|Bradford City 1|
|Harrogate Town 0|
Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
As the final whistle sounded, Tyreik Wright collapsed in a heap on the floor, partly in exhaustion but more than anything seemingly in relief. It felt like an awfully long time since the Bradford City forward had struck what proved to be the only goal of the game, and though the air was hardly filled with unbearable tension in those final few minutes, it was so important for City to get over the line. They won a game they badly needed to. And have perhaps put the brakes on a worrying slide.
Wright was not the only City player who fell to the ground at the end. Other players kneeled on the deck, as though they needed a moment to catch their breath after such a vigorous shift. You can fault their quality at times, but for effort and endeavour every single player had given everything here. They’ve played better this season for sure, yet rarely have they looked so unified as a team.
This win really mattered. At times this season it feels like we’re stuck in some tedious repeat of recent disappointing campaigns. (Promising start! Not so brilliant Autumn! Too many dropped points at home! Automatic promotion hopes fade to play offs! Winter defeat to Carlisle! Fall out the play offs!) And so, the usual script surely demanded a dismal home defeat here to keep us firmly on track for an underwhelming January window and February change of manager. Against opponents who have caused so much misery on their previous visits to Valley Parade, here was surely the moment the players buckled under the pressure of a home crowd weary of playing out from the back football. To paraphrase Lenny in the Simpsons, “Get ready everybody, they’re about to do something stupid.”
But there was not a bit of misery. Thanks to Wright’s well-taken goal inside the opening minute, City built themselves a platform to end a run of four straight defeats and chalk up a first Valley Parade success in 103 days. They were comfortably the better side, even though they hardly played their opponents off the park. It wasn’t always pretty, and there were more than a few nerves in the second half, but they won the game. They are back in the play off spots, and those storm clouds have lifted. For now at least.
And that’s where the feeling of relief came for the team. It takes a lot of character and guts to be a successful Bradford City player, something that must have really hit home to the current crop in recent weeks. As defeat has followed defeat of late, the disgruntlement of many supporters has become more evident. Players who haven’t done too much wrong, other than had a couple of bad games, have received some sharp criticism.
It has been over the top, but you can understand why frustrations have risen so quickly. Year after year of on the field disappointment means patience is always in short supply. To be a successful Bradford City player is to accept that you will bear the brunt of past failings.
But if it was deeply uncomfortable to be a Bradford City player at Brunton Park on Boxing Day, here the team got to experience the positive side of this support base. Buoyed by the early goal, Valley Parade produced the best atmosphere in months to help the team complete the job. The North West corner, so often muted or falling out with the Kop of late, provided a much-improved level of noise. The ground shook to the sound of familiar, stirring chants.
It might only be Harrogate, but this was a moment where the team needed help and it felt like everyone came together for 90 minutes. Victory was as much down to the heroics of those on the field as those banging the drums in the stands.
And there was much to be encouraged by. After the loss at Carlisle, Mark Hughes seems to have finally acknowledged that he could no longer stick with the same approach. Making only two changes to the starting XI hardly hinted at revolution, but the formation shift to a 4-3-3/diamond was certainly striking for a manager welded to a 4-2-3-1 set up.
The much-maligned Richie Smallwood and Alex Gilliead were the chief beneficiaries of the tactical shift. With both struggling to provide defensive solidity or creativity as the middle two of the 4-2-3-1, the revised set up allowed Smallwood to focus on protecting the back four and start passing movements rather than being the playmaker. Meanwhile Gilliead was pushed to a wide position that enabled him to run more with the ball, without the fear that losing possession would leave City exposed.
The biggest help to them both was the surprise return from the cold of Levi Sutton, who took up the other wide midfield position. Sutton lacks the technical ability of Smallwood and Gilliead for sure, and he made a few mistakes that didn’t look clever. But his honesty, work ethic and hard yards run was exactly what City needed. Sutton gave the team a heart and soul that has been curiously missing. He ran himself into the ground, only exiting the pitch when he was dead on his feet, having given every drop of energy to the cause.
The other change was Vadaine Oliver coming in up front and Andy Cook rested up, with Wright pushed up front to partner the targetman. Oliver had his best game for the club since his summer arrival. He held the ball up well and won several flick ons. Like Sutton, Oliver is not an aesthetically beautiful player who necessarily fits the Hughes possession-based blueprint. But on a night where ideals had to be partially sacrificed for a small dose of pragmatism, Oliver’s contribution was huge.
And so the diamond worked well, with Wright looking handy higher up the pitch and Harry Chapman enjoying himself just behind the front two. With the cushion of the early goal, City could pick their moments to attack and found space behind a Harrogate side who came to have a go. The Bantams thought they had a second on the half hour mark when Romoney Crichlow’s long range shot was only palmed away by Pete Jameson and Wright tapped home the rebound, but it was disallowed for offside. A tight call.
Harrogate were not without their moments. They had spells in both halves when they got on top, but lacked bite. At half time Simon Weaver switched his charges into a diamond to match City’s formation, and they began to cause problems. When Jack Mouldon sent Luke Armstrong away early in the second half, Harry Lewis was required to produce a brilliant one-on-one block to deny the in-form Town striker. They wouldn’t come as close again, with Matty Platt back on form and Crichlow looking as accomplished as ever. Brad Halliday also had a brilliant game. While Matty Foulds continues to make the left back spot his own.
After recent complaints about ineffective changes, Hughes played his substitute cards well. Abo Eisa was superb after coming on for the exhausted Sutton, the forward showing some real quality on the ball and intelligence in his passing. Cook – no doubt slightly concerned watching how well Oliver was performing – was fired up when he replaced his striker rival, and really put himself about. Yann Songo’o came on for the final 10 minutes to help see out a game that seemed more comfortable than the scoreline suggested. The contributions of the three subs added to the unified feel. This was the epitome of a team effort.
Indeed, the team ethic was the biggest thing tonight. No one was truly outstanding, but there were no passengers either. The revised formation seemed to bring greater balance in responsibilities. We weren’t asking Smallwood and Gilliead to do more than their abilities reasonably allow of them. Every player seemed to know their role and they were really organised both in and out of possession. If anyone really is doubting Hughes then this way the team was coached tonight should provide genuine reasons to keep the faith.
Ultimately this was a victory that can settle down rising tensions on and off the field. City will need to play better in the coming weeks, especially with a run of fixtures against promotion rivals coming up, but with confidence clearly dented by recent events, they needed this sort of victory to bring everyone together again.
It’s unlikely we supporters will look back on tonight as one of the most memorable games of the season, but for the players it might just register as one of the most important. They’ve shown they can win when the pressure is on. They’ve displayed a level of resilience that’s been lacking at Valley Parade for too long. Demonstrated they can find a different way to succeed. And reminded us that the depth of this squad can be a strength.
Now, they need to use this as a springboard.
Categories: Match Reviews