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Worthington Cup Third Round, 09/10/01
Bradford City
Economy class
By Ian Grant

No introduction necessary.

It would be understandable to concentrate on the vast differences between this comprehensive victory and the fumbling draw against Preston ten days ago. But to do so would be a pointless reiteration of previous complaints. Really, it's more appropriate - and far more enjoyable - to embrace everything positive and brilliant about last night. Leave the rest in the past, where it belongs.

My word, we needed this. We needed a performance that not only brought the best from individuals, including two who've barely figured so far, but that brought them together as a coherent, stable unit. For the most impressive thing here was the simplicity and economy of it all, the refeshing lack of extravagance and elaboration.

Bar a couple of speedy runs from Tommy Smith in the early stages, the team did the work. There was no shirking of responsibility, no sense that we were waiting for someone else to make the breakthrough. The passing was crisp, accurate and varied - "progressive" would be a good word, were it not for the unwanted musical connotations - and the accompanying movement was exemplary. As with anything inventive, it wasn't always successful...but there were clear aims and methods to re-use for each fresh attempt, every player presenting and implementing his own interpretation of agreed fundamentals. In short, it was excellent.

In the circumstances, drawing attention to individuals seems rather unfair. Truly, there were fine contributions from all quarters: superb saves from Espen Baardsen; tidy, efficient patrolling of the flanks from Patrick Blondeau and Stephen Glass, both also providing an abundance of quality service for the forwards; Neil Cox, deservedly rewarded for his recent professionalism with the captain's armband rather than a return to obscurity, dealing with Carbone and Ward with great assurance; Tommy Smith darting here and there, pulling the Bradford defence into weird shapes; Micah Hyde just absolutely brilliant in all kinds of ways. But, to labour the point, what mattered was that these performances complemented each other, that the resulting team was even better. It just worked.

Two names must be picked out, though. First, David Noble. On this evidence, we should be hoping that Arsenal have a severe attack of amnesia before May and forget that he's still their player. Oh, all the touches and sweeping passes and neatness of Paolo Vernazza at his finest, with more physical presence than his slight build would suggest. More than that, though - he can read the game rather than merely follow it around. Which sounds like a boring thing...until you remember that, in the first forty-five minutes alone, about half a dozen Bradford breaks were snuffed out by a calm, timely and unexpected intervention from Noble. Steve Palmer used to do that, Richard Johnson will do that again...but, in their absence, it's something that's been desperately missed.

Then, Gifton Noel-Williams. God, we've missed him too. Not since that awful injury have we seen this Gifton, the skillful, powerful forward who could hold defenders off, use the ball so effectively, and finish clinically. He was an awesome prospect at one time...and he gave us a bit of a reprise last night, proving far too much for the rugged Bradford defence to handle and scoring twice to set off delirious celebrations from those who've yet to lose all faith in him. Perhaps he'll never be the same player after battling to salvage his career. Perhaps he'll be a different player, just as important. Given half the chance.

I'm making this sound more spectacular than it was, possibly. But that was the point, really. We did the basics so well here, from the first minute when Tommy Smith's strike from a skidding Stephen Glass cross was ruled out by the linesman's flag. Gradually, we established a bright tempo, based on the supremacy of David Noble and Micah Hyde in midfield and the width offered by what seemed to be a cast of thousands - Blondeau, Robinson, Glass, Smith, all overlapping and cutting inside with eager purpose. Davison saved comfortably after Smith had dashed forward, then Ramon Vega headed over from a corner.

After fifteen minutes, we crowned our thoroughly encouraging start with a flurry of chances. Smith smacked a shot over at the end of a lovely, piercing move involving Hyde and Noel-Williams, then shot at Davison after another run past frightened defenders. While Bradford occasionally threatened on the break, looking capable of taking advantage of our somewhat fragile offside trap, we remained focused and keen. All over the pitch, things were clicking into place.

The goal took a bit longer. But we didn't let that bother us, neither did we allow the good work to be destroyed by a catastrophe at the other end. Davison reacted smartly to divert Hyde's wayward cross over the bar, then was grateful that Noble's splendid, dipping volley from the resulting corner headed straight into his chest. And all the time, we kept passing this way and that, moving to create new angles and options, concentrating hard. Only after half an hour did Bradford manage a shot, Locke driving at Baardsen from distance.

We'd already proved much. Too often, as against Preston, we've retained possession for its own sake. Here, we hardly bothered to think about it, doing away with pointless ball-keeping almost entirely and making each pass, whether short or long, count for something. So far, we'd rained decent crosses into the Bradford area without happening upon the perfect final ball. But that didn't mean that we were doing anything wrong, merely that the City defence wasn't going to hand out presents. We stuck at it, it came as we knew it would - Smith belted a fantastic cross into the six yard box, Hyde darted between defenders to head in from six yards. Absolutely what we deserved.

