|Stockport County 0|
|Bradford City 0|
Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
Let’s be rational. Getting a 0-0 draw at Stockport County is a decent result. Stockport have been in superb form for months, winning 11 of their last 16 – and four of their last six at home – prior to this scrappy contest with the Bantams. County top the League Two form table, and would have climbed into the play offs at Bradford City’s expense had they won this.
The Bantams were solid and organised at Edgley Park. They largely kept their well-drilled opponents at arm’s length, and ensured Stockport failed to hit the same level of dominant performance they achieved at Valley Parade last October. Given County’s resurgence since that day (29 points from their last 14 games), most people connected with Bradford City would have gladly taken a point here before kick off. And that’s what they got.
But here’s the problem. Being rational is hard to maintain when you’ve just watched a snooze-fest. Football – and football supporting – is an emotional sport. It’s about winning, it’s about losing. It’s rarely getting excited about drawing 0-0 at the home of one your biggest promotion rivals.
At Edgley Park on Tuesday, a sell out Bradford City away following produced one of the flattest atmospheres I can remember. There was barely any chanting. Hardly any noise. We stood passively watching a game of football that failed to offer any hook to grab onto and become engaged with. This was a dull, dull game that generated a detached response. The contrast with the home supporters, who made a superb racket for most of the game, was evident. A unity between County support and team that City are suddenly lacking.
This should have been a cracking Bradford City atmosphere. Under the lights, at a club not far down the road, with plenty in attendance – even the Valley Parade drum was here. But there was nothing on the field to get excited by. Little to get behind. And it’s a worrying indication of the re-emerging disconnect between the club and supporter base. Things are starting to drift. And we’ve been here before, too often, in the recent past.
This would have been a good point if City had shown greater attacking intent, rather than looking so timid and reserved. It’s all become a bit too cautious again. They never really looked like they were going to score here, and that adds to the fact it’s now five away games in a row the Bantams have failed to find the back of the net.
Mark Hughes kept City in the diamond, but with a splash of new faces that make team selection decisions look questionable. Adam Clayton came in for a full debut, playing at the base of the diamond. But to accommodate the experienced midfielder, captain Richie Smallwood was moved to the right side of the four. This was not playing in any way to Smallwood’s strengths, and the team’s overall cohesion suffered as a result.
It was a pretty good debut from Clayton. He broke up the play well, and set up attacks. He is potentially an upgrade on Smallwood, but is he the midfielder that Bradford City have been lacking? It’s felt for months that we’ve needed more of a playmaker to set the tempo and to spray around the ball in the opposition half. The sort of things we’ve been asking Smallwood to do, with little success. The is an issue that Clayton’s arrival does not appear to have fixed.
Then there was the first outing for new left back, Tolaji Bola, who has been signed on loan from Rotherham in a move that saw Matty Foulds depart on loan to Harrogate. There’s been plenty of debate on this reshuffle. For me, I thought Foulds was having a decent season and whilst he is not without his limitations, it didn’t really seem like a priority to renovate this area of the team.
On first showing, Bola is not the improvement on Foulds that was apparently needed. This was never going to be an easy game to make your debut in, and it’s really unfortunate for Bola that Saturday’s home match with Carlisle was called off. But even accepting the difficult circumstances, this was a really poor debut. Bola looked completely off the pace and was caught out so often, whilst going forward he struggled to have any impact. Some are saying it’s the worst City debut performance they can remember and that’s probably a bit too harsh, but it’s a reflection of just how much the 24-year-old player struggled.
It feels like the Bola/Foulds situation is a risky move by Hughes because you’re replacing a decent, competent left back with someone who prior to last night had only ever made 12 senior league starts in his career (backed up by Liam Ridehalgh, who is consistently having injury issues). Let’s not write him off just yet, but the kindest thing you can say right now is that Bola can only get better. And if he doesn’t, Hughes’ judgement is going to be severely questioned.
As it is right now over his choice of forwards. Andy Cook once again remained on the bench here, with Hughes opting for a Vadaine Oliver/Dara Costelloe partnership. If it felt a very debatable call before the game, nothing that happened over the 90 minutes justified Hughes’ decision.
Costelloe was completely anonymous and it’s confusing how he was walked straight into the team rather than being given time to settle and make an impact from the bench. Oliver was below par and offered little all night. Cook remained sidelined until the 82nd minute. When he did come on, he made more of an impact than Oliver.
Hughes has talked recently about how Cook is still in his plans, and that he wanted to give the forward a mid-season break to avoid the risk of a repeat of last season, where the 32-year-old’s form badly dropped off. There’s a logic there for sure, and Oliver has in the main done pretty well over these past five games. But City are not scoring enough without Cook. They need their top scorer back in the side.
