Issue The speed of progress as City continue to stutter

As told by Jason Mckeown

The Team

Martin Hansen | Liam Moore, Luke Oliver. Guy Branston, Robbie Threlfall | Mark Stewart, Ritchie Jones, Chris Mitchell, Michael Flynn, Jack Compton | James Hanson | Michael Bryan, Nialle Rodney, Ross Hannah

It’s already clear that patience is going to be a key requirement for this longer-term thinking to prove successful. Yet as Bradford City trailed Oxford going into the closing stages this afternoon – thus facing a third defeat in three – it felt as though a tangible positive was quickly needed in order to defer those nagging fears that the club might still be moving backwards.

So when substitute Ross Hannah latched onto Luke Oliver’s flick on to fire home an equaliser that was dubious in both it’s validity and in how deserved it was on the balance of play, joy was supplemented with relief that the season is finally up and running. Hannah is probably the poster boy of City’s revised player recruitment approach, but until now he’s struggled to make an impression even during pre-season. The intelligence in making the run that was rewarded with a goal on his Football League debut indicated that Hannah can enjoy success this season – and so to can his new club.

There is, however, clearly a long way to go. Oxford’s noisy home support at one stage resorted to chanting about how City’s players were “a set of w**kers”; and the way in which the visitors sought to time-waste and defend deep in preservation of a point was probably sensible but hardly commendable. Oxford were the better team – though far from conclusively – and, but for a magnificently well-timed challenge by Oliver in his own box, would have earned a late winner. Too early in the long-term development of these young Bantams to expect dominant away wins, but the level of improvement needed is substantial.

The performance at Leeds on Tuesday will live in the memory for some time, but the team’s ability to cope with the greater physicality of bread and butter League Two football is lacking so far. Just like against Aldershot, the three players signed from Falkirk – Mark Stewart, Chris Mitchell and Jack Compton – in particular struggled to make an impression on opponents who simply refused to provide them with the time and space they appear to expect.

Stewart especially was anonymous today and, but for his outstanding performance at Elland Road, his lack of form would leave him first in line to be dropped and trigger greater concerns over his ability to make the step up. Mitchell had a very ineffective first half but got better as the game went on. The 23-year-old’s dead ball skills are proving more effective at least.

In the first half, City just didn’t look or function like a team. Manager Peter Jackson kept the same 4-5-1/4-3-3 set up that worked so well on Tuesday; but each unit was badly cut off from the other, leading to huge gaps in key areas of the park that Oxford were able to capitalise on.  James Hanson looked a lonely figure up front, though his body language and level of effort was not great and, for the first time this season at least, the criticism he attracts from some supporters was justified. Flynn seemed to be under instruction to support Hanson as much as possible, but in general the midfield five were inadequate both going forwards and defending.

It was this isolation problem that led to Simon Heslop being afforded a sizeable amount of space to run at City’s back four and strike Oxford’s goal, 28 minutes in. A long Oxford clearance had been headed powerfully away by Guy Branston but, with every midfielder committed too far forwards, Heslop was able to charge forwards and unleash a low drive into the corner that the recalled Martin Hansen might have made a better job of trying to keep out.  All four of City’s defenders had backed off rather than one looking to make a challenge. A poor goal, which so many people shared culpability for.

At that stage City had probably had the better chances, with Flynn’s fiercely-struck free kick forcing an unconvincing save from Ryan Clarke and former Bantam Jake Wright scrambling the loose ball over his own bar as City players rushed in. The Welshman had another shot from distance sail wide, before Robbie Threlfall took the next long-range free kick and fired just over. Oxford soon began to mount periods of strong pressure, which had City’s back four working hard while lacking enough support from midfield. Cue the Oxford goal, which was followed by even greater home territorial advantage and City fortunate to go in at half time just one goal behind.

Jackson sought to address the positional issues, and the cherry shirts seemed more organised and collaborative as the second half wore on. However the team’s insistence on playing direct balls to Hanson was still leading to possession been easily squandered and supported Oxford’s initial focus on finishing off the contest. So, whether to stop his players from taking this easy option or because of disappointment over his target man, Jackson substituted Hanson and switched to 4-4-2. The momentum began to shift.

Nialle Rodney and new loan winger Michael Bryan came on and had a greater impact than the players they replaced, though U’s manager Chris Wilder reacted to City’s new emphasis on wingers by getting his own to double up with their full backs and central midfielders to sit deeper. Finding space in the final third was a real problem for City, so it was probably no surprise that the equaliser came from a set piece. Hannah had only been on the pitch four minutes when he struck, with the excellent Michael Duberry arguing he was fouled. His enthusiastic celebration in front of us away fans was a joy to experience.

The last ten minutes belonged to Oxford, but they failed to create a meaningful chance and City held on with Oliver in particular outstanding and Branston enjoying his best performance so far. Compton might have snatched a winner when he was played through on goal just inside Oxford’s half, but pace is not his strong point and the defence were able to get back and put him off.

So City are off the mark, but so far in the league at least there’s been more nervous questions than positive answers – and the gravity of the development needed is plain. Clearly some good players have been brought into the club this summer, but harnessing their exuberance and building their confidence are the immediate priorities if City are to become more competitive.

It all comes back to patience. If we fans continue backing these players, they can in time translate raw potential into rewarding results. Yet if, as has happened so often in recent years, we snap and angrily turn on them, we could very easily destroy them.

Hannah’s goal helped the new-look team deliver its first repayment of the faith shown in them by everyone, but they will probably need to produce more reasonably quickly if this long-term thinking is to become truly and widely embraced.