Progress yes – but lessons to be learned from this season

The club wasn’t emotionally connected to the team or the fanbase. We’ve addressed that. It is a season of progress and one I have really enjoyed…the club is in a good place now and that will give us the base to go this year.” 
Mark Hughes after the loss to Carlisle in the playoff second leg.

By Gareth Walker

The progress made at Bradford City since the arrival of Mark Hughes to replace Derek Adams is plain for all to see. It’s enjoyable going to games again, the atmosphere is back and we’ve got a manager who most of us like and respect. Results on the pitch have been far better, we’ve finished much higher in the table and we qualified for the play offs for the first time in six years.

Despite this, many supporters were never confident that we would go up and – over the two legs against Carlisle – it felt like we were second best. Others can’t help but feel that we’ve missed a huge opportunity to get promoted. 

It leads us to a question of what we need to improve on and do better in order to go up next season.

Being better in the big moments

Just looking at the number of late goals that the team have conceded shows how we need to (game) manage the big moments better. 

On top of this, every time that we had a sniff of moving into the top three we seem to have wilted under the pressure. It goes back to Northampton at home in November. Then, towards the end of the season, Swindon away and Gillingham at home – after the great away day at Rochdale – and finally the Crewe game after we’d won at Northampton.

Individually it can be argued that the pressure has got to people at key times and has affected their decision making. Although it’s harsh to pick out players, Richie Smallwood lobbing a weak ball to the back post in the final minute of normal time on Saturday, when he looked far better placed to shoot, is a good example of this.

Even the vastly experienced Hughes was abrasive towards the brilliant Jamie Raynor in his post match interview. It’s something that we’ve seen from previous City managers, but not from Hughes before. And it just goes to show that the pressure and expectation of representing our club –especially at this level – affects even the most experienced in the business.


Throughout the season Hughes has often faced criticism about his tactics. The accusation has been that our play is too slow and tentative – “We don’t move the ball quickly enough”. 

How much of a problem this actually has been is debatable. Many teams in League Two conform to the “kick and rush” method, and it’s admirable that Hughes wants to play the game “the right way”. However, there is definitely the feeling that we don’t progress the ball forward at angles and through the lines at pace. And when we do, we only do so for short spells.

These are the spells when we have looked like a really good team, but they haven’t been frequent enough – and are likely to have contributed to our struggles to break teams down who have come and set up in a low block at Valley Parade.

Are we too negative?

It’s an accusation that has been levelled at a lot of City managers during my time following the club so it’s difficult to know when it’s really justified. “He’s too concerned about the opposition. Let them worry about us instead.”

It’s a fine balance to achieve, and one that we appear to have struggled with at times. How many times have we subbed on an extra defender late in games this season, only for it to spectacularly backfire?

This culminated in the second leg at Brunton Park when having just created our goal and having been our best attacking threat, Scott Banks was subbed off in place of Matty Platt to the astonishment and ire of anyone of a claret and amber persuasion. It was the first time in the game where we had the momentum, so to surrender it immediately with such a change was both bewildering and anger inducing.

Hughes said afterwards that Banks was tired and was coming off before his involvement in the goal, but even so you’d expect Dion Pereira or Thierry Nevers to have been brought on as a direct replacement whilst we had the ascendency. 

The fact that despite having three central defenders on the pitch we still then managed to concede to a totally unmarked man in our box means that the substitution will go down as one of the worst that we have seen in recent years.

Has such a substitution ever worked this season? And why do we persist with doing it? What message does it send onto the pitch, both to our players and the opposition? In Carlisle’s case on Saturday, they looked absolutely shattered in the second period of extra time and were there for the taking for the first time in the tie.

Squad issues / transfers

For many years prior to this, the club’s poor business in the transfer market had become embarrassing. Last summer with the much-lauded appointment of Stephen Gent, and the contact book and pull of Hughes, things finally took an upturn and we were all mostly pleased with the signings.  

Unfortunately, the unavoidable yet huge loss of Tyreik Wright in the January transfer window and the arrivals of Nevers, Dara Costelloe and Tolaji Bola undoubtedly left us weaker – especially on the left hand side. When Harry Chapman picked up his season-ending injury, Hughes struggled to find a solution and resorted to a change in shape with Adam Clayton playing alongside Smallwood and Alex Gilliead in a narrow midfield. 