With Saturday’s trip to Walsall postponed due to the Saddlers’ FA Cup involvement, City don’t play again now until the transfer window closes. Hughes has strongly stated he won’t let Cook leave, but the club are clearly at risk of losing his services given he’s out of contract in the summer and suddenly out the team. It’s going to be an interesting few days. Cook ended the night with a bloody nose that apparently puts him in doubt for City’s next game against Mansfield. They need to him to stay. They need him fit. Break time is over, Cook must start matches.
Whether it was formation or personnel, City just never clicked as an attacking force here. Abo Eisa was below his recent high standards, and Alex Gilliead was the only forward player to perform well. Matt Derbyshire finally made his debut off the bench, replacing Costelloe, and showed some really nice touches. But City chances on goal were few and far between all evening.
Stockport certainly had the better opportunities. Just after half time, they had a spell of pressure where they forced several corners and Harry Lewis made one striking save with his head. But City weathered the storm, and they looked relatively comfortable in the closing stages. You expected Stockport to up it towards the end, but they never found top gear themselves. Credit to City’s defence, with Matty Platt, Romoney Crichlow and Brad Halliday back to their best, but these were crumbs of comfort to an underwhelmed City away following.
Hughes rightfully highlighted a first half penalty incident where Gillead was tripped in the box. The referee Martin Coy, who had a largely good game, waved away what looked a really credible appeal. If you compare the incident to some of the penalties City have conceded this season, not least the Rochdale one, it’s hard to avoid joining Hughes in crying conspiracy. But when you’re relying on such borderline moments to go your way in order to win matches, you’re leaving yourself too much of a hostage to fortune.
And that’s the problem. There just hasn’t been enough of an attacking threat from Bradford City lately. Only 10 shots on target over the last three games. One goal in that time. When you’re so limited in front of goal, you’re too dependent on fine margins going your way.
Hughes has the tools to be make City more of an attacking force. To be more dominant in matches. To let the handbrake off. Even with a few injuries, his squad is so strong that he could leave Harry Chapman and Dion Pereira out of the matchday squad completely. He can let Jake Young go out on loan to Barrow and Lee Angol – a key player last season, in Derek Adams’ eyes – depart to Sutton. Yet Hughes seems unwilling to trust in the midfield and forward players he has. The risks taken in this January window are not being mirrored in the approach on the pitch.
It’s now just five wins in the last 19 games. That’s a worry. Especially as the early indications are that the January transfer activity is not shifting the dial upwards. Where is the spark coming from to get the club going forwards again? Where is the promising, attractive football of earlier this season? And why does it feel like we’ve adopted a scarcity mindset of just trying to hold onto what we have?
But let’s bring back in rational thought here. If everything about this season so far feels a little too familiar to recent, failed campaigns, then we can predict with some accuracy what’s to come next. Hughes’ popularity has taken a hit of late. And there’s every chance we’re soon going down a route that leads to a change of manager.
I really, really hope we don’t.
Football managers deserve to come under scrutiny at all times. Hughes has some fabulous achievements in the game, including as manager, but that doesn’t absolve him of criticism at Valley Parade. There’s quite a few things to feel disappointed by with Hughes of late. For the resources he has, and the experience he brings, more is justifiably expected.
However, I really hope we stick with him. Even if we don’t get promoted this season, there’s no question we are in a forwards direction from where we have been. Despite some pretty significant questions about recruitment of late, the overall model is delivering a better standard of player and there’s plenty to build on – no matter what division City are in next season.
Maybe the rate of progress is slower than we’d like. Maybe it’s still an underachievement considering the resources available. But the route of sacking managers every February has not proved successful. Resetting every 12 months isn’t working. We have to give managers more time. Especially if their qualities outweigh their minus points.
And I think that’s the case with Hughes. Things are not good enough right now, but the foundations are visible and, in time, there’s every reason to believe he can deliver success. Hopefully, that’s still this season – City are in a good position even with recent results. But even if we fall short and have to again next year, this feels like the right path. We need to build up the club again, and that comes from sticking to a longer-term plan.
Still, that’s down to Hughes to prove himself to a public that’s beginning to be sceptial. The reality is that – like this dull, 0-0 stalemate – we’re not really going backwards or forwards. We can, and should, be doing better. It’s time to be more positive in our approach on the field. To pick the best XI players for the best formation – rather than the square pegs and struggling loanees selection of this game at least – and to start scoring goals.
More than anything else, it’s time to get back to giving us supporters something we can really get behind.
Categories: Match Reviews