More groans than thrills as Bradford City endure another home stalemate

Bradford City 0
Crewe Alexandra 0

By Jason McKeown

As the minutes ticked by and the groans became more frequent, more loud, and more exasperated in tone, it was hard to avoid a feeling of weariness. To worry that we’ve been here before, and are heading down all too familiar path that leads to disappointment.

It was a worry that there is once again a gulf between the high expectations of Bradford City supporters, plus the unquestionably good intentions from within the club, with that of reality. That best laid plans are too much of a hostage to the fickleness of luck – or a decent referee who can actually spot a blatant hand ball – meaning this season could all too easily go the way of the last few at Valley Parade.

At times here it felt like watching the latest episode of a sitcom that had long since jumped the shark. Where, as the viewer, you realise that – once again – a small misunderstanding was going to lead to supposed hilarity, or that the lead character’s fool-proof, get-rich-quick scheme will fail like all the others. You’ve seen this beginning to the story a few too many times before, and can predict with some confidence how it will end.

It is of course far too early to write off this Bradford City season. There are 40 league games still to play. Plenty of time to get things right. Sign one or two more players. Get others badly missing back from injury. Work out an effective system. This draw with Crewe means City remain unbeaten at home. They’ve yet to concede a league goal on their own turf. They’re only three points off the play offs. Six off the automatics. And Crewe are one of the better sides in League Two. There was certainly no disgrace in this result.

All of these points are completely true and important when seeking much needed perspective. But the problem, filing out of Valley Parade after this dour draw, was there was so few positives to take from this performance. Evidence that City are capable of League Two domination was in very short supply here. Instead, there were worrying cracks to suggest the ability and the wit of this Bradford City squad is short of promotion material. Again.

The second half in particular was troubling. The team appeared to be completely devoid of ideas in how to break down a resolute Crewe side. If there was a plan it appeared to have been forgotten in the heat of the battle. At times the ball was rushed up the field too quickly; at others, the players passed it around too slowly, lacking a purpose. There was no period of sustained home pressure. No sense that Crewe were hanging on. That old cliché stood true: were the game still being played right now, as you read this, City would still not have scored.

You cannot question the attitude or effort of the Bradford City players. They are a likeable and honest bunch, clearly desperate to do well for a public who – they will surely have been warned – do not have infinite patience. There is a commendable commitment to playing football the right way. And it’s an ethos you desperately want to get behind and see succeed.

And yet, faced with the challenge of a well drilled opposition side lining up with 11 men behind the ball, City lacked the intelligence and in-game guile to turn good intentions into three points. And that leaves you with doubts. Not one of the 16,000+ City fans present would we be able to say they enjoyed this.

It might have been different when deep in stoppage time Kian Harratt blasted a shot that was illegally halted by the hand of former City full back Kelvin Mellor, while inches away Vadaine Oliver was wrestled to the ground. Take your pick of which foul to blow up for. Yet the referee, Sunny Singh Gill – son of Jarnail, who is the veteran of many appalling officiating displays at Valley Parade – dismissed both claims. A VAR inquest would have seen a penalty awarded to City, but without such technological support the home players could do no more but forlornly howl at Sunny.

It comes back to leaving yourself a hostage to fortune. Every team needs its luck, but if you’re relying on such moments to win the game you will sometimes get the breaks, but at other times – like these – you’ll be cursing the fact you didn’t. And over the course of the season, you probably won’t achieve a lot. The reality is that City had created barely anything over that second 45 minute period. They had not done enough to earn a slice of luck.

That will worry Mark Hughes, who at the half time break had tried to inject new impetus into his side with the double substitute introduction of Harratt and Jake Young. City had played the usual 4-2-3-1 in the first half and looked pleasing on the eye if lacking in potency. Scott Banks had been the only forward player to do himself justice, setting up Lee Angol early doors with a cross that the City forward headed wide, and going close twice with powerful shots from distance – the second of which smacked back off the crossbar.

