|Tranmere Rovers 2|
|Morris 50, Glatzel 56|
|Bradford City 1|
“In the second half after we conceded their second goal I thought there was just too much acceptance that it wasn’t going to be our day… The club is fragile in terms of getting beaten too often and I’ve got to change that mentality around.” Not Derek Adams after last night, but Phil Parkinson in September 2011
By Jason McKeown
Reality took a hard bite into the Bradford City players at Prenton Park. Many of whom slumped to their knees at the full time whistle, as though they’d just lost out on promotion. It seemed as if some players needed a minute alone on the ground, in order to summon the strength to face an angry away crowd – who were deeply frustrated by the team’s second half display.
As is his way, in victory or defeat, the manager Derek Adams elected against joining his players on the pitch to face supporters, as he went straight down the tunnel to the dressing room. There, he waited to deliver a scathing assessment to many of his charges, which he later repeated to BBC Radio Leeds.
“We don’t have enough winners in our side. We need more of them in the team to be successful.”
When asked if some of those players could be turned into winners, Adams’ appraisal wasn’t encouraging. “I think it’s very difficult. Unless you change your mentality to be a winner, you’re brought up with being a winner. I’m a winner, I’ve always been a winner. I think that in football there are types of players for who it’s do or die. Sadly, tonight we didn’t have enough of them.”
You don’t need an ability to crack the Da Vinci Code to understand the message from the City manager. He has a squad he is clearly not fully happy with, and in January will ring the changes. The problem is that it might come too late to salvage a faltering promotion push. Defeat at Prenton Park means the Bantams are now six points off the play offs, with the injury list once again mounting. As Adams added of the January window, “We can’t really speak about it because we have a lot of games to play before then.”
It’s tempting to solely lay into the players for this wretched defeat, but that is to over simplify the deep-rooted issues at Valley Parade. Over the last few years of failure, we’ve seen plenty of churn – from CEO to the dugout to the playing squad – with limited impact so far. The answers are surely more complex than changing a few players’ mid-season. Or in swapping manager yet again.
On walking into Prenton Park last night, a friendly steward volunteered me a succinct summary of Bradford City’s modern-day struggles. “Football’s great underachievers,” was his verdict of the Bantams. “I can’t believe you were in the Premier League,” he added, twisting the knife.
The fall is well documented, but doesn’t get any easier to accept. This time three years ago, City were amongst a clutch of crisis clubs like Blackpool, Hull, Coventry and Charlton, who were wrestling with significant ownership issues. But although the off-the-field storms have passed for all of us, on the pitch these clubs have moved forwards while City continue to struggle.
Early into his reign at Valley Parade, Phil Parkinson famously said there was a losing mentality at the club. It proved to be an excellent observation that, a year later, he was able to rectify. In time, the hope has to be that Adams’ “not enough winners” speech here has a similar effect in turning around the club.
There’s an awful long way to go, and the pre-season hype – at one point Liam Ridehalgh actively compared this group of players’ team spirit to City’s 2012/13 history makers – looks badly misplaced. Ridehalgh said of the 2012/13 vintage, “If you look at that team, they were a group of honest, hard-working lads. That’s what can get you success like the group we’ve got here. We’ve got a group of players that will fight for each other.” These quotes are not aging well.
Adams is arguably the first Bradford City manager since Phil Parkinson with a proven blueprint that could revive the club. “I’ve come from a team in Morecambe where we had winners,” he added. And just what is a winner in Adams’ eyes? “Someone who goes that extra yard and pulls his team mates in, organises, and tries to get the best out of themselves, every day and in the game.
“Tonight, we didn’t have enough of them. We had a few but we didn’t have enough.”
It was a fair summary for a manager who has not always delivered credible post-match assessments to the local media. Watching City throw away a first half advantage and lose meekly was a sobering experience in just how short this team is.
