Filling the holes to make Bradford City’s promotion bid wholesome

Stuart McCall’s managerial career has so far been characterised by openness and honesty, and the Bradford City boss’ frustration was typically exposed by his body language after watching his team dominate for 90 minutes against Macclesfield Town only come away with a 2-2 draw.

Having walked over to applaud travelling  City supporters following the final whistle, Stuart turned away and began shaking his head in a manner which revealed a lack of satisfaction despite the Bantams recovery from 2-0 behind. The half time advantage enjoyed by the Silkmen had been clawed back within the second half’s first 15 minutes, but despite continuing to press hard for a deserved winner, the ball just wouldn’t cross the line for a third time. City had almost double the shot count and forced double the amount of corners, yet as Stuart shook his head and headed back to the dressing room he must know his team lacked more than just a bit more luck.

Defensive shortcomings continue to undermine City’s cause. Having begun the season conceding eight goals in two matches, the leaks have been somewhat filled but the Bantams remain far from watertight. Four minutes into the afternoon at Moss Rose, a seemingly overhit clearance by home keeper Jon Brain was allowed to run between central defenders Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman and Colin Daniel headed the ball over the onrushing Simon Eastwood and into the net.

All three City players appeared culpable with Williams missing the chance to head clear, Rehman’s indecisiveness causing him to move too late towards cutting out the ball – in the process allowing Daniel to run through – and Eastwood seemingly too quick to rush out his goal when staying on his line might have offered him a greater chance of saving the effort. The sun was probably in Eastwood’s eye – someone forgot to bring along a goalkeeper cap – and he had been warned, conceding a similar goal when warming up with Jon McLaughlan. The goal was messy, the goal was feeble and such goals have been conceded too often during the campaign’s first three months.

Macclesfield had only three purposeful attacks during the first half; the second of which required Luke O’Brien to clear off his own line after poor marking from a corner and the third saw another goal conceded after Emile Sinclair crossed low for Hamza Bencherif to bundle home. That was four minutes before the end of a half City had otherwise dominated and if the Bantams are to make the step up from mid-table to promotion contenders the team’s backbone is going to have to become stronger.

Simon Eastwood has played 18 times for Bradford City and Simon Eastwood has conceded 30 goals. The young keeper’s form may not be the sole reason for City’s defensive shortcomings, but his numerous slips ups – punished or otherwise – breed uncertainty across his defensive colleagues. At times he has made superb saves which have earned City points, but in almost every game he seemingly presents an unnecessary opportunity to the opposition and continues to fail in commanding his area. Last week Stuart spoke of retaining the on-loan Huddersfield youngster beyond January but, while it’s clear he is potentially brilliant goalkeeper, the concern is the rate of improvement he’s shown since the start of the season hasn’t been quick enough to suggest he should be trusted to continue it through a whole season. If Stuart has the budget for a replacement now – and that could be a big if – he may consider his options ahead of next Friday’s trip to Meadow Lane.

Meanwhile Rehman endured another difficult 45 minutes and, despite pushing Lee Bullock close for man of the match against Hereford last week, his recent form is erratic. Up against the imposing Ben Wright, who was the focal point to Macclesfield’s route one game plan, Rehman at times allowed himself to be bullied and on other occasions got too tight in trying to prevent Wright from laying off the ball. During one home attack Sinclair was offered the chance to run at Rehman. With little cover behind City’s captain, Rehman dived in to make a challenge which might have seen him win the ball or risked him giving away a free kick, on this occasion he was left on the floor with Sinclair sprinting away. Merely standing his ground and holding up Sinclair seemed the more sensible option. Rehman and Williams are building a promising partnership, but the redemption of Matt Clarke to first team duty may not be the unthinkable option many fans considered it to be at the start of the season.

Defensive failings aside, City carried the game to Macclesfield and spurned numerous first half chances. Scott Neilson shot just wide, James Hanson headed over, Gareth Evans was denied by a good defensive block and the best move of the half saw Michael Flynn superbly play Neilson through one-on-one only to be denied by Brain’s strong reaction save. Macclesfield were reduced to playing like an away side, on the counter attack, with the impressive Sinclair – once a Bantam – enjoying a fascinating battle against Luke O’Brien which the young defender emerged from with plenty of credit.  The boos from some City fans at half time were born out of frustration, but were still inexcusable.

But though the 4-3-3 formation had proved reasonably effective again, Stuart switched to 4-4-2 in the second half introducing Michael Boulding for the flagging – and again unimpressive – Chris Brandon to partner James Hanson and pushing Neilson and Evans into wide positions. If the goal City were now attacking had inadequately been protected by the visiting defence in the first half, the hosts fared little better playing in front of it during the second.

Brain has previous with City after laughably allowing David Brown to score the only goal in the league meeting two seasons ago, and displayed hesitancy in everything he did. His first three involvements in the second half saw him misjudge a long punt forwards which bounced over his head and just wide of the goal, palm a weak Hanson effort back into a dangerous part of his penalty area when he should have scooped the ball up and slice a back pass clearance out for a corner. Each mistake encouraged City further, each mistake added to Macclesfield nerves. It seemed implausible Brain would end the game with a clean sheet.

Sure enough City got back into it after Hanson headed home James O’Brien’s corner and eight minutes later Flynn’s low long range effort was parried by Brain straight into Williams’ path to tap home and spark wild celebrations. The momentum growing, City continued to pile on the pressure and a more dominant City 45 minutes of attacking football has not been seen since City recovered from 2-0 and 3-2 down at Luton last January. James O’Brien saw a free kick sail just wide, the lively Neilson brilliantly cut inside but shot too straight towards Brain, Flynn typically attempted another long range effort which went narrowly past the post, Boulding spun his marker but the resultant strike lacked pace and Rehman saw a scrambled effort cleared off the goal line. In the second half only Luke O’Brien and Jon Bateson failed to muster a shot on goal.

As City pushed on, gaps emerged at the back and Macclesfield enjoyed a five minute spell of pressure which saw Wright head against the post and Ross Draper shoot wide, but the one way traffic soon recommenced and Evans almost managed a headline-stealing winner against his former club when his great run and deflected long range shot bounced off the crossbar. The half time booing was replaced by a standing ovation for the players at the final whistle and it was difficult to recall a more impressive half of football from City all season.

So many positives to take; but although League Two results elsewhere show the leading pack isn’t sprinting away, that the impressiveness of City this season hasn’t placed the Bantams among them can no longer solely be attributed to that slow start. Stuart needs to find a way of shoring up the defensive holes or risks them ultimately sinking the club’s promotion chances.

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