Superb Bradford City away performance offers reasons to believe Mark Hughes has discovered the right combination

Gillingham 0
Bradford City 2
Smallwood 21, Cook 49

By Jason McKeown

Suddenly, it’s all starting to click. The pieces are beginning to fit. And there in the middle of the Bradford City resurgence stands the calm, authoritative presence of Mark Hughes.

This was a seriously impressive Bantams victory where – for once – there could be no doubt that they performed like promotion contenders. From back to front they bested a revigorated Gillingham side who had topped the form table, winning six of their last eight and four in a row at home. City masterfully controlled this game from start to finish, performing with a composed assurance that personifies Hughes’ personality and leadership style.

Football managers are at their most masterful when they surprise and exceed your expectations. When they can seek and find improvements from areas that, as supporters, we don’t immediately see. When they prove they know more than we do. And over the last few days, Hughes has started to do just that.

The knives were sharpening against the Welshman after the dreadful Barrow defeat. And it would have been easy for him to have joined in with the panic. But Hughes’ trust and faith in his players – and in his tactical approach – has been handsomely rewarded over the last few days. And with it, supporter confidence in the manager should soar once again.

The players achieved a level here at the Priestfield that they can be rightly accused of failing to reach consistently enough all season. It all came together with a display of bright attacking play, backed up by defensive grit. Gillingham’s rise up the table would have given them a lot of confidence going into this game, but ultimately they couldn’t lay a glove on City.

A big part of the reason why this was so much better is the team discovered that missing fluidity in the final third. It has been a little bit by accident – first Matty Derbyshire picked up an injury, and then Abo Eisa suffered the same fate – but Dara Costelleo’s inclusion has seen City finally have a front three that links up well. A trio that are full of invention.

Costelleo is doing a really good job of stretching the play by making clever runs behind the backline and creating space for Andy Cook and Jamie Walker. Whilst Costelleo lacks a yard of pace, that willingness to go beyond the last man – something Derbyshire and Eisa especially don’t seem to offer – means City can not only get the ball up the pitch but make it stick. And that way, others can get forward to support attacks, with the ball worked around in the opposition half rather than across the backline.

It was from such an approach that City took the lead midway through the first half, when the ball was worked out wide to Brad Halliday, who sent over a brilliant deep cross that Richie Smallwood got on the end of. The backpost defending by Cheye Alexander was woeful and goalkeeper Glenn Morris might reflect that he could have done better to keep the Bradford City captain’s header out. But there could be little dispute that City deserved it.

Smallwood’s goal and all around performance was a reward for Hughes in sticking by the struggling midfielder. There remains legitimate questions about whether Smallwood should be a certain starter, especially at home, but Hughes clearly has a lot of faith. As a manager he would have been criticised heavily had Smallwood underperformed here, so by the same token he deserves credit for the 32-year-old’s solid performance.

The goal put City in a great position and – unlike other recent games – they maintained strong performance levels at 1-0 up rather than retreating back. Hughes must have clearly spent the interval hammering home this point, because City came out especially purposeful after the break and Cook almost made it 2-0 straightaway with a superb scissor kick that went just over.

The top scorer didn’t have to wait long to do what he can’t stop doing right now – get on the scoresheet. Gillingham defender Max Ehmer was wrongly trying to let a nothing ball by Smallwood trundle out for a throw in, when Cook stole in to win possession. He charged into the box, easily glided past Conor Masterson and finished superbly. Another outstanding goal from a player having the season of his life.

And again, the praise goes all the way back to Hughes. That month off that the manager gave Cook seemed, at the time, to go on a little bit too long. But it looks an absolutely inspired piece of management now. Since his mid-season break, Cook has returned to score five goals in six games. He is surely a shoe-in for the League Two player of the month for February. This time a year ago, Cook was in the middle of an eight-game goal drought.

Gillingham’s Neil Harris rang the changes to try and get his side back into it, with Tom Nichols summoned from the bench and players pushed up the pitch. Harry Lewis – quiet for most of the evening – made one superb save to keep out an Aiden O’Brien header. But just as the home side threatened to work up a full head of steam, Hughes ensured that City kept one step ahead.

