|Bradford City 3|
|Banks 12, Chapman 63, Cook 71|
|Sutton United 1|
By Jason McKeown
This felt huge. It wasn’t just about the three points, it wasn’t just about well-taken goals from Scott Banks, Harry Chapman and Andy Cook, and it wasn’t just about the twists and turns elsewhere in League Two .
It felt huge because of the nature of Bradford City’s performance. One that was of a standard they’ve reached only fleetingly all season, especially on their own turf. They were absolutely outstanding here, brushing aside a spirited but flawed Sutton United side.
City played the visitors off the park, brilliantly marrying up their quality with endeavour. To a man, they worked their socks off. Ran themselves into the ground. They wanted it. They hunted for it. And they produced something special at a stage of the campaign where it really, really matters.
So much of the soundtrack to this season has been about how performances haven’t been convincing enough. City have been patchy too often. Spells in games when they look irresistible, only to then have periods where they really struggle. The now notorious expected goal statistics suggest City are actually a mid-table side.
For weeks and months, we’ve all debated when City would find that higher gear. And in some ways, we’d given up hope of them ever finding it. This flakiness seemed to be their ceiling, for whatever reason. But however much we might feel a bit concerned by performances, it’s largely working – the last home game against Grimsby a perfect example.
But here today, they finally found that higher gear. From the first minute to the last, City delivered a performance that can only be rivalled by the home game against Salford on New Year’s Day, and the February Tuesday night trip to Gillingham. From front to back, it clicked. And to produce this level of excellence right now, when the stakes are so high, feels significant. This is the time of year where previous City promotion campaigns have featured nervy-jangling, deeply unconvincing wins as the pressure intensifies. Not arguably your best football of the season, as City delivered here.
You could make a convincing argument for five or six City players to be man of the match. The sponsors were spoilt for choice, though the fact they went for Jamie Walker said much about the big impact of the Scot. Walker was truly magnificent here, easily producing his best display in a City shirt. He linked up superbly with Cook, Banks and Chapman. He harried opposition players for possession. And when he wasn’t tearing past defenders, he was producing insightful passes to cut the opposition open.
Walker has been a frustrating player to watch over the last few weeks. We saw at the end of last season what he was capable of. But after injury problems, he’s struggled to get going at all this campaign. Walker’s vision, bravery and trickery – plus his undoubted leadership qualities – make him a difficult player to leave out, but he’s flattered to deceive.
Here, at last, was justification for Mark Hughes’ decision to stick by him. When he’s on form, Walker makes the entire team purr. Chapman, Banks and Cook deserve all the credit in the world for brilliant individual performances, but Walker’s influence and craft helped them become better players. He gave the team the spark.
Walker set the tone with an excellent burst forward that led to the first chance with barely a minute on the clock. Sutton United had prompted home supporter groans when they won the coin toss and forced City to attack the Kop in the first half. But in a game where the first goal felt so crucial, the decision probably backfired on the visitors. With Walker, Cook, Chapman and Banks looking full of purpose right from kick off, the crowd roared on the team and they soon took the lead. Walker – of course – was involved in teeing up Banks, who cut inside and shot with his weaker right foot from an angle.
The goal took away any home supporter tensions and the players kept up their fast tempo. Richie Smallwood and Alex Gilliead ran and ran. They habitually battled hard to win the ball back, and they charged forward to set up attacks. Again, Hughes is reaping the rewards for sticking with the pair when there were loud, credible calls for either or both to be dropped a few weeks ago. Neither were playing well at the time, but they’ve got through their sticky patches and look more assertive than before. With hindsight, the injury to Adam Clayton might have proven a blessing.
Smallwood has been much maligned as captain, but here – as he did against Grimsby – there were visible signs of his leadership. None more so than midway through the first half when former City striker Lee Angol was fouled. Smallwood stood right in front of Angol to block his path. And then, when the Sutton forward tried to walk forwards, Smallwood stayed in front of him whilst walking backwards. He kept a menacing glare fixed onto Angol. It was in some ways a curious manner to behave towards a recent former team mate, but it was a defiant message to the crowd and team-mates from Smallwood.
This is not a time for niceties. We mean business.
Everyone of a claret and amber persuasion loved what Smallwood did, and it helped to maintain the intensity at a point where – at 1-0 up – City have often been guilty of switching off. The chances kept coming, with Cook hitting the post and forcing an excellent save from Sutton’s Jack Rose (Cook would hit the woodwork again early in the second half). Sam Stubbs and Gilliead also came close.
