Issue Where the expectation levels lie

As told by Jason Mckeown

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Lewis Hunt, Steve Williams, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall | Gareth Evans, Simon Ramsden, Lee Bullock, Tom Adeyemi, Scott Neilson | James Hanson | Louis Moult, Tom Doherty, Jake Speight

No one asked for this tag of promotion favourites. And after a week of pundits and writers building up Bradford City’s title hopes – to the obvious frustration of Peter Taylor – the weekend match reports of this first-day defeat to Shrewsbury will doubtlessly focus on how this was a surprise result.

The pressure is already growing, the expectations appear to be weighing on the players’ shoulders.

One needs to apply a pinch of salt to these predictions of Bantams’ League Two domination that have frequently appeared in the media and online over the last few days. But they don’t help matters, placing unwanted burdens on the team which should more realistically be expected to challenge for a play off spot this season.

And they can also be manipulated by rival managers. Prior to this game returning Shrewsbury boss Graham Turner stated it was nice to begin the season “against the pre-season title favourites for the division.” A wily statement which took all the pressure off himself and his team. It also set the tone for an afternoon where the 62-year-old continually managed to remain one step ahead of his counterpart.

As if to make a point of downplaying expectations of what his team is capable of, Taylor lined City up in a 4-5-1 formation which prioritised not getting beat rather than laying down any early-season marker. With Michael Flynn still injured and Tommy Doherty only just returning to fitness, Simon Ramsden was converted from right back to makeshift defensive midfielder alongside Lee Bullock. Gareth Evans and Scott Neilson provided the width and sought to support James Hanson, making it a 4-3-3 formation where possible.

But perhaps to Taylor’s surprise, Shrewsbury also kept men behind the ball and looked to make use of their obvious pace on the flanks by playing on the counter attack. The result was City had a lot of the ball, all afternoon. But while the patient passing backwards and forwards among the back four and to the midfield offered encouragement, the lack of space and options in the final third saw possession too often ultimately wasted by an over-optimistic ball over the top.

City did at least take the lead on 24 minutes, when an otherwise quiet and arguably unfit Hanson nodded the ball into the on-rushing Tom Adeyemi’s path, who then slotted the ball confidently past Shrews keeper Ben Smith. Temporarily, City got on top and Evans hit the post before forcing a good save from Smith. But the momentum was short-lived and then proved beyond City to wrestle back.

The equaliser came out of the blue and carried a touch of controversy. A Shrewsbury corner floated over to the back post, and Jon McLaughlin’s attempt to claim the ball was thwarted by what appeared to be a push from home striker Matt Harrold, but may have been more to do with a slight colliding with Steve Williams. As McLaughlin fell to the floor leaving an unprotected goal, referee Steve Rushton ruled it was the latter. Luke Oliver blocked one attempt on the line, but Jake Robinson was on hand to slam home the rebound. The protests from City players and Taylor were loud. At one stage the 4th official had to restrain Taylor.

The game was suddenly changed, Shrewsbury found their rhythm and began to attack incessantly down both flanks, with Lionel Ainsworth earning a lot of joy from running at Lewis Hunt. Williams impressed with a series of well-timed tackles, but the space afforded behind City’s midfield was troubling considering the defensive approach.

Ainsworth switched to the left flank in the second half, and proceeded to tear Robbie Threlfall into shreds. The former Huddersfield winger found the space to plant a perfect cross for Robinson – who had managed to free himself of marker Williams – and Town had both a lead and City in exactly the position they wanted them.

Memories of Germany 4 England 1 came flooding back, as Shrewsbury continued to keep men behind the ball and break with devastating pace when City committed too many players forward. Taylor instantly reacted to the second goal by replacing the disappointing Neilson with Louis Moult. But within a minute Robinson was played through one-on-one with McLaughlin, and duly completed his hat trick with a clever lob that bounced into the net.

The dilemma for Taylor was increasingly difficult: Try to make City even more gung ho and a scoreline worse than England’s World Cup surrender could easily have occurred. Doherty was summoned from the bench and instantly added a touch of class. City continued to attempt to pass the ball around patiently and work an opening, while conscious of not allowing the game to fall further from their grasp.

They might have enjoyed some help from an increasingly erratic officials. Evans managed to get in behind the defence and was hauled down on the edge of the area by former Rotherham defender Ian Sharps; but despite looking like the last man, the Shrews captain escaped with only a caution. Threlfall’s resultant free kick flew narrowly wide.

But two minutes later Kevin McIntyre was sent off for the home side, after crazily lashing out at Moult right in front of Rushton. The midfielder was upset by the way Moult had contested a 50-50, with the on-loan Stoke striker coming out on top. Given his side’s comfortable advantage it was stupid thing to do, and on another day might have cost his team.

Yet City couldn’t grab the initiative and get back into the game – not helped by having three decent penalty appeals waved away by Rushton. Substitute Jake Speight hit a volley agonisingly wide of the post and Hunt had a goal disallowed; but the game was up well before the end and Shrewsbury’s pace on the counter attack always carried the greater goal threat.

Muffled boos from some City fans at the end, but the overriding mood was resignation and a sobering sense of reality. It’s already clear that the creativity of Doherty and Flynn is going to be so crucial over the many battles ahead, and their full fitness can’t come quickly enough. Adeyami didn’t quite bring his pre-season form into the game, though played reasonably well. Lee Bullock passed the ball around effectively but isn’t the engine the team needs.

It was in the wide areas – both in midfield and at full back – where City came up especially short. Williams also struggled on occasions and Oliver had an afternoon to forget. Already Taylor may look to make changes.

But it’s not a time for panic, more a time to make sure expectations on the team are realistic and achievable. City are not going to runaway with the league like some have been telling us. And while a top three place is a realistic goal, it shouldn’t become a noose with which to hang around Taylor if his players come up slightly short of that target. Two seasons ago Stuart McCall’s City quickly faltered under the weight of expectation; it’s within our control to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself by sticking with the players.

This afternoon City’s limitations were exposed, now we need to start seeing their capabilities.