As the Sky Bet League Two season beckons, all eyes fall on Valley Parade as promotion challengers Bradford City welcome a rejuvenated Colchester United side.
Colchester will be holding onto the hope of having another play-off attempt this season but under new management, as former assistant manager Steve Ball steps up from his previous role under ex boss John McGreal to become the new head coach at the U’s, whilst City continue under the leadership of club stalwart Stuart McCall, who is now within his third stint at the club as the gaffer after replacing Gary Bowyer towards the latter end of the 2019/20 campaign.
In terms of improving the Bradford squad, McCall has implemented his own turn on the side, releasing a number of players who simply didn’t look proud enough to represent the badge and bringing in the likes of Elliot Watt, Levi Sutton and Callum Cooke on a permanent deal to the delight of the City fanbase.
Also starting his third tenure at Valley Parade is Billy Clarke, who returned to the club after leaving following the Bantams demise in 2019 and impressing at fellow League Two side Grimsby Town.
Meanwhile in Essex, Colchester have been quiet within the transfer window but were forced to lose a few players on a free due to the coronavirus pandemic such as Frank Nouble and Brandom Comley, who both comfortably found themselves new clubs in Plymouth Argyle and Bolton Wanderers respectively. With the lack of funds coming in, other than a clause within the sale of Sammie Szmodics to Peterborough United, the U’s have welcomed Shamal George, Tommy Smith and Martell Taylor-Crossdale on loan from Premier League outfit Fulham to help bolster the attacking options at the club.
Both sets of fans have every right to be optimistic, with Bradford fans excited by the prospect of McCall’s management skills after he guided them to the play-off final in 2017, and Colchester supporters will be intrigued to see how Ball can become the successor of McGreal after he departed for Tranmere Rovers.
The home side lined up in a 5-3-2 formation, with club captain (and birthday boy) Richard O’Donnell between the sticks, a back three of Anthony O’Connor, Paudie O’Connor and Reece Staunton, who is the first youth player to break into the side since Danny Devine did under McCall back in 2016, the two wing-backs were Connor Wood and Dylan Mottley-Henry who both replaced Tyler French and Jackson Longridge from Tuesday, a midfield three of Cooke, Watt and Clarke just ahead of them in more of an attacking midfield role, and finally a front two of Lee Novak and a revived Kurtis Guthrie who is looking to dispense of the early season critics as he was backed to succeed James Vaughan.
The away team would oppose the Bantams in a 4-3-3 formation, with the experienced Dean Gerken in net, who has lost just one of his last 11 games against City, behind a back four of former Arsenal youngster Cohen Bramall, Miles Welch-Hayes making his debut after escaping the circus going on at Macclesfield Town in right-back, and a centre-back partnership of Smith and Tom Eastman.
A midfield trio of captain Tom Pell, youth graduate Noah Chilvers and Ben Stevenson helping set up the front three of Luke Gambin, the tricky Kwame Poku who had also played in central midfield last season, and the main striker Jevani Brown who played as more of a false nine as he usually operates in the attacking midfield position. Colchester are without main target man Luke Norris, who is out with a knock and so Ball is without his usual target man.
And so, the opening day of the 2020/21 League Two season got underway.
It was Colchester who had the first real chance, as the silky Poku made a darting run down the line which resulted in a corner kick for the Essex side, but the resulting corner was subsequently miscontrolled and hand balled by Poku.
Whilst it was quite a slow start to the game, it sparked into life 8 minutes in as a flashy run by Mottley-Henry lead to the winger being deep within the Colchester box as he squared it to Novak who had done well to find himself with so much space on the penalty spot, but was quickly closed down by Gerken in goal and had his first attempt well blocked by the mammoth keeper, but his second squeezed past only to be deflected off of the line by Eastman, who prevented a certain opener from either Novak or Mottley-Henry who was queuing up awaiting his effort.
Defender Staunton, who had impressed enough in pre-season and in the round of cup fixtures to earn himself a place in McCall’s five at the back formation, was controversially booked in the 18th minute as he prodded at Poku and brought the man down, however Brammal’s resulting free-kick caused Eastman to foul in the box.
Guthrie, who despite his height and lanky physique found himself with the ball at his feet quite a lot, found space on the edge of the away side’s box before his looping cross was met by the head of his strike partner Novak, but the former Huddersfield man was in an offside position and his attempt was wayward nevertheless.
Half an hour in and the game was fairly one sided, with the Bantams dominating possession as they had 63% compared to Colchester’s 37%, but the U’s just didn’t look at the races; something City would later regret not capitalising on.
In fact, in the 30th minute Guthrie summed up the game for both sides, as the ball fell at his feet 25 yards out but his crestfallen venture was closer to a throwing than an actual goal.
In the 34th minute Colchester finally awoke, as some cheeky footwork and a nice turn by Brown took Staunton and Wood out of the defence and he squared it to Poku on the penalty spot, but as Clarke and Paudie had rushed out to close down Brown, Poku found himself with a bit too much time on his hands, as he fired his lacklustre attempt straight at O’Donnell in net and he was left feeling underwhelmed by his failure to give Colchester the lead. It would lead to a good stint from the U’s, as Brown and Poku would continue to link up as two very skilful and dangerous attackers created another opportunity but Poku’s next effort was blocked by the stretching leg of Wood.
