|Bradford City 1|
|Anthony O’Connor 42|
|Grimsby Town 0|
By Jason McKeown
This was a result to encourage greater belief in Bradford City’s promotion chances. Yet it was also a performance that cast doubts over their ability to rise out of League Two.
They earned three points, which at the business end of the season is all that ultimately matters. But they will have to play so much better than this laboured, undeserved victory over the worst club in the Football League. The full time whistle was met with relief rather than joy.
For a time this afternoon, City had done well out of the old maxim of never interrupting your opponent when they’re making a mistake. Grimsby Town, surely now destined to fall back into the National League, hit the self-destruct button. Undermining their own promising start to the match by gifting the home side a simple goal and then fighting amongst themselves, leading to one of the strangest red cards you’ll ever see.
It all meant the Bantams began the second half with a goal and one-man advantage, against the weakest opponents possible. It looked like a gift horse for City. The expectation of supporters was for City to quickly finish off browbeaten opponents, rattle in a few goals and enhance their still weak goal difference. For the team to let loose and make a statement about their play off credentials.
Instead we saw a timid, stumbling display that left City hanging on. Their cautiousness curbing their ambition. It was a good job that Grimsby were largely toothless. Unable to make City pay for their tepidness. They will return to Humberside full of regret over blowing a big opportunity to give themselves hope of avoiding the inevitable.
For City, it was a performance that highlighted their struggles to play on the front foot, be attack-minded and create plenty of chances. It again showed a happiness to settle for slim leads, and to rely on a defence which continues to excel.
How far can such an approach take you? For sure City are on a trajectory to climb into the top seven by the end of the season. And given where they were just a few months ago, that would be a remarkable achievement. But what if, at some point during the run-in – or even in the play offs – they’re chasing a game and needing to heap sustained pressure on the opposition to force a result? There’s been some evidence in recent weeks that they are capable of going full throttle, but this afternoon was not one of those occasions.
There are obvious parallels to make with Phil Parkinson’s final year at Valley Parade, 2015/16, where City staged a late push for the play offs and succeeded through an end-of-season season run of 1-0 victories. A commendable feat. Yet after a dismal first 45 minutes against Millwall in the semi finals, they were left with three-quarters of the two-legged tie to chase and overturn a two-goal deficit. City couldn’t make a dent, bowing out at the New Den.
The pragmatic, defensive style of football that took City such a long way – that season – ultimately proved limited for the demands of the play off occasion.
Perhaps, City can go all the way to League One this season without needing to play a more adventurous style of football. But it would be nice to know it was within their armoury – just in case it might be needed.
That’s for another day of course. Right now, winning games is everything. And on that front, Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars will take plenty of satisfaction from this game. “It was a tough day, and the most important thing was getting three points,” Trueman stated at full time.
Trueman also rightly highlighted Grimsby’s recent run of form. Cut adrift at the bottom they might be, but Town were unbeaten in eight games. A run of results that has seen them take points off City’s promotion contenders Grimsby, Tranmere, Salford and Cheltenham. With Newport dropping two points on Friday night, the managerial pair knew that victory would cut the gap on the play offs back down to three. And that was the most important priority.
Nor do Trueman and Sellars deserve to be labelled negative managers. The pair warrant credit for the way they adjusted the usual 4-2-3-1 formation, midway through the first half, to address a positive start from Grimsby. With the tweaks successfully making City a stronger force, as they took control of the game for a crucial 15-minute period before half time.
Paul Hurst – the man who was seemingly lined up to take over at Valley Parade, before Trueman and Sellars made such a huge impact – had surprisingly set the Mariners up in a diamond. And with centre half Elliot Hewitt pushing forward whenever Grimsby had the ball, in the early stages the visitors threatened to overrun City’s midfield.
“We changed shape, they didn’t know what to do with it,” explained Hurst after the match, whilst revealing he had changed Grimsby’s usual formation to counter how he knew City would line up. “They [City] tried pretending they were going to play three at the back to start with, but they didn’t. I don’t know if they think you were born yesterday with putting things out in the press and going with a back three.
“They were struggling to cope with our system, tried changing it, they really struggled, they couldn’t get the message onto the pitch.”
In response to the early problems, Trueman and Sellars opted to move Anthony O’Connor back and set up a three man defence, with full backs Finn Cousin-Dawson and Connor Wood moved to wing backs and flanking Elliot Watt, while Gareth Evans and Billy Clarke provided good support off the ball. Gradually, City got better at winning and keeping possession. The 3-3-3-1 set up allowed them to defend better and come forward with more purpose.
After waiting 35 minutes to finally register an attempt on James McKeown’s goal, City began to threaten more, with Evans and Cousin-Dawson coming close. They had been comfortably second best on possession stats but began to claw it back. After Wood’s delightful cross was seemingly about to be headed home by Andy Cook – only for the on-loan striker to be denied by another Mansfield loanee, Rollin Menayesse, just beating him to the ball – City won their first corner and duly scored.
It was a goal that summed up why Grimsby are bottom of the league. An initial ball into the box had been cleared and the danger seemingly over. But Watt picked out Wood, who was given too much space to swing over another cross. Jay Matete made a half-hearted attempt at heading away the ball, but only flicked it towards an unmarked Anthony O’Connor, who volleyed home. It reminded you of the dismal goals that City were conceding prior to Trueman and Sellars’ tenure.
