Mark Hughes continues to restore the feelgood factor to Bradford City with another convincing win

Hartlepool United 0
Bradford City 2
Foulds 70, Songo’o 76

Words and images by Jason McKeown

Suddenly, everyone is smiling again. The Bradford City players walked off the Victoria Park pitch at full time sporting huge grins, after producing another impressive away victory. Mark Hughes’ face was beaming as he waved at City supporters who were chanting his name. And inside that cramped away end stand, some 700 of us headed out into the Hartlepool night full of joy at what we had just witnessed.

Football supporting is a volatile activity. The highs and lows come thick and fast. The mood switching in an instant. At this moment, things feel great. Wins are returning, performances are showing real promise and – crucially – there’s an increasing level of confidence about the direction the club is taking.

And we haven’t been able say all of this too often in recent years.

The Mark Hughes effect has been quite remarkable. Every bit of praise and judgement about his impact since becoming manager comes with the huge caveat that this is still early days. We’ve been tricked many times by false dawns before, and that gives you some level of immunity against getting carried away.

But blimey. The mood has very quickly changed from one of real concern – of some fans openly talking about boycotts, and fretting about relegation to non-league – to one of real hope about the future.

Right now, this feels really good.

Everything just felt hugely satisfying about this victory over Hartlepool. It was a decent game to watch. Not great. But we’ve all seen more than our fair share of terrible League Two matches in recent times – and this was a cut above them. Two honest teams going at each other. In the end, one succeeding through having that greater quality.

It was a match played in front of a really boisterous atmosphere. The City supporters were in fine voice, but so too were Hartlepool’s. There’s something great about having your most vocal home fans situated next to the away end – the Valley Parade atmosphere suffers greatly for not having this – and the United fans were fantastic. On the evidence of the noise and backing they’ve offered both at Valley Parade last October, and at Victoria Park here, for me they’re best opposition fans City have come across this season.

And capping it all off was a really promising City performance. We’re very quickly seeing Mark Hughes’ personality projected onto this Bradford City team. The calm assurance. The quiet confidence to do the right things. The boldness to play with risk, in pursuit of bigger rewards. The tone that Hughes has taken right from his very first press conference is now visible within his players. He’s had a really transformative effect, and it’s occurred impressively fast.

It all meant that City played here with a conviction of passing the ball around calmly, being patient rather than trying to force it. When they go forward, Andy Cook was supported by other attacking players getting into the final third to offer options. And when they have to defend, players sprint back and provide protection.

Hughes has City lining up 4-1-4-1 with Elliot Watt playing just in front of the back four. It’s a tweak from the diamond formation deployed against Swindon, that for all its good attacking promise did leave the full backs too exposed. Watt continues to struggle at times taking the right option, but he is definitely improving and becoming the player that fits the hype. And overall, he is keeping the ball much better, a pass success rate here of 87% – some way above his season average of 69%.

Watt’s positional discipline not only allowed Callum Cooke and Gareth Evans to operate further up the park with the security of cover behind, it gave the full backs – Luke Hendrie and Matty Foulds – greater license to support attacks. And suddenly, when City go forward there are overloads and strength in numbers. Even if attacks break down, they’re able to win back possession higher up the park. “The control we had in the game was excellent,” purred Hughes.

With wide players Levi Sutton and Dion Pereira also having the freedom to take people on, City are attacking with much greater purpose. Pereira looks a very promising player and is very tidy on the ball, rarely giving it away. Sutton might struggle in the increasing technical requirements of a Mark Hughes team, but my goodness he puts in a shift.

At 0-0 Hartlepool were very much in the game. They probably had the best two chances, with Alex Bass making an excellent one-on-one save to deny Marcus Carver and in the second half getting a slight hand on a Joe White long-range shot that smacked the City crossbar. Bass made some other good saves and is looking more composed after his Swindon rush of blood. He’s also just been awarded his own chant – “Alex Bass, he sounds like a fish.” Genius.