But the double substitution did not have the desired effect. Despite Angol being easily City’s worst first half player – at times it felt like he was actively trying to avoid touching the ball by edging to a different part of the pitch every time it headed towards the wide left position he was supposed to be occupying – City were worse after taking him off. They missed the other player subbed, Harry Chapman, despite the summer signing from Blackburn having far from his best game.

Harratt generally joined Andy Cook up front with the pair taking it in turns to drop back and help out in midfield when City didn’t have the ball, which limited Crewe’s (already low) ambitions to attack. But the formation tweak saw City struggle to control the centre of the park. Crewe largely played a 4-5-1, and after half time were successfully able to crowd out Richie Smallwood and Ryan East, the latter failing to carry the same level of influence after a promising first half. East had the joint best pass success rate on the field in the first 45 (94%). In the second half, his success rate dropped to 79%.

Smallwood meanwhile had a second half to forget, raising faint questions that the much trumpeted summer arrival from Hull might not be all that. Smallwood’s start to the season overall has been mixed, with some unquestionably solid displays interjected with others that were not so clever. There’s a lot of expectation on the shoulders of the club captain, and in the second half here especially Hughes would have looked to him to dictate the tone and standards for his team mates to follow. Is he good enough on the ball to set the tempo from deep? The jury is out for the moment.

As Hughes tried to get a tune from his charges, he brought on Oliver and Levi Sutton for Cook and East. Oliver’s greater height in the box attracted plenty of hopeful City crosses, but the Crewe goalkeeper Arthur Okunkwo got some part of his body first to pretty much every attempt. Sutton’s ability to run between the lines is an attractive quality in a stalemate game like this, but he couldn’t make it count. Taking off Cook made sense, but – just like last season – there’s a troubling level of reliance on the City number nine to score when few others seem capable. Cook has six goals already this season – a fantastic effort. The rest of the squad combined? Four goals. Yikes.

Though Crewe’s happiness at the idea of coming away with a point was evident even in the first half, they didn’t just sit back and defend. Courtney Baker-Richardson was a handful up front and found plenty of red shirts willing to join him on the counter attack. Romoney Crichlow and Matty Platt were solid as ever – Crichlow is a real talent and enjoyable to watch. Crewe won six corners and City’s zonal marking system is not quite fully developed yet, leading to some half scares. On another day, Zac Williams would have punished City for leaving him unmarked, but on this occasion the defender’s header was cleared.

Harry Lewis will certainly have busier games but was called into action to produce one excellent save in the second half. And though Crewe had fewer shots on goal and less possession, the threat of a visiting goal remained as credible as City scoring. That is to say unlikely, but not totally out the question.

“We were slow in possession at times and didn’t switch the ball fast enough,” Liam Ridehalgh admitted after the match. Nail. On. Head. For all the passes (551 here over the game), for all the possession (+60% again), it’s all just too lethargic from City. As though you’re watching a slow motion replay rather than live action. There’s a huge, Jamie Walker shaped hole in the attack. It’s just not really working without hm.

“It never gets easier does it?” someone nearby chuckled to another as we headed out of Valley Parade. It’s so true, and it’s why – even though it’s incredibly early in the season – you worry that the pattern is already being set. That we’re going to spend an awful lot of the new few months watching sideways passing and cautious opposition sides packing the midfield and City forwards failing to click and time wasting visiting substitutions and incompetent referees doing nothing to help City’s impotency.

And groans. Lots and lots of groans.

Of course this may all be a prelude to happier, more successful times. No club in this league has a manager with better pedigree than Hughes. His track record shows he can find answers and improve teams. And the transfer window hasn’t yet closed, with a few rumours swirling that City are in the market for one or two exciting loan signings. And this is genuinely a good squad – better, without question, than recent seasons. And that’s got to count for something, right? So absolutely, we do need to think positive thoughts and retain hope that something special is brewing.