On the success of the formation change, Trueman reflected, “We had to adapt. We knew we had to find a way and we did that.”
Grimsby were not done self-imploding. In first half stoppage time, former City winger Filipe Morais sent a through ball for Stefan Payne – who City were said to have rejected the chance to sign last summer, when James Vaughan moved to Prenton Park – to chase. Payne failed to make the run and made clear his disgust at the accuracy of the pass. And as the referee James Bell blew for half time, Morais couldn’t hide his anger at Payne. The pair exchanged furious words. Payne then proceeded to headbutt Morais.
Despite fleeing the scene of the crime, Payne quickly discovered that Bell was stood outside the changing rooms, demanding the striker come out to receive a red card. There are reports the 29-year-old was in tears as the punishment was handed out. For his part in the incredible scenes, Morais didn’t return for the second half either – as Hurst opted to substitute him. The Portuguese sat alone on the steps by the away dressing room during the second half, probably fearing for his future. A really sad moment for a player who enjoyed many memorable days at Valley Parade.
“I’m angry,” Hurst stated. “Stef might be the one that’s done it, but the pair of them have let the club down, and everyone connected to us. Quite frankly it’s embarrassing.”
“Unforgiveable” was the verdict of the Grimsby Town’s Twitter account – strong words from an official club channel. Only hours earlier, the same Twitter account had promoted this fixture with the unfortunate line “We fight together until the very end.” Words taken too literally by their own players.
And that’s how City began the second half with such a good hand. Opponents tripping up over their own shoelaces, staring firmly down the barrel of relegation. City had a man advantage and just needed to keep their opponents trapped in the hole they’d dug for themselves. Get a second goal, and then run riot.
It didn’t happen.
For how bleak things were for Grimsby, their players and Hurst deserve credit for the way they dug in during the second half. The triple substitution that saw Morais vacate meant the visitors went to 4-3-2, with substitute Lennell John-Lewis partnering James Hanson. The blue shirts refused to roll over. Grimsby fans won’t take much consolation from what they saw today, but that resolve should count for something. Two years on from watching City get relegated from League One, we know only too well what a team looks like when they down tools and meekly accept their fate.
For all Grimsby’s mistakes, they at least didn’t throw in the towel.
Nevertheless, City failed to put them under any significant pressure. They had a chance to up the tempo and put Grimsby on the backfoot, but instead kept it slow and plodding. They did create a couple of chances – Cook seeing a header saved by McKeown, plus Wood hitting the bar after latching onto a good ball from substitute Charles Vernam. But they never got out of first gear. Passing moves routinely broke down. Several cheap free kicks were given away.
“The performance wasn’t what we were after,” admitted Trueman. “A team going down to 10-men – we’re learning about this group of players and we’d not come up against that.
“We needed more control and more aggression higher up the pitch. But if you’re asking me, did I want a complete performance and lose the game, or win but not play our best football? I’d always take the three points.”
Asked if he could have been more adventurous to improve the goal difference, Trueman responded “And risk losing the game? I don’t think so. We always knew we had to protect Rich[ard O’Donnell] with the aerial threat they’ve got, so we decided to keep the back three.”
The slender scoreline kept Grimsby more than interested. John-Lewis flashed an effort over the bar from the edge of the box. Harry Clifton ran past Paudie O’Connor and forced a good save from O’Donnell. Hewitt was left unmarked from a set piece but headed over. Late sub Luke Spokes hit an awful shot that missed the target after a rampaging run by Luke Hendrie had caused panic in the box.
The league table doesn’t lie, and Grimsby’s imminent demise is the result of a glaring lack of quality that was on full show here. But they did keep City sweating right to the end. And the suspicion remains that – in similar circumstances, but against stronger opposition – the Bantams would not be so fortunate to win.
When Trueman and Sellars took charge in mid-December, Bradford City were three points below Grimsby, and 23 points behind a Newport County side they are now within striking distance of overtaking. The pair have and continue to receive so many plaudits for what they have achieved this season. It’s a turnaround unprecedented in the modern history of Bradford City. They deserve huge respect for the stunning progress they’ve delivered.
But when you dig a little deeper – which is something we have always done on WOAP – it’s inescapable that some elements are not quite as impressive. Performances have been functional but rarely showing flair. They habitually win by fine margins rather than at a canter. They rely on being defensively sound, and clinical at scoring from the limited number of opportunities they create.
And that’s all we can ask for at this time. It really is. Thank goodness we are not Grimsby Town right now. Because for a few dark moments in early winter, that was us. If City don’t make the play offs this season, who can really have any complaints in Trueman and Sellars – given they began with such a poor hand? Whatever happens over the last seven games, they’ve performed miracles.
In the longer-term though, there’s no getting away from the fact Bradford City can and should have bigger ambitions than their current league position. Being in League Two is an underachievement. A consequence of bad mistakes. And if City don’t go up this season, they will be expected to come flying out the blocks in 2021/22. To win games convincingly. Push for the top three. Especially if crowds return, bringing with it all the usual loud emotions.
At some stage, more is going to expected of City than their performances over the whole of this season. And days like this suggest there is still work to do, before the Bantams are capable of reaching that next level.
Categories: Match Reviews