|Bradford City 2|
|Walker 1, Vernam 5|
|Scunthorpe United 1|
|Bass 33 (OG)|
Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
At last, Mark Hughes was able to oversee a victory in front of his new public. But even in belated triumph, the Bradford City manager would have been left with no doubt about the scale of the rebuild job needed if the Bantams are to finally live up to their lofty expectations next season.
City were excellent here for the most part. Yet what had threatened to be a one-sided procession turned into a long slog, as the home side made hard work of dispatching their already relegated opponents. Scunthorpe United could not have made a worse start to their penultimate away trip as a Football League side. But by the end there was enough heart – if not quality – on display to offer Keith Hill crumbs of encouragement ahead of the drop into the National League.
For Hughes, there were positives but also concerns. His charges began in blistering style, going 1-0 up after just 18 seconds through a smart turn and finish by Jamie Walker. It was 2-0 by the fifth minute when Charles Vernam charged forward and struck a powerful shot that flew past Rory Watson. It was goal number 81 and 82 conceded by Scunthorpe this season. And, at that stage, the Scunthorpe left back, Ethan Young, had not even touched the ball. It looked as though City were on course to score a hatful.
Yet the floodgates never opened. Watson’s goal lived something of a charmed life. City produced some superb football with Walker, Vernam, Dion Pereira, Elliot Watt and Alex Gilliead delivering some brilliant interplay. With full backs Liam Ridehalgh and Luke Hendrie regularly getting forward to support attacks, for the first 45 minutes City were utterly dominant.
Over this period they had 67% possession and recorded 16 shots to Scunthorpe’s zero. In fact they had more attempts on goal, over those first 45 minutes, than Scunthorpe’s Alfie Beeston, Rekeil Pyke and Liam Feeney each had touches of the ball.
Hughes explained, “I asked the guys to be a lot more aggressive in their running in terms of the top end of the field. I think at times we can be a little bit passive and watch situations develop rather than making it happen ourselves. Some of our third man runs were really strong. I wanted to see hard yards today and that’s certainly what we saw.”
But rather than seize the moment to rack up a big scoreline, City fell victim to complacency. It had been such a mismatch. Almost too easy. And on 33 minutes, Yann Songo’o put a little too much power on a back pass. Alex Bass was too causal as Pyke came to close him down, and the young keeper’s clearance rebounded off the Scunthorpe forward and hit Bass again before bouncing into the net.
It was a ridiculous goal to concede. And though it didn’t change the complexion of the game, it put the outcome more in the balance and provided beleaguered Scunthorpe with a sense of purpose. It was no longer a lost cause. An unlikely point remained a possibility.
The closeness of the scoreline began to feel more significant as more and more City chances went begging. Vernam could easily have had a hat trick, at one stage hitting the woodwork with the ball bouncing down on the goal line. Lee Angol – who had a brilliant game in his first start since February – saw a couple of efforts well saved by Watson.
It was a strange game. City were better in every department. Continuing to dominate possession. Scunthorpe would not manage a single shot at goal until the 80th minute. But with the scoreline so narrow, the backdoor remained open. “We went a little bit too safe,” rued Hughes.
With each passing minute of the second half, City looked that little less impressive. Caught between the dilemma of whether to protect the slender advantage or go for a third goal, they began to sit back and allow Scunthorpe a bit more encouragement. At no stage could you make an argument that Scunthorpe were on top and an equaliser was coming. But that risk hung in the air. Tension was present. In stoppage time home fans howled for the final whistle. Not a scenario that seemed likely in the fifth minute.
That City held on and carved out the three points is a positive of course. Yes, it was against the most limited of opposition. But home victories have been scarce and the Bradford City fans, who have backed the team magnificently in recent weeks, deserved to go home with that winning feeling.
We also went home warmed by the joys of Watt’s excellent passing performance. These may be the final weeks of the young midfielder’s time at Valley Parade, but he is now finally showing why there has been so much talk of higher league clubs taking an interest. Watt must be loving playing for Hughes. If he does decide to stay, it will be because of the City boss.
Further supporter entertainment was gleaned from Pereira’s scintillating first half performance. By the way Vernam skips past defenders and more often that not makes good decisions. By the brilliance of Walker, who is reveling in the number 10 role. Whether Walker will be at Valley Parade next season remains to be seen, but the Scot’s recent performances have surely accelerated the inevitably that Callum Cooke will depart this summer.
There is reassurance that Gilliead can be effective – back in the deep midfield role here, his pass success rate of 93.8% and four key passes (a pass that lead to a shot on goal) was far and above his season’s average of 74.6% and 1.1 respectively. Further encouragement can be taken by Ridehalgh’s strong performances since returning from injury. And Yann Sonogo’s continued whole-heartedness. Technically he is lacking, but City need more players of Sonogo’s character next season.
“We haven’t won here for a long time so the importance of the win wasn’t lost on anyone,” admitted Hughes. “I thought we were excellent in the first half. Some of the play at the top end of the pitch was exactly what I’ve been aiming for since I came to the club.”
It’s just a shame that the ending to this game was so flat. Once Angol – who dominated the Scunthorpe backline – was withdrawn, the ball no longer stuck up front. Angol was replaced by Caolon Lavery, who on the one hand is unlucky not to have had more opportunities this season – but on the other has rarely shown he has the quality to make a difference. City were certainly weaker when Lavery led the line. Andy Cook – given a breather – must have felt frustrated kicking his heels on the bench.
The win was important for City in the sense they would have slumped to 20th had they lost. But they will do well at this stage now to avoid finishing the season in a lower position than last year’s 15th. That is something that should embarrass everyone connected with the club. For all the hype in pre season, Bradford City have made no progress over the last 12 months.
And on a day when complacency almost proved the great leveller on the field, the plight of City’s beaten opponents, Scunthorpe, should act as a sobering warning of the potential consequences of failing to arrest the Bantams’ downwards trajectory.
As recently ago as the 2014/15 season, City played League One matches against Scunthorpe United, Yeovil Town, Notts County, Chesterfield and Oldham. Scunthorpe will follow Yeovil, Notts County and Chesterfield in not just getting relegated from League One, but quickly falling further into non league. Oldham Athletic joined them today, despite supporters invading the Boundary Park pitch and getting the game halted.
From League One to the National League. It is a long and painful fall. And it is not an easy one to recover from. This is not a journey City can afford to take. But with each year languishing in the bottom half of League Two, that risk remains high. There goes Scunthorpe. There but by the grace of god and all that.
Can City apply the breaks on their own demise? Hughes is certainly showing his ability to revive the club – and with his huge experience and extensive contact book, this should be a good close season. Further support for Hughes is due shortly in terms of an imminent announcement over a new head of recruitment. And the sight of the under 19s celebrating their league title triumph on the pitch at half time suggests there are some promising young players for the future.
Hopefully it all leads to brighter times. Rather than a season as grey as this one. A season where labouring to victory at home to the bottom club, already relegated, counts as one of its better days.
Categories: Match Reviews