|Bradford City 3|
|Cook 6+56, Wright 62|
Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
And that is what we call making a statement. This was probably Bradford City’s most complete performance of the season so far, as they calmly and methodically deconstructed a buoyant Stevenage side that had turned up to Valley Parade sitting second in the fledgling League Two table.
Stevenage would end the afternoon looking utterly demoralised. They had swung a few punches and demonstrated their calibre. But ultimately they could not live with a Bradford City team who have momentum running through their veins. Confidence is soaring within those wearing claret and amber. They’re really starting to hit their stride.
It was a performance first and foremost dripping in the character of the manager Mark Hughes. Ever since he took charge last February – with City on a downwards spiral, and supporter discontent growing towards everyone involved with the club – he’s just calmed everything down. Introduced greater professionalism. Raised the standards in a way that has invited others to follow. He’s transformed Bradford City, whilst encouraging everyone to look into the mirror and remember just what a special football club this is.
Hughes exuberates a quiet, measured assurance. And it was personified in the way his team achieved this handsome win. There is positive, attacking endeavour. But it sits within a framework of clear organisation and direction. The team is working really hard on and off the ball. Getting the foundations right. Ensuring, first and foremost, they are tough to beat. And only then is the flair allowed to flourish.
What it means is we’re not seeing 90 minutes of non stop attacks. Derek Adams’ City were registering more shots on goal. Stuart McCall was encouraging more bodies to get forward. But Hughes seems to be instilling a level intelligence in his team that encourages them to recognise the in-game moments of when to turn up the tempo. How to go from slow, seemingly harmless build up play at the back into fast, cutting edge attacks. “At some point our football will always come through and will effect the opposition,” Hughes summarised.
Here, like against Tranmere on Tuesday, they struck early. From their first attack, Scott Banks had forced a terrific point blank save from Taye Ashby-Hammond. But no one is stopping City for long right now, especially with their red-hot number nine. From the resultant Richie Smallwood corner, Andy Cook got free of Dan Sweeney – who had a shocker of an afternoon – and headed home. Lift off.
Stevenage did not buckle and showed the quality that has helped them start the season so strongly. They were very organised – you’d expect a Steve Evans team to be – and they adopted a high press to counter City’s usual tactic of playing out from the back. That did ask some questions of Timi Odusina – finally making his Bantams league debut in place of the injured Romoney Crichlow – and Matty Platt. But the centre back pairing were terrific. What a signing Platt is proving to be. A heir to the Rory McArdle throne of no nonsense defender who can produce a useful diagonal long pass.
The visitors created chances, with the brilliant Harry Lewis making two important first half saves. They were direct – very direct – with the long throw into the box a dangerous weapon. But those strong foundations held firm. Hughes rightly gets a lot of praise for the more attractive style of play he’s implemented, but he’s also made City notably stronger at the back. This would ultimately prove to be a fourth league clean sheet in five on home soil. It’s almost six months to the day since a visiting side scored more than one goal at Valley Parade. That was also the last time they were beaten at home in the league.
That defensive solidity enabled Hughes and City to edge the tactical battle. Evans and Stevenage lined up in a 3-4-1-2, but with the again-excellent Alex Gilliead paired with the back-on-form Smallwood, City’s middle two edged the Stevenage midfield that included a returning Jake Reeves.
And this allowed City’s forward players to find huge gaps in front of Stevenage’s back five. Harry Chapman – who hasn’t looked fully suited to the number 10 role – revelled in the space and had his best game for weeks. Tyreik Wright made a full debut in place of the injured Dion Pereira. The decision to loan him from Villa is looking inspired. Wright has the ability to drag defenders here and there, as he glides past them through cunning and trickery. He makes good decisions, which is not something you can always say about a winger. Banks was brought back in and also played well.
Nevertheless, early in the second half the game remained on a knife edge. Stevenage, now attacking the Kop end, pressed. There were a few mistakes, such as a needless Cook handball on the edge of his box that gave Stevenage a free kick in a really dangerous position. City are not perfect yet, and seem to have spells in every game where they dip. This time, at least, it went unpunished.
And for that, Stevenage – and Evans especially – must take a share of the blame. They had a long throw in chance in a dangerous position, and everyone prepared for another missile into the City box. Yet the taker, Saxon Earley, produced a foul throw. The referee, Lee Swabey, awarded a throw in to City, and the red mist descended on the Stevenage bench.
A few moments later, Swabey stopped play to address the angry behaviour of Evans and his assistant Paul Raynor, who gestured about the throw in. They wouldn’t stop, eventually causing Swabey to issue them a yellow card. But more crucially the pair’s behaviour had successfully re-awoken a quiet Valley Parade crowd. The atmosphere was stoked up, and the home players responded. Within a matter of minutes, City would go 2-0 up.
The build up to the goal began when Odusina showed great intent to get in first for a 50-50 ball and played a pass to Smallwood, who sent Wright away with a delightful through-ball out wide. Wright really had to show his pace to keep the ball in, and he sent over a top quality low cross that Cook was able to tap home. 11 appearances this season for Cook now, 11 goals. He’s the only striker in the country almost keeping pace with the incredible Erling Haaland at Manchester City. It’s now four goals in a week for Cook, who is in the form of his life.
And the game was fully sealed just after the hour when Banks picked out Wright, who cut inside and hit a fierce low drive that deflected into the back of the net. Stevenage were beaten. Their composure, at 1-0 down, had suggested they could earn something from the long trip north. But Evans more than anyone should know just what a lighting rod he is inside this stadium. He and Raynor’s over the top behaviour aided City greatly.
At 3-0 up, the chance was there to run riot and score more goals. But this is not what Hughes is about. Sure, he’d have liked more goals. But the priority was to see out the commanding lead. Control the tempo. Play on the counter attack. Create chances, but not at the risk of giving the opposition hope of coming back. Those final 28 minutes were an excellent demonstration of thoughtful game management and seeing a match out. Stevenage never looked like coming back. And City, with sub Vadaine Oliver belatedly impressing, had a couple of chances to make it four.
The only blotch was the late dismissal of Brad Halliday. Already on a booking, the City right back produced a crude and needless challenge near the corner flag at the end of the pitch the Bantams were attacking. A second yellow ensued. A real shame for Halliday, who will serve a one-game ban, just as he’s settling down and showing some decent form. Still, this very strong squad will more than cope – they were without six injured players here and you wouldn’t have known it. Luke Hendrie will step up and deserves more game time.
So City are up to fifth, three points off the automatics. Win next week at home to Wimbledon, and they’ll achieve a perfect calendar month of winning every single match. “We’re really looking forward to every game at the moment,” declared Hughes. “The lads are stepping up when they have the opportunity. They’re asking questions of me, which I want. The strength that we have in depth is going to be crucial.”
There’s a long, long, long way to go. But ever since City’s demotion to League Two, they’ve habitually failed to live up to the hype. The biggest club in the division they may be, but their performances have struck fear into no one. A 9th place finish followed by a 15th and last season’s 14th. Pre-season promotion favourite tags routinely made to look foolish.
But is the tide turning? As Hughes himself declared, “I think people will look at that result today and think, goodness me, that’s a good result for Bradford.”
Absolutely. Others will definitely sit up and take notice of this win. One that firmly suggests there is real substance this time around. And that, finally, Bradford City is getting its act together. Indeed, everything seems to be in place for success at Valley Parade this season. And that’s thanks to the inspirational management of someone who you can still scarcely believe is coaching at this level.
Categories: Match Reviews