Matt Duke | Liam Moore, Luke Oliver, Guy Branston, Robbie Threlfall | Chris Mitchell, Ritchie Jones, Michael Flynn, Kyel Reid | Jamie Devitt, James Hanson | Ross Hannah, Jack Compton, Mark Stewart
To an outsider at least, Bradford City’s start to the season must appear to be on the brink of being labelled catastrophic. Yet within the four sides of Valley Parade this afternoon and over the past few weeks, it’s hard to recall the last time we felt so giddy with excitement.
Michael Flynn’s successful stoppage time penalty means City have struck a late equaliser two weeks running and stretches the unbeaten run to four games, though only once in this season’s nine league and cup matches to date have the Bantams won outright over the 90 minutes. Yet while in the past such form would prompt moaning, instead there is optimism. We’re not looking at the future with glass-half-empty despair, but with relish. No panic, just patience.
When at half time the players trooped back to the dressing room a goal down to a decent Bristol Rovers side they did so with the boost of a standing ovation from just under 10,000 home supporters. How many times has this scenario happened over the past decade? Typically when losing at the break, the only question is how loud in volume the boos would be; yet today there was a defiant and powerful message delivered to players – we’re genuinely right behind you.
And how richly deserved that standing ovation was. Lining up in a 4-4-1-1 formation which allowed loan signing Jamie Devitt to operate in a free role behind James Hanson, City dictated the tempo right from kick off and produced a display of attacking, passing football that was remarkable to watch. The ball was passed back and forth with great accuracy and some dazzling attacking moves were only thwarted by a strong visiting defence or eventual slight inaccuracy in possession.
For the last four seasons in League Two, we’ve largely become used to a more direct style of football which has proved effective at times but at others was dismal to watch. Today City looked as if they’d spent the week watching DVDs of Arsenal and – dare I say it – Barcelona. Quick fire, one-touch football with the ball knocked across from wing to wing and ending up in the penalty area having remained on the turf on route, rather than hit high. On another day and against weaker opposition City could easily have been three or four goals up.
Devitt is skilful in possession and proved hugely effective in his free role, while fellow home debutant Kyel Reid looked a constant menace on the left wing and regularly had the beating of Pirates’ right back Adam Virgo. With Chris Mitchell again providing that mixture of width and central support alongside the again impressive Ritchie Jones and Flynn, the Bantams dominated the first half through their stylish approach.
Goalscoring opportunities were less frequent, though Devitt was unfortunate to see an overhead kick attempt sail over, Flynn could have gone better with an effort from the edge of the area and Devitt again came close with an excellent run but weak shot. The best opportunity of all fell to Jones, whose late charge into the box saw him meet Reid’s superb cross brilliantly with head and the gangling Scott Bevan pulled off a world class tip over. Aside from a moment of confusion where Bristol Rovers thought they had scored – only for the dismal referee Nigel Miller to eventually realise his linesman had flagged for a foul rather than goal – it was one-way traffic.
So when Matt Harrold got free of Luke Oliver to send a looping header over Matt Duke and into the net, following a superb pass from Stuart Campbell, there was no justice at all. City continued to press, but the downside of Phil Parkinson’s formation – which had been hinted before the goal – came into focus when two brilliant crosses into the box were missed by home players. There just weren’t enough people getting into the box and, as wonderful as the build up in the final third was at times, City lacked options when it came to finishing them.
Hanson bore the brunt of this frustration from supporters. Understandable at times as his work rate seemed to be lacking his usual high standards, but once again it seems a question of feeding him the ball in areas where he can hurt the opposition. Perhaps this new style of play means selecting a target man like Hanson isn’t going to be the most effective approach. But equally more runs into the box from midfield are needed to support him or whoever is selected up front instead, and as the half came to an end with that uplifting standing ovation the question to ponder was whether we are lacking a striker or just missing David Syers.
The quality of City’s play wasn’t as exceptional in the second half – partly because of Rovers’ manager Paul Buckle’s decision to place a deep-sitting midfielder right in front of his back four in an effort to curb Devitt’s influence – but enough of a head of steam was built up to find an equaliser on the hour.
Hanson’s header from a corner struck the post and Devitt’s rebound attempt was blocked by a defender, but as the Hull City youngster looked set to hit another shot at goal he was hauled down for a penalty. Flynn – second-choice penalty taker behind the benched Jack Compton – side footed it casually into the right corner and the strong backing from fans increased further in volume as substitute Ross Hannah forced Bevan into another outstanding save.
Disappointingly the Bantams sat back and Bristol Rovers re-took the lead when Eliot Richards was allowed too much space to send a powerful shot past Duke. It is a source of worry that a back four which looks solid for the most part of games can then switch off and is so often punished for doing so. Guy Branston, Oliver, Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall couldn’t be faulted during the match, but Parkinson needs to find a way of tightening them up further.
City pressed hard in the closing stages, but just like last week you couldn’t see an equaliser occurring. But then, half way through the four minutes of injury time, a great piece of skill by Devitt lead to him being tripped in the box for another penalty. Compton – who again impressed when coming on – pressed his claim to take the spot kick, but Flynn was given the responsibility a second time, firing into the opposite corner despite Bevan’s best attempts to keep it out.
Another draw doesn’t do much for City’s league position, but there’s no doubt an upwards direction is being taken. From being unlucky to lose games at the start of the season, the Bantams are now somewhat unfortunate to be drawing matches. Parkinson’s ongoing search for a striker might prove to be the final piece in the jigsaw, but if the current standards of performance are maintained the victories will surely come.
And when they do, the joy is everyone’s to share. The atmosphere inside Valley Parade today was superb and while it might not intimidate the opposition it certainly makes a difference to our players. Everyone can see how much they care and are trying for this club, and only an incredibly heartless person wouldn’t appreciate their commitment.
Peter Jackson, Colin Cooper, Archie Christie and Parkinson have or are building a team that we can truly feel proud of, and the half time standing ovation proved how much we care about – and feel inspired by – our players.