|McAlinden 28, Stockton 57|
|Bradford City 0|
By Jason McKeown
In the build up to this final day encounter, Morecambe had deemed it necessary to issue a statement asking their supporters not to congregate outside the Globe Arena. The Shrimpers fans had wanted to show their gratitude to a group of players and manager who had achieved the highest league position in their history, and turned up anyway.
There was no danger of Bradford City needing to ask their own supporters not to gather and congratulate them. The players were lucky that Morecambe’s East Terrace – always packed out with City fans on previous visits – stood empty. Sparing them from a deserved flurry of boos at the full-time whistle; after another dismal defeat that rounded off another season of disappointment.
What happened to that feelgood factor that sprung up between December and March? All the optimism about the promotion and success of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars? It’s all gone. The Bantams’ form has completely collapsed, and there is absolutely no momentum to take into the summer.
At Morecambe, the City performance was a dismal repeat of recent games. A pretty promising start with some good attacking intent, even though they struggled to create a chance. A falling behind to a goal that was as self-inflicted as it was decent opposition play. Some huff and puff, but a sneaking suspicion the players were holding something back – be it because of cautious tactics or their own effort levels.
The end of the season form is utterly grim. One point from the last 21 on offer. Just two goals scored in the last 678 minutes of City action. A woeful 10 shots on target in the last five matches.
The run of one draw and six defeats in the final seven matches makes it the Bantams’ worst end to a season since 1994/95. That’s 26 years ago. Back then, Lennie Lawrence had endured a disappointing first year in charge, after City – in Geoffrey Richmond’s first full season owning the club – had spent relatively big in the transfer market but failed to push for promotion from the third tier.
They finished 14th – then, as now, gaining just one point in the final seven matches. And failing to score in the last five.
Lawrence was kept on as manager during the subsequent close season, though Richmond did demand coaching changes that saw George Shipley demoted – and as a result choosing to leave – and Chris Kamara promoted to assistant. By November of the 1995/96 season, with City’s league position barely improved, Lawrence was sacked and Kamara promoted.
Just like Richmond in the summer of 1995, Ryan Sparks will go into this close season with a decision to make over Trueman and Sellars. He is rightly proud of what the pair achieved after they took over the reins from Stuart McCall last December. But this drop off in form is alarming.
The end of season results are just as awful as the final few weeks of McCall’s tenure. And though there aren’t relegation concerns this time, the football is worse to watch and the pool of fit players to select from is significantly stronger. If McCall deserved to go then, what does that say about Trueman and Sellars now?
Sparks will surely be worried that – just as McCall seemed to have run out of ideas of how to fix things – Trueman and Sellars haven’t shown any solutions to address the nosedive. There is scant evidence the players look bought into the managerial pair. They look bored.
When Andy Cook was substituted with 22 minutes to play, it appeared – through the lens of iFollow – that the on-loan striker walked past Trueman and Sellars without shaking their hands. The BBC Radio Leeds commentators, Jamie Raynor and Andy Kiwomya, confirmed this suspicion by relaying Cook’s evident frustration at being taken off.
To Trueman and Sellars’ credit, they did at least adjust formation at Morecambe, moving away from a faltering 4-2-3-1 and accommodating Lee Novak and Cook in a 4-4-2. Yet with Callum Cooke moved to a wide left position, it wasn’t a case of out and out wingers, and the WOAP player of the season’s game slightly suffered, with a pass success rate of 72% when outwide, that improved to 78.3% after being moved back to the centre for the final 20 minutes, just below his season average of 83.3%. He produced 23 passes in total compared to an average of 33.3.
Cooke attempted five crosses (average per game, 0.5) – none of them finding a City player.
There was some confusion with the team news that had seen Matty Foulds and Charles Vernam originally in the starting XI, but swapped to the bench by kick off. It meant that Oli Crankshaw started on the right. He failed to really get involved in the game – just one cross all afternoon summing up his lack of attacking contribution – and it all left Novak and Cook feeding off scraps.
It is revealing that, after coming on as sub for Cook, Clayton Donaldson touched the ball 17 times. When over the full 90 minutes, Novak touched the ball just 11 times and Cook 12 across his 68 minutes of action.
It all meant that City dominated possession in the first half especially – 73% to Morecambe’s 23%. Yet the visitors didn’t register a single shot on target until the 76th minute. Morecambe, who knew that victory could earn automatic promotion if other results went their way, started the game nervously and looked there for the taking. Once again City were too passive and failed to take full advantage.
There was an early warning sign of Morecambe’s more cutting approach when Paudie O’Connor cheaply gave the ball away, Cole Stockton played in Ryan Cooney whose shot was blocked by Sam Hornby, and Liam McAlinden rattled a follow up effort against the post after Levi Sutton had lost the ball again.