Then came a shock twist. Completely against the run of play, Sutton won a penalty kick. It was a frustrating replay of the Grimsby game, when a harmless opposition punt into the box needed to be dealt with by the centre half – this time Stubbs – who seemed to be waiting for Harry Lewis. Angol nipped in and was tripped by the City keeper. He took the penalty himself, only for his well-struck shot to bounce back off the bar.
Watching Angol miss from the spot only pumped up City fans even more. “City reject” was a constant taunt all afternoon. It was harsh in some ways, but it was a reaction to the way Angol plays. As we know from his time at Valley Parade, Angol is a physical forward who operates on the edge and attempts to bully defenders. His intensity can anger opposition fans – I remember last season in the FA Cup, when Exeter City fans had a real problem with Angol – but it can be very effective.
Here, the presence of Angol seemed to work against Sutton rather than help them. That’s no reflection of Angol’s ability, and indeed he did several impressive things during the match. But the fact the crowd knew Angol so well, and he was playing in such an antagonistic way, only served to whip up the atmosphere. Sutton, like so many others, must have come here knowing that part of the gameplan had to include finding a way to quieten the crowd. Angol’s aggressive approach – plus the fact his old team-mates knew what buttons to press and were successfully winding him up to the point he seemed close to getting himself sent off – undermined visitor attempts to hush Valley Parade, and it was no surprise he was eventually subbed.
Two minutes after he departed the field, Angol’s side were two goals behind and firmly on their way to a play off aspiration-ending defeat. Chapman received possession from Liam Ridehalgh, drove past his man and took advantage of the space opening up to curl a powerful low effort into the far corner.
You could see this goal meant the world to Chapman and rightly so. He spent the first half of the season playing out of position, covering for the injured Walker as a number 10, and then he lost his place. Recent opportunities have not been handled brilliantly by Chapman, but here in a 4-2-3-1 set-up, and with an on-form Walker to bounce off, Chapman thrived. This is another player who’s been delivering 6 out of 10 performances for most of the season, suddenly finding peak form.
Eight minutes later, City won a turnover and Gilliead sent Cook away. The 32-year-old cut inside and got the ball into the place he wanted, before unleashing a powerful low strike that whizzed past Rose. This was Cook’s 100th league appearance for City, marked with his 44th league goal. 27 for the season now. One behind Dean Windass’ 28 of 2004/05 – the next record Cook will surely smash. As Hughes commented later, Cook’s all round game has been really strong of late. He really deserved this goal.
There was a small air of late uncertainty when David Ajiboye crossed for Omar Bugiel to head home for Sutton, with 10 minutes to go. A real shame that City couldn’t see out a clean sheet, given that defensively there were superb all afternoon.
From the games I’ve seen, I thought this was Stubbs’ best performance since signing for City in January. The penalty incident aside, he barely put a foot wrong. He is such a warrior and is comfortable on the ball. Stubbs’ willingness to go more direct and ability to pick out team mates with long passes has helped the team in recent weeks. Alongside Stubbs, Romoney Crichlow made the most of Matty Platt’s suspension and looked like he’d never been away. It will be hard for Platt to win back his place from here.
Let’s not leave out the full backs either. On social media, there has been some debate about whether City’s full backs are good enough for a team with promotion aspirations, and Brad Halliday received a lot of criticism for a below par display at Crawley on Friday.
It’s fair to say Halliday could use the ball better at times, but he is solid, reliable and gets up and down really well. As for Ridehalgh, he never lets anyone down. When he’s played this season, City have won 50% of their matches and lost only 18%. Without him, they’ve won only 36% and lost 32%. So yeah, he and Halliday might not be world beaters – but they’re both playing a valued role for a team with automatic promotion aspirations.
(And we haven’t even mentioned Lewis, who penalty mistake aside barely had anything to do.)
So that’s 11 players well on top of their game, producing a superb performance and a brilliant win. We do need to include a small asterisk though. Sutton were really good opponents for City to play right now. Unlike many other visiting sides, they didn’t park the bus. They tried to play a high press game that the very best League Two sides – Stockport and Northampton at least – have deployed effectively at Valley Parade. But ultimately Sutton lacked that same level of quality.
By being so attack minded, Sutton made it an open game and in doing so played right into City’s hands. They allowed Smallwood and Gilliead to dictate midfield. They didn’t put any pressure on Walker. Their rigid 4-4-2 meant there was loads of space for Banks and Chapman to run into. They were physical and won plenty of high balls, but could not get it up to Bugiel and Angol, who in the first half touched the ball just 25 times between them (Cook on his own had 22 touches).
