|Bradford City 0|
|Mansfield Town 2|
|Oates 44, Longstaff 48|
Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
So this is what crashing back down to earth feels like. After a wonderfully surreal couple of days scarcely believing the identity of the new Bradford City manager, this was the all-too-familiar pain of a home defeat.
Everyone had a spring in their step entering Valley Parade today. The atmosphere was transformed. Pragmatism has been replaced by romanticism. It wasn’t a day to feel cynical. “Mark Hughes’ Bradford Army” boomed out pre-match, and everything felt great.
But then the game kicks off. And reality bites. Hard. Again. This defeat was another punch to the gut. A reminder that miracles rarely happen around these parts. At least not after only one training session.
Mark Hughes has never faced a challenge quite like this one. And during this, his first game in charge of the Bantams, the Welshman was given a sobering glimpse of the scale of the task he faces reviving the Bantams. Hughes would have been encouraged by the spirit and effort of the players that he’s only just getting to know, but there was no disguising the lack of quality.
“It was great to be back, I had a fantastic welcome and reception – hopefully in the coming weeks we’ll be able to repay that,” Hughes said after the game. “We want to be better than that in terms of performance. We have to cut out individual mistakes.”
With goals just before and after half time, Mansfield Town took their chances and won with a confident swagger. The Stags are now victorious in 16 of their last 21 matches, a superb run of form that has taken them up to sixth place, after languishing 23rd at the end of October. Backed by a superb away following, Mansfield were everything that City aspire to be. Hughes would have been wise to have spent a post match beer picking the brains of his opposite number, Nigel Clough.
If Clough and Mansfield do succeed in their promotion quest, it’s safe to say they won’t be facing Bradford City in League One next season. During the shock unveiling of Hughes on Thursday, the CEO Ryan Sparks was still talking up a late push for the play offs. Yet the gulf in quality between the two sides, and the now 12-point gap to the top seven, underlines just how unlikely this has become.
There’s just no way this group of players can confound all evidence they’ve presented so far this season by suddenly bursting into form and going on a winning run, similar to Mansfield’s. This is now a fourth defeat on the spin, and whilst that run should come to an end soon – the last two performances are hardly that of a team in freefall – there’s far, far too much to do to make the play offs. And there is barely any margin for error.
Just like the Harrogate Town defeat midweek, City weren’t bad here and gave their in-form visitors a tough afternoon. After Mansfield made a confident start and probably should have scored twice in the opening four minutes, City settled down and played some good football.
Hughes had kept with the same 3-5-2 formation Mark Trueman implemented midweek, and he was able to build on the improvements his new assistant had garnered. There is an evolution taking place from Derek Adams’ low possession/direct approach that was evident against Harrogate, and it was even more notable here. So far this season, City have the fourth-lowest average League Two possession (46.7%) and fifth-lowest average passes per game (347). Today, they had 58% of the ball and attempted 432 passes.
The football is becoming more pleasing on the eye. It feels like they’ve having more of a go. And though back to back home defeats is hardly enjoyable, there was again some consolation taken here from the manner of the performance. You went home feeling more entertained than had been the case under Adams. It’s a small crumb of comfort right now, but it’s definitely something.
That a better performance wasn’t enough to deliver any reward was largely down to the fact Mansfield were stronger in both penalty areas. City’s defence remains hesitant and full of mistakes. Matty Foulds will take the blame for the opening goal after a poor header allowed the excellent Rhys Oates to run through at goal and finish brilliantly, but it could just as easily been Paudie O’Connor or Yann Songo’o taking on the role of fall guy.
All three defenders kept making mistakes and giving the ball to Mansfield in dangerous areas. For a time they were somehow getting away with it, usually because one of the other centre backs would bail out one of the others. But eventually their luck ran out and Oates struck.
At the other end, there were some promising City attacks, but either a poor final ball or a weak effort at goal thwarted good intentions. The Mansfield backline was excellent, but at times City made it too easy for them. City have got to be braver in their passing in the middle of the park. Too often it goes wide and they elect to cross it – which was largely meat and drink for Mansfield. “There were elements of the play I liked but maybe at the top end we need to create more chances,” Hughes admitted.
