|Bradford City 0|
|Newport County 0|
Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
The shoulders slumped. The head dropped. During the closing stages here, Andy Cook had made another fruitless run forward and kicked the ground in frustration when the Bradford City attack broke down. Body language experts were hardly required to analyse the Bantams top scorer’s frame of mind, as another 90 minutes passed without the forward making much of an impression.
When the dust shortly settles on Bradford City’s 2021/22 campaign, the inquest into why things didn’t go to plan should focus heavily on player recruitment. Both last summer and during the recent January transfer window, the club failed to adequately strengthen its forward line. The consequences were on full display here against Newport, as they have been virtually all season.
City looked good on the ball and, for possession and territorial advantage, just about deserved to win. But they just don’t pose enough of a threat in the opposition box. “We still need a little bit of work at the top end of the pitch, that’s one element of our game we haven’t been able to concentrate as much on,” Mark Hughes admitted after the game. “It’s maybe a confidence thing – sometimes when you have those half-chances you try to be a little bit too deliberate and that’s when the chance goes missing.”
It’s now just 43 goals in the Bantams’ 39 league matches. That’s the 15th best record in League Two, and it goes a long way to explaining why City are destined to finish mid-table.
The Bantams have only scored 24 times at home – the same amount Newport’s Dom Telford has managed on his own all season. City have not scored at the Kop end since the January home win over Salford, 70 days ago.
That was also the last time City won at Valley Parade. The rot of successive defeats was at least ended here before it stretched to a club record-equalling six, but it still leaves City with the fourth-worst home record in League Two. They’ve won just two of their last 21 league and Cup games on home soil. Dreadful.
A particularly strong second half showing here suggested an end to the Valley Parade winless run. Hughes had shuffled his pack and gone with a diamond and two up front. It looked flat and predictable in the first half, and Hughes had a go at tweaking it a couple of times. Before words of encouragement at half time, coupled with some effective subs, saw City pick up the pace and push Newport back.
A cagey game became stretched and the pressure began to build. But for all the promising attacking play, genuinely good chances on goal remained in short supply.
Which is where Cook came in, or in this case didn’t.
Cook more than anyone carries the burden of providing the goals that City lack. Over the 90 minutes here, Cook had just two attempts on goal, failing to hit the target on both occasions. He was a willing runner in the main, but his link up play was laboured and predictable. He gave the ball away often, and struggled to win his battle with Newport’s Mickey Demetriou.
As the focal point of his attack, Hughes needs more from Cook. But the manager also needs to ensure there is better service into the big number 9. Cook has a strong lower league record, but playing up front for City this season has been slim pickings. Last season, an on-form Cook was averaging a goal every 172 minutes for the Bantams. This season it’s a goal every 255 minutes.
Cook remains City’s top scorer with 11 goals, but now has just one goal in his last 12 appearances. He seems short of confidence. He also took a second half knock that left him hobbling.
In other circumstances, Cook would have been substituted or even rested next week. But Mark Hughes will have quickly learned that City’s top scorer is still by some distance his best forward, leaving him with little option but to persist with him. There just isn’t the competition elsewhere to lead the attack, and in deploying two up top Hughes even had to resort to playing attacking midfielder Jamie Walker up front.
Hughes must be left pondering just how he has inherited such a poor hand of strikers. He is not short of bodies in the building, but there is no hiding the fact City have invested in ageing forwards whose better days were behind them. And who had highly questionable recent records. Signing cast offs from Port Vale, Walsall and Salford City must rank as some of the most uninspiring recruitment in recent years, and that is saying something.
Caolon Lavery, who came on as a late sub, is lively but all his best work is outside the box. He, Theo Robinson, Tom Elliott and Nathan Delfuenso have little chance of earning new deals at Valley Parade next season. Hughes is yet to see Lee Angol, but his injury record at City and prior to joining the club suggests he will leave at the end of the season. Finding goalscorers is going to be the big priority this summer.
What it meant was that, for all City’s promising play, they struggled to really lay a glove on an organised Newport side who deployed the 4-2-2-2 formation that Ralf Ragnick has recently made famous at Old Trafford. Newport manager James Rowberry’s side were organised and compact. Cunnng, too, at stalling opposition momentum through the dark arts of players going down suspiciously injured when they started to come under pressure.
That pressure really came after the hour mark when Hughes brought on Dion Pereira and Charles Vernam in place of Callum Cooke and a disappointing Gareth Evans. Pereira took on the tip of the diamond role and played with real aplomb. He ran with the ball between the Newport lines, produced some lovely tricks and had the crowd on the edge of their seats. Vernam, who played wide left, was simiarily adept at running past defenders and stretching the opponents.
With both Pereira and Vernam, decision making needed to be better, but there was no disputing the major impact they made. Between the 60th and 75th minute, City racked up seven shots on goal (they had 14 over the full 90 minutes) and had 63% possession (compared to 56% over the entire game). If there was an opportunity to have got the breakthrough, this period was it.
Indeed, Walker had the best chance of the whole game during this period when he ran through on goal but could only shoot tamely at County goalkeeper Joe Day. It was almost as though Walker had too long to think about it. Pereira, Alex Gilliead and Vernam also had decent opportunities during this spell. And as the home crowd – who had been subdued first half – sprang to life, it felt like City were on the cusp of victory.
But rather than a grand finale from the Bantams, suddenly Newport came on strong. Unhappy memories of the Swindon defeat came flooding back, as the home side seemed to run out of steam and were left hanging on. This time, City held out. The backline was excellent, with Yann Songo’o and Paudie O’Connor having their best games for several weeks. Alex Bass was also back on form. Overall Hughes was satisfied, “I’d like to think we could see positive steps. We’ll continue in the same vein and get better every time we play here.”
So stalemate then, and a final seven games that look increasingly meaningless, save for giving Hughes more chance to really understand this division. With talk that deals will shortly be offered to some of the players out of contract this summer, this period almost feels like an early pre-season for 2022/23.
The manager can operate with one eye firmly on what he needs to build so that City can make a much stronger push next season. These games give him the chance to weigh up what he has, but more importantly gain a full appreciation of exactly what’s missing.
Another huge summer of recruitment awaits. Let’s hope the painful lessons of this season’s lacklustre business are fully recognised – so they aren’t repeated.
Categories: Match Reviews