|Tranmere Rovers 1|
|Bradford City 2|
Words and images by Jason McKeown
For a scary moment there, history was threatening to repeat itself. It was early into the second half, Tranmere Rovers had just equalised, and they were pushing Bradford City back, hitting the post in the midst of a flurry of dominance.
The home crowd had its tails up. City could not keep the ball. And flashbacks of being in the Cow Shed away stand, in this stadium, on a Tuesday night, watching the Bantams lose control of a game they were dominating, came flooding back.
It was 10 months ago, here, that City lost in such dismal circumstances, and where – Levi Sutton aside – the players were booed off at full time by angry away fans. After the game, the then-manager Derek Adams declared, “We don’t have enough winners in our side.” (And yes, the Scot quickly made clear, to anyone who might have doubted for one second, that unlike most of his players, he, himself, was a winner.)
So that was the path we were heading down last night. Not, I don’t think, to a Mark Hughes post-match meltdown, but nevertheless to a morale-damaging defeat from a game that had started so well. For the 15 minutes both before and after half time, Tranmere were in the ascendency. City looked to be on the ropes, the dam about to burst. They were wobbling. And déjà vu hung heavily in the air.
But instead, we got a very different outcome. Aided by two effective substitutions, City quietly clawed back control of the game. They plugged the gaps that were appearing and remembered how to pass the ball effectively. They visibly calmed each other down and regained their composure. They began to probe. And it all lead to Andy Cook getting in between two defenders to head home a winner in front of an ecstatic away following.
If you’re a fan of omens you’ll have enjoyed this. Where here last season City stumbled badly and unwittingly display a lack of game management and courage – weaknesses that ultimately doomed them to another season of failure – here they got through a tough night and earned a valuable victory. It is early, early days – but these are the kind of games promotion-winning sides emerge from with three points. And they are certainly the kind of games Bradford City sides of recent seasons have habitually lost.
The class of 2022/23 absorbed some blows but found a way. And that bodes really well for the battles ahead.
On a night where we’re able to come together to collectively pay our respects to the late Queen – a minute’s silence was observed impeccably, and quite a few men and women around me were shedding tears – it’s worth reflecting on some words of wisdom from the great lady herself. “When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat,” her majesty once said. “Instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.” I doubt, when she said these words, the Queen was referring to an underachieving fourth division team, but it’s an inspirational philosophy that Hughes’ charges certainly lived up to here.
There was a lot to enjoy about a game where City started and ended really strongly. There’s a good case to make that the first 35 minutes was the best the Bantams have played this season, at least in the league. They got the perfect start when after only three minutes Cook was left free in the area to head home Richie Smallwood’s corner. The set piece had come after a Dion Pereira shot from distance was deflected behind – an early marker of the positive City intent that was quickly rewarded.
During that first half, City were completely in control with Tranmere failing register a single attempt on goal until the 36th minute. Alex Gilliead’s return made a huge difference, not just in solving the issue of who can sit in effectively alongside Smallwood, but in lifting the Bradford City captain’s own performance to a level that he’d been well short of in recent weeks. Gilliead might not be the obvious answer to the defensive midfield conundrum of the 4-2-3-1 system, but he is making that position his own and his influence on the team is really growing. A winger/attacker who never seemed to score or assist suddenly has a new vocation – and his undoubted potential is suddenly clicking into place.
“I think first half we were well off the tempo,” admitted Tranmere manager Micky Mellon. That’s probably an understatement, but nevertheless in the 10 minutes before the break the home side came back into it. Tranmere were physical from the off, with Elliott Nevin and Kane Hemmings winning plenty of high balls into the City box. Defensively Tranmere were also strong. Jake Young had a night to forget and just couldn’t get anything out of the impressive Dynel Simeu and Josh Dacres-Cogley. Pereira was clattered midway through the first half and hobbled for a few minutes. Mentally he never recovered.
The struggles of Young, Pereira and Harry Chapman – once again picked as number 10, once again not looking suited for the role – saw City lose momentum. They were hanging on in the moments before the break, and that continued after the interval.
After City had scored just three minutes into the first half, Tranmere took all of four minutes of the second 45 to equalise. Hemmings produced a beautiful curling shot into the net after Paul Lewis played him into space. The Bantams argued there was a foul in the build up – missed by referee Adam Herczeg, who all night got a lot more wrong than he got right.
That was the moment where we were began reliving past horrors. City’s first half tail off continued and they were incredibly poor at keeping the ball. Romoney Crichlow had another difficult night and the physical challenge posed by Tranmere tested his normal composure. Brad Halliday also had some tricky moments. But the entire back four – and Smallwood and Gilliead – were really hampered by the ineffectiveness of the trio behind Cook. The defensive players would get blocks in, clear their lines or work the ball forwards, only to see it come straight back because no one higher up the pitch could keep possession.
In a growing of storm of Bradford City difficulty, Matthew Platt and Matty Foulds deserve credit for really strong performances.
And that really counted for something. Because, yes, this period of the game was far from City’s finest hour this season. The away following’s positive enthusiasm gave way to groan and moans, as for a time the City performance seemed to get worse by the minute. But they dug in. That matters. Because it’s so rare we’ve seen that from Bradford City in recent years. You can’t play well every minute of every game. Those who are celebrating in May are the teams that get through tough spells.
