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.
Would prefer it if we gave Flynn the job.
Personally, I find it quite disappointing that Sparks “passed” on the opportunity to sign Wellens. I agree with this article that if you love watching pragmatic football then Adams is likely the best candidate for the job.
I imagine it was the other way round, and wellens passed on the idea of Bradford City, given hes at Doncaster now!!
Very much doubt that City would have interested Wellans. He has got a gig with a club knocking on the Championship door. Difficult to see a better realistic candidate than DA despite the dour tactics.
What makes you think Flynn wants it and to move from his home in Wales?
I would be happy with either Adams or Flynn. Both have proved they are more than capable of managing a league 2 team.
With regard to your article Jason, I would agree with your analysis of the Morecambe playoff games. However, surely the overriding thing is to win those 3 games given the prize at stake? I feel it would be better to judge Adams on his career and I believe his Plymouth side contained decent footballers playing decent stuff.
As ever a measured article – which highlights Adams’s pragmatism. Assuming he is, indeed, City’s next manager, it is interesting to speculate whether at heart he plays in this style out of necessity or choice. Can Big Sam ever become Kevin Keegan and vice versa? We should remember that Adams achieved promotion against the odds but with a slice of luck in the shape of a softish penalty. At VP the odds may be considered more in his favour but there is no guarantee the luck will be. I hope the crowd do not turn sour at any stage and that Adams is sufficiently adaptable. No two clubs or set of footballing circumstances are ever the same. The trick he pulled off to sign good players on low wages will be impossible to repeat at Bradford, especially with Sparks telling the world promotion is our aim. If he brings players with him, they will want bigger wages than they enjoy currently. New players always take time to bed in. Patience will be called for. We hope for the best.
Those last ten lines are spot on.
An interesting conundrum – would we be happy gaining automatic promotion, winning most games but with pragmatic football; or would we be happier with an upper mid-table position, playing entertaining football but ending up with plenty of score draws? I know that I would favour the former scenario as I am utterly fed up with teams, that you associate more with non league football, rolling over us. It’s time that we stopped punching below our weight.
“… more in line with what we saw under Phil Parkinson, only with a nastier and more cynical edge.”
Right now, I’ll happily sign up for this! Get us out of this god awful league by whichever means necessary and then let’s worry about “who we are” and “how we should play”.
Sometimes pragmatism is necessary.
Fair summary, Jason. I’m surprised that some supporters seem put off by Adams’ style having watched Bradford City for the past few years. From what I’ve seen of Morecambe, they are everything Bradford City haven’t been for a long time – fit, organised, focused and a team working very hard for eachother.
Give me a team with the above qualities rather than a set of players that can tap the ball around nicely one game out of three but then rolls over pathetically at any sign of trouble in the other two. That has been the theme of Bradford City for the past few years and if it takes some pragmatism to rectify that then so be it.
Interesting food for thought, considering how a significant amount of Bradford fans have turned on previous managers like Bowyer, T&S and Taylor for playing bland and pragmatic football.
However, arguably our most popular modern manager, Parkinson, played equally bland football but it was accepted by most fans because Parkinson brought in players who had an edge and character that resonated with us (hard working, solid, willing to fight), of course delivering a promotion and cup final in his first season gave him a lot of good will in the bank.
I think what the experience with Parkinson shows is that the majority of our fans are willing to accept solid football if we can see we are competing and the right characters are playing for us. As long as we show ambition at the right times and enough attacking ambition to entertain us at times.
For example, Parkinson had players like Reid and Wells with flair and we did attack well at times.
Let’s hope Adams can replicate this, if he does become our next manager.
In response to his statement:
“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.”
My question is about Sparks comments and decisions:
A) no recruitment process
B) comments made implying new manager had input in players released
So if it is Adams then either he lied in his statement
Sparks has made a massive leap of faith delaying recruitment in the hope Adams will switch and if he doesnt switch the City have been held up by months…and Sparks will be really under pressure from fans
It’s not Adams at all
If anyone can see another scenario then please let me know as based on the comments of Sparks and Adams they can’t be both truthful without it being someone else completely
One hundred percent correct.
And what we did to.Morecambe is unsporting.and unfair.
Hi Stuart, an interesting view of Adams’ comments I hadn’t considered before as I took it that he was being clever by noting he hadn’t already signed on the dotted line at Bradford City. I’m thinking that “No deals done” could cover a handshake or phone call agreement without a signature. I’m very much hoping that Ryan Sparks will not have done nothing in the interim without a firm agreement that even if Morecambe were promoted, the agreement would not be honoured.
However, in football nothing is certain, especially where money and contracts are concerned.
Fingers crossed Adams’ does take the job as we need someone like him that we MUST stick by through any tougher times ahead as this appointment has to last longer the recent appointments.
I understand the point very well. However I respectfully disagree.
We are a poor team on a four year long run of deteriorating league finishes year on year. We’ll be on our eighth manager in three years.
Can we face reality please?
I for one actually want a manager who knows how to be successful at this level. I want a manager to win any way he can. I want a team that knows the so called dark arts and how to manage a game or out think an opponent or wind them up to gain an advantage.
All the other rhetoric about playing a certain expansive and progressive way I simply don’t value. We’re mid table league two. It’s not the place to try to play flowing attacking pretty football. That comes later once you’ve got two promotions under your belt
I want a team of winners. Gritty, nasty winners.
We wouldn’t be in this situation, if we’d not have sacked Trueman and Sellars. Or indeed, if we’d not sacked McCall in December 2020. The managerial merry go round since February 2018 at Bradford City is ridiculous. Whoever is appointed next will be under the same pressure that previous managers have been under. A few consecutive defeats and many people will be moaning and groaning.
Cheered me up no end there Jason!
Ultimately though it’s all about winning, especially at L2 level and we would all accept a dour approach if it meant promotion.
All I hope is that it doesn’t turn it to a ‘John Docherty’ era!! 😬
Buts that is the conundrum.we face.
We can either enjoy free flowing football and love the style even.though ultimately it might not be successful.
We can.play a dour more ‘pragmatic’ style (that’s a new one) and get out of this god awful division.populated by non league teams with whom.we cannot compete.
John Docherty is always the name trundled out as the litmus test for unentertaining football but I often wondered that if his style had got us success, would history see the ‘Darkest days of Docherty’ in a different light.
For anyone who is under thirty this post is not aimed at you.
Under McCall and T&S we have tried to play possession football and there is nothing as boring as aimless passing from side to side at the back. Much better to see some action in the penalty area. And Morecambe this season have scored the third highest amount of goals with four different players with decent returns which suggest they get people in the box.
On the whole division 2 football is ugly the priority is three points