Issue No apology needed

As told by Jason Mckeown

There will have been much to occupy Bradford City manager Stuart McCall’s thoughts as he made his second return journey up the M1 in days on the back of a heavy defeat. A degree of pride was restored on route to yet another early exit from the League Cup, but the aggregate 8-0 score from the two trips to Nottingham tell of a shocking start to the season that sees pressure building ahead of its first home game. At the final whistle Stuart told his players “the season starts here”, but the fear remains that the last few days are a taste of what’s to come.

City were much better at The City Ground compared to the general feebleness evident less than a mile away at Meadow Lane on Saturday. Mindful of playing too open again, which had contributed to the heavy opening day defeat, Stuart opted for a 5-4-1 formation with James Hanson taking the left wing spot when City were on the defensive and fellow debut signing Gareth Evans asked to take on a lone assignment that was supported by Hanson when City were on the attack.

The objective was to frustrate a talented Nottingham Forest side, who passed the ball around quickly and accurately only to be frustrated – for 47 minutes at least – by a well organised Bantams backline which was able to plug gaps. In a dull first half the only chances of note were a Lewis McGugan free kick Simon Eastwood did well to tip wide and a Lee Bullock header over after some promising City build up play.

Essentially, it wasn’t pretty from City. The notion of playing defensive football and only one striker is something which upsets a number of City fans, who will happily roll off the number of times it hasn’t worked and tell you they’d rather watch City go for it and lose. But, considering the gulf in the two sides, there was plenty of encouragement to be taken from how well City contained their Championship counterparts and a feeling that, with more practice, such an approach can pay dividends in some away fixtures this season.

Steve Williams made a very impressive full debut and Simon Ramsden, switched to the centre, demonstrated his versatility and made one crucial first half tackle when it appeared Forest might score. Zesh Rehman – captain for the night – recovered from a torrid afternoon on Saturday to look more assured and debut full back Jonathan Bateson got forward well when he could. In midfield Michael Flynn looked promising covering the back four, though the formation didn’t seem to suit Joe Colbeck who was anonymous for much of the night.

It’s up front that will have given Stuart some of the strongest encouragement for playing this way on the road again, with Evans performing a brilliant job holding up the ball and allowing others to get forward. Stuart’s previous attempts to play with a lone striker have been hampered by the lack of striker who could adequately play such a role, but Evans’ effectiveness and work rate suggests he now has that striker. The downside of City’s tactics was that, predictably, they were less of an attacking force in the final third, with the number of black shirts getting into the box when on the attack too few for possession to be fashioned into decent chances. Still as Evans battled hard and Hanson showed some good dribbling skills, Stuart may have been tempted to glance ruefully over to Meadow Lane on his left and wonder what he might have done differently last Saturday.

The other problem with defensive tactics is when the opposition score and the urge to find a plan B, though how well City did in almost coming back at Elland Road last season when sticking to 4-5-1 shows it’s far from game over. Two minutes into the second half Forest claimed the lead when Nathan Tyson found space on the left and crossed for Paul Anderson to head home. City might have equalised after Evans brilliantly held up the ball and picked Hanson out, but his burst through one-on-one with Paul Smith was cut short by a late flag for offside.

Any encouragement sought from the move was extinguished by Forest instantly going 2-0 up after Tyson again provided a brilliant cross which was tapped home by Dextor Blackstock. The impressive McGugan added a third after another flowing move and the night ended with further misery after Bateson’s none-to-clever lunge on Tyson was rewarded by a red card and the Forest striker having to be stretchered off.

So beaten, but it was difficult to fault the players’ efforts if not their quality. A Forest-supporting friend told me afterwards that his side’s second half performance had been their best for some time and the consolation for Stuart is that City won’t be facing opposition of this calibre in the league. Yet still these are worrying times, pre-season optimism is ebbing away and City go into two successive home games without yet having managed a goal.

But while others can lose their heads with worry – a visit to City’s official message board finds one fan demanding Stuart be sacked should City lose to Port Vale Saturday – the man in charge must not lose his. As Stuart’s thoughts of the defeat occupied his mind travelling back up the M1, the so-far positive stance he’s adopted in defeat is far preferable to the miserable persona of the end of last season. The only worry when hearing he was planning to play more defensively-minded at The City Ground was how much he talked of it upsetting supporters in the past – as though he’s previously stopped himself doing it for fear of upsetting some geek on a message board.

No matter what, Stuart is still widely-loved for his close relationship with this club, but a certain detachment is needed from him in order to worry less about letting people down and focus solely on doing the right thing. City may be out the cup, but against higher division opposition on top form it’s difficult to muster any meaningful reasons to criticise Stuart for that. Instead, like Stuart, the focus should be on the next game and the much work needed ahead of it towards getting the season belatedly going.

Not a great night in City’s history, but the biggest positive may prove to be that Stuart is not attempting to apologise for it.