Bradford City pay the price for a slow start and timid ending to draw with Gillingham on a big afternoon in the promotion run-in

Bradford City 2
Cook 48, 84 (pen)
Gillingham 2
Dieng 12, Hawkins 90+7

By Jason McKeown

This race for promotion is not for the faint of heart. In a dizzying afternoon of twists and turns, Bradford City went from the brink of despair to the edge of glory – and then back to utter agony. They emerge from this 2-2 draw with Gillingham still in the play offs, but clinging on. Whilst their automatic hopes have vastly shrunk.

As the music pauses and we attempt to catch our breath, the bottom line is that City have drawn a must-win game in their top three quest, dropping both two points and a place down the league. They’ve actually edged a point closer to third-place Stevenage – who lost – yet somehow the gap looks further away. And that’s not the only bad news.

The fact that it was Mansfield who defeated Stevenage has implications on City’s play off hopes. Nigel Clough’s side have moved level on points with the Bantams, who only stay ahead of them on goal difference. Salford have gone above City, thanks to another dramatic late win on the road. A top seven finish had looked almost nailed on for City, but they’ve still got work to do – though seven points from their final three matches will be enough to clinch a play off spot.

City will be full of regret here. They endured a wretched first half display that left them fortunate to go in at the break only a goal behind to a Gillingham side with nothing to play for. Not for the first time in recent weeks at Valley Parade, there was a very strong second half response from Mark Hughes’ charges. And the pendulum swung the other way, with two Andy Cook goals putting them 2-1 ahead.

A jaw-dropping eight minutes of injury time were announced, which City couldn’t see out. Oli Hawkins’ 97th minute equaliser will have been cheered just as loudly by his former club Mansfield as it was by 300+ Gills fans.

The visitors deserved something. It’s been well documented that Neil Harris’ side have been transformed since their mid-season takeover and strong January window investment, but they’d still lost their last three on the road and were outplayed by City when they visited Kent just 53 days ago. Free from any lingering concerns about relegation, Gillingham were full of confidence and attacking intensity.

It was as though City weren’t expecting it. Right from kick off they looked off their usual game. Half asleep almost. Only one side initially looked like they were pushing for promotion, and it wasn’t the hosts. Gillingham deployed a high press, and in that first half probably executed it to a level of effectiveness we’ve not seen from a visiting side to Valley Parade all season. Stockport and Gillingham were good at the press, but there was real fierceness about Gillingham’s approach.

Hughes has said in the past he likes opposing teams to play a high press, rather than parking the bus. With City’s principles of playing out from the back, successfully getting around the press gives you more space behind to operate, and likely more joy in attack. City’s last home game, against Sutton, was a great example of this. Sutton deployed the press, weren’t very good at it, and City made hay by playing through them and maximising the gaps.

Gillingham simply weren’t going to make it that easy, and right in the opening minutes they rattled City. Harry Lewis nearly made an awful error just two minutes in, when his attempt to pass around the visitors went badly wrong. Romoney Crichlow and Liam Ridehalgh got caught out in the opening stages too. The worry within the home crowd was evident early doors – their team was not at the races, and was playing a dangerous game.

Sure enough, Gillingham took advantage. Crichlow received the ball just inside his own half. He had options. Not least just launching it forward. He dallied. Gillingham stole in. And former Bantam Timothee Dieng was able to run through and confidently finish past Lewis.

There was just sheer and utter panic at times. Gillingham piling players forward, working the ball into the box, and City failing to clear their lines. They kept giving the ball straight back to a Gillingham player, who put it back in the mix to keep the pressure on. City were hanging on and looking on the ropes. That they didn’t go 2-0 behind was more down to luck than resolve.   

I think it’s fair to say those first 45 minutes were the toughest Lewis has experienced in a City shirt so far. He had gone onto the pitch, as usual, with instructions from his manager to play it out, but his normal composure was lacking and soon the crowd were really on his back. Every time Lewis went for a short pass, the groans and even boos were heavy. It was clearly affecting the City stopper, and left him with a real dilemma of whether to listen to the crowd or stick to the instructions.

At one point Hughes appeared to shout over to Lewis to go longer, which made sense. Gillingham’s high press was seriously compromising City, and they had to be pragmatic. This was not a time to play with principles. It’s situations like this when Hughes will want a bit more in-game intelligence from his players. For them to be more tactically astute to an unfolding situation.

Even with City eventually going more direct, they just could not get going at the other end. Jamie Walker was off the boil, again, and there must surely be serious consideration around dropping him. One excellent game in five is not enough. Cook was starved of service – he touched the ball just 16 times in the first half. Whilst Scott Banks and Brad Halliday linked up well and battled hard, the left side of City’s attack was non-existent.