They started slowly at Prenton Park, with Tranmere bossing the opening 10 minutes and the visitors reliant on Lee Angol to clear one effort off the line. But once they got to grips with the 3-4-3 formation, they began to assume control of the game and played some good football.
The 3-4-3 was an encouraging response to Saturday’s draw with Northampton, where Adams had gone with a 4-2-3-1 that didn’t suit the forward players at his disposal. With Angol available after suspension and fit enough to start, he led the line with wide forward support from Caolan Lavery and Charles Vernam. Finn Cousin-Dawson and Ridehalgh provided wing back assistance behind them, with Elliot Watt and Levi Sutton sitting deep but encouraged to run forwards.
They took the lead in superb fashion. Some fantastic one-touch passing cut through Rovers, with Angol setting up Sutton to charge forward with the ball. He darted inside and beat his man before unleashing a powerful effort that flew into the corner. Theo Robinson might disagree, but this was possibly the best goal of City’s season so far.
City looked on top after that. But knowing recent form, a second goal before half time felt important. Yet in the five minutes before the interval, they lost control of the game. Mistakes began to happen, many completely unnecessary. Possession was surrendered too easily, giving Tranmere encouragement.
Right before half time, Yann Songo’o – back as a centre half – produced a miracle block on the line to deny Nicky Maynard a certain goal. But the chance only came because of dismal City play. They had won a free kick just inside the Tranmere half, and needed to slow down the tempo. Watt elected to take the free kick quickly with none of his team mates ready. Tranmere broke, and Sutton’s attempt to pass the ball back to Richard O’Donnell was too slow in pace.
Maynard nipped in and rounded the City keeper, but Songo’o saved the day.
If that was a wake-up call for City at half time, it wasn’t heeded. Within five minutes of the restart, Rovers equalised when Watt again coughed up possession and the ball was worked to Kieron Morris to rifle home. As the home fans celebrated, the sight of Angol going off injured was troubling. In truth, Angol did not have a great evening but his presence clearly makes a big difference. Another potential injury lay off to their key forward is the last thing City need right now.
The Tranmere turnaround was completed six minutes later, when again Watt gave the ball away high up the pitch and Rovers broke. Cousin-Dawson had the chance to clear in his box but took one touch to many, which Paul Glatzel capitalised on.
And then you waited for a City reaction. And you waited. And you waited.
Further injuries to Lavery and Vernam saw Robinson and Abo Eisa join Alex Gilliead in coming on from the bench. Adams played Gilliead in the hole behind Robinson and Eisa. It was completely ineffective. A strange tactical shuffle, especially considering Callum Cooke – a more natural number 10 than Gilliead – sat unused on the bench.
Including the four minutes of stoppage time added at the end, from the point Tranmere went 2-1 up there were 38 minutes of action for City to find an equaliser. In that time, City had one effort on goal – which was off target. They didn’t even force a corner until the 80th minute. Trailing the game, and attacking an away end packed out with City fans, they were absolutely dreadful.
It’s early days for Eisa, but this was his first real opportunity and he was hugely disappointing. Robinson battled hard but is not – I repeat not – a target man. To watch those final 20 minutes of City aimlessly hoofing the ball to Robinson and Eisa is to watch a team of players ducking their responsibilities.
As Adams rightly says, he needs players who are going to stand up and be counted. Lead by example and cajole their team mates. Songo’o is the only player I ever notice actively talking to team mates and offering instructions. His own form is questionable, but you can understand why Adams singled Songo’o out as a winner.
Other players looked completely drained of belief by the end, no one more so than Watt. His performance here was the textbook example of a shocker. He started badly and got worse and worse. His pass success was a dismal 56%. In other words, he gave the ball away almost one if every two times he received possession. You can’t win games of football when one of your central midfielders is that ineffective.
