|Bradford City 0|
|Salford City 1|
By Jason McKeown
Gary Bowyer will have enjoyed this one. 449 days since he was sacked as Bradford City manager, the interim Salford boss struck the final mathematical blow to the Bantams’ play off hopes and significantly strengthened his new club’s promotion aspirations.
When, deep in stoppage time, Ian Henderson beat the offside trap and finished expertly to clinch a dramatic victory, Bowyer would surely have allowed himself a wry smile. There was poetic justice for him in the fact Salford climbed into the top seven by defeating the club who dismissed him for falling out of the play off spots in February 2020.
The decision to end Bowyer’s Valley Parade tenure then added a significant blotch to his managerial record, after carefully carving out a decent reputation from his previous work guiding the crisis stricken Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool. Bowyer will have felt, with some justification, that having kept Bradford City in the top seven all season up to that point, he deserved a bit more time. Tellingly, the Bantams have not seriously threatened the play off positions since.
Out of fashion, Bowyer ended up taking a position coaching Derby’s under 23-side earlier this season. His sudden loan move to Salford, to take charge until the end of the season, is said by those close to the Ammies to be a stopgap arrangement. But if Bowyer continues this revival of Salford’s promotion hopes and takes the ambitious club into League One, their illustrious owners might well decide to offer Bowyer the job full time.
Salford were far from impressive here. No club has deployed a bigger transfer budget in League Two this season, and for much of this strange campaign they’ve struggled under the weight of sizeable expectations. Yet the purposeful way they upped the tempo in the final stages at Valley Parade, throwing more players forward in search of a winner, was deservedly rewarded with Henderson’s decisive contribution. Finally, they’ve knocked a fading Forest Green out of the top seven. If Salford can hang in there for the last two games, they’ll fancy themselves to win the play offs too.
As Bowyer’s stock rises again, Bradford City remain saddled in almost exactly the same position that he left them in. They’re falling short of the aims and ambitions of a demanding fanbase, who are still feeling raw with pain at how the club stumbled back into League Two in the first place. The team and management are trying to demonstrate their promotion capability, but are lacking the required quality and – frankly – intelligence to do better. The style of play is unconvincing, even during victory. The football is once again as difficult to watch as the safety-first approach that greyed the final weeks of Bowyer’s Valley Parade tenure, where he badly lost the backing of supporters.
After the promise of January and February, and a late March revival in form after a slight dip, once again a sense of staleness has infested Bradford City. This was another poor performance from the home side, who quickly faded after a bright opening 10 minutes. “That’s probably the best we’ve played in a while,” was Mark Trueman’s somewhat questionable post-match verdict. And while the City boss rightly argued his side started well, the players all too quickly fell away as an attacking threat. “We need to maintain that [bright spell] for longer in the game,” he added.
City struggled to trouble a Salford backline who boast the best defensive record in League Two. They looked devoid of ideas and were left trying to hold on for a 0-0 draw. Something that, in the end, they failed to achieve. Although Trueman argued that Henderson was offside when he scored.
Given they had come into this contest on the back of four straight defeats, it was perhaps understandable that Trueman and Conor Sellars parked up ideals of experimenting and reverted City to their tried and tested 4-2-3-1. But though Callum Cooke is back in the number 10 role where he produced such a rich vein of form earlier this calendar year, and though the back four looked more solid again after being left too exposed in defeat at Port Vale, familiar problems resurfaced.
Namely, getting the wide players of the attacking midfield three to provide a meaningful contribution. This wasn’t a brilliant night for Charles Vernam, but it was an especially bad one for Gareth Evans.
Apart from a decent run of form in January, there’s no escaping the fact Evans has proven to be a very disappointing signing. Even without his past history with the Bantams, it looked a bit of a coup when Evans was brought in last summer – a player with a good record at Rotherham, Fleetwood and Portsmouth, deeply loved by Pompey fans. But whether it’s age, fitness or a combination of both, the 33-year-old just isn’t the force he used to be.
Tonight, Evans offered nothing but curiously stayed on the pitch despite his lack of impact. He didn’t deliver any key passes that led to a shot on goal, he didn’t produce a single successful dribble, he didn’t have a shot on goal, and was dispossessed twice. Vernam (two key passes, one successful dribble, three shots on goal and once dispossessed) wasn’t much better, but at least contributed something. Not least an excellent second half run and cross that Cooke couldn’t quite convert.
Aside from a clever early run and shot that tested the excellent Vaclav Hladky, Andy Cook also struggled to lead the line – he was completely dominated by the outstanding Jordan Turnbull. Overall, Cook has experienced a slightly worrying dip since his strong display at Harrogate, just at a point where you’d be expecting him to put everything on the line to earn a deal at City next season.
