A night of tension sees Bradford City claim a slender first leg advantage over Carlisle – but this play off tie has a long way to go

Bradford City 1
Walker 18
Carlisle United 0

Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)

As the sky drew darker above Valley Parade, the nerves swelled amongst the masses and anxiety became contagious. This was both the utter beauty and the sheer terror of the play offs, amplified all the way up to 11.

Bradford City won, Carlisle United lost. But nothing is even close to being settled. Everything remains right on a knife edge. The tension is immense, and will only grow over the coming days. Good luck trying to sleep this week.

That the Bantams will travel up to Brunton Park on Saturday with a slender advantage could well prove decisive, but may yet be their downfall. They were victorious but not convincing here, and the fact they crawled over the line protecting what they had, rather than being able to widen their aggregate lead, will give Carlisle plenty of encouragement.

This is not over. Far from it.

Carlisle will feel to an extent they’ve survived the cauldron that is Valley Parade, where a Bradford City club record play off crowd delivered a stunning atmosphere that will leave many supporters going into work and school on Monday morning sounding hoarse.

Mark Hughes said in the build up that this game was bigger than anything in the Premier League this weekend, and it’s hard to imagine there would have been a better level of noise, fervour and passion anywhere else in the country. It was certainly the best atmosphere Valley Parade has produced in a long, long time. An absolute treat just to be here.

And we got to see a really good game. Not, it must be said, an encounter of quality. The national TV audience watching on Sky Sports did not need their TVs to be HD Ready to witness a showcase of aesthetically beautiful football. But for blood and thunder, and two teams going full tilt, this was a lot of fun. Mistakes were plentiful – from the players and certainly from the officials. But the honest endeavour displayed by everyone was heartening.

All signs suggested this was never going to be a goal fest, and it certainly wasn’t. But City did get on the scoresheet, when Andy Cook flicked on to Scott Banks, who nudged the ball through to Jamie Walker. The Scot finished low and true past an initially nervous Tom Holy. 18 minutes were on the clock at the time, and the goal was fitting reward for a really positive start from the home side.

That they did start so well – only the second time in their last six games they’ve opened the scoring – was both encouraging and ultimately frustrating. The first 25 minutes saw Hughes and City make hay with a surprise tactical approach, where rather than line up in a 4-3-3 or diamond, the Bantams went 4-3-1-2 and found a really good balance. Richie Smallwood, Alex Gilliead and Adam Clayton played alongside each other and were able to press Carlisle high up the park and set up attacks, whilst protecting their back four.

This was much better than a diamond pushing Smallwood and Gilliead away from their best position, or going 4-3-3 and asking Walker to operate up top in a three, which doesn’t play to his strengths. Carlisle initially struggled to pick up Walker in the number 10 role and found it difficult to pass through City’s middle trio.

This is despite Paul Simpson springing his own tactical surprise by moving away from his trusted 5-3-2 to play 3-4-1-2. He clearly expected a City diamond and reckoned an extra body in midfield, coupled with attacking wing backs, would see the visitors find space in City’s wide areas.

The excellence of Smallwood, Gilliead and Clayton as a three set City up to disrupt Carlisle and get on the front foot. Walker exploited the space he had, and Banks did a really good job up front alongside Cook. In those first 25 minutes, the Bantams had 64% of the ball and produced almost double the amount of passes Carlisle attempted. Carlisle’s pass success rate was a dismal 42% initially – they just couldn’t get going.

The likes of Joe Garner – who hit the bar with a spectacular volley at 0-0 – could not hide his frustration, and Corey Whelan was already playing on the edge after earning an early yellow card. Alfie McCalmont was playing the Walker number 10 role for Carlisle and barely touched the ball for the first half hour.

The problem for City – and oh boy, does this feel familiar writing this – is that they failed to keep up their high standards. They dropped off. Retreated. Made silly mistakes. Gave away their ascendancy. The truth is that over the remainder of the first half, and for the entire second 45 minutes, Carlisle got very much on top and made the evening uncomfortable for the Bantams.

It is curious as to why this happens with City. Do they get bored? Are they incapable of sticking to a plan? Is it a lack of confidence? Hughes talked after the game about how he will address with the players this week their sloppiness in possession. But it’s been a feature so often that’s it’s hard to imagine it suddenly getting fixed ahead of Saturday. It is their Achilles Heel, and they do it to themselves.    