He brought on Romoney Crichlow and went with a back five. It helped to kill off any Gillingham momentum, and allowed City to see out the game with some comfort. Indeed, they may even have added a third goal, with Costelleo and Cook forcing good saves out of Morris.

City had the edge in every part of the pitch. Sam Stubbs is starting to look like a very good signing. Matty Platt is back on form. Liam Ridehalgh has shaken off concerns about fitness to play very well. Adam Clayton is proving to be an inspired signing – bringing him to the club is another decision that Hughes can take credit for.

And crikey, we’ve got this far without really mentioning Walker. The Scot took an early knock but went onto have another brilliant game. His return to the starting line up in February – at the same time as Cook came back in, as it happens – has been equally important in City’s recent trajectory. Walker is the ace up City’s sleeve and has the talent and personality to make a telling difference over the rest of the season. He’s just so much fun to watch.

The contrast between City’s brilliant display here and the wretched Barrow defeat of 10 days ago is colossal. And it’s one best summarised by the touches of each player. As we talked about in our Barrow match report, on that day centre backs Stubbs and Platt collectively had 204 touches of the ball. Whereas Cook and Eisa/Costelloe had just 63 touches between them.

At Gillingham here, it was a massive reversal. Over the full game, Cook and Costelloe collectively had 100 touches of the ball. Whilst Stubbs and Platt had only 88. In other words, when City did have the ball they had it much higher up the park – and in areas where they could genuinely hurt the opposition. This was not a game of meaningless passing around at the back. There was a purpose to everything. It came from having a more dynamic forward line.

And this is where Hughes gets even more praise. Because amidst the Barrow storm and the feeling that something had to change, he put forward what he believed to be the problem. “We’ve got to get balls into strikers in the corner of the box,” he said at the time. “We’ve got to get a little bit more dynamic movement. We’ve got to get off the hook, we’ve got to do one-twos, we’ve got to do overlaps and underlaps – all those things that create space at the top end of the pitch when teams are just sat in.

“We didn’t do that well enough against Barrow. That’s what we’ve worked on and I’m expecting an improvement.”

This didn’t sound like the radical solution that appeared to be needed after the Barrow defeat, but that tweak in City’s forward play – aided by Costelleo’s inclusion – has so far been proven to be the answer. And that’s why even without changing the team and approach greatly, Hughes finally appears to have unlocked that missing element. He’s seemingly found a way to compensate for the January departure of Tyreik Wright.

All of this comes with a big caveat – can they do it at home? Decent away wins like this have been fairly commonplace all season. And it’s a big reason why Bradford City are in play off contention. But to cement a top seven spot, and to even push on for the automatic places, they’ve got to start performing at home. Against teams who don’t give them space. Colchester on Saturday is a massive moment to gauge whether Hughes has truly cracked it, or if this is just another false dawn.

But for now, Hughes deserves to enjoy this week. And to feel vindication in his approach. After the Barrow game and the understandably angry reaction, you feared for him. Not that he was about to lose his job, but that he was stumbling down the corridor of so many of his Valley Parade predecessors that ultimately leads to an unhappy ending. Yet Hughes has been clear about his plan and his vision, and in recent days sticking to it is paying off.

One of the most successful teams in basketball’s NBA history, the San Antonio Spurs, have a quote from a social reformer Jacob Riis hanging up in their locker room. It says, “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it – but all that had gone on before.”

I think Hughes would appreciate that quote and why San Antonio Spurs have made it the cornerstone of their successful philosophy. In Hughes’ team selection and strategy, he has been hammering away at a rock, waiting for it to crack. Setting and building habits and believing them to be the right ones, even during times when results and performances failed to suggest it was the correct path. And maybe now, he and his players have just reached the hundred and first blow, where the plan begins to visibly pay off.

If this really is the breakthrough moment, Hughes and City are in a very good position to reap the rewards.

Categories: Match Reviews

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20 replies

  1. Yes, pursuing Jason’s stone image, it looks like Hughes has started to crack it. We look strong, balanced and purposeful. The new signings in the team look good in their roles. Walker has made a big improvement and Cook is on fire. I assume Hughes will go with the same team, barring injuries, on Saturday – but we may need to make changes earlier than in the last home game if it isn’t working.

