A strong Bradford City performance isn’t enough to improve their automatic promotion prospects – but offers them heart for the run-in

Bradford City 0
Carlisle United 0

Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)

Perhaps, this will be ultimately be looked back on as the draw that thwarted Bradford City’s top three ambitions. Where a confident Carlisle team, with a healthy advantage in the table, crucially kept them at arm’s length. But right now, in this moment, this shouldn’t feel too disappointing. For this was a performance to offer fresh confidence in the Bantams’ promotion capabilities.

City matched and narrowly shaded this game against well-drilled, street-wise and quality opponents. The players could not turn second half dominance into three points, but should take great heart from the way they battled so hard and pinned their higher-place visitors back for spells.

Carlisle looked every inch a side who will be playing League One football next season. They had quality from front to back. The Carlisle manager Paul Simpson, who as a player is famous in these parts for once hitting the width of a post, will have left Valley Parade ruing the fact one of his players – the former Bantam Jordan Gibson – matched him in smacking a long rage shot against the woodwork, this time with the last kick of the game. But given the way the contest was going, Carlisle will ultimately judge this as a better result than their hosts.

The reality for City is they remain five points off third-place Carlisle with nine games left to play. It’s not an impossible gap to make up, but there is a sense they could have really narrowed it and put United under real pressure going into the final lap of the season – given the flurry of second half chances they created. They had Carlisle on the ropes for a time, but couldn’t deliver a knock out blow.

That will frustrate Mark Hughes, but he can be rightly proud of the performance of his players.

What will also encourage the City manager is that this was another example of the team improving over the course of the 90 minutes. The players responded well to tactical reshuffles, and grew stronger with each passing minute.

After the 1-1 draw with Mansfield in early February, there was rightly a lot of attention on the fact City were starting games well but struggling to carry it through over the 90 minutes. But since that day, there’s been several examples of the players displaying spirit and heart to overcome early difficulties. And they’ve notably got better during matches. This is definitely a good sign – and it’s why we shouldn’t be quite writing off their top three hopes just yet.

Of course, the glass half empty way of looking at that is to question whether City are starting games as strongly as they had been before. At least Hughes finally shook up a starting line-up that was growing stale after being unchanged for six games in a row. Harry Chapman came in for the injured Jamie Walker, with Scott Banks replacing Dara Costelloe. City began 4-3-3. It was different. And though it would be abandoned in the second half, the reset was good for Alex Gilliead and Richie Smallwood especially.

The two midfielders have spent much of recent weeks carrying the brunt of supporter frustration. Neither have been hitting the heights their ability and track record suggests they can offer, but have remained constant fixtures in the team regardless. Tonight the pair began flanking Adam Clayton – making his 500th career appearance – in the middle of the park and were much improved. It was a battle that required high energy levels, strong tackles and running with the ball. Both Gilliead and Smallwood did it very well. For each, this was their best games in weeks.

Still there was a question, once more, of whether what’s good for Gilliead and Smallwood is entirely right for the rest of the team. For example, selecting Banks and Chapman as wide strikers in the 4-3-3 did not work at all. Both players really struggled to get any change from a streetwise Carlisle backline, and that left Andy Cook spending much of the opening 45 minutes looking far too isolated and easy to defend against.

The first 30 minutes were even, with Carlisle 5-3-2 solid, slightly dour, but clever in giving the middle three space to attack. As half time approached, Carlisle began to press much more effectively than City, and take control. The home players really need to take inspiration from how good Carlisle are when the opposition is in possession. Ascending into the top three of League Two is not just about playing effectively when you have the ball, it’s about doing the out of possession things well. Stopping the opposition from playing. Ugly things that City are not great at.

For the Bantams, going 4-3-3 meant they lost some of their customary controlled possession style. All season long they’ve averaged a 73% passing success rate – the third-best in League Two. During the first half, it dropped to 61%.

And it was especially an issue in the 15 minutes before half time, where Carlisle got on top. Up until the 30-minute mark, City had 68% passing accuracy. Between minutes 30-35, it dropped to 47%. Then between minutes 35-40, it fall further to 36%. And even worse, between the 40th minute and the interval, it collapsed to 19%.

City were in trouble, and relieved to hear the half time whistle.

This is where Hughes earned his crust. City emerged for the second half in a 4-2-3-1, and looked much more accomplished for it. Gilliead was pushed up to the number 10 role, with Banks and Chapman dropping back and finding space to operate. The difference in both players was considerable. As was the service and support into Cook.

What a battle we were treated to between Cook and the Carlisle centre halves Morgan Feeney, Ben Barclay and Jon Mellish. With the ball played more to his feet to run onto, Cook relished taking on the Carlisle backline whilst deploying a mixture of skill and brawn. At one point he barged past Feeney and dribbled around Barclay, only for Feeney to produce a strong last ditch block. On another occasion Cook caused havoc inside the box as he chased a loose ball, and he almost got his shot away. You could visibly see how tough the Carlisle defenders were finding Cook to deal with.

