Cup defeat underlines the risks of Bradford City’s over reliance on certain players, as Theo Robinson joins on deadline day

Bradford City 0
Lincoln City 3
Hopper 14, Adelakun 36, Scully 49

By Jason McKeown

Suddenly, the sure-footedness of Bradford City has gone missing. After this comprehensive cup loss – a second defeat in three defeat in three days – a fallibility to the new-look Bantams has surfaced.

They are not perfect, after all. World domination will have to wait, for the moment. There is a glass ceiling, meaning expectations should be re-adjusted.

City were well beaten here by a talented, self-assured Lincoln City, who demonstrated with no little flair the gulf between Leagues One and Two. The home side were blunted by opposition who held the edge in every department. Grateful, in some ways, that Michael Appleton’s men decided to apply the handbrake after going 3-0 in front. For City, it could easily have been a repeat of last season’s league cup mauling to the same opponents.

Attempts to shrug the loss off as “it’s only the Jonny Paint/ John’s/whatever cup” were somewhat betrayed by City’s team selection, where Derek Adams raised eyebrows by going with a strong starting XI. There has been talk from Adams and chief executive Ryan Sparks about taking this competition seriously, and this was backed up by the City players chosen.

Adams attempted to play down the reasons for the strength of the team he picked after the match, pointing out – with some justification – that Lincoln have a free weekend coming up and were going to play a strong team, as they indeed did. But there was no doubt that, by risking vital first team players like Andy Cook, Callum Cooke and Paudie O’Connor in this game, Adams and City have planted their flag.

All of which made the scale of the defeat that little bit more concerning. This was a strong Bantams line up – the four ‘reserves’ brought in have a combined career total of almost 1,100 games – and yet they were comprehensively beaten. Meanwhile Saturday’s league opponents, Walsall, had no midweek fixture. A further measure of the wisdom of this cup team selection will be judged by the result, performance and fitness of the players at the weekend.

The ambition of the club in wanting to make a proper fist of competing to win a trophy that offers the considerable payday of a Wembley final deserves to be commended. But the irony of playing such a strong team is that it actually throws up further questions about the depth of this Bradford City squad. Or at the very least, the manager’s faith in players who are so far being overlooked.

It is certainly a worrying statement about the prospects for the likes of Reece Staunton – who watched on with other reserves from the back of the main stand. Up until his injury last November, Staunton was City’s best defender. It now looks a long way back for him and other youngsters, many of whom used appearances in last season’s group games as the springboard for league action. If they’re not going to even get on the bench for nights like this, when are they going to play?

Adams has a core group of players he trusts in. And it is a very good group of players – their quality showing at times here, even in defeat. But there is clearly a huge reliance on a few individuals. And that reliance could really hurt City if and when injuries strike.

The ripple effects of one bad injury have already been felt by the last minute transfer window shopping to find a replacement for Lee Angol, who will miss up to three months of action. Shortly after the final whistle, it was confirmed Theo Robinson has been recruited from Port Vale to replace Angol. The right-to-the-wire race to sign a striker meaning Adams and City had to shelve initial plans to sign a number 10.

The much-travelled Robinson – City are his 15th different club – will add experience and know-how to the Bantams forward line. It goes without saying that such a journeyman striker has a patchy career record – he’s touched the heights of playing in the Championship and the lows of non-league football.

It feels like a lifetime ago now that a young Robinson was bullying Matt Clarke to help Hereford win 3-1 at Valley Parade during Stuart McCall’s first season as City manager, in 2007/08. Robinson – on loan from Watford at the time – scored 16 goals that year. He’s never managed more than 12 in a season since.

Adams’ post-match comments that his-then-not-yet-unveiled-striker-capture was “no Lee Angol” certainly wasn’t the warmest of endorsements. Still, Robinson will probably do a job for City in the short-term, without pulling up any trees.

But more than anything, Robinson’s capture further underlines the importance of Andy Cook to Bradford City. They simply have no one in the squad with the kind of goalscoring track record he can boost. Cook is absolutely vital to the Bantams’ promotion prospects, and there was a sense of relief when, early in the second half against Lincoln, with City 3-0 down, Adams took him off.

Wrap that guy up in cotton wool. Because the reality is that City are one bad injury to Andy Cook away from having a disappointing season. Oh, and be careful with Callum Cooke too. We already saw the huge impact a Cooke injury can have last year – and, so far, there are few signs we’d cope better without him this time around.

