By Jason McKeown
Vadaine Oliver’s 95th minute equaliser for Bradford City on Saturday was beautifully taken. As Matty Foulds charged forwards onto a through pass outwide and prepared to swing over his cross, the big striker stuck his hand in the air to signal where he wanted it to go, and then waited patiently for the right moment to sidestep his marker, Jack Currie, before powering the ball into the back of the net. Oliver hung in the air as he waited for the cross to reach him. That made the power and direction he got behind the header even more impressive. Currie fell to the ground in despair knowing that one split second of hesitation had cost him and his team.
If you want to apply a positive spin to City’s lacklustre display against the Dons – and, after four straight wins, it seems fair to take a charitable approach – you could say that the direction of the match worked out in a way that gave Oliver the near-perfect scenario. For the summer signing to score his first goal for the Bantams in such dramatic fashion could make a real difference to the player’s fortunes this season. As Oliver said about his goal after the match, “For it to mean so much is massive.”
Oliver had come on as a sub in each of the City’s previous three league victories. It would have been nice if he’d broken his duck late on in one of those games, but would hardly have been a pivotal moment. In the circumstances of the scoreline, at the moment Oliver entered the field in those three last games, him going onto score would have been little more than a footnote. Yet his goal against Wimbledon was a game-changing contribution. Without it, the mood around the club would have looked very different. It meant Oliver elevated himself from supporting cast member to hero of the hour. And that should do so much for his confidence.
Because let’s face it, up until then, it hasn’t been a good start to life at Valley Parade for Oliver. He’s found himself exchanging a role of the main man at Gillingham to squad member at City, cast into the shadows behind the forward he might even have been brought in to replace. As career moves go, Oliver must have spent more than a few moments of late wondering just what he had done. The three-year deal signed to become a Bantam weighing heavily.
It reminds me of the mid-2000s reality TV show, Wife Swap. The premise of which is two mothers trade lives for a week, and learn loads about what it’s like to be part of a very different family, living in a very different environment.
The narrative of each episode became wearily familiar. You’d be introduced to a woman who is obsessed with maintaining a spotless household, whilst applying strict discipline in the way she and her husband raised their children. Inevitably she’d have to spend a week at a feral family, where the kids stayed up all night, swore and misbehaved. All while dirty pots filled the sink. The look of shock, horror and panic on the poor woman’s face would dominate the first half of the episode.
“Hi my name’s Vadaine. I’m a 6 foot 2 inch striker who has just scored a ton of goals for a League One side that play ultra-direct. I’ve won the most aerial challenges in the league. I’m getting linked with Championship clubs. Knock the ball up to my head and I will thrive!” Well Vadaine, we’re going to send you to… a League Two club who loves playing possession based football, passing it around really slowly at the back, and keeping it on the ground. Enjoy!
And that’s been the problem up until now. Bradford City under Mark Hughes is not a team with a desire to play in a way that suits Oliver’s obvious strengths. They play patient, technical football. They need a striker who can get involved in link up play, run the channels and be good with their feet. Early doors when he played, Oliver’s body language said a lot about what he thought. If he was wondering why on earth City had wanted to sign him, he wasn’t the only one. “It’s a difficult adjustment for me,” he said at the weekend. “I’m not going to act like it isn’t.”
But as ardent Wife Swap viewers will recall, midway through the week of living with another family, the woman gets to introduce their own rules. Put together a list of demands for how they believe things should be done, which the rest of their temporary family must grudgingly adhere to. And at 2-1 down to Wimbledon on Saturday, and with City looking increasingly desperate, that’s exactly what Oliver got to do.
Oliver’s list of rules was short and brief. This was the middle of the football match with the clock running down, after all, so he didn’t exactly have time to ponder and scribble down much. In fact, he had only one rule that his team-mates – and manager – had to follow.
Get it in the mixer.
So in those closing stages, we saw Bradford City play in a way that was partly designed to get the best out of Oliver. No more knocking it around slowly at the back. No more neat little passes in midfield. Hoof the ball forwards. As quickly as possible. Aim for Oliver’s head. No matter where you are on the pitch.
That’s exactly what City did, and Oliver flourished. Between the 86th minute and final whistle alone, Oliver was involved in eight aerial challenges and won five of them. Even on the occasions a Wimbledon head got there first, the pressure Oliver had applied enabled City to win second balls and attack. It helped the Bantams to get the ball up the pitch and make it stick. It allowed them to get around a Wimbledon midfield five that was winning the battle for the middle of the park.
This was not the calm, measured football we’ve been used to all season from City. And, with just seconds left, it looked doomed to end in defeat. But that’s why Oliver’s goal mattered so much. It was vindication for forgoing principles. Evidence that there is more than one way to skin a cat. That City’s squad has the versatility to succeed in different ways. That there was a reason for signing Oliver after all.
It’s so important City have Oliver in goalscoring form. Andy Cook has done amazing things this season and will surely continue to do so. But too often at Valley Parade we’ve had one regular goalscorer and struggled through our heavy reliance on their shoulders. Think Dean Windass’ second spell at City, Charlie Wyke in 2017/18, and, of course, Andy Cook himself last season.
Prior to Saturday, Cook has scored eight of City’s 14 league goals. Jake Young was the only other Bantam to have registered more than one League Two goal. Everyone absolutely loves what Cook is doing, but there has been a real risk of having too much dependency on the City number nine.
So hopefully Oliver’s belated getting off the mark, and the circumstances of the goal, will see confidence pouring through his veins. It isn’t going to suddenly put him in the team, not with Hughes’ clear preference to play 4-2-3-1. But just as Cook has used the presence of Oliver as motivation to find the best form of his Bantams career, Oliver must also use the red-hot form of Cook as incentive to dig in and raise his game even higher. Because what Saturday showed to Oliver – and, indeed, to everyone connected with the club – is that he has a lot more to offer than mere supporting cast member. It also proved that Hughes is able to successfully solve problems and find solutions that put results over style.
Wife Swap would always end in a pretty formulaic, cheesy way. The wife who had been too clean-obsessed and strict with their kids would say they’ve now learned the importance of having fun, so would tone it down. And the wild family she’d just left would admit they can now see the value of having a bit more organisation and discipline in their lives. Tune in next week folks, for a woman who lives in the city and has never been to the countryside. You’ll never guess what type of family we’re sending her to stay with…
Hopefully, Oliver and City can have a similarly happy ending to their story. That for Oliver, playing under Hughes, and with a team of technically-minded footballers, helps him learn to become an even better all-round player. And, perhaps for Hughes and City, there’s an important lesson too. That for all the fine ideals of playing football the right way, sometimes it pays to just get up the big man.