|Bradford City 0|
|Crawley Town 2|
|Tunnicliffe 20, McNerney 86|
By Jason McKeown
This was not a lethal blow to Bradford City’s play off chances, but it was certainly a missed opportunity. On an evening where each and every one of their immediate top seven rivals dropped points, the Bantams stumbled too. Enduring a first home defeat since December, just as the congested road to promotion had opened up for them to accelerate through.
They will kick themselves and right so. Whilst Crawley Town’s energetic and determined display shows there are no free hits in League Two, the fact remained the Red Devils were winless in seven matches, and had picked up just five points from 27 on the road since early January.
It was a result to rip up the form book. And with games beginning to run out to make the play offs, for City the margins of error have now significantly reduced.
In truth, City played better here than they had in their fortuitous victory over Grimsby Town over the weekend. The home side recorded 20 shots on goal – by some distance the highest amount in a game since Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars took the reins almost four months ago to the day. There were enough what-if moments to suggest City could have won, which would have lifted them to one point and one place below the top seven. But instead, they remain marooned in 12th, with four points and four clubs sandwiched between themselves and the play off dotted line.
Regret will be the overriding emotion. Not least after 20 minutes, when after half clearing a corner, Gareth Evans lost sight of former Bantam Josh Wright, who ran in behind him to latch onto a pass and send over a brilliant cross into the box. Paudie O’Connor and Finn Cousin-Dawson were guilty of giving Jordan Tunnicliffe too much space, which the Crawley centre half profited from by timing his leap to perfection and powering a terrific header into the top corner of Richard O’Donnell’s goal.
It was a huge moment. Crawley Town’s middle-of-the-road season has already ensured they’ll barely get a mention when the 2020/21 League Two season is looked back on in future years. But they do have the fifth best record in the division when it comes to picking up points after scoring first.
A side who had only scored one goal in their last four games – and that was a 90th minute consolation when 3-0 down at home to Oldham – had a confidence fillip. And they had a gameplan ideally suited to defending a slender lead by sitting back, disrupting the tempo and playing on the counter.
City will argue – with huge justification – that the man who laid on the goal shouldn’t even have still been on the field. Josh Wright will be more grateful than most that his first return to Valley Parade came with no fans present to boo his every touch. But his obvious determination to prove a point saw him seemingly cross the line barely two minutes in, when he contested for a high ball with Charles Vernam and caught the City winger in the face with a flying elbow.
Referee Martin Coy – who all evening long tried to ensure the game flowed – pulled out a yellow card for Wright. The relative earliness of the encounter probably saved Wright from a red card, but it’s a pretty feeble defence for Coy not sending him off. Wright was incredibly lucky to stay on the field, and it meant he could go onto provide an assist for Tunnicliffe.
But although Crawley’s opener was against the early run of play, there was a nagging feeling that City had failed to fully grasp the initiative, because they were performing at such a slow tempo. Eliot Watt did have an early shot comfortably saved by Glenn Morris, and Anthony O’Connor spurn a clear chance when Paudie O’Connor found him free in the box, but City were too passive. “We can’t start the way we started today and expect a positive result,” admitted Trueman after the game. “We lacked intensity.”
When you’ve achieved the sort of results the Bantams have over the last four months, the virtues of slow and steady winning the race have been justified time and time again. But not for the first time, the idea of taking more risk by playing in a higher gear appeared to offer tantalising rewards.
Tonight, City were made to pay for their conservatism. They were left with 70 minutes to come back from 1-0 down and they gave it a good go, but the 4-2-3-1 formation is evidently less suited to chasing a game. Spells of pressure were sporadic rather than consistent. The Bantams struggled to muster wave after wave of attack. A promising few minutes of attacking play would give way to long pauses of nothingness, as Crawley regained their footing.
Part of the issue is the wide players in the three behind the lone striker. It has been a feature we’ve highlighted on WOAP before that, whoever has been chosen to play in these roles, they’ve delivered little in the way of goals and assists.