Just like at Forest Green on Saturday, Hughes timed his subs well. Nathan Delfouneso came on for a tiring Evans, and within three minutes City were ahead. Pereira produced a great turn and pass to send Cooke away, and as he broke into the box there was Foulds making an overlapping run. Some of Cooke’s decisions didn’t pay off on the night, but his pass to Foulds was perfect and the promising young full back hit a low shot that slowly rolled into the net for 1-0.

City corner, and about to go 2-0 up

The game’s defining moment followed a few minutes later. As City attacked again and won a corner, Watt went down injured and couldn’t continue. In such circumstances – 1-0 up away from home, with less than 15 minutes on the clock – many a City manager (cough, Derek Adams) would have brought on a defender to shore it up. Not Hughes, who instead introduced attacking midfielder Jamie Walker. The reward instantly followed, as from Cooke’s corner Yann Songo’o drilled the ball home.

There were fantastic celebrations to both goals. An outpouring of joy in the stands that was mirrored by the scrum of City players hugging each other in front of them. And on the back of Saturday’s celebrations at Forest Green – especially for Cook’s clinching goal – it does feel like the relationship between fans and the club is thawing after a frosty period. That we’re back on the same page.

From then on City saw the game out with comfort. Paudie O’Connor has not quite been at his best the last few games, but was back on form here. Hendrie is proving to be a brilliant signing by Adams, and Foulds is really blossoming – something the former City boss also deserves credit for. Evans is a player reborn and was excellent. You can see Hughes has really shifted the requirements. And it’s now players who are good on the ball and decent passers that are excelling. After a miserable time under Adams, Cooke looks to be enjoying himself again.

The most striking difference between Adams and Hughes is the way that City are looking after the ball. Up until Hughes took charge, the Bantams were averaging 348 passes a game – ranking them 20th in the whole of League Two. Over the four games under Hughes, they’ve averaged 422 passes – which would rank City third in League Two. It’s also going up each game – 345 passes vs Mansfield, 386 vs Swindon, 407 vs Forest Green and an impressive 553 here.

Average possession has also gone up from 46.5% under Adams/Trueman to 53.8% over Hughes’ four games. Now, that might not seem too dramatic. But 46.5% was the fifth lowest in the whole of the league. 53.8%, over the course of a season, would rank City fourth best for possession. So these marginal gains are actually making a huge difference.

Hughes deserves so much credit for this turnaround. Not just in results, but for the way the team are performing and the far more attractive style of football deployed. We know Hughes has the higher league pedigree and has managed some top, top players, but to see such a fast impact – mid-season, and to a team utterly demoralised – is something rare and special.

How often have we seen a mid-season managerial change make very little difference, with the new incumbent given the benefit of doubt – “it’s not his team, let’s see what he does next season.” Well, this isn’t Mark Hughes’ team either – so imagine what he can do when he really puts his stamp on the squad.

After the game, Hughes was even talking up a late play off charge, despite City remaining 14 points off the top seven. “You never know…either way, if we don’t make it, we’ll have that momentum for next season.” Given the dreadful way we’ve finished every season since 2017, it would be great to have that.

The closing message of Derek Adams to Bradford City before he was sacked – “they’re not going to get as successful a manager as myself through the door” – looked arrogant at the time, and now seems utterly hilarious. On the night where City are becoming more united as a football club, Adams was overseeing a 5-0 defeat for Morecambe at Shrewsbury Town. The odds strongly suggest Adams will be back at Valley Parade next season – as an opposition manager. That should make for a memorable occasion.

For City, the huge impression Hughes is making needs to be built on by everyone employed at the club. With Hughes’ track record in the game, his expertise of managing football clubs, and his willingness to come here in the first place when City were in a very dark place, he must suitably backed. The club can and surely will be listening to what he has to say – within reason, they need to give what he wants.

