|Harrogate Town 2|
|Muldoon 22, McPake 89|
|Bradford City 1|
By Jason McKeown
The irony of the moment is that, for once, Bradford City were showing a willingness to take more risk. The game tied at 1-1, and with the tantalising opportunity to make a decisive leap up the queue for the play offs, the Bantams were pushing players forward, accepting the dangers of leaving gaps at the back. They pinned Harrogate in their own half. Huffing and puffing in search of what would have been a huge goal to win the match.
But then a City attack broke down. The impressive Jack Muldoon picked up possession and ran through the wide-open space. Levi Sutton tried, in desperation, to stop Muldoon illegally, but the ball ran through to Josh McPake, allowing the referee James Adock to play advantage. McPake cut inside Finn Cousin-Dawson and picked his spot. The ball flying into the net past the helpless Richard O’Donnell.
It was a huge blow to Bradford City’s play off hopes, which now seem very unlikely. Although results elsewhere once again suggest the door still isn’t fully closed. Win all five of their remaining games, and the Bantams would finish on 73 points. Which might be enough.
The problem is, it’s very difficult to see City winning all five of their remaining games.
They took more of a risk at last, and they were punished. This could prove to be an influential afternoon in shaping Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars’ mindset of how adventurous they should be. After two under-whelming performances in a week – albeit they won one of those two games – Sellars had to deal with pre-match questions about he and Trueman’s risk and reward appetite.
There was pressure, late on at Wetherby Road, to take off the handbrake. Go all out attack, especially with the incentive that seventh-placed Newport were losing. So the managers upped the gambling stakes. And lost. They might feel justified in their original cautious mindset.
Although that of course would suggest they got their tactics and line up right in the first place. City’s performance over the first 70 minutes at Harrogate offered scant evidence this was the case. In a game the Bantams had to target winning, they once again began with a slow tempo. They probed but rarely panicked Harrogate, who seized on City’s tentativeness by opening the scoring.
It had been almost six weeks since Harrogate last won, with a dreadful run of five defeats in seven. Like Crawley on Tuesday, the form guide suggested City were up against opponents low on confidence, ripe for the taking. But like Crawley on Tuesday, City’s lack of tempo in the early 20 minutes offered Harrogate the chance to get a footing in the game and take the lead.
There were even similarities in how City conceded. After Gareth Evans had failed to track the run of Josh Wright midweek, this time the man who took Evans’ place, Charles Vernam, left a huge gap behind him that allowed George Thomson and Mouldoon to double up on Anthony O’Connor. Mouldoon was played through by Thomson and finished well.
City can argue they had deserved to be ahead before that point. After just three minutes a brilliant Billy Clarke corner was met by a glancing header from Clayton Donaldson, only for the former Bantams keeper Joe Cracknell – who had a terrific game – to somehow claw it away. Clarke had another early shot blocked by Cracknell, and Cousin-Dawson hit the bar with an overhead kick attempt.
The biggest chance of all came just moments before City conceded, when a weak back-pass allowed Andy Cook to run at goal. He nudged the ball beyond Cracknell and should have been cute enough to fall over the keeper’s trailing leg to earn a penalty. But the striker stayed on his feet and saw the ball cleared by Will Smith, before he could tap it home. Honesty is not always the best policy.
Prior to conceding, Trueman and Sellars once again appeared justified in sticking with the 4-2-3-1 approach. But again, its limitations were on show when City need to chase a game. If the Bantams had shaded the first half of the opening 45 minutes, Harrogate then took over. The goal boosted their confidence, and they had some good chances before half time. Jon Stead – a Bradford City cult hero for his exploits six years ago – led the line and caused problems. He had one particular good chance where he was thwarted by the excellent Cousin-Dawson.
It needed a big second 45 minutes from City, but all too predictably they took too long to get going. Sutton did force a smart block from Cracknell, Cook saw another effort saved (with Vernam failing to make more of the rebound) and Donaldson headed just over the bar from another promising Clarke set piece. But Harrogate had good chances too, none more so than when Thomson ran clean through on goal but wastefully hit a shot against the bar.
Thomson and Josh Falkingham were especially dominant in possession over the 90 minutes. There was a simplicity to Harrogate’s 4-4-2. The players seemed comfortable in their roles. The wide players in particular took advantage of space behind Vernam and Clarke. The league table shows that Town are far from getting everything right, especially of late, but they were organised and difficult to play against.
