 history makers sneaked into the play offs after seemingly being out of it after a 4-1 defeat to Exeter with nine games to go. They reached the Wembley final despite losing the first leg of their play off semi final, at home to Burton.
Paul Jewell’s Bradford City survived in the Premier League in 1999/00, despite looking dead and buried with five games left. They’d lost six in a row and dropped to second bottom, but earned 10 points from their final 15 to stay up. And that came 12 months on from achieving promotion to the Premier League, despite losing game 43 of their 46-game league campaign at home to neighbours Huddersfield Town, which seemingly ruined their chances. Not to mention the shocking start that saw just five points picked up from the first seven games.
Chris Kamara’s 1996 play off success at Wembley came after that amazing semi final triumph, when they recovered from a 2-0 first leg home defeat to Blackpool by winning 3-0 at Bloomfield Road. A year later, City were surely doomed to relegation after losing three out of four games in the run-in. But Kamara inspired his troops to win their final two games and stay up.
You could go on and on. The point is that Bradford City is an emotional football club, where fans overreact in both victory and defeat. Managing the club comes with certain pressures, and those who succeed do so because of their ability to be dispassionate when it’s needed. To not get too high with the highs, and absolutely don’t get too low with the lows.
As we all sadly know, such a detached approach was not Stuart McCall’s style. He always wore his heart on his sleeve, but that raw passion could be detrimental in keeping a sense of perspective amongst the group of players he was leading. Thus, over his first spell especially, there was a regular pattern of a couple of defeats turning into long losing runs. When things were going well, McCall’s enthusiastic personality was infectious – and you could easily see why so many players clearly loved playing for him. But such high influence can work the other way, if set-backs invoke more melancholy than reassurance.
Evaluating the caretaker reign of Trueman and Sellars over recent months, the biggest question against their long-term suitability remained the unknowns about their reaction to defeat. When the emotions are running high amongst supporters, and within the dressing room. When the job of a football manager is at its most lonely.
In truth, Ryan Sparks opted to give Trueman and Sellars permanent deals before that side of the pair’s character had been fully tested. They had responded brilliantly to a first defeat, at Exeter in early February, but losing one game hardly represented a crisis. Not by Bradford City’s recent standards.
Yet what we saw over March was a true test of Trueman and Sellars’ ability to manage the club during difficult moments. Suddenly, results turned. Performances began to worsen. Injuries to key players prompted tactical headaches. Criticism began to be aired. Doubts about their ability raised.
It might not have been fair, but that’s football. I still remember going to York City away in February 2013 – a week after Phil Parkinson had led the Bantams out at Wembley for a major cup final – and listening to mutterings from some fans that he was doing a terrible job.
Trueman and Sellars were under some pressure. They had to show they had broad shoulders. They had to find answers, without losing sight of what had made them successful. The wins over Colchester United and Forest Green, coupled with the draw at Stevenage, have been an impressive response.
“It could be a big point going into the back end of the season,” reflected Mark Trueman after the Stevenage game. With the gap to the play offs extended once again to five points, the margin for error – over the eight remaining fixtures – has narrowed for sure. But with back-to-back home games to come over the next few days, starting with a visit of bottom-of-the-table Grimsby Town, the opportunity to put pressure on others is certainly still there.
Even if City don’t make into the top seven this season, Trueman and Sellars have done a terrific job by any measure. They made an instant impact on a demoralised group of players, finding a way to re-set the team and win matches. Relegation fears were very quickly put to bed, and City have climbed the table at an impressive rate.
The recent slowdown in results underlined that more was still needed. That Trueman and Sellars were in danger of playing it too safe. But they’ve found a way to be more effective by tweaking the system. There were elements of the Forest Green performance that suggests this team could reach another level in terms of their style and effectiveness. It was a result that showed they are a match for anyone.
Trueman and Sellars have an outstanding win record so far. But there will always be difficult moments. Not every game will be won. Sometimes, they will make bad tactical decisions. Pick the wrong players. Look like novices. They’ll get slagged off on Twitter and the like. They’ll face periods where some people call for them to go – just ask Parkinson, Jewell and co.
But over recent weeks, they’ve demonstrated their steeliness to get through a difficult moment. They’ve led with confidence and assurance. And come out the other side.
Bradford City’s modern history suggests it is a template for success.