But as that guy said, “It never gets easier does it?” Sometimes it feels like this club is cursed. That no matter what it tries, it will never quite come off as intended. They’ll seemingly fix one problem, only to discover the real issue was something else. They’ll set up a well thought-out strategy, but realise when its too late that they didn’t have the right tools to make it work. Aside from a handful of performances that featured a prominent contribution from Ben Richards-Everton, it’s never really looked like the curse will be one that takes City out of the Football League. But it certainly feels like its pinning them down and preventing them from climbing back up and out of League Two.

It’s too soon to tell if the curse is still there or if the appointment of Hughes has broken it. But this kind of result, performance and deflating feeling reminds you a lot of this time last season. And a similar early season period the year before that. And the year before that. And the year before that one too. And that’s what worries most of all right now. That previous unhappy seasons have often begun with afternoons as frustrating as this one. Where you can’t fully decide whether it’s just a bad day at the office, or an indication of limitations that will ultimately doom the team to fail.

The bottom line is City have to improve on this kind of performance. Otherwise, the groans are here to stay.

Categories: Match Reviews

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29 replies

  1. Every word bang on the money again Jason.
    Without fail you always capture the feeling and mood of both the game and the City fan.

  2. Really missing Jamie Walker but today we needed an out and out winger, Cook didn’t get one cross for him today, too much side ways passing.

    • Crosses yesterday were a rare commodity. We have the height but fail to take advantage. Walker may make a difference but in the mean time it has to be addressed. We are easy to defend against. Predictable going forward or sideways. Smallwood was very poor. His passing was abysmal.
      Regarding Angol, he is very hesitant. I guess he is wary of picking up an injury so he is likely to avoid contact.
      I believe we have a promising squad just a minor tweak is needed. Finally, regarding Vernan at Lincoln, he rarely starts. He would have suited Mark’s style. Wish we could have kept Watt. I think Songoo should have more game time.

  3. It’s early days but Hughes appears to be still adjusting to L2 football and especially when it comes to tactics. Firstly, ball possession does not equate to dominance. Secondly, since when is it expected that visiting teams must play an open style of football to accommodate City? My humble suggestion, focus on pace and width.

  4. It’s hard to add anything to such an excellent report that hit just about every nail on the head.

    If this performance had been an isolated instance we’d shrug our shoulders and mutter “these things happen”. Unfortunately, it’s become a recurring theme in the league. I so much wanted the Hughes era to herald a bright new beginning but, if we persist with these tactics, we won’t be going up.

    I’m finding it very difficult to watch this slow, dull, tippy tappy, sideways, sideways, back, forward, sideways, sideways…then repeat. We’re so predictable, the opposition have sussed us so early in the season.

    We can only live in hope!

  5. Why the doom and gloom from the vast majority online?
    Bristol Rovers were 14th in February and still got promoted.
    This league is proving to be bang average again this season. Start a run going at the right time and we will be there. The players have proved they are good enough with performances against Hull and Hartlepool for example (with room for improvement). The crowd was too negative today (the kop and NWC not in sync again) and need to get on board with the hard slog that league 2 usually brings. There will be plenty of ups and downs.

    • I think the difference is we haven’t yet shown signs of how (or who) we can rely on to share the attacking / goal burden. Cook plays well. We win. Cook has a less effective day. We lose or draw. This Based on only 6 league games of course. But not overly confident anyone else is going to step up. Yet.

    • Oh it’s the crowds fault !
      Well, we havent had that one for a while.

      • Did I say it was the crowds fault? We certainly don’t help with our entitled attitude and impatient need for success at times. Pipe down

  6. Spot on again Jason. But maybe the difference this time is that the manager was watching the same game as us. When he says “I didn’t much enjoy the match” and articulately says why, it’s such a refreshing change. From Adams, Bowyer, Hopkins and how many others? Recognise the devil within before conquering it. I’m sure MH is the right man for us.

    • Never mind the managers mentioned, Colin Todd was another. Always watched a different game from me. Let us keep calm, the division, as always is ver poor, so plenty of opportunity.

