Issue The right path, and sticking by it

As told by Jason Mckeown

Whatever direction Bradford City was heading towards following the home defeat to Lincoln City two weeks ago, the corner has seemingly been turned.

After starting the season with three defeats, one point and no goals, it’s now three consecutive wins, nine goals and a progression beyond the first round of the Football League Trophy for the first time since the club was awarded a bye to pass it in 2005. The gloom is fading away and quiet optimism is becoming louder.

Tonight was the first time Stuart McCall’s team has managed to convert a losing position into victory since a 2-0 Chesterfield lead was overturned at Valley Parade 10 months ago. As the players raced over to congratulate Scott Neilsen’s winning strike in front of 300+ City supporters, the spirit in evidence was a welcome contrast to the referee-influenced collapse at this ground last season which was to trigger the beginning of the end to City’s promotion push. On a night where the sponsors were all about paint, an attractive picture of City’s prospects for the campaign was completed by the final whistle.

In the second half especially, City were excellent tonight. Since the relegation to League Two in 2007, envious eyes have been cast towards the Lancashire hosts and the attractive, effective manner Keith Hill lines up a team which has achieved consecutive top seven finishes. With the support of a well-trained ball boy team ensuring throw ins could be hurriedly taken, it was quick-fire, incisive passing in and around City’s penalty area with the skillful Will Buckley, Adam Rundle and Chris Dagnall leading the threat. Yet City were able to respond with some of their best attacking football of the season.

Limited chances were created by both sides during the first half; save for a rattling of the cross bar at both ends with the impressive Luke O’Brien’s miscued cross deceiving the less than impressive Dale keeper Kenny Arthur and coming back off the woodwork and Dagnall being brilliantly cued up at the other end but smacking a well struck shot off Simon Eastwood’s bar. Neither side were able to take control, but each had spells of dominance where the final ball was narrowly lacking.

An early impressive feature about Stuart’s team this season is the movement on and off the ball and, when on the attack, Neilsen, Chris Brandon, Michael Flynn and Gareth Evans were particularly effective at popping up all over the final third and dragging markers out of position in the process. A high level of work rate, a missing ingredient in the second half of last season, was evident too. A good visiting attacking move saw a low cross only narrowly avoid the onrushing Evans, but instead of allowing the ball to simply roll behind, Brandon willingly chased what looked a lost cause and was rewarded by the ball bouncing off the corner flag onto his feet, to allow him to force a corner. Little things such as this were witnessed across the park in this game and recent matches, and so far appear to be making up for any loss of quality the summer’s departing players took with them.

City especially began to get on top in the second half with Steve Williams and Flynn going close, and it came as a surprise when Dale defender Craig Dawson smashed the home side into the lead after a free kick wasn’t adequately cleared. This provided another test for City, with memories of the poor responses to going behind in games last season still raw. Rochdale threatened to finish off the game for a five minute spell and City had to thank Eastwood for one especially brilliant one-on-one save to deny substitute Scott Spencer. In fact the on-loan Huddersfield keeper enjoyed a largely encouraging evening, making a number of excellent saves at crucial times and only causing the briefest of flutters when he miscued a clearance. Even then, it was a moment later overshadowed by the number of times Arthur did the same.

Eastwood’s save would prove crucial, as City regained composure and began to threaten again with Neilsen and Brandon going close. The deserved equaliser came through Flynn’s powerfully struck free kick which Arthur was unable to keep out. With an early injury to Peter Thorne, Flynn had taken the captain’s armband and delivered a strong audition for the job full time by the manner he notably kept geeing up his team mates and leading by example. Special mention should also go to the oft-maligned Lee Bullock alongside him. Bullock by his nature is quiet, unassuming and easy to criticise. His discipline in holding his position allowed others to make those clever runs and, though the former Cardiff midfielder is rarely going to produce match-winning cross field passes, he equally rarely gives the ball away. A player appreciated by the manager and team mates, if not all supporters.

By now City were in the ascendancy and it was Neilsen who was to strike the winner on his full debut. Rochdale had been on the attack, but when possession was gained it was quickly played up to the young winger, who charged at Dale’s back-peddling defence and used the support of Jonathan Bateson  to create space for a shot which deflected off a defender and looped over the despairing Arthur into the top of the goal. On the day Joe Colbeck was sold to Oldham, Neilsen’s all-round performance indicated his is capable of nailing down a first team jersey.

The response from Rochdale was limited and City continued to look the more likelier to score with Evans deserving a goal for a performance full of effort, but finding Arthur equal to his long range effort, and James Hanson, who had replaced Thorne, also going close. Leon Osborne, who had come on for Brandon at 1-0 down, caused problems on the left against Dale’s struggling right back Matthew Flynn.

But on a night of strong performances from City, it was the back four which perhaps deserve the most credit. Bateson’s debut at Forest had been one to forget after his disgraceful lunge on Nathan Tyson resulted in a red card, but he began to redeem himself with a strong showing at right back which included getting forward well. In the centre, Williams continues to look anything but a hairdresser and the man of the match was probably returning Dale defender Simon Ramsden, switched over from the right back to play alongside Williams and seemingly unbeatable in the air and on the ground.

All of which leaves Stuart with new defensive options to mull over ahead of a return to league matters at Shrewsbury on Saturday. Such a trip would have seemed daunting two weeks ago, but can now be taken with increased confidence. City might lose and with it some of the gloom would return, but the excitement in watching this team develop and grow in stature will continue to be felt regardless. Increasingly I feel proud to be a Bradford City supporter and proud to support the young players who wear our colours. Three wins in a row isn’t a time for getting carried away, but the  early building blocks are taking shape and beginning to make sense.

The only thing which hasn’t really changed in the two weeks since defeat to Lincoln is the reality it’s going to be a long season; but with the right direction seemingly found, it increasingly feels like a long season to relish.