Not brilliant, but Bradford City get the job done to strengthen their promotion hopes

Bradford City 2
Walker 43, Cook 74
Tranmere Rovers 0

Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)

In the end Bradford City’s toughest opponents on the night were not a dishevelled Tranmere Rovers side, but the Valley Parade public itself. The Bantams edged their way to an important victory that means the gap to the automatic promotion places seems bridgeable once more. Yet the players succeeded under the pressure of a home faithful unconvinced by their methods, and right on the edge of open revolt.

It was a strange game, best summarised by the bizarre way in which the Tranmere Rovers goalkeeper, Mateusz Hewelt, somehow allowed a tame Andy Cook header to float over his head and into the net in the 74th minute, to clinch the three points. City ultimately won with ease, but yet it felt like they had made harder work of it than needed to be case. And that contributed to the uneasy atmosphere.

There is a clear disparity between the way the team is told to play and what many supporters want to see. It’s already led to some flash points over recent weeks, but here it threatened to spill over and become a real problem.

In the lead up to both Jamie Walker and Cook’s goals, the mood was especially tense. Anger was rising over City’s habit of passing the ball around too often in their own half. Of players turning backwards and looking to play it to a team-mate behind them, instead of aiming to go forward. It’s a patient approach, increasingly met with impatience. The tension released in a timely fashion when Walker and Cook struck. But the fact it’s bubbling so close to the surface is a concern.

You can see the argument from both sides. It’s fair to say that Mark Hughes wants his team to take and retain a high degree of control in matches. To dominate the ball, and thereby keep your opponent at something of an arm’s length. After the turgid, direct style of Derek Adams and Gary Bowyer in recent years, Hughes’ principles of playing attractive football are laudable. And when City get it right – as they showed in flashes here – they are very good to watch.

But that desire to have so much control does come with a level of cautiousness that can make for a challenging watch. It can be dull, and frankly for spells in this game it was boring. The play it out from the back style makes City slower, and at times it seems like they’re trying to operate with the handbrake on. Any opponent who packs the midfield and defence – as Tranmere did out of possession – will be able to neuter City and make them look very pedestrian. Tranmere’s only real success of the night were spells where they did just that.

When you have the quality that City possess, you’re always going to produce moments. And not for the first time this season, the moments that City did conjure up here got them over the line. Still, with a bit more tempo, a bit more bravery, and a bit more boldness, this group of players could seemingly be wiping the floor on everyone they come up against. The fact they don’t get to these levels is both a mystery and a frustration.

In games like this, it doesn’t really matter. Tranmere produced arguably the worst visitor performance seen at Valley Parade all season. The fact they had only 38% of the ball, won zero corners, and failed to register a single shot on target told its own story.

Micky Mellon’s only attacking plan, it seemed, was to try and explore the vulnerabilities that City’s diamond formation enforces on its own full backs, with efforts to double up on Brad Halliday and Liam Ridehalgh. And twice in the first half Ethan Bristow got to the byline and delivered brilliant dangerous crosses that left City floundering. They were begging to be tapped home by a Tranmere player, but no one could make contact. This was as good as it got from a very limited Rovers side.

That gave City the initiative that for long spells in the first half especially they seemed to be on the edge of taking, but they kept falling short of grasping the mantle. The diamond set-up is really suited for Adam Clayton in bringing the ball forward to start attacks, but with Alex Gilliead not reaching his recent heights and Richie Smallwood’s confidence still looking a little suspect, City struggled to play through a more rigid Tranmere 4-4-2.

That’s why, as the minutes ticked by and with City barely registering a shot, the dissent in the stands grew. Passes between Harry Lewis, Matty Platt, Sam Stubbs, Ridehalgh and Halliday attracted more ire. The groans became louder.

It’s tough on these players, who are only doing what their manager asks. And on occasions they did go long, Tranmere quickly won back possession. The biggest failing is ultimately the lack of movement ahead. When Platt and co have the ball and look up the pitch, all they can see are static City midfielders and forwards, closely marked and looking reluctant to make any runs that could present a genuine option. So they do turn left or right and play the ball along. The anger rises in the stands, but ahead of them the passing options remain limited.

This is the area where City must improve.

Walker (plus Clayton) was the main exception to this. The Scot is back up and running now, and showed much greater energy and purpose. At times he even came back to the City penalty area to show for a pass, as he was so keen to be involved. Hughes needs more players to follow Walker’s lead. To be more courageous.

