Cook at the double leaves Bradford City once again grateful for their fantastic number nine

Bradford City 2
Cook 49+78
Hartlepool United 2
Cooke 33, Klemp 71

By Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)

Andy Cook’s face was a picture of anger and frustration, as he glared indignantly at his strike partner Dara Costelleo. The on-loan Burnley striker had received the ball at the backpost and elected to shoot from a difficult angle, instead of passing to the better-positioned Cook. The shot rolled wide of the goal, and another chance was wasted.

Cook would ultimately have to do it himself.

14 minutes after Costelleo’s miss – and from almost the exact same position on the pitch – City’s top scorer brilliantly volleyed home Scott Banks’ cross to earn City a 2-2 draw against struggling Hartlepool. It followed Cook’s earlier diving post header that had cancelled out his former City team mate, Callum Cooke’s, first half opener. Goals 24 and 25 of an amazing personal season. Cook now has as many goals as the much celebrated Lee Mills and Nahki Wells achieved in City’s last two promotion seasons, and he’s got at least 10 more games to go.

In what’s become a very familiar pattern, Cook took ownership of City’s goal output to rescue what could prove to be a vital point in the play off shake up, but which once again leaves the Bantams short on edging up into automatic promotion contention. Cook led the line magnificently and kept up his prolific form, on an afternoon where so many other Bantams were wasteful. If only others could match his deadliness in front of goal.

Cook now has 22 League Two goals, which is pretty much half of City’s overall total of 45. It’s no secret that the Bantams are over reliant on Cook. Since the New Year’s Day victory over Salford, Cook has got 9 of the 15 goals City have managed. And of those measly six goals he didn’t score, Cook assisted three of them. The club would be hopelessly lost without Cook, but days like this underline that others simply have to do more to share the goal burden.

In the cold light of day, City should have won this game. They paid the price for a timid first half performance in which they trailed, but strong half time words from Mark Hughes – coupled with a switch from the diamond back to the 4-2-3-1 – saw improvement that should have been enough to win.

In those second 45 minutes, City registered 12 attempts on goal. They pressed their struggling opponents back for long periods, but lacked the clinical touch to make it count. “You’ve got to take your chances,” Hughes rued. “We’ve had more clear cut chances today than any game from memory.”

Ultimately, it’s two points dropped for City. And their record at Valley Parade against the three teams at the bottom of the league reads two points from nine. For periods, this felt like it might be a repeat of the Rochdale embarrassment, as United twice lead. Although ‘embarrassment’ is probably a harsh on an energetic Hartlepool side who had plenty of quality and looked impressive. Hartlepool’s manager John Askey observed, “To come here and perform as well as we did, it shows that we’re doing something right. We’ve got to be better in both boxes from set-pieces and it’s something we’ll continually work on.”

Better in both boxes is probably a fair summary of why Hartlepool didn’t take more away from this game, and by 5pm had fallen into the relegation zone. Like all visiting teams to Valley Parade this season it seems, the choice of countering Hughes’ tactics lies in either parking the bus or pressing City’s backline. Hartlepool took the latter option and right from kick off asked tough questions of Harry Lewis, Matty Platt and Sam Stubbs’ attempts to play out from the back.

Hughes prefers opponents to press like this. He feels that if City can work it quickly enough and exploit the gaps left behind by those pressing, they can get a lot of attacking joy. And when City did indeed get the ball forward, they looked good. Costelleo saw an early shot flash just wide, and Cook was denied by Hartlepool keeper Jakub Stolarczyk.

The problem was that attacking pressure was sporadic. Not enough players handling the press well enough. Too many sloppy passes. And a familiar lack of bodies in the final third. It’s like a light switch going off and on – brilliant for a few moments, bang average the next. Hughes admitted, “We didn’t retain the ball well enough at the top end of the pitch. We weren’t quite as compact as we need to be.”

At times City looked flat and jaded. This was the sixth game in a row the team was unchanged. The Bantams have 27 senior players in the building (not including those out on loan). And sure, there have been injuries. But it’s a damning reflection of Hughes’ unwillingness to utilise his big squad that just 13 different players have started the last nine matches. Players like Jamie Walker, Richie Smallwood, Alex Gilliead, Adam Clayton and Dara Costelleo would surely operate better if they were rotated. Rested up for some games, so they can come back fresher in others.