  7. What a frustrating and dare I say it boring watch that was. No variation, pace or width going forward and no tempo to our play makes for an impotent front line.
    We need to mix it up somehow. Did anyone take a man on and go past them today? Walker and even Eisa may help with that when they eventually come back but how long are they going to be out for?
    Angol isn’t a winger and is wasted on the left hand side whilst over on the right Banks was our best player but needed to make more use of Hallidays overlapping runs rather than just cutting inside with the ball all of the time.
    It’s simply not clicking up at the top end of the pitch and when teams come and sit in a low block like Crewe and Doncaster have done then we need some kind of incision to cut through them because constantly cutting inside, playing a long ball or crossing from deep plays straight into the oppositions hands.

    • Bang on, said it before. We need a Robbie Blake type player. A dribbler who will go at defenders and make them do something.

  8. I agree re Banks cutting inside and shooting when Halliday has made a perfectly timed overlapping run . We have scored from low crosses this year so Banks needs telling to use Halliday .

    • Him coming in and shooting lead to our best attempts over the 90 minutes. Slow build up play lack of players in the box to meet crosses and players out of possession lead to a disappointing performance

  9. Preseason, the general feel was that this was a young team that could take some time. If we were in view of the playoffs 15 games in, then we were on track.

    I see no reason to leave that view

  10. There are 14 new players, it won’t click straight away. We are playing the right way, it just needs tweeking and speeding up. We are very unbalanced out wide, on the right banks cuts in and shoots, on the left angol hides. At times we put in some decent crosses but nobody was there which seems to be due in large parts to having 1 up front and/or the fact that most of the time the cross didn’t come so nobody was expecting it when it came. Our play is very slow, a run is made in behind, the ball is on but we play safe. Eventually, those runs will stop being made if we don’t start playing them in. If we put those balls in behind, Crewe would have been in big trouble. Even the speed of the ball is slow, we aren’t zipping it with intent. Crewe on the odd time they did attack did it with purpose and caused us problems by putting the ball in first time with pace. To play 1 up front at home with teams sitting back doesn’t seem like it will work, it never has before. We are too reliant on cook to score and walker to create. Crichlow, platt and smallwood slow the game right down whilst mostly keeping possession make it easy for the opposition to drop in and get organised.They have to carry the ball into space to draw somebody out and then move the ball quickly. We’ve got to start running with the ball. We look much better than previous seasons, we have a plan, sparky needs time to work out the division and our players, the philosophy is right and sparky will get it right. Anyone who thought we’d be at the top all season needs to come back to reality, it was never going to happen. I’m confident that we will finish higher than the last couple of seasons. We will see progression but we can’t expect that to be winning the league. Its not realistic to finish 16th and next season finish in the top 3. It can happen but usually doesn’t.

  11. Superior journalism and a very fair and balanced appraisal. I can’t help wondering whether we are employing the wrong system for our two big target men – or have the wrong ones for the system. Both Cook and Oliver need crosses. I suspect the latter responds best to aerial crosses. But the players have evidently been drilled to retain possession rather than cross speculatively or play down
    the middle. Trying to play the technical game in the lower divisions has got many an aspiring manager sacked. And it only works if you have far better skill with set pieces than we did yesterday and very mobile fullbacks.

    • Yup Oliver is a very puzzling signing given the Hughes football philosophy. You suspect he would be banging them in for fat Steve at Stevenage.
      Positive is a solid looking keeper( with epic distribution) and back line. Platt was class yesterday and last season we could easily gifted up a goal or two.
      You wonder whether the majority of players have the quality to play the expansive style and you are relying heavily on the full backs for quality crosses which did not arrive.
      It is probably going to be a season of modest improvement it seems

