Spirit in adversity offers Bradford City a springboard for better times

Bradford City 2
Robinson 34, Angol 81
Sutton United 2
Milsom 32 (pen), Smith 76

Written by Jason McKeown (images John Dewhirst)

Adversity can often inspire unity. And so it proved here, as for more than an hour everyone of a Bradford City connection put aside recent frustrations to help the team through a tough spot.

Niall Canavan’s double moment of madness had seen the Bantams skipper red carded and the home side a goal down, with only half an hour on the clock. It looked bleak, and simmering discontent could have easily turned into civil war. But those in the stands really got behind the 10 remaining City players, who demonstrated resilience and character to twice come from behind to claim a point. All against opposition in Sutton United who – it shouldn’t be forgotten – are sitting in the play off spots.

At the full time whistle, the majority of City supporters made a point of giving the players a warm ovation for their efforts. There’s a lot of questions that have been asked of this squad – and its manager – in recent weeks, but there were signs here that the players have a backbone after all. And, after plenty of instances filing out of Valley Parade feeling disgruntled this season, this was a nice moment which offered a glimpse that – maybe, just maybe – something positive can be built.

Of course, there is a danger of going over the top with the plaudits. Waxing lyrical about drawing at home to a club that were playing National League South football only five years ago. This was not some magically brilliant display, and the difficult circumstances were self-inflicted. City now have only two wins in 23 and have dropped a couple more places in the league table, with the gap to the play offs a colossal seven points. And if you really want to stick the boot into Derek Adams, the club stand just one position higher in the table than last season’s final league placing. A finish that was deemed too unacceptable to keep Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars in charge.

But still, this was so much more encouraging than anything we’ve seen in recent weeks. A small step in the right direction, if nothing else.

The game had initially followed a similar pattern of City starting reasonably but failing to build up any real momentum, meaning the opposition were beginning to look comfortable and more threatening.

The home side had just survived a huge scare when Donovan Wilson cleverly turned with the ball and was left with a one-on-one chance against Sam Hornby. The former Bristol Rovers youth trainee flashed his effort wide of the post when it looked easier to score. But there was no great learns taken. Especially given – with the rain lashing down and the conditions tough – this was not an afternoon for dallying on the ball.

Alas, that’s what Canavan did and he was caught out by Omar Bugiel, who robbed the 30-year-old of possession and ran through looking certain to score. In desperation, Canavan hauled Bugiel to the ground. It was just about the worst decision he could have made. Let Bugiel score, and at least City could kick off with 11 men. If you’re going to stop him illegally, at least attempt to make it look like a challenge for the ball. That way, he could have survived the double jeopardy.

Canavan spent several seconds lying on the floor in despair at what he had just done, whilst referee Peter Wright stood and waited for the defender to lift his head so he could issue the red card. Robert Milsom made no mistake from the penalty spot, and the dark clouds were once again gathering over City.

What possibly saved them – and ensured the crowd really got behind the team – was the quickfire goal response. Elliot Watt swung over a free kick from outwide, and Theo Robinson produced a brilliant header that nestled into the corner of the goal. Just two minutes had passed in-between Milsom’s penalty and City equalising. There was relief and a shot of confidence that everyone took something from.

Not that it was going to be easy. Up until the red card, Adams had altered formation if not personnel from the Colchester game by putting Yann Songo’o into a three-man central defence and going 5-3-2. It definitely suited the players better, with Levi Sutton – once again man of the match – able to operate from deeper and run at the opposition. Lee Angol and Robinson hinted at being able to build a useful front two partnership. The main issue – once again – was a lack of quality in the wide positions. Oscar Threlkeld is not a wing back and kept wasting the ball. Liam Ridehalgh was better but he is not James Meredith.

With Canavan’s early exit, Adams went to a 4-4-1 that saw Robinson back as lone striker and Alex Gilliead and Angol operating as wide players. The final 15 minutes were end to end as City retained a decent level of attacking ambition and Sutton United strived to press home their numerical advantage.

They should have gone in at half time 2-1 ahead. A corner attempt caused havoc and Louis John hit a shot that appeared to cross the line before being scooped away by Angol, with more than a hint he used his hand. The referee and assistant spotted neither, and despite huge Sutton United protests no goal was given.