With Harry Chapman out for the season, Thierry Nevers was given a full debut but struggled badly in the first half. In fact, it probably ranks as one of the worst individual 45-minutes displays by a City player this season.

Nevers likes to cut inside but kept running with the ball into areas where he was crowded out. He tried tricks that didn’t come off. And his unwillingness to run into space for Ridehalgh left the team unbalanced. Gillingham’s 4-4-1-1 made for a packed middle of the park, as George Lapslie rotated between playing in the hole when Gillingham had possession and dropping back into midfield when they didn’t.

City needed to stretch the game in wide areas, and Nevers just wasn’t able to do that. In contrast Banks, who also likes to cut inside, was sticking to the byeline and caused a lot of the problems. By the end of the half, Nevers looked downhearted and was almost hiding from the ball. It was a surprise he was kept on after the break.

Though for the sake of his career, it was good that he did. Hughes must have spent the interval talking with the West Ham loanee, plus Lewis and Crichlow in particular. The team emerged much calmer in the second half. And remembered what has made them successful this season.

Indeed Nevers played a part in City’s equaliser, laying the ball into the path of the onrushing Ridehalgh, who sent over a high cross that Cook nodded home. The Gillingham goalkeeper, Glenn Morris, should have kept the effort out at his near post, but somehow let it creep in. Coming just three minutes after the break, it was the turning point City needed.

From there, they absolutely took control. The issues at the back largely sorted, they pushed forward with more purpose and drive. Nevers looked more effective, although was replaced on the hour (Emmanuel Osadebe, who came on in place, impressed). Banks continued to run at defenders and cause havoc. Cook was more involved.

The true second halves of the show for City were Alex Gilliead and Richie Smallwood. They were fantastic at winning the ball back higher up the park, and showed real urgency in getting the next attacking move going. If in the first half there were moments where it felt like wave after wave of Gillingham attacks, the game had totally changed and it was City having spells of relentlessly knocking on the door. Full credit to Gilliead and Smallwood for taking control of the middle of the park. The pair were making City tick. Kudos also to Halliday who had a very good game.

With time running out, Banks brought down a high ball in the box and was tripped. A clear penalty to City, one that was confidently converted by Cook for goal number 29 (twenty-nine!) of his incredible season. And as the wild celebrations that ensued began to calm, thousands of us in the stands got out our phones to glance at a live league table that now had City two points off the automatic promotion spots. There was suddenly a renewed optimism about promotion following the Swindon setback. We could actually do this!

In the spell between half time and Cook’s penalty, City had 10 shots on goal to Gillingham’s one, and won five corners (Gillingham had one over this period). The Bantams had 62% possession, and produced over three times more accurate passes than their opponents. It was a dominant 40 minutes from City, even though they had spells where they were still a little slow in their quest for the win.

The problem was what happened after Cook’s penalty. Not for the first time at home this season, their game management in defending a lead wasn’t great. Cook’s penalty conversation was City’s last attempt on goal in the contest. In the final 13 minutes of action (including those questionable eight minutes injury time), Gillingham had a whopping 77% possession, won three corners (to City’s zero), and produced five shots on goal.

Two of those efforts were brilliantly thwarted by Lewis – the way he clawed away Tom Nichols’ header was simply breathtaking, as it looked a certain goal. After an afternoon that began in such difficult fashion for Lewis, he was set to end it as a hero. But then with less than 90 seconds to go, Hawkins was able to poke home from a corner and leave City on their knees. There were legitimate claims from the Bantams that Lewis had been impeded as the corner came over – it was a tactic Gillingham deployed on the City stopper all afternoon – and Hughes was yellow carded for his complaints.

But despite the element of hard luck to the way the game ended, City have to take most of the blame for not winning this one. You can’t start games that badly and get it away with it. You can’t retreat so much in the closing stages when you’re winning, inviting so much pressure. City made it an easier game for Gillingham than it should have been.

It’s hard to make a case for City achieving automatic promotion now. They go to Northampton next, with the Cobblers knowing that a victory will earn them promotion. Sixfields will be rocking, and it’s not the sort of fixture you want at this point.

If City lose at Northampton and Stevenage win either Tuesday’s trip to Swindon or Saturday’s home game with Grimsby, top three is mathematically over for the Bantams. And even if City beat Northampton and Stevenage continue to flounder, Stockport and Carlisle are still above the Bantams and next in line to take advantage of any slip ups.