It was fitting that Walker opened the scoring and the goal itself underlined the rewards that are there when City do step up the tempo. The ball was played around the edge of the Tranmere box and Ridehalgh slipped it inside to Smallwood. The City captain produced a superb return pass that sent Ridehalgh away with a chance to cross, and the left back’s ball was met by Walker, who cut inside. His low shot deflected past Hewelt for 1-0. In an instant, rising anger in the crowd gave way to a booming chant of Mark Hughes’ Bradford Army. Another example of how the mood was on a knife-edge.

The goal, just before half time, set City up nicely and allowed them to shake off the disappointment of losing Matty Derbyshire to injury. Walker too seemed to be struggling after enduring some poor Tranmere challenges, but he was able to carry on in the second half and continued to set a great example.

Initially City began the second half better, strongly suggesting Hughes had spent the interval telling them to up the tempo. And with Tranmere offering no threat, City just needed to kill the game off.

Strangely though, they began to fall apart. Individual mistakes racked up, as a real level of sloppiness seemed to engulf every single City player. It gave Tranmere hope, and it once again saw the atmosphere grow darker. For a good 10 minutes it seemed, City just couldn’t get any decision right. It was as though every home player had had their shoelaces tied together. They were lucky to be doing this against such hapless opponents. But it’s not the first time they’ve fallen away mid-game. And the anger of the crowd was laced with the fear of another sting in the tail.

Then, out of nothing, City were 2-0 ahead and cruising. They had won a corner that Clayton took, and his effort was dreadful and could be easily cleared. As the disdain reigned down from the Kop, the Tranmere Rovers defender, with more time than he realised, strangely booted the ball behind for another corner.

This time Clayton’s delivery was on the money, and Cook’s slow header somehow ended up crossing the line despite Hewselt and a Rovers defender having ample chance to prevent it going past them. Mellon admitted after the game that he wanted to strangle his goalkeeper. Cook now has 19 goals overall – on Saturday he has the chance to become the first City player since Nahki Wells to net 20 goals in a season.

Again, City had pulled it out of the bag just when fans were really getting on their backs, and they saw out the closing stages with some ease. It was not a performance that will live long in the memory – 7s and 6s out of 10 all round – but they’ve followed up Saturday’s impressive win over Stevenage with another three points. And that’s the most important factor.

This was a reminder that the foundations remain shaky on City’s promotion push. They are on the cusp of the play off spots and yet continue to look one or two bad results away from implosion. Hughes will like the character his players showed in not wilting under the pressure, but he will want them to show more authority and style. He needs the Bradford public on side for the tougher battles that are to come, and it must slightly concern him that the belief fans have in the team’s approach remains shaky.

When you consider that Hughes has the likes of Scott Banks, Dion Pereira, Timi Odusina, Dara Costelleo and Luke Hendrie not even in the matchday squad – and is operating without the injured Romoney Crichlow, Tolaji Bola and Emmanuel Osadebe – he really does have a strong hand. This is a good group of players. Our best, without question, since relegation to League Two four years ago.

It would just be nice to see the strength within this Bradford City squad start to be reflected better by more convincing performances on the pitch.

Categories: Match Reviews

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27 replies

  1. Really impressive control of the game today. We can’t play at a fast and frantic tempo for 90 minutes so, when you can’t, keep the ball and the opposition can’t hurt you.

    So many solid performances Clayton, Smallwood and Walker in particular showing why they’ve played at a higher level. Smallwood and Clayton complement each other very well.

    Football is a game of small margins and Hughes twisted in January to get a few extra percent that might be the difference. We still, and will continue to, miss Wright but players like him aren’t easy to replace and Hughes is finding another way.

  2. There were flashes today where you can see what Hughes wants to do, it’s still too slow and the players seem to be thinking rather than executing, but with Clayton and Walker, that mythical ‘someone’s going to get a hiding’ may actually be a thing

  3. My frustration with the constant passing around backwards & at the back isn’t about style or exciting football, it’s that it invites pressure. There were plenty of times where we seemed on the brink of being dispossessed yards from our own goal, which seems madness to me. We have conceded goals from that, this season.

    I’m liking all the January recruits, though. If Matt Derbyshire is out for a lengthy spell, he will be a loss. And I’m not surprised Adam Clayton got Man of the Match, he seemed a dynamo to me.

    Your comments on the fanbase are thought provoking. I’ve always felt that we have a responsibility to be the Twelfth Man, so arguably when we collectively get on the backs of the team, we are arguably putting in a below par team effort ourselves.

    I keep thinking on why our home form is so poor, and so much worse than our away form. Presumably that is a big factor. But what else? The way teams set up and sit back, when they come, other teams lifting their game in the bigger stadium (but why wouldn’t we?). The pitch size?

