|Bradford City 1|
|Hartlepool United 3|
|Cullen 1+59,, Songo’o OG 89|
By Jason McKeown
Derek Adams will on some level be enjoying this. When he was first interviewed for the Bradford City job in December 2020, he told the Bantams CEO Ryan Sparks that he thrives under pressure. And, in fact, invites it. He’s certainly got plenty of pressure to thrive under for the next few days, after this dismal first home defeat of the season.
There will be no panic in the boardroom about this loss to a vibrant Hartlepool side. Adams is in no danger of losing his job – and nor should he be – but he would certainly have been feeling uncomfortable as he made his way to the dressing room with the crowd booing his side off. The scale of the job at hand looking more steeper than ever.
This was a dismal night for the experienced manager, one that throws up more questions about his ability to deliver a second straight promotion out of League Two. His players were seriously unimpressive, tamely surrendering their unbeaten home record to the side with the worst away form in the division. Out-fought and certainly out-thought, the Bantams fell further behind in the race for promotion.
And it puts Adams under the spotlight. Bradford City were the promotion favourites after all. And the noises from the club made no attempt to play down those expectations. After this loss, City are 12th in a table at the quarter point of the season. Three points off the play offs, and 10 away from the summit. They have a goal difference of just +1. And the four victories chalked up so far have occurred against sides currently sat 18th, 20th, 21st and 22nd in the table.
The next three fixtures are against sides in the top four. It could be about to get worse, and that feels hard to believe after such a wretched night.
We’ve been here before and it hurts. This is a club that has long suffered from infamy of slipping up to sides at the bottom of the league or who are on long winless runs. Well versed in embarrassing their own supporters with collapses to mediocre opposition. The hope with Adams was that he would steer the club clear of suffering more of these sort of nights. Instead, he has just overseen the writing of a new chapter. A new scar for long-suffering supporters to bear. “Remember that time Hartlepool came to us when they had the worst away record in the league?”
The visitors rocked up at Valley Parade without a goal on the road for over eight hours. Within 50 seconds, they had broken their duck. The gap between midfield and defence was exposed by a player running in between, the ball worked out wide to space vacated by Oscar Threlkeld. A shot on goal was unconvincingly dealt with by Richard O’Donnell, and Mark Cullen was able to squeeze the loose ball home for 1-0.
You waited for a reaction but it never came. City were too lethargic. Players hid from the ball. Everyone waited for someone else to lead the fightback. No one stepped up to the plate. Some players – notably Elliot Watt – did try to rile up others. But began to fall apart when they too made mistakes. It wasn’t nice to see how Watt deteriorated this evening. He is a good player who badly needs direction to start playing to his potential. We are still waiting to see Adams improve him, and indeed others.
Hartlepool lined up in a diamond formation that City couldn’t get to grips with. The home midfield was crowded out, attacking players badly isolated. As defenders brought the ball out from the back, they too often resorted to hit and hope. When they did try to pass it to midfielders, the Hartlepool press often resulted in a successful interception or forced a mistake. Midway through the half, Luke Molyneux broke through and had a great chance to make it 2-0. He missed the target – a big let off.
Adams did change it before half time, matching up Hartlepool’s diamond by pushing Charles Vernam up front with Andy Cook, switching Levi Sutton to the left – with Callum Cooke at the tip and Watt at the base. It did neutralise the threat of Hartlepool, but it was small crumbs of comfort. The biggest achievement of the half was stopping Hartlepool’s game plan.
There were hopes, naturally, of a strong second half response. But it never came. And just before the hour mark, Cullen netted a second with a header after yet more awful defending. Adams responded by taking off Threlkeld – who had an appalling game – but he will be really concerned by the whole defence. This proved a game too far for Yann Songo’o as centre back, whilst Matty Foulds struggled badly – why Adams won’t consider Reece Staunton, who is so much better on the ball, is a mystery.
As the anger grew in the stands, Adams seemingly kept shuffling his cards. Caolan Lavery, who had also come on just after the second goal, was moved up front with Cook. Cooke was moved wide left, then to the right, then to the centre – his silly booking betraying his own frustrations. Vernam was moved to the tip of the diamond and to the right, each shuffle making him look less effective. It was a low bar, but Vernam was again City’s best player.
There were hopes of a late comeback when Paudie O’Connor headed home a Cooke corner. Theo Robinson was thrown on, and several crosses worked into the box. But pressure was sporadic, and City’s disorganisation left them susceptible to the counter attack. Sure enough, a late mistake by O’Connor saw Songo’o needlessly slide the ball into his own net. 3-1, and Valley Parade quickly emptied.
This was such a bad night for the players, with no one covering themselves in glory. O’Donnell is showing signs his powers are fading. Gilliead’s decision-making was consistently bad. Cook was anonymous. Sutton full of running but not enough intelligence at times. Lavery and Robinson once again made no impact.
But here’s the big thing – what’s going to change? Adams has made it obvious through his words and actions that he only trusts certain members of his squad. Several fringe players – especially the younger ones – have been publicly slammed. But the reluctance to move away from a core group of players has seemingly seen standards to slip. Players who have been poor have been allowed to get away with it, by keeping their place in the next game. They’re not looking over their shoulders and sensing someone breathing down their necks to take their place in the team. And that is never a healthy situation.
You could make a case for dropping 6 or 7 payers from tonight. But who do you bring in to replace them? Where are the answers waiting on the sidelines?
There are a lot of good reasons for the squad’s current lack of depth, and certainly not all of them can be blamed on Adams. But the manager has to take accountability for this poor performance and recent results – it’s now a less than inspiring one win in 11. It is Adams who we look towards to address and improve it. And quickly.
The club made an almighty effort to bring Adams to Valley Parade in the summer, and over recent weeks they’ve agreed to an awful lot of change – even compromising some of their principles – to give him the tools and support to succeed. Given his impressive track record and unquestionable expertise, that was a very understandable approach to take.
Let Adams do what he does, and in time the rewards should come. That is still absolutely the right thing to do.
But the problem facing Adams and Bradford City at the moment is that – to date – we fans have seen scant evidence of the powers of this manager. What has he done, so far, that can truly be considered impressive? We’re waiting for the magic to appear in front of our eyes, whilst growing a little impatient at how long it’s taking.
Right now, the worry is that all the talk and actions from Adams would suggest he thinks success is only alluding the team because they’re not taking their chances. That eventually it will turn, and the approach and methods he is sticking to will begin to bear fruit.
He might very well be proven right in his convictions. After all, the underlying stats are undoubtedly encouraging. Ahead of this round of fixtures, Bradford City stood joint top of the League Two expected goals table. This is the measure of the quality and volume of chances created and conceded by teams in each game. And on this performance measure, City are faring really well.
Just as last season we could use expected goals to accurately predict that City would fall away under Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars, this time the stats suggest the Bantams could eventually go on a winning streak and should in time climb the table. We know Adams is a fan of expected goals and studies these indicators closely – it is this, as much as anything, that seems to allow him to retain belief in his own convictions.
There will naturally be changes for Saturday’s trip to Swindon – Niall Canavan’s worth to the team has never looked stronger than tonight and Trelkeld needs a spell on the sidelines. But we all know it will largely be the same players, asked to play the same way. And with each and every week it doesn’t quite work, the fear in the stands grows that there isn’t a back-up plan in case it fails.
It’s a long season and lots will change. We’ve just got to hope the magic will eventually become visible. And that the growing pressure has the positive effect on Adams that he claims it does.
Categories: Match Reviews