Whilst playing a team of seven trialists against a non-league side two weeks ahead of the new season may seem like almost a pointless exercise, there was plenty for Bradford City to learn from their 2-1 defeat to Guiseley on Tuesday evening at Nethermoor Park.
City will be aiming for nothing less than a play-off place in League One this season after finishing just one place outside of them in the campaign gone, but there is still plenty of work that needs doing in the transfer market if this is to be a realistic target for the club.
With manager Phil Parkinson still in need of recruitments in the heart of defence and midfield, as well as another goalkeeper, it was perhaps unsurprising to see so many trialists on show, and in the first half, there were few causes for concern from the unfamiliar XI too – going forward, at least.
The four players who were not trialists all impressed thoroughly, which was a positive sign. Sam Wright was one of these, a second year apprentice with the club who has come through the academy. The youngster was lively in central midfield, pressing high and closing down well whilst also proving to be a good outlet going forward, often arriving on the edge of the box to recycle loose balls or fire them goalwards.
The other three were all new signings; Luke James, who has joined on a season-long loan from Peterborough United; Mark Marshall, signed from Port Vale on a free transfer; and Jonathan Lewis, recruited from Ft Lauderdale in Florida.
James played through the middle with Marshall on his left and Lewis on his right, though the two wingers would swap flanks on various occasions during the game. The loanee’s work rate was marvellous and proved problematic for Guiseley’s defence, and when combined with that of Wright and Lewis too, it helped City win the ball back frequently in their attacking third and create chances for the attackers.
James was the recipient of several of these half chances, but often fell victim to cynical play, with Guiseley’s defence resorting to tactical fouls to prevent City breaking through on goal – one in particular on James would have resulted in a red card in a competitive fixture, but the referee was reluctant to go into his pocket with it being a friendly.
Still, the striker’s positioning was great throughout, with his movement off the ball helping City to produce some flowing attacks and find space and options in and around the area.
Marshall was one of the most exciting players on show too, his lightning speed and marvellous footwork making him a useful outlet on the left, whilst his ability to use both feet adequately meant he coped well on the right as well. City have become accustomed to the one-footed type of winger in recent years, with them very predictable at times as a result, but Marshall looks like he can offer much more and was a star performer on Tuesday evening.
Lewis, an RIASA graduate, was one player most of those of a claret and amber persuasion in the crowd were most looking forward to watching though, an 18-year-old likened to Nahki Wells but who was rather unknown following his move from America.
Pacey, skilful and willing to work hard, it was a confident debut from the teenager who was a constant threat with a good delivery and clever decision-making in the final third. He even created the opening goal as City took the lead, using his trickery to evade the challenges of several Guiseley players before being hacked down on the edge of the box, only for the ball to run through to Adam Drury, another trialist, who found the back of the net with a composed finish just before the break.
Drury, a former Manchester City youth product who is also being pursued by Bradford’s local rivals Leeds United, saw his confidence benefit largely from this goal, and he would be another creative outlet for City in the closing stages of the half.
However, after the break, things would change dramatically as Guiseley raised their game and their opponents dropped their levels.
Mark Fotheringham, a Celtic youth product now aged 31 who was released by Fulham this summer, was one of City’s best performers in the first half, sporting the captain’s armband in a holding midfield role where he completely controlled the game with his outstanding distribution. With Bradford in need of a player like Fotheringham, Gary Liddle being their only real option in this position, it is a positive sign for fans that he played so well on Tuesday evening and the fact that he led the team out perhaps suggests that Parkinson is keen on the free agent too.
However, the midfielder was unable to really dictate play in the second half, due to a combination of his and Wright’s performance levels dropping whilst Guiseley stepped up and began to get into the game more. It didn’t take long for the non-league hosts to take advantage of this change in proceedings either, with them equalising just seven minutes into the second half after a lively start to the period.
Wayne Brooksby had threatened early on with a header at goal, but City’s defence failed to learn and their frailties continued as Danny Boshell’s long ball forward failed to be dealt with by the centre half pairing of Steve Saunders and Mark McAusland, which allowed Adam Boyes to pounce and coolly finish past the onrushing trialist ‘keeper, who perhaps could’ve done better himself by coming out and taking charge of a back line that did not communicate anywhere near enough in a dire showing.
Parkinson is in desperate need of at least one more centre-back, perhaps even two, with Rory McArdle their only natural option in this position, though the likes of Liddle, Alan Sheehan, Christopher Routis and Tony McMahon can fill in if necessary.
Yet, he will not have found the solution to this problem at Nethermoor Park on Tuesday night as, whilst full-backs Greg Leigh and Luke Hendrie put on decent displays, the centre of defence was constantly a weakness that Guiseley looked to exploit.
The hosts proceeded to dominate following their goal, with Boyes in particular proving to be a handful as City’s number one Joe Cracknell was forced into a few more saves, albeit none that really had him at full stretch. City will have also been observing their goalkeepers in this match as they look for someone to provide Ben Williams with competition for a place, but neither of the fresh-faced trialists had much to do in the game and so it is difficult to judge whether they would be worthy of being given a shot.
A flurry of substitutions occurred after the hour mark, with more trialists and youngsters entering the fray as Guiseley themselves also swapped things around, but the momentum did not shift from the non-league outfit who took the lead in the game with 17 minutes to play, shortly after another RIASA graduate, Billal Qsiyer, had come off the bench and hit the post with a header from Drury’s cross. Boyes and Boshell were the deadly combination again, the latter delivering a fantastic free-kick for his teammate to convert for his brace, the City defence again failing to cover themselves in glory.
City came close to a perhaps undeserved equaliser in the dying moments as Niah Payne latched onto Nick Walker’s through ball, but his effort was prodded a couple of yards wide of the far post as the game came to a conclusion.
Though it was a largely unfamiliar side that turned out in Bradford’s new away kit for the first time, there was plenty for Parkinson to learn from City’s performance.
Many of those lessons will not be music to his ears, with a solid central defender and a reliable goalkeeper still not on show, whilst the possibility of Filipe Morais being out for some time, if not the whole season, is a worry – the winger will undergo a scan today on his knee – and it means that another wide option will probably have to be brought in.
Still, there were positives to take. Lewis looks ready to compete at a physical level after questions were posed over whether he will be integrated into the first team or being utilised in the youth teams this season, whilst James and Marshall also look to be good signings.
Wright is one youth product that coped well with Guiseley’s physicality too, and perhaps staked a claim for more first team involvement this season as a result, following numerous appearances on the bench in 2014-15, albeit no debut.
However, Dylan Mottley-Henry, a wide player with great promise who came on midway through the second half, does not look as prepared as Wright, with him bullied off the ball too frequently and perhaps in need of more time in the gym before featuring for Parkinson’s men properly.
As for the trialists, whilst many failed to impress, Fotheringham and Drury really stood out and would both be great signings for the Bantams, albeit going off this one performance. With Morais likely to be out for some time, Drury’s display will be a relief for Parkinson too, as he may not have to look far to bring in a more than good enough replacement.
City’s first defeat of their pre-season campaign may look poor on paper, coming to a non-league side after victories over Scottish sides Motherwell and St. Mirren, but, on the pitch, there were plenty of promising signs for the League One outfit.