|Bradford City 1|
|Port Vale 2|
|Garrity 50, Wilson 63|
Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
If Mark Hughes didn’t yet fully realise the scale of the challenge reviving Bradford City, this would have been an afternoon of valuable lessons to test his ideals.
The Bantams manager has been able to observe green shoots quickly emerge from his attempts to play patient passing football, attack in numbers and press higher up the pitch. But it was neutered by a streetwise Port Vale side who played with a tough edge. The visitors deployed a physical approach that City struggled to stand up to. And any hopes of protection were dashed by a haphazard refereeing performance.
Welcome to League Two, Mark Hughes. And to the type of opposition tactics that routinely prosper at this level. The simple fact is that Port Vale were very good value for their victory and in doing so they showed up the limitations of this Bradford City side.
The scoreline made the game seem close, and the home side deserve credit for pushing hard to the end. But over the course of the 90 minutes, Port Vale were able to keep their opponents at arm’s length and pack a more potent punch. On this occasion, City’s approach was thwarted. “Teams will look at the way we play and try and affect that,” Hughes stated after the match.
Hughes is unlikely to rip up what he is building on the basis of this, but it was an afternoon that showed the importance of instilling grit and toughness. Of how vital it is to be good enough to stand up to the physical challenge, in order for your footballing abilities to make a telling impact.
The manager doesn’t quite have that right now. This is a nice bunch of players who lack that ruthless edge. More warriors are needed. Those who will be brave, relish the battle and not be bullied. Or to put it another way, Hughes needs the sort of fearless character that he himself embodied as a player.
That’s going to have to wait until the summer. In the meantime, rising hopes that this group of players might in fact be good enough to be part of a promotion push were dampened by this defeat, the fifth on the trot at home.
They didn’t play badly. They never let their heads drop. And when Charles Vernam pulled a goal back there was hope of a morale-boosting comeback to claim a point that – over the 90 minutes – they would have been fortunate to gain. It was ultimately in vain. But for their efforts, the players deserved the warm applause from home fans at full time.
That City couldn’t build on Tuesday’s excellent win over Hartlepool was partly due to the absence of Elliot Watt through injury. The young midfielder has been coming into his own under Hughes, and his absence caused a reshuffle back to a 4-2-3-1 that saw Callum Cooke and Gareth Evans drop slightly back and Nathan Delfuenso brought in to play as a number 10, in-between wide attackers Levi Sutton and Dion Pereira.
The upshot was City had plenty of the ball in the middle of the park, but a return to the Derek Adams problem of striker Andy Cook looking too isolated and a lack of options in the final third. Not a single member of City’s midfield five was better for the formation change.
The ball was given away too often. At Victoria Park on Tuesday, 12 of the 14 City players who featured had a pass success rate of over 80%. Against Port Vale, not one player reached 80%. Pereira had an outstanding pass success rate of 93.9% against Hartlepool. It was just 37.5% here. “We needed a little bit more personality on the pitch at times,” reflected Hughes.
Vale, playing a 3-4-1-2, performed better in both boxes and counter attacked in numbers when they won turnovers. Ben Garrity, playing in the hole, proved tricky to pick up and the front two of James Wilson and former City forward Jamie Proctor played very well. Wilson in particular produced a strong centre forward’s display. He rarely gave possession away and the ball stuck with him when he was found by a Vale player.
In a goalless first half, City toiled but failed to muster a shot on target – although Cook did hit the bar with a deflect shot in stoppage time. Sutton and Pereira were often crowded out by Vale shirts, with full backs Luke Hendrie and Matty Foulds struggling to provide the same level of support. There were good bits of link up play, but the wrong option routinely taken. Delfuenso is not naturally a central midfielder and on this evidence is not about to become the next Joelinton.
Vale looked more of a threat at the other end with Alex Bass undoubtedly the busier keeper. The visitors’ pace breaking forward was a real issue at times. It never looks good when your team pass the ball around without enough purpose, give it away, and have to scramble back to prevent an opposition goal. But that’s the risks that come with trying to play the right way.
This was the case early in the second half. David Worrall crossed the ball and Pereira had the chance to clear it up the pitch, but sliced his attempt across the box. The ball hit Foulds at pace and he was unable to control it, allowing Wilson to run through and fizz a low ball across the box. Hendrie could have done more to get the ball away, and Garrity nipped in to score.
It came through Port Vale’s strongest period of the match. “The way we came out in the second half, we got right on the front foot and took advantage of those moments,” purred Vale’s interim manager Andy Crosby. They nearly made it 2-0 when Yann Songo’o gave the ball away in a bad position and again the visitors piled forward. Just as Wilson was seemingly about to score, Songo’o recovered to produce a superb last ditch tackle. But the respite was short lived.
Wilson scored the second goal from an angle thanks to some slightly questionable goalkeeping from Bass. But the drama came in the build up when Proctor pulled Songo’o to the floor, yet referee Darren Drysdale waved play on and Wilson ran through. This was once again a terrible refereeing display from Drysdale. He let too much go and provided City with no security from Vale’s at-times over physical approach.
After all these years it is mystery how Drysdale is still deemed a competent referee. Is he ever assessed? Or is he normally better, and just happens to save his worst performances for visits to Valley Parade?
At 2-0 down, City looked well beaten but to their immense credit they kept going. Hughes was able to bring on Vernam after a two month injury lay off and he quickly made up for lost time by making it 2-1 with a deflected low shot. With Jamie Walker also brought onto the field, there was hope of an unlikely comeback. But for all the huff and puff, it still looked remote.
There just wasn’t enough pressure placed on Vale to suggest an equaliser was on the cards. During those final 20 minutes City had 75% of the ball, yet won only one corner and had just four shots at goal – none of which were on target.
What we saw was a lot of City passing in the middle of the park, but a struggle to get through the Vale lines. When players were on the ball they lacked good options, as a well organised Vale backline left few gaps. Hughes rued, “For too long we kept doing the same things and it played into Port Vale’s hands.”
You wanted Hughes to be a little more pragmatic. To urge long balls forward. Throw on Theo Robinson to give Cook more support, or push Songo’o or Paudie O’Connor up front. But they continued to stick with the passing approach. In the six minutes of injury time City produced 55 passes and were accurate with 42 of them. They remained tidy on the ball right to the end, but simply weren’t hurting Port Vale.
It is hard to be too critical of City and Hughes for sticking to their principles and there is no question the approach he wants to take is one that is finding favour with supporters. But today was an important lesson about the hard faced nature of League Two.
You will come up against teams who want to bully you. Referees who won’t protect you. And to be successful, you have to find ways to overcome these tactics. Good footballing sides can be promoted at this level, but not without having a hard edge too.
After this defeat, Hughes will surely appreciate that point more than ever.
Categories: Match Reviews