Hartlepool’s sense of purpose meant they were a threat right from kick off. Several times they got in great positions, only for a poor final pass to undermine their promise. It was therefore no real surprise when they struck just after the half hour mark. They once again exploited the large gap between City’s wide diamond midfielders and the full backs, and Connor Jennings laid the ball back for Cooke to finish superbly.

Cooke’s celebration seemed to be a mixture of trying to be respectful about scoring against his former club, and going crazy at netting such an important Hartlepool goal. Given the way Cooke’s final season at City went, and the fact he was barely picked by Hughes, you sense there was an understandable feeling from the 26-year-old that he was proving a point here. In the end, he slid to his knees with glee and good luck to him. He’s a good guy who didn’t let anyone down at Valley Parade.

Going behind elicited a typical City crowd response and the boos that greeted the half time whistle were an uncomfortable reminder of the Barrow defeat exactly a month earlier. It felt like Hughes had to shake things up, but he resisted personnel changes and settled for a formation rejig. That felt a bit underwhelming, but when just four minutes into the second half Smallwood sent across a free kick that Cook headed home, the manager was justified for once again keeping his head when the rest of us were fretting.

“It was like a basketball game initially,” Hughes reflected. “We had to change our shape to address that. And that’s the reason we were better in the second half.”

And indeed, those same City XI players who had performed so pedestrian-like in the first half had much more energy and drive after the half time reshuffle. Costelleo had a really poor first half where nothing went right, but he looked slightly more useful on the left hand side of a three-man attack that were perched behind Cook. It still wasn’t fantastic, and he would miss two big back post chances – the second of which provoked the Cook scowl – but Costelleo did produce some neat dribbles and stretched opponents.

For the period after their first equaliser, City were on top and getting through the middle three of Hartlepool’s 5-3-2 with ease. Walker and Cook had chances too. And though United were still a threat at the other end in what was a very open game, the Bantams looked more likely to score.

But then, suddenly Hartlepool struck again. Clayton lost the ball in his own area. Jamie Sterry found Daniel Kemp with a clever back heel, and after skipping past challenges of Platt and Stubbs the on-loan MK Dons midfielder finished expertly past Lewis. Given Cook’s earlier equaliser was only the second time City had come from behind at home all season, the prospects of the Bantams picking themselves up from the canvas again did not seem great.

At least Hughes did finally shake up the team. Banks and Ryan East came on for Brad Halliday and Clayton. Gilliead move to right back, with Banks just behind Cook and Costelleo in a 4-3-1-2. Seven minutes after going behind, Banks got free in the box and crossed for Cook to volley home. Another stunning strike from a player who is building up quite the personal goal of the season competition.

There were still 12 minutes and – as it turned out – eight minutes of stoppage time to play. Time enough, for another formation change, with Romoney Crichlow coming on and City trying three at the back. Banks continued to impress – Hughes really has to find a starting role for him – but did miss City’s best chance late on, tamely shooting straight at Stolarczyk. Lewis also had to make an important late save. It was that sort of game that either side might have won.

But that City didn’t earn three points is cause for more frustration. Every time we drop points at home, the poor Valley Parade record comes under the spotlight. The Bantams have picked up more points on the road (32) than they have at their own home (28). Having by far the biggest crowds in the division should be a huge advantage, but with only seven home wins from 18, it just isn’t.

With 10 games left, City are looking good for a play off finish but the gap to third-place Northampton is now six points. Second-place Stevenage, who City were on the brink of going level on points with three games ago, are now seven points clear. Tuesday’s home game with fourth place Carlisle is absolutely massive. It’s probably not too dramatic to say City have to win it, or their top three hopes will look very forlorn.  

Hughes has surely got to look at changing things now. Three draws on the spin are decent enough for play off consolidating momentum, but there are bigger prizes to be had if he really goes for it. In the Colchester, Walsall and now this Hartlepool game, Hughes started with a diamond but had to ditch it midway through when it wasn’t working. Now’s the time to surely begin matches with a different approach.

It remains to be seen if Hughes agrees. “There’s food for thought. Every game throws up things that we need to address. I’d like to think I’ve been doing this long enough to recognise what needs to be done.”

