|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/Leasing.com/Papa 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