…starring Stuart Attwell

The final scoreline at Christie Park failed to do this fierce encounter justice. Despite the best efforts of the 25 Morecambe and Bradford City players involved over the 90 minutes, it was the guy we’re not supposed to notice who carried the weightiest influence on the outcome.

Referee Stuart Attwell came, blew his whistle frequently and seemingly did his utmost to ensure everyone’s attention stayed firmly focused on the man in blue. Perhaps he was a little peeved off that the ticket stubs had advertised a football match between The Shrimps and The Bantams, rather than his star appearance.

The most telling moment in a truly wretched display of refereeing came 14 minutes from the end when City striker Gareth Evans quickly latched onto home keeper Barry Roche’s failure to grasp hold of a loose ball by challenging for possession. Succeeding in diverting it further from the keeper’s palms, Evans attempted but failed to turn the ball into an empty net as defenders rushed into help clear the ball, Attwell blew his whistle for a foul and raced over to dish a red card to a stunned Evans. Given Roche had failed to securely claim the ball, the decision to rule Evans’ harrying attempts illegal was badly-judged at best. The pathetic subsequent claims of injury from Roche, who began rolling around the floor in apparent agony only to make a miraculous recovery within seconds, should not escape condemnation either.

Attwell’s view of the incident was hardly as good as the 1,000+ City fans behind Roche’s goal, but there can be no excuse for charging in to issue the red card without taking any time to seize up the situation. One can only expect City to be successful in contesting such a ridiculous decision and for Evans to be in action at Northampton on Saturday. If anyone should be serving a suspension, the FA might consider dishing one to a referee with a reputation for high-profile mistakes.

Indeed the validity of Attwell’s ability to referee professional football is highly questionable. A year ago he made headlines as the youngest referee to officiate a Premiership match at a time when the FA’s Respect campaign was in its infancy.  With a national shortage of referees, Attwell’s meteoric rise was a good PR story, but a series of incidents – look here, here and here for just a flavour – have attracted media coverage of a different kind. Through no fault of his own, perhaps, Attwell seems to have become a minor celebrity in a football world of big egos. One can imagine him readily volunteering to appear on the next Celebrity Big Brother so the nation can see what a great guy he really is, all the while telling himself not to issue a red card to Lindsay Lohan.

Certainly the manner in which Attwell strutted around Christie Park offered strong hints of a self-belief we’d turned up only to watch him referee. In a lively contest which both sides enjoyed spells of domination, one of the biggest concerns was the timing between Attwell suddenly awarding every decision to one side and their periods on top. Morecambe started the game brightly, receiving a number of highly-dubious free kicks along the way. City progressively got better and were on top for the final 10 minutes in particular, by which time it was the Morecambe supporters’ turn to be exasperated by the number of decisions which went against their team. Lee Bullock was bizarrely booked for a harmless trip on a home player on the quarter hour mark, but a number of stronger challenges from both sides then went unpunished by way of a card until Wayne Curtis’ awful lunge tackle on 72 minutes. It was a night of  refereeing inconsistencies.

When the whistle wasn’t in Attwell’s mouth, both sides produced some decent football, with the shot and corner count backing up the feeling the Bantams had the better of the game. Phil Jevons rattled the bar early on and their two wingers posed some tough questions of Jonathan Bateson – caught out a little to often but continuing to look dangerous when attacking – and Luke O’Brien. With former Bantam Paul Mullin always a threat in the air and others hungry to latch onto his knock downs, it was a testing night for Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams, who both looked largely assured.

City’s midfield three continued to look effective and managed to control the middle of the park for lengthy periods. Bullock’s performance is especially commendable given the early caution left him walking a thin line, while Michael Flynn bossed proceedings and was the engine behind many attacks. It was in the final third of the field that City were not at their sharpest, with many promising moves spoiled by a poor final pass or a lack of conviction to shoot early which afforded home defenders the time to close down space. James Hanson was not as effective as he can be, but still won more than his share of headers. Evans battled hard and saw a cross-shot bounce off the bar.

After Morecambe had again come quickly out the blocks after the interval, City began to assume control with territorial advantage and corners and free kicks piling up. Scott Neilsen continues to impress and was a useful outlet for quickly turning defence into attack, with some teasing runs threatening to leave defenders tied in knots. The best chance came after a James O’Brien corner was met well by Evans, but his header was fired straight at Roche to make a point blank save he knew little about.

And after Evans and Roche’s clash which saw the Bantams reduced to ten men with a quarter of an hour to play, Roche piled further frustration on City with two brilliant saves to keep out efforts from Luke O’Brien – following an excellent surge forward – and Neilsen, the latter should probably have scored. With his every touched booed by away supporters, the subsequent repeated announcements Roche was the sponsor’s man of the match came across as a somewhat pathetic attempt by Morecambe to ‘send us home in a tantrum‘.

As four minutes of injury time was indicated, painful memories of previous late agony at Christie Park came flooding back; but Simon Eastwood was on hand to make a solid tip over from Mullin’s header to earn a first away clean sheet of the season. It also meant no one had been able to break the deadlock and thus make the morning headlines.

Stuart Attwell will be delighted.

The right path, and sticking by it

Whatever direction Bradford City was heading towards following the home defeat to Lincoln City two weeks ago, the corner has seemingly been turned.

After starting the season with three defeats, one point and no goals, it’s now three consecutive wins, nine goals and a progression beyond the first round of the Football League Trophy for the first time since the club was awarded a bye to pass it in 2005. The gloom is fading away and quiet optimism is becoming louder.