It’s hard, 36 matches in, to draw any new conclusions from watching City here. In this game, they were as they have largely been all season. Decent to watch, having periods when they’re clearly on top, but not quite having the hard edge to fully make their power and might count. They produce really good spells of football – but they’re often just that, spells. They go off the boil too easily. They’re habitually on the cusp of something, it seems, but are rarely able to fully seize what’s there for them to have.

You fear that ultimately it could prove their undoing. That at some point, we’ll be talking about one missed opportunity too many. It reminds you a lot of Phil Parkinson’s 2015/16 team, who were solid but not very prolific in front of goal. Like that side, a frustrating play off semi final home defeat feels like the 2022/23 team’s current trajectory.

But there’s still time to find that missing ingredient. That extra few percent. And to earn a League Two promotion that feels tantalisingly within their grasp.

Categories: Match Reviews

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27 replies

  1. Certain things evidently need spelling out for those too blind or stubborn to see. At home, it’s got to be Smallwood or Clayton, not both. Costelloe is not a goalscorer regardless of his other attributes. Clever and timely substitutes win you matches. Bringing Oliver on after 90 minutes is a meaningless gesture. Draws are highly damaging at this time of the season. We would have done fifty per cent better to have gone for it and won two and lost one of the last three. I despair that these things need to be said. Surely, we will make changes in the must-win match against Carlisle.

    • Agreed. No one is suggesting City go gung-ho at home but not playing at least one other “flair” player to the expense of one of the Clayton/Smallwood/Gilly troika just seems increasingly perverse. We’ll see!

    • All this focus on Carlisle but its Northampton who are the bigger threat for top 3 imo. They have found their form again at the right time. We have to get 2 wins and at least a draw without them winning any points with 10 games to go? Seems a tall task to me. SOME fans and the manager kept on saying that this a good away point etc. Yet from even the Stockport game onwards ai do not understand this attitude and it has come home to roost in the past 3 against lowly opposition. We needed at least 7 from the last 3 to be truy challenging. I fear a season of “if only”. Hughes has time to try a more attacking formation with this “quality and depth Squad ” he kept telling us we have. Indeed he also kept saying that this “squad depth” would prove vital in the run-in, yet we have played the same starting 11 for 6 in a row. AND we had not strikers to call upon in some of these games. (indeed we had 3 defenders on the bench in our last away match). We are still all hopefull but the team all season has been too negative and had few goals in the side apart from Cook and i fear like many city fans if it doesnt work out they way we hope that we will ALL be questioning why.

  2. Mark you really need to replay the game tonight ,because i must have been at different game to you how you left walker on who was obviously injured for so long and keep persisting with costelo who for his own good needs to be rested .And now to the squad you said you wanted strength in depth ,so use them for god sake ,a blind man can see players need resting. And next season go for a 18 man squad with quality, now for the remaining league games use your squad.

  3. Ryan East must be totally fed up. He always looks bright when he comes on, but isn’t trusted with a start. Contrast that with Smallwood, who’s performances are average, at best. Then you have someone like Costelloe, who seems as likely to score as me, sat in the stand. It’s sad to see his hapless attempts at scoring, yet he’s a fixture in the starting lineup despite his confidence being sapped by each passing game.

    I haven’t a clue how we’re still in contention for promotion, when our manager is such an enigma.

    • I think that Smallwood was playing better than some were suggesting at one stage. However he his totally lost where he is now playing and it doesnt fit. Its a total fear/negative tactic by Hughes. I can sort of understand his frustration to a degree but his body language is poor, especially for a captain. However he has never once form memory played as the lone defensive midfielder where he has operated all his career pretty much. Some fans rate Clayton but he has been merely ok imo and i could see why Smallwood would be thinking thats my position. He kinda sums up our season in many ways in we/he havent been settled with players playing out of position despite a large squad. Chapman is a perfect example for most of the season. I can only remember the Gillingham away game when we looked convincing playing this way.

  4. Please mark my words…..Hughes will blow this.

  5. Setting up not to lose is proving quite an effective approach since City have only lost one of there last twelve games. However, look a little bit closer and you will note six of those games were draws and City have dropped from fifth to sixth place in the table. In other words, City are spinning their wheels and going no where in a hurry. Isn’t this supposed to be the business part of the season? Almost good enough is not good enough!!

  6. At this crucial final phase if the season, the spotlight is legitimately on Mark Hughes as manager. Clearly experienced and credible and not under threat (and I’m not pushing for a change there) the jury is still out on whether he can cut it in L2 and achieve a promotion- which after a career of managing under-dogs, I’m not sure he’s ever done?