The two wide players are not expected to hug the touchline and get in crosses – largely because there is only one striker in the box to aim at. They are limited in effectiveness when going narrow, at least on the right, because there is no full back overlapping. They don’t get beyond the striker. And as Evans showed tonight with the first goal, they don’t always provide brilliant defensive cover.
What they do reasonably well is link up with the number 10 and the two holding midfielders, to create triangles of possession. And when City don’t have the ball, they maintain a good shape by dropping slightly deeper. Steady, but not spectacular. The wide players are doing a job for the team, without question, but their roles aren’t significantly contributing to City’s attacking prowess.
It would be easy to blame this on the players – Evans and the young Kian Scales this evening – but we’ve seen Charles Vernam, Oli Crankshaw, Billy Clarke and Jordan Stevens equally struggle to make a strong attacking impression when selected. It is not a concidence that none of them have offered a great deal in end product, it is a consequence of the wider system that – overall – works well.
All of which suggests that, in such circumstances of City needing to wrestle control of the tempo and force sustained pressure, they needed a different way of playing. Yet over the 90 minutes, the five substitutions made by Trueman and Sellars were basically like-for-like. There was no move to commit more bodies forward, at least not until deep into stoppage time when Paudie O’Connor was pushed up front.
Questioning the lack of Plan B is – frankly – a boring and tedious route to go down. Every Bradford City manager I’ve ever known has faced the ‘No Plan B’ accusation at some stage. And, unlike the vast majority of Bradford City managers I’ve seen over more than two decades, these two have a brilliant Plan A – one that has delivered exceptional results.
But, sadly, tonight showed a one-dimensional aspect to the Bantams’ approach. And if the brilliant progress of the past four months is to continue to the next level, at some point they’re going to need to successfully deploy other formations. The sight of Danny Rowe being replaced with Andy Cook, rather than going with two up front, was underwhelming. Cook has been excellent overall since signing in January, but he failed to make any impact against a deep-lying Crawley defence – he was starved of service.
That all said, on another night, the number of openings City created over the 90 minutes would have led to an equaliser, giving them a platform to go on and win the game. Just before half time, Rowe – who was curiously subdued early doors – came to life and had two dangerous efforts at goal that flew just over. Anthony O’Connor narrowly failed to get onto a Finn Cousin-Dawson flick on that would have meant a tap in. And right on half time, Watt hit a shot wide of the goal.
Early in the second half, Cousin-Dawson got free of his marker to meet a delightful Vernam cross, but he planted his header just wide. Evans saw a long range effort narrowly fly over the bar, and Morris made a brilliant save from Vernam.
With seven minutes to go, Clarke sent an excellent ball through to fellow sub Clayton Donaldson, who produced a stunning dipping volley that smacked off the woodwork. That was City’s best moment, on a night where they created plenty of chances.
“In the second half we looked more like us,” added Trueman. And he was right. But sometimes, the ball just doesn’t go in. For a club that has managed the fine margins so well, tonight was one of those nights where those narrow moments went against them.
Crawley sealed an unlikely three points with four minutes to go, after Jack Powell sent over a free kick that Joe McNerney powered home with barely a challenge. The two O’Connors angrily led the inquest over how the goal had been allowed to happen. It didn’t help that the free kick was conceded in the first place by Donaldson, with a crude challenge out wide that earned a yellow card. For a player with such valuable experience, this was a moment of rashness that betrayed his normally cool character.
In any end of season run in, there are twists and turns. The weight of expectation can do strange things to the form guide. This was a defeat out of keeping with what we’ve seen under Trueman and Sellars since December; but they will hope that it sharpens minds and deepens the resolve in the dressing room. “Now it’s about sticking together and showing our character,” declared Trueman.
City have come so far, in such a relatively short space of time, that simply having this shot at making the play offs is a bonus. But having worked so hard to reach this healthy position, this management team and group of players surely won’t want to quickly pass up this-still-glorious opportunity to earn promotion.
There are six games left. Six games to try to ensure that tonight is not looked back upon with any lingering regret.
Categories: Match Reviews