By Jason McKeown
The end of season play offs are always an event to trigger a range of strong emotions, even when Bradford City don’t feature – primarily jealousy that we are missing out on the drama. But the 2020/21 League Two play offs contained the added spice of an unusual subplot, one which invited even closer attention from City supporters.
It is widely believed that Derek Adams is lined up to be the next manager of Bradford City. And that, in the next few days, he will be making the move to West Yorkshire. So, watching Morecambe’s two-legged play off semi final affair with Tranmere and play off final clash with Newport offered a unique preview of what we might be able to expect from Derek Adams’ Bradford City.
It was not the most encouraging of sights. Morecambe triumphed over the two legs of the semi final and at Wembley, but the style of football Adams deployed would have won them few admirers. They were defensive, dour and clearly not adverse to the dark arts. It was effective but it was not enjoyable.
In the first leg at Prenton Park, Adams lined Morecambe up in a 4-1-4-1 formation – a surprise change from the 4-2-3-1 he had favoured over the campaign, including for the 2-0 victory over Bradford City that ended the regular season. In the revised formation, Yann Songo’o sat in front of the back four and Carlos Mendes Gomes, Toumani Diagouraga (who had been playing as a holding midfielder in the 4-2-3-1), Aaron Wildig and Liam McAlinden lined up behind lone striker Cole Stockton.
It was a formation that ensured Morecambe were solid without the ball and happy to be compact. Tranmere bossed possession though out the game – 75% to Morecambe’s 25% – and the home side produced 491 accurate passes to the visitor’s meagre 96.
But Morecambe made greater use of the ball when they did have it, taking the lead after 15 minutes through Nat Knight-Percival of all people. It was short-lived, with Tranmere equalising through veteran defender Peter Clarke.
Rovers fans, in the stadium for the first time since the Boxing Day defeat to Bradford City, roared on their team and they were dominant for the rest of the half. But an over reliance on crossing the ball meant they could not get much joy from a hard working Morecambe backline.
Amazingly, Morecambe went back in front just before half time. The ball had pinged about in the box before Diagouraga produced a delightful backheel that left Stockton in space inside the box, and his low cross was turned in by McAlinden.
There was lots of second half huff and puff from Tranmere, but Morecambe looked more comfortable after the break. They dominated the aerial duals and were effective on the counter attack. They also frustrated Tranmere with over the top time wasting that enraged the home team and their fans.
It led to eight minutes of injury time. But apart from one good save by Kyle Letheren, Tranmere never really looked like scoring. Knight-Percival was named man of the match on Sky. The right back Ryan Cooney was also very impressive.
Adams reflected after the first leg, “They started the game really well, as we expected they would, but we dealt with that threat so well.
“Once we got through that spell and scored a goal, that seemed to set Tranmere back a bit. They soon equalised though, and going in at 1-1 we would still have been happy, but for us to get that second goal when we did, made it a perfect night for us.”
In the second leg Adams continued with the 4-1-4-1 approach and made one starting XI change, with Liam Gibson coming in at left back for the injured Stephen Hendrie. The former Bantam Kelvin Mellor was back on the bench after suspension.
Tranmere knew they needed to score first, and James Vaughan hit the bar with a header early on. But less than a minute later McAlinden showed lovely skill to beat his man and played a great ball through to Wildig, who one on one finished well to put Morecambe 3-1 up on aggregate.
With a good cushion, Morecambe looked more confident and positive than the first leg. They are a direct side for sure but have some clever players capable of producing some nice bits of skill. In the opening 20 minutes they created four good chances as well as their goal. Had they grabbed a second, it would have put the tie fully beyond Rovers.
But the fact they didn’t finish them off made for a more uncomfortable second half. Tranmere made a double switch at half time and attacked with more purpose.
Within eight minutes of the restart, Vaughan equalised after a corner caused mayhem in the box and left him with a tap in. 1-1 on the day, and 3-2 on aggregate, Tranmere pushed on in search of a goal that would have taken the tie to extra time. Again, they were dominant in possession, this time having 64% over the 90 minutes to Morecambe’s 36%.
Tranmere were denied by a big save from Letheren in 79th minute from a Manny Monthe header. Moments later the visitors also had a goal disallowed after a Vaughan foul on the keeper. Adams would later admit, “We got the all-important first goal and it looked like we would go on and win the game convincingly. But Tranmere had other ideas and became much more direct and we had to deal with their threat.”
Yet despite struggling to hang on for a spell, by the closing stages Morecambe had reassumed authority. Once again, Adams’ side were very good at defending. As Tranmere’s desperation grew in the final minutes, the inevitable long balls into the box were dealt with easily. Sadly, there was also more time-wasting. Adams and Morecambe would have argued it was an evil necessary.
At full time Adams went around every player to give them a hug. He looked happy but not overly triumphant. A picture of calmness as the Morecambe fans present celebrated wildly. Adams summarised, “We were disappointed to miss out on the final day of the season, but this is a just reward for the effort the lads have put in all season and I’m so proud of everyone at the club.”