We’re talking about a young lad only 21 years of age, with clear potential. Ahead of the game Adams said Watt is “without doubt in the top five passers of the ball in this division” before revealing the player’s agent has received enquiries from other clubs watching him. By the end of this evening, and after a barrage of social media criticism, it appeared the player had deleted his Twitter account. It suggests a lot about his state of mind.
There’s two things to say here – firstly, Adams needs to give Watt a breather. The midfielder has started almost every league game for the last two seasons, and is ever present this campaign. It’s catching up on him and his confidence is clearly damaged. For the player’s long-term future, he needs taking out the firing line for a couple of games so he can rediscover his sharpness and self-assurance.
Adams is right to laud Watt and the player does have a bright future. But right now he needs a step backwards to go forwards.
The second point is for Watt – whatever interest there might be from clubs higher up, his long-term development is best served playing week in week out somewhere. Maybe Watt could one day play in League One or the Championship, but he’s not ready. And there’s a danger that going to a higher league club risks him not getting the game time he needs. Watt’s biggest weakness right now is his decision making, and that will only improve with experience. So, if City is the best route to getting first team football, he should think carefully before giving that up.
If any scouts were watching Watt at Prenton Park, they won’t be turning in favourable reports. But that’s true of pretty much everyone who wore the claret and amber shirts last night. Sutton was singled out by supporters for acclaim at full time, and he deserves it for the shift he put in and superb goal. But even he must do better with some of the technical aspects of his game.
For Adams there’s a lot of work to do. The general mood around the fanbase is that the problems are not his doing, and that he has the knowledge and expertise to fix them. It is absolutely right that he is given the time to build something. The club has invested reputations, and its recruitment strategy, in the manager’s proven track record. And the ridiculous turnover in the dugout has to stop.
But Adams is not above criticism either. It remains difficult to look at the last few months and feel impressed by the way he has gone about things. He has a cold relationship with the local media and seemingly supporters too. For someone famed for an honest, no-nonsense approach, many of his post-match verdicts have seemed bewildering. He has a tunnel vision that is on the one hand admirable but on the other difficult to relate to. What’s he really thinking?
It’s his team selections, more than anything, that underwhelm. In Adams you expected a manager who wouldn’t tolerate poor standards and who would make ruthless calls. But so often the team he picks is barely changed, if at all, from the previous week. There’s no doubt he has consistently selected certain players who have not merited their place in the team. In his defence, he has lacked options thanks to a sizeable injury list. But that on its own does not justify it.
Adams’ history shows that he will get it right. And whilst it’s tough to accept right now – perhaps we have to come to terms with the fact this is going to be a season of transition. That, yes, it will hopefully get better over the second half of the campaign, especially after January, but the current trajectory does not suggest a significant enough curve of improvement. Promotion favourites? Whoever put money on City winning the league can rip up their betting slips now.
The fact is the patterns are too established to suggest a dramatic burst of improvement in the near-term. City have won just two of their last 14 league matches – and only managed more than one goal in a game three times during this run. They’ve only kept two clean sheets all season. The team does not find the back of the net often enough, and can’t defend properly for 90 minutes.
They need reinforcements up front, a right winger and probably a new right back. The decision to let Ollie Crankshaw go – who scored again last night, and now has five goals in 10 appearances for Stockport – remains curious given he has not been replaced. For comparison, since Crankshaw left, no City player has scored more than three goals.
The club needs defenders who absolutely love defending and treat conceding goals as a personal affront, such as what we saw in the days of Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies and James Meredith. It needs leaders who won’t accept others hiding and who will do the right things even when the chips are down, like a Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle. It needs forward players who are brave and purposeful, like a Kyel Reid, Garry Thompson and James Hanson.
The hope has to be that the Tranmere game is a watershed moment. Adams has made it clear certain players do not fit his definition of winners, and their City careers must be in real doubt this morning because of it. He cannot just dismiss them from his plans immediately, with the games coming thick and fast, but the manager has to start improving the culture of the club if he’s going to revive it from its slumber.
Categories: Match Reviews