Adding to the pressure for City is the fact they may kick off at Northampton outside the play offs, should Mansfield pick up at least a point in their Tuesday home encounter with Leyton Orient. At this point, the Bantams will have a game in hand against both the Stags and Salford, but it means there’s an awful lot riding on what they do at Northampton and the Wednesday after at Crewe.

The margins are just so thin.

Remaining fixtures (click on table to make it larger)

Over the last five days, City have picked up one point from a possible six, at a stage where every single promotion rival has won at least one of the two games they’ve played. They’ve blinked when others have delivered. And that means they’ve got plenty of work to do over the final three matches.

As supporters, this last week has been utter agony. We bounced out of Spotland last Saturday on such a high, with the stars seemingly aligning for City. But just when you could almost taste promotion success, it’s all gone wrong. Nothing has been decided. Our fate is not yet sealed. But the very real fear right now is that the pain of losing at Swindon, and conceding late on here, is only a warm up act to the true depth of heartbreak that we are about to experience.  

Categories: Match Reviews

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30 replies

  1. It was crunch time and we misheard and went out for lunch, as David Brent’s acerbic jibe went. What a great pity that so often when we are in a position to exert pressure on other teams and stake our claim for automatic promotion we manage one way or another to blow it. There’s a season-long pattern here of not starting well and of conceding late goals. We’ve dropped 10 points at least from ultra-late goals. (I notice Salford have scored 97th minute winners in the last two games, today playing with ten men.) So are we as good as we think we are – or as our manager apparently thinks we are? Or are we just blinking unlucky? If we are going up we are doing it the hard way. You look at the squad, its sheer size and the players in it, and can’t help wondering why we have made it so difficult for ourselves, especially with a player on 28 goals for the season. This is a question that must be asked – and answered – if we don’t go up. The question I’m asking right now, however, is where did the eight minutes injury time come from? One point from two games at this late stage is a bitter blow. And next season, wherever we are, can we have some taller defenders.

  2. Anything can happen and probably will.
    That’s what I have learned over many many seasons.
    Others will drop points towards the finale.
    Playing Northampton on a day when a win could take them up could be ideal.
    We are hard to beat and have a proven goal scorer.
    Next Saturday it could all be much different.
    Anything can happen and probably will.

  3. If you suffer from a weak heart or anxiety, being at VP today wouldn’t have been good for your health. However, if you wanted to experience the pure drama, anguish, adrenaline rush, madness of an unscripted event, then this is for you. Get a season ticket if you haven’t got one already. The atmosphere in the 2nd half was belting. One of the best of the season of course not for the last 10mins!

    I would have loved to have sealed the win but Gillingham, with a proven championship manager, were no mugs and deserved a point at least. Neil Harris is building a team there who will be in the mix next season.

    Had Walker netted 1 of his 3 decent chances, the 1st shortly after Cook equalized, or Banks hit the target with his several goal attempts, then maybe this game would have turned out differently (maybe).

    It’s 6 years since we’ve had something to play for come Apr. It’s nice to feel that giddiness for a change. With 3 games left, we better saddle up for more drama.

  4. Sorry but its been this way ALL SEASON.
    Weve been close BUT NOT MANAGED TO DO IT.
    Today was just another example.



    Fed up realistic City fan!

  5. If today was the first time I’d watched City play and was told afterwards that Mark Hughes was a former Premier League Manager I would be shocked. In the first half it took Hughes 30 minutes before the team abandoned playing out from the back. To me it looked like a flashback to the Stockport game and forward press. City looked totally disorganized and suffering from stage fright.

    A draw was a fair result.

  6. Thought Walker put a shift in and played his part in a spirited second half. It did not quite come off for him in the box but he fed well of Cookey’s hard work in the second half and linked up well with Banks. It would be an odd decision to drop him particularly in the absence of Chapman in my opinion. Harry needs to far more commanding with set plays/crosses to add to the shot stopping if he wants to really progress.

    • if anything i am amazed that Dion wasn’t on the bench at least. Is Nevers really better than him? or even Osadebe? We saw how Walker and Dion linked up at the end of last season and Walker himself says this in his interview with the City Gent. I am not witness to training sessions but Dion played earlier this season when we rarely utilised our wide players despite having quite a few of them. Now at a time we needed 3 points every game we don’t even have that option from the bench, yet we had a few games with Costteloe and now Nevers showing very little????

  7. Apart from beating the so called press once every half can anyone please (I beg you) give me the benefits of playing out from the back in the manner we do. Even more bizarre to try it with players who aren’t comfortable with it. ? I’ve watched Man U and Arsenal this week embarrass themselves and us do this to clear embarrassment at 6 home games at least. Anyone please…
    I don’t mind passing to a full back who’s facing forward and has intent and getting it up the park but this stuff is in my mind ego coaching nonsense.

