|Bradford City 2|
|Smallwood 7, Chapman 53|
|Newport County 0|
Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
The engine is firmly purring even though the higher gears are yet to be found. Bradford City’s league campaign is firmly up and running after the easiest of victories over a tepid Newport County. Coming just a few days on from the impressive cup victory over Championship Hull, the wrong turns taken late on at Barrow a week ago are now firmly in the rear view mirror.
This was a cruise in the sunshine for the Bantams. They displayed greater quality in every department, and the only thing to slow them down was their own ambition. Scoring early in both halves made for a contest lacking in great intensity and, with it, City spent long spells operating within their comfort zone. It was all a bit too easy.
At those moments when they were at their best, there was much to like about this Bradford City side. Witness the opening goal where a brilliant passing move from defence to attack resulted in captain Richie Smallwood cutting inside and hitting a thunderous shot from distance that flew past County goalkeeper Nick Townsend. Smallwood has netted just two goals in his past four seasons, so we shouldn’t expect goals like this from him too often. This was a true collector’s item.
That goal, coming just seven minutes in, set the tone for an afternoon of happy positivity around Valley Parade. The feeling when Smallwood netted was a world away from the last home game against Doncaster, where at almost the exact same moment in the afternoon Emmanuel Osadebe had suffered a double leg break that brought the game to a halt and left his team-mates shaken. In fact, this time it was Newport who would lose a player early doors, with Aaron Wildig going down injured in the build up to Smallwood’s goal and unable to continue.
And that set Newport’s own tone, where in the first 45 minutes they would lose another player – Robbie Willmott – to injury. And then – echoing City’s last home opponents, Doncaster – receive a red card after Declan Drysdale slipped and tripped up Andy Cook with the City striker clean through on goal. Nothing went right for Newport in the first half, and that gave the Bantams a comfortable platform to ultimately achieve victory.
Not that it was fully straightforward. City began the game on the front foot and fully merited Smallwood’s goal. But their intensity and sense of purpose dropped for much of the half, affording Newport some hope. Harry Lewis didn’t have many saves to make, but would have noticed his heart rate increase when a couple of efforts flew narrowly wide of his goal. He also showed some good handling to deal with several awkward crosses.
The home side remained solid. The centre backs Romoney Crichlow and Matty Platt were exceptional all afternoon, as was Smallwood and Alex Gilliead at the base of the 4-2-3-1 – Gilliead in for Ryan East this past week has seen a notable improvement, given the former has better defensive awareness than the latter. Scott Banks built on his eye-catching midweek debut with another display of tricks and flair. But the other attacking players blew hot and cold in the first half especially.
It’s becoming clear that Mark Hughes is following Derek Adams and Mark Trueman/Conor Sellars in favouring the 4-2-3-1 formation. And like his predecessors in the Valley Parade dugout, finding the right balance to make City an attacking force is a challenge.
Having an effective number 10, with the ability to produce key passes, is crucial to the 4-2-3-1’s success, and here City are badly missing Jamie Walker. The most obvious number 10 replacement – Osadebe – is going to be out for some time. All presenting Hughes with a few headaches.
Here, as he did against Hull, the manager opted for Harry Chapman in the number 10 role. Chapman did many good things, but his strength is running at players. At times in the first half especially – with Newport playing a 3-5-2 – Chapman wasn’t in a part of the pitch that afforded him much room to go on mazy runs. And when he instead went to pick a pass his decision making lacked consistency.
Drysdale’s red card changed that, with Newport manager James Rowberry switching to a 4-3-2 formation for the second half that gave Chapman more room to operate. He and left-sided attacker Lee Angol – quiet in the first half and not always the most helpful at providing cover for Liam Ridehalgh, probably resulting in some stern words from Hughes at the interval – became more influential.
Angol came close to making it 2-0 after more great work from Banks, and moments later Chapman grabbed the crucial second goal with a thrilling run from deep that saw him run at opposition players for fun, race into the box and hit a low shot that squirmed under Townsend and rolled over the line.
Newport were done at that point, and the prospect of a flurry of further City goals seemed likely. They certainly had chances and played on the front foot for spells, but there remained that lingering suspicion that they were playing within themselves. A bit like a long distance runner at the start of a race, conserving energy and being mindful of pacing themselves. Given the way Adams’ City charged out of the blocks in hammering Stevenage early doors last season, before quickly running out of steam, perhaps it’s for the best.
Nevertheless, the excitement at the potential of what we’re witnessing remains slightly dulled by the sedate pace City are displaying at times. Right now, the club has a fanbase dripping in positivity, turning up in huge numbers, desperate for success. Nothing we saw here suggests high expectations are misplaced this time around, but equally the team hasn’t fully clicked and it’s hard to shake off the feeling that it has not yet reached its true level of performance.
That’s a nice place to be in many respects. Trudging out of Valley Parade with the satisfaction of three points, feeling there is more to come. But the many scars of the recent past have shown us that potential can all to often go unfulfilled. That you can seem to be right on the cusp of greatness for a while, but never actually get over the line. “We could have more chances given we had one more player to the good,” admitted Hughes after the game. “That’s something to work on.”
Finding that bit more is a challenge that might just be preventing Hughes from sleeping perfectly at night. Certainly the way he came onto the pitch at full time and had a long, animated conversation with Crichlow hinted of a demand for more from his players.
With the outcome clear early on in the second half, Hughes will have observed with interest the impact of his late substitutes, with Jake Young in particular catching the eye and responding well from being harshly dropped after Tuesday. Levi Sutton too is a player it’s very difficult to find a place in the starting XI for, but who’s cameo showed he will let no one down when called upon.
What to do about Vadaine Oliver is another big consideration. The three-year deal Oliver agreed to join City raised eyebrows at the time and his demotion to the bench – whilst fully merited – is a reflection of a failure, so far, of the team to play to his strengths. Cook has seized his chance and looks a better fit for the set-up. Unlike the Doncaster game where 41 City crosses were attempted, the Bantams only produced 16 here. They kept the ball on the ground, which appears to suit Cook better than Oliver.
Oliver came on late and was unfortunate to do so during the final period where City were clearly trying to see the game out rather than mount meaningful attacks. The replacing of Chapman with East was a real indication of a City desire to just run out the clock whilst keeping the ball.
There is a good team here for sure, waiting to fully work out its identity. Not yet fully off the leash. Still finding its optimum rhythm. As Hughes himself observed, “We are still really working on those areas where we can exploit teams when we’re in ascendency. But that will come, we’re only three games in.”
Indeed, if Hughes can get all the pieces into place, this is every prospect of a hugely exciting season. But many of the challenges ahead are clearly going to prove a lot tougher than the one that Newport posed here.
Categories: Match Reviews