For the first time, Bradford reacted. Mind you, they did have a helping hand on the way - Baardsen's first notable save of the night came from a header from his own defender, Ramon Vega nodding Carbone's cross goalwards with curious nonchalance. Which spoke volumes about lots of things, did the fact that it raised chuckles in the Rookery rather than enraged yelling.

Even as the tide turned, we retained that same sense of purpose and stuck to the basics. Sure, Bradford had some chances - in particular, there was Jess' curling shot from the edge of the box, gaining a slight deflection on the way and forcing Baardsen to pull off a quite astonishing save down at the foot of the post - but we defended with common sense and diligence. Although Carbone should've done rather better with an opening on the right of the area, screwing his shot wide of the near post when a drive across the face of goal would've caused far greater problems, we weathered the storm far more impressively than of late.

As injury time began, we capped our most composed forty-five minutes of the season with another goal. While some will understandably drool over the passing football that created the fourth, this was the pick of the bunch for me. Receiving the ball on the right touchline after an attack had faltered, Blondeau looked up and belted in the most mighty cross, flat and long and searching. Marked closely and twelve yards out, Gifton Noel-Williams rose to meet it...and, from the other end, we saw him get a crucial couple of inches higher than his opponent, enough to divert the ball goalwards and guide it away from Davison's out-stretched hand. If Hyde's opener had had a Mooney-ish element to it, this was more like Niall Quinn. Fabulous.

Lucky half-time chocolate: Aero (plain).
Reason: Solid and conventional yet light and airy. A chocolate bar that knows what it's doing.
Level of success: Very satisfactory.

Fears of a second half relaxation lasted all of thirty seconds. It took that long for another lovely, fluent attack to find Blondeau on the right, for the Frenchman to find Noble in turn, for Noble to step smartly past a challenge, and for Davison to parry his blasted shot at the near post. While I'd probably argue that Noble would've shown better judgement by drilling the ball into the six yard box from such a tight angle, the statement of intent echoed around the ground. It remained as mere intent for all of four minutes, until Ramon Vega bustled his way to the front of the queue, stooped to meet Noble's corner and put the game out of Bradford's reach with a firm header.

Being unnecessarily harsh, we did allow our grip on the game, if not its outcome, to slacken after that. For a time, we continued to knock the ball around happily to keep it out of Bradford's reach and then press them into errors when we did concede possession. But they began to create chances again, Ward turning and blazing over the bar and Carbone wastefully heading wide from a corner. To temper the euphoria momentarily, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that the visitors should've scored more than once here.

Still, the euphoria returned swiftly enough. The word "ravishing" was suggested to describe our fourth goal, and that'll do nicely. Again, Noble demonstrated his vision in sliding a delightful pass down the wing for the chasing Glass - a desperate deflection from a defender made little difference. From there, Glass took the ball to the by-line and, while everyone waited for the cross, pulled it back to Noel-Williams. A controlling touch and a finish that demanded the use of "pinged", Alan Hansen's word of the moment. Before Davison had moved, it had hit the post and bounced over the line. Defenders sat on their arses, Gifton was engulfed by teammates. Yes, completely ravishing.

As it turned out, a hat-trick was too much of a fairytale, although a header at Davison from one of the countless number of splendid Glass crosses briefly promised it. Instead, Bradford pulled a goal back, as Ward clearly had his shirt tugged by Vega as he turned. Good refereeing allowed the striker to have a shot and Baardsen to save before the whistle blew, even if the delay caused some confusion in the stands. From the spot, Ward scored neatly and irrelevantly.

The result decided, substitutions - particularly the departure of the fabulous Hyde and the arrival of the snarling McCall - altered the pattern of the game enough for it to become rather more scrappy than before. Nevertheless, Neil Cox nearly rounded off a marvellous evening by scoring with a free kick from thirty-five yards, which caught Davison loitering on the penalty spot before clearing the bar. And Helguson fluffed a marvellous chance to score with his first touch, arriving unseen at the far post and getting his feet in a tangle as he attempted to volley. If you've been following this, you shouldn't need to be told who supplied the cross.

Probably to get as far away from the visibly pissed off McCall as possible, Bradford launched one last series of attacks. Pointless...although you were somewhat grateful that the lead was large enough to be defended with confidence. Wetherall headed over from a free kick on the right, then Carbone cut inside and drilled in a low, accurate shot that hit the foot of the post via the slightest of touches from Baardsen's fingertips. From the corner, Halle glanced a header over. Finally, Jess' awkward shot from twenty yards bounced a couple of yards wide.

Reservations already noted, it's worth emphasising that Bradford only made our defence look shaky in the last five minutes of a game that they'd already lost. They're not that bad. We made them look very ordinary indeed, pretty much shutting them out for as long as it was meaningful to do so. Not perfect, sure...but much, much better.

As was nearly everything else. Inevitably, this performance will be judged in relation to the one that follows it on Saturday. But, for now, there's no harm in enjoying it.

It was terrific. No conclusion necessary either.