Carlisle began to improve. For a team that have built a reputation for deploying direct football, they played it quite nicely on the deck, exploiting the fact City were no longer pressing, and instead giving them time to run with the ball. On every occasion United won a set piece, the balls into the box from Owen Moxon were like missiles.

Moxon – who joined Carlisle last summer from part time for Annan Athletic (a role he combined with being a van driver) – was their chief threat and has real quality. Almost a year ago to the day, Moxon was playing for Annan in the Scottish Division Two play offs, the home leg attracted 1,152 fans. Now here he is, excelling in front of a 20,000 crowd. Whoever wins the play offs, Moxon is one player at least destined to be operating at a higher level in the future.

City had several scares from Moxon set pieces, but just about got away with them. Romoney Chrichlow had a superb game at the back, whilst Sam Stubbs, Liam Ridehalgh and Brad Halliday were generally reliable. The former Bantam Omari Patrick caused problems but let himself down with poor decision making. Walker and Banks both went close to making it 2-0. Nevertheless, the half time whistle came as a relief to the flagging Bantams.  

Only the second half proved even more labouring from the home side. Simpson had worked out that his charges were not going to win the midfield battle, but spotted the fact City’s set-up left the full backs isolated. Moxon dropped deeper and began to spray diagonal passes. Halliday in particular seemed to be targeted as the weak link, with Ryan Edmundson brought on from the bench and operating slightly wider.

Edmundson is 6 foot 2. Halliday is 5 foot 11. It wasn’t subtle what Carlisle were trying to do, but that didn’t make it any easier to stop.

Whilst the long ball approach meant that Smallwood, Gilliead and Clayton had less opportunity to win it back in the middle, they still needed to offer more when they did have possession. They needed to curb the Carlisle pressure by just keeping the ball, slowing down the tempo and trying to engineer City attacks. They needed to press Carlisle and especially Moxon, instead of dropping so deep.

But Smallwood in particular was guilty of giving the ball away too often and too easily. And that set the tone for the team, who were too quick to boot up the park, giving it straight back to the visitors. It’s not a lack of effort or bravery – even when not playing well, Smallwood did plenty of things to admire in the second half – it’s about showing more intelligence and composure.

City’s wastefulness with the ball meant they never pushed on for a second goal. In the final 27 minutes, City had just one Cook shot. They were fortunate that mistakes at the back went unpunished, and that Carlisle were wasteful when offered presentable opportunities to equalise. Edmundson missed the best chance of the lot with a close range header than went over. Their top scorer Kristian Dennis – surprisingly left on the bench – came on and had a late chance where he rounded Harry Lewis but shot wide from a tight angle. You can see why Carlisle don’t score many goals, but you can also fear their ability to carve out chances.

City defended doggedly and were knocking it towards the corner flags long before the final whistle. But despite some late jitters, they held firm for a hard-earned first clean sheet in six games, and a winning margin to take to Cumbria.

So where does this all leave the two-legged tie? Carlisle will be disappointed to lose, but not down-hearted. Their tactical changes didn’t initially work, yet when they got into their stride they showed what they are about. Simpson will be really pleased with how well they marshalled Cook, including the supply line to the 31-goal forward. And the United boss will take comfort from the vulnerabilities in City that were exposed by Carlisle’s barrage of diagonal passes.

As for Hughes, he will be happy to have a lead to defend in the second leg, but will naturally worry about his charges’ ability to do just that. How do you approach this game, when your priority is not to get to beat, but knowing you can’t get away with repeating the manner in which City just about saw this second half out. In front of a packed out Brunton Park, they know they will have to deal with a whirlwind of Carlisle pressure. Be anxious about any set piece especially.  

Comparisons have been drawn with the outcome of this game and the last time City were in the play offs, six years ago, where they also won their first leg – at home – 1-0. That was against a Fleetwood Town side who the Bantams absolutely dominated on the night. And though they went to Highbury a few days later with plenty of tension to manage, they showed in the first leg they were a much better side than Fleetwood.

