|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