It’s early days. It really is. But for the first time since Bradford City’s fall back into League Two, it really does feel like this supporter base is fully behind the manager and the team. It’s all come too late to result in a promotion push this season. But it all looks incredibly promising for next year.

Maybe, just maybe, the good times are coming back. 

Categories: Match Reviews

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17 replies

  1. An excellent and very informative article, Jason – thank you. Enormously impressed by Mark Hughes, the club must give him all the support they can.

    • We will never have a better chance of a double promotion. Mind you the two teams coming up from the conference will think the same. There is some dross coming down from above

  2. Roy of the rovers a cartoon great footballer. Now we have our own Roy in the form of a manager. His pedigree is outstanding. Many top managers who have lost their job in the Premier league would not move to a club like ours. Mark thought differently. He saw a struggling division 2 team in a Premier league City and gave us hope for the future. He appears to be a humble man who connects well with supporters and players. We saw a team of misfits signed from clubs not much better than ourselves. I know it’s early days, but he has managed to turn them into a formidable team of players. Everyone thought Evans days were number and first out when his contract finished. Evans is transformed and everyone in the team has been touched by Hughes’ magic.
    Last night’s match continued where we left off on Saturday. I would say, Hartlepool were a better team than Forest Green. It was a tough game but City’s quality shone through. Passing was confident. Everyone did their job. I feel so proud of our club. Long may it continue.

  3. When a massively miserable misanthrope like myself starts to feel cautiously optimistic for next season, something’s going right!
    Every player involved deserves credit for the last two performances.

  4. The possession stats interest me here.. In that the players under Adams looked dead on their feet after 75 mins of playing kick rush and having to constantly chase after the ball.. So far they look like they can actually last the full 90 due to looking after the ball better. Long may it continue and not turn into a possession for possession sake thing. eagerly awaiting next game now never mind next season

  5. how is that even the same team that was turning out for Adams? The first touch on all of them, short-passing game in midfield, the tracking back (special note Pereira), willingness to get forward in numbers, energy and commitment, Evans – all a huge improvement. They looked liked a really decent football team last night (against another really good side), instead of a bunch of sunday league plodders as they were under Adams. Well done Hughsey, whatever you have done. 2 x back2 ack successive away wins with clean sheets and building momentum for next season, just in time to get the season ticket sales up again! Lets follow that up with a home win on Saturday and long may it continue – please please – lets get out of this league next year.

  6. I wouldn’t count on Adams still being around to face City if Morecambe are relegated. His tenure at Morecambe may be even shorter than at City. Why on earth they wanted him back is beyond me, after the way he walked out on them?
    It’s just a shame we didn’t get rid a month or so earlier, in which case we’d probably be talking realistically about the play offs.

  7. What about those all importanf XG stats? Where are they now – after all that’s all DA seemed interested in lol

  8. I live in Hartlepool these days and support City so it was a first for me. Walking down Hart Lane away game.
    Because I have not been back in Bradford in last few weeks I had to content myself with a seat in the main stand but as near to.the City fans as possible.
    Before kick off I watched many familiar faces arrive and make their way past me into the away end.
    Some saw me and waved etc. Some know I live up here now and some were amazed to see me in with the Hartlepool fans.
    I saw Charlie arrive and he immediately started to verbally abuse me and was gesticulating towards me. If only he knew!!!!
    Clearly he thought I was an Hartlepool fan.
    City were much better on the eye and each player seemed to know their jobs.
    The home team did have a couple of half chances but that was really it.
    City played some neat passing football and I was impressed by the movement and awareness of the team.
    In the second half we got the two goals and the second effectively killed the home team off.
    In the end it was the classic away victory, all too often that we are the recipients of.
    As we came out I bumped into several fans and friends plus a beaming John Hendrie. Here to see his son and clearly proud of his performance and pleased with a City win.
    I noted a group of unsavoury looking characters standing near the coaches but as there was a big police presence I thought things were under control. Next thing to our left all hell broke loose and these lads were in the thick of it.
    My partner had arranged to pick up myself and John Watmough in the Morrisons car park. She said the same lads had come through the car park towards the ground well before the final whistle.
    We are pretty sure they were not at the game.
    Its rare to see any ‘bother’ now and this was clearly more like the 80s than 2022.