The final against Newport was predictably billed as Adams vs Kevin Ellison, after the veteran striker scored a crucial goal in County’s epic semi final against Forest Green. Ellison had been released by Adams last summer and took it badly. Earlier this season, he ran to the Morecambe boss to celebrate in his face after scoring a crucial goal against his former club. “I think I am in his head a little bit, yeah,” said Ellison of Adams after the second leg. “He will have been watching [the Newport semi final second leg] and thinking ‘Oh no, not Kev Ellison’.”
Adams kept with the same team and 4-1-4-1 set-up from the second leg, with Songo’o performing a crucial role in helping to stifle Newport’s midfield five in a 3-5-2. The result was a Wembley war of attrition. Newport enjoyed more possession and registered more than double the amount of shots on goal – but they never threatened to overwhelm Morecambe, who were more than happy to keep slowing down the pace of the game.
At half time Adams opted to match up Michael Flynn’s 3-5-2 by dropping Songo’o into defence. It was a move that saw Newport have even more possession but they were largely cancelled out by Morecambe’s mirrored system. Clever tactical ideas by Adams, but largely aimed at stopping the opposition rather than pushing harder for the win.
As ever with Morecambe, their strengths came in doing the ugly things well. Knight-Percival had another superb game at the back alongside the highly rated Sam Lavelle. Newport, who have made name for themselves this season for playing a more expansive style of football, just couldn’t make their greater dominance count.
In the end, Morecambe edged it through a controversial penalty in extra time. They stank the place out, but got the job done. “We’ve shown this season you can do whatever you want to do,” beamed Adams at full time. “Wembley is a slow-playing surface that isn’t conducive to quick attacking play. It wasn’t free-flowing, there weren’t a lot of opportunities on goal.”
The image of Adams celebrating in front of Ellison was an interesting moment of karma for the manager. A quick glimpse of his nastier side, perhaps, given you’d expect the Scot to take the moral high ground. It certainly wasn’t a humble moment.
Adams was similarly cutting on the penalty incident and whether he felt sorry for Newport. “I’ve got no sympathy. They’ve had two of our players sent off during the season. So it was justice.”
And what about his own future? “There’s no deals done with any clubs. There’s a lot of speculation on players and managers’ futures. All I can say is that there’s no deal done.
“I’ve got a contract with Morecambe and that’s what I’m playing to.”
There is a lot to like about Derek Adams. His style of football is not one of those things. Across all three games Morecambe have been effective, but they’re not a side you would find enjoyable to watch. Adams has delivered huge success given the limited resources he has at his disposal; but whether his way of doing things would be deemed acceptable at a bigger club with bigger supporter expectations is another matter.
Sam Allardyce once famously claimed he should be the manager of Real Madrid. Like Adams, Allardyce is a manager known for pragmatic football, and the point he was trying to make – lost in the inevitable sea of ridicule that followed – was that managing bigger clubs with more resources is easier than leading smaller clubs with lower budgets; the latter necessitating a certain way of doing things to compete successfully.
Allardyce was arguing that because of his achievements “I would win the Double or the league every time” at Real Madrid. Because if he could achieve what he did at the likes of Bolton, imagine what he could do with huge resources? We never got to see Allardyce at the Bernabeu – though there is a vacancy at Real Madrid right now so maybe he’s waiting by his phone for a call – but had it happened 10 years ago I’m sure he would have had a more adventurous plan than, say, bringing Kevin Davies to Spain to play as a targetman. Pragmatism means making maximum use of the resources you have.
Adams is not Allardyce and Bradford City certainly aren’t Real Madrid. But the attraction of making Adams the next manager of the Bantams lies not in the idea that City would play like Morecambe next season, but that with a bigger budget and the club’s greater potential his ability to overachieve could translate into significant success at Valley Parade.
The dilemma lies in how much of the Morecambe blueprint Adams would bring to City to replicate this season’s achievement at the Globe Arena, and what we he would do differently with those greater resources. Morecambe – and Adams – have clearly played the underdog card well, but that isn’t going to work at Bradford City. It all means Adams is seemingly about to walk out of a job where he has performed a miracle, into one where the demands will be much higher. That will include the style of football deployed.
Assuming Adams takes charge, there is a feeling that City are heading back down a Gary Bowyer style direction of pragmatism. If there is the one positive to take from this prospect, it’s that at least Adams’ Morecambe play with more attacking purpose than Bowyer’s Bradford City. In fact, in terms of style this is more in line with what we saw under Phil Parkinson, only with a nastier and more cynical edge.
As the Bantams target promotion next season, they might just about to appoint the most capable manager they can of delivering this aim. Getting out of League Two is all that matters, and Adams – with four promotions on his CV now – would certainly give them a strong chance of achieving it.
Just don’t expect it to prove very entertaining to watch.