    • AndyT your paragraph 3 says it all for me. We do have that responsibility and we are putting in a below par team effort when we pass the sometimes worse than just groans around at the back .
      No team can attack all the time. The opposition and individual stamina just don’t allow it. Sometimes “passing it around at the back” to retain possession is the only way forward.
      I have no doubt at all that crowd negativity contributes greatly to poor home performance.
      Sometimes our lads must wonder what they have to do to satisfy. Didn’t someone once say “you can’t please all the people all the time?”
      We have the best manager and squad since Parky. Enjoy supporting your team.

  4. You hit the nail on the head when you talk about more movement needed. When every player is covered there’s no point in just lumping it forward. Unless you want to be Stevenage. We tried that under Bowyer and John Doherty and that really riled the fans. Patience is a virtue.

  5. A frustrating game, but ultimately City did the job. The niggles are highlighted in the report and after 30 minutes I personally was bored. I don’t want them to hit it forward needlessly, but turning back when a player can continue to progress an attack just seems too negative, especially at home.

    I’m also not sure 3 defensive midfielders works at home, in Clayton, Smallwood and Gillead. In the 2nd half Smallwood actually started playing left wing and, although he had a decent game, you think whether a Neves or Banks etc could do a better attacking job instead (I bet they could). I wonder if Hughes has caused himself a problem by bringing in the impressive Clayton, who basically takes Smallwoods position, but he doesn’t want to leave out captain Smallwood.

    All that said, my 5 year turned round to me after the match and said “That was brilliant”. Bring on Saturday.

  6. As a supporter base we don’t deserve talented players and sides. We need to grow up. One of our more talented players over the last decade suffered similar abuse and that was Law. It’s embarrassing at times. And we wonder why as a club we don’t progress or get talented youngsters coming through

    • So the latest set-back this decade is down to the fans,not Rahic,ok, thanks for that.

      • Unfortunately we do have quite a few fans who are an embarrassment and more of a hindrance than a support for the club. They might not have caused the underlying problems but they have not helped things either.

    • I agree with this. Maybe cos I’m old now but we need to relax a bit. The game of football at every professional level has changed in the 3-4 decades I’ve been watching it. Fitter players. Less space on the pitch as gaps are covered. Games are tighter. Pitches better. It’s rare you see very one sided games with a team plundering 5/6 goals.
      Success for city this season is being solid. Hard to break down. In the mix in the third third of the season which we are just about to enter and achieving promotion.
      If we do that then zero complaints and we should learn to be happy.
      Just look at the landscape. All the teams that were once non league that have huge investment. This is only going to get harder to compete against. Try to enjoy it guys

      • I know my comment sounds harsh, and its not aimed at everyone, so people will take offence when it’s not aimed at them, but we had Adams last season who played the % brand of football and if you don’t win it is awful. We wanted change and a better standard of football, but we have a sizeable contingent of fans who refuse to allow that type of football. But don’t want the hoof ball. Its a very random thought process. Maybe that’s why we have Clayton in etc as it takes a strong professional to ignore the crowd and follow your managers instructions. Hence why for youngsters it must be an awful environment to ply your trade.

  7. Excellent game summation. A win is a win but far from convincing and very dull. Prior to Cook’s goal it truly looked like we were going to see a repeat of the Mansfield game with a late goal to tie the game.

    • You really do not understand football or is complimenting and accepting a win too much for you?

      • Rick, 45 minutes of good football at Stevenage is far from convincing for me that this isn’t just another false dawn. Arguably, only 45 minutes of good football since New Year’s Day. I appreciate that City fans are keen to latch on to some sign of renewal. However, I am far from convinced that City will gain promotion or even make the playoffs. I’m a show me guy. Seeing is believing when it come to City. I’ve seen far too many false dawns.

  8. My biggest concern from last night is the injury to Matt Derbyshire. His departure knocked the momentum in the team and some of the creativity that we’d seen during the first half hour with some good football played. If his absence is lengthy it could be a real blow and handicap the ability to unlock opposing sides.

    Clayton is proving another excellent signing who made the crucial tackle or pass on a number of occasions. Halliday, Walker and Gilliead likewise had strong performances but it was above all a good team effort with everyone working for each other. The basics are far stronger now than we’ve seen for a long time and we are definitely making progress with much better foundations.

    Some interesting results of late and it remains fluid from 3rd place down. For that matter I am not convinced that Stevenage will maintain their gap. By the end of the month we could be in a very good position.

