A bad day at the office

Straight after witnessing Bradford City’s 1-1 draw with Dagenham a fortnight ago I watched Manchester United overcome Sunderland 1-0 on Setanta. After Nemanja Vidic struck a 94th minute winner for the Champions, the co-commentator described it as a “victory for football”. I thought it was perhaps a harsh statement to make after Sunderland had done its best to gain an unlikely point by setting out the stall to defend for it.

As the ball fell to Graeme Lee six yards out from goal in the 4th minute of stoppage time yesterday, I was ready to utter similar thoughts if the back of the net had been found. Instead Chester keeper Jon Darby was the unjustified hero by making a miracle block with his legs to keep the score 0-0. No one exemplified the visitors’ negative, time-wasting style more than a man who took an age pondering and taking his goal kicks. His save was less a victory for football, more one for pushing 12,000 supporters to the limit.

Of course Chester, like Sunderland, is entitled to take whatever approach it likes. The Bantams may not be Man United but is the biggest club in the division and currently sits joint second in it. For a side who’s start to the season was bad enough to prompt a managerial change and who will end it grateful that Football League punishments administered to others left it largely free of relegation troubles, this draw will be considered a bright spot. At the final whistle cheers could be heard from their hearty followers and some players punched the air in delight. Home fans booed off their team but if this was bad at least we’ve not stooped to such depths as considering a 0-0 away draw to be a proud achievement.

But after many of us have let out our frustrations to friends or online over the weekend and we begin to calm down, it should be agreed that booing our players off was grossly unfair. Yes, City did not play brilliantly. They lacked the guile and craftiness to break down a side who, it should be noted, defended extremely well. They didn’t make Darby work hard enough and, just occasionally, the level of desire from some was questionable. Yet they huffed and puffed and battled to the end and though it leaves some question marks over their ability to gain promotion this season, they are hardly major ones.

City began the match with a good tempo and took the game to the visitors. Paul McLaren and Nicky Law were busy in the middle, Steve Jones was a threat with his pace on the right. Luke O’Brien was again in confident mood, tackling well and effectively getting forward. City varied the approach between working the ball out wide for crossing opportunities and balls up to Barry Conlon – preferred to Peter Thorne – to flick onto others. With a new contract waiting to be signed, Conlon might consider he’s achieved much this season. However he endured a frustrating afternoon where his partnership with Michael Boulding didn’t quite click, to serve as a reminder why short-term deals are being offered instead of longer ones.

Omar Daley too was off the pace, though having only just returned from injury there is perhaps a degree of explanation. Twice in the opening 20 minutes he received the ball in excellent positions to set up attacks, but twice his pass was uncharacteristically poor and the move broke down. A familiar theme for the day.

As the first half progressed it became more obvious the visitors liked the fact it was 0-0. They took their time over every throw-in and goal kick and, on a few occasions, kicked the ball away when play was stopped to slow things down further. All of this was aimed at hindering City’s ability to build up attacking momentum and keep the game scrappy. Kevin Ellison went close three times, but two of them were wildly-ambitious long range efforts from just inside the Bantams’ half. It was notable that for both he was the furthest Chester player forward and, when City attacked, a sea of blue-and-white shirts stood between them and Danby.

Ellison did create one major scare when the ball was played through to him out wide with O’Brien caught up the pitch. The balding wideman had a clear route to goal and set off with great pace, but just as he was about to fire the ball past Rhys Evans he was superbly tackled by Matt Clarke. It was a brilliant recovery from the much-maligned defender and, for all the merits of dropping him for Mark Bower which others talk up, no other City defender has the pace to have got back like that. Clarke may have struggled with the conditions at times – he was not the only one – and still needs to watch his concentration, but this was a performance more like the Clarke of early season. Something to build on.

The second half continued much like the first with City probing but struggling to break down a spirited Chester rearguard. There are comparisons to be made to how Luton played at Valley Parade in October. Stuart again tried to combat it by getting Evans to take short goal kicks to the back four, who had plenty of space, in an effort to encourage Chester forwards to push out and close them down, resulting in space being created further up the park. It worked to a certain degree but was often wasted by long balls towards Conlon instead of passing into midfield. Predictable and, with the Irishman not at his best, defendable. However as the game progressed Chester forwards began to close down the defenders on goal kicks more often and the chance to take advantage was there.

But there lied City’s biggest failing of the afternoon. The ball was often worked well out wide to Jones and Law – Daley taking a more central attacking role in an effort to break the deadlock – but wasn’t crossed in quickly enough and they were quickly closed down. On occasions crosses were made there was a lack of City players in the penalty area to aim for. Perhaps understandable with the threat of a Chester break, but more of a gamble could have paid off especially as visitors’ clearances became more panicky in the closing stages. Late surges into the box are very much Lee Bullock’s game.

Stuart too could have gambled by throwing on another striker with top scorer Thorne sat in the dugout and fans chanting his name. However it’s worth noting that creating chances – not putting them away – was the issue and Thorne’s strength is the latter. Stuart McCall also revealed Thorne wasn’t fully fit and didn’t want to risk him.

Some chances were created, with shots by Jones and Daley blocked by Darnby. At the end there was a scramble in the penalty area, with City players stabbing the ball towards goal and Chester players desperately throwing themselves in front of it. Unkind it may be, but a comparison with a non-league club defending for their lives in an FA Cup tie could easily be drawn. They held out and City at least climb to 4th despite clearly dropping two points. Chester won’t be the last to take such a negative approach and it’s something which needs to be overcome.

On another day City could have easily won and, as Stuart said after the game, claims players didn’t try enough are “a load of tosh”. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was how much the frustration got the better of the crowd. What a contrast to Bury at home, who themselves played for a draw and kept men behind the ball. On that night everyone stayed behind the team and helped them overcome the Shakers’ resistance.

When reflecting on a disappointing performance, it’s perhaps worth questioning whether we should have been booing ourselves.