That wasn’t the case tonight. These two sides really are evenly managed. That City have won is down to small margins going their way, rather than any superiority. Of course, they can go to Carlisle and get the draw they need. But on this evidence, they could just as easily go down to defeat at Brunton Park – a ground where they have a terrible record.

This tie is absolutely in the balance, and remains too close to call. But for Bradford City, one thing at least is clear – to triumph over the two legs, they’re going to need to play a lot better than they did here for much of this evening.

Categories: Match Reviews

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28 replies

  1. A long time since I’ve been that concerned about the opposition having any dead ball situations anywhere near our box like I was tonight. Felt like it was just a matter of time before one of those chances hit the back of the onion bag. Missiles is very good way of putting it! Dread to think what it’ll be like at their place on Saturday! We surely cannot try to defend for 90+ minutes and hope 1.0 will be enough to get us through??

  2. It played out exactly as we thought it would. Delighted we have a slender one goal advantage but Carlisle are still very very much in the tie. Their threat from set pieces was apparent and I’ll be amazed if we can keep a second clean sheet.
    A lot of very hard work to do still.
    A point about garners performance. Awful player. The ref would have been within his rights at one point to say if you carry on throwing yourself around to the floor you’re off. Anti football personified.
    However. It is what it is. He’s exactly the kind of player we do not have and unfortunately the kind needed in this division.
    I pray we get promoted

  3. Excellent game to watch and City’s best performance since Gillingham in February. A source of concern is City taking their foot off the gas pedal for the umpteenth time this season. Carlisle didn’t score but they will certainly have gained a wealth of confidence.

    • i must have been watching a different game. The ball just kept bouncing off us or we just gave it away, lumping it forward and occasionally giving it to Banks to run at them, mainly unsuccessfully. Carlisle looked better on the ball, put some decent moves together and had the much better chances plus they looked very dangerous from set pieces. Can’t fault our commitment though and some good last-ditch defending but i’m worried about next week, i think we need to improve to go through.

      • Absolutely, Ed! The City team that played last night wouldn’t have a prayer in League One.

        Overall Carlisle played better. Their free kicks and corners caused mayhem. Oh for a long throw specialist like Wrexham have! Our throw ins in attacking positions are hopeless.

        No effective use of width, coughing up possession too easily, no pace, no fluency in our play and little control of the ball.

        How anyone can enthuse over last night’s performance is beyond me. Towards the end we were even slowing things down, protecting a slender lead, when we should have been pressing for an important second goal.

        We’ll need to be far better on Saturday if we want to capitalise on the weakest League Two in years.

  4. We got the win, at least. It will be interesting to see Hughes’ tactics for the second leg. We sure need to get a grip on Moxon. Wonder if Periera has a “moment” in him?
    Amazing crowd, so much potential, just have to get it right on the field.
    Was at work here in Illinois, following things on the Beeb website, wishing I was at Valley Parade. Oh well.
    Could someone tell me when the Bradford Arms reopened? I recently read it was
    permanently closed, along with all the other pubs I used to frequent on a match day.
    Anyway, come on City, get it done.

  5. I thought City did OK. We cannot expect to play like we did for 90 + minutes. The opposition would need to change their tactics which they did. If I have to criticise, I would have tried to negate the threat of the diagonal crosses. He does have the opportunity to do that this week. I agree, that he may need to tweek his formation but City need to be a threat and not set up in a way to stop Carlisle by defending for 90 + minutes. They will concede! It has to be remembered, Lewis did not have a serious save all match. Come on City have faith.

  6. Excellent advert for league Two. As a Carlisle fan we have nothing to worry about in the home game. 3.0 Carlisle

    • Pretty bold. That would mean Carlisle need to at least triple their shots on target from the number registered last night (one)

    • Nowt between the teams and on the contrary precious little quality on either side last night.The difference a quality finish

    • Carlisle were very poor. We allowed them to come at us second half and it looked worse than it actually was. If we had got that second ‘killer’ goal the tie would have been over.
      Garner was an absolute clown. What was he doing?
      City will go up there and do a job on them.

  7. We may learn more in the second leg about the enigma that is Bradford City than we have all season. Are we capable of maintaining effort, concentration and a high degree of skill over ninety minutes? Have we got it in us to rise above the various misfortunes that at critical moments have conspired to see us lose matches you would expect potential promotion-winners to win. Now would be a very good time to exert ‘the control we know we’re capable of’, as the manager might put it, when it matters, when we are up against it, when there can be no excuses, no moving on to the next match if we blow it. My constant fear is we lack height. The pity is that when all is said and done it might all come down to a matter of inches.