The other big difference came from the sidelines. And comparisons with last season are especially apt here. Let’s remind ourselves of the substitutes bench Adams had at Prenton Park last season, where as City came under the cosh he needed options to stem the tide. Sam Hornby, Matty Foulds, Callum Cooke, Alex Gilliead, Gareth Evans, Abo Eisa (just back from a long injury lay off) and Theo Robinson. It’s not a terrible bench, granted, but it’s not as strong as Hughes’ this time around. Colin Doyle, Timi Odusina, Yann Songo’o, Levi Sutton, Vadaine Oliver, Kian Harratt and Tyreik Wright. And that’s before you consider there wasn’t even room on the bench for Scott Banks and Lee Angol.
Here, as it was in the last game against Walsall, Hughes was able to make effective changes. Substitutes that actually made City better, not worse. The manager is able to assess the pattern of a game and where it might not be going so well, and he has options sat behind him on the bench who can enable him to adapt the game plan.
That’s exactly what happened here. First Wright came on for Young. After a tentative couple of minutes, Wright began to find space and joy that Young had not managed, stretching a Tranmere back five that had been able to successfully hold its ground. Then – and perhaps less obvious to those of us watching – he brought on Sutton for Pereira. It gave City that bit more solidity in the middle of the park. Gilliead and Smallwood – up against a midfield three – had a bit more support. Halliday had an outlet. Pereira – it must be said – had started hiding. Sutton is nowhere near as good a player technically as Pereira – but he is brave, willing to run and tackle.
And so subtly, and without much fanfare, the balance of the game started to change. The Tranmere threat began to lessen, and City were keeping the ball in the final third. Cue Foulds sending over a terrific cross that Cook was able to bury. The determination of the City striker to get their first, and the power he got behind the header, was commendable. Immediately behind the net Cook had just found the back of, us City fans collectively lost our minds in celebrating a really big goal.
There is so, so much to say about Cook. The guy was written off by many in the summer. His ability and fitness questioned. As Hughes raised the bar, a seemingly more limited striker like Cook was surely on borrowed time. Oliver came through the door, and you suspected that – if Cook wanted to go – there wouldn’t be much resistance to him finding another club. As Cook himself admitted of how out of shape he became last season, “I should never have got the way I did. I can only blame myself for that.” And his lack of form? “Last year we didn’t have as good a competition for places…If you’re underperforming and there’s nobody to take your place, then you’re (still) going to play.”
Cook has put a rocket up his own backside. He had a point to prove. To Hughes, to the new strikers who’ve come into the building, to fans who were getting on his back, but more than anything to himself. And, wow, is he doing that. Nine goals in 10 games so far. He’s scored as many goals by September this time as he’d managed by mid-January last season. “Andy Cook will once again get the headlines for his goals but he should get a mention for his general play as well,” added Hughes.
And the other thing about Cook – he loves playing against his old clubs. Four of his six league goals so far have come against teams who used to employ him. Barrow and Walsall have been hit by the law of the ex, but he unleashed a different kind of pain on Tranmere here. Even if he didn’t want to celebrate his first goal in front of the home end.
This was actually Cook’s first return to Prenton Park since he left the club in the summer of 2018 – the last time most of these Tranmere fans saw Cook, he was netting one of the two goals at Wembley that helped Rovers win promotion back to the Football League. How heartbreaking this must have been for the Tranmere faithful to welcome back a hero, and see him play absolutely brilliantly once again – only for the opposition.
On this slaying-of-former-clubs-who-dared-to-employ-me form, Mansfield must be relieved Saturday’s reunion with Cook was called off. But he’s not going away and the Stags are going to have to deal with him at some point. Ditto Grimsby and Carlisle, two of Cook’s other former clubs. In the words of Homer Simpson, “That’s for employing me for eight years!”
With the lead restored City kept control of the game. Their in-game management during the final 15 minutes was superb – and not what we’re used to in recent times. They survived Crichlow going off injured with Yann Songo’o slotting in well. Wright and Chapman both could and perhaps should have made it 3-1.
Tranmere kept going and ended the game screaming at Herczeg they should have had a penalty, just as he blew the full time whistle. “I personally thought it was a clear handball,” grumbled Simeu. Still, on the balance of the 90 minutes, the better team triumphed. “It’s a sore one for us,” grimaced Mellon.
As for City, the form guide makes for really encouraging reading. It’s back-to-back league wins for the first time this season. Three straight victories, if you include the Pizza Cup win over Sheffield Wednesday. Four wins in five. Two league defeats in eight. Sixth in a League Two table that is now beginning to take shape.
Back to the wise words of the recently deceased Queen Elizabeth II. “There are long periods when life seems a small, dull round, a petty business with no point, and then suddenly we are caught up in some great event that gives us a glimpse of the solid and durable foundations of our existence.” How true, Ma’am, and very relatable to Bradford City right now.
At the full time whistle, and as players and coaching staff came over to the away end, and the celebratory chants echoed around Prenton Park, this did feel like a great event. And though the catalogue of false dawns means that no one should get carried away, it feels like we’re on the edge of something special.
Those foundations genuinely do appear, as the Queen would say, more solid and durable. All the lights on the dashboard are flashing green, as you survey a squad packed full of depth, talent and courage, led by a manager with a brilliant pedigree, constructed by a head of recruitment, Stephen Gent, who is highly rated in the game, and overseen by a CEO, Ryan Sparks, who now has a depth of experience to fix this struggling club. “You can see we’re starting to come together as a group,” beamed Hughes.
Now, unlike last time in this part of the world, Bradford City appear to have “enough winners in our side”. And that’s why history didn’t repeat itself after all.
Categories: Match Reviews