Following a weak header from Guthrie after a teasing cross from Wood, the referee brought the game to a close for half-time after one minute of additional stoppage time.
After no changes at the break, the second half began very much like the first, slow and a bit dull. Eventually in the 53rd minute, a poor pass from Cooke towards Mottley-Henry was intercepted by Bramall and he charged down the line before his teasing effort across goal couldn’t find a recipient and the ball eventually trickled out for a Bradford throwing.
The Bantams responded positively, as Mottley-Henry let the ball come across him on the wing and pulled off a lovely Ronaldo chop before unleashing a low cross into the feet of Guthrie, but some pressuring defending from Colchester forced the target man wide but some nice footwork and turn led to the Jersey-born attacker to let off a ferocious shot which was parried by Gerken at his near post.
As City continued to attack, a nice Wood and Clarke linked up caused the left-back to be central on the edge of the box, and his strike was deflected, but Colchester spent no time dawdling as Welch-Hayes cleared the ball up the pitch to Gambin on the wing and the Malta international used his pace to burst past Anthony O’Connor and as he faced up O’Donnell, he was closed down so his shot was met by the dive of O’Donnell. One notable moment about this was how quickly Bradford retracted and their impressive reaction to the counter-attack, with even attacker Clarke being as far back as the six yard box to help defend the incoming shot from Gambin.
Gambin continued to look an imminent threat to break the deadlock, as some nice Brown footwork caused the ex Forest Green midfielder to dink a looping ball over the top to Gambin, who comfortably disposed of the chance but Bradford’s blushes were excused as the assistant referee’s flag was up.
City fired back, as Cooke, who had been absent for most of the game, met a clearance from Eastman after a Guthrie cross and launched a volley towards the Bradford Kop, but his stab at goal was wayward.
Next up came an array of substitutions, as Colchester replaced Gambin with Courtney Senior, and Bradford made the double change of Mottley-Henry for Zeli Ismail and Guthrie for Clayton Donaldson.
Despite the fact the ball had been in the back of the net once already in the game, the score remained 0-0 heading into the 75th minute as a nice threaded through ball from Clarke reached Donaldson, who at this time was oblivious to the fact he was offside, and his composed flick through to Novak as the striker placed a tidy finish into the bottom corner, but referee Ross Joyce cancelled out the breakthrough and once again the game was goalless.
The U’s didn’t flinch at the oncoming threat however, as Bramall, who was debatably Colchester’s Man of the Match, had another opportunity as a huge burst of pace sent him past Anthony O’Connor and onto the byline, but his cross, which went past O’Donnell and Paudie, was intercepted by the outstretched leg of Staunton who stopped a certain goal as the Colchester bodies lined up behind him, before clearing the danger.
As the latter stages of the game approached, both sides had huge chances through free-kicks on the edge of the box, firstly Brammal had an attempt barricaded by the City wall, whilst Bradford’s was more tactical, as Pritchard squared the ball to Staunton on the edge but his first effort was blocked and his second was lofted over the bar.
With 93 minutes on the clock, Joyce brought a close to the stalemate.
One thing Bradford can take out of the game is the performance of youngster Reece Staunton, who looked the most composed and confident despite the experience of Anthony and Paudie O’Connor. His left-foot looks like it could be quite the wand this season, as he was trusted with the final attempt of the game from the free-kick, and it’s good to see McCall backing a City youngster who has risen through the ranks, as he did with Devine in 2016 and Devine came quite the trooper before inevitably leaving at the end of last season.
City also pressed in numbers and implemented a sort of gegenpress tactic, as all played surged forwards and then tracked back, for example when attacker Clarke had the determination to help his side which McCall wanted from his squad. McCall also got very anguished and irritated by the fact that Bradford hadn’t come out with the victory, especially after substituting Harry Pritchard on for Cooke and clearly showing an attacking intent throughout the game. His loyalty and passion for the club is something Bantams fans can’t take for granted.
However, Colchester fans have every right to be optimistic too. Ball hasn’t acted as a head coach or manager since 2015 at Maldon and Tiptree FC, so having learnt under McGreal for five years, who was quite a popular figure, U’s fans can expect a similar style of play and he just needs to be given time to show results.
The attacking prospect at the club also looks exciting, Brown and Poku linked up well and were the clear danger men with their quick feet and undeniable ability, but just lacked the real end product, as did Gambin, and when Norris returns from injury and Brown can be played in his natural attacking midfield position, I’m certain Colchester will really start spinning the cylinders. Defensively, Brammal will be key this season and, despite the fact he was playing at left-back, he possessed a real attacking purpose and it’s clear why he was linked with a few Championship moves in the Summer. Unfortunately for Colchester, they were so strong on the left side of defence but Welch-Hayes on the right looked shaky and like he was lacking confidence, often getting the ball stuck in his feet or mistaking his passing.
Whilst to the neutrals this game was a lacklustre stalemate, it also showed signs of promise and progress for two clubs who really should be playing at a higher level and will be hoping to make those expectations into a reality this season.