Not long after, Cooke tried to pass the ball inside but it was intercepted, the impressive Toumani Diagouraga charged forward and released McAlinden, who finished clinically from an angle. Trueman and Sellars would surely have spent part of the half time break lamenting Elliot Watt’s failure to track Diagouraga. It was a goal that gave Morecambe confidence and settled their early nerves.
Even with their automatic promotion hopes fading, as news flooded through that their top three rivals Cambridge and Bolton were both winning, Morecambe went on the front foot early in the second half. Cooney embarked on another rampaging run and crossed, with Diagouraga latching onto a loose ball and volleying just wide.
And then the game was put beyond a goal-shy City’s reach, as Yann Songo’o was given too much space in the centre, and he picked out Carlos Mendes Gomes with a pass that caught out Jorge Sikora. As the City youngster and Anthony O’Connor raced to closed the Spanish forward down, he produced a brilliant pass into the path of Stockton to make it 2-0. The sight of Paudie O’Connor ambling slowly back – after losing Stockton – was maddening.
The game was largely up from there, even though City did continue to attack. Connor Wood – in what may be his last game for the Bantams – struck a free kick just wide. And Donaldson got on the end of Sutton’s cross to hit a tame effort that counted as City’s first shot on target. Another substitute – Billy Clarke – produced a diving header attempt that finally tested Kyle Letheren. But there was never a spell of sustained City pressure that suggested they were likely to come back.
The biggest positive of the performance was Sikora, making his league debut. Apart from the mistake for the second goal, the young centre half looked accomplished on the ball and composed in the tackle. He is surely worth a new deal, and with City going into the summer with Niall Canavan, Paudie O’Connor, Reece Staunton and Finn Cousin-Dawson under contract, Sikora’s promising performance is arguably another reason not to retain the well-paid Anthony O’Connor.
But throughout the team, there is so much work to do. Over the course of the last ten months, the Bantams have shown flashes of being capable of producing promotion standard results, but it has proved feast or famine form. Just 48 goals over the season. And City have failed to score in 17 of their 46 games. They have only the 14th best home record and the 7th worst away.
They end an underwhelming campaign in 15th place – 14 points shy of the play offs, and 14 points above the bottom two. And though Trueman and Sellars have an overall win ratio for the season of 43.3%, which is the best record since Stuart McCall’s second spell in charge (45.5%) – less than a month ago that win ratio stood at 56.2%.
It’s on the slide.
Trueman and Sellars’ overall record of 13 wins, seven draws and 10 defeats is decent. But shown in sequence it reads as: DWWWDDWWLWWWWWDLLDLWWDWLLLLLDL – and that’s too many Ls in the same place.
The non-stop revolving door of managerial changes at Bradford City since February 2018 has contributed to the club’s demise – from finishing 49th out of the 92 in 2017, to ending 2020/21 in a wretched 83rd. Trueman and Sellars are the first managerial switch that has improved the club’s league position since Phil Parkinson took over from Peter Jackson. That has some significance.
Balancing all things up, they deserve a crack next season. But there have to be big, big concerns. And we cannot afford a repeat of this season, the one before, the one before that and the one before that, where a managerial change is needed half way through.
Trueman and Sellars need some experience around them. When looking at their career prior to this opportunity, it’s obvious they’ve never found themselves in this kind of position before and so mistakes are bound to be made. Extra support doesn’t have to be a director of football or an assistant who they might look on as a threat, but even something like having regular mentoring from people who have been in this position could make all the difference. There should be no shame in admitting they don’t have all the answers, because how could they?
Paul Jewell – a man who has walked a mile in their shoes, and who even knows what it’s like to end a season badly and have supporters questioning your employment – would be a great person to learn from. Though the Swindon director of football might have different loyalties these days.
In the end, 2020/21 has been another step backwards for a club that can’t seem to reverse its flightpath. If Trueman and Sellars remain at the helm, they need all the support from the club to give them the best chance of success. Sparks has already talked to WOAP about making significant changes to the coaching structure, aimed at improving the performance management and sports science of things. The recruitment director, Lee Turnbull, also has a huge role to play. Success or failure on the pitch cannot be solely down to Trueman and Sellars.
Sparks has more than just season tickets to sell – he has to deliver on a vision that fans can see and buy into, because the supporter mood is once again really dark. We’re absolutely fed up of failure, and the fact that long losing runs like this has become the new normal.
In 12 months’ time, we need to be able to look back and see that progress has been made. As supporters, we want to feel like Morecambe fans do right now – proud enough of our football club to want to gather in a car park and applaud them.
Categories: Match Reviews