The point of adding the asterisk is not to any way diminish City’s display. But it’s probably very unlikely they’ll come up against such generous opposition over the final six games. The fact is Sutton had to win this game and went for it in a naive way. And in doing so, they made it much easier for City to profit.
Still, it gives City an enormous shot of conviction.
Indeed, after the game, on BBC Radio Leeds, their excellent summariser Filipe Morais pointed out that with momentum on their side, City are likely to get even stronger over these final six games. On the evidence of what they served up here, the idea they could get even better is a tantalising prospect. And just as automatic promotion challengers Stevenage and Carlisle are showing genuine signs of flagging, the ascendancy that Bradford City find themselves in could be the telling difference in the run-in.
What do they have to fear? After this display, everyone at the club should feel 10 foot tall. Confidence can only be boosted by the thrilling way City tore into Sutton United. They could have easily scored six, but they’ll absolutely settle for the comfortable scoreline that now leaves them just two points behind the top three, with a game in hand.
The first back-to-back home wins since the turn of the year. A 10th game unbeaten – their best run since the 2016/17 season – and they’ve lost only two of their last 19 league games. Four of their last six games are away from home, but they’re unbeaten on the road since Boxing Day. This is arguably Bradford City’s best chance of an automatic promotion since the famous 1998/99 season, almost a quarter of a century ago.
Utter delirium could lie ahead, or complete heartbreak. There’s probably no middle ground. And writing that makes me feel nervous and excited in equal measure. Sleepless nights lie ahead. Hours will be spent studying fixture lists, form guides, and the tightest-looking of League Two tables. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds, and yet part of me never wants it to end. These are the times you crave for every year as a football fan. Whatever is in store for us might hurt far more than the grey emptiness of the last few years – but as Alfred Lord Tennyson famously wrote, “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
And I love this. I love Mark Hughes as our manager. I love the way the team has developed. I love the way we try to play football. And I love the way the mood has changed to one where even some of the most cynical-minded City fans you can think of in your life now seem to be right behind the club. The fact that at full time so many fans stayed back to clap the team off the pitch spoke volumes. This is a united football club once more. Supporters in love with their team. A team enjoying the Valley Parade stage.
Whatever happens, recent weeks – and afternoons like this – strongly suggest that Bradford City has its soul back. That for the first time since the pain of Wembley in 2017, we can actually feel proud of this team.
And that’s huge.
Categories: Match Reviews
Personally, I think City’s promotion prospects were boosted when Adam Clayton got injured. It’s forced Hughes to abandon pragmatic football with six defenders and now City play on the front foot. Scott Banks in particular was the odd man out with only 15 starts this season. Yet he’s scored five goals and begs the question, what the heck was Hughes thinking???
A great report Jason, let’s hope we keep this form going over the last six games.
I just hope we can get an auto spot so we do not have to look back on our draws over recent weeks and think what if.
Great report Jason, and summed up brilliantly in the last three paragraphs.
Completely agree. Excellent report as always. Summed up the game and where we are as a club. Exciting times – Come on City!!
I’d obviously love the certainty of the automatics but..,
Imagine that performance at Wembley, that would be a day to remember
Strangely my feeling is I wish the season would go longer!
Without being disrespectful let’s face it this season city have become quite an attritional side. In a good way. Yes you may feel we have drawn too many games. But we’re very hard to beat. If there were ten more games left instead of six. I think we’d grind ourselves into second.
As it is to gain automatic we need the drop in form from Carlisle and Stevenage to continue. And now we need one of Stockport or Northampton to hit the stoppers. Now more than ever this team needs to just focus on itself. Not look at what the other teams are doing and take it One game at a time
All the best footballing cliches! (Oh and a few more…)
Plus we need a little bit of luck on our side we need to hope there are no significant suspensions or injuries and every squad member needs to take their chance if and when it comes. Everyone has a contribution to make
Third last paragraph Jason – absolutely spot on – 👏👏👏.
Hughes has the Fergie mentality running through his veins. Man Utd always knew how to get over the line and win big, and I see City doing the same. These last 6 games are all winnable which would mean autos was nailed on.
I like Clayton but I do think his injury has been a blessing. We are moving quicker in the middle of the park. Stubbs and Critchlow were superb yesterday, and Platt will struggle to get back in. Stubbs has been everything Exeter fans said he would be if he stayed fit. His experience of winning promotion is definitely reaping benefits for us.