    Right now, he seems to have an Adamesque stubbornness to stick with some players (notably Smallwood) irrespective of form. Your stats on the lack of rotation are stark.

    Time for a shake up- or results with the team/formation he persists with.

  7. Sorry up front. I expect a lot of thumbs down but here goes. Why oh why does Mark starts the same 11? I thought that this decision against Hartlepool will result in a draw or defeat. That’s what happened. Yes they had chances and were wasteful. Come Tuesday, he will select the same starting line up. The outcome will be the same or worse. It’s no good changing things after 70 minutes. Yes we got a draw but changing the starting 11 may bring greater rewards. Mark’s policy is so frustrating. What’s worse is if we didn’t have Cook we would not score. I would ask Mark or plead with Mark to give others a chance. I would accept defeat but at least he would have tried something different. Moaners like me will be be silenced.

    • Out of interest who would you like to see in the starting lineup xi?

      • East to start instead of Smallwood. Either Banks to start or, in a match like yesterday when we are 1-0 down at half time consider a half time change. Maybe bring Critchlow back into the starting 11 (possibly as a formation change, with 3 at the back, with Stubbs & Platt).

        Too often the tempo seems to pick up too late in the game, and that is reflective also of Mark Hughes’ late reaction to chasing games with subs delayed until 70 minutes or later.

  8. A good write up. We weren’t conservative today we started well and should have been in front. Attacking with more numbers, as we did, leaves gaps to exploit and more opportunity to concede goals.

    We simply can’t be so impotent in front of goal when we get our chances and the players need to take responsibility for not winning comfortably today.

    There is an opposition trying to beat us. Credit to Hartlepool fighting for their lives and quick on the counter. One of the most entertaining games at Valley Parade this season.

    A few sub par performances from usually consistent performers Clayton/Walker. The lack of use of Chapman was notable today.

    Cook is having the most phenomenal season, outside of his goals, his all round game is much improved. The way he used his body and the finish for the second goal is very Hughesesque. Credit to the manager for the work he’s put into creating the best striker in the division.

    • Finally someone has said it – where is Chapman? Probably our most creative player and he can’t even get 5 minutes. I said earlier in the season that getting Chapman scoring was the key. To leave him out totally is baffling.

      Walker was kicked to bits and could barely walk.

      Why people pick on Smallwood and Gilliead is beyond me. Gilliead was excellent out on the right and Smallwood is everywhere. Clayton looked knackered .

      Banks and Chapman for me.

      And lastly on the game you don’t win if you miss chances like Costellos in the first minute and Banks in the 90th.

      • Rob, defensively Gillead and Smallwood are decent, but going forward neither have enough to warrant playing them both.

        Yesterday in the first half Gillead several times was too slow to 50/50’s, Hartlepool players looking like they wanted them balls more, he lost the ball in in a pointless dribble across the edge of the box and then failed to sprint back to defend the break, something Smallwood was berating him for. Across three spells with City He has zero end product and for me he is a right wing back, useful solid reliable…but nothing else.

        Smallwood is a strong tackler but his set pieces and corners this season have been amongst the worst i can recall in years from City. I am delighted when he is off the pitch so we can have some variety and quality. When on the ball too often he takes too much time and the break or opportunity for a dangerous pass is gone. If Clayton is the sitter at the back then Gillead and Smallwood have to be judged on their expected role not the role they may feel more comfortable with that is being occupied by Clayton currently.

        As some else said earlier, you can play one of Clayton, Gillead or Smallwood but not all three, they are a pedestrian bunch and not one that attacking players will be getting a huge amount assists or goal support from. I think 3 goals and a handful of assists all season is testament enough to this.

      • PS. Chapman has 4 assists and is an industrious player, trying to make things happen and I would be interested in him taking one of those three midfield spots as offers something different, but has the work rate to hold his side of the midfield up too. I noticed earlier this season he also likes to come deep for the ball anyway so it should be too unfamiliar for him

  9. Lots of focus on cook scoring two more goals and how this is a kind of problem for city. But if your team score two goals at home you should get all 3 points.
    Today conceding two goals was the problem

    • only BCFC fans would still find a reason to complain when we have a 25 goal striker!! I couldn’t care less who scores its a team game he is just doing his job, its just alien to us as we’ve had so many donkeys up front over last 5 years or so !! Chapman back in gets my vote he carries the ball well and drags defences with him. but we all know the line up for Tues already so pointless debate!