  8. We may learn more in the second leg about the enigma that is Bradford City than we have all season. Are we capable of maintaining effort, concentration and a high degree of skill over ninety minutes? Have we got it in us to rise above the various misfortunes that at critical moments have conspired to see us lose matches you would expect potential promotion-winners to win. Now would be a very good time to exert ‘the control we know we’re capable of’, as the manager might put it, when it matters, when we are up against it, when there can be no excuses, no moving on to the next match if we blow it. My constant fear is we lack height. The pity is that when all is said and done it might all come down to a matter of inches

  9. Two evenly matched dies. City should have scored a second to capitalise on their dominance in the first half – and Walker very nearly added a second – whilst Carlisle should have scored from the number of chances they created. Scoring has been Carlisle’s problem and the suggestion that they will get three at Brunton Park is optimistic on the part of our friend above. The game was very much as predicted in the preview as a very close match and a war of attrition. Last night’s resulted was secured by a moment of class and it will require something similar next weekend for another goal to be scored but there is more evidence of that coming from a City player than one in blue.

    There were a lot of tired legs on our side in the closing stages and again, as someone has remarked above it is unrealistic to expect the game to be played at the same tempo throughout. My expectation is that at Carlisle MH will seek to hit Carlisle on the break given that they will have to commit men forward. The same tactics secured wins at Stevenage and Northampton and Jamie Walker will again be a vital player. The pressure will be on Carlisle and I am confident that there is enough in the squad to overcome.

  10. Happy with the result, but it has been a common theme in a lot of our games this season; sitting back on a one goal lead in the 2nd half, and you just hope that we don’t regret being a bit more positive, in trying to get that 2nd goal.

    It will be an aerial bombardment with plenty of balls going into the box 2nd leg, and I know it would be a big call, but I’d just feel more comfortable if we had the extra height of Platt in that back 4, particularly if we do manage to get through, as we’d either be facing an equally direct side in Stockport, or come up against Matt Smith.

  11. I personally thought the ref had a good game. He ignored the Carlisle theatrics and when they realised after 37mins it wasn’t working, they tried to play football. I hope they go back to the theatrics for the 2nd leg!

    Fantastic atmosphere. Proper league Two game and I have to say much better entertainment than the snoozefest Real Madrid v Man City match – then again boys in the park jumpers for goalposts would be better than that!. Quality doesn’t mean entertainment!!

    It’s on a knife edge. Come on City!!!!!

  12. I think Hughes would have always been wanting to go to Carlisle with the starting eleven from last night, so in that sense things worked out quite well for him. He doesn’t have to go pushing for a win and can set us up to play exactly the way we’ve played when we’ve been successful away from home in the league this year.

    Something akin to Gillingham away would be ideal. If last night had ended in a draw or defeat, we’d be looking at trying to force a win and could have ended up with a Crewe-style gung-ho approach that doesn’t suit us.

    Definitely need to close down quicker though. Moxon looked very good last night, but it was noticeable how much space he and Guy had every time they picked up the ball in midfield (after we’d taken the lead, at least). We can’t allow them to be so comfortable on Saturday.

    A lot might depend on what sort of attitude we start with. If we can hold on until the second half, they’d have to change things and I’d be fairly confident of Cook/Walker/Banks nicking one on the break. Hopefully it won’t come down to ‘game management’ in the closing stages. We all know how hopeless we’ve been at that all season.

  13. Two equally matched managers?
    Was that a typo?
    Simpson has got a lot out of avery limited bunch
    Whereas surely hughes has underachieved with this squad
    Expect a draw on Saturday

  14. If that happens it’s job done.
    And MH will.be the better manager!!

  15. It’s simple 4 – 5 – 1 with Cook staying no deeper than the halfway line, and let them push us back, then there is a decision to make do they leave 1 on Cook or 2 and with that in mind it would be at a risk or stalemate and that outcome would be a 200 mile trip south, London calling to the faraway towns, let us be one of the faraway towns….

    Come On City 🏆🏆🏆🏆

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