  9. Now we’re talking! Can’t you just feel the stirrings of something? It’s that indefinable sense of expectation asserting itself as it tends to at this time of the season when you walk away from Valley Parade, on a high after a win that keeps you well
    in the race. You start to make calculations, add on points from games in hand, remember precedents. Our last conspicuous success began with a dash to the playoffs in the final dozen games. There’s still 17 to go, more than enough for a surge to the top three. Why not? We’ve got the players. I suspect Andy Cook has already got a foot in the door of our Hall of Fame. Such as Jamie Walker and Harry Lewis can be there with him if we go up. Miserablists will inveigh against it but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the moment and anticipating more – when Saturday comes. Skipping the rhetoric, I must say what a good player Adam Clayton is. He’s ideal for that pivotal position, reading the game, keeping it tight, able to play it short and long. It’s a specialist position of vital importance, recognised as such by Mourinho’s belief Makelele was the most important man in his team. Clayton has certainly made a difference – with two assists in four undefeated games.

  10. For me, and I’ve said this a lot on Twitter, the style and execution is fine however we lack the personnel at fullback to play it effectively. Ridehalgh & Halliday don’t have the pace or skill to beat a man in a foot race so have to turn back to the CB’s so many times we had acres of space for them to run into but didn’t play the pass into space for them to chase because we know they can’t get it. It’s obvious now why we brought in a pacy LB in Bola I just hope he gets fit quickly.

    If we want to play the diamond formation we need our fullbacks getting forward and creating an overload to free up the likes of Walker and give him space to do what he’s good at.

    • i have to disagree as Ridehalgh is the better player. Despite been out for so long he has slotted back in with less nervous and more composure than Bola. He was getting forward last night and has started finding his range with his crosses. Its no coincidence when earlier in the season we were getting points that Ridehalgh was in the team and we again pick up points now he is back. He is steady and reliable and i hope he stays in the team from what albeit limited time i have seen of Bola. oh, and Liam can take a throw-in 🙂

      • The days of marauding full.backs, wing backs and even wingers have gone.
        Oh for a Hendrie, Summerbee, Beagrie, or Mega.
        Things of the past I am afraid. Taking a full back on and whipping a cross in?
        Not happening.
        Halliday does get forward but will always knock it back and therefore the crosses come in deep.

    • I agree Chris. In fact I don’t think we had much pace anywhere on the pitch last night.

      Interesting to read the comments about playing it out from the back. The criticism of the team reminds me of that thrown at the England team during the World Cup.

      I’m not against playing out from the back but in my opinion needs to be executed better. You can’t blame the defence for playing sideways if there’s no option going forward. Our best plays came from a midfielder dropping off, receiving the ball and turning. If this is done at pace you’ve beaten the press and you have more room to play in.

      Without the movement the ball just goes from side to side and, as another contributor mentioned, invites pressure.

      Another annoying trait with City is that they feel the need to hand the initiative to the opposition for periods in the match. Teams coming to vp must know that at dome point in the game they’ll get their chance to play….

  11. Well summarised. The most important thing is the win, and the more I watch league 2 games, the more I realise that a lack of consistency at this level is the biggest difference with the higher league teams. Just look at Carlisle, 4 wins in a row and then the wheels come off and they lose to Harrogate and then they’re 4-0 down at half-time last night.

    Some thoughts in no particular order:
    – I’m all for possession based football, but Cook is great in the air, and with Derbyshire/Eisa running off him, we should be going long at least some of the time to keep teams guessing/ease the press. We were mixing it up like this when we played Harrogate/Salford to good effect, but seem to have moved back to no long balls ever again.

    – Ryan East should be playing as he offers a better passing range and tempo in midfield (and taking corners/free kicks because Clayton/Smallwood can’t really do this very well).

    – Jamie Walker is a quality player – his energy, determination and ability to shoot/do something different is exciting to watch – at last we have another genuine goal-scorer other than Cook.

    – Stubbs looked really solid for the most part, but there were a couple of times when his pace looked concerningly slow.

    – Andy Cook can’t help scoring – even if its probably the most rubbish goal of his career 🙂

    Roll on Saturday!

  12. This match report is a little negative. Seems to have the same tone as Kiwomya on radio leeds. Was quite hilarious when every caller disagreed with his analysis that City didn’t play with enough conviction. That they didn’t score enough goals. And seems most of the comments suggest the fans weren’t as disgruntled as the media outlets are making out.

    There are times the crowd gets edgy. But last night it seemed to kick the players into gear. Both goals came off the back of two dodgy spells of misplaced passes and slow possession. But this does not mean the overall performance was poor. However, what I noticed last night unlike earlier in the season, players didn’t actually hide. The approach play leading to Walker’s goal was done with more conviction as a result of experienced players recognising they didn’t to step it up.