Theo Robinson – who had played well when he came on against Harrogate – faded after a promising start. Andy Cook was more lively than in recent weeks and put himself about, but he badly needs a better strike partner. Levi Sutton was behind much of City’s better first half attacks, whilst the wing backs of Alex Gilliead and Luke Hendrie got up and down well. Gilliead looks much better in his new role on the left and deservedly scooped the sponsors’ man of the match.
Cook had City’s two best chances. At 0-0 he capitalised on a great run from Gillead by hitting a shot from an angle that Nathan Bishop clawed away. Then at 2-0 down in the closing stages, the striker had a powerful header that was superbly tipped over by the on-loan Manchester United stopper. There was some excellent City build up play at times with Elliot Watt having one of his better days. But ultimately they have to hurt the opposition more when they get near the penalty area.
Mansfield were certainly more clinical. And when Matty Longstaff pounced on more defensive hesitancy to put Mansfield Town 2-0 up just three minutes after the interval, City had a mountain to climb. Hughes showed some of his managerial acumen by making changes that made his side more effective – Callum Cooke’s introduction for Matty Daly saw him go with a diamond formation – but they still struggled to lay a glove on Mansfield.
“We changed it quite early in the second half. I think that helped us,” Hughes added. “We matched them up in midfield and got more control of the game. Moving forward that’s the key for what we want to do. We want to dictate to the opposition.”
Further improvement came when Caolan Lavery replaced Robinson. Lavery is no one’s idea of the answer, but has been slightly unfortunate not to have had more game time under Adams. His cameo saw him offer much more than Robinson.
The biggest compliment you can give the players, in these circumstances, is that the game remained interesting even going into injury time. They didn’t throw in the towel like they had at Oldham a week ago. They’re fighting for the cause. Sadly, they’re just not good enough.
It all means that Hughes’ reign kicks off with defeat and he now has an important week on the training ground to build on the positives that were on display. He could also do with a helping hand on the injury front – Charles Vernam and Jamie Walker are big misses for City, and their return to fitness can’t come soon enough.
There remains an awful lot to play for. The final 12 games of the season will give Hughes a chance to get to know League Two, and the individual capability of this group of City players to be part of a successful promotion campaign. Having never managed or played at this level, there is a lot for Hughes to learn and the positive spin to apply is that he can start operating with one eye on preparing for next season.
He will need that. Because here was another lesson, if it really was needed, that football managers aren’t magicians. That City hired arguably the best manager in League Two last season, but sacked him after only eight months, shows that’s it not just about who is in the dugout. Hughes can hopefully succeed where Adams failed in getting a tune out of these players, but the biggest failing of this season lies in player recruitment – and those mistakes can’t be repeated.
The bottom line is that City have a squad that does not match their aspirations. Hughes will ponder why he only has only one decent striker in Cook, and how he can get more goals in the team when his other four striker options have such limited goal career records. He will scratch his head at the lack of central defensive options, and wonder how the club ended up selling its captain in January and expects someone who has spent the last few years playing as a central midfielder to fill in at the back. He will wonder where all the wide players are.
Last summer’s transfer business wasn’t good enough, and the January window efforts were a long way short of fixing the problems. Another clearout looks inevitable this close season, but there needs to be a plan to recruit much more effectively – and Hughes’ considerable expertise must be trusted. Sparks has already said that Hughes will be given whatever he needs. He and Stefan Rupp must be true to this pledge, if he’s going to succeed.
Mark Hughes is probably the most exciting and remarkable managerial appointment in the history of Bradford City. But the biggest lesson of this season – and, indeed, recent years – is not to invest all hope in the cult of the manager. Just appointing Hughes won’t guarantee success. There are 22 weeks until the 2022/23 season kicks off. Bradford City has got to make this time count.
Categories: Match Reviews