There was something odd about this game.
There was something about witnessing the sublime, immediately followed by the ridiculous.
Something about a manager whose idea of managing was to do nothing.
Something about players who were capable of quality but unable to battle.
Something about 4 points separating the league’s top 10 teams.
I think that something is to do with League Two being a competitive place, about being somewhere that quality counts for only half as much as fight. Somewhere that Aldershot and Exeter can mix it with the recently relegated and somewhere that goals of quality mean nothing if you can’t cope with a team who want it more than you.
Before yesterday’s game Barnet were 19th out of 24, a position that belied the hateful fixture list the computer had generated. Paul Fairclough’s men weren’t on many people’s list to challenge for promotion but they’re in an artificially low position thanks to the teams they’ve been up against.
And, in a league that’s as tight as ours is, all that is needs is for Fairclough’s men to put a few results together and suddenly they’re back in the mix.
Wycombe are undefeated but they’re no longer top because they’ve had 5 draws out of 6. Darlington are sitting pretty (and Dave Penney a shoe in for manager of the month) after a cracking October. Brentford are struggling a little whilst Rochdale have gone up a gear. League Two jumps around, and it’s certainly not going to be a procession of ‘quality’ at the top.
So, anyway, the match.
Without his wingers Stuart McCall brought Thorne, Conlon and Boulding into the team but, as discussed elsewhere, it was difficult for the fans, or on the face of it the players, to know exactly where they were meant to be playing.
But after 10 minutes it looked to have worked, Barnet had had the most telling of the early exchanges but from the breakdown of a corner Nicky Lawn took the ball out to the left wing, the ball broke to the right flank for TJ Moncur who tucked it inside for Peter Thorne. Choosing not to thread Barry through he played it back out for the onrushing TJ who delivered a perfect cross onto Barry’s head and in off the post. 1-0. Excellent.
Except then the hero turned villain. TJ Moncur had the ball in a harmless location and knocked it back to Rhys Evans, only he kicked it without any conviction. Rhys didn’t know whether he was coming or going so tried to dummy two Barnet players only to see the ball go through his legs and John O’Flynn tap into an empty net. Calamity Capers struck again in defence. 1-1.
OK, so I’m sure we can open them up again we all thought. And we didn’t even have to wait 20 minutes for the Bantams to regain the lead. That rarest of things yesterday afternoon, a freekick against the bullish Barnet defence, saw Paul McLaren dink the ball into the box for Peter Thorne to tap home at the far post (not for the first time). 2-1, another goal of quality.
Brilliant, surely we’ll use that as a firm foundation now, surely we’ve got Barnet beaten?
Oh no, it wasn’t to be. Apparently Tom Clarke had used a body double on Tuesday night as his game yesterday had nothing that was good about his performance against Bury. Luke O’Brien was overwhelmed on the left wing (which happened all day because of the lack of a common tactic within the team) and Tom Clarke went to help him out. Except that he let Adomah get past him and along the byline where he tucked it back. The shot was blocked by Rhys Evans but unconvincingly so as it came out to Nicky Nicolau who reacted quicker than the Bantams for a shot that went past 4 Claret & Amber strips before going through Rhys’ legs and tieing things up again.
Right, back to the drawing board. Again. 2-2, this is ridiculous. We’ve conceded two sloppy goals after some exquisite attacks of our own and now there’s only 15 minutes of the half left surely that’s it til the break?
No, no it wasn’t. Barry Conlon made sure that the most ridiculous of first halfs came to a satisfying end. TJ Moncur produced a beautiful ball from the half way line that dropped over the Barnet defence, onto Barry’s chest which he used to perfectly control it before smashing a left foot half-volley past the keeper.
Barry on a hattrick? For the man who struck his 5th goal in 6 games nothing looked impossible. But then half time came.
Barnet hadn’t got to grips with the alien formation the Bantams were playing, TJ Moncur was being given too much space on the right and together with Nicky Law was being a menace whilst the front three were occupying the defenders to good effect. There was a gaping hole on our left wing but for 45 minutes we’d got away with it, and not only got away with it we’d got a lead.
I assumed that Stuart would plug the gap, that he’d use the substitutes that he’d picked (a strange defensive crew) and stick Nix on the left wing, or put Matt Clarke on or use Paul Arnison to allow Tom Clarke to push into midfield. I thought, in short, that he’d do something.
Instead Paul Fairclough told his players to double up on Luke O’Brien, to harry and press a three man midfield who were struggling due to player-without-portfolio Michael Boulding’s anonymous contribution. But most of all he told them to come out and fight. To scrap, to get into the hosts and pressure them from the off.
Which they did, to fantastic effect. Whereas the first half had been end to end the second only saw the Bantams making chances early on, Nicky Law having a fantastic shot well saved being the only memorable part of the half.
Barry Conlon reverted to his classic dying swan; Tom Clarke showed a worrying lack of commitment to get back from the break down of corners; Paul McLaren wanted too much time on the ball, that was when he wasn’t confused by Dean Furman going for the same balls; the defence worked hard to get the ball back but then it was given away so cheaply as to have been pointless.
And through it all Stuart stood on the touchline shouting at players to get into the left wing position. And noone did it. Twenty minutes into the half it was obvious that there were too many players hiding, too many players operating within themselves and too many players put off by a muscular, boisterous visiting side who did not lie down.
Too often the defence looked for Joe Colbeck or Omar Daley to run possession to the other end and release the pressure, forgetting that the dynamic duo weren’t playing. We missed them, and it showed. We need to go back to the training ground and work on linking defence to attack without resorting to our non-existent wingers. With Joe out until January we need a plan B.
The players must take a lot of responsibility for the heartless performance in the second half (one or two players apart) but most of it has to fall at Stuart’s feet. The problem with our second half performance was under his nose, literally, the absence of any balance in midfield but he didn’t do anything about it. If your team is being outmuscled, outplayed and outfought then having three centre forwards is not a sensible use of resources, particularly three centre forwards who have played a lot of football in the last two weeks.
If you name a substitute’s bench. Use it. If you have a tactic. Be willing to change it. In short, use what’s at your disposal to react to the game.
Paul Fairclough is a wily old manager. He identified the gap, he conveyed that message to his players. Unfortunately Barnet didn’t have the quality to finish their hosts off. If they had a Peter Thorne, or even a Barry Conlon there’s no way we’d have taken a point, and there’s no way we’d have held a second half lead for as long as we did.
Too many goals conceded, too much humiliating chaos in defence, too little desire to stand up and be counted.
It’s almost like Bradford City don’t want to take League Two by the scruff of its neck. If we play like we can we’d be firmly established at the top of the table. As it is we’re 3 points above 10th place.
Bradford City’s Great Escape
There was something odd about this game.