    Simlilarly, the tempo was increased in the build up to winning the initial corner before Cook’s goal. Even Clayton’s first attempted cross was poor, yet the second once again had more conviction. Once again his experience was on show by not letting the Tranmere off the hook again.

    Need to keep backing the players and Hughes. Win on Saturday and a decent little run is developing. If Trueman and Sellers could do it with that dreadful squad a couple of seasons ago, this squad of players can easily produce something similar. Carlisle and Northampton look shakey. And we may have caused the start of a Stevenage wobble too. The other play off contenders are inconsistent too.

    Bolton and Bristol Rovers both strengthened in the January transfer windows in the previous two seasons and went on decent winning runs and grabbed the 3rd auto spot.

    We’re lucky to have Hughes. Longterm the club will be better for it.

  13. First of all, that was an excellent follow up to Saturdays unexpected result at Stevenedge. How many times have we messed up in similar circumstances? It was comfortable in the end but Jason is right to highlight the negative reaction of some, but not all of our support. I too was frustrated at times during the game, but this frustration was tempered by the belief that things are done for a reason. Games are won by fine margins, had a Tranmere player managed to get a touch on the two magnificent crosses that Bristow put across in the first half we might not have been celebrating a much needed home win. But equally the fine margins that are involved as the ball is played out from the back are what made the difference between us and Tranmere. They went home with nothing, no shots on target, not even a corner. They launched it forward from every goal kick but it got them nowhere. Platt and Stubbs won virtually everything. I accept that our full backs have limitations, this is 4th tier football after all, but since we lost Wright in the transfer window Hughes’s has had to find a different way to play. Rideaugh is not Kyle Walker, we can all see that, but he is far more of an attacking threat than Foulds was. Him and Halliday stretched Tranmere wide by trying to play as high up the pitch as possible, and although the build up from the back was at times pedestrian, it was obvious what the team were trying to achieve. On a couple of occasions it worked a treat, and no one tried harder than Clayton in working the fine margins. In the second half we did go through a spell where we lost our way, and the frustrated one’s in the crowd grew more vociferous. Every sideways pass was greeted with a moan and every pass that went backwards was an excuse for meltdown. On the occasions that the ball was lumped forward the two Tranmere centre backs dealt with the threat comfortably. This passed unnoticed by some. I want our crowd to be passionate, I would love my team to rip the opposition apart with fast free flowing football, but for the time being I don’t see that happening. However we are in a good place, the squad has been tweaked and I hope we can all see the benefits of that, but we need to get behind the team and the manager for the remainder of the season. Promotion is in our hands, keep the faith.

  14. I came away last night pleased with the result and not too unhappy with the way it was achieved. For once, Jason, I thought your report was just too negative. Undoubtedly, there were things that could have been done better, quicker and so on but they got the job done and it was comfortable in the end. At this level the team just won’t play brilliantly all the time. If the individuals were that good they wouldn’t be here!!!

    Home form has certainly been a big problem. We have deserved better results and like others, apparently, I can’t help thinking that the crowd is one reason why we don’t do better. The players must worry a lot about the reaction they get even when we are still winning.

    To have a crowd of 14/15,000 cheering you on should be a massive advantage so let’s get behind them and make it pay

  15. You can totally understand the crowds reaction when teams to start to press our possesion and you then start to see the worrying signs of a wobble – with hurried passes and near misses with the closing down player – we have a habit of conceeding when that happens and you can totally see the capitulation coming and predict it, it’s happened so many times before (not just this season)!

    The crowds reations therefore are meant to act as a ‘wake up call’ to the team to snap out of it but when that reaction is make negativelty, it can also contribute to the ‘wobble’ itself – which naturally doesn’t help – but it’s simply bourne of having seen it all before. Same old, same old.

    That said – it is now time for the crowd to zip up those negative reactions and get behind the team positively – not just when we are on top – but when we are struggling too.

    We now have a great chance – so regardless of whether you like the way we play or not – it is time to shut up and put up with the negative stuff and lets push this team with positivity and we might just get there!

  16. It’s not the fact that defenders don’t ‘lump it forward’ – no one wants that.
    What is annoying is that when they have the ball at their feet, with no opponent anywhere near them and plenty of space in front, there is the opportunity to take the ball forward, however they more often than not stop, put their foot on the ball, look around and again play the ball backwards – bloomin’ well frustrating for the fans!
    No one is shouting “gerrit forrad” as has been said, just be at least a little creative.

    Re the fans not lifting the players, I have always said that this starts on the pitch. Give the fans something to cheer about and by hell, VP rocks. Look at the days of McCall, Beagrie, Blake etc etc – the stadium was rocking.
    Bored fans, after watching walking football played continuously across the back four, simply cannot get excited by being bored to death.

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