Issue Mastering the winning habit

As told by Jason Mckeown

There’s a saying connected to self-improvement. It’s about how everything you can confidently do now, at one stage in your life was considered difficult.

As Bradford City’s campaign of personal development progresses from learning to create chances, to scoring goals, to becoming difficult to beat, to the new challenge of turning draws into three points more often, tentative steps were taken at Blundell Park towards elevating the Bantams to credible promotion candidates. And while it will be hoped last night is looked back on as significant come the end of the campaign, like a kid learning to ride a bike with stabilisers, it was a progression aided by support which won’t always be there.

You see Grimsby Town were just that bad.

It’s seemingly become a tradition for City to arrive at Blundell Park with the home side on a wretched run of form; but the lack of confidence, aptitude and intelligence the Mariners possessed last night suggests relegation from the Football League is no less a formality than that of rock-bottom Darlington. In each of the last three trips to Cleethorpes, City manager Stuart McCall has shook hands with three different managers in the opposite dugout. On Monday Grimsby appointed former City forward Neil Woods despite a winless caretaker stint. This removed the possibility of a short-term lift from a new appointment, though perhaps rather late in the day the Town board has grasped the concept of stability.

Stability for City was the return of the previously-successful 4-3-3 formation and more positionally-solid James O’Brien for an off-form Chris Brandon, with the result a well drilled team versed in the job it needed to carry out. Simon Whaley was handed a full debut ahead of a clearly exhausted Scott Neilson and brought an extra dimension to City’s play. Confident in possession at all times and making some clever on and off the ball runs, if James O’Brien’s hard-working performance put Brandon to shame, the more effective manner in which the on-loan Norwich winger drifted around the pitch will have been noted by Stuart too.

With Lee Bullock carrying out another unassuming but valuable role protecting the back four, the platform was set up for City’s forward players to attack inventively and Whaley’s long range effort sneaked past one-time rumoured Bantams target Nick Colgan to put the visitors 1-0 up on 24 minutes. City had knocked the ball around impressively at times, but the goal was the result of a more direct manner after Simon Eastwood’s long kick and Bullock’s flick on. Stuart has previously made no attempt to apologise for his team mixing up their play and this goal provided a strong argument for incorporating such a style.

Grimsby’s resistance was limited, defender Oliver Lancashire’s header from a corner forcing a stunning save from Eastwood the only time the impressive central defensive partnership of Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams was troubled. And the biggest concern at half time was that surely the home side couldn’t play any worse and of the increasing regularity second half leads have been lost by City this season – Burton, Barnet, Northampton, Port Vale and Accrington. Time for those self-help guides.

Yet with so many doubts to plague the mind, the continued assurance of City after the interval saw the predictable early second half Grimsby urgency dampened with ease. Nicky Featherstone shot wide and there were a couple of throw ins into the box to defend, but it didn’t take long for City to be back into the ascendancy and the determination to finish off the game was obvious.

Whaley and James Hanson both went close before a corner was only half cleared and James O’Brien whipped over a troubling cross which Town defender Paul Linwood bizarrely headed across his own goal, presenting Williams with an opportunity to head the ball into an unguarded net from two yards. As every City outfield player rushed over to congratulate the former non-league defender, the sight of Grimsby players’ heads down, not even bothering to berate each other for conceding so poorly, will surely have troubled every Mariners fan.

From there onwards the game was comfortable with City continuing to carry the greater purpose and intent. Gareth Evans, who’s not quite reaching top form at the moment, should have scored a third after been played through one-and-one and shrugging off a defender, but curled his shot wide. Luke O’Brien, also not quite at his best last night, hit the side netting. Hanson then finally wrapped up the evening after racing onto Evans’ through ball and finishing emphatically. It was the top scorer’s seventh of the season and the superb manner he lead the line all night – winning flick ons and also displaying no little skill with the ball at feet – was a contrast to his target man predecessor and now Grimsby’s number ten, Barry Conlon.

It’s at this point I should really add comment about how disgraceful it was that the majority of away fans booed and sang uncomplimentary songs about the Irish striker. Whatever his failing were in a City shirt, effort was not among them and the great moments he provided us City fans should not be discounted. So I should really add comment about it was a disgrace, but…well, to be honest, I have a sense of humour.

The stick he received was hilarious and the comedy was added too by how badly Conlon played. His big chance to silence the barrackers came shortly before half time when the ball flashed across the box towards his right foot. He ended up kicking fresh air. In response the abuse was interrupted by a mickey-taking chant of “Barry! Barry!” Once sung in affection, but as Conlon was subbed in the second half and Hanson scored a minute later, it was clear we’ve all moved on. Sorry Barry, though given the way you smiled towards us after chasing an over-hit ball which went out of play, I figure you have broad shoulders and a sense of humour too.

A late save from Eastwood preserved the clean sheet – important as it was only City’s second on the road this season. But while City have played better and not won this season, the qualities which delivered the three points stand them in good stead for the tougher battles ahead. In hindsight, that City were only 1-0 up at half time was the best thing which could have happened. A chance to face up to previous fears and play through difficult memories of tentative starts to the second half been punished by conceding.

Every player took responsibility in pushing City on, and by the end of the night every individual battle had been emphatically won. With Michael Flynn and James O’Brien driving the team forward and the movement of Whaley and Evans causing problems, the workmanlike performance was not without its flair.

The win elevates City to 10th and the distance to the play offs has been reduced to two points. After a week off which will allow the fitness of returning players to improve, the self-improvement programme of developing a winning habit continues. From a visit to second bottom of the league to a home game against second top, Rochdale.

This time City will have to do it without the stablisers.