    • I too was undercover in the Hartlepool end /main stand probs sat next to you! Living in Middlesbrough it felt good to nip up the road to see my beloved team – I doubt I would have bothered a few weeks ago!! (Well I probably would have begrudgingly) Great to see the away end scenes from a far. I thought we had so much confidence in our own ability passing wise and lots of guile and industry from midfield which has been lacking for so long. Calm assurance is the phrase you said and that nails it for me. At last we looked well drilled which also isn’t something we have been able to say for so long. Good to see (just in front of me) Glyn Hodges barking away with a bit from Mr Hughes also thrown in they both were outstanding ‘Footballers’ first and foremost I remember Hodges being so gifted and highly rated which maybe overlooked when next to Mark Hughes. Between them they will bring out the footballer in each player which we are already seeing after less than 400 mins of football!
      Great to see. Blown away.

      • I too was in the home end and briefly had a chat with Mark on the way out.
        The team that played last night is like cheese to the chalk that was served up by Adams.
        Roll on Saturday and roll on next season – up the Bantams!

    • Mark it would be great to have a brew if you can ask Jason to pass on my email address..

  9. If you have supported City as long as I have you have seen more false dawns than you care to remember.
    But this maybe feels different.
    They were pretty impressive last night. I was truly surprised at the improvement in all players in such a short time.
    But, of course , Mark Hughes is a top class act. It is truly exciting that we have managed to get him.
    If the owner and CEO work with him I see no reason why we cannot do a Luton. Promotion this year is out of realistic reach, but Hughes can use this season as a springboard.
    I desperately hope we can keep him.
    Last night was a pleasure, and to be able to relax for the last quarter hour was lovely.
    Thank you to the travelling fans, thank you Jason for that report, thank you Sparks for appointing Hughes, thank you Hughes and assistants, thank you the team for learning so quickly.
    Please let it continue.

  10. As an out and out pessimist I feel uncomfortable with how I’m starting to feel positive for next season. 🙂
    Please please please, Mr Sparks and Mr Rupp back Mark Hughes with a good budget and whatever else he wants. This could be our chance.

  11. At this rate Man U might come looking for Sparky……😎🤔😳

  12. Fully endorse all that has been said above – this does feel genuinely exciting!
    A note beyond planning for next season. Obviously we all hope Hughes / Hodges are backed in the transfer market and so are empowered to build a squad to compete at the top end of L2 and hopefully higher, with a nod towards ‘the Luton model’ (as nobody is actually calling it).
    But oh, how I hope that this isn’t the extent of our ambition and planning!
    Yes, back H/H with a decent transfer budget. But for however long we are fortunate enough to have these two football minds in the building, please – PLEASE – tap into their experience on how best to invest in the club’s infrastructure longer-term as well!
    I am sure Sparks and his team are smart enough to do just that. But given we Bradfordians quite enjoy competing to see who was the very first to spot how this will all go wrong for us – ah go on, admit it 😉 – the fear that Hughes could be tempted away by a higher-placed club sooner than later means that we must not blow the club-changing opportunity afforded to us by this silver-haired miracle suddenly dropping into our SPAM folder.
    I hope Hughes sees the potential here, enjoys being in and around the club, and develops a soft spot for us City fans and our anthemic creativity. I hope he wants to stick around beyond his current contract. But on the off-chance that he doesn’t, let’s make sure that his time with us evidently improves every aspect of the club beyond just hoping for a decent transfer budget next season. We should be bolder than that. This kind of thing simply won’t happen to us again anytime soon.
    So welcome, Mr Hughes. In just four games, you’ve managed to make all of this enjoyable again.
    Please make yer sen comfy!

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