  2. I watched a good team tonight.

    There was a confidence in the play, a willingness to try things, to quickly recycle the ball and go again.

    Long may it continue, and that goal by Cook, it was a beauty

  3. When analyzing tonight’s performance I think it’s important to highlight the differences to the Barrow game. Less focus on ball possession, better tempo and dynamic movement in the final third. The team looked professionally organized and the effort on display was exceptional. A very impressive performance that hopefully will be repeated at Valley Parade.

  4. Just need it to ‘click’ at home!!

    Maybe switch to using the away dressing rooms?? 😂

  5. Just had a look at the table:
    two teams from the whole division have the best form over the last 5 games
    City and Stockport
    both have won 4 and lost one
    curiously both losses were 1-0 to Barrow in the last fortnight

    for all that it is clear that we played dreadfully, perhaps something is going on at Barrow?

  6. Think it’s a bit unfair on most of the fan base. I’d say the majority were not worried, a number were on the fence but a large and vocal minority were panicking.

    This hasn’t been some fundamental shift this is players like Walker becoming available to him. My opinion is that Hughes also needs to be credited for when he took Cook out and when he brought him back.

    We were going through a transition of no Wright and Walker was yet to return while others were learning to play in this team. We were struggling for goals and fans were calling for Cook. He could have panicked but as he said Cook is a confidence player (and brimful at the minute). Introducing him away at stubborn Stockport with a team in transition was not the right time.

    • This is a slightly odd rewriting of history. Where is the evidence that most fans were not worried? My experience of going to games like Barrow, Tranmere and Stockport, and the atmosphere/reaction of fans, plus the views expressed on the various City platforms, suggest there was an awful lot of worry.

      And so what if there was? Some of the performances like Barrow were awful and as fans we have a right to be upset/critical/concerned. Winning the last two games massively improves the mood but that doesn’t mean anyone was wrong for doubting the club after games like Barrow.

      (Also interesting that as someone who posts here every game you chose not to post anything about the Barrow defeat and instead wait for better results.)

      As for transition period, I’m not sure that’s true but what seems clear watching last night is how much of a loss Wright was, and just how much better it works with a player as close to Wright as we have (Costelloe). So there has been a subtle but nevertheless notable change since Barrow, and big credit to Hughes for finding it.

      • Think you may have taken my comments the wrong way.

        It’s not a rewriting of history, the key wording is think.

        It’s an opinion and from my conversations and experiences. May have just been my own personal echo chambers of course! But thought I’d throw it into the mix.

        You have to remember there’s 17K in the stands so it doesn’t take a lot for that feeling to reverberate and that’s my feeling on vocal minority. Your opinion might be right, mine might be wrong but not sure yours is fact based either?

        Also I don’t have an issue with those that were – and may still be – worried, just to be clear. I’ve also commented to say I don’t think we are consistent enough for autos and not a guarantee for play offs, but I’m perhaps a happy clapper who is more content with seeing us moving in the right direction and therefore different expectations.

        I do tend to join in more with the positive days for my own sanity as much as anything mate! 🙂

        I’ve always said it, certain players make you tick, losing Nahki under PP, Windass under Todd it’s not as simple as copy and paste someone into that position as it may be with others. You need to find another way – evolution not revolution. I think we’re actually agreed on this point from what you said above. I just classed it as transition between Wright being the focal point and a different player like Walker becoming the focal point in a subtle change to tactics to find another way.

  7. What a genius goal from Cook! One of those moments that we bother watching football for. But, yes, I think you’re right to highlight Costelloe’s performance. His movement and strength were what allowed us to play more direct at times and mix up the play. The big question is can he produce that again under pressure at home against the massed ranks of Colchester defenders?

  8. Yes, what an amazing goal from Big Andy. It is no hyperbole to say there are very few players in the football league capable of scoring with such finesse on their weaker foot from such an angle. I can think of hundreds of big names, none bigger than, say, Fernando Torres, who would have missed that. (Torres once waltzed round the keeper and screwed it horribly wide from two yards with his left.) Those who said Cook offers nothing when he doesn’t score should think again. He made it for himself and scored with bravura.

  9. This was an exemplary away display. We dealt well with anything aerial they threw at us and Stubbs in particular had a great game at the back.