Tonight was the first time Stuart McCall’s team has managed to convert a losing position into victory since a 2-0 Chesterfield lead was overturned at Valley Parade 10 months ago. As the players raced over to congratulate Scott Neilsen’s winning strike in front of 300+ City supporters, the spirit in evidence was a welcome contrast to the referee-influenced collapse at this ground last season which was to trigger the beginning of the end to City’s promotion push. On a night where the sponsors were all about paint, an attractive picture of City’s prospects for the campaign was completed by the final whistle.

In the second half especially, City were excellent tonight. Since the relegation to League Two in 2007, envious eyes have been cast towards the Lancashire hosts and the attractive, effective manner Keith Hill lines up a team which has achieved consecutive top seven finishes. With the support of a well-trained ball boy team ensuring throw ins could be hurriedly taken, it was quick-fire, incisive passing in and around City’s penalty area with the skillful Will Buckley, Adam Rundle and Chris Dagnall leading the threat. Yet City were able to respond with some of their best attacking football of the season.

Limited chances were created by both sides during the first half; save for a rattling of the cross bar at both ends with the impressive Luke O’Brien’s miscued cross deceiving the less than impressive Dale keeper Kenny Arthur and coming back off the woodwork and Dagnall being brilliantly cued up at the other end but smacking a well struck shot off Simon Eastwood’s bar. Neither side were able to take control, but each had spells of dominance where the final ball was narrowly lacking.

An early impressive feature about Stuart’s team this season is the movement on and off the ball and, when on the attack, Neilsen, Chris Brandon, Michael Flynn and Gareth Evans were particularly effective at popping up all over the final third and dragging markers out of position in the process. A high level of work rate, a missing ingredient in the second half of last season, was evident too. A good visiting attacking move saw a low cross only narrowly avoid the onrushing Evans, but instead of allowing the ball to simply roll behind, Brandon willingly chased what looked a lost cause and was rewarded by the ball bouncing off the corner flag onto his feet, to allow him to force a corner. Little things such as this were witnessed across the park in this game and recent matches, and so far appear to be making up for any loss of quality the summer’s departing players took with them.

City especially began to get on top in the second half with Steve Williams and Flynn going close, and it came as a surprise when Dale defender Craig Dawson smashed the home side into the lead after a free kick wasn’t adequately cleared. This provided another test for City, with memories of the poor responses to going behind in games last season still raw. Rochdale threatened to finish off the game for a five minute spell and City had to thank Eastwood for one especially brilliant one-on-one save to deny substitute Scott Spencer. In fact the on-loan Huddersfield keeper enjoyed a largely encouraging evening, making a number of excellent saves at crucial times and only causing the briefest of flutters when he miscued a clearance. Even then, it was a moment later overshadowed by the number of times Arthur did the same.

Eastwood’s save would prove crucial, as City regained composure and began to threaten again with Neilsen and Brandon going close. The deserved equaliser came through Flynn’s powerfully struck free kick which Arthur was unable to keep out. With an early injury to Peter Thorne, Flynn had taken the captain’s armband and delivered a strong audition for the job full time by the manner he notably kept geeing up his team mates and leading by example. Special mention should also go to the oft-maligned Lee Bullock alongside him. Bullock by his nature is quiet, unassuming and easy to criticise. His discipline in holding his position allowed others to make those clever runs and, though the former Cardiff midfielder is rarely going to produce match-winning cross field passes, he equally rarely gives the ball away. A player appreciated by the manager and team mates, if not all supporters.

By now City were in the ascendancy and it was Neilsen who was to strike the winner on his full debut. Rochdale had been on the attack, but when possession was gained it was quickly played up to the young winger, who charged at Dale’s back-peddling defence and used the support of Jonathan Bateson  to create space for a shot which deflected off a defender and looped over the despairing Arthur into the top of the goal. On the day Joe Colbeck was sold to Oldham, Neilsen’s all-round performance indicated his is capable of nailing down a first team jersey.

The response from Rochdale was limited and City continued to look the more likelier to score with Evans deserving a goal for a performance full of effort, but finding Arthur equal to his long range effort, and James Hanson, who had replaced Thorne, also going close. Leon Osborne, who had come on for Brandon at 1-0 down, caused problems on the left against Dale’s struggling right back Matthew Flynn.

But on a night of strong performances from City, it was the back four which perhaps deserve the most credit. Bateson’s debut at Forest had been one to forget after his disgraceful lunge on Nathan Tyson resulted in a red card, but he began to redeem himself with a strong showing at right back which included getting forward well. In the centre, Williams continues to look anything but a hairdresser and the man of the match was probably returning Dale defender Simon Ramsden, switched over from the right back to play alongside Williams and seemingly unbeatable in the air and on the ground.

All of which leaves Stuart with new defensive options to mull over ahead of a return to league matters at Shrewsbury on Saturday. Such a trip would have seemed daunting two weeks ago, but can now be taken with increased confidence. City might lose and with it some of the gloom would return, but the excitement in watching this team develop and grow in stature will continue to be felt regardless. Increasingly I feel proud to be a Bradford City supporter and proud to support the young players who wear our colours. Three wins in a row isn’t a time for getting carried away, but the  early building blocks are taking shape and beginning to make sense.

The only thing which hasn’t really changed in the two weeks since defeat to Lincoln is the reality it’s going to be a long season; but with the right direction seemingly found, it increasingly feels like a long season to relish.

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