|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.
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