  12. Thank you for your article Jason, really thought provoking.
    Saturday evening, I found myself chewing over the latest result, & began to think about the new Barrow manager, former Halifax Town boss Pete Wild, & what a great job he’s doing in transforming Barrow from relegation favourites into early promotion challengers. All this after taking Halifax to an unlikely National League Play-Off semi final last season. True to say, when Mr Wild was linked with City before Mark Hughes was unveiled as our new boss, I would have been happy to give Pete Wild a chance, having seen what a difference he’d made at our neighbours, I figured he’d earned his chance at a bigger club. So now we find ourselves struggling to beat teams, it would be easy enough for me to start thinking maybe we’d pick up he wrong man once again, despite his illustrious footballing pedigree. But then after dwelling on this for long enough, common sense I’m happy to say, eventually forced it’s way through. Halifax & Barrow are two clubs of a very similar ilk, with similar historical struggles & a similar fan base. An much easier transition for Pete Wild to make, & far easier for him to simply take his Halifax blueprint & copy & paste at Holker Street. Its all about a physical game, played out with a long ball playing 4-4-2 formation. All well & good when you have squad of physical slower players at your disposal. Whereas Bradford City have a squad of players who have a degree of pace & technical ability greater to either Halfax Town, or Barrow (with respect to both). The more I think on all this, the more I’m convincing myself that Sparky has got the tactics right, a possession focused, passing set up suits our players, & does prevent teams in our (terrible) league from scoring goals at VP, which has to be a very good thing. Its true we do find it hard to brake down a we’ll set up defence minded side, as most are who play us at VP, & that’s something that really does need addressing before another season of mediocrity is allowed to take shape. Andy Cooke has found his shooting boots early doors, which is great to see, but sadly even an in form Andy Cook won’t get us into League 1, to my mind. If only we could find another front man with pace, skill, & a natural eye for goal (Naiki Wells springs to mind), promotion is always going to be a bit of a well intentioned pipe dream. That said, much of the jigsaw puzzle that brings success is pretty much there, just that final piece of the puzzle needed I think. But like anything else, easier said than done. Up the Bantams!

    • Keith, I agree with your comments about Peter Wild. Also, like every other L2 club a Nakhi Wells type of player would fit into everyone’s puzzle. My concern is Hughes’ lack of hands-on recruitment experience and adjusting to L2 football. It’s early days but City are struggling to meet my modest expectations of watching entertaining football. Hughes is starting from scratch with virtually no foundation. It’s likely going to take more than one season to gain promotion.

  13. Excellent and fair write up as usual Jason. I agree with everything you’ve wrote.

    I don’t think we played bad yesterday but don’t think we did enough to deserve the win. I think we’ve got the basis of a good team/squad but it does need a bit of tinkering around in terms of both personnel and tactics. The season is a marathon and not a sprint and I’m sure we will have our best season for many years with the odd bump and dose of frustration along the way.

  14. Perfect summary of the way things are , not negative but constructive, my own opinion is its going to be a season of ups and downs and I agree even though early days I also don’t see this side having the success were all hoping for .

  15. I agree it’s far too early to be writing off the season, just as its too early to talk about points off play offs or promotion.

    But after 6 league matches, it’s fair to look at table position as a reliable indicator of current tracking form.and I agree that 10th is a fair summary- better than last year’s end postion and dispiriting to think that right now, they aren’t looking like a team with the formula to out perform 20 other teams. I found the crab football really frustrating,
    with seemingly more concentration on keeping possession than doing anything with it.

    When every season we re- stack the squad, change the manager a couple of times, and still seem to struggle to get the formula, I also reach for the conspiracy theories…is there a 5th columnist who sticks something in the tea, that keeps the DNA on the pitch the same, irrespective of the cast?

    Still, I try to be positive in my social media commentary, and so am still in the camp that this squad still has time to gel, shows a lot of good spirit (ie the Blackburn game), will benefit from a few returns…and will continue to trust in Mark Hughes, who I really like.

    Onwards, upwards (and hopefully less sidewise)..

  16. Panic setting in all ready.Lets look at the positives the Squad is looking stronger than last season, players who would be first choice are out injured,who will make us stronger when they return. To me the club will shift players out this week and we will sign players ,now knowing what we need ‘to strenthen the Squad. Have faith in Mark Hughes he knows what is needed.

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