|Bradford City 1|
|Tranmere Rovers 1|
Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
That’s it. That’s the season ticket campaign right there. Any Bradford City supporter feeling hesitant about renewing for next season needs to be sent a video of this game to win over their heart and mind.
Such a video will not feature a Bradford City victory, but it will showcase the strongest evidence yet of Mark Hughes’ ability to produce something special next season. This performance was full of attacking purpose and individual flair, mixed in with dogged determination. It was all played out in front of a magnificent Valley Parade atmosphere, with home fans fully bought into what the manager wants from his players.
Callum McManaman’s late Tranmere equaliser was undeserved but did little to flatten the mood. As McManaman raced over to shh the Kop, a loud and defiant round of Bradford City chanting started up, offering home players a resounding nod of approval for their efforts. They were clapped off the field at full time. The wait goes on for a home win, but the improvement is huge.
City were desperately unlucky not to win this game. They played on the front foot from the first whistle and their energy levels barely dipped. A feat made more impressive by the fact they spent more than two-thirds of the match a man light. Elliot Watt racked up two yellows in a couple of minutes that threatened to leave City in real trouble, but the biggest compliment you could pay the 10 men Bantams is they rarely looked like they had fewer players on the field than their opponents.
That is something which will frustrate and trouble the Tranmere Rovers manager, Micky Mellon. If mid table City had nothing to play for, a season’s worth of work was on the line for their opponents. Tranmere’s form is wobbling and in the last few weeks they’ve dropped from the automatic promotion places to outside the play offs. For most of the game, there was no hiding the visitors’ dwindling confidence. Mellon admitted, “I think to be fair the only positive we can take – and we have to be honest – is we got something out of it.”
Indeed, the catalogue of mistakes Tranmere made in and out of possession brought back memories of Stuart McCall’s 2008/09 Bradford City side, who were top seven all season before suddenly falling apart. Like City 13 years ago, Tranmere’s nerves looked shot and they were constantly guilty of giving the ball away too easily, diving into tackles they couldn’t hope to win, and failing to stay in any type of shape as City’s attacking players blossomed.
It must have been a troubling experience for Tranmere’s impressive 1,500 travelling support. For everyone else, it was joyous. City played on the anxiety of their timid opponents. Hughes had picked a hugely attacking line up and it was wonderful to see home players enjoying themselves on the ball. Reveling in the license to take risks and be positive.
After the diamond formation of recent weeks, Hughes had returned City to 4-2-3-1 but asked Alex Gilliead to tuck in centrally alongside Watt, with Charles Vernam and Dion Pereira flanking Jamie Walker, all behind Andy Cook.
It worked and worked well. Gilliead grew into his new role and came forward centrally with the ball, linking up effectively with Walker and Pereira in particular. For the 28 minutes he was on the field, Watt was superb and routinely produced accurate passes that sent forward players away.
“I thought we were excellent from start to finish,” Hughes reflected. “The way we started and how good our football was is exactly what we talked about before the game.”
The balance of the team was also helped by Liam Ridehalgh’s recent return. Matty Foulds had let no one down, but Ridehalgh’s greater physicality allowed the former Tranmere full back and Vernam to dominate the left side of the pitch. Time after time City attacked in numbers and the ball was worked outside for Ridehalgh, Vernam, Pereira or Luke Hendrie to send a cross over.
After several wasted attempts, eventually Hendrie picked out a City head, and the late charging Walker nodded the ball into the far corner. Huge City celebrations followed. The platform for a dominant win was in place.
And if Watt had not lost his head, that probably would have been the outcome.
On 26 minutes the young midfielder had tangled with a Tranmere defender near the opposition penalty area and pushed his opponent in frustration. The yellow card he received was mistaken for a red by the nearby Tranmere fans, who began to celebrate. They soon realised their error, but it wouldn’t take long for their wish to be granted.
Watt had a good case for being fouled before he struck out and so deserved to feel aggrieved about his first yellow. But he also needed to keep a calm head and shake off the sense of injustice. The emotions swirling, two minutes later he produced a poor, needless challenge. A definite yellow card, meaning a red.
“He knows he’s made a mistake there.” Hughes revealed. “Although the first booking should have been the other way. All he was doing was trying to find some space on the ball, so to get booked for that was poor.”
City players and fans weren’t happy at the time, but replays show there can be few complaints about the second yellow. Still, it was one of only a handful of decisions referee Carl Boyeson can take credit for getting right. The veteran ref produced another bizarre performance that at times seem to border on bias against City. The most ridiculous moment came at 0-0 when Vernam was shoved over in the box. But instead of giving a penalty or waving the claim away, Boyeson blew up for a foul against the City winger.
With an extra man, the scales seemed to have tipped in Tranmere’s favour, and yet they crawled to the half time whistle struggling to hang on. Walker – who was outstanding and back on form – forced a good tip over. From a corner, a scramble in the box prompted desperate last ditch defending. Cook – who looked a little more his old self – also came close.
Even after the half time break and surely some strong words from Mellon, Tranmere couldn’t get going. Elliott Nevitt and Chris Merrie fired shots over, but decision making remained erratic. The most comical moment was an attempted overhead kick shot from half time sub McManaman that saw the former Premier League winger fall flat on the ground, the ball trickling wide of the goal by some distance.
In contrast City, backed loudly by their fans, continued to play on the front foot and create good chances. Pereira was once again a box of tricks and at times had Tranmere Rovers players trailing in his wake as he skipped through. Pereira had a decent curling shot from distance that edged just wide, before Yann Songo’o – who put in a terrific shift alongside Paudie O’Connor – got on the end of a free kick but shot straight at Joe Murphy.
“We’re full of confidence at the moment,” Hughes confirmed. “We’re enjoying what we’re doing. We didn’t think Tranmere was a team that we should be afraid of, and that’s our approach to each and every game we face.”
When Tranmere sub Nicky Maynard headed a chance wide late on, you realised the clock said 84 minutes and the visitors had yet to manage a shot on target. Alas, McManaman would strike just before the board went up for injury time after an impressive run and powerful effort.
With Rovers on the brink of dropping down to 11th in the table, it could yet prove a huge goal in the League Two promotion shake up. Not that Mellon was satisfied, “We passed the ball poorly. We never showed any quality. We got a point, but we came here for more.”
City merited the win and nearly grabbed a winner in stoppage time when substitute Lee Angol ran through on goal but hit the post. But any disappointment at losing two points late on was tempered by the quality of the performance. It was uplifting to see so many smiling faces as we filed out of Valley Parade.
There is no getting away from the fact some big challenges remain for City going into the summer. Having now dropped to 16th, they are on course for their worst final league placing in a decade. A fifth successive year of finishing the season in a lower league position than the one before will inevitably invite another round of criticism of Stefan Rupp.
With so many players out of contract and many of the ones with deals probably not wanted, it’s a massive transfer window for a club with a dreadful recruitment record over recent years. There is a lot of proving to do.
But still, there are genuine grounds for optimism. What Hughes has done in terms of performances and overall approach is really exciting. With the chance to make his mark on the squad in terms of incomings and outgoings, he can truly start to build something.
The summer reset will do everyone good. And what Hughes will be learning about this level, at the moment, could prove invaluable if City are to make a better impression next time. “I think everyone is excited by what may happen next year,” concluded Hughes.
The new season begins on Saturday 30 July. And, after performances as enjoyable and promising as this, it can’t come soon enough.
Categories: Match Reviews