|Bradford City 1|
By Jason McKeown
It was clever, it was composed and it was clinical. Jamie Walker’s 55th minute winning goal was superbly taken and successfully slowed Bradford City’s path towards another implosion. At least for now.
There was little finesse about how the Scot was set up to score. Alex Bass sent a long hopeful punt forward, Andy Cook flicked the ball into Walker’s path. With his back to goal and closely marked by Luke O’Neill, the on-loan Hearts forward took a touch, before spinning around and smashing the ball past Christy Pym. It was the sort of goal that City just don’t score often enough.
Up until that moment, the script felt wearily familiar. The Bantams were decent if hardly brilliant in the first half, carving out some promising opportunities but failing to take them. The second half had begun with Stevenage on the front foot, and we all know what usually happens next. You could almost fast forward to the after match scene of Derek Adams arguing with BBC Radio Leeds’ Jamie Raynor that Stevenage didn’t deserve to win, and how all that was wrong was his players failed to take their chances.
That’s why Walker’s goal intervention was both surprising and absolutely vital to his manager. They had a lead, a platform and a route towards a crucial three points. It was Stevenage’s turn for hard luck tales, as their efforts to come back were thwarted by another superb goalkeeping display from Bass.
The period just after half time has been dicey ground for the Bantams all season. Before tonight, they’d managed just four goals all campaign between the 45th and 60th minute (and only one of those had been in an away game). At the other end, they’d shipped in 10 over the same period of the match (six away from home).
This is the 15-minute spell that has so often being the start of a Bradford City collapse, but not tonight.
On the balance of the 90 minutes, they just about deserved it – but this was no magic wand to the club’s problems. Indeed, over the final 35 minutes, Stevenage had 67% of the ball and recorded seven shots on goal to City’s two. The visitors were not smart in their game management, and at times stumbled their way to the final whistle.
The carelessness was best summed up by sub Tom Elliott stupidly giving away a free kick on the edge of his own box, four minutes into injury time. Stevenage wasted the late opportunity, but better opposition would not let the Bantams off the hook so easily. They still don’t know how to manage leads. Lessons have not been learned. And they simply have to improve this area of their game.
Nevertheless, Adams – coming into this game under huge pressure – deserves credit for the victory. He changed the formation to a 4-3-3 that seemed to give the Bantams much better balance in terms of being compact off the ball but getting forward in decent numbers.
Walker and Nathan Delfouneso – who was making his full debut – were deployed as wide forwards either side of Cook, with City’s top scorer not looking as remote as he has in recent weeks. Both Walker and Deflouenso were prepared to go out wide with the ball, but would make runs inside when not in possession to support Cook in the box.
Walker’s goal was a great example of that. Cook had someone to aim his flick ons too – there were actually City players running into space beyond him. Almost unheard of for most of this season.
What further helped the formation work was the role of the City full backs. Luke Hendrie came in for a second debut after rejoining the club at the end of the window. He was excellent, revelling in the space that Stevenage’s narrow 4-3-3 afforded him to run forwards into. Over the 90 minutes, Hendrie supported attacks well and supplied three key passes (passes that directly lead to an attempt on goal). For comparison, Oscar Threkeld has supplied just six key passes all season.
On the other side Liam Ridehalgh and second half replacement Matty Foulds were also efffective at supporting attacks. And it all meant that, when City got into the final third, forward players had passing options available – rather than being as isolated as they have in recent weeks.
The 4-3-3 didn’t necessarily suit the midfield three, with Matty Daly and Elliot Watt relatively quiet. However they were important in making sure City weren’t outgunned and were able to win the ball back higher up the park. When they did regain possession, the visitors were direct at getting the ball up quickly to Cook, and it worked better because others were near to support him.
In the first half City created several promising openings. Levi Sutton – who made a welcome return to the side and did pretty well as the central midfielder of the middle three – saw a shot blocked by a defender. Delfouneso headed an opportunity just over, and Yann Sonogo’o and Walker were guilty of missing presentable opportunities. It was stop-start, but at times in the first half City really cranked up the pressure. There was plenty to be encouraged by, albeit the bar is very low of late.
Early in the second half, and with Stevenage on top, Bass made a big save when a corner was flicked on to Michael Bostwick, who struck a powerful shot at goal that the on-loan keeper did well to keep out. When Walker scored for City a few minutes later, the significance of Bass’ save felt even greater.
At 1-0 up, City’s momentum was slowed when Bostwick went in hard on Walker and the 28-year-old had to leave the field struggling with his fitness. Stevenage went more route one and asked plenty of questions of City. And though it was clumsy at times, the defensive efforts deserve appreciation too.
Amongst a sea of mediocre performances this campaign, Paudie O’Connor is having a very good season and he was superb in the final 20 minutes. Sonogo’o dug in well alongside him, and Hendrie and Foulds proved just as adept at defending as they had at bringing the ball forward.
When Bass made another brilliant save in the final 10 minutes, City were hanging on with little conviction. The final whistle eventually sounded and the mood around the club will be that little brighter compared to the beginning of this week.
Adams will be hugely relieved, but also encouraged by signs that his January transfer business is beginning to reap rewards. Walker is off the mark in City colours and his all-round game was excellent. As he gets more used to League Two football and his team mates get onto his wavelength, he could be a real asset over the remaining 16 games. Bass showed his worth with another match-winning display. And on this early evidence, Hendrie and Delfouneso appear to be useful additions who improve the overall squad.
Of course, against the backdrop of growing turbulence at Bradford City and with a mountain to climb to get back into the play off hunt, a scrappy Tuesday night win at Stevenage is of only limited value. But with the wolves very much at the door and the mood amongst the fanbase growing ever darker, this was a victory to give Adams, the players and those running the club a bit of breathing space.
Something to build on, even if the foundations remain decidedly shaky.
Now, they have to keep this going. Exeter City – sixth in the table and seven points above the Bantams – travel to Valley Parade on Saturday. If City can achieve their first back-to-back victories since August, they’ll start to close the gap. And with two winnable-looking fixtures after that, the opportunity is there to build some momentum.
Time will tell, but for a football club that has in recent years turned losing runs into an artform and has lacked the resilience to stand up and be counted in difficult moments, Adams has pulled a slightly unexpected victory out of the bag here (this was Stevenage’s first home defeat in two months). The scene was set for another nail to be hammered into the proverbial coffin. But Adams and City have dug in and are now spared another barrage of heavy criticism.
That ability to grind out wins when the chips are down is a trait City have lacked for too long. Tonight is a sign that maybe this could be changing at last. Although there’s still an awful lot of convincing to do.
Categories: Match Reviews