It was without doubt a huge let off. Although the irony of the assistant referee failing to realise the ball had gone in was that he shouldn’t have signalled for a corner in the first place, after Hornby had collected a loose ball before it reached the touchline. The half time break was welcomed by the officials more than anyone, so they could regain their composure.

What followed in the second half was a huge amount of Sutton United possession – they had 63% of the ball and 233 attempted passes to City’s 142 – but a greater City goal threat. Derek Adams instructed all but Robinson to stay behind the ball when Sutton United had possession, to press in the right areas and to counter attack quickly on the turnover. It proved pretty effective.

In normal circumstances, this type of approach – at home to a so-called minnow like Sutton – simply would not have been tolerated by the crowd. But we’re in the main an intelligent bunch, and there was a clear understanding of the situation. The backing the players received was excellent. City weren’t just trying to hang on for a draw – at least not at this stage – they were genuinely trying to win the game. The level of risk taken was typically low overall, but it was also bold by Adams’ standards.

What worked well was players being given license to run with the ball and take people on. City were never going to out-pass their opposition in these circumstances, or carry a goal threat if they didn’t run between the lines. And the gameplan really suited Sutton, Gilliead, Robinson and Angol. Not everything they tried came off and a lack of quality was painfully evident at times, but they absolutely ran themselves into the ground for the City cause. You couldn’t have asked for more from them.

Sutton United only had two shots on goal in the first 30 minutes of the second half, but they did eventually retake the lead when Alistair Smith headed home after Hornby didn’t convincingly deal with an initial effort from Ricky Korboa. But though Valley Parade went quiet, fans did not turn on the players. And five minutes after the visitors’ second, City got back on level terms. Watt sent the ball to Threlkeld who laid off to Sutton. The all-action midfielder burst forward and sent over a lovely low cross that Angol tapped home. The scenes of celebration were probably the best since August.

If we’re being critical of Adams, the final nine minutes of action (including stoppage time) that followed getting to 2-2 wasn’t too clever. He brought Callum Cooke on for Robinson, which meant there was no outlet at the top of the pitch. Sutton were able to push City back and had 75% of the ball over the closing stages. Four attempts on goal and plenty of balls into the box that prompted hearts in mouths. It’s understandable that – after getting that second equaliser – Adams wanted to make sure his charges protected what they had. But going so defensive at this point left the team hanging on. The final whistle was a relief.

With a blank midweek before a typically packed Christmas schedule, Adams will certainly have much to contemplate ahead of a trip to struggling Carlisle. With no Canavan, there is a big call to make at the back. Whilst putting Songo’o into defence and going 4-2-3-1 might seem a sensible solution, the recent attacking limitations that this set up has highlighted could once again come to the fore.

The 5-3-2 enabled City to look more potent going forward, and seems to better suit a lot of the players. But if Adams decides to stick with it, who could play Canavan’s left sided role? It will be interesting to see if City bring back Reece Staunton – who’s loan spell at Bradford Park Avenue was extended but now has a recall option – as the 20-year-old could be a better option than Fiacre Kelleher.

Beyond that, the manager must surely be keen to ensure there are more repeats of the atmosphere today – and the way the supporters responded to the efforts of his players. He must surely know, deep down, that the cautious approach he has been taking of late is leaving us fans with limited reasons to get behind the team. That a disconnect has been growing – and he is probably one repeat of the Hartlepool defeat away from losing a sizeable section of the fanbase.

We are not an complicated bunch. We want to see City play more on the front foot. Pressing is fun to watch, and trying to aggressively win tackles and get forward with more purpose will have us on the edge of our seats. We love to observe players confidently taking opposition on and running with the ball – it’s why Sutton has become the crowd favourite – and we want to see passion.

After it seemed you could make a case for putting 90% of this squad up for sale and rebuilding this January, something stirred here and that should really encourage Adams. Up against it, he will have learned a few new things about his charges and – for a change – they will be positive learnings.