  10. Precisely re the POSF defeat trajectory. But in truth we’ve never looked like serious promotion contenders all season & especially @ VP where we constantly lack the mentality to overcome the tactics of mostly mediocre opposition. Cook’s record is all the more astonishing because he’s been feeding on scraps! Incredibly, we could actually end up with a 30 goal striker & still fail! That is so typically BCAFC it’s untrue! The shear thought of staging yet another opponents end of season VP promotion party this time for Leyton Orient! Oh my days! 🙈

  11. This is my concern. If we don’t get promoted, we all but lose Cook this summer. His market value is as high as it can get and you can see a league 1 or even a championship club securing him as a primary or probably back up striker. Especially, with him being out of contract this summer. That would mean we start the new season looking for a striker who can find the back of the net. We know how difficult that has been in recent years.

    The 4 games so far this season against Northampton, Carlisle and Stockport, we’ve scored 1 goal and lost 3 of them. If we going to get promoted via the playoffs it’s going to be a tough ask. So, bagging as many points in next remaining games is critical. We’ve got to take risks and throw the kitchen sink at the opposing team, even if it means a drawing position late in match turns to defeat and vice versa also to a winning position. As they say, fortune favours the brave!!

  12. It has been clear for a while that there needs to be a bit more squad rotation to keep everyone fresh and feeling they are a part of the team. Our away form has been excellent so think sticking with Clayton, Smallwood, Walker and Gilly makes sense. But at home would change it to Clayton/Smallwood (not both), Banks, East and Walker/Chapman. I think the Derbyshire injury has been costly and would have Cook and Derbyshire up front when fit hopefully soon. Think this would keep everyone fresh and more involved especially on a Sat / Tues schedule. Surely worth switching it about a bit given home form.

    • I agree entirely about the injury to Matt Derbyshire having been costly. It felt that his injury came at the point when he was becoming established. I am pretty sure that when he is fit he’ll be back in the team and the difference will be notable..

  13. Totally agree with most of the comments about rotating the squad and being much more adventurous now we’re coming towards the end of the season. The past 3 games have yielded just 3 points out of 9. It feels like if we’d have really gone for it in all 3 games we would probably have ended up winning 2 (Hartlepool and Newport) and perhaps losing 1 (Walsall). Double the points tally and more entertainment for us fans….what’s not to like about that?

  14. I don’t agree with rotation and rest players. Whoever heard of Bobby Campbell, John Hendrie or Stuart McCall needing resting. Play your best players in their natural positions whenever they are available

    • Generally I agree to playing your best players when available. I just think our best players for home games (when we need to break teams down more) might be different to our best players for away games. Could be completely wrong, but might be worth trying. Only problem is its getting a bit late in the season to experiment.

    • In our last two promotion seasons in 99 and 2013 I think you could, without hesitation, name the best starting 11. That’s because by this stage in the season the team was settled, the system worked, and you had the very real sense that those groups of players were about to achieve something very special.

      The difference this season is that I don’t have that feeling at all. We’re 10 games from the end of the season, and we still don’t feel like we’ve found the right formula. Right about the time we should be cranking it up.

      So yes, I agree you’d ideally play your best 11 in their natural positions every week. Unfortunately I don’t think anyone knows what it is.

      Lastly, if you’re going to have the largest squad in the division, you really ought to use it, otherwise that’s a criminal waste of budget.

      • well said. I said earlier in the season that Hughes needs to be experimenting in finding the “formula” that you suggest. The intent at home has been wrong all season imo. The system undeniably works away but even then there have been games with very few chances at goal and COOK has ‘saved’ or ‘won’ the game. Even having to create it himself. The squad depth Hughes has talked about all season has done what? he isnt playing them or has binned a lot of the original squad. It just feels that some have the results reflect the approach to the game. Its looking lie an ‘if only’ season. It will be interesting to see what happens when Hughes has no choice but to go for wins, be that to get in the play-offs/autos or when/if we are in the play-offs. Will he really play Smallwood wide left and 3 defensive midfielders with very few career goals between them ever,if we need a win to go up? the answer is probably yes

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