Earlier in the evening, Cook had predictability provided City’s most notable goal threat, forcing Imps goalkeeper Sam Long into an excellent early tip over after good work for Alex Gilliead. Within a matter of seconds, Lincoln had mounted their first meaningful attack and Tom Hopper headed them into the lead.

That became the defining moment of a game that for 30 minutes City competed well in. With Gilliead looking full of energy and Charles Vernam linking up effectively with Liam Ridehalgh, the home side played well initially, giving as good as they got. Even after going a goal behind, City had a strong spell of pressure and plenty of efforts on goal. There were signs of Adams’ high press style proving fruitful again, as the full backs pushed up to win loose balls and keep attacks going. All that really let City down was their decision making.

Yet after around half an hour, Lincoln showed their higher league pedigree. They took the sting out of the home side’s momentum by expertly keeping the ball. The tempo of the game was slowed in a very deliberate way, draining the Bantams of their intensity. Soon after, Hakeeb Adelakun danced through Gilliead and Oscar Threlkeld and finished brilliantly from a tight angle. That moments earlier Gilliead had seen a shot from a similar angle cleared off the line was a good illustration of the difference between the two sides. Ultimately Lincoln were more clinical. There was a potency behind their punches.

Four minutes into the second half, Anthony Scully made it 3-0 and the mountain became that bit steeper to climb for City. Adams’ decision, within 10 minutes of the third goal, to replace Cook and Elliot Watt represented a tactical hoisting of the white flag. A sensible, pragmatic decision. As it became a final half hour of damage limitation.

When you’re chasing shadows for so much of the evening, it’s difficult to emerge looking too clever. The bright starts of Vernam and Gilliead faded into little. Cooke was once again nullified by opposition midfielders happy to sit deep and deny him space. Gareth Evans had a reasonable first 45 minutes but fell away badly in the second half, hopelessly outclassed by the excellent Liam Birdcutt.

Threlkeld can be forgiven a few things, given it was his first game back after injury, but he will have to do a lot better on Saturday – all three Lincoln goals originated from his side. Fiacre Kelleher’s distribution is a concern. Like with Cook and Cooke, any injury problems to Paudie O’Connor or Niall Canavan could cause real disruption.

A week ago, City were on the huge high of three straight victories. Everything looked possible and the mood amongst supporters was giddy with excitement. The last few days have been an unwelcome bump back down to earth. A reminder of the up and down, volatile nature of most football seasons.

But just as no one should have got carried away after Mansfield, the set-backs of the past few days should also be viewed with a sense of perspective.

Even in defeat here, you could see the qualities of Adams’ charges. The way the City boss has instilled his personality on the team. The mental toughness that is on display. The fact it looked like it hurt to lose. It is early days, but there is some substance behind the hype.

There is no question that this City side is an improvement on last season, and the one before that. They have greater quality, greater confidence and greater resolve. Expectations are, in my opinion, too high – I don’t personally see this as a team capable of racking up 100 points, for example. But we are moving in the right direction. The club is making better decisions and has brought in capable people in the dugout and on the pitch.

This loss was a reminder of the weaknesses that are understandably still lingering within a club which finished 15th in League Two last season. And the risks that are undoubtedly prevalent in the heavy reliance on Cook, Cooke, O’Connor and Canavan.

Yet something good is developing. We’ve seen some terrific football so far this season, some victories that will be long remembered. There’s a group of players, a manager and a chief executive who have demonstrated they deserve our backing.

Stumbles happen. But Bradford City appear to be heading down the right path.