Thanks Jason. I’ve said here before how frustrating it’s been that whilst our away form has been fantastic, our home form has been at best mediocre- so what a joy to have back to back home wins, with 9 goals, most importantly 6 being ours.
I’ve indulged in a bit of statto-like snapshot analysis of the table, and right now, drew out of it:
– We are equally balanced in in our 2 battles, to remain at least in a play off spot (3 points cushion) or to secure an automatic spot (3 points, allowing for a poorer goal difference).
– Although it’s mathematically possible for a team as low as Grimsby in 14th to pip us to a play off spot, arguably now that battle is only with the 2 teams below us, Salford & Mansfield. And the battle for the automatics is possibly wider for 2nd or 3rd with the 4 teams directly above, Stockport, Northampton & Stevenage and Carlisle. So arguably only 6 other teams to obsess about.
– As you say, the snapshot view on tracking form is that Stevenage and Carlisle look to have stalled. Stockport are surging. And there are, in the top 7 mix, 2 other teams with identical form to us (in both points, and same blend of wins, draws and losses) whether you look at that over the last 3,4,5 or 6 games. They are Leyton Orient and Mansfield.
– One other team has the same tracking form over the last 3 games as us, with 2 wins and a draw. And that’s our bottom of the table opponents on Saturday, Rochdale.
As you say, an exciting race for the line…!!
Onwards and upwards! What a delicious prospect these coming weeks have in store!
Hughes has been labelled as too pragmatic. At the beginning of the season he started with 4231 as he played yesterday and was criticised for his stubbornness in not changing. Potentially he did wait a little bit too long to find another way, however we as supporters often think it’s simply ‘pick the best 11 players’.
In the first game of the season he lost two of his starting XI for a significant period. One who yesterday proved his significance. In January he lost his ace in the pack, Tyreik Wright. Banks has spent a significant time out injured.
He found another way to grind out results. You can understand a reluctance to move away from this as we were producing results. So I agree Clayton’s injury has the potential to be a blessing but we shouldn’t underplay his influence over that period and credit Hughes for keeping us there or thereabouts.
Cook’s all round game has come on tremendously he used to be just a finisher.
Banks early on in the season looked a one trick pony cutting in on his left. Now he is going both ways.
Just two examples of Hughes (and staff impact). A lot of work goes on on the training ground that we don’t see. You can see the impact and a style Hughes has been working on.
I’ve grown a real affection for this team over the season, the characters, those like Critchlow and Dion who’ve been left out without causing a fuss, and most of all the quality.
Smallwood, Walker, Lewis, Stubbs and Cook in particular have proven themselves a class above. Gilliead has an engine that doesn’t stop, Banks is a gem and absolutely nobody has let us down.
I’m now starting to hope our friends down the road stay up and Critchlow becomes surplus to requirements. However we will also need to do the business to stand a chance of getting him, by far from a job done!
Now is the time to just do it. We don’t need to discuss it: we need to leave the talking until after we’ve done it. Let our feet express our feelings as Mourinho once said.
The game in hand could be winner 🙏 a few more twists and turns lie ahead for the top 8 squeaky time for all, but that is football and why we love it, we have lost to lower teams including Rochdale at home who we face on Saturday, but this is now a different part of the season chasing automatic promotion and judging from Easter Monday’s performance, we look a good outfit and for me that was our best game of the season to take that to Spotland who let’s face it have a mammoth task to survive, we look good value, very exciting end to the season and looking forward to every game, when was the last time we witnessed this in a season, hold onto your seat’s and enjoy the ride……
We are on our way, Come on City 🙏🙏🙏
I said it after Crawley that bringing Critchlow back will help with fluency from the back and what a difference he makes. No dilly and dallying with the ball at the back and it makes a huge difference.
What also impressed me yesterday was the willingness to cross balls into the box, Cook hit the woodwork with 2 headers and had one blocked. Even when the balls didn’t hit cook we were quick to recycle the ball.
This season is very much proving to be a rollercoaster but bring it on. 6 cup finals to come and on form with one defeat in 16. It’s gonna go to the wire but really hope Hughes sticks with what we have now as finally looks like we have our best 11 out on the pitch now.
Four wins and two draws, and we’re over the line !
I would have brought Cook and Walker off as soon as the third goal went in.
To protect them from.injuries and cards in the games coming up and to give other players minutes.
We are hard to beat and have a goalscorer which could be vital.
Very exciting with 6 games left. It’s not hard to imagine that we go to 46th game having to beat Orient to finish third. Who can forget beating Wolves to go up and then Liverpool to stay up? Thanks to MH for such a nail biter. Good article Jason. 👍