It can be argued that we didn’t see the best of our attacking midfielders behind Andy Cook all season. Largely this was due to injuries and Chapman having to play out of position as the number ten for long periods, but we need more output from that area of the pitch next year.

What else did the squad lack throughout the campaign? Well, not much when we had everyone fit and Wright was with us. But for me, it also would have been better to have some more legs and ball playing ability in central midfield. It would have helped with the moving of the ball and progressing it through the thirds quicker.

In League Two, it’s not just about upgrading on the weaker players in your squad but also about trying to keep hold of your better players too. The two standouts for City this season have been Cook and Harry Lewis – even to the extent that some claim that we have been over reliant on them.

Cook is now out of contract and given his stellar season is sure to receive offers from elsewhere. Lewis is under contract but could receive offers to move up the pyramid. How likely is it that both are still with us on the opening day of the 2023/24 season?

When you add the doubts over those two to the losses of loanees Romonay Crichlow and Banks it’s a little concerning. As always, we have to make sure that the squad is stronger next season than it has been this year if we want to progress.

I know that we say it every year but League Two really does look like it will be tougher next season. Many of the current crop will be stronger – Gillingham and Doncaster to name two. Wrexham and Notts County will splash the cash and be far stronger than Rochdale and Hartlepool, who they have replaced. Those coming down might not look great. But as a whole, the division definitely appears like it will be more competitive and difficult to get out of at the top end.

Hughes deserves huge credit for not just the progress made on the pitch, but also the feeling of togetherness that he’s brought back to our club. But he’s going to have to show that he’s learnt the lessons of this season if we are going to go one better next year. 

Categories: Opinion


18 replies

  1. Spot on we are in no man’s land at the moment not knowing who we will manage to keep and the ones that will go Mark Hughes has had a positive effect at City in many ways but l do hope especially after his abrasive interview with Jamie Rayner which l feel he was trying to justify the strange subbing of Banks for Platt that he knew it was a mistake and was angry and embarrassed when asked the question Let’s hope he has learned a lot this season about football in this league and puts it to good use next season

  2. Huge opportunity lost this year
    What would Richie wellens or Steve evans or Paul Simpson have achieved with this squad -top 3 surely
    Has hughes learned anything?
    We didn’t finish playing any better than we started the season
    Hope I’m wrong

    • Wouldn’t have wanted Evans but Wellens would have worked, just not certain how well as didn’t have real success at Salford or Doncaster like he has with Swindon and Leyton Orient. Anyway I still beileve Hughes will deliver an automatic place next season. He has to get us up in 2023-4 otherwise he’s gone !

    • This comment is becoming tiresome to me. It’s like saying what would Adams, Peter Taylor, Simon Grayson have done with this squad.

      Just because they were successfull this season doesn’t mean they’d have achieved it here. Especially with the demands of our supporters base.

      Wellens and Evans were both appointed after a couple of subpar underachievements at their current clubs. Evans is just another Adams but with less class. The fans would have forced him out by Christmas if he’d have been anything lower than 3rd.

      And we’d be right too. You only have to hear what ex players say about Evans. There would be no connection back between club and supporters.

  3. The piece is accurate and full of valid points. For me the big issue has been midfield again. The best sides we have played this season all have an attacking intent and goals from midfield which we have never achieved. We may have debatably had the best front line for most of the year with Cook, Banks, Wright and Walker typically but without support and attacking / assists ability behind the front line is easily isolated by the better tactical teams.Sort that and replacing the loanee losses on the wings and we are in for another good season next year.

    • I absolutely agree – the huge issue has been midfield (and alarmingly since Smallwood is still under contract and Gilliead has been offered a new one – could still be).
      We need power, pace, guile and attacking intent ( and some strong leadership) from that area of the pitch, none of which we had in the season just gone. Neither will any of the midfielders still with us provide those capabilities.
      I would hope this is addressed and sees the likes of Smallwood as a back up coming in for ten minute “holding midfielder” cameos if we need to see a game out.
      It seems like “ the emperors clothes” to me that few have called this out because Smallwood was signed and lauded as “ too good for league two”. Sadly in my humble opinion he has been a let-down.