And so, with three of City’s four attacking players failing to hit the standards expected, the Bantams were reliant on being solid at the back and the holding midfielders digging in to earn a point that would have at least stopped the rot.
As the game wore on, Salford began to edge possession and territorial advantage. The 4-5-1 Bowyer employed won’t have any City fans looking back with regret at the way he was driven out of Valley Parade, but the patient manner they probed for opportunities and cranked up the pressure at the end was admirable. During those final 20 minutes, Bowyer matched Trueman and Sellars’ 4-2-3-1 with Robbie Gotts – playing the number 10/Cooke role – pushed higher up and linking up well with Henderson. Brandon Thomas-Asante was the best player on the pitch, running at City defenders and producing several threatening attempts on goal. “I thought in the second half we were terrific, It was a massive team effort,” beamed Bowyer.
Salford had chances to win it before Henderson finally struck. Turnbull wasted a good header opportunity in the box with a tame effort straight at Sam Hornby, and Anthony O’Connor made two brilliant last ditch blocks to deny Henderson. But the visitors never relented, their attacking intent demonstrated by the fact Levi Sutton was robbed of possession in his own half by the advancing centre half Turnbull – who had been up for a corner – and he set up Henderson to take his chance clinically. City reportedly tried to sign Henderson in the summer but couldn’t match the wages offered by Salford. If only.
At the full time whistle, Bowyer turned to the empty main stand and punched the air. While Trueman and Sellars looked crestfallen as they trooped off the pitch. The irony for the pair is that they have somehow managed to fall into the same trap that they found when they were elevated to caretaker managers back in December. And, like the manager they replaced, they increasingly look short of ideas over how to fix it.
Five league defeats in a row. We’ve not had such a bad run since, well, December – when Stuart McCall was sacked. The circumstances are different now in the sense that City are in no danger of relegation. But that’s small crumbs of comfort to take. Ultimately, it’s still another example of the Bantams suddenly plunging into freefall and a collective inability to halt the slide. Something is rotten inside that Valley Parade dressing room. It must be addressed by the summer’s player recruitment.
McCall was sacked because he couldn’t stop losing runs. But Trueman and Sellars are suddenly repeating exactly the same pattern. For all their heroics in moving City away from relegation trouble, they had a big opportunity to push for promotion and failed to take it. And now results have completely collapsed.
As we wrote during that good period when they were in interim charge, the real test of Trueman and Sellars was always going to be how they would cope with set-backs and difficult moments. Up until two weeks ago, when they have had to show that side of management, they’d suggested they could produce positive answers. This end of season crumble suddenly throws up questions about their future. “It hurts,” Trueman admitted. “There is always pressure in this job to win games. We need to get back into that winning mentality.”
Where McCall and Trueman/Sellars differ is in their approach. McCall refused to take a pragmatic route and shut up shop when it was clear his injury-hit side could not outplay opposition sides. Trueman and Sellars remain fearful of taking more risk and – if anything – recent results will have only strengthened their resolve to be pragmatic. Different outlooks, but the same outcomes.
The level of criticism Trueman and Sellars are now receiving has a harsh edge to it. They still deserve a lot of credit for the way they rescued the club from the cliff-edge spectre of relegation to the National League. Because for a while back then, it was starting to get very worrying. But even accepting the revival they’ve overseen; the unavoidable reality is that Bradford City are still punching way below their level. The Bantams are on track for a worst league finish in 10 years. A fourth straight year of finishing in a lower position than the one before it.
Supporters want to feel inspired and confident about the future – recent results simply do not offer that.
The habitual rolling of the dice at Valley Parade has had largely dismal results – from McCall to Simon Grayson to Michael Collins to David Hopkin to Bowyer to McCall again. The change to Trueman and Sellars is the first time since Phil Parkinson that the club has actually moved forwards, in terms of league position, after changing manager. Rolling the dice yet again has obvious risks. But if not rolling the dice in the summer only delays the club from doing it midway during the 2021/22 campaign anyway, there is a risk that elongating the situation could result in yet another wasted season.
Football and League Two is full of stories good and bad caused by changing managers. Salford don’t think they’re going to get promoted, so they sack the guy who won League Two last season and hire a manager deemed not capable of taking Bradford City up 16 months ago. On the same night as Bowyer wins at City, Cheltenham Town earn promotion after sticking with Michael Duff for nearly three seasons. Grimsby and Southend will be relegated despite swapping managers mid-season. Barrow stay up, after changing managers four times since promotion to the Football League. Stick or twist? Stick or twist? It’s a never-ending story.
There are two games of this campaign left, and for Trueman and Sellars there is an awful lot riding on both fixtures. If they can stop the rut and chalk up a couple of victories, they can go into an important close season with enough breathing space to plot a promotion push next season.
But if the losing run continues, they’re going to leave the club with a difficult dilemma.
Categories: Match Reviews