    • Mark Hughes explains his tactics in his interview with the league of 72 on YouTube. At our level, there is a high turnover of possession, so the aim is to limit the transitions of play which makes sense because high turnover of possession isn’t entertaining to watch and neither does it win football matches if you’re constantly giving the ball back to the other team. This was evident versus Sutton where we benefitted from their inability to keep the ball. I wasn’t a fan of this type of football in the beginning, but I’m warming to it. I think some of the games recently, for example versus Grimsby, Sutton and Rochdale, we’ve played some of the best football we’ve seen City play for a long time, before we got relegated to league two.

      • I agree with Mboro Richie, as it seems do most of those reading this.

        I used to despair in seasons gone by, at the constant long balls, that 50% of the time or more ended up with the other team and came back to bite us. So I don’t have a problem with building an attack from the back line- and nostalge for the days when someone like Tony McMahon could time and time again take it to the half way line, then launch a key pass into the final third.

        The problem is with the hesitant crab football of multiple side passes, that invites pressure, yards from our own goal…with no margin for clawing it back if dispossessed. It’s cost us goals this season, and almost did again yesterday. Madness.

  8. Mark Hughes has been indulged by the club far more than any manager in recent times. He has been granted a large squad (by league two standards) and was given his head again in the January transfer window.
    That we are sweating on a top 7 finish represents a major failure given those resources.
    It took Hughes a long time to cotton on to the fact that league 2 players cannot be expected to be comfortable playing tippy-tappy from the back. They are in league 2 for a reason. So going long became more of an option and caused less frustration from supporters.
    If we end up in league 2 again I think that if Hughes stays, having learned what it takes to be successful in this league, and with astute recruitment from Stephen Gent, we will breeze the league next season. Mind you I have been optimistic since 1959!

    • He hasn’t cottoned on yet we are still trying to play like Man City. Unnecessarily. You can’t score from your own half you only concede.
      Rocket science it isn’t !

    • we have spent most of the season crossing from deep and playing inverted wingers. Cooky scored again today from the only real cross from the ‘dead’-ball line. We have been crying out all season, even from the first game against against Doncaster, for our players to get to the dead-ball line and cross from there, especially at home.

  9. Today was heartbreaking. Not quite last chance saloon but it feels like its slipping away. 3 games to go and it doesn’t look promising. However we are hard to beat and 4 points will probably give us a play off spot. The play offs might suit us. We could probably grind our way to Wembley by the odd goal. Who knows how this season will pan out but maybe the hurt we are all currently feeling will turn to joy in a couple of weeks. We have been here before.

  10. I have lost count the number of times this season we have thrown away a winning or drawing position after 90+ mns (somebody may remind me..?) Surely this lack of concentration has cost us a promotion place or dare I say it a play-off spot?

  11. Really poor from city after the penalty. They retreated and seemed to think the game would just win itself. 8 mins or not. Simply cannot retreat. The way city we’re playing had gillingham completely pegged back and had nullified any threat. Instead we just switched off and allowed them possession, territory and time. A draw was a fair result in the end and we can only blame ourselves. Hugely frustrating. This game was an exact analogy of the entire season. It’s like we always think ahhhh we’re almost there. Not quite. A point will do. There’s always next time. But guess what there isn’t soon is there. We really need to feel that urgency and criticality to give it all here and now. Not next time.
    I don’t fancy us for promotion via the playoffs and think 99pc the automatics have now gone.
    There’s always next time….

  12. Drop Walker?!! Very strange view! Our best passages of play nearly always involve him. The comment on Nevers is also very extreme. He was off the pace I agree but was surrounded by far more experienced teammates making errors. Do we really think hammering him from the stands helps? It was the similar treatment by these so-called ‘fans’ of the likes of Omari Patrick and Jordan Gibson that destroyed their confidence too but they are now both established League Two players with a top-five club. Come on folks stay positive, we all want the same thing!!

    • Really think James is spot on most of the time and enjoy all his posts, and totally agree about nevers really poor makes runs but does he really want the ball ? As for Walker still think he is the man better than most when he plays , like Halliday he will make a mistake but never hides from the game . I feel that the Orient game will be the biggest games in years been Bradford city we know what is coming!

    • Have to agree Craig, the last thing I’d be doing is dropping Walker.

  13. Blimey! I knew there were going to be ups and downs in the run in, but not sure how much more of this I can take. Love reading the reports and comments- they are a kind of therapy knowing others are on the same emotional rollercoaster. For me credit to MH and the lads for coming out second half and turning it around, for a while at least! I love Valley Parade but it has always worried me how quickly the atmosphere can turn destructively negative. The first half was really poor, but I have had no doubt all season that MH and the team are trying their best and care about City. We are all part of the team and the best teams I have worked in pull together and support each other when the chips are down Come on City!!!