      • who would you want to see us sign specifically? The problem I find is that it’s easier to say the traits we need but harder to find the personnel who bring them.
        Realistically we can’t get watt. That ship sailed he made his choice. Moxon looked good but honestly I only paid attention to him in two games. Lapslie? Moncur?
        We’ve had decent players but they’ve all left and done better elsewhere. O’Brien. Watt. Dieng. Guy.

  4. Very good clear article. As I have said a few times recently conceding a goal after the substitution at Carlisle replacing Banks with Platt was not the first time this has happened towards the end of the season. It appears that with three centre halves on the field they all don’t know who to mark at set pieces. Personally I hope our manager learns a lesson and stops doing this.

    • The minute he made that substitution I knew what was coming, I’ve seen us being punished for making negative subs or sitting back after a goal time and time again. We are not George Graham’s arsenal so wish we were more positive when we are a goal up.

      If we had lost the game trying to get a win it would have been much easier to take for me than just trying to hold out until penalties.

  5. Feel flatter than ever now. Really does seem we missed a clear opportunity to get automatic promotion. Thinking of the missed opportunities I think you could realistically say the games we should have got more out of also correlate a little bit to where we lost late goals.
    Barrow 96 min Colchester 97 min Swindon 92 min. Rochdale 99&100min. Swindon 82min. Gillingham 97 min Crewe 99 min

    Now I’m not 100pc sure those are all correct. So forgive any inaccuracies. But if they are correct. Wow. This is an issue that’s plagued us from start of season to end and everywhere in between. 7 games that could have given us wins or draws that would easily have seen us into the top 3

    The last five games the players looked out of energy. And hughes simply didn’t trust enough players to come in and freshen things up.

    That’s the issue that needs to be fixed


  6. I feel confused. On the one hand I think we might have been one high quality player (Wright?) away from autos which makes me think the squad wasn’t far away. But on the other hand felt there were some real gaps and imbalances all season. For me it’s a smaller squad with a real focus on quality (and hope they don’t get injured). Easy to say of course.

    On the now infamous substitution its fine margins. I agree it’s open to be criticised, but imagine the scenario where Platt defends their last goal and heads in a last minute winner. MH the hero. Think we should cut MH some slack and move on. I make plenty of mistakes and often feel rather embarrassed by them. Who doesn’t?

    • But he didnt did he!

      • Nope, you are absolutely right unfortunately. But on the flip side no one knows if keeping Banks on would have made any difference either. I was really disappointed, as most were, with the decision, but think it’s overally shaping people’s opinion of MH. There are plenty of MH decisions I have disagreed with and I do think he has been too cautious especially at home. But I think he has done far more right than wrong and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. I am hoping he has learned from this season, but we shall see. He still has the benefit of the doubt for me.

  7. The stats on goals conceded from set pieces are awful. If that doesn’t change we won’t progress. We need a few good uns in midfield – stronger younger faster than we have currently. We also need to improve the strikers whether or not Cook re-signs. Big summer ahead.

  8. It must look different when you’re sat in the stands to watching from the dug out.

    Wanting to keep Alex G and Liam R is not the way to improve on what’s happened this season.

    Sorry to sound harsh, but we must be looking for better if we require improvement….

  9. Back in the day (3rd div. North) the saying was ” You have to kick your way out of this division”.

    Sadly nowt,s changed.

  10. Massive over simplification here. But we need to behave like two teams. One with the ball and one without. Looking at the season it’s hard to argue that, with the ball, the team were successful. But looking at the stats on set piece defending. Stopping balls coming in. And alas goals conceded late on. We were not a success without the ball.
    Very difficult to drill the whole piece successfully. But that’s the challenge for next season which I’m sure MH and staff are relishing. Maintain the positive qualities with the ball. Improve us without.

  11. On the issue of conceding goals from set pieces-should we not try and defend by using man to man marking instead of zonal defence.Just a thought!

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