Date: 28th September 2009 at 1:24pm
Written by:

There was something incredibly surreal about the experience of walking away from Valley Parade on Saturday evening. Not just in the glorious sunshine that had turned late September into a Summer’s day, or in the presence of a referee that acted in support of the home side. No, what made Saturday a joy to be part of was the positivity that characterised every second of the 90 minutes.

What a difference six games makes. When I left Valley Parade five weeks ago following the 2-0 defeat to Lincoln the sound of sharpening knives and grumbling murmurs was perceptible. Here was a team that had failed to score and had already shipped 10 goals. But, if off the pitch belief was low there was something about the way the Bantams had set about that game with the Imps that suggested the dressing room wasn’t having any of it.

Stuart’s team lined up on Saturday with some noticeable differences from that night. Simon Eastwood kept goal, and looked to have physically grown in stature since that Tuesday night where he looked out of his depth. Simon Ramsden’s injury meant Jonathan Bateson was given his first start whilst the Williams, Rehman and O’Brien trinity remained unbroken. In midfield one-time Spireite Chris Brandon had to be content with the view from the bench, as Stuart again went with Scott Neilson, Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and James O’Brien. Up front Gareth Evans and James Hanson, one of whom had scored every game since that Tuesday night, continued their partnership meaning last year’s stalwarts Michael Boulding and Matt Clarke were just spectators.

After consecutive draws from winning positions the Bantams had been reflecting on a lack of ruthlessness. Their response was emphatic. From kickoff the tempo was high and the pressure relentless. Scott Neilson made a mazy run down the right flank and forced a corner and the die was cast. Valley Parade united in appreciation and from just that opening 30 seconds 12,000 Bantams were united, belief flowing from the stands onto the pitch.

And the hosts dominated. Across the pitch battles were fought, but they weren’t personal. Zesh Rehman has taken to the captaincy with a quiet assurance that has seen him transformed from the fish-out-of-water on the flank of last year. Before kick-off, a quiet word with each player and during the game a model of encouragement binding the players together.

Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and James O’Brien combined well not only in making space and distributing the ball but by the constant harrying they gave the Chesterfield players. Luke O’Brien was marauding down the left, making the space to take on, and beat, Dan Gray so much so that John Sheridan started to abuse his own right back. Gareth Evans and James Hanson worked hard but for little change as Robert Page, a one-time Bantams target, managed to hold his side together.

So after 26 minutes it was no surprise to see the deadlock was broken by the men in Claret. A punt in the air was contested by three Bradford City players. The ball fell to Michael Flynn who surged down the left channel. Beating his man he got into the box, checked inside, ignored the tug on his shirt and lofted a wonderful looped finish into the far top corner of Tommy Lee’s goal.

The celebrations, Adebayor-esque in their execution, showed Flynn’s heart when he takes to the pitch. Alongside the calm and collected team leadership of Zesh the former Huddersfield man offers something else, something complementary that inspires, enthuses and that is contagious. It’s the behaviour we’ve yearned for, to see those in Claret & Amber live and die with their team and it’s a behaviour that has characterised the opening two months of our season.

Yet, for all that dominance the memories of previous weeks kept the ground cautious. Did the Bantams have that ruthless streak that would put the game to bed? Ten minutes after taking the lead Scott Neilson produced a wonderful dipping shot on the run that tested Tommy Lee at full strength but it was the visitors who found their feet for the final five minutes. Simon Eastwood showed great agility to deny Wade Small as defenders flew in from all angles. And the diminutive striker might have thought he was set to pull the scores level after leaving Luke O’Brien tumbling in his wake on the half way. Opinion is divided on whether it was a foul or not. John Sheridan called the decision embarrassing, BfB thought Gary Sutton got it right, I think we were very lucky to get away with it.

And so, we went in at the break comfortably 1-0 up. The second half started nervously for the hosts and it took us some time to get going. Chesterfield came out intent on making a fist of it and for 10 minutes brought the game to the Bantams only for the ball to end up in their goal. Simon Eastwood produced the second of his heroic saves to deny the Spireites an equaliser for the second time and when Darren Currie could only skim the ball with his foot the break was on. Scott Neilson ran the ball out of defence down the flank, beat his man and tucked it inside to James O`brien. The former Birmingham midfielder burst forward, into the Chesterfield half with the visitors on the run before passing wide to Gareth Evans. Only a fine stop from Tommy Lee prevented Evo from registering his fourth goal of the campaign but the arriving Neilson, responsible for the start of the move, was on hand to tap in the rebound.

Two nil to City and the stuffing successfully knocked out of Chesterfield`s resurgence the hosts were in control. Sheridan responded by replacing McDermott and Niven with Jack Lester (to a chorus of jealous boos) and Paul Harsley but there was to be no way back for the visitors. James O`Brien, guilty of too many deft touches at times but a worthy member of the midfield three nonetheless was replaced by Chris Brandon on 70 minutes.

It wasn`t until the final ten minutes that the excitement boiled over again. The Bantams had been threatening well with man of the match Michael Flynn to the fore but Hanson and Evans getting very little change out of a well marshalled defence. The last throw of the dice for Sheridan was to introduce Martin Gritton for the unimpressive Darren Currie and, as the game looked to be drifting to its conclusion Stuart gave Michael Boulding 8 minutes after withdrawing Gareth Evans.

Four minutes later the hosts had made it three. A looped ball was delivered into the box and the resulting clearance ended up at Chris Brandon`s feet who struck it with some glee into the unguarded net. By this point Jack Lester had had enough, going in with his elbow (yes John Sheridan, he may have won the ball but he led with his elbow) on Lee Bullock it was almost enough to descend into a brawl. The players weren`t interested in personal battles, an affront to one was an affront to all. When things calmed down even the overly generous Gary Sutton didn`t want to spoil the glorious afternoon with a red card showing only a yellow (to the derision of the fans around me who`d clearly missed the fact he`d lived up to his reputation as a nailed-on Home favouring referee).

Michael Flynn was removed to make way for Luke Sharry and even he wanted to get in on the act. Some overenthusiastic Bantams were heard shouting ‘We want Four, We want Four` and the youngster had a hand in almost obliging. He dinked a beautiful ball through to Michael Boulding who was odds-on to score. Tommy Lee smothered it but the ball ran wide to the onrushing Scott Neilson. With fans out of their feet and celebrations beginning he somehow contrived to hit the post.

But there weren`t any jeers to greet that, the good humoured smile on his face said it all and the faces of the Bantams told their own story. When the final whistle blew the Bantams were greeted with a standing ovation, a 7th game unbeaten and the perfect foundation on which to go to Christie Park, a ground we don`t much like playing at.

I think I`ve had enough of the gritty reality of League Two football. Stuart, lads, more of the surreal please! Thank you