|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