  14. Heartbreaking end the game, but when the Assistant Referee help up the 8 minutes stoppage time, somewhere deep inside us, many of us just knew how the match was destined to end. Gillingham looked confident organised & fearless, rejuvenated under Harris. We looked a little too fearful to me which is perhaps understandable. We need to learn to close games out, & stop giving the opposition the sense they can strike back. We did fantastically well to get ourselves in front after a dreadful first half, but after Cook rammed home his penalty, we immediately reverted to the headless chickens tactic. Gillingham senses it & fully exploited their 8 minute gift. It’s a big blow, but it’s not a terminal blow, with 3 games left, there’s still everything to play for. Northampton up next, I’m still positive we’re quite capable of going there & taking all 3 points. If we can shake off some of that fear, start much quicker, & not give them a stoppage time goal or two. At this stage now, it will be the teams who show confidence & character that will going into League 1.
    That’s still in our hands, for now.
    Up the Bantams!

  15. On a different note, appalled and outraged to see the T&A reporting this morning that Romany Critchlow has been forced to restrict access to his social media due to hate & death threats in private messages.

    At a footballing level, that response is ridiculous, as he’s been a strong player for us this season, and in my view more consistent than most. And no real supporter would have piled in with that level of bile. How does that raise his performance level in the final 3 games?

    But that’s not the main thing here. Even if he’d turned round and booted the ball into his own net, that wouldn’t justify hate mail. And making death threats is a criminal offence. I hope the club track them down and take actions to ban and bar, that the police step in. And I’m a regular user of social media, but the SM giants need to be forced to do more to regulate the extreme stuff that gets out out.

  16. There is a connection between having centre backs who have only mustered one goal between them all season and our repeatedly conceding late goals. What was our contingency plan for dealing with Hawkins, all 80 inches of him, when he inevitably came on? Critchlow might have a future as a left back or in a back three but he is not big and physical enough for this division. Neither is Odusina, by the way, one of the most inexplicable signings ever – and we actually paid a fee for him. We seem to be in the process of holding back Kelly who looks the part – at least in physique. Dieng robbed Critchlow first and then outmuscled him to get his shot away. That simply should not happen. Platt will doubtless now return to partner the impressive Stubbs. We need to see these things in advance not have them pointed out.

  17. I don’t often disagree with you Jason but why was 8 minutes jaw dropping. Would it have been jaw dropping had we been losing, or would we have wanted 10 minutes. The so called goal celebrations are taking up 2 minutes , a substitution is 30 seconds and there are the so called injuries and other time wasting tactics all to add on. If you also consider whether its 2 minutes or 20 that’s added, BOTH teams are allowed to score ain’t they.

    • Hi David. Interesting you say this as you’re the first person I’ve seen with this view. Mark Hughes and even Neil Harris said after that they didn’t really understand where 8 mins injury time came from. I certainly felt at the time it didn’t seem like a half where 8 mins injury time was warranted. It wasn’t particularly because we were winning but of course that does influence your emotions. Anyway I’m sure it was legit – but still ‘jaw-dropping’ to me :-).

      • Think the issue is one of consistency. Whilst technically the time keeping might have been correct the stoppages yesterday would more often than not produced 5 minutes or thereabouts

      • Hia Jason, looking like 8 for me and 10 for you at close of play. Considering we were winning at the time it’s a result I clearly expected . Had we been losing then that’s for the birds. Just been reading that games are expected to last 100 minutes next season. Jaw dropping or what ? Finally I would just like to add how much I enjoy your WOP. Because I haven’t been able to attend matches for a few years now I feel better connected because of WOP. Still buy my season ticket though. Can’t bear the thought of someone in my seat !

    • I was surprised it was 8 minutes too, but it’s some hypocrisy for Hodges to be looking at the ref and pointing at the watch while it’s 1-1, then being upset when there’s 8 minutes stoppage time. That said, I didn’t note much time wasting from Gillingham, most of it was our late substitutions.

  18. After we took the lead and were all excited by our dominance, we should have anticipated the Gill’s response. They have no fears of relegation, no jitters of promotion, so they predictably threw everything at us. By pushing up they were opening spaces at the back. Sadly we didn’t exploit this and invited them on. The opposition, playing the last 15 minutes (strangely too much) in our half got the goal they deserved.
    I think we will still need to beat Orient in the last game of season. Which I trust we will.
    Keep going City!!!

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