    The fact we rarely retreated into a deep block meant not only could we get into 4 vs 4 situations in turnovers and exploit masses of space afforded to us. But it also meant they struggled to get players around Hawkins for second balls in dangerous areas. I liked that bravery from us, seldom seen in years gone by.

    We didn’t give them much time on the ball at all and when we retrieved it we kept it well, the midfield were excellent and relieving pressure, particularly Smallwood.

    The front three worked well and Jason makes a great point about Costelloe stretching play allowing others more space to operate. Cook was sensational again.

    I have to say though, how much of a difference does Jamie Walker make to this team. His decision making, ball progression, ability to win fouls and quality on the ball really sets the tone. It’s great to have him back fit and firing.

  10. After a very productive few days, pointswise, and the cheap ticket deal for the Colchester game, we can expect a bumper attendance on Saturday.

    We all know what usually happens on such occasions at VP, but it would really set down a marker if we can put in an emphatic performance, and result.

    Looking at the fixture list, it wasn’t a match that had set my pulse rate soaring, but it could have a marked effect on a top three place, if we can put the home form hoodoo to rest and use it as a springboard for our promotion aspirations. Who’d have thought it after Barrow?!

  11. I enjoyed the style of play last night and whilst Costello did a great job getting in behind defenders and creating space for Cook and Walker, I felt on two occasions when picking up the ball centrally that he could have run at goal rather than taking the ball out wide. Just a small niggle for me in what was a great team performance.

  12. Last night was by far the best 90 minutes of football we have played all season. Aided by an opposition full of confidence and willing to attack.As you alluded to I don’t think Colchester will grant us that luxury.

    This is now the hardest game of the season and we just need to find a way to win. We’ve had so many false dawns this season where we can almost touch success to then trip over our own show laces and end up further back than when we started.

    If the team don’t have the confidence to go out there and win after the last 2 games and then I fear they will never reach their goals.

    I’m going to go on Saturday and not get on their backs if they make a mistake. I hope they’re able to deliver

  13. Looking at the league top scorer stats, Andy Cook is not only now top in L2, not just on goals, but also minutes per goal, shot accuracy; he is at the same position across all leagues bar the premiership, where he’d be 2nd.

    “No club discussions on a new contract for Andy yet.” Really? Why not?

  14. Writing as a Gills supporter who watched the match On-Line, Bradford did a very good job at neutralising the much better players we now have in the forward positions, and looked more fluid coming through midfield. I’d say both the Bradford goals came from our mistakes – but then don’t most goals at League 2 level? And mistakes are more likely when under pressure. But like Mansfield, the other team that beat us since the new players came in, Bradford showed us the level we need to be in 12 months. The onnly mystery to me is how they managed to lose to Rochdale!

  15. While I’d like to get Cooky signed up today, I do remember a criticism in the past that players were offered a new deal round about this time of the year and their form slumped. Cue criticism of our chief executive.
    I’d like to think talks are bubbling away but those greedy swines called agents are doubtless weighing up other options too. For example, I can see a certain PP at Hollywood in Wales salivating. He’s proven that he has no sentimentality about his happy days at Valley Parade and no qualms about upsetting his former fans.
    Let’s hope Cooky sees a project, is happy with it and commits to claret and amber again.

  16. Was it just me disappointed that there was no mention of O’Brien’s lovely glancing header, spearing towards goal but then bouncing only just wide by….. A width of a post…
    Missed opportunity there surely, Jason 😉
    That aside, a nice report. Impressive performance against a team full of confidence. We were into them right from the off and never gave them space. Well done City.

  17. Keen not to get too carried away but this was a quality performance. I read that Gillingham played poorly – they played as well as they were allowed. Solid at the back, won everything in the middle, attacking threat plus Andy Cook.

    Sadly I can’t go on Saturday but I’ll be sneaking a look at twitter regularly (I.e. virtually every 2 minutes)!

  18. Great article Jason. Saturday will indeed be more telling. How will we perform when the onus is on us to dictate the tempo of the game? Fingers crossed that the passive, purposeless style of play at home is a thing of the past.

    Hats off to Hughes and the team for the last 2 wins. Genuinely the stuff of promotion contenders.

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