Issue Leaps To Feet, Falls Over Sideways…

As told by Paul Firth

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Lewis Hunt, Luke Oliver, Shane Duff, Robbie Threlfall | Tommy Doherty, Lee Bullock, Luke O'Brien | Luke Oliver, Jake Speight, Louis Moult | Leon Osborne, Lee Hendrie, Gareth Evans

The bookmakers’ pre-season joint favourites for promotion were playing each other. In their first twelve games of the season they have managed just two wins between them. The visitors had, however, scored eight goals (including five away from home) to the home team’s three, only one of which (a penalty) was a home goal. So Peter Taylor’s choice of main striker should not have come as too much of a surprise. Enter Luke Oliver up front, with David Syers and Gareth Evans on the bench.

One of the big things about Peter Taylor’s renewed contract was that it came with conditions, including that the pitch be completely re-done. Not just a few bits of turf stuck down with dodgy glue. No, the full works, complete with drains, levelling, a new top surface and some proper seeding. And a grand job has been done, it must be said.

With a pitch like that, who needs a striker whose only threat comes from his height? Shouldn’t the home team make best use of that wonderful surface and pass the ball along the ground – preferably toward the opposition goal – as often as possible? Why does the man watching his first Valley Parade game of the season comment about the excessive use of long high balls?

There were times during this game when too many in the amber shirts (my seat is too far away to pick out the claret stripes) felt that the choice was between passing square, passing backwards and kicking the ball high into the air, albeit in vaguely the right direction. I heard Peter Taylor’s radio interview before the game, when he talked about decision making and nervous players, most of whom end up on the scrap heap, he told us. Some of the starting eleven must have taken his words as instructions.

Poor Robbie Threlfall, in particular, didn’t seem to know whether to stick or twist with the ball at his feet. As for running into the twenty or thirty yards of beautiful clean grass in front of him, that seemed to be practically against the rules. It was little surprise that he did not survive the half-time cull and that Luke O’Brien, at least willing to take a chance, moved to full back.

Those twenty or thirty yards of space were helpfully created by Gillingham’s total lack of desire to fill them. The team that has now not won an away game for 30 matches looked like a 0-0 draw counted as a victory in their book. Credit where it’s due, in the 22nd minute they had the one and only effort on target in the whole first half. It may have dribbled gently into Jon McLaughlin’s hands, but it was one more on target than City had in those 45 minutes.

That is not to say that City did not have efforts at goal. The unfortunate Luke Oliver (I don’t imagine it was his decision that he play up front) had two excellent chances in the first eleven minutes. A Threlfall free kick eluded the visiting keeper, only for a feeble header from inside the goal area to miss the empty net. Then a Luke O’Brien cross found Oliver on the far post, only for this header to go some few feet over the bar. I mean no disrespect to the makeshift striker, but a real centre forward would surely have put both of those on target and the game would have changed out of all recognition.

Enter the new star. Lee Hendrie, who had played only Sunday League football since early May and had trained with his team mates for just one day, started the second half, along with Leon Osborne, the unlucky Jake Speight being the other player to be hooked. He may only be fit for half a game at the moment, but Hendrie showed what he can do. He made a difference. One of the biggest differences brought a cheer from the Kop, followed swiftly by a shake of the head from your reporter.

City were awarded a free kick some thirty yards out on the left. The ball had rolled toward the Kop and it was Hendrie’s sprint to fetch it and throw it back that showed what he means to do. This particular free kick was, however, to be taken by Tommy Doherty. He was apparently surprised by Hendrie’s urgency, took an age to amble across from the other side of the pitch and any possible momentum was lost.

Leon Osborne, a product of our own youth system like Luke O’Brien, showed that he was up for the fight. Perhaps he showed it a bit too much and Mr Langford produced his first yellow card of the afternoon as soon as Osborne committed the inevitable foul in retaliation for the several kicks his ankles and shins had taken in the previous minutes. At least the home fans appreciated his effort.

After the game cousin John’s radio interview with Lee Hendrie made great fun of the tamest of shots from the substitute, which probably had just about enough power to have crossed the line in the absence of the keeper. It might have been equally relevant to point out that in the regulation 90 minutes this 61st minute roller was City’s only effort that would have actually gone into the goal.

Seven minutes from time Stanley Aborah kindly sent his free header straight into Jon McLaughlin’s hands and two minutes later a Leon Osborne cross-shot was already going nicely wide before the referee decided that Lance Cronin had actually pushed it further away and that City should be awarded a corner.

In the last minute of normal time Barry Fuller chopped down Osborne once too often even to allow Mr Langford to keep his card in his pocket, but it looked as though Gillingham’s long sought after point was making its interminable journey back with them. Even the three minutes on the fourth official’s board seemed unlikely to produce anything, especially given the Midland Road linesman’s repeated inability to spot Luke Oliver’s shirt being pulled off his back.

However, it was this myopia that indirectly changed the game. In the 92nd minute the home crowd were giving the assistant so much stick for his latest failure that all eyes were in his direction. All, that is, except for those of Tommy Doherty and Steve Williams. Doherty’s return cross saw Williams braver than Cronin and the ball nestled nicely in the net via some part of the centre back’s anatomy. A home goal from open play!
Gillingham finally crossed the half way line again and produced a 93rd minute scramble in the home penalty area, resulting in a City breakaway that ended with an Evans shot going narrowly wide. City had deservedly thwarted the visitors’ plans.

If this is anything of a turning point, the credit goes to those players who put in the commitment and as much skill as they have. The two lads from the junior ranks showed what this means to them. Even if Lee Hendrie is doing nothing more than seeking to convince people he isn’t quite over the hill yet, so long as he impresses in a Bradford City shirt that’s fine by me. And I didn’t see what else the makeshift striker could have given. After all, he is not the new Bobby Campbell.

The scenes after the final whistle were as enthusiastic as might be expected from such a late winner. I was expecting to see Michael Flynn jump out of the stand to run around the pitch with his fist in the air. Instead I only noticed that Tommy Doherty, booed at the previous home game, walked to the dressing rooms leaving his team mates to acknowledge the applauding fans.

On my way home I received a text message. My mate John is in hospital recovering from a stroke. He must have followed the match on his iPhone or by some other technical wizardry. His text read ‘Woohoo!! (leaps to feet, falls over sideways…)’ Two weeks ago there was no way he was even staggering to his feet and he could fall over sideways while being propped up by a heap of pillows. Now that one is what I really call a victory.