The need for greater quality in the window is obvious to everyone. But this was faint shades of the Bradford City spirit of 2012-17, when the team habitually gave everything and the fans were right behind them. We’ve got used to seeing City sides of the last few years collapse when the chips are down. Today, for a change, that didn’t happen.  

And that’s something you’d like to see a lot more of over the coming weeks.  

Categories: Match Reviews

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22 replies

  1. Great report. When you consider City down to 10 players and 1- 0 then 2 – 1 down. To get a draw was more than could be expected. What’s more pleasing was goals for both Robinson and Angol and scored within the penalty area.
    I would certainly bring back Staunton but not for the bench – he should start.
    Hornby shouldn’t be punished for the second goal. He should also keep his place.
    Satisfying draw and thoroughly deserved. Cooke needs to feature. He is too good to sit on the bench.
    I see this as a start of a positive result and moving forward I expect an improvement in attitude and wins will result.

  2. The only thing Lee Angol did was score a goal, it was like playing with 9 men, I thought he would be substituted suffering from hypothermia he moved so little. As for Threlkeld, so poor its embarasing.
    Theo worked his self to a standstill, great effort, Levi an inspiration, a shame the rest cant put in that effort.
    Adams needes to use substitutes earlier. I dont understand how he is still in charge, never changes a game , substitutions too late to effect anything. Getting sick of him.

    • I don’t agree with you about Angol’s contribution and you might at least have mentioned his “clearance” off the line. I get the feeling the ref knew he had screwed up giving the the corner and so was unsighted for the goalmouth scramble.

  3. Yes despite the sending off changing our objective from a win to avoiding defeat we played with spirit and passion which was rewarding to watch. Playing 5-3-2 brought a better style of play that got Robinson more involved in the game and he does look like the better striker at the moment with what seems to be a very high percentage of his shots on target this season.

    Ridehalgh, Sutton and Robinson were for me the best three players today, all were a threat and worked so hard, and few were disappointing though I agree with Garry above that Angol and Threkeld were very poor overall.

  4. I really enjoyed the game today. For a change this season, it was exciting, even if it was my sixth consecutive draw witnessed at Valley Parade. I think that is a new record for me in over 30 seasons of supporting Bradford City.
    I was impressed with Robinson, Gilliead, Sutton and Watt today. Did anyone else notice how Watt was trying to motivate his team mates?
    Surely we must recall Reece Staunton. In my humble opinion, he should be playing in our first team. A quick call from Derek Adams to ex-Bantam Mark Bower will do the trick?
    How ironic that on the ninth anniversary of our famous League Cup quarter final win against Arsenal, the Valley Parade faithful witnessed a home performance with signs of hard work and commitment. Long may it continue.

  5. Starting with five at the back at home is simply not acceptable in my book , you simply put yourself under pressure
    The fans the one’s who where there are not happy and where ready to turn on the club, they are voting with there feet with all those empty seats The club must know they have to invest in the squad in January and that’s why Adams was so upbeat after the match interview. He must have been given the funds he wanted and his ready to ship out the players he dose not want and hopefully bring in the quality needed because we can not carry on like this.

    • Completely agree on the 5 at the back. I dont know what game some were watching but until the sending off, with 5 at the back we were bloody awful. The idea it made us play better is simply wrong. After Canavans sending off we went to a back four and straight away looked more composed. The sending off was a blessing in disguise, without it I doubt we’d have come away with anything.

  6. Glad we rescued the point. Well done for coming back twice. Never easy.
    Games like this come along a couple of times a season. That’s why it’s imperative to win the winnable ones! Sounds obvious but my point is that a point gained like today is only seen so because we get a sending off early doors and have to take what we can from the game.
    Hopefully the manner of the performance can spark something in the team to go on a run now. December might be our month. (Though I think I’ve been hoping this is our month since September)