Cook inevitably had City’s best chances, hitting the bar with a shot that deflected off Feeney after Smallwood found the League Two top scorer in space. In the closing stages, Cook was fed by Banks in a slightly wide position, and did well to sniff out some space before firing a shot that was saved by Tomas Holy.

If you’re going to be critical of City, you’d point out that this was their only shot on target all night. But Carlisle too only forced one save out of Harry Lewis. The truth was that this was a game of nearly moments where both teams got into good positions, but were either denied by defensive brilliance or hampered by a bad final pass. The lack of genuine goalmouth action did not detract from what a watchable contest this proved.

By the time Cook did register that shot on target, Hughes had changed formation again. With 22 minutes to play he brought on Romoney Crichlow for Liam Ridehalgh, Ryan East for Clayton and Vadaine Oliver for Chapman. City went with three at the back, and Gilliead and Brad Halliday as wing backs. It proved to be a shrewd move, leading to a final quarter of the game that City undoubtedly shaded.

The three centre halves approach has been deployed in three of the last four games, each time as an attacking tactic. City maybe don’t quite have the right personnel to make it completely work, but they do look very good when they adopt it. Finding a way to get the ball-playing skills of Crichlow in the side is a huge benefit of going with this approach, and Hughes may spend some of the 10-day gap to the next fixture pondering the merits of beginning games with this set-up.

That said, Hughes found time for a fourth formation change when he brought on the forgotten Dion Pereira for Gilliead late on, going with a diamond. City huffed and puffed in search of the breakthrough, but even with six minutes of stoppage time they couldn’t use their growing momentum to find it. Perhaps if Oliver had been sharper to a few opportunities, they might have got the breakthrough. Oliver has just come back from injury, but you wanted to see him do more at times. The big striker was also slightly lucky that a robust challenge on Barclay only resulted in a yellow card.

The stalemate lifts Carlisle back into the top three and edges City back up a place to fifth. And given eighth-place Mansfield – just outside the play offs – have two games in hand on everyone, the fact City are now five points ahead of the Stags could be crucial.

There is still work to do to seal at least a play off spot. It’s now four draws in a row, and City need to get back to winning ways to keep their top seven cushion. But equally, the Bantams have lost only two of their last 16 games, since they were defeated at Carlisle on Boxing Day. They’re edging in the right direction.

Maybe tonight showed small flashes of why City aren’t in stronger automatic promotion contention, but these aren’t the games that will cost them if they fall short. It’s the draws against out of form Walsall, Newport and Hartlepool, and disappointing defeats at home to Barrow and Rochdale, that are ultimately more damaging.

City showed here they can raise their game when playing against the top teams in League Two. If they’d only have produced this level of high intensity performances in games against so-called lesser teams, they wouldn’t now be facing such a sizeable gap to make up on the top three.

Categories: Match Reviews

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17 replies

  1. I think City will make the play offs and win at Wembley .

  2. My big worry in this Bradford city team/squad is lack of goals from everyone except cook. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team so reliant on one man to the extent we are with Cook.

    We aren’t a bad team and we are hard to beat but i just wish a few of the team could chip in with a couple of goals and a few of these draws might then become wins.

    I wonder if our defenders score a few headers when we are practicing corners in training, or one of our midfielders gets a lot of goals when practising free kicks in training.

  3. The draws and losses to the lesser teams have killed City’s auto promotion push. Play offs now the more realistic outcome. A real shame. City only have Northampton in around them to play ,the rest should be do able wins. (Last game at VP against L/orient will hopefully see them on holiday as already promoted). However City underperforming against these so called lesser sides should be a concern. The outcome of all of this is anyone’s guess?

  4. Good report. I have no complaints about last night other than we didn’t sneak a last minute winner. How good would that have been. Credit to MH for going all out to win the game. Couldn’t fault any player for their effort. A little more quality at key moments would have seen us win, but I think that’s L2 football. As the report says it’s the poor home results against lower teams that we will look back on if we don’t go up.

    As a bit of an aside, I am feeling hugely positive about where we are as a club and much of that has to do with MH. I have alot of respect for him putting his reputation on the line to come and manage in L2 which I think says a lot about him as a person. I think he’s still learning about L2 and have no doubt if we don’t go up this year we will come back even stronger next year. Me and my brother had almost lost interest til MH arrived but are now fully engaged again. Poor results are starting to ruin our weekends again which is all good.
    Let’s go all out to win our last 9 games and see where we end up. Come on City!