Categories: Match Reviews

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6 replies

  1. Unfortunately I arrived at the game just after the first goal, so I can only comment on the 75 mins I did see.
    Lincoln definitely looked a League above us particularly with their passing, movement and finishing. The worrying thing is that if we are a top L2 outfit, Lincoln are about 20th in L1 so there are only a few places between us on the footballing-ladder. The apparent gap was a sobering thought to mull on.
    There were positives. I agree with Jason about the link up down the left developing nicely. At one point in the second half Vernam was unmarked and very wide, Ridehalgh saw that there was a chance the ball might not be switched and started making a run to be ready to overlap. In the end the switch pass never came but it showed the awareness and understanding that Ridehalgh brings. I have been very impressed with him. Vernam’s runs around or in to the box seem to cause havoc in every defence.
    I really haven’t been impressed with Watt this season, and probably controversially I was only so-so with him last season where I felt he always played too safe and doesn’t seem to drive the team forward as much as Sutton, who was often his partner last season.
    So far this season he has been pretty anonymous to me. Last night in the second half in the build up to the third goal he seemed to be limping in his run back, or else he was jogging half heartedly. I felt he did have some sort of injury as he carried on playing but definitely seemed to be within himself. I am surprised Adams left him in so long.
    I would love to see Sutton and Songo’o start on Saturday. Maybe shake up Watt and also see how their higher energy game influences the rest of the team.
    Another I am not convinced about is Gillead. He is fast and can look good but as with his previous time at City I don’t see any end product. When he cuts in with the ball he takes too many touches before shooting, when he runs in to the box his pass/cross is too late or never comes.
    This season our best chance of creating a goal come from Vernam’s runs or Cooke’s creativity. Angol definitely offers more than Gillead and unless the latter ups his game I think Angol should take his place when he is fit again.
    I wasn’t disheartened at last nights game despite the score line as we definitely did have some good play to watch, I just felt there were questions that Adams needs to find answers to if we are to have a strong promotion-run.

    • I’ve been encouraged with Adam’s approach to get recruitment done early, drill & bond a full team hard in training & pre season friendlies, the style of aggressive high press, attack over possession. But like you, I was mystified by the full use of first team starters last night, especially Big Cook Little Cooke (as we know them in our house). Interesting that he played Hornby- I think the choice of O Donnell as first choice goalkeeper must have been a close one, and this is a short term consolation- but as you say disturbing that the likes of Reece Staunton aren’t even near the bench for a game like this.

      Lincoln did look stronger, which was a worry when as Stuart R points out, they have lost their last 3 games and are only a few rungs above us on the table in L1 right now. They seemed to control the midfield, and in the second half it was like watching last season’s team- possession without a purpose, and lots of sideways and backwards passing. I thought Threlkeld looked useful getting forward, if less effective last night on his primary defensive duties. How I miss Tony McMahon, who I recollect cantering to the halfway line every 5 minutes, then putting in a useful long pass.Or James Meredith, who effectively dispossessed an attacker, then bombed down the wing and put a deadly cross in, just as frequently!

      But as you say, not time to panic or be overly critical. A lot of good ingredients, with hopefully the right cooks…

  2. Good write up as always Jason, but I’m not sure I’m quite as negative in summing up the performance. For one, Lincoln are going to be better than the vast majority of teams we play this season. I also, up until the 3rd goal, thought we gave as good as we got. Take Lincolns Bramall and Adelakun out of the Lincoln side and I think we more or less held our own. We had two cleared off the line, a good save from Long and a couple of Cook miskicks from scoring.
    Also great to see Sutton coming off the bench and playing well, a midfield pivot of Songo’o and Sutton would be a great base for a L2 side.

  3. A little unfair on Threlkeld, my opinion of course but think he had a decent game and wasn’t shy of tackling hard. Glad he is back in the fold.
    Like both Stuart and Aaron, I cant wait to see Songo’o and Sutton bossing the midfield for us.

  4. Lincoln were League One play off finalists last season and we finished fifteenth in League Two. The Imps used last night to shake off their own hangover from last season whilst City played a strong outfit to thoroughly prepare for Saturday, just like Orient did before they beat us after our free week. This match does not matter. Walsall most definitely does. City 2 Walsall 0. Mark my words ! Cook and Robinson !

  5. Whilst it was his first game back Threlkeld and Gillead struggled all game defensively. If you look back to Saturdays defeat it was the right hand side again that was attacked and struggling with Quinn dominating Gillead again and cousin-dawson. There is a problem there for me that needs addressing.

    We played some neat stuff at times despite the defeat but if we want to challenge this season we are going to have to be very lucky with injuries and suspensions. The midfield have enough cover but elsewhere and we lack depth and quality cover. I am a little lost as to what the plan is recruitment wise. If has Ryan Sparks has siaid we are targetting promotion then i am left wondering we havent strengthened further in certain areas. Here i must also question what Turnbulls role actually is. Most of the recruitment has been Adams ex players recently. We have not scouted and signed any young potential players as far as i can see. Theo isn’t exactly someone who required someone to ‘find’, so what are we paying Turnbull for, unless he has scouted players and we either can’t afford them, won’t pay for them or have decided to let Adams choose? We have Adams praising Lincoln and excusing the result because we were playing higher oposition, yet we also want to be playing them only next season (if they stay up). So if we are purely concentrating on this season, A)do we really think we have the squad to do that? and B) what happens then?

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