  7. It’s often the case that the narrative shapes the outlook rather than the end result, and yes, given Canavan’s bizarre moment if madness, a draw was OK yesterday and a relief. I agree with you that it was great to see fighting spirit, in the second half even an unlikely win seemed possible. In terms of drama, right up to the whistle, a win, draw or defeat all looked possible- the sort of excitement that makes football the compelling entertainment that people watch it for!
    I share the frustrations in the comments above. I think its an ongoing weakness in Adam’s approach that in key matches he seems highly reluctant to make substitutions. Yesterday felt like a match, with 10 men running themselves into the ground, that fresh legs would have helped. Adams claimed early in the season that he trained his teams to high standards of fitness, but I don’t see City looking fitter than the teams they play.
    Ironically I felt Angol should have been substituted for Lavery, before he scored. Would we have lost 2-1 if he had, or would Lavery have scored one and maybe more? Who knows. Interesting that Ridehalgh is singled out here & Simon Parker’s ratings as a good performance. I’ve generally liked him this season and agree that he’s useful in getting forward- but on several occasions yesterday and in other games, he seems criminally slow in tracking back to defend. Both him & Threlkeld seem keener to be midfielders than defenders. I also would love to see Staunton back, but for whatever reason, Adam seems unwilling to have him even in the squad. I wonder if it will be Songo’o back in their, and Cooke on as the extra player.

  8. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing when Canavan lunged at the Sutton player and speaking to others after the game we couldn’t recall a more blatant professional foul by a City player. Can anyone remember anything on a par with it? Nevertheless his sending off lifted the game and credit to the spirit and fitness of the remaining outfield players to keep in the game. I feared that tired legs would be the knockout blow and was surprised that we didn’t see substitutes much sooner.

    • You would think it would be coached that in a situation like that, let the man score. At least with 11 men on the pitch the odds are better for the team rather than going down to 10 men.

      • It wasn’t even a given that he would score with the keeper coming out to attempt to smother the shot. A player with Canavan’s experience should never have put his team mates in such a position with over an hour left to play. Should be fined and stripped of the captaincy.

    • I remember seeing Dave Evans rugby tackle Don Goodman at the Hawthorns in the last game of the season in 1987.
      Can’t remember who the other City player sent off was but we came back from 2-0 to draw 2-2 then too, only with 9 men.

      • Think the second red was Palin. Great day. Baggies fans took exception to our unlikely comeback. There was some tasty afters outside at full time.

      • I remember that day well. Great atmosphere among the City fans and proper scenes when we equalised. Although the infamous West Midlands police did their best to spoil our celebrations.

    • My nomination is Richard “Whoopy” Liburd in the must win match against Charlton in our first season back in the Championship in 1997. To try waste time at the end of the match, he launched a two footed challenge and got a straight red.

  9. Odonnell would be crucified if he had performed as hornby did for that second goal.

  10. On last Wednesday night for the first 20 minutes we looked a good team, playing more through midfield with slick passing football, creating lots of chances, then it just disappeared . Yesterday we were absolutely dire again until the sending off, after that I thought we were superb, the slick football through midfield was back again, we had passion, drive, commitment, I personally felt we looked like we could score everytime we came forward, we still need more composure and quality in the final third but it proves Derek Adams does have players capable of entertaining us with good attacking football and regularly collecting 3 points in the process, but HE needs to set the team up in a positive formation to do so.
    Go on Derek give 15,000 people a happy New Year.

  11. i was slightly bemused by Derek’s report on the radio. The lads played well, but wern’t outstanding as he said. He also mentioned that he was coaching them this way and it was coming to fruition now, maybe, but only a few days earlier, they just looked the same as the previous games. I do think he was milking the slight feel good factor we had after Sat. I might be just the game we needed to get the fans back on their side

  12. The idea Malcolm is that we should be on “their” side – regardless of selection, personal favourites or manager. Our task is to support, good or bad.

  13. Feels like a Dunkirk moment. Turning near disaster into a PR triumph. Canavan looking for Christmas off a cynic might think

  14. You mention getting some quality in when the January window comes round but where are these “quality” players. Normally fans are shouting from the roof tops to sign this or that player but so far it’s a wall of silence. It’s not very difficult to see why because I don’t think there is much argument that the standard in the lower divisions is at an all time low. Not many seasons ago we signed Gary Jones, Steven Darby, Rory McCardle, James Meredith and Nahki Wells to mention but five all from the lower divisions. I ask you , where are we going to find a player that comes even closer. Not a prayer !

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