In contrast, City’s 4-2-3-1 looked sluggish when a higher tempo was demanded. Donaldson was once again entrusted with the number 10 role, but this was a long way short of his performances against Colchester and Forest Green. The fact Donaldson’s pass success rate was a woeful 41% said much about the fall in standards compared to the 83% benchmark Callum Cooke was consistently setting. Donaldson definitely gave the team a kick-start at a really crucial moment a few weeks ago. But he’s not sustaining that impact. (Free Billy!)
The turning point for City came on 70 minutes, when Oli Crankshaw and Gareth Evans were brought on for the disappointing Elliot Watt and Vernam – neither player produced the form they’re capable of. Within two minutes, Crankshaw went on a brilliant solo run down the middle, before passing the ball to Cook who finished superbly for the goal he deserved.
Since signing for City in January, Crankshaw had struggled to show his capabilities and demonstrate he has an end product. This was without doubt his best performance so far for City, aided by the switch of formation that placed greater emphasis on him to play wider and run at people.
Within minutes of his goal assist, Crankshaw had set up Donaldson for a chance. The 22-year-old nearly struck a winner himself, as the game finally became more open. And even in stoppage time, when City trailed again, Crankshaw came the closest to equalising with a powerful close-range volley from fellow substitute Kian Scales’ pass. Cracknell miraculously saved Crankshaw’s effort.
There was not a lot to complain about City in those final 20 minutes. Moving to a 4-4-2, players pushed forward with better effect. Evans did a decent job alongside Sutton in enabling City to win the ball higher up the park and attack. It wasn’t quite a case of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it – Danny Rowe, amazingly, was left as an unused substitute – but they did show more adventure compared to Tuesday.
You just hope that the consequence of doing so – Muldoon’s goal – doesn’t put them off trying to be bolder in future.
If City had won here and on Tuesday, they’d been sat in the play offs now. They’d even have an outside shot of the automatics. And these last three fixtures were the easier games of their run-in. It is a missed opportunity for sure.
But what’s becoming clearer now is that this Bradford City team are not quite ready to make the next leap. They don’t have the mentality to go into games and dominate the opposition. They don’t seem to play with the conviction of a side who believes they could get promoted.
It’s probably not something that you can easily find. It’s only three months ago that they were still looking over their shoulder, focused on climbing out and away from the relegation zone. They’ve been playing with a mindset of not getting beat, setting up to contain the opposition and waiting patiently for moments to pick them off. It’s difficult to suddenly change that mentality into one of promotion contenders.
The other issue is the lack of experience of being in this position. Obviously, it’s easy to level that at Trueman and Sellars – the latter spent part of the pre-match media conference recalling how he played for Harrogate Town during their non-league days – but when you look at the team, the experience isn’t really there either.
Of the starting XI today, only Clarke, Donaldson and Cook have been part of teams who have won promotion. Anthony O’Connor has twice played for clubs who reached and lost play off semi finals – Burton and Plymouth – and on the bench Evans has won promotion at Portsmouth, but that’s it really. This is not a dressing room full of players who have been in this sort of position before. And on top of that, they’re playing for a club that has seen significant failure over recent years. The culture of success has been absent from Valley Parade for some time.
It all adds up to a management team and group of players who have been handed this sudden, unexpected opportunity to get into the play offs and win promotion – and they don’t seem to know how to deal with it. They’re falling back on what has got them into this stronger position in the first place, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to be enough to meet the revised demands.
Sellars spoke before the game about how a move to a more adventurous formation would be “unknown territory” for the squad. Given the players have built and maintained a mindset of making sure they protect the back four, don’t concede goals and counter attack, perhaps that’s a fair comment.
“We’re not just going to be able to flick the switch,” added Sellars. And he’s right. When you’ve spent months and months doing exactly the same thing – and achieving the success of 45 points from 22 games by sticking to that – it is clearly going to be difficult to suddenly change to a different gameplan. Especially with time on the training ground limited by the churn of Saturday-Tuesday fixtures.
Nevertheless, if – as seems likely now – Bradford City are not going to get promoted this season, they can’t begin the 2021/22 campaign with a target of merely avoiding relegation. They might not be ready to change the mentality right now, but the managers are going to have to do it eventually. This is a club that cannot accept League Two as a long stay. And Trueman and Sellars’ hopes of building something long-term at Valley Parade will rest on demonstrating their ability to get City into League One over the next 12 months.
Taking risks today ultimately brought punishment. But over the longer-term Trueman and Sellars will have to find a way to be less conservative.
Categories: Match Reviews