    • I agree. Its so refreshing to be ‘in the mix’ instead of messing about in mid table. Not sure we have quite what it takes to go up this year but we have to recognize the progress we have made this year.

    • Absolutely agree with your comments Dan. We’ve got to be happy being where we are in the table this season but also as a club and where we are now. Even if we don’t manage to crack promotion this time, I’m firmly believing it’s going to happen in 2024. The seeds are clearly there for an even bigger tilt next time (if required) with M.H L2 experience of what’s needed to get up. I felt City did try everything on Tuesday night to get the 3 points. In honesty, I do think we might just get there this season and my Sportsbet account is preparing to tip up nicely!!

  5. Gary Turner, I like your positive attitude! The result last night wasn’t the one we really wanted but I found the performance quite heartening. We were really under pressure up to half time, so to take the game to them as we did in the second half showed that there’s no problem with the attitude or confidence in the squad. Yes, Cook was too isolated. But he very nearly conjured a goal up from nothing on several occasions. I’m pinning a lot of hopes on Derbyshire being back fit for the run in. An experienced finisher alongside Cook could have made a big difference in this run of draws.

  6. We started brightly but the longer the first half went, the more disjointed we became. Carlisle looked increasingly confident and progressive. I was hoping for changes at halftime but looking at the bench there were few attacking options. We started the second half with much greater intensity, with Cook bullocking his way through and Chapman making a couple of good runs. Simpson was the first to make changes and they were attacking ones. We responded with probably the boldest change of personnel and formation we’ve seen from Hughes this season. Up front we had Cook and Oliver together, something we have rarely seen. Would it work? I wouldn’t rule out trying it again on the strength of twenty minutes, but I wish Oliver would put himself about more and punch his weight. An entertaining match overall, but yet another draw. Better than a loss of a vital six pointer must be the consolation, especially bearing in mind Gibson hit the post with the last kick. I appreciate that Hughes did go for it in the second half. I suggest we begin the next match with the intensity with which we ended this. Had we played like this at the weekend we would have blown Hartlepool away. Only one defeat in 13 since Clayton and Stubbs signed. We look a good bet for the playoffs.

  7. Most of the comments here are a true reflection of our season ,the dropping of points in games we should have won and Mark Hughes driving the club away from the doldrums of recent years.
    Carlisle were the epitome of a L2 team ,big ,strong and uncomplicated , but I thought we were far and away the best footballing side but at times got bullied off of it , but the 2nd half effort couldn’t be faulted .
    When I heard that Smallwood was made MOM i was amazed at fans around me moaning ,granted Gilliad was close ,I think a couple of wayward passes and loss of control late on maybe made more impression on their thinking.
    Overall I thought he had a great game ,constantly winning the ball and driving us on ,the sight of him waving his arms and urging the side to speed everything up was reminiscent of Mc Call in his heyday and the way a captain should perform.
    Cooky is so difficult to handle and I’m sure the Carlisle defenders welcomed the final whistle ,I agree with the concern that no one else is chopping in ,this needs to be addressed going forward.
    At least MH didn’t hang around with his substitutions last night and tried to push for the win , a complaint of mine from Saturday’s game .

    Still plenty of points to be won. I’ll keep the faith but regardless of the outcome we are going in the right direction as a club.

  8. I’m really glad I made the effort to turn out and watch this match. If I were a ‘neutral’ observer, I would have enjoyed a totally committed, end to end, value for money contest. Being a City fan, I must confess I was getting a bit anxious as we approached full time, with both teams equally matched and going at it. When Gibson hit the post with almost the last kick of the game, I felt anxiety turn to relief.

    We certainly have the ability and commitment in this team to compete in League one and with the support of both our home and brilliant away supporters, promotion is within touching distance. I’m looking forward to the final run in and League one football next season.Keep the faith !!

  9. With chances hard to come by I do find it frustrating that we fluff good opportunities to make more. Last night we had two: the free-kick won by Chapman which he then hit into the wall, and the very late corner which didn’t get past the first man. Opportunities like these when players have time to set themselves need to be used better, doesn’t mater what level you are playing at.
    Thought it was the best performance for some time.

  10. As I always say. Born out of 60.plus seasons of watching City ‘anything can happen and usually does’.
    I think we will achieve a play off place at the very least snd then it’s three Cup Finals.

  11. The lads put in a fantastic shift last night. For a nil nil, it really was a great watch.

    I imagine the two lads at the back are really hoping they don’t have to play Cooky again this season.

  12. For a 0-0 it with few shots on goal it was an entertaining game and whilst City edged it over 90 minutes a draw was probably a fair result.
    It’s certainly made for 9 interesting and challenging games, but we must take heart from the fact that we have some key players returning from their injury.
    As Bantams we live in eternal hope 🙏🏼

  13. Walker